Friday, December 31, 2010

ingredient: OCTOPUS

The octopus is the James Bond of the sea. They are masters of camouflage and quick getaways. They’re pros at getting out of tight spaces (thanks to their lack of an exoskeleton) and they’re armed with their own ink guns. Forget sharks; with eight legs, three hearts, hundreds of suction cups, and a hard, pointed beak, these guys are truly the bad boys of the sea.

I’ve never personally battled an octopus (my Greek friends have butlers for that) but I’m surprised that octopi are ever caught by predators. Octopi can change the appearance of their skin to match not only the color but the texture of their surroundings. Let’s just say that if I ever get a pet octopus I am covering the tank in a velvet toile.

And of course when being attacked it comes in handy that octopi can lose and regenerate their arms at will. It seems to me that this might be the future of sustainable octopi harvesting (but more on that later.) Above all, octopi are extremely smart. Biologists believe that these cephalopods are as smart as house cats, but honestly I’d like to see your cat methodically disassemble a robot submarine or a tank thermometer or figure out how to open clams and use them as a weapon. In fact, because of their intelligence many countries (such as the UK) don’t allow surgery on octopi without anesthesia.

The only way that octopi seem to be genetically disadvantaged is the fact that they are programmed to die soon after reproducing. Well that and the fact that they’re so darn tasty. Octopi have made quite the enemy in humans, who love their meaty texture and rich flavor. Octopus is a staple in most Mediterranean cuisines, where it’s often served grilled or marinated. In Japan, octopus is a favorite in sushi restaurants, where it’s served raw, and bars, where it is fried in balls.

The indigenous people of Hawaii believe that octopi are the survivors of previous cosmos. I'd put my money on them making it to the next.

Baby Octopus with Potatoes and Olives
adapted from The Italian Grill

When I see this dish on a menu, I order it. I love the way that the crisp, smoky taste of grilled octopus gives way to a soft, buttery interior. I like the freshness of the lemon zest and how the olives add a briny flavor that is reminiscent of the sea. I'm not a huge potato person, but here they provide a surprisingly flavorful base to the salad. The trick is that the potatoes are tossed warm with the olive oil and the lemon and the spices so they pick up those flavors and add a citrusy heat to every bite.

I'm also prone to romanticizing my food. A single flavor or dish can transport me to another world--which is why I'm addicted to reading cookbooks, especially in the dead of winter. When I eat this dish, I am suddenly here

and no one can tell me otherwise.

NOTE: This recipe is usually made with adult octopus, something which my fish monger doesn't stock. So I was extremely excited when I saw the baby octopi for sale at Whole Foods. I figured I could easily substitute baby octopus for regular (in fact the mature octopus would have required an hour of boiling before grilling) and they seemed like a steal at six dollars a pound.

I happened to return to the same Whole Foods a few days later and I saw that they had labeled their seafood with a color-coded system to alert customers to the sustainability of each product. My heart sank when I saw that my cute, tasty little baby octopi had a dreaded red label, meaning that they are not sustainably harvested. Whole Foods is actually going to stop selling any red-label species, and I applaud them for it. Personally, I will follow suit, and this is the last baby octopi I will be cooking, at least until I'm given the OK by the Seafood Watch Program.

The problem is that baby and adult octopi are often harvested by trolling, a method by which fishermen drag nets along the ocean floor, damaging the ecosystem. However scientists agree that buying adult octopus is a better choice, especially if you can find ones harvested in Hawaii. I encourage you to eat sustainably, especially when it comes to preserving our oceans. If you're not sure if what you're eating is sustainably harvested, check out the Seafood Watch Program website

I am going to give the recipe that I followed as well as instructions for using mature octopus. Again, if you can, please use sustainably harvested adult octopus.

serves 6

2 pounds baby octopus (or one three pound octopus with sac, beak, and eyes removed by your wonderful fishmonger)
6 cloves garlic
1 tbsp hot pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 pound yellow potatoes (like yukon gold)
extra virgin olive oil
4 scallions, sliced
1 red onion (thinly sliced)
two lemons, zested and juiced
1 cup Gaeta olives (you can substitute Kalamata olives)
salt, pepper

Make the potato salad:

Put the potatoes in a large pot of cold, salted water and bring to a boil. Cook for 15 minutes, or until fork-tender. Drain and then cut into cubes.

In a large bowl, mix 1/2 cup of olive oil, the scallions, the red onion, the lemon zest and lemon juice, and the olives.

Add the potatoes and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper.

To grill the octopus:

Preheat a grill.

If you are using a mature octopus, then put the octopus with 6 cloves of garlic and some red pepper flakes in a large pot of water. Add two wine corks (this is Mario Batali's trick, taken from generations of Italian grandmothers, and it works) to help tenderize the octopus. Bring the water to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes to an hour. The octopus is done when you can easily pierce it with a knife. Drain and cut into 1.5 inch pieces.

Coat the octopi --mature or baby- with some olive oil and season with salt and pepper (and red pepper flakes if you like things spicy.)

We grilled our batch in a grill basket, which made it super easy. If you have a grill pan (to do the octopi "a la plancha") that would be awesome too. You can also do them straight on the grill but be careful that they don't drop down to the coals

Grill for about 3-4 minutes per side. The octopus should get nicely charred, but you don't want them to get tough, so when grilling these little guys, less is more (bier.)

Gently toss the octopi with the potato salad. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Tis the season for things shaped like bells. Cue the butternut squash.

Officially known as cucurbita moschata, butternut is a type of winter squash. Butternut squash have a pale orange flesh and a sweet, nutty flavor. Because they grow for longer and are harvested later than summer squash, they typically weigh between a hefty two and five pounds. And like your mamma always told you, being mature means having a thick skin. Butternut squash have a hard outer shell that you won’t find on summer squash like zucchini. This is one personal issue I have with cooking with these giants of the squash world; hacking away at a hard butternut squash with my biggest knife leaves me frustrated, sweating, and fearful for my fingers.

But the results of cooking up some butternut squash are worth it, especially at this time of year. In a season that is a veritable vegetable wasteland, butternut squash provides a burst of bright color and flavor, as well as an important dose of cancer fighting beta-cryptoxanthin, an orange-red carotenoid easily found in summer produce like red peppers, papayas, and peaches. Stress smoking through the holidays? Studies have shown that benzoapyrene, a carcinogen in cigarette smoke, induces vitamin A deficiency. Luckily butternut squash is high in vitamin A and can greatly reduce your risk of emphazema.

I’ll admit that by the time April rolls around, I feel like I never want to see another cup of butternut squash soup. Every restaurant in New York seems to rely on this old standby, and most of them add so much cinnamon and nutmeg I feel like I’m slurping down some puréed pie. Maybe one winter I’ll play soup Santa to my local restaurants, leaving quarts of winter minestrone, curried cauliflower stew, and pasta fagioli on their doorsteps.

I’m also not about to throw some bits of butternut squash in a pan with some parsnip and some potatoes and pretend that everyone in the world isn’t disappointed with “roasted root vegetables.” At least I’d throw some parmesan on there. At least I’d roast the squash and then put it in a risotto or a lasagna. At least I’d simmer it in a curry or drizzle it with a spicy chili sauce. Chefs of New York, here is your 2011 resolution: free the squash (and cut the crap with bacon. It’s not better on everything.)

Paccheri Pasta with Butternut Squash,
Spinach, Pine Nuts and Goat Cheese

One of the most difficult transitions from college to the “real world” (as real as living in a house in Brooklyn with five of your friends while getting a second liberal arts degree can be) was living without a dining hall. For their sustenance, most of my friends relied on take-out dinners. There are definitely enough noodle shops and thai bistros and hummus places between Harlem and Park Slope that I could have brought a new dish home with me every night. But I like to cook, and our house in Brooklyn was blessed with a real kitchen, so I forwent La Taqueria’s Del Mare burrito (most of the time) and opened my cookbooks.

The nearest grocery store to our house was a pretty sketchy Key Food, which a friend in my Italian class tellingly nicknamed Schifood (pronounced skee-food because schifo in Italian means disgusting or crappy). As a result I did most of my shopping at a gourmet deli/asian market called Sea Land (these hybrid institutions are one of the reasons I love New York.) It was there, after a particularly grueling day of trying to get the freshman of Columbia University to care about their writing skills and probably failing, that I allowed my hungry, tired self to walk into the forbidden section: frozen foods.

There I saw an item that I had never seen before- Cascadian Farms organic squash puree. I looked at the back of the box. No sugar. No preservatives. Nothing but pureed squash. Well this is great! I thought, and quickly purchased the squash, a bag of spinach, and a log of goat cheese. Something good can come of this.

And something good did happen. I heated the squash and sautéed the spinach, then mixed in a generous amount of goat cheese and some toasted pine nuts. A squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil, some salt, some pepper, and of course some red pepper flakes. (Nothing I ate while living in Brooklyn was exempt from my beloved spicy flakes, a nod to ye olde dining hall). The mixture looked saucy so I tossed it with some pasta. The puree of the squash made a delicious, perfectly textured sauce with a hint of sweetness. The spinach and the pine nuts got trapped in the holes of the rigatoni, creating little pasta packages of goodness.

Best of all, it is incredibly easy to make this dish for one person. If you have left over sauce, you can reheat it and put it on some good, toasted bread to make a crostini, or you can just serve it on the side of some grilled sausages or chicken. Or, if you're like me and you can devour a mountain of veggies in one sitting, then this makes one giant portion which you will eat alone in your room so that your roommates won't look on, shocked, at the size of your dinner. A last note: if you'd like, you can obviously make the squash puree from scratch. It won’t take long and if you’re feeling ambitious or you’ve just been to the farmers market, you can make a big batch and turn the rest into, well, soup.

Serves four (or one, with leftovers)

5 ounces baby spinach
2 cups squash puree (either homemade or frozen like Cascadian farms)
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
2 tbsp olive oil
2.5 ounces goat cheese (about half of one of those small logs)
½ tsp spicy red pepper flakes
1 tbsp lemon juice
salt, pepper
4 portions paccheri pasta or rigatoni gigante (getting this pasta makes the dish extra amazing, not only because eating jumbo sized pasta is fun, but because the sauce really gets trapped in there. But if you can’t find these shapes, regular rigatoni or jumbo shells will do.)
parsley (optional)

To make squash puree:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the stem off one large butternut squash. Halve the squash and get rid of the seeds and any pulp. Put the squash cut side up on a baking sheet lined with tin foil. Bake the squash for 40 minutes, or until it is very tender when you insert a fork into the flesh.

When the squash has cooled, peel it and put the flesh into the food processor. Pulse until the squash is a smooth puree. Set aside.

Put the pasta water on to boil and cook the pasta according to the package directions.

If using frozen squash, cook it in the microwave according to the directions (about four minutes).

In a large sautee pan, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the spinach and cook until wilted.

Turn down the heat to medium and add the squash puree, pinenuts, and lemon juice and mix well.

Crumble the goat cheese into the squash mixture and stir until combined. Add the salt, pepper, and pepper flakes to taste.

Add the cooked pasta to the sautee pan and stir to combine. Drizzle with another tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and add the chopped parsley as garnish (or don’t if it’s a hassle.)

Serve warm.

Friday, December 17, 2010

ingredient: SALT COD

There are plenty of great things that we keep around even though we no longer technically need them; garter belts; paddle boats; real live books. In the culinary world, we have salt cod, also known as bacalao in Spanish, morue in French, baccalà in Italian, bacalhau in Portuguese and saltfiskur in Icelandic. I mention the various words for salt cod because you’ve probably seen one of them on a menu somewhere. Menus tend to list this ingredient in its mother tongue because, admittedly, ordering salt cod doesn’t sound especially appealing. And I’m sure that restaurants with pictures on their menus would never sell a single ounce.

Salt cod was developed over five hundred years ago as a way to preserve fish. The process hasn’t changed much, except that back in the day the salting and drying was primarily done out of doors using the sun whereas now the fish is dried inside using electrical heating lamps. Salt cod was popular around the world, from Brazil to Norway to Greece, because it was cheap and because it stayed “fresh.” Its popularity was also tied to Christianity’s because Catholics aren’t supposed to eat meat on Fridays or during Lent and fish was a popular alternative.

But despite both being fishy, salt cod has a one-up on Catholic priests; its popularity is still going strong. While people may not need to eat salt cod anymore (we have McDonald’s for that) it’s such an ingrained part of global cuisines that people continue to eat it all the time anyway. For example, in Provence the Gros Souper on Christmas Eve wouldn’t be the same without the brandade de morue and beer drinkers in Brazil need bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod fritters) to fuel their thirst.

The only thing holding back salt cod from being a staple of my own kitchen is that before cooking it needs to be reconstituted in water. Actual reconstitution times vary; I’ve read that the cod needs to be soaked from anywhere from eight hours to a week. During this time, the salt seeps out of the fish and the water creeps in. It’s a bit of a pain because you can’t just leave your fish in the fridge for a couple days, you need to change the water in the bath about every 12 hours. However, the end result is a piece of fish that magically resembles something close to the plump textured fillet it started out as. It’s astonishing to see. It’s like those magic capsules you put in the bath and they grow into animals!

Reconstituted salt cod might not sound all that great, but done correctly, the flavor is mild and not fishy. So go ahead and don a watch fob or listen to an actual radio (no Pandora) while cooking some up. You’ll be taking part in history.

Salt Cod and Tomato Stew
Brandade de Morue

I love souvenirs. I'll buy everything and anything from postcards to decorative plates to ugly ashtrays to t-shirts.* Once, in high school, a friend brought me a pair of maracas from Mexico. It was supposed to be a joke, but they’ve been sitting on my bookshelf ever since.

Of course what I love most of all are culinary souvenirs. And while the whole no carry-on liquids rule really put a dent in my international olive oil purchases, I still pick up everything from British chocolates (they taste so much better there!) to Chinese tea (the customs guard thought I was carrying drugs) to Spanish aioli (I’d suggest sticking to more travel friendly items like jam).

So when my friend Mike told me that he had picked up some salt cod at a supermarket in Brazil, I didn’t say, well that’s a weird purchase. I didn’t say, Really? You brought me salt cod? How about some Havaianas? I said, Awesome! When do we start cooking?

We started cooking last Saturday, though to his credit, Mike started working two days before that. As I mentioned, you can’t just go ahead and eat a piece of salt cod. It’s dry and stiff and well, salty. Because recipes really vary on soaking time, we chose 48 hours, hopefully erring on the safe side. So Mike put the cod in a big tupperware of water and then proceeded to change the water every 12 hours. Thanks Mike!

When we opened the Tupperware at my house, I think we were both a little skeptical. I’d say that if I hadn’t known what was in that container and I had been asked to guess, I’d haven chosen either fish or… pieces of soggy, frayed socks.

Never having cooked with salt cod before, we decided to make two recipes in the hopes that at least one would taste good. And because we're champions, we didn’t go the easy route by making salt cod croquettes, which I’ve eaten and are delicious, but seemed like cheating because they just taste fried. No, we chose a stew and a brandade.

The Salt Cod and Tomato Stew recipe came from the chef at Nice Matin via New York Magazine. The Brandade came from Jacques Pepin via the New York Times. While admittedly neither of these is particularly Brazilian, in fact we might call them particularly French, salt cod’s international status is such that you can find variations of these dishes all over the world.

The results? The stew was good, though lacking in my favorite part of stews, namely the broth. I might make it again. The brandade, however, was a resounding success. It had a lot going for it because it’s a dip, and I love things you can spread on bread. Also the supporting ingredients,namely potatoes, milk, garlic, and lemon, are all things I enjoy. Together they created a hot, garlicky, slightly creamy dip that I would happily eat any time. In fact it’s a bit of a bittersweet experience because, honestly, how many times am I going to go through the trouble of reconstituting some cod?

Brandade de Morue
a.k.a salt cod dip
(I'm sorry that English is so ugly)


1/2 pound salted codfish (reconstituted in a water bath for 48 hours, skinned and deboned)
1 large Idaho potato (about 1/2 pound)
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 large lemon
2/3 cups hot milk
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/3 cup virgin olive oil, plus oil for dish
1 baguettes cut into slices each about 1/2-inch thick


Put the potato in a small pot and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a rolling boil then reduce the heat and let the potato gently boil for 45 minutes or until tender. When its tender, take it out of the water, peel it, and cut it into small chunks.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Put the salt cod in a large pan with a quart of cold water. Bring the water to a boil and let the cod cook for 10 minutes. Remove the cod from the water, making sure it doesn't have any bones or skin left.

Put the cod and garlic in a food processor and blend until smooth. Add the potato and the grated skin of the lemon. Add the hot milk. Pulse the mixture until smooth.

Grate the lemon and add the rind to the mix, along with the black pepper and the cayenne. While the machine is running, add the olive oil and keep pulsing until the mixture is smooth.

Put the mixture in a 4 cup baking dish. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the top is slightly crusty and golden and the mixture is hot.

Serve the dip on the slices of baguette (if you want them toasted, put the slices on a baking sheet and pop them in the 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes).

Salt Cod and Tomato Stew

1 pound dried salt cod (reconstituted in a water bath for 48 hours, skinned and deboned)
1/2 cup to 1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup 1/4-inch-diced onions
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1/2 jalapeño, minced and seeded (if the jalapeño is mild, leave the seeds in)
2 ounces grappa or dry white wine
2 cups tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
Bouquet garni: parsley stems, thyme, rosemary, fennel fronds, and a bay leaf, tied in cheesecloth
1 cup 1/2-inch-diced bell pepper
1/2 cup pitted Niçoise olives
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
Fruity extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
Sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper


In a large saute pan, heat 3 TBSP of olive oil. Saute the cod until it is lightly browned.

In a large pot, add 4 TBSP of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onions, garlic, and jalapeno and cook until the onions are getting translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the wine/grappa and let it cook until the liquid has evaporated. Add the tomatoes and let them cook until they begin to summer.

Add the cod, one cup of water, and the boquet garni. Cover the pot, and cook at a simmer for 45 minutes.

Add the peppers, olives and capers. Let the stew cook for another 15 minutes, then serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a dash of salt.


exhibit A

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

ingredient: VANILLA (part 2)

I think all children fall into one of two categories; chocolate or vanilla. I fell firmly in the vanilla camp (as well as muesli over frosted flakes, pop tarts over toaster strudels, cranberry over orange juice and jelly sandwiches above all). In fact, I have to admit that I just didn’t like chocolate for the first half of my life and to be honest I still can’t stand chocolate ice cream. Viva vanilla was my motto, and white chocolate if you must.

So while I’ve come to enjoy chocolate, especially when paired with oranges, I take personal offense to the way people throw out the word vanilla to mean plain or bland. There’s no pejorative use for chocolate. Why don’t we use it to describe things that are indulgent or things which make kids go nuts? I’ll tell you why. Thomas “I Ruined Vanilla’s Reputation For All Eternity” Jefferson.

That’s right. I have found another reason to reexamine the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. It turns out that the man was really up to no good at Monticello. In addition to dubious relations with staff, he imported vanilla beans from France. But instead of making the popular, luxurious, fragrant French pastries which showcased vanilla, he made vanilla ice cream. To make matters worse, ice cream in Colonial America was apparently chock full of add-ins like nuts and fruits, so people looked at vanilla as a boring base flavor. It became plain ice cream.

Jefferson was frumping up what was actually a very expensive luxury item. Vanilla was brand new to America. It had been brought to Europe from Mexico in 1520 by Cortes to spice up, what’s that other flavor again? Oh, right, chocolate. Queen Elizabeth went nuts for vanilla, and thus so did all of Christendom.

Vanilla is actually still a luxury item. It’s the second most expensive spice after saffron. People don’t realize this because crafty scientists have found a way to extract vanillin, a crappy, second-rate imitation vanilla flavor which costs food companies a fraction of the price to put in their products. Now 90-97 percent of vanilla-flavored products in the US use this synthetic flavoring instead of the real thing.

True vanilla comes from beans of the vanilla orchid. For hundreds of years after its discovery in Mexico, Europeans couldn’t figure out how to grow the delicate orchids at home. It turns out that vanilla plants have a symbiotic relationship with the Melipona Bee. However sending the bees on a little European vacation didn’t solve the problem, and it wasn’t until 1841 that a young slave on the Ile Bourbon figured out how to hand-pollinate vanilla plants. Thanks to that twelve-year old boy, we can now grow vanilla the world-over. However four regions produce almost all of the crop which we use today: Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico, and Tahiti. The taste of vanilla does vary by region, meaning you should definitely try to buy all four.

Vanilla Cake with Pink Frosting

Growing up, my favorite part about birthdays was that I got to choose what we were going to eat for dinner, main course and dessert. Whatever I wanted, my mother would either cook it or buy it, and we’d all eat it, no complaining. Actually, there was complaining, but to my family’s credit, it was only ever me, and only on my sister’s birthday. She always, always chose the two foods I hated a) tacos, which were really just those hard Old El Paso shells stuffed with sautéed ground beef and topped with chopped lettuce, diced tomatoes, and some shredded Mexican cheese mix and b) ice cream cake. YUCK.

I also tended to ask for the same thing every year; ricotta and spinach ravioli from Raffetto’s and a yellow cake with pink frosting and rainbow (never chocolate) non-pareille (don’t even think about buying regular) sprinkles. What can I say? Menu planning comes naturally to me.

To this day, my mother bakes me a yellow cake with pink frosting for my birthday. You see I choose my moments to be unabashedly girly, and my birthday happens to be one of them.

And then, five or so years ago, a life-changing event took place in my neighborhood: Amy’s Bread opened an outpost on Bleecker Street, just mere blocks away from my house. Amy’s is my mecca. They serve a ton of different breads in “twist” form, which is essentially a very substantial breadstick. Black olive, Parmesan, rosemary, chocolate, prosciutto and black pepper; there is a twist to suit my every mood. And let me tell you, I am never not in the mood for bread. My desert-island food is bread. I believe that the reason that I’m not 5’7 as my pediatrician predicted is bread; that’s essentially all I ate for lunch growing up. NB: Parents, don’t let your kids pack their own lunch.

As if Amy’s wasn’t already made for me, they serve a yellow cake with pink frosting. And not just on my birthday! So while I visit Amy’s almost every day for coffee and a twist, sometimes when I need an extra bit of cheer, when I want to pretend it’s my special day, I get a big hunkin slice of their vanilla cake with pink frosting. The cake is more dense than airy, but in a toothsome way that I really like. Their frosting is thick, but doesn't coat your tongue, and sweet but not cloying. Magnolia who? Go to Amy’s, they also serve this cake in cupcake form.

Even though I could just go and buy the cake when the mood strikes, you know how I am about baking things myself. So when the Sweeter Side of Amy’s Bread cookbook came out, I bought it immediately. Now I make the cake for my friends on their birthdays, though I save the pink frosting for me.

*So the curse of vanilla continues: my computer decided to render my memory card defective after I had made the cake and went to upload the photos. I bought a new memory card and took a picture of a beautiful slice, but I'm afraid my wallet simply won't allow me to make a whole new cake. So imagine the steps in your head. It's a bit time consuming, all cakes are, but definitely easy to manage.

Makes one 9-inch two-layer cake


For cake:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cups and 3 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 3/4 cups and 2 teaspoons sugar
5 eggs

For frosting:
7 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 1/3 cups unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/3 cup poured fondant (if I have it on hand, if I don't, no big deal)
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
Red food coloring

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9 inch cake pans.

Make the cake:

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, combine the milk and the vanilla.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and the sugar until they are fluffy. This will take a few minutes. Next, beat in the eggs.

Now you want to alternate adding in the flour mixture and the milk mixture. The reason that recipes tell you to do things in additions like this is to make sure that everything is really mixed well and evenly distributed. You want every last bite of your cake to taste like vanilla. So I start with a bit of the flour mixture, beat it in until it’s “disappeared” then add some milk. In total that’s three additions of flour interspersed with two of the milk.

Now pour the batter into the prepared cake pans. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cakes are starting to get a bit golden and a tester comes out mostly clean (a few crumbs is OK).

While the cake cools, make the frosting:

In a large bowl, use an electric beater to mix together 5 ½ cups of confectioner’s sugar, the butter, the milk, the vanilla, the salt, and the fondant if you have it.

Good icing is thick but spreadable. You’ll probably have to add more sugar, and maybe all of it, but do so one cup at a time, so that you can see how things are progressing. Once you have the right consistency, mix in the food coloring, one drop at a time until you get that perfect pink hue.

To assemble the cake:

Frost one layer of cake completely. Then stack the other cake on top and frost again. I find that spreading in small clock-wise circles works best for me, but do what you will, because this cake is all about taste. Sprinkle with rainbow non-pareille sprinkles.

Friday, December 10, 2010

ingredient: VANILLA (part 1)

Some things don’t go as planned. It happens when baking, and it happens to all of us. And so that one day you will feel better about your own mishaps, so that I can save you some tears, I’m going to tell you about my own vanilla scented disaster. Consider this your gift. Merry Christmas.

It started yesterday afternoon when, while Christmas shopping for others, I clearly went ahead and bought some fancy, expensive, gourmet Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract for myself. I was totally thrilled because I’ve been wanting to bake with real, pure vanilla extract for the longest time. In fact I had just drooled over a vanilla extract sampler from the King Arthur’s Flour catalog. (I don’t know what Mexican vanilla is, or how it’s different from Tahitian vanilla, but I want it.) So while holding my free Nespresso machine sample in the aisles of Sur La Table, I decided to buy the extract, write my next post on vanilla, and write off the bill as a work expense.

My first hurtle came as I trolled through my not-insubstantial cookbook collection and then moved to browsing the internet. I noticed that almost all the recipes that were listed under the keyword “vanilla” had vanilla beans as the star ingredient. I didn’t just drop twenty bucks on vanilla beans. I was going to use my extract, damn it. So I kept searching. But it was one of those times when somehow none of any hundred of recipes were interesting to me. I considered and rejected vanilla pudding with fig compote (did I really want to have to eat a tub of pudding just to write about vanilla?) and Ricotta and Vanilla Ravioli with Orange Mint Dipping Sauce (um, Giada, I love you but this may have been going too far), and crème brulee (because I don’t have a mini blow torch, which might be the only stupid kitchen tool I don’t have. An ebelskiver pan? Yes. A combination avocado pitter/peeler that doesn’t work? Of course. A cookie cutter in the shape of one of those stupid foam fingers you buy at sporting events? Who doesn’t!)

Throughout the search I was obstinately resisting cookies.

Until finally I gave in and relented that there was nothing to make but cookies. Even though I am about to attend not one but two cookie decorating parties; even though we just had to throw out some delicious and absolutely adorable gingerbread turkeys because we just couldn’t get through them; even though there’s no time to eat cookies because I’m too busy eating loaves and loaves of panettone before they disappear with the new year. And even though I’m always trying to come up with something new and exciting for you, dear reader, and I was afraid that you don’t share my same love/obsession with cookies and you’d think that by resorting to cookies I was being, well, vanilla.

Things didn’t even get easier when I succumbed to a very lovely looking recipe for Viennese Vanilla Crescents. This recipe won me over because when I hear the word “Viennese” during wintertime I picture houses which look like they’re made of gingerbread with lattice windows dusted in snow, and filled with people eating linzer tarts and drinking mulled wine. Also these cookies resemble Greek walnut crescents, which I love. And someone once told me that crescent cookies got their shape in 1683 when bakers in Vienna made pastries to celebrate the end of the Turkish siege. (Good thing the siege wasn't laid by the Falkland Islands. Though I do have a cookie cutter in the shape of a sheep if push comes to shove.)

So after I had let out a sigh of relief at finally settling on a recipe, I actually read the damn thing. It had the mark of death. You see, I just won’t make a recipe that says, “start the day before.” I will work for 12 hours straight on feast, I will work without stop for four hours or more for the perfect lasagna, but something about having to start a recipe the day before I want to eat it really puts me off. When I decide I want to make a recipe it’s because I’ve decided I want to eat that recipe. Wait 24 hours? Not going to happen.

The other roadblock to making the only recipe in the entire world that I felt like making to showcase vanilla was that it called for that thing I didn’t think I had; a vanilla bean. But then it turned out that I actually did have a vanilla bean, and it was even pretty fresh. I reconsidered. It was already eight p.m. and I had already had dessert (panettone) so I supposed that just this once I could wait overnight to have the cookies. On top of that, the recipe was appealing because you make the dough in the food processor. I love things you can make in the food processor.

But then the three and a half cups of flour and three sticks of butter and confectioner’s sugar and salt and hazelnuts didn’t fit in my standard size food processor. I smushed it down. I pulsed and smushed. I pulsed and stirred and smushed. No. Freaking. Dice.

After a short ride on the panic-anger-despair roller coaster, I went to the internet. The recipe came from the Gourmet Cookbook, so I figured that someone must have reviewed it and could reassure me that it was the cookbook’s fault and not my own. I found the blog of a woman named Melissa who is cooking every single one of the 1,300 recipes in that behemoth book. While I’m afraid Melissa might be a little misled if she thinks Hollywood is going to come knocking (plans are already in the works for Ruth Riechl’s first book as movie), she did illuminate the problem with these cookies and provide a solution. When the mix didn’t fit in her Cuisinart she put it in the stand mixer and presto; dough! So I pulled out the mixer and moved my dough, undergoing a whole lot of hassle that reminded me that thanks to the internet I should always read reviews before cooking. The other problem with the dough was that it called for zero vanilla extract. Not to be deterred, I simply threw in a half teaspoon. (Unfortunately, that didn't end up imparting as much vanilla flavor as I had hoped.)

Gosh, I thought as I wrapped my huge lump of dough in some Saran wrap, this seems like an awful lot of dough! Only then did I look to see how many cookies the recipe intended to make. I did a double take. Yes, I had just made enough dough for one hundred Viennese Vanilla Crescents. No wonder I couldn’t fit it in my freaking food processor! One hundred cookies! What on earth am I going to do with one hundred cookies? I thought I was going to struggle with disposing of your average twenty four set. I could have given them away as presents but I just finished my Christmas shopping today, when I purchased the extract that got me into this mess. I can’t even send them to my boyfriend because he’s on a freaking beef bender in Buenos Aires.

One hundred Viennese Vanilla Crescents.


And then, oh yeah, that whole part of the recipe that I needed to start 24 hours in advance? That was the vanilla powdered sugar that the cookies are rolled in. Obviously I only decided to look at this after I put my pound or two of dough in the fridge. (To this I plead the complete brain fatigue that comes after battling holiday shopping crowds in SoHo.) It turns out that I didn’t have enough powdered sugar to make the topping and I sure as hell wasn’t going to walk to the supermarket in below freezing weather to get some. I shrugged it off and thought, looks like we’re making Viennese Vanilla Crescents rolled in (granulated) vanilla sugar.

Fast forward 12 hours.

This morning I had the bright idea that instead of rolling them out into crescents, I would cut the cookies into Christmas shapes. I thought I’d bring some to a holiday party I’m attending tonight as a nice, festive treat. Things continued to go wrong. First, the dough was so hard from being in the fridge all night that I had a two pound dough bowling ball on my hands. I tried not to get frustrated, I tried to maintain the zen. So I made myself some scrambled eggs with rosemary and Parmesan (the most successful thing I’ve done all day) while I waited for an hour while the dough ball got soft enough to roll out. Well, soft enough to half roll out, half smush out by force, all while prodding cracking edges, trying to keep the thing in one coherent blob. This was just the crumbliest f-ing dough I have ever worked with, and I’ve been making cookies a long time.

the scene of the crime

I breathed a sigh of relief when I managed to cut out some nice Christmas trees and some stars.

I popped one trial tray of cookies in the oven and let them bake for 15 minutes.

The next step was supposed to be to put the warm cookies on a baking tray which was covered with my vanilla powered sugar. I went along as planned, having substituted granulated for powered sugar. This almost worked. No, the granulated sugar didn’t stick as well as confectioners sugar would have, and yes, I put the cookies face down so that the pretty sparkly sugar was on the ugly, cracked underside of the cookies. But when I flipped a few stars over, they did glitter nicely and I thought it would all be OK .

Then I tried to move a tree.

The tree kept losing branches in my hands. I almost cried. “You bastards!” I shouted at the tray. Then, as per usual when I make a mistake while baking, I looked around furtively for witnesses and shoved the broken tree in my mouth. In less than a second it burst into a million crumbly pieces in my mouth. The overall result wasn’t bad; the cookie had a nice, buttery taste and the vanilla sugar actually tasted a lot like vanilla. But the crumble in my mouth was texturally a bit too much like sand. I tried to eat sand once when I was a child; it’s actually my earliest memory. But it didn’t work then and it didn’t work now.

Only 85 cookies left.

By the end, I gave up on the shapes and made balls because that’s a shape which traditionally works with crumbly cookies you roll in sugar. Except I was so frustrated I didn’t even make nice balls, I made blobs. I made crumbly sugar blobs and I don’t even care.

So how do I feel you ask? I feel like I've done a shit ton of work for a mediocre outcome! I feel like crushing a cookie in each hand and watching as the sugary sand falls through my fingers into the trash. But honestly that's one of the perils of baking and this certainly won't be the last time.

And of course, I won’t be deterred. I have to find a recipe to showcase vanilla for you. Just after I cheer myself up at this holiday party...

Monday, December 6, 2010

ingredient: ROSEMARY

Rosemary has long been known as the herb of remembrance. Ancient Greek students wore rosemary in their hair during their exams—a practice which would definitely have backfired for me because I’d be sitting there wondering what I was going to have for lunch. (The War of the Rose..mary shrimp kabobs? Oh! Grilled cheese on rosemary bread?!) The Greeks also believed that Aphrodite, goddess of love, came out of the ocean draped in rosemary. While I’m not sure about the origin of this myth, I do suppose that many men would be prone to falling in love with a woman who smelled like a nice herbed grilled steak.

Christians, in a rather typical move, took a pagan sex symbol and turned it into a symbol of virginity. They call rosemary the “Herb of Mary” because they believe that while she was fleeing Egypt to protect her unborn child, she lay down to rest on a rosemary bush and the flowers of the plant turned blue (the color of her cloak.) In fact, medieval Christians burned rosemary at weddings to “remind” the couple to be faithful to each other. Obviously there’s no better way to say, “Cut it out I know you’re bonking the babysitter” than by serving up some rosemary shortbread.

Today, rosemary is probably best associated with a certain Simon and Garfunkel song and a film about sacrificing babies. It’s hard to say who has most wronged this beautiful evergreen shrub.

In my mind, rosemary should be the herb of endurance (and it would still make sense to burn it at weddings.) The word rosemary derives from the Latin words ros (meaning dew) and marinus (meaning sea). It was so named because rosemary plants, which are native to the Mediterranean, can survive solely on the humidity carried in the ocean air. Their hardy nature makes them similar to the pine trees which they resemble, though they are actually related to mint. Rosemary can even survive in my bedroom windowsill, where the window doesn’t open (apparently the air-conditioner man thought it would be funny to seal it shut) but it does have a crack, leaving things on the sill exposed to the freezing cold in the winter yet suffocated in heat in the summer. My reservations about torturing any living thing aside, I love having a rosemary plant around because I never use more than a sprig or two when I’m cooking and I hate having to pay for whole bunch at the grocery store. Plus, the little darling cost me only four dollars at the Union Square Farmer’s Market (meaning those of you outside of New York can probably purchase it for two). That’s one whole self-generating plant for the price of one partially damaged store-bought bunch.

Medicinally, rosemary has been used for everything from combating flatulence and baldness to curing rheumatism. While not everything has been proven by science, it is confirmed that you should grill your meats with rosemary. Why? The National Cancer Institute says that carcinogens are “formed when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish, and poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame.” Rosemary contains effective anti-carcinogenic properties which will help shield your brain from the negative results of grilling your meat. But I can’t believe you even needed a reason to throw some rosemary on that whole grilled bronzino…

Rosemary Olive Oil Bread

As you can see, this is really a mix between a bread and a cake. It’s not sweet like say, banana bread, but it is crumbly rather than yeasty. I think it’s perfect as breakfast for people (you know who you are) who can’t stand sweets in the morning. However, if you want to be unique at a dinner party, or you’ve already stuffed your guests full, this airy, savory cake would be perfect. Dollop it (or not) with a little whipped cream or an interesting gelato flavor. Hell, a cake-bread-sweet-savory hybrid seems to fit the bill any time.

Personally, I think that orange marmalade makes the perfect topping. I'll admit that I'm sort of obsessed with the idea of tea-time and I don't know what it says about me that the thing I most treasure about being a writer is my afternoon snack. But honestly, how do you think the English managed to build that empire with so few people? It's pretty clear to me that everyone would be more efficient at work if they had a little pick-me-up in the afternoon. So make this at home, bring it into work, and conquer.

for fortitude!

Makes one 10 inch loaf (for about 8 people)


4 eggs

¾ cup sugar

2/3 cup olive oil

2 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped fine

1 ½ cups flour

1 tbsp baking power

½ tsp kosher salt


Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 10 inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs until they’re one eggy mass, about 30 seconds.

Add the sugar and beat with the eggs until the mixture is foamy and pale in color.

Next, slowly beat in the olive oil.

Fold the rosemary into the batter.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

In three additions, add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture. Pour the batter into the loaf pan.

Bake the cake for 45-50 minutes, or until it is golden brown and a tester comes out clean. Let it cool on a rack.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

ingredient: WALNUTS

It’s the end of the walnut harvest! Though readily available year round, walnuts are at their culinary and nutritional peak in the late fall/early winter. I’ll admit that just a few years ago this information would have been low on my list of reasons why I look forward to December; probably somewhere above the Union Square Holiday Market (It’s always the same vendors! Who buys candles as presents anymore?) and definitely below latkas.

But I’ve had a change of heart about nuts, and walnuts in particular. I used to think they were too hard and a bit bitter and I didn’t like how they were prone to popping up and ruining the smooth texture of my cookies and brownies. Now I appreciate their crunchy texture and their bittersweet, fatty taste. I’m sure my change in tastes was just one of those things, though I’d like to believe it was my body wanting to do itself a solid.

You see, it’s not just me who has had a change of heart about walnuts; it’s the medical community. There was a point when nuts were associated with bad, artery-clogging, death-inducing fat. Well it turns out that eating a moderate amount of walnuts will actually help you lose weight, especially around the middle. Eating walnuts also helps you lower your bad cholesterol. Oops.

That’s not all. I’m sure at some point you’ve looked down a walnut in its shell and thought, this looks like a little brain! Well it turns out that walnuts not only look like brains, they’re good for your brain. Our brains our made up of 60% structural fat and walnuts are very high in omega three fats, so when we eat walnuts they help our brain maximize its functions. Moreover, studies have linked high levels of omega three fat consumption (like brainy looking walnuts) with decreased rates of depression. What a happy coincidence!

I don’t know if The Giving Tree was about a walnut, but it should have been. There are so many uses for walnuts. Walnut trees are glories in themselves; big, broad leafed beauties that have been planted since antiquity. The Romans believed that Dionysus turned his dead lover into a walnut tree. How’s that for romantic? Of course, if Dionysus wanted to get really creepy, he’d have made his lover into a chair: the wood of the walnut tree makes beautiful furniture. Or he’d have used her for walnut oil, which is the delicious, nutty byproduct of pressing walnuts. Walnut oil is expensive so I wouldn’t recommend it as a daily replacement for olive oil, but it’s a great finishing touch to soups and salads. Personally, my favorite use for walnuts is walnut pesto, an easy salad of sliced pears, goat cheese and toasted walnuts, or date-walnut bread with cream cheese (old school NYC style). And don't forget about nocino, otherwise known as liqueur de noix, otherwise known as walnut liqueur. The Italians and the French both enjoy this after dinner drink, as do I, especially when paired with espresso or poured over vanilla ice cream. But maybe you're already a walnut connoisseur and you're thinking that walnuts in salads is simply passe. In that case, I give you...

Baklava Muffins
Adapted from How to be a Domestic Goddess

The decision to make these muffins came from a confluence of factors. First, it was monsooning here in New York. And when it pours, I bake. Second, I had plans to meet my friend Ajay, with whom I have a longstanding plan to go to a restaurant on east 52nd street that has twelve types of baklava. It turns out we went for tacos instead. Still, I thought it would be nice to honor our future commitment by bringing him some baklava.

And then I remembered seeing this slightly odd recipe in a Nigella Lawson cookbook for baklava muffins. I’ve always wanted to try them for the sheer novelty factor, but it made perfect sense to make them now because Ajay loves muffins.
Loves them. I’m not huge on muffins myself, but I respect anyone with a passion.

In fact, when we were roomies in Brooklyn, Ajay and I would often walk over to Blue Sky Bakery
because they have exceptionally good muffins (very airy, lots of fruit) and what I think is the best coffee in Park Slope. Our symbiosis continues; he loves muffins, I love honey baklava. With these gooey crunchy muffins we both win. Lastly, I am always hounding Ajay that’s he’s not eating enough, and now I can make sure that at least for a few days he has breakfast by making him food that he’s compelled to eat. Victory is mine.

These muffins may put the crazy in crazy good, but that’s fine with me. Each muffin is stuffed with a walnut-sugar-cinnamon-butter mixture—which is honestly delicious on its own— and to bite down on the honey laden muffin and find a sweet, gooey, nutty filling is blissful. In this way the walnuts are the key ingredient because they provide the all-important crunch which links the muffins texturally to real baklava. Because it's the best part, next time (and in the following recipe)I will actually double the amount of walnut mixture Nigella calls for. This may be the only time in history that I will feel that one of her recipes needs
more sugar or butter. But if I’m making a baklava muffin, I’m making a baklava muffin, you know what I’m saying?

makes 12 muffins


for filling/topping:
1 cup chopped walnuts
2/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons cinnamon
4 tablespoons butter, melted

for muffins:
1 cup plus 7 tbsp flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 tbsp butter, melted
1 cup plus 2 tbsp buttermilk
1/2 cup or so of honey

muffin tin and muffin wrappers


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

In a medium bowl, mix together the ingredients for the filling. Set aside and try not to eat.

In large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and sugar. In a seperate, small bowl whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and butter.

Slowly incorporate the buttermilk mixture into the flour. Lumps are OK! Just mix until incorporated.

Fill each muffin cup 1/3 of the way with the batter. Add a tablespoon or so of filling, then fill the cup (until 2/3 full) with batter.Sprinkle the tops of the muffins with the remaining filling.

Bake the muffins for fifteen minutes, or until golden brown. Put them on a rack to cool. While they're still hot, drizzle them with honey.