Friday, November 5, 2010

Time to bake

To make myself feel normal, I have two solutions: Go to a dance class or bake.

Since coming to Ann Arbor, I've been doing the latter quite often. While there aren't exactly a plethora of dance studios around here, there's always somewhere to buy butter, eggs, sugar and flour.

Which is reassuring when you have recipes with titles like lemon olive oil cake or sweet potato pound cake nagging at you.

I made the lemon olive oil cake two weeks ago, and it is luscious. The recipe comes from a bakery I staged at for two weeks this summer after my "real" (aka legal) job was over. I cannot describe how much fun I had. The women who work at Floriole are all wonderful, especially Sandra, the owner. Follow the recipe in that one exactly: use a fruity lovely olive oil, take your time pouring in the olive oil, and you should be good to go. Believe me when I say people will be falling all over themselves for a slice.

The sweet potato pound cake was my diversion last night. Two of my roommates and I were studying at the kitchen table, when I put down my highlighter, walked into the kitchen, turned on the oven and popped open a bottle of wine. It was time to bake. The rest of the evening was spent drinking wine, laughing and singing along to oldies music.

I followed this recipe pretty much exactly, but would do a few things differently next time. After roasting the sweet potatoes (at 350 degrees for around an hour, until a knife slides in and out without resistance), I would puree them in a food processor to make sure you end up with a really smooth texture. I would also take Molly's suggestion to put the glaze through a sieve before drizzling it on top of the cake, as it's prone to lumps. Otherwise, it's really lovely--a spice doughnut in cake form.

Happy fall, everyone. Enjoy it while you can--our forecast is for snow flurries tonight.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

There, we feasted

We came, we saw, we were conquered--by Tokyo.

There was the gorgeous bento box I picked up for lunch in the bottom of a department store one day, full of flavor and texture.

There was the traditional Japanese breakfast served at the last ryokan (Japanese style hotel) we stayed at, brought in on a tray by an adorable woman who hummed under her breath while setting things up just so, oblivious to Jimmy still sleeping on his tatami mat in the corner.

I should also tell you about the sushi meal to end all sushi meals. We dined at Kyubei, a place famous even to Tokyo residents, including the staff at our first ryokan who kindly helped us set up a reservation.

There, we feasted. For the first hour and a half, it was just Jimmy, me and our sushi chef. He made us feel at home by telling us to eat with our hands, naming each fish, and working so quickly, deftly and gently with each piece of fish that I could do nothing but sit mesmerized. After each piece of sushi, I involuntarily emitted a (quiet) groan of pleasure, shook my head, then sighed "oishii" once more to the sushi chef.

And, of course, there was the delicious sushi breakfast at the Tokyo fish market, incredibly fresh and tasty.

Our tour around the market itself was something to be remembered. We were dodging in and our of alleys, jumping out of the way of carts and fish salesman, fascinated by the sheer number of fish and the dizzying array of shapes and sizes.

We even managed to take a quick trip up north of the city to the mountains of Nikko.

An unforgettable whirlwind tour, to be sure.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Our breaking points

You will not believe what I found at the farmer's market this past Saturday. Who knew that we grew fraises des bois in the States? I'm sure the fact that the head farmer is French didn't hurt things.

If you're never had the exquisite pleasure of sampling one of these gorgeous tiny strawberries, think of it as a concentrated strawberry floral flavor bomb, so delicate that a good quarter were squished by the time we brought them back to the apartment. However, since the farmer had thrown in an ENTIRE extra box with a smile and a "Mademoiselle", I didn't even mind much.

Fraises des bois mush is better than none at all.

On another note, Jimmy and I have been trying to cut down on our grocery costs, and didn't buy a single thing last week (except for some fresh ricotta from the Italian grocer two blocks away to pair with rhubarb compote, but we all have our breaking points), in an effort to use up the rather alarming supply of canned goods he's built up over the past two years. It was also a decision motivated in part because of the last minute trip we've lined up for Fourth of July week:


I can't tell you how excited I am about this. It'll be Jimmy's first trip to Tokyo (we're going in conjunction with research he's doing for a professor) and I can't wait to be back in Japan myself. There is something bewitching about that country that's hard to put a finger on.

I foresee quite a bit of sushi, mochi, honeydew melon popsiscles, onigiri and royal milk tea in my future.

I'd love to hear any suggestions you might have for places to eat, things to see, etc.

In exchange I'll leave you with rhubarb compote. Hopefully you're enjoying the tail end of its season, and are as sad to see it go as I am.

Rhubarb Compote

2 lbs. fresh rhubarb, leaves removed, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup white wine (optional)
1 Tbs. vanilla extract

Throw the entire mess into a saucepan, stir it up well and let it bubble away over medium heat for about 15-20 minutes. Let it thicken at room temperature before slathering on toast, spooning over fresh ricotta or throwing into the middle of a french-style yogurt cake.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

and the living is easy

I am one day away from being able to say that I made it out alive. Unscathed? Not so sure, but alive is a good way to be.

It feels as if I spent most of the past year twirling by myself in a corner, arms outstretched and head up to the sky, while others engaged in complicated choreography all around me.

Now I have the summer to work, sleep, exercise, watch movies in the park, turn myself back into a human being...and reevaluate. Summer is a good time for all of those things, but especially the last item on the list, I find. The days are long, which means there are more evenings on the patio that stretch past twilight. There are bunches of asparagus and strawberries now, tomatoes and peaches just around the corner.

And soon there will be pies...lots of pies.

(images above were taken at this time last year in Louviers).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A wee bit more time

After a year of plotting and planning, I now hold a polaroid camera in my hands.


And you know what? It really is as much fun as I thought it would be. As soon as I get a wee photo scanner, I can show off my new toy.

Until then, you'll have to satisfy yourself with a poladroid version of a digital photo from Chicago, circa 2009.

Also, I promise to update more this summer. Let's just say that everything they say about law school--totally true.

Oh well, in a month, I'll be back in the working world for a few months, and have more time to devote to my new toy and cooking.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A better handle on things

There are snowflakes swirling outside, highlighted by the multi-colored bulbs from a string of Christmas lights. Idyllic, except that I'm in a Starbucks and those chairs get really uncomfortable after an hour or so.

I just returned from a few short days in Chicago and am holed up once again in Ann Arbor to begin my second semester of law school. I'm trying to remind myself that not all of last semester was as crazy as finals period, but it's difficult sometimes. I have, of course, made all sorts of resolutions involving baking bread and visiting the Humane Society more often so here's hoping I'll have a better handle on things this go 'round.

Speaking of bread baking, I whipped up my first loaves over Christmas break with the help of The Bread Baker's Apprentice. Gorgeous, gorgeous stuff, that book. And my loaves weren't half bad either. Two loaves made fabulous crostini, c/o my father's technique. The loaves themselves didn't have nearly enough color, and the holes weren't there yet, but it was a start.

I took my time over break to relax, sleep, read by the fire, watch Christmas movies and cook. I made dinner practically every night, lots of braises and slow soups that require loads of time to simmer which in turn gave me plenty of time to do the previously mentioned activities. Old favorites (smothered cabbage risotto, slow-roasted tomatoes and the delicious confections you see pictured) came out of the woodwork, and we had our traditional holiday meals (roasted lamb, prime rib, fondue).

What I'd like to tell you about today, however, is the meal I made when I arrived tonight, the ultimate standby dinner. It was the first pasta dish I can remember making on my own (excluding buttered egg noodles and macaroni, of course). It's also the one recipe I make entirely by feel, so bear with me if the instructions are a bit loose.

This is one to keep though, people. It will never let you down, and once you try it, you'll find yourself in the habit of picking the ingredients up every time you're in a grocery store. I'm tempted to call it the LBD of dinners, but that sounds cliché. It is my go-to dinner though, when I want something easy and delicious, and when I want to treat myself a bit too.

Pasta Puttanesca

1 lb. linguine or spaghetti
5 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
3 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. crushed red pepper
handful of drained capers
14 kalamata olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1 large (28 oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped*
1 small can tomato sauce (optional--depends on whether I've got it in the cupboard)
1 tsp. dried oregano, or to taste
1 tin olive oil packed anchovies
salt and pepper
Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Once boiling, salt generously.

Heat up the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat then add the garlic and crushed red pepper. Once the garlic becomes fragrant and starts to turn golden, add in the capers, olives, tomatoes with their juice, tomato sauce (if using) and oregano. Let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring periodically.

Drain the anchovies and separate them as you place them in the sauce. Mix everything vigorously, using a wooden spoon to cut the anchovies in half to help incorporate them into the sauce. Turn the heat down to low and let cook through another 10-15 minutes, until the anchovies are completely dissolved in the sauce. Salt and pepper to taste (you probably won't need much, if any, salt).

Boil pasta according to directions, until al dente. Combine the pasta and sauce together and serve showered with freshly grated parmesan cheese. I recommend eating it in warmed bowls with a fork, spoon and glass of red wine.

Serves 4

*I've taken to using my kitchen scissors to cut the tomatoes while they're still in the can--much easier clean up and keeps the juices in the sauce, where they belong.