I have dirt! Word is Erik Desjarlais is finally ready to open a new restaurant here in Portland! He’s signed a lease in an excellent location (recently vacated – wink, wink, nudge, nudge) and hopes to be up and running in November. I can’t wait!
Here in New England we are lucky to have four distinct seasons (some say six if you count Mud and Bug as separate seasons), each with its own character – both delights and nuicances – and rhythms. And usually by the end of one you begin looking forward to the next. Even Winter holds plenty of charms, as long as you bundle up.
But Autumn is by far my favorite season. Come August each year I’m ready for cooler nights and crisp mornings heavy with dew. The Farmers’ Market starts showing signs first – tomatoes are at their peak and the corn and blueberries make way for early squashes, potatoes and a joyous array of sunflowers. But the highlight of Fall for me is always an afternoon of apple picking (though a day at the Fryeburg or Topsfield Fair is a close second).
T and I took M&L and Li’l P to our favorite local orchard on Sunday. We discovered Doles Orchard in Limington, Maine several years ago. I don’t remember how we found it – it’s quite a bit off the beaten path, but worth searching out if you’re in the area. It sits on top of an open ridge surrounded by the low, rolling hills of Southwestern Maine. They have several varieties of apples (only the Macintosh, Cortland and Macouns were ready for picking), but they also have damson plums, raspberries, strawberries (in season), pigs, chickens, ducks, pumpkin whoopie pies, pumpkins and a hay maze!
It was a perfect September day – perfectly clear, cool breeze and warm sun; the kind of day that makes your soul sing. Have you ever eaten a sun-warm, cool-crisp Macoun right off the tree?
Can you blame Eve, really?
Doles has rows and rows of late season red raspberries. I admit I nibbled on a few.
It’s been quite some time, and I apologize – I’ve been completely out of commission for a while. The last month (it’s been a whole month!) has been a whirlwind. We adopted a wonderful black lab from the local Animal Refuge League and he’s been a welcomed, furry, wagging, stinky, licking, snoring, chewing, chasing and totally irresistible distraction from our regular routine. And then our poor old electric stove died after a long and storied life and so, even if I’d wanted to bake – or cook, I couldn’t have anyway.
But as of today, thanks to the generosity and graciousness of my in-laws, we have a brand new gas stove! Huzzah! So expect the baking to begin again in earnest soon. Right after I feed the dog, take him for a walk and give him lots and lots and lots of love.
We had some friends over on Sunday night for a somewhat impromptu pot-luck Chinese New Year dinner. I say impromptu when what I really mean is that we are just a bunch of white folks who know nothing at all but will pounce on any excuse to get together and eat. I’m sure we broke more than a few rules of cultural and culinary authenticity, but the food was good and we had fun welcoming in the Year of the Golden Pig in our own way.
On the menu was wonton soup, ma po tofu, cold sesame noodles, a wok-braised whole striped bass (props to Blake at The Paupered Chef for giving me the courage to try cooking a whole fish), and these very happy endings:
The recipe is based on a Chocolate Five Spice Cake recipe from Epicurious.com but I’ve added a little bit of flour and baking powder to give the cupcakes a lighter and slightly loftier texture. The baking method in this recipe may seem a bit unorthodox but it works.
Chocolate Five Spice Cupcakes with Ginger Buttercream Frosting
makes 24 cupcakes
I absolutely love Tartine‘s shortbread recipe (the same one I used to make the lavender shortbread). It’s quick and easy and the result is a cookie that’s light and crumbly but still soft and somewhat moist. Just the ticket when you want a little something sweet, but not too sweet. I actually use tapioca starch instead of cornstarch because I like the consistency better and I think the flavor is a little cleaner. But since this can be hard to come by (look for it in your local Asian markets) I’ve listed cornstarch here instead.
Pistachio Meyer Lemon Shortbread
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (255 g) unsalted butter, very soft
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup (70 g) granulated sugar
zest of two Meyer lemons
1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (255 g) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (75 g) cornstarch
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pistachios
superfine or granulated sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Butter a 6 x 10-inch glass baking dish and line with parchment paper wide enough to hang over the sides.
Add the butter and salt to the bowl of your mixer and whip on high speed until the butter is the consistency of mayonnaise (this may take several minutes, depending on how soft the butter is and how warm your kitchen is). Add the granulated sugar and lemon zest and mix until just combined.
Sift the flour and cornstarch together in a bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and stir on low speed until a smooth dough forms. Add the pistachios and stir to combine.
Pat the dough evenly into the prepared baking dish (about 2/3-inch deep) and smooth the top. Bake until the top and bottom are very lightly browned, about 30 to 40 minutes.
Let cool on a wire rack until warm to the touch. Sprinkle the shortbread with superfine or granulated sugar, tilting the pan so that the sugar fully and evenly coats the surface (tap out any excess). Remove the shortbread from the pan by carefully lifting up on the parchment paper hanging over the sides. With a very thin, sharp knife cut the shortbread into thin rectangles and allow to cool completely before serving.
T’s nephew is either a genius or a madman in the making. Or both. This is his invention and I love it. It’s brilliant.
T’s sister has a very good rule when it comes to dinner and it’s a simple one: This is dinner. If you don’t like it, make something else. And that’s a tough line to draw in the sand with a houseful of hungry boys. And Jake, bless his twisted little heart, has never, ever liked meat – raw vegetables and cheese are his thing. And that’s not entirely bad, but there’s more. Sara can’t keep an herb garden because Jake will idly graze all the tasty green off the plants in no time. He eats garlic cloves raw. He eats onions raw. That’s the madman part.
So needless to say this eight year-old knows his way around the kitchen and, better, he’s fearless about it. Here comes the genius part.
We were at their house sometime almost two years ago and Jake (he would have been six at the time) had finished picking through what he could of the meal. It was a big family gathering and there must have been a roast beast of some sort. It might have been Easter. He fidgeted for a while and then asked if he could be excused to go make something else to eat.
“Okay Jake,” his mom said. “But no more garlic. You’ve had enough garlic already today.”
He began chopping away on the cutting board, unsupervised, which would have been a recipe for disaster if Jake was less experienced already and Sara’s knives were any sharper than butter knives. But they are not. And so he chopped away and out of site while everyone else ate and chatted in the next room. When he was satisfied he brought his concoction to the table and sat down again with a grin on his face.
There on the cutting board was a careful mash of fresh strawberries and rosemary. Six years old, this kid. Most everyone at the table made a sort of wide-eyed blank face as if to say, ‘that is one odd duck, but he’s family so I’d better not say it out loud.’ But I thought, ‘wait a minute – that sounds good.’ So I asked him if I could have a taste.
He said, “okay.” It was good. It was damn good.
I said, “Jake, you little genius! This is great! Can I make a suggestion?” The family was a bit incredulous, but silent.
“Try adding a little bit of sugar. It will bring out more flavor and create a little sauce to make it smoother – like jam.”
“Okay,” he said. “Come help me.”
So I did. We added some sugar and he chopped it up some more. And we tasted it and decided it needed a little more. When we were both satisfied (I think he would have preferred less sugar or none at all but he was humoring me) we put it into a small bowl and brought it to the table.
“Try it everyone,” I said. “It’s really good!” So they did and they were surprised. It was delicious. Jake was beaming.
With all the bread-baking I’ve been doing lately and the Meyer lemon marmalade almost gone, I decided I needed to make some more jam. And with so much sourdough around, Jake’s Straw-mary Jam seemed like just the thing. I’d frozen several quarts of the most beautiful local strawberries last June for exactly this purpose. I can’t give you the recipe because it’s a secret between Jake and me. But I’m sure you can figure it out if you try. And you should try. It’s genius.
Sourdough is magic. Seriously. Sure, you can patiently explain to me that there are unseen multitudes of wild yeasts and tasty bacteria everywhere (germophobes beware – you just swallowed a couple thousand million) and that the process of attracting and using them to leaven bread is very simple, really. Fine. But c’mon – it’s still magic. Like turning barley and water into beer and grape juice into wine. Or for that matter, warmed and shaken milk into cheese and bee poop into honey. Glorious, lip-smacking, life-giving, invisible happy magic. Thank you kindly, but you can keep your science to yourself.
I didn’t used to like sourdough, actually. I thought it was too, well… sour. The fault, I’ve come to understand, didn’t necessarily lie with the bread; it was the baker’s problem. But I’ve since discovered how good sourdough can be and now I’m a full-fledged fan. However, I have to admit that I’ve only come to truly appreciate how special sourdough is through the process of making and maintaining my own sourdough starter and then tasting the first slice from the first loaf of my very own home-made sourdough bread. Just like eating a slice of fresh and still sun-warm tomato from your own garden sprinkled with a little coarse salt. Or swallowing that first big gulp of your own home-brewed beer. The energy and care you put into it with your own blood, sweat and tears adds a certain, um, magic.
Some time ago my friend L gave me a jar of her family’s generations-old sourdough starter (San Francisco natives, they are) and I dutifully put it in the fridge and then did nothing with it. Shame on me. When she later asked about it I huffed and puffed and tried regurgitating some of the science that I’d learned at the CIA about how you can take a San Francisco starter and ship it anywhere in the world, but sooner or later those particularly tasty San Francisco wild yeasts and bacteria will be replaced by the local denizens and that eventually there will be nothing of the original left. And so, I tried to convince her, what she gave me was really nothing special. I know, I know. Shame on me. She was having none of it and, to her credit, she still speaks to me.
Science may be right, but it’s only part of the truth. Science leaves no room for the magical and mysterious in its vision of the world. And it’s exactly the magic and mystery that makes sourdough bread so special. And for L and her family, it’s also the heritage. Her family’s starter is like a shared memory carefully told and retold, each generation adding its own special touch and character.
I started my very own sourdough starter on New Year’s Day of this year. Since then I’ve been reasonably diligent about dividing it and feeding it, but I’ve been nervous about taking the next step. This past Sunday, I finally put aside my fears and made my first successful batch of sourdough bread. I read something on some food blog (I don’t remember now whose it was) that has stuck with me over the last month and a half. The author said he liked the idea that his own sourdough starter had developed from the collection of wild yeasts and bacteria unique to, not only his part of the world, but even to own house – and that, as a result, his sourdough bread tasted like his kitchen and all the things he keeps, cooks and eats there. Honestly, I’m not sure anyone among us could actually taste the difference, but I do like the idea. Don’t you?
Forgive me L, I just didn’t understand. But I get it now.