Tuesday, September 30, 2014

I'm Headed to Bread Mecca

Oui, I made that.
I'm going to Paris.

Let me say that again: I'm going to PARIS!

After four years of studying bread baking from my kitchen and living room, I am going to the bread mecca. Immediately after we arrive, I plan to drag my jet-lagged body, suitcases and all, straight to Poilane bakery.

I don't think I'll have any problem ordering bread. There are a total of 23 words in my French vocabulary, and 20 of them relate to dough. I think that's a pretty good ratio. (Stupid American bakers.) Finding a bathroom or a hospital might be a problem, but gosh darn it, I can find bread.

By happy coincidence, a recent Tuesdays with Dorie project was the lovely French batard pictured above. I was so pleased with this project that I made it twice just to prove I could replicate the slashes. (I did it!) Lovely, aren't they? And tasty, too. For a bread, the recipe is pretty straightforward and quick (maybe 4-5 hours, start to finish), but it doesn't yield a real depth of flavor. Still, the loaves are perfect for sandwiches and a million times better than store-bought bread, so I will keep this in the repertoire for the many occasions when I need a pretty, fast solution for kids' lunches or when I need a dinner date for my soup.

In the meantime, I've immersed myself in Chad Robertson's inimitable Tartine Bread cookbook. Having now memorized the entire 78-page basic bread recipe, I'm battling on the front lines with a  sourdough starter, metric equivalents, and (usually) floating leavens. I've entered a whole new stage of bread-ucation, and it's not for the faint of heart. Case in point: My family has been forced to eat 7 loaves of gummy, vinegary breads sporting nearly impenetrable crust in the past 10 days. Butter helps, but still, that's a lot of bad bread.

My technique is improving with each loaf; it's just a lot to learn.  In the movie of my life, this would be the "Tammy tackles the hardest bread recipe in the world" montage. At the end of the montage, I emerge, a victorious and confident sourdough breadmaster. But we are nowhere near the end.

The haj to Paris will give me a much-needed break from my studies, and it will allow me to obsess about someone else's bread for a change.

If you've got any leads on good food in Paris, I'm all ears. (Yes, that was a bread pun. But I also really want to know where else to eat!)

Au revoir!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Crisis. Averted: TWD oven-roasted plum cakes

“Can we walk to school without you this year?” 

I should have been singing with joy when I heard this last week. They are in 6th and 4th grade, after all. They’d be walking with their friends. And there are about a thousand friendly neighbors to help them find their way, if god forbid, they should get lost. But still, they were taking a flying leap out of the nest, and I was in no hurry to let them go.
But I resisted my usual obsessive-compulsive-mother-hen instincts. Instead I put on my bravest smile and kissed my little chicks goodbye at the front door. Then I got busy with the vacuum cleaner so I couldn’t flutter into the car to follow them.

And would you believe it? They survived!

At pickup time, there they all were – smiling and proud and eager to walk home. Without me. “We’ll meet you there, Mom. Can we just go? Please?” Ouch. Give ‘em an inch…!

And suddenly, there it was again – swooping down on me like a shrieking, red-taloned bird of prey. The mid-life crisis was back.

These little creatures I’ve created – they can feed themselves! They can clean themselves (if they choose to). They can cross the street alone! The enormity of the fact that they can survive in the suburban wild sent me into a tail-spin of the familiar old-mommy questions.

What now? The kids are aging, so am I… Why did I dump that corporate career? What’s next for me? The questions go on and on like a broken smoke detector, chirping in my ear every ten minutes to remind me that something more must be done. Soon.

Of course I know that the mommy-ing is never really over. These kids have simply gnawed off another chunk of my heart and carted it off with them in their big-kid backpacks. They still need me for a few things -- at least until they learn to drive. But this walking milestone can’t be ignored.

And so I turned back to the places that give me comfort: the familiar, honeyed luxuries of baking and writing and dance. I Jazzercised every day for a week. I baked challah and ciabatta and whole wheat bread. And I returned once again to the Tuesdays with Dorie project, which this week featured warm, fruity mini cakes.

Oven-roasted plum cakes: a reprieve.

The cakes were a promise that my kids would stay with me for at least as long as it took to finish dessert. With this bribe, I could keep them home and safe for a few minutes longer.

So I tucked my head back down into the satisfying whirl of sugar and butter and vanilla and eggs. I actually squawked with delight as my plums split perfectly on the first try. The house bubbled up with the reassuring scent of warming sugar and all was right with the world.

After their long migration home (12 minutes!) and a light dinner, we shared these adorable desserts. Each ramekin housed little half-moons of plum, all sleepy and resting in a downy pillow of brown sugar cake. 

The mid-life crisis was averted, at least temporarily.

 The kids slurped down their dessert in two gulps, and raced each other to the door. Their friends were ready to play.

We’re going to need a lot more cake to make it through.


To read more about this recipe, check out the other bakers' posts, or go buy the book.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Phyloccine Ice Cream Sandwiches -- In 3 or 4 Simple Steps.

Phyllo + fetuccine = phyloccine. Brilliant!
Ice cream + anything = immediate win with the kids.
Fruit + stick = immediate win with pretty much anyone.
Sugar + butter = count me in.


In the spirit of throwbacks from the days of yore, I present to you a pared down recipe from Baking With Julia, care of our inimitable Tuesdays with Dorie baking group (more than two years into the project and still going strong!). 

If you really need more details, check out the other bakers' posts, or go buy the book.

Step 1: Roll and slice phyllo dough and separate strips into little "nests." Sprinkle with sugar and butter and bake for 10 minutes at 375, or until golden brown.

Step 2: Assemble fruit skewers and make raspberry compote (raspberries + sugar + five minute macerate. Add a little mint to the compote if you're feeling inspired.)

Step 3 (Optional): Make whipped cream if you want. No photo available, since I didn't use it. But I'm guessing you know what whipped cream looks like.

Step 4: Assemble layers: phyloccine nest, compote, ice cream, phyloccine nest, skewer. Whipped cream goes on the bottom as "glue" and wherever else it feels good.

TA-DA! You've got a tall, retro, kid-friendly, low-stress dessert that is certain to win friends and influence loved ones. You're welcome.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Party of the Year

Once upon a time, before the reign of Reality TV, I was the star of my own social experiment. The setup reads like the beginning of a joke:

What happens when a lowbrow, mid-western young Jewish girl (me), lands a PR job at a posh New York City investment firm … run by the bluest blue bloods still surviving today … and THEN… gets put in charge of the 80 year-old CEO’s social calendar? 

I'll tell you what happens: there's a major culture clash. Comfort-zone-wise, it was worse than Wife Swap. Hilarity ensued.

Although I had had plenty of experience planning fundraising events in my previous job, I had no idea of the mountain of etiquette I'd need to scale in order to organize this company’s soirees. 

I couldn't figure out the rules about how to address envelopes to Lords and Ladies; where to seat the dinner guests at a formal dinner party; even placing a stamp on a return envelope became a lesson in class distinctions. (“If they can’t afford the stamp on the return envelope, they shouldn’t be attending the event,” I was told.)

I was reprimanded for wearing blue suit pants, rather than a skirt, to the office. I flubbed the menu for the Board meetings at the 21 Club and miscounted the guest list for the dinner at LeCirque. And the wine lists! Our CEO had a very specific idea of what should be served, and I didn’t know my cabernet from my claret. Thank God for the sommeliers (a word I learned on the job).

Then there was the annual trip to the Ascot races and the after party in London. I planned every detail of the lodgings, food, travel and entertainment --  long-distance --  for months in advance, but was not invited to cross the pond with the team. Talk about class distinctions!

Our grandest event of the year was held the first Tuesday in December, in conjunction with the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. For this party, 200 of New York’s high society hovered above the festivities taking place in the freezing plaza below, observing the lighting ceremony from the floor-to-ceiling windows in our office. Dom Perignon flowed as swiftly as the ancient aristocratic blood in our CEO’s veins, beluga caviar disappeared by the tinful, and 24-carat-gold encrusted hors d’oeuvres whirled around the room on gleaming silver trays. The elite of New York City were dazzled.

Does it surprise you that my time at the investment firm was brief? Alas, I only regret that it had not been filmed. "The Blue Blood Chronicles" would have made great TV.

It is in this spirit of Gatsby-esque decadence that I embarked upon this week’s culinary adventure, sponsored by Julia Child and her featured guest baker, Gale Gand. Our Tuesdays with Dorie project was scallop and pesto “purses”.
The recipe itself was simple enough, but I did visit five different stores to gather the choicest ingredients. After making the pesto and melting the butter, it was all about assembly. (But first place the scallop in a strategically lit dramatic pose for the blog photo op.)

14 minutes in the oven, and the party began. The phyllo/parmesan dough purses were appropriately buttery, and the scallops inside, dripping with pesto and garnished with scallions, devolved into an opulent, fleshy indulgence that inspired sighing and fawning from my honored guests: my 8 and 10 year old. 

We slumped in my worn out Ikea kitchen chairs, decked in our coziest pajamas after a long sweaty day on the baseball field, happily licking cheese and butter off our chins. Seating arrangements be damned. The ornate purses were served on white, Stop and Shop paper napkins, paired with nothing but tap water. There was not an ounce of  gold plating to be seen, and yet, it was the party of the year.


 To see how other bakers from Tuesdays with Dorie fared, check out their links here. For the recipe, buy the book!

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Six Signs You’re Turning Into Your Cat

It was just a matter of time before I submitted to the supreme will of the Internet and started posting about my cat...
There’s been a lot of speculation about whether or not pets take on the personality of their owners, but I think in my case, the reverse is true.

Slowly but surely, I’m turning into my cat. (But not a werecat: those are scary.)

Let me introduce you to Wolfie: he’s a black, 8-year old, short-haired domestic who just joined our family a couple of months ago. Wolfie and I spend lots of time in the house alone together, so it’s only natural that we should influence each other's behavior.

Still, I’m concerned that I might actually be morphing into a feline. Here’s why:

1. During the day, all I want to do is nap. I’m good for about an hour or two of productive work – whether that’s exercise or laundry or cooking or writing – and then I’ve had it. My entire being is yearning (yawning?) for sleep. Just give me half an hour, and then I’ll be human again. Mostly.

2. I usually want to be left alone, unless I need you to scratch my back. I’ll curse a blue streak at anyone who comes near me when I’m trying to rest, or anyone who – heaven forbid -- tries to talk to me when I’m watching Idol. Just leave me alone, thanks. Unless you can reach the Lubriderm over there…

3. Dental floss is my new best friend. Really. I found a new brand, and my gums have never been cleaner.

4. I prowl around the house all night long. Between practicing for Jazzercise classes, scrubbing the pots, and straightening up after the kids, who has time to sleep? Good thing I did all that napping during the day.

5. I’m starting to crave fish at every meal. This could mean that I’m breaking feline, or it could just mean that spring has finally arrived and I’m ready to eat lighter meals. You decide.

6. My night vision is getting better all the time. I’m now able to sense the moment before I’m going to kick the cat in the dark. Somehow, that still doesn’t stop me. And that stealth laundry basket is another story.

On Wikipedia, there’s actually a name for the shape-shifting process: feline therianthropy. If it’s on the Web it must be true, right?

What do you think? Should I invest in my own scratching post and some catnip toys, or should I just stop spending so much time on the Kitty-Interweb and start interacting with the real world?

And what about you? How much do you have in common with your pet? I can’t be the only one who worries about this kind of thing. Do tell, in the comments below.

But I'll have to get back to you later. Right now it's time for my nap.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jesus Lives at Comcast

I’m sitting at Panera Bread trying to do my writerly thing, but it’s almost impossible to concentrate because this lady at a nearby table is on her cell phone and she’s a yeller. I’m not trying to eavesdrop, but it’s hard not to listen.
She’s doing some research with a Comcast representative. There’s lots of talk about monthly rates and cancellation fees. She yeses and uh-huhs a bit, and I start to think maybe the phone call will be ending soon. Good, maybe I can get back to the essay I’m supposed to be working on.

But then the conversation takes a different turn. Apropos of nothing, the woman says into the mobile, “Can I ask you a question? Are you a Christian?”

Remarkably, it appears that the Comcast representative is indeed a Christian, since the woman on my end responds, “I knew it! Because, you know, I felt the presence of God!”

I think about the phrase, “Presence of God.” I have felt the “Presence of God,” only a few times in my life. I suppose, if I were a true believer, I’d say I felt the Presence of God the first time I held each of my children, the first time I heard Beethoven’s Ninth, and the first time I made love to my husband. Major milestones, all.

But this woman felt the Presence of her God in an everyday transaction. Her search for a phone carrier was an extension of her search for salvation. That’s pretty impressive.

She continues, “I wasn’t going to call you guys, ‘cause I already talked to Verizon. I called them first. But something was telling me to call you, and now I know: it was God! I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my savior, and he brought me to you!” The joy and optimism in her voice nearly makes me gag on my spinach.

It takes every ounce of my self-control not to look around to find some sympathetic neighbor at whom I can roll my eyes. Also, I’m desperate to get a peek at this loony tunes who thinks her savior is with her, speeding through the invisible telephone wires.

But I can tell this is just the beginning, so I bide my time. And now she’s saying, “You know, I was having the worst day, and I’m so glad I called you. My day was just terrible until now, and now that I know you’ve accepted Jesus too, my day just got so much better...”

“…But don’t give the devil an inch,” she warns, “‘cause he’ll take a mile.”

The easy thing to do would be to laugh. I’m an agnostic – a “cultural,” barely practicing Jew sitting in a public space listening to a very loud woman proclaim the glory of her God. But the hard thing to do, the hardest thing for me, is to stop judging.

I think about this woman’s “terrible day,” and try to imagine what terrible means to her. It could mean that she spilled coffee on her blouse and was late for work, or it could mean that her husband left her and she just got diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The point is, we never know how others are struggling. If this woman is having a rough day and this connection to a stranger has made her life a little more bearable – who am I to judge?

Isn’t that what we all need – a sympathetic ear when we’re feeling down? A tiny connection in this universe of fast-talking strangers? A belief that maybe there’s a purpose to all the little decisions we make throughout our day, and throughout our lives? Decisions even as simple as which company to call up for a quote on phone service?

And still, compassion is hard. The rational, ironic, post-post-modern side of my brain is screaming: oh man, this will make a great story at book club tomorrow night! But the more honorable side of my brain says Stop. This is someone’s life. This is important to her. Right now. Don’t presume to understand her pain or how she could ease it.

Then there’s the Comcast rep: why was he still on the line with her? A cynic would say he’s going along with anything she wants to hear. He gets paid on commission after all, and studies show that the longer he keeps a customer on the line the more likely she is to buy. Maybe this is true, but the pauses on her side of the conversation are getting longer and longer as she listens ever more attentively. She seems to have found a soul mate. And I begin to think, “wow, maybe he really is providing a little comfort to this woman who is howling in the wilderness. Maybe, just maybe, strangers can be kind to one another just for the sake of being kind.” I’d like to believe that was true.

A friend once said to me, in all seriousness, “You make a great Christian, for a Jew.” What she meant, of course, was that I had acted like a decent person; a kind person. I don’t even remember what act prompted that statement, but since my friend is a devout believer, I took her words as the highest form of compliment. The truth is, we all need to strive for compassion, especially when that’s not the easy choice. We all need to accept that others are struggling to make sense of the world.

I’m not always great at showing compassion, but I’m getting better. I’m trying to be more sensitive to the ways in which people cry out for help, and I’m trying very very hard not to judge.

Who knows? Maybe this woman yelling into the phone was onto something. If Jesus himself doesn’t live within the Comcast cable lines, certainly those lines allowed his spirit to appear at Panera today.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Scones: A Baking Muse Sings Again

I have very strong opinions when it comes to scones. In the US, we’ve found many ways to massacre this deceptively simple tea time treat.
Originally, scones were eaten in Scotland and eventually found their way to the US via the United Kingdom and Canada. When I refer to scones, I’m talking about the fully Americanized version. A good American scone should be medium-density, dry, fairly buttery, and nubby-textured. It can have a range of flavors, and even a variable amount of sugar, but it really shouldn’t be round. 

In my quest for the perfect scone, I’ve been lured into buying, basically, a croissant in triangle form, or a hockey puck with currants, or what amounts to a giant mound of chocolate chips glued together with a little butter and sugar. If you enter a bakery and sense that any of these are in the offerings, exit the store immediately and run for the hills. Or better yet, run to your refrigerator and pull out a stick of butter to start making your own. Scones don’t take that long to make, after all. It is almost always worth the wait to do it better yourself.

A couple of years ago, I went on a scone-baking bender. I baked for four consecutive days, trying out a new recipe each day. (For those who are keeping score, that equals 48 scones in four days for a family of four.) Eventually my husband had to shut the operation down.  And, truth be told, after all that baking, I’d mastered the art of pressing butter into flour, if not the perfect scone recipe.

But lately the muse has been singing her siren song again, and here I am, obsessively fantasizing about flavor combinations and texture profiles. And so I’m back in the kitchen. Here’s a recent winner made with buttermilk, figs and orange zest, from Baking with Julia, by contributing baker Marion Cunningham:

Since I was taking these to a book group meeting, I opted for the mini-scone shape (I caved and used a biscuit cutter – inauthentic shape, gah!). The technique of brushing the scones with extra butter and a dusting of sugar just before popping them into the oven gave the scones a nice sweet crust, but they were a bit firm from over baking, so the quest continues. 

I’ll report back when I’ve decoded the ideal scone recipe, or when my husband drags me – flour sullied and pastry blender flailing – out into the light. Whichever comes first.

For the original recipe, buy the book. To see how the other bakers in the group fared (some great ideas here!), visit Tuesdays with Dorie.