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Archive for July, 2009

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Earlier this month, I bought a package of 20 vanilla beans.  It was an impulse buy if there ever was one.  I had an armload of dried pasta, olives, cheeses, and fresh bread from my favorite Italian grocery, and I was standing in line behind a few other cheerful shoppers who were obviously in the same freewheeling state of mind.  They were scooping up two and three cannoli at a time, inquiring about whether there might be any more sfogliatelle in the back bakery, and greedily eyeing everyone else’s purchases for something they may have missed amidst the deli counter crush and cramped aisles.

My arms were full, but I saw this package of vanilla beans at a very good price.  I grabbed them, with nary a thought of “now what in the world am I going to do with all these?”  I noticed the woman in front of me immediately reached under the counter to grab a package, then looked back to give me a smile.  Then another woman walked up to me and asked, excitedly, “Where did you get that?”  I pointed and she snatched up her 20 vanilla beans.

At fancy gourmet stores, vanilla beans are typically sold 1-2 per package.  They always seem so lonely and stringy, like a green bean gone bad.  But twenty vanilla beans.  Now that’s really something.  It makes you realize why half the world’s soaps are scented with vanilla.  These were sealed in heavy plastic bags with a sturdy ziploc at the top, and still they perfumed the entire checkout area.

How lucky for me that vanilla ice cream rolled around this month for Tuesdays with Dorie — it seemed the perfect showcase for 1/20th of my stash.  This recipe makes a generous batch of vanilla ice cream, though sadly I can’t be more specific on that point.  After making a big bowl of custard, I stored it in the refrigerator to chill for a few hours.  In the late afternoon, my 4-year-old daughter needed to reach her apple juice, inconveniently positioned behind the giant bowl of custard, and, well, you can guess the rest.  Let’s just say my golden retriever was the happiest I’d seen him all week — and he is most definitely a fan of this dessert.

I churned what was left of the custard and served it with my brother’s still-warm-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies.  Lovely.  We had about a thimble full of ice cream left over the next morning, so I used two little amaretti cookies for the photo shoot.

Only 19 vanilla beans left.  I don’t have any plans for them yet, but I can tell you that my pantry smells divine.

Thanks to Lynn of Cafe LynnyLu for choosing this week’s dessert.  You can find the recipe on her site or on pp. 428-429 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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There are certain desserts that seem perpetually remote.  Clafouti.  Mincemeat pie.  Almost any dessert that calls for rose water.  Whether I’ve ordered these desserts in a restaurant or made them at home, I still don’t feel like I know them.  Not really.

Show me a slice of chocolate cake, or an eclair, or an oatmeal raisin cookie and I’ll show you a dessert that wants to be loved.  These desserts reveal their charms at once.  Nothing is held back.

But blanc manger is a mystery to me.  It’s not silky like flan.  It’s not creamy like pudding.  And my guess is that if you ask me in five years to describe it, you’ll get a blank look.  “Oh, yeah, blanc manger.  It’s… oh… it’s like…. Well, hmmmm…..”

Frankly, it’s a little like baby food: light bodied, milky, slightly sweet.  Strawberries are in season here, so that’s what I used on top.  Not a good choice.  The base is bland and it cried out for a tart fruit like raspberries.

Dorie says this is a foolproof recipe and I had a chance to test that claim.  In the final stage, you’re supposed to mix the almond mixture into the softly whipped cream, and I somehow managed to drop the entire small bowl of almond mixture into the big bowl of freshly whipped cream.  Not the contents of the bowl.  The bowl itself, bottom first.  I plucked the small bowl out and dumped the almond mixture straight in, without stopping to think that perhaps it would have been wise to re-whip the cream just a touch.  Ah well.  It didn’t seem to hurt it, so I can vouch for this dessert’s “foolproof” status.

Thanks to Susan of Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy for selecting this week’s recipe.  You can find the recipe on her blog or on pages 398-399 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

There’s something unknowable or indescribable to me about desserts like this one.  They’re not at all like chocolate cake, or banana cream pie, or oatmeal raisin cookies – these desserts just want to be loved.  They reveal their charms at once.  Nothing is held back.

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I resented this brioche.  Never having made brioche before, I didn’t realize it was so needy.  Measure, mix, knead, rest.  Sure, fine.  That’s the deal with homemade bread.  But this required sustained attention that left me trudging back and forth to the kitchen every half hour, muttering to myself, “This better be good.”

Once the brioche dough comes together, the weary chef must punch it down every half hour, for over two hours.  When it finally gives up and stops rising, it sits overnight in the refrigerator.  And the dough is very sticky, like a big bowl of paste.  This makes it difficult to shape and activates that little inner voice that says, “you may very well be doing this all wrong.”

Here’s the thing.  I’ve got two kids under the age of 5.  On the one hand, you might ask, what do you have going on after 8:00 pm anyway?  The kids are in bed.  Go punch down the dough and be quiet about it.

But that’s just it.  It’s 8:00.  The kids are in bed.  My responsibilities for fulfilling other people’s (or bread dough’s) needs is done. But this dough demanded that I come back into the kitchen and slap it around.

And yet.  It’s worth every punch, slap, and curse.  The bread is heavenly — so light and so rich at the same time.  The recipe calls for plums, but the apricots looked much better at the store, so that’s what I used.

The next morning, after the dough sat overnight, there was still more work to do.  My 4-year-old, Sofia, was able to help.  The dough had miraculously transformed from the consistency of hot tar into a lovely soft dough that could be handled with ease.  Sofia happily buttered the tart pan and pushed the dough into its corners, while I chopped almonds and sliced apricots.

Enter my husband, Dave.  Always ready to lend a hand, especially when we’re in the final stages of a Dorie Greenspan recipe, he offered to bake the tart.  It’s not at all common for Dave to handle the baking, but my brother was visiting and we wanted to go for an early-morning run together.  I left with a little wave, and reminded him to check on the brioche after 15 minutes, just to be sure it doesn’t get too dark.  “Got it!” he said, cheerily.

Meanwhile, he turned to the various other tasks that awaited him.  We had visitors coming, so he washed sheets, moved a bed from one room to the next, set out towels, all while managing our two kids on his own.  The brioche got lost in the shuffle.

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When I got back from the run, he was distraught, sure that he’d ruined the brioche.  He looked miserable and announced that it was burned.

I took one look and said, “It’s not burned.  It’s deeply caramelized.”

Parenting teaches you a few things.  I’ve been trying to get my 4-year-old and my 2-year-old to share the same bedroom.  Sometimes it works, and they lie there like perfect angels, so sweet and tender it makes you want to cry.  Other times, my daughter turns on the light and capers around the room in her little brother’s diapers while he jumps up and down in his crib and watches the evening’s entertainment with undisguised glee.  When I expressed my discouragement about this to my mom, she said: “They’re not misbehaving.  They’re bonding.”

So keep an eye on that brioche, but rest assured that even if you let it go too far, the deeply caramelized edges are delicious.

Thank you to Denise of Chez Us for selecting this week’s recipe.  You can find it on her blog or on pp. 54-55 of Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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DSC_5218“I coulda been a contender.  I coulda been somebody.”

Katharine Hepburn’s brownies have me thinking of that classic scene in On the Waterfront.  Just look at these brownies.  Terry Malloy would have eaten them by the fistful — they’re rugged, gnarled, scrappy.  But they’ll never get a title shot.  No, they get a one-way ticket to Palookaville.  Because I already discovered the Perfect Brownie.

I’m sure Katharine Hepburn would be appalled to know that her lovely creation is being made to speak in the voice of Marlon Brando, a man who she admired as an actor, but despised as a human being.  How fascinating it would have been to watch Hepburn and Brando work together on a film.  She was such a perfect match with so many male leads: Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart.  Is there a movie that could have cast Hepburn and Brando together, successfully, in the lead roles? I can’t imagine transporting her into the lead role in any of his films, nor can I imagine casting him as the male lead in any of hers.  Surely some film could have handled these two titans.  But I can’t think of a one.

Maybe, just maybe, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night?  It’s fun to think about….

Let’s get back to the brownies.  Think of these as espresso brownies.  Actually, in my case, they’d be “Coffee By Design‘s ‘Alonzo’s Double Dark’ decaf” brownies, but that title is a bit unwieldy.  The coffee flavor is intense, in the best possible way.

I also invented, by happy accident and a bit of laziness, a new technique that may just become permanent.  The recipe included several ounces of chopped chocolate.  I assumed the chocolate would be melted along with the butter, so I didn’t bother chopping it finely.  Well, it was added at the very end, and therefore didn’t have a chance to melt.  So it left me with these long shards of chocolate that, when the brownies were eaten warm, offered several veins of gooey chocolate stretching throughout the brownie.  At room temperature, these shards of chocolate firmed up and gave the brownie a candy bar-like quality.  The brownies are thin, but not precious or delicate, more like the worn hands of an ex-prize fighter: strong, intense, packing a punch.

Visit Lisa’s blog, Surviving Oz, for the recipe or flip to pp. 96-97 of Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours.

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