The best cake.

Submitted by jen on Fri, 01/20/2012 - 17:30

I turned 25 in Wisconsin's moist August heat, when summer storms rumble in on steaming afternoons, cooling the air. We ate on the back porch by a gnarled apple tree, while mosquitoes buzzed halfheartedly, dazed by the sun. Daniel's parents made a feast, which we ate with beloved friends. Pork loin marinated in sour cherry juice, salad and corn, cold beer. After the meal, guitars came out, as did this miraculous cake. Four moist layers chock full of poppyseeds, enclosing sweet vanilla custard and slathered in a luxurious pile of whipped cream.

After digesting a while, we piled in the car and drove to Pulaski for our second consecutive day of their Polka Days festival. Four stages, each with a live polka band. Refreshments included bratwurst, blood soup and Milwaukee's best beer. We danced up a storm that night, heels flying, sweating buckets, swinging in circles on increasingly treacherous dance floors.

We came home exhausted, and headed straight for bed. Mostly. I hesitated just a moment before the fridge, contemplating the last slice of cake. Well, I thought, it is my birthday, after all.

Check out the recipe for this amazing cake, after the jump.

Other people's kitchens: Krin's Bakery

Submitted by jen on Fri, 01/20/2012 - 16:55

When I stepped into Krin’s bakery kitchen, I immediately thought of the Keebler elf commercials that made me drool as a seven years old. I’ll explain. Those commercials imagined a world where grocery store cookies are made by charming creatures in hollow forest trees, who lovingly dunk each one in chocolate before sending them to the neighborhood Walmart. Of course, those Fudge Stripe cookies are made by factories in towns like Cincinatti, Ohio, and if anyone touches them at all, you can bet it’s a full grown shift worker.

Krin’s deliciously almondy, salty, chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons are for sale in stores all over this area. While she is known to many, I bet the average customer hasn’t seen her kitchen, in a charming farmhouse at the foot of the Green Mountains. It is every bit as magical as the fictional elf tree. When I stepped inside and got a whiff of the warm, chocolaty air, I thought ,“Really? C’mon.”. Four friendly, lovely women stood at a counter in the spacious kitchen. Irish tunes played softly while they took one macaroon after another, and, well... lovingly dunked them in chocolate. Really. The wooden cabinets glow golden in the morning light. The windows look out towards Camel’s Hump, and the rolling racks are filled with tray after tray of macaroons.

Sometimes, the food on our store shelves really does come from enchanted places. It’s nice to know, and adds a little extra savor to the macaroon that I’m nibbling along with my tea. As head cartoon elf J.J Keebler is fond of saying, it’s “uncommonly good”.

Find a list of stores that carry Krin's treats at her Bakery Website

Single Pebble Project: Black Sesame Cake, with Honeyed Cream

Submitted by jen on Sun, 01/08/2012 - 11:14

I'm back on the horse, testing recipes for local restaurant A Single Pebble, after my last experiment ended in in hilarity and goop; while staying with my in-laws in Wisconsin, I made a Five Spice Flourless Chocolate Cake, then fell down the stairs while carrying the just-glazed confection to the basement fridge. There was cake on the wall and cake on the carpet, but mostly there was cake ALL over me. It exploded, but as my gracious Mother-in-law Mary assured me while scooping some off the floor, it was also delicious.

Putting that behind me, here's a lovely black sesame cake that I made last night for friends, which we ate over games and conversation on a wet, sleety evening. I got the recipe from Alice Medrich's wonderful book "Pure Dessert", and loved the moist texture, the nubbly crunch of black sesame seeds, and the rich flavor that this cake gets from toasted sesame oil. A keeper! Try the recipe, after the jump.

Other people's kitchens: Slow Fire Bakery

Submitted by jen on Thu, 12/29/2011 - 15:19

On a chill December day in Northern Vermont, Slow Fire Bakery is a haven of warmth, the air thick with the rich tang of sourdough. The steamy windows frame a landscape of bare trees, and the cement-grey sky illuminates a bakers’ workbench, raised on cinder blocks and covered with the same fine coating of flour as every surface in the simple room. The space is dominated by the graceful arch of a brick oven which the bakers, Katie Ekstrom and Scott Medellin, built by hand over the summer. While patiently baking in tiny batches at home, they built layer upon layer of bricks; like the naturally leavened breads they bring to the Farmers’ Market each week, the growing oven would not be hurried.

When the cement shell finally cured and hardened, the trickle of pastries and enriched breads that Scott and Katie brought to Saturday market became a torrent of loaves. Their miche, a hearty mix of wheat and rye flours shaped into a substantial round, became a favorite of mine, eaten toasted and slathered with sweet butter and a sprinkle of sea salt. Their diminutive ladybugs- wheat rolls studded with chunks of barely sweet chocolate- are wonderful too, as is the raisin bread, a complex, crusty loaf that redefines the insipid and spongy raisin loaves that line grocery shelves and won’t survive a single dunk in hot tea.

Single Pebble Project: Coconut Flan with Rosebuds and Coriander

Submitted by jen on Fri, 12/23/2011 - 16:14

Baking is a solitary job, but my kitchen is crowded with cooks. I draw much of my inspiration from others’ work, and I love how food can be a glimpse of their lives, a seat at the family table. Propped up in bed, I read cookbooks like novels, and the scents and flavors of each recipe are like characters in the story. In this way, the warm cinnamon in a Spanish stew echoes footsteps left by Andalusian Moors, and the jewel-bright citrus in a holiday cake recalls long-ago pilgrims, returning home from Jerusalem laden with exotic fruits.

So when I have the opportunity to work with a chef, and see what things look like from someone else’s kitchen, I jump at the chance. On a chill, grey, afternoon this December, I sat down with Chef Chiuho Duval, to share a pot of Jasmine tea and to see if we might collaborate on desserts for her restaurant, A Single Pebble, which is acclaimed for it’s traditional Yangtze valley cuisine. After she approached me, my mind began to race through the palette of rich spices that are available to Chinese chefs, and my notebooks filled with scribbled ideas, and sketches of plated sweets.

It was a lovely conversation, and for me, a delightful challenge emerged: to develop a dessert menu to complement the complex and flavorful food that Chiuho’s kitchen serves. Those pages of ideas and pictures have until spring to grow into finished plates but I decided to start right away, with this Coconut Flan, infused with the heady scents of rosebuds and coriander seeds. I wanted a silky, creamy dessert that would be a refreshing balance to a highly spiced, or fiery meal. Coconut is widely used in Chinese cuisine, including in some classic sweets, like the delicious steamed coconut buns that are often served at Dim Sum. Like good cream, fresh, rich coconut milk has a complex, almost floral taste, and I wanted to underscore that with the addition of crushed, dried rosebuds, and coriander seeds, which are beautifully aromatic, and add a haunting flavor to both savories and sweets.

And... it worked. I loved how the flan dissolved on my tongue, and the subtlety of the coriander added an unexpected complexity without overpowering the flavor of the coconut. Click on "Read More" below for the recipe!

Hungry in Atlanta

Submitted by jen on Mon, 11/28/2011 - 10:42

After eating the last fried green tomato, I picked up a chicken thigh and learned that when cooked just right, even bones taste pretty good. Busy Bee Café, I love you.

Atlanta is serious about soul food, and I’d been narrowing down the considerable options since booking my flight to Georgia. I’m all for spontaneity, but there’s only so much fried chicken I can eat in three days, and I didn’t want to take any chances on flavorless breading or dry meat. There was a rare Internet consensus that The Busy Bee Café is where it’s at, so my sister and I headed across town at four in the afternoon, finally hungry after our southern-style breakfast of sausage and biscuits blanketed with pale sausage gravy .

Wedged between a barber shop and a convenience store, The Busy Bee’s frosted glass front is covered with some serious-looking iron bars. When we stepped through the front door, though, we found it homey and welcoming, with cozy booths and a friendly waitress. A specials board announced oxtail soup and peach cobbler, and the tiny room was lined with framed, signed photos of everyone from Jill Scott to Jay-Z. We slid into a booth by the wall and opened menus that read like a story: long-simmered neck bones, chicken giblets in gravy, ham hocks, okra, sweet potatoes... I couldn’t have been happier, though I suspect that in Atlanta, a Yankee is anyone who opens a menu at The Busy Bee Café and thinks “Wow, chitlins!”.

Not that we needed the menu. Fried chicken, corn muffins, collard greens, and fried green tomatoes were the order of the day, washed down with sweet iced tea. The chicken was sublime, piping hot and covered with a crackling, crisp layer of salty, spicy breading. The meat underneath was perfectly moist and so tender it slipped away from the bone if you breathed on it. The fried green tomatoes showed me where I’d gone wrong before (hint: more fried, less tomato), and when I finished mine I was left coveting my sister’s.

After demolishing a bowl of peach cobbler, we left the Busy Bee in a daze, wondering if we’d ever be hungry again. If we are, though... it’s straight back to the Bee.

Hungry in Montreal

Submitted by jen on Thu, 06/16/2011 - 16:37

On a recent visit to Montreal’s Jean Talon market, mounds of glossy fruit vied for attention with languid lobsters, cured sausages on strings, and tidy stockades made from tinned maple syrup. Not to mention the snacks- after wandering the aisles for a bit, we retreated to a corner table with a bowl of sardines, fried whole and full of slight, crunching bones. Dredged in a piquant blend of herbs and flour, they were delicious, and swabbing them in cool, creamy housemade tartar sauce was a perfect balance to their salty taste. The covered market, unlike the tiny fish, went on and on, so after our meal we dove back into the fray of tourists and locals, tasting apples, sidestepping old ladies trailing wheeled market bags, and reveling in the boisterous sounds of Canada’s largest French speaking city.

Every time I come North, I vow to widen my scope, and I have, somewhat. I’ve roamed the gorgeous botanical garden and explored the modern art museum, but my city time is mostly devoted to eating. And wandering. Wandering while eating. Eating, then wandering until I’m caught by an intriguing shop window, or wafting scent.

As much as I try to branch out, Montreal’s street are irresistible to the hungry, itchy footed traveler. The walkable city center is alternately gritty and bustling or leafy and tranquil, with distinctive neighborhoods. The cobblestone lanes of the Vieux Port are lined with classic stone doorways where uniformed touts call out invitations to touristy bistros, switching fluidly between French and English. A kilometer to the North, a Portuguese neighborhood is dotted with smoky rotisserie chicken joints, some blocks sporting several in a row. (hint: go to the one with the line down the block!).

I try to strike a balance between exploring new places, and visiting my favorites- the following are just a few of the spots I like the best in Montreal . I love to start a city day with a sack of Saint Viateur bagels from their tiny bakery on rue Saint Viateur Ouest, where bakers direct a 24-hour landslide of the classic sesame variety from the wood fired oven into long, polished troughs. The shop has no tables, so I take my treats a few blocks down the rue to Café Olimpico, where a latte in a slender drinking glass goes down well while rubbing shoulders with the regulars- a steady stream of old Italians and young hipsters, comfortably sharing tables and mutual taste in tapered pants.

An amazing stop for sweets is Patisserie Kouign Amann, named for the deliciously chewy, sugary, and flaky pastry from Bretagne. The eponymous specialty is the way to go- I’ve never seen kougin amann at any pastry shop outside of France, and even there it’s a bit off the beaten path. Salted butter give the layers a pleasant tang, and it’s covered with a crisp layer of caramel from the dousing of water and sugar that it gets before it goes in the oven. Mmm!

When I tear myself away from the bakeries, I head straight to Chinatown for dumplings. At 1084 Boulevard Saint Laurent, Restaurant Mai Xiang Yuan serves up huge orders, and they are scrumptious! Last weekend I tried the pork and oyster dumplings, which were a wonderful, super umami combination of briny shellfish, and highly spiced ground pork. I had my first jellyfish at Mai Xiang Yuan, too… very chewy, and sort of what I imagined jellyfish would taste like while poking dead ones with a stick. Hmm.

Leaving Montreal in a car littered with crumpled maps and sesame seeds, I always pass a dozen places that tempt me to stop, even while the calm of home beckons. The odds are good that I’ll polish off the bagels before I cross the border, though, and even gross jellyfish salads are hard to come by in Vermont, so I keep my passport handy- I know I’ll be back.

First Farmers' Market!

Submitted by jen on Mon, 05/09/2011 - 05:57

It was cool and dark when I woke up last Saturday morning at 2:30, half an hour before my alarm went off. After a winter of adventures, I was itching to bake, and nervous. I’d been making lists all week and dreaming of windstorms, fallen cakes, and other calamities. When I tied my apron and turned on the ovens, though, I slid easily into the practiced, pre-dawn rhythm of market day. Each movement in order, as the kitchen slowly warms: yeasted doughs set out to proof, scones slid into the hot ovens, followed by tarts, danishes, and brioche.

I fill trays with pastries that are still warm and whispering steam , and fill every bit of my tiny car with tables and tools, strapping what remains to the roof. A little before 8, the first customers arrive, peering down aisles for familiar faces and smells. The predicted rain has turned into the sunniest day of the Spring, and the feel of bright heat on winter skin is deliriously good. Barely dressed UVM students drift around in clumps and children fill the dry fountain.

For all my love of baking, this is my favorite part. I see customers and friends for the first time in months, hear the stories of their winters, and share mine. It is the familiar pleasure of sharing thoughtfully made food, a weekend breakfast open to anyone who stops by. This week, just about everyone did. By 12:30 there were just few lonely pastries remaining, and when I packed up at 2, I didn’t have a thing. To everyone who came, thank you so much for making this years’ first Farmers’ Market so good. Happy Summer.

Sugaring in Vermont Part III: In the Sugarhouse

Submitted by jen on Tue, 03/22/2011 - 18:03

When dusk falls at Dragonfly Sugarworks, the wood-fired evaporator has been roaring for hours and will continue until late in the night. A roiling plume of steam pours upwards, and sparks explode from the chimney into the clear and starry night.

All evening neighbors walk up the dark road, arriving with dogs, children, and bottles of whiskey to stand with us in the sugar house. This is a springtime ritual in Vermont, a way to celebrate the coming warmth, socialize after the relative isolation of winter, and drink hot maple syrup as soon as its made.

Inside the building it is cold and foggy, open on one side to receive pallets of split logs. The evening unspools in repeating loops; every eight minutes, a timer buzzes, and we throw open the heavy door of the stove to feed the intense blaze. We check the sap level and temperature, periodically drawing off sap into a stainless steel drum. Pallets of wood are emptied and refilled, and through the boiling we burn a cord and a half of wood which releases a staggering amount of energy.

Until recently I imagined evaporators as huge soup pots, but the reality is more elegant, the finely tuned result of many long winters' tinkering. The evaporator is a large, flat pan divided into s-shaped troughs filled with increasingly reduced sap which is pushed along by the denser, colder sap trickling in from a covered flue pan. Like the evaporator, the flue pan sits directly over the long, rectangular fire box, and is shaped with deep channels to increase the surface area of the heating sap. When the sap in the flue pan gives off steam, it is collected and channeled into pipes that run through the steam-away, an open vat sitting atop the flue pan. The cold sap pours into the steam-away, and is heated by the waste steam from the flue pan, increasing the efficiency of the evaporation process by about 50%.

For all the beauty of this system, from tapped trees to billowing steam, the revelation is the syrup itself, streaming from a hand operated tap every several minutes. Like spring itself, the syrup changes with day and by whim, a startling expression of the shifting season. Our first days' boiling produced barrels of delicate syrup with a warm buttery taste, and the complex bloom of vanilla. A week later it had taken on a burnished color, and the vanilla was replaced by a robust caramel.

Paul tastes each batch, noting color and flavor in a logbook. A glass bottle of each syrup is set on the window sill in a gorgeous spectrum from pale gold to mahogany, a variegated reminder of the evanescent season. Syrup, like spring, is best approached day by day.

Sugaring in Vermont: Part II

Submitted by jen on Tue, 03/22/2011 - 15:08

We worked our way through the splayed sap lines one tree at a time, until I tapped a spout into the final trunk. We repaired as we best we could, freeing tubes from snow and fallen trees. In the 18 miles of tubing, though, we left behind dozens of small injuries. To find these, Paul turned on the vacuum pump which is used to maintain a steady flow of sap. The pressure, measured in inches of mercury, indicates how tightly sealed the system is- every woodpecker hole and squirrel chew is a vacuum leak. As the pump worked, the pressure rose to a respectable 25; when an uphill line disgorged a plug of ice, the pressure sunk steadily to a paltry 10. Back to the woods.

There are other ways of hunting vacuum leaks, but as we searched for the biggest holes, all we could do was listen. Walk. Listen. Walk. Listen.

The whistling, burbling vacuum leak is unmistakable- follow it to its source to find the damage. Entire sections of line were perforated by neat rows of woodpecker holes. Thirsty squirrels had chewed ragged chunks from the hard-to-see undersides of laterals. At moments when I could not hear the tell-tale sucking air, it felt like a snipe hunt, but a few steps on I’d hear the fluty gurgle of sap and air.

Back at the sugarhouse, the pressure climbed as we repaired lines and replaced fallen taps. The mercury’s verdict? We found quite a few leaks, but left some others for another trip into the sugarbush.

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