Sunday, October 25, 2009

The company we keep

The first tearoom I worked in was owned by Mrs. Jones. I grew up going to her restaurant for birthday tea parties. (She would hover over the table, not to serve us, but to make sure the children didn’t break the china.) Despite the fact that there were actual British women working in the tearoom, Mrs. Jones took a liking to me. She would often invite me to have tea with her.
A sweet girl named Becca did the dishes and clean up. One day, Mrs. Jones told Becca to clean the prep kitchen floor by hand. And in the next moment, she gave me my task: “Anna, make us a pot of tea.” To this day, I can feel the awkwardness of that moment, remember the shock on Becca's face, the blush of embarrassment on mine.

Mrs. Jones had a designated table, in the back near the kitchen. From her post, she could see everyone come and go. It was also the only table where smoking was allowed. She would sit there, cigarette in one hand, cup of tea in the other, and instruct me on proper grammar, proper table manners, proper... (I came to realize that behind the accent and genteel façade, Mrs. Jones wasn't all that proper herself.) She was incredibly picky about her tea. Because of her, I learned how to listen for the kettle to boil. I learned how to prepare the tea cup and pour the tea. While I don’t sit down at a table with her anymore, I often think of her when I'm having tea. It is because of her and her strict grooming that I was sometimes mistaken as British when in England; when tea time came around, I knew exactly what to do.

Tea or coffee is a must with some baked goods. If you are unsure how to make a traditional cup of tea, here are some basic guidelines. You will need a tea cup/mug, tea pot, tea kettle, black tea*, milk, and sugar.

1. Put some hot water in your tea pot and set aside. Fittingly, this is called, "warming the pot."

2. Fill your tea kettle with fresh water. Put the kettle on to boil.

3. Pour the hot water out of your tea pot. Add tea to the pot. Usually a tea bag can make ~ 2 cups of tea. If using loose leaf tea, measure 1 teaspoon of tea per cup.

4. Listen to your kettle. You want to take it off the heat source as soon as it comes to a full boil.

5. Pour the boiled water into your tea pot. Let the tea brew for three minutes. (unless your tea blend specifies otherwise)

6. Pour a little milk in the bottom of your tea cup, then pour your brewed tea into the cup. (Use a strainer if using loose leaf tea.) Add sugar to taste. Enjoy.

To some, it is proper to pour the milk into the hot tea. However, it tastes better if you have the milk in the cup first. It's a chemistry thing.

*Some people prefer single origin tea, such as Assam or Ceylon. There are many blends that make a good cup of tea as well. English and Irish Breakfast are examples of popular blends.

Something you might want to eat with your tea... Apple hand pies. I made a cornmeal sweet crust and stuffed with simple cinnamon & sugar apple slices. They would be great for tea time, dessert, or breakfast.

Apple Hand Pies

Peel, core and slice two baking apples. Place slices in bowl and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon to taste.
1 3/4 c. flour
handful cornmeal
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 c. cold butter, cubed
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp vanilla

Measure flour, cornmeal and salt into a bowl. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers until broken up and shaggy. Add eggs and vanilla and mix. Knead slightly and roll balls (large golf ball size), then roll on a floured surface with a rolling pin until a thin disk. Place apple slices on one half and fold over to form a half-circle. Cinch edges with a fork. Repeat and place pies on a parchment lined baking pan. Bake for 15 minutes at 350 until lightly browned.
(The cornmeal adds a crunch, but if you want to forgo, add just a bit more flour. Or you could sub oats.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Give and take

Have you ever come home to find a gift on your doorstep? These days, with the advent of gift cards and Amazon free shipping, gift giving is easier and less personal, usually involving a cardboard box and lots of plastic wrapping. How nice to open my door to baked goods last night. Something that a real person baked, something hand delivered. It may seem small, but my neighbor made my day with apple strudel. Happy Fall, indeed.

I had some enormous softball-sized peaches in my kitchen. Waiting, ripening, looking pretty. It’s the tail end of their season, but they do have the right color for fall. Over the weekend, it was time to put them to good use. I found inspiration from the Smitten Kitchen peach cupcake recipe. However, I decided to go the easy route. (I was out of cake flour.) A basic vanilla cake recipe, with chopped peaches, produces peach cake – or cupcakes. I used less sugar than normal and think you could go even lower if you have sweet peaches. You could also replace some of the vegetable oil with buttermilk or yogurt.

I brought the cupcakes to a party. It was your typical house party – chips, dip, beer in the fridge. However, it was in honor of a birthday and all birthdays deserve cake. I slid the cupcakes in next to the carrot/celery tray and prepared to mingle. Don’t let anyone tell you that food can’t make you friends. In fact, How to Win Friends and Influence People should be revised to include cupcake baking. I actually had a few people come up to me and ask, “Are you the girl that made the cupcakes?” There you have it. Whether you bring them to a party or leave them for your neighbors, be friendly with your cake baking. Share.

Cardamom Peach Cupcakes with Cardamom Buttercream Frosting

Cake mix, for 18 cupcakes:

3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c. white sugar
1 c. vegetable oil - or sub buttermilk or yogurt
2 c. a-p flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large peaches/ approx. 2 cups chopped

Grease or butter muffin tins. Preheat oven to 375. Mix all ingredients in a bowl until combined, then spoon into prepared muffin tins. Bake for ~20 minutes or until toothpick tests clean.

Cardamom Buttercream Frosting:

2 tbsp butter, softened
1/3 c. confectioners/powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 - 1/2 tsp cardamom
1 tbsp milk or cream

Stir together until creamy. I like just a little frosting, but you can multiply this recipe for full coverage frosting. Use less milk/cream for a thicker frosting.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My recipe for cheer

At work, I meet people who are down on their luck – some who are unemployed and unsure of their future. Some are behind on bills, some homeless and without food. I advocate for them to get basic needs covered. These people become resourceful, adjust to living with less. They don’t have the luxuries many of us enjoy. They can’t go to happy hour with friends, bake whatever they feel like, get Thai take-out because they are too tired to make dinner. I know I am lucky. I have a job. I have a full pantry. I have a warm bed to sleep in.

This doesn't mean I never feel sorry for myself - or want something more. I have pictures inside my closet door of “things I want.” These are not the Sears catalogue cutouts of my childhood. There is picture of a welcoming kitchen with room for friends to gather. There is a picnic table outside under a tree, a happy couple in a canoe, a reading nook with bookshelves lining the walls, a lovely plant-filled sun porch, children running along a walkway in India. (This one does not necessarily represent the desire to have children, but the option of having happy children in my life. Or maybe a trip to India.) I don’t look at the pictures with the desperation I felt when eyeing the red bike in the Sears catalogue. They make me smile, like a sweet memory. I could almost say, "See you soon."

The last few days have been stressful. Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed or sad, I go to Powell's and buy books. Sometimes a nice long walk does the trick. Or a hot shower. Or chocolate. Sometimes I bake. This time, I bought some Amaretti cookies and a wedge of Spanish blue to cheer myself up. I spread the blue cheese on slices of baguette. I ate the cookies and drank wine. I made a feast of delicious vegetables, including a brussel sprout and crimini mushroom hash. I did feel better after that.

The first time I had brussel sprouts was at a beachfront BBQ in Alaska. The meat and fish were grilled to perfection, but the host boiled the brussel sprouts and served them unseasoned. I saw a little girl gag and throw the brussel sprout into the rocks. I felt like doing the same. Last year, I had brussel sprouts again, sautéed with garlic and served in a sherry cream sauce. A completely different story...

I decided to try to replicate the Amaretti cookies. I used an almond macaroon recipe and subbed a combination of ground almonds and ground apricot kernels. I failed to get the crunchy amaretto-ness. But the failed batch still tasted like delicious almond cookies. With pear gelato, even better. I will try again. Today, I am happy with what I have.

This is the pear gelato recipe I used. I would keep the lemon juice limited to 3 tablespoons, unless you want a tarter taste. And while the little chunks of pear are a tasty reminder of the flavor source, if you want a smoother texture, purée the pears before combining with the custard mixture.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sharp and ready to cut

Celeriac is ugly. This root vegetable has a tough dirty exterior and a creamy white interior. Its mess of roots have been trimmed before it reaches the produce aisle, but there is still evidence of the reaching that once went on.

My first introduction to celeriac was in a soup. I was working in a British tearoom and the chef made a puréed root vegetable soup, which I thought was just carrot soup - by appearance. But it tasted more complex than plain carrot soup. When I learned that the slight celery flavor came from celeriac, I was determined to copy that recipe again and again. Today I was in the mood for a chunkier vegetable soup, so I puréed the cooked celeriac, but kept the carrots in chunks and added bite-size bits of cauliflower.

You will need a large sharp knife to cut your celeriac. I used my new America's Test Kitchen-endorsed Forschner Victorinox chef knife. I have a Wüsthof standby, but I couldn't resist trying the Victorinox after all the talk. And it's only $30. So far, I like how it handles. Perhaps I should have had it on hand a few months ago when a date offered to come over and cook me dinner. He was a trained chef and I anticipated a great meal. (He mentioned a few Thai specialties.) When he showed up, he was empty handed. I looked at him blankly, expecting him to pull produce from behind his back at any moment, maybe a jar of curry paste... After we went to the grocery store, I made cocktails and sat back to watch the chef in action. He proceeded to instruct as he cooked, condescending my knowledge of food preparation and criticizing my kitchen wares, including my knives. The meal wasn't memorable. (He made penne with red sauce.) And obviously the company was sub par. I have savored my kitchen ever since that night. My knives, my cutting board, my pots, pans, wooden spoons... They are good enough for me. You should know that I have dated two other chefs in my adulthood. Both of them always came prepared. And both of them cooked without offending their guests. Is that too much to ask?

Back to the soup. You will need both a chef's knife to chop and a paring knife peel the celeriac. (Unless you have a super sharp potato peeler.) I chopped it into 1/2" chunks, placed them in a saucepan and covered them with water, salted, brought to a boil, then simmered ~10 mins. While the celeriac was cooking, I chopped up a small yellow onion, a few carrots, and 1/2 a large cauliflower and sautéed them in olive oil at the bottom of a stock pot. When the onions were translucent, I added water to cover and boiled until the veggies were just barely soft. (Use broth/stock if you have it.) In batches, I puréed the celeriac and added it to the stock pot with the other vegetables. (If you don't have a food processor, use an electric mixer like you would to make mashed potatoes.) I added a couple cloves of crushed garlic and a bit of cumin for flavor and color. Then I grabbed a spoon to taste.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The good and the bad...

The good news is that I had a lovely weekend in Victoria, BC. The bad news is that I returned to discover my beloved Gourmet is leaving me. And nearly a million other subscribers. Sigh. There is no comparison. Gourmet inspires us to cook better, travel better, dine better. For most of us, it is a standard held a bit too high. However, I will miss the way it makes me dream of white asparagus, quince jam, and expensive chocolate, of Parisian markets, rustic country kitchens, and perfect pies.

As a comfort, I will relish in my weekend memories. Long walks, tea times, amazing desserts, good beer, a delicious fireside dinner, beautiful views and lush gardens. I had a delightfully smooth goat cheese cheesecake with sour cherry compote at the Butchart Gardens Dining Room Restaurant.

Il Terrazzo is a hidden jewel, tucked into a side street in old town. Unfortunately, it is not much of a secret. The place was literally packed. My uncle got us the last available table. Small fireplaces along the walls and tabletop candles provide lighting and ambiance. We shared bruschetta, salads, pizza, wine, and laughter.

As part of a former Crown Colony, Victoria has a lingering British influence. I'm not the only Anglophile in my family; similar to other visits, we embraced Victoria for its tearooms and pubs.

I have some favorite activities when visiting Victoria, worth repeating. Stocking up on tea at Murchie's, walking through the Empress, lingering in the bookstores, watching for the Parliament lights to come on, and always a visit (or two) to the Dutch Bakery. This place is not as elegant as the Empress, but has tasty pastries and a sweet old-time diner in the back for a relaxed cup of coffee or sandwich.

A row of apple trees at Butchart Gardens. At the restaurant, they serve shortbread with flower petals. Perhaps they will put their fruit harvest to work?