Monday, 30 May 2011

Lemon walnut wafers

These are semisoft with a tart lemon flavor—an old-fashioned cookie from Florida.
Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies, pp 45–6

It had been a sorry while since any biscuits were baked. And to my horror and despair, when the time was finally found to bake biscuits, Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Cookies was nowhere to be seen. I could see the empty space between its chronologically-ordered sisters of Maida’s prolific late-70s period. I searched high and low. I checked that I hadn’t put it in the fridge. I blamed The Guitar Teacher, one of his students and the estate agent in that order, as the only souls to darken our door in the last fortnight.

‘It’s probably fallen down the back of the cabinet,’ TGT suggested, unhelpfully, as it was clearly impossible that such a hefty tome could fall down there.

‘What utter codswallop,’ I said dismissively, or words to that effect. ‘Anyway, it’s too hard to drag that great thing out to have a look.’

He nodded. ‘I’ll just grab the torch, shall I?’

Lo and behold, there it was, caught in the web of cords from the stereo, its little Post-it flags waving. You didn’t see that coming, did you, dear reader? A happy ending! Albeit one with some degree of egg on my face! I can’t help feeling that a happy ending makes this tale a tad flat and pointless, as it would Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, and I have no idea how I got onto them, so without further ado, to Lemon Walnut Wafers.

1½ cups plain flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt (Because I have bought some now, so often do recipes call for it. Does it differ from Saxa? Don’t ask me. But you could probably use whatever salt you like, really.)
Generous pinch ground ginger
120g unsalted butter, left out to soften if you manage to plan ahead. Me, I zapped it in the microwave for 10 seconds.
1 cup sugar
1 egg plus 2 egg yolks
1 lemon, zest and juice
60g walnuts, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 180C.

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt and ginger and set aside.

Cream the butter by electric means (or hand – I don’t wish to exclude you, Alida Irwin), then add sugar and beat well. Add the egg and yolks, beating until the mixture is light and fluffy. On a low speed (you just stir normally, AI), gradually add sifted dry ingredients, mixing only until smooth. Mix in the lemon zest and juice and the walnuts by hand.

Blob rounded teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto baking-paper-lined trays, at least an inch apart (Maida recommends two inches, but I have a puny oven and meagre trays, and the biscuits didn’t spread far). It’s a sticky mixture and the blobs weren’t prettily rounded, but they sorted themselves out in the baking.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until the tops spring back when lightly pressed. Maida says, ‘These cookies will not brown on the tops, but there will be a thin brown edge.’ As always, she recommends reversing trays to ensure even browning, and, this time, I would have done well to follow this instruction – as it was, the front row had browned on their peaks while the rest were fish-belly pale.

Cool on racks. Do I even need to mention that?

As I suspected, these bore no more relation to wafers than this blog does to tragic nineteenth-century realism. They tasted pleasingly lemony, but were  US-style soft and cakey; a bit more browning and crisping all over would have been an improvement rather than something to avoid. One to file away for the false-teeth years, which are not, after all, so far off. Or perhaps I should refer to those as the naked-gums years – with all signs pointing to my generation not being able to afford housing in retirement, dentistry probably won’t be on the cards either. We could end up living out a Russian novel after all.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chocolate Amaretti Torte

Every blogger with even the slightest inclination towards cakeal matters must have blogged about Dorie Greenspan’s Fifteen-Minute Magic Chocolate Amaretti Torte by now. I found it in Baking, but when googling to see how others went with it, it seemed that everyone in the world had made it and saw that it was good. I would like to add my voice to the chorus of torte celebration, if I may, now that I’ve made it at least five times. 

It’s elegant, dark, grown-up and rich, and you’d never know that the cake part really is put together in fifteen minutes, albeit with the help of a food processor. There’s a little more to it than that – such as the later preparation of the chocolate ganache and the almond cream, which is listed as optional but should be considered absolutely compulsory.

The only departures I take from Dorie’s recipe is that:

  • I toast the slivered almonds before they go in the food processor, as I often do with almonds; 
  • I add a splash of Amaretto to the ganache, and sometimes to the cream, although this time I used Pure Almond Extract from Sur la Table, yes I did, because it's a pungent revelation after a lifetime of Queen’s almond essence; 
  • I encircle the perimeter with the remaining whole amaretti biscuits* so that each slender cake slice has a high-domed, crunchy bit of delight on its widest end.

 *Unless there’s something else to be done with them; crushed up over icecream they’re fabulous, or over pumpkin and sage risotto. And in that case the torte has more toasted slivered almonds sprinkled around the edge instead, as it was in this case – as you can see in the appallingly bad photo that was all I had the opportunity to take before it was snaffled from under the very iPhone lens.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Sunday-morning gougeres

Great big hot cheesy gougeres for breakfast.*

Dead easy, even easier than the chouquettes to whom they are closely related with merely the addition of cheese, because mounds of dough are spooned onto trays instead of piped.

These were from Dorie Greenspan's Around My Kitchen Table, but there are versions all over the internet. Dorie gave the two options of baking immediately or putting the laden trays in the freezer for later reference. Neither suited me, as I wanted to bake mine the next morning and possess very little freezer room, so I spooned the dough-mounds onto three sheets of baking paper which I laid on my triple-tier cooling rack and refrigerated overnight. It didn't seem to hurt them.

In other variations, I didn't have the required amount of sharp cheddar, or any of the suggested alternatives such as gruyere, so I topped it up with pecorino, which gave it a good old-sock tang. I also added thyme leaves to the mix, because I like thyme with almost anything.

I love quick-and-easy leftover-cheese-userupperers like these. And their hollow bits could be filled with all manner of extra calorificness, such as avocado, or dill and salmon cream, or more cheese in a white sauce. The possibilities are endless.

*Lest people such as Alida Irwin get the idea that I eat like this every Sunday morning, I admit that this was last Sunday morning, not this one. And that this was the last thing I cooked before deadlines crowded my horizon every which way. It's been a week of toast and two-minute noodles, and isn't over yet, but normal services will resume shortly.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Confit of duck cassoulet, or Vegetarians, look away now

So I came back to Australia to encounter the first bloody cold weather of the year. The shock of it all, and the impending Saturday-night visit from Alida Irwin and the Croissanteur in order to view our respective holiday shots (theirs the wilds of Tasmania from a motorbike and sidecar), and also the memory of our mutual pre-holiday dinner at Madame SouSou’s (which was great but failed to deliver their eagerly anticipated star dish because it had been relegated to a special), led to the heartiest, richest dish possible: le cassoulet.

I’ve never made cassoulet before, and only eaten it once – at Madame SouSou’s.

I had a vague idea that it had involved duck, and a whole pile of beans, and maybe some bits of sausage. With one post-travel eye on my shrivelled credit card, I thought that a $15 fresh duck would form the bulk of the expense. Mais non. It was confit of duck, and pork belly, pancetta and special porky sausages.

Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound, we only live once, tra la, and off I went to no less than four smallgoods specialists to gather all the meat. 

In case it’s helpful to anyone contemplating this dish to make a decision whether they should go for it or stick with lentils and rice, I’ve included costs. Go for it, I say, perhaps making sure to gather a few hungry non-vegetarian friends. I might be facing lentils and rice for the rest of the winter, but I believe this was worth it; we all had a woozy, sticky, satiated sheen to our faces afterwards, and there were vast quantities of leftovers. Freezable leftovers.

Having had this rib-sticker pop into my head, I turned to my bookshelves and could only find recipes in Elizabeth David’s Provincial French Cooking and five pages’ worth in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As both of them involved elements I hadn’t pictured in mine, such as lamb and preserved goose, I went to the internet for further help. There I found a plethora of approaches, and sort of synthesised all the findings in my head to approximate a replication of the Madame SouSou version.

Here’s what I did.

4 confit duck legs ($36 from La Parisienne), left whole and surrounding fat reserved for frying – I had enough to scrape into a jar for several further references (mmm potatoes roasted in duck fat ghmmm)
4 saucisson Lyonnaise ($10 pack from Jonathan’s), thickly sliced
1 chorizo ($8 from Casa Iberica), halved lengthways and thickly sliced
600g pork belly ($6.50 from Thien Thanh), cut in 1-inch cubes
250g piece rolled pancetta ($7.50 from Piedemonte’s; they also had kaiserfleisch for $20 a kilo, which more recipes call for and I’ll try next time)
600g cannellini and red kidney beans, soaked overnight (just happened to be the beans I had on hand, though haricots seemed to be the common denominator throughout recipes)
2 large onions, sliced
3 sticks celery, diced
3 carrots, diced
200g sliced swiss mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 glasses white wine
1 litre chicken stock with a teaspoonful of Bovril in it, plus a cup or so more for later topping up
Parsley, thyme, bay leaves, handful garlic cloves roughly chopped, all tied up in muslin (I also shredded off some more thyme leaves and chopped a few cloves of garlic more finely and added them loose with the onion.)
breadcrumbs from small loaf of day-old sourdough, mixed up with yet more thyme leaves

I heeded part of Elizabeth’s lengthy and discursive (erm, kettle, pot) suggestion for bean preparation, and boiled the presoaked beans for two minutes, then let them cool. I did not, however, retain the cooking liquid for stain removal.

It took ages and a lot of energy and cat-shooing to chop up all that meat, especially hacking the pork belly into cubes with a serrated bread knife. Speaking of which, when I laid out that lovely long strip of pork belly, I was disconcerted to see a row of three nipples on it.

A nice big blob of white duck fat went into the cast iron pot and all the meat was fried up in batches, finishing with the duck. In spite of the prodigious amount of fat in the pan by that stage, the duck skin immediately caught and tore off instead of browning nicely and remaining whole. Next time I might do the duck separately in a non-stick pan, balancing the desire for retaining all the browned extraneous bits with the desire for retaining the skin on the duck leg. Or maybe the legs could be roasted until brown and crisp.

With all the meat browned and set aside out of feline reach, into all the accumulated oil went the onion to brown and cook, followed shortly by the garlic, carrot and celery, then the tomato paste, then the wine and stock and plenty of salt and pepper, then the beans and the bouquet garni, to boil covered for about an hour. This bit could have been done first in another pot and been doing its thing while I got busy frying up all the meat, but I had hope of extra flavour by way of using the same pan with all the meat residue. And how better to spend a cold Friday night than flapping about in the kitchen yelling at the cats?

Finally, a third of the cooked oniony bean mix layered the bottom of the pot, then a layer of meat pieces, another third of the beans, the rest of the meat including the four duck legs, then the remainder of the beans. Then more stock if needed (I needed) to bring the liquid just up to the top layer of beans.

At this point I let the pot cool down, stuck it in the fridge and went to bed. 

Late Saturday afternoon a couple of hours before dinner I resumed operations, topping it with the breadcrumbs and thyme, with a bit more duck fat dotted here and there, and put it uncovered into a 170C oven for about an hour and a half.

A crust formed on the breadcrumbs after about half an hour, and I pushed it just under the surface of the residual oil slick below it a couple of times with a wooden spoon, from whence it would rise up to form a new, increasingly toasty-looking golden crust. I guess it was basically thrice-baked duck fat crumbs. Not rich at all.

 Alongside this artery-clogger, I avoided anything else very full-on, favouring fairly unadorned vegetables as a foil – buttery green beans and braised-to-sticky-mildness radishes, which are new to me but my interest had been piqued by the highly esteemed Orangette. They faded to a delicate pale pink as soon as the 1/3 cup of water bubbled up around them, all their brightness leaching into the liquid.
All put together, various peripheral elements such as bread had to be banished to the sideboard. How I’d love a table with leaves in it. Hell, a bigger dining room would be nice too. And a butler. I know, if wishes were horses beggars would ride.

Quite a long time later, we were ready for Alida Irwin’s sumptuous tart from her 1930s Cooking with Pomiane (Alida Irwin actually dwells in the 1920s, but she jumped forward a decade with enormous aplomb), made from rhubarb from her garden and eggs from her chooks.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

San Francisco

We scored a studio apartment in the Castro. This was fantastic after weeks in hotels and no self-sufficiency. It came equipped with a kitchen far fancier than mine, and I wanted to take the huge Kitchenaid oven home, but there was already an overweight luggage issue after visiting Sur la Table in the Ferry Building and being unable to resist a Le Creuset cast-iron saucepan with a reversible sauté-pan lid. 

Not to mention a series of visits to Trader Joe’s in search of the bulk Callebaut gianduja I’d heard tell of on forums, which was sadly unrewarded, but did mean the accumulation of a lot of other stuff. All declared, too, and brushed aside as lacking any threat.

San Francisco is my sort of city. In the same way we have a 7-Eleven on every corner, they have delis. And not little milk-bar delis, but a cross between Soulfoods and King & Godfree’s complete with the booze section and without the it’s-really-special-to-shop-here-at-great-expense vibe. (Love both these places, but as they’re uncommon emporiums in these antipodean parts, that vibe is pretty much inevitable.) And the Wholefoods and Mollie Stone's supermarkets are a far cry from Smith Street Safeway, loyalty to my crusty old outpost of the multinational aside. Therefore we rarely came home without several brown-paper bags full of food, which we stored and ate in the kitchen as if we’d lived there forever.

We still ate out a lot, though, especially lunches. Every morning, there was Spikes just down 19th Street from us for excellent espresso and a bear claw. There was great yum cha in Chinatown, inadvisably followed by a walk up an impossible hill to Coit Tower. 

There was The Little Chihuahua for Mexican. 

There was Woodhouse Fish Company for a Dungeness crab (look, I’m going to have to say it – I don’t get crab and lobster. I so rarely have the opportunity to eat it that I always feel compelled to when it’s there for $11, but it’s a lot of work for not much taste. And then there’s the wearing of a huge bib with a lobster on it, and the way you need to get your hands unspeakably sticky and greasy and vile; you know me and my hand neurosis. I mean, look at the state of me. Like a cavewoman. And I could not stop stealing bits of the Guitar Teacher’s peerless fish and chips instead.) and clam chowder.

La Boulange for pastries. The Girl and the Fig in Sonoma on the way to wine-tasting for a lunch that ended with mind-blowing caramelised pecan and chocolate tart.

And there was drinking, a lot of it. Nine-dollar Grey Goose martinis at Twin Peaks Tavern. We had quite a bit to do of that at home, with several bottles of sake to get through in order to make way for single-malts and cognac and Hendricks, all at about a third the price of Dan Murphy’s. On Haight Street was Toronado, with no food but 45 imported beers on tap. And where I was asked for age ID on the door for the first time in fifteen years.

Our last day in San Francisco, we had a superb lunch at Magnolia Brewery on Haight Street, with generously-alcoholic $3 Tuesday pints of their own offerings; I was anybody’s after one Prescription Pale Ale.. And I finally got around to trying a giant pretzel, found to be bread to have with dinner rather than a species of chip to have with beer. It’s the little differences...

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

New York eating

Chelsea Market
Some fond memories:

Seersucker in Smith Street Brooklyn for bourbon-black sugar pork with collard greens and duck breast (possibly the only two meals in NYC that were a normal size – it seems like the more you pay, the less you get). We had excellent coffee and ‘biscuits’ – more like square scones – for breakfast there one morning, too.

Hung.Ry in Noho for their Wednesday $15 hand-pulled organic noodle soup sets – massive bowls of oxtail and pork belly for us. Duvel was on tap – we were continually amazed at the Belgian beers on offer. Where would you find Duvel on tap even at a Euro-style bar in Melbourne, let alone at a Chinese restaurant?

Speaking of which, this was one high-alcohol reason we so loved the noisy, dark Vol de Nuit around the corner from where we were staying at the Larchmont in West Village, with its draught Chimay, Delerium Tremens and Leffe alongside moules frites. 

A $26 prixe-fixe at Perry Street, one of many Jean-Georges restaurants. There was a foamy amuse bouche, the name of which I couldn’t hear, an appetiser of burrata (seemed a bit like buffalo mozzarella). I had slowly-cooked Scottish salmon with white asparagus, while the GT had fried chicken with Meyer lemon marmalade and crispy black trumpet stuffing. Dessert was warm Valhrona chocolate cake and berry-mousse-topped carrot cake with pear-ginger sorbet. The sorbet was the best bit – I must have a crack at it.

 Our last night in New York, we went to Congee Village in Chinatown. The squid congee was a glutinous velvet gloop of barely perceptible rice-grains, and I wish I knew their trick. Six bucks brought us a massive cast-iron pot of it. We never really got our heads around the fact that food servings in America are so big most people consider it normal to split the main, or the entrée as they inexplicably call it, so we’d also ordered General So’s Chicken – the best I’ve ever had, in a golden mountain on a platter – and sundry ‘small’ dumplingy items that would have filled us on their own. A doggie bag was called for, and my squid congee before the six-hour flight early the next morning was a godsend, the only food possible until arrival in San Francisco. Except for the caramel-pecan cheesecake from Magnolia Bakery.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

New York institutions

It might take the Guitar Teacher some time to forgive me for dragging him from the culinary delights of Smith Street Brooklyn to Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery on the Lower East Side for our first lunch in New York. But I told him this place has been something of a legend for about a hundred years, and I was a knish virgin, and it had to be done.

We found that a knish is basically a $3.50 grapefruit-sized ball of mashed potato encased in a thin papery dough, and more or less devoid of texture and flavour. It was heavy going, especially the kasha (buckwheat) version. The plastic cupful of cold borscht was more familiar ground, but there was clearly something we weren’t getting about the whole experience. After we’d forced our knishes down, we belatedly noticed the array of mustards on offer and realised that was the sole road to flavour.

It was incredibly cheap and carbful and stick to the ribs for hours and hours, which I might have welcomed more in 2003 when travelling as a student even poorer than now. We made our way to another institution, Café Gitane, afterwards, but found ourselves too bloated to muscle through the crush.

Another reason local Yelpers often give for their love for Yonah Schimmel’s is its resistance to gentrification, so as one tenant-not-homeowner watching askance the relentless progress in Smith and Gertrude Streets, I can understand this too. It looked as if it were untouched since the thirties, and it was hardly a sleek outfit even back then – it was tiny and dingily lit, lined with ageing photos of celebrities who had eaten there, and it had a dumbwaiter. I need to give it another go if there’s a next time; there must be a way into knish nostalgia.

The GT was happier with me the next morning when I dragged him to Amy Ruth’s in Harlem for some soul-food, being virgins in this regard too. He was pleased with his frisbee-sized waffle with its mountain of fried chicken. I had a waffle with a soupbowl of blueberries, smothered in maple syrup. Unfinishable.

 Here’s a picture of Katz’s Deli. 

We tried for a famous pastrami sandwich at Katz’s, how we tried. We even got far enough inside the front door to be ticketed and hustled along by two guards. But there must have been a hundred people lined up in there, and there was the complicated ticketing system, and we were starving. And the guards. And those tickets. In a restaurant. So we left and backtracked a block to a checker-floored vinyl-boothed diner called The Remedy.

There we had a sangwich each – also unfinishable. My pastrami version looked like a joke version of itself – it must have had a dozen chunky slices of pink meat in it and stood about six inches tall on its skewer, alongside a pickle and coleslaw. The taste was a bit lacking and one-note despite all that, and the half I did get through sat in my stomach like a brick. And I’m a big eater, and love eating.

Look, I don’t get the serving sizes thing; much as I’d heard tell of it before I went to the US, I found it pretty confronting and somehow a bit disturbing. Is it some sort of competitive insistence of value for money, or an unconscious statement about largesse when elsewhere in the world the volume of that sandwich would feed a whole family for several meals?

Monday, 2 May 2011

Kyoto: the best of the rest

Kyoto. Food. Mwoah. From the breakfasts of brewed coffee and crustless sandwiches and salad at lovely Teramachi cafe in the Sanjo-dori covered arcade to the seaweed-wrapped delicacies on offer at the airport. Okay, the taste of the crab miso from off the ¥137 sushi train took a few hours to go away, but even the infamous natto I dared to have at Asuka alongside their famous pile of tempura wasnt that bad. (I was dying to know how bad it could be, ever since Sean McAllister in Japan: A Story of Love and Hate likened eating rotting soybeans in raw egg to eating a bowl of snot.)

Teramachi Coffee
 There was Ippodo, purveyors of the best matcha available to humankind. I also got some genmaicha because I liked the tin and the dark wood-beamed shop and the bustling women in fetching aprons and caps. 

There was beef curry at  Honyaradō , a timbery book-lined institution among uni students for thirty years, and thus more about the ambiance than the cheap, hearty food. There was the lunch niju bento at Uosue.

And the most incredible grilled unagi at Kaneyo, and teriyaki skewers loaded with anything from chicken-neck skin to duck breast at Torito.

 There was Café Bibliotec Hello!, a café mashed together with a bookshop and gallery in a hollowed-out machiya that took several goes to find – the Lonely Planet area map marked it wrongly, I’m sure of it, though I seemed to be very challenged generally finding places in Kyoto, even accounting for the frequent lack of street signs. I’m glad we persevered, though it wasn’t until the last day in Kyoto we found it – and then only for uncommonly excellent espresso, which we drank at a low fifties coffee table by a glowing globe of the world.

 There was scotch available in vending machines at every corner. There was this metal-bead-festooned pub selling Guinness  or rather there wasn't, since it was shut when we discovered it and then we could never find it again.

There was a green-tea sweet to go with the bowl of matcha at the tearooms of the Murin-an villa in northern Higashima, leading to an uncontrollable compulsion to pay ¥1600 for a box of them. As with an almost identical experience at the Urasenke Chadō Research Center, the woman kneeling in her full kimono to present the tea cupped in her two hands then slowly bowed until her forehead touched the tatami mat between us, and I had no idea what to do in response exactly the same, or a halfway bow, or nothing? I sort of cringed and smiled and nodded, for all the world like a gauche Westerner. Also at the villa a wedding-photo session was taking place, which was further grounds for embarrassment – I'd taken off my worn, battered Camper boots at the tearoom entrance, and along had come the exquisitely gowned couple and seated themselves on the steps right next to them. And the photographer had covered up my footwear with a couple of parasols, and was busily photographing away. I waited and waited in my socks, and still it went on. Eventually I darted in while the couple were being rearranged slightly to retrieve them, muttering gomen, probably risibly inappropriate to the situation, and the doll-like bride looked me up and down bemusedly. 


Bamboo izakaya

I had some idea of an izakaya as being a very traditional sort of Japanese pub, stolid and down-to-earth and full of venerable men kneeling on mats around battered ancient floor tables, something like a fish-and-Asahi-oriented version of the Renown before it was cleaned up and became the Gertrude. Well, was I wrong. So wildly incorrect that, ravenous, bone-chilled and aching from a day of riding bikes around Kyoto, we searched several blocks of Sanjo-dori high and low before it dawned on us that the sleek place with all the bamboo out the front must be it. 
The only seating was at a bar lined with big sake bottles, overlooking the dexterous young chefs. Delicious aromas wafted up as each plate was prepared. After my curiosity-driven sweet potato shōchū there followed lots of headily warm sake, which went down with extreme ease. Its containing jug, like a lot of the earthenware here, seemed inspired by body organs.

For a long time we were the only people there, until a few lone women drifted in one by one and seated themselves at points along the bar to chat to the staff. A handwritten English menu was unearthed for us and we pointed to about half the listings, so hard was it to resist anything. It came out in small plates for sharing, tapas-style, each one a little work of art.

The yuba was a particular revelation – fine, silken layers of tofu skin in some sort of benito broth, which was akin to eating a stack of cooked lasagne sheets, as strange as that may sound. I’ve dreamed of its ungraspably subtle taste and texture ever since.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Nishiki Market in photos

We gathered up anything that looked interesting, and, if not eaten on the spot, took it all back to eat in the communal kitchen of our ryokan along with a longneck of Asahi from the fridge. And it was all delicious.