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Posts from the ‘sweets’ Category

fruit and nut scones

There’s nothing like handing out Halloween candy to kids in your old neighborhood to make you feel like a grown-up. Home alone with a giant bowl of Kit Kats and a half-buffered stream of my favorite sitcom, it seemed I’d skipped my twenties and landed squarely in old age. So I threw in the towel and made scones.

And, to be honest, indulged in a little food philosophizing. I mentioned the idea of “good food” in my last post, and it turns out that’s a bit of a topic at the moment (at least if you are, as I am, a shameless slave to New York Times op-eds). But while food can taste good, it can’t be good. Food isn’t moral in that way, because then we’d be expecting it to fill hungers it can’t.

The truth is, you can’t grow a great tomato in a hothouse. The truth is also that genetically modified crops feed farmers and their families who would otherwise starve when ordinary seeds wither in droughts that worsen every year. But when we talk about what food can give us beyond mere nutrition (which is important – we’d die without it) we’re really talking about ritual. Yes, I love walking into my parent’s garden and eating warm figs straight off the tree every morning in summer. But I also loved Thursday nights at JJ’s Place and their suspiciously frothy fro-yo. I loved bottles of Lagunitas IPA on the farm, and driving with my college boyfriend’s mom to Chick-fil-A. I love my family’s flaming Christmas pudding every year on Christmas Eve, and a pot of Five Roses every three hours with my dad when we’re both working from home. It pains me to say it, but I might even be looking forward to gingerbread lattes.

It’s the ritual that gives meaning to the food, not the food that somehow gives us meaning. That’s why we eat those awful frosted, lettered cakes at birthdays and graduations, and that’s why we take communion.  Food tastes wonderful and keeps us alive, but whether you’re a maize farmer in Tanzania or a silly food philosophizer like me, it’s the ritual associated with food that truly makes it meaningful.

Fruit and Nut Scones

I adapted the recipe for these scones and always encourage substitutions – I love almonds and dried apricots in everything from sweets to curries, but feel free to use whatever trail mix mix-ins your pantry offers.

1 cup raisins

1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped

3/4 cup whole wheat flour

3/4 cup oat flour (or all-purpose flour)

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

pinch salt

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 1/4 cups rolled oats

1 stick of butter

3/4 cups roasted almonds

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/3 cup Greek yogurt

1/3 cup milk

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place raisins and apricots in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak for 5-10 minutes, then drain and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, brown sugar and oats. Cut butter into small pieces and rub into dry ingredients with your fingers (trust me – this step is key for that delicious flakiness). Stir in dried fruit, almonds and sunflower seeds, then add yogurt. Add the milk a little bit at a time (using more if necessary) until you have a dough that just holds together.

Place dough on a floured surface and shape into a square that’s one inch thick. Cut the dough into squares and then triangles (you can make them smaller if you’d like), then place scones on cookie sheets and bake for 25-30 minutes.

mayan spiced dark chocolate ice cream

You know it’s been a good 10 days when you’ve made five consecutive batches of ice cream and the freezer is empty.

It began with a friend in training for a half-marathon and a recipe for gorgonzola dolce ice cream with candied walnuts. Ready to indulge after our run we took to the kitchen with milk, cream, sugar, and a small but very expensive slice of cheese, only to have the base boil over during a moment of enthusiastic negligence. I should mention here that Lauren and I are optimists by trade, the kind who declare that burnt walnuts are “masked by the gorgonzola,” and ice cream that refuses to thicken “just needs another hour in the freezer.” After two hours it was still sweet, delicious sludge, but we slurped every last drop from the Tupperware in five minutes flat.

I’ve learned a few things about “optimistic cooking.” It frequently involves substitutions, additions and overhauls. It renders recipes suggestive rather than imperative (“this was supposed to be made yesterday and sit overnight? I can put it in the fridge for an hour…”) and it infuriates the precise cooks among us (“you mean you only have one tablespoon of cream cheese? This calls for three!”). The outcomes generally waver between mediocre and transcendent. In my own optimistic way I’ve come to see it as a metaphor: even when you follow a recipe to the Nth degree, sometimes it still turns out wrong. In food as in life we have no ultimate control, and that can be annoying, terrifying or the source of all our best discoveries.

So it was that I began making chocolate ice cream (“The Darkest Chocolate Ice Cream in the World,” if you must know) only to realize I didn’t have nearly enough cocoa. What I did have was a packet of Mayan cocoa, a blend of the original with chilies and cinnamon. With a small (mental) shrug I made the switch, and when I tasted the results I made a rather earth-shattering discovery—I am no longer a vanilla person. Chocolate ice cream this good necessitated a second batch, then a third. It was consumed alone (guiltily from the Tupperware) and with Lauren (from the Tupperware, but not as guiltily—oh the joys of friendship!). And it led to a small epiphany—ice cream can get you far (say, re-tweeted by your favorite celebrity) but optimism can get you farther.

Mayan Spiced Dark Chocolate Ice Cream

My favorite cookbook of last year? Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home (yes, this is probably the fourth time I’ve mentioned it). I adapted her recipe for “The Darkest Chocolate Ice Cream in the World” using Mayan spiced cocoa, but you can use good quality unsweetened cocoa with cinnamon and cayenne or ground Mexican chiles. And in case you’re wondering where that beautiful slab of chocolate comes from… Trufflehound’s in Ventura is my new favorite spot!

For the chocolate syrup:

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/4 cup Mayan cocoa powder (unsweetened cocoa plus a teaspoon of cinnamon and cayenne or chile powder to taste)

1/2 cup brewed coffee

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 1/2 ounces dark chocolate (I like 70-85%)

3 Tbsp. cream cheese. softened

For the ice cream base:

1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. cornstarch

2 cups milk

1 cup heavy cream

pinch of salt

1/3 cup brown sugar

To make the chocolate syrup, combine the regular cocoa powder, Mayan cocoa powder,  brewed coffee and brown sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat and boil for 30 seconds, stirring frequently until thick. Turn off heat and break the chocolate into the sauce, letting the pieces sit for a minute or so until they melt. Whisk the sauce until smooth. Pour into a large bowl and add the cream cheese, stirring until completely combined.

To make the ice cream base, dissolve the cornstarch in 2 tablespoons of milk in a small bowl. Combine the milk, cream, salt and brown sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. When the mixture begins to bubble, set a timing for four minutes and simmer while stirring to prevent the base from boiling over. After four minutes turn off the heat and add the cornstarch, then return to a boil for one minute more. Pour the hot milk mixture into the bowl with the chocolate syrup and whisk to combine.

Chill the ice cream base until completely cold, then freeze in your ice cream maker. Store in the freezer, and beware of cracking the bottom of the Tupperware as you dig for the last few bites.

coconut granola cookies with toasted nuts

I’ve always liked the phrase creature of habit. Something about it conjures an image akin to a Beatrix Potter sketch, with a pleasantly chubby rabbit or beaver (dressed in an apron, of course) boiling a kettle in some snug underground kitchen.  I experienced the same pang of fellow feeling with hobbits when I read J. R. R. Tolkien—I too enjoy “elevensies” between breakfast and lunch, I too nestle close to home and cast a beady, suspicious eye on those who spurn routine. I guard my habits with fierceness and delight; the warm and soft-furred can have sharp little teeth.

I’ve been thinking about food habits lately because I suspect they are one of my long-term sources of happiness. Boyfriends come and go, I’ve lived on 12 square feet and 24 acres, but I always have mint chip ice cream at the harbor, Bolognese at the local trattoria, artichokes on my pizza. I stick with the same breakfast cereal for months, sometimes years. I can eat a giant pot of mole for days on end. For several months I religiously ate raw purple cabbage, relishing the spicy sweetness and the fact that no one stole it from the fridge.

Of course habits can have a nasty side when–God forbid–there’s no milk in the fridge at 6:30 a.m. A particularly low point came when I found myself sobbing into my cell phone next to an uncooperative ATM, 15 minutes late for class and unable to buy the jasmine honey bubble tea I looked forward to every Tuesday night. “Can you please bring me some cash right now?” I choked between tears, eyeing the bills someone was stuffing into their wallet next to me. I have only myself to blame that the bubble tea habit outlasted that relationship.

In the end, habits are like food—they’re meant to be savored, not idealized. There’s substantial, everyday pleasure to be had in a favorite dish, a Saturday morning café au lait, a daily “elevensies,” even if it’s just almonds. I feel a reliable surge of happiness just thinking about my morning bowl of cereal. Maybe, I think, this afternoon I’ll bake something new. Or maybe I’ll just make another batch of these.

Coconut Granola Cookies with Toasted Nuts

These cookies were inspired by my all-time favorite granola, a childhood treat from the Zinc Cafe in Laguna Beach.

1/3 cup shredded coconut

1/3 cup slivered almonds

1/3 cup pecan halves

1/2 cup coconut oil

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

3/4 cup flour

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1 Tbsp. orange zest

1 1/2 cups oats

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the shredded coconut, slivered almonds and pecan halves on a baking tray and toast until brown, a couple of minutes for the coconut and several more for the nuts. Set aside to cool.

In the meantime, beat together the coconut oil and brown sugar, then add the egg and vanilla. Mix the flour with the baking soda and salt and stir into wet mixture. Add the oats and orange zest, then gently mix in the toasted coconut and nuts.

Place balls of mix on a cookie sheet and flatten slightly, then bake at 350 degrees until cookies are golden but still chewy, about 10 minutes. Cool and enjoy!

papaya lime smoothie with watermelon

I was married after dinner on Monday night. The veil was cotton and gauzy, my wedding dress an embroidered velvet cloak. My groom–a nervous Chinese tourist–sweated next to me as dancers pounded the stage in front of us, and when the musical number drew to a close I was paraded around the room–on piggy-back no less–by my new husband’s best man. What can I say? At least the food was good.

Getting roped into a comedic mock-wedding at an Addis Ababa restaurant was one of many adventures I had in Ethiopia, a country I found myself exploring just 10 days after starting my new job. I saw Lammergeiers and endemic wolves. I careened around a city with lovely roads but no traffic lights (they really do matter). I drank coffee so strong it challenged my high tolerance for bitterness, honed by a love of 90% dark chocolate. And I ate many, many rolls of injera.

With the texture of a spongy crepe and the taste of strong sourdough, injera functions as staple food and utensil alike. Enormous platters of the fermented bread arrive topped with meats, vegetables and rich sauces, and when your injera rolls are done you proceed directly to the saturated remains that constitute your plate. Ethiopians possess a strong cultural identity–every driver listens to his cassette of wailing songs, every conversation is carried on in streams of Amharic, every restaurant serves injera. Addis Ababa is frenetic, a maze of concrete construction and “shortcut” alleys our taxi could barely squeeze through without running over someone’s pet (or dinner, if you happen to like lamb). But out in the countryside, where rare birds alight on telephone poles and the mountains break onto vistas of the fertile valleys below, it is easy to see what Ethiopians are proud of.

Ethiopian cuisine is a worthy source of pride too: evenings I ate my injera with relish, and breakfasts were just as much an occasion to anticipate. Enormous pitchers of freshly blended “mixed fruits juice” sat on the table, and once home I was determined to recreate the blend of tropical fruit, its sweetness cut with lime. You can add or subtract to my recipe as you wish, and though I always considered myself a frozen smoothie sort of person–I enjoy a good brain freeze on a summer day–I actually like having this at room temperature. It may take me awhile to master injera (tracking down teff flour alone can be a challenge) but now I can bring at least a bit of culinary Ethiopia into my kitchen at home.

Papaya Lime Smoothie with Watermelon

1/2 ripe papaya

5 large cubes watermelon

juice of 1 small lime

1/4 cup water

Add the fruit and lime juice to a blender and blend well, then add water bit by bit to thin to your desired consistency and enjoy!

lemon cardamom soufflé

Before I launch into my usual ramblings, I want to take some time to thank everyone who responded on my blog or via email to my Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times last week. As a writer (a title I’m slowly working up the courage to claim for myself) I’ve always felt that no experience is wasted—moments of discomfort or hilarity or tenderness tend to crop up wherever you go. Your job is merely to record with honesty and a bit of panache, and the more I read good writing the more I realize that the things that are true to you are often true to human experience. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about opening myself to the stigma that comes with moving back home, and the piece did provoke a number of spirited retorts on the comments page. But the generous and encouraging messages I received from people of both my generation and my parents’ left me grateful not only for the family I am privileged to live with, but for the comforting knowledge that like-minded friends are to be found around the world.

Everything I learned about throwing a good dinner party I learned from my parents. My sister and I would secretly gripe about my mother’s admonishments to “serve the guests a drink” or my father’s absolute refusal to have anything plastic on the table, but now that I’m older I see the merits of scooping hummus out of its container into a white china bowl. The washing-up into which I was conscripted at the end of the meal felt insurmountable at 10:30 p.m., but it wasn’t long before I equated the soapy water with the pleasure of culinary success, the guests’ laughter echoing from the dining room as my mother and I did the dishes while assembling the dessert.

Making the final course was my first foray into the cooking side of our dinner parties, and I was determined to make my mark. No surprise then that I hadn’t yet learned the foremost truth of dinner party desserts: the simplest are the most impressive. Woefully under the impression that fussy is fabulous, I held up our annual New Year’s feast trying to dislodge miniature chocolate lava cakes from individual rubber molds, bursting into tears when one after the other broke into a pool of gooey chocolate on the cutting board. I took the lesson to heart, and now my dessert repertoire includes a five-ingredient fruit crumble, a delicious no-custard ice cream, and this beautiful recipe for lemon soufflé.

Lemon Cardamom Soufflé

Lemon desserts are very popular with my family, and this soufflé has it all: a fluffy light meringue that tops a velvety lemon curd (feel free to adjust the amount of lemon zest and juice for your preferred level of citrusy zing). The bottom will be quite liquidy when just cooked, but never fear–it will thicken up as the soufflé cools.

2/3 cup flour

1/2 cup sugar

zest of 3 lemons

1/3 cup cold water

2 cups milk

4 eggs

2 Tbsp. melted butter

juice of 3 lemons

1 vanilla bean

1/2 tsp. cardamom, freshly ground

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar and lemon zest. Stir in the water and milk. Separate the eggs and beat the yolks until thick, then add to the flour mixture with the melted butter and lemon juice. Slice open the vanilla bean and scrape into the batter, then add freshly ground cardamom.

Beat the whites until they are just firm enough to hold a peak, then fold gently into soufflé batter until combined. Pour batter into a large ceramic dish (circular or rectangular), then stand dish in a pan filled with an inch or so of hot water. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until top is puffed and golden and bottom is still custardy and gooey. Serve warm.

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