cookie cakes and the disappearance of December

January 24, 2013  |  Food  |  ,  |  No Comments

Of the ten or so recipes I have scribbled down into a little journal of my favourites – the ones I keep coming back to and want to always have handy – Mexican Wedding Cakes are on the second page.  This is a testament to both how much I love them and how bad I’ve gotten at writing things by hand.

Mexican Wedding Cakes are the cookies I make for Christmas, or for coffee, or when I want to make something sweet but don’t want to get groceries – they come together quickly and their brief ingredient list is about as basic and they come.

For the handful of times I’ve visited that colorful and delicious country, I’ve never seen a Mexican Wedding Cake in Mexico, and while I’m certainly just a fan of and not an expert on Mexican food, the internet tells me these cookies also roll by names like ‘Russian Tea Cakes’, ‘Italian Butter Nut’, ‘Pecan Butterballs’, ‘Viennese Sugar Ball’ and ‘Snowballs’.  If you’ve had them I think you’ll agree that, although it is curious that they are referred to as cake when they are clearly very cookie, their name or provenance is less important than the fact that they can and should be a part of your life in a big way.  These are page two cookies, the kind that belong just behind that one recipe your grandma, or uncle, or best friend makes that takes the gold star in your book.  I got to know them many years ago through Capers Community Market, a small organic grocery chain that had a rocking bakery and deli section and put stars in the eyes of many Vancouverites until it was bought out by Whole Foods.  While the new shops still have pretty nice bakeries, Mexican Wedding Cakes were what I would always go for, the thing that would bring me in the doors in the first place, and for some reason they seem to have been laid off in the transition. Luckily, as I mentioned, they are about as easy as anything to make at home.

I always find January a bit of an awkward month to tumble into.  As the holidays end, talk of poultry and pies turn into salads and detoxes.  People visiting go back to where they came from – or the other way around if you are a person visiting, as I was – and the blur of happy reunions and alarm-clock-free living is suddenly gone.  January is that month, the one that shows up just a little too early, too bright eyed and ready to go.  And while I realise it’s almost come and gone now, I wish I could kindly ask January to cool its jets because my thoughts are still taken with snowshoeing and holiday cookies.

So, when I was invited for dinner to an Italian friend’s house last Sunday, I decided to make this fast and favourite cookie.  Yet, despite the number of times I’ve mentioned above how easy these come together, I was pressed for time and took some shortcuts.  Instead of toasting and grinding the nuts (walnuts or hazelnuts are particularly excellent) I used blanched, ground almonds.  To compensate for the loss of that toasty, nutty flavour, I decided to brown the butter which, conveniently, also meant I wouldn’t need to let it soften. Then, thinking of the Italian dinner ahead and taking inspiration from a favourite biscotti, I threw in some chopped dark chocolate, dried cranberries and flaked coconut.  The reaction I got from my friends – who had just floored me with an impressive spread that began with homemade piadina – was so through-the-roof that I thought it might be a good idea to put this version of the cookie up here.

Brown Butter Mexican Wedding Cakes
adapted from here

1 cup butter

1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup ground almonds
100 grams dark chocolate, chopped into about 1cm chunks (optional)
1/2 cup dried cranberries (optional)
1/2 cup flaked coconut (optional)

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
a generous pinch of cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F / 175 °C.  To brown the butter in the oven as it preheats, place it in a heatproof bowl near the bottom of the oven. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn, and remove once butter is melted, smells slightly nutty and has small flecks of brown on the surface. Depending on how fast your oven preheats, this should take around 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the next 3 ingredients together in a large bowl until well combined.  Mix in chocolate, cranberries, and coconut if using.  Stir melted butter and vanilla extract into flour and nut mixture until just combined. Divide dough into 2 balls, wrap separately in plastic and place in freezer for 10 minutes.

In a pie plate or bowl, mix together the rest of the powdered sugar and the cinnamon. Set aside.

Remove half of chilled dough and transfer the other half to the frigde.  Taking scoops of about 1 tablespoon of dough, roll into balls and place evenly on a baking sheet, spacing them out by an inch.  Bake for about 20 minutes until slightly golden brown colored.  Let the cookies cool for 5 minutes (they should still be warm) and then roll in the sugar and cinnamon mixture, then set cookies aside to cool completely. Note : the sugar will melt slightly and transform to the texture of heaven.  This may be the best part of the cookie.

Repeat with remaining dough.

Before serving, sift remaining sugar over cookies.

gallo pinto with fried bananas

December 7, 2012  |  Food  |  , , ,  |  No Comments

There are days when nothing hit’s the spot like a cold, raw banana chopped into a bowl of müsli and yogurt.

These are not those days.

Berlin has been devoured by snow.   I walked home two nights ago in a slippery, frosty city and woke up to one that was blanketed in that precious, brief white fluff, the type that all too quickly changes (for the worse) in colour and texture.  Thick, premium snowflakes tumbled in slow motion from the soft gray above.  These days do not come often, and they do not last long.

These days, bananas should be fried.

while I’m offering unsolicited advice, I would also add that :
*jackets should be thick
*hair should NOT be wet
*socks should be wool
*those bananas should be eaten with beans before facing the world outside

I can’t remember when I first tried Gallo Pinto, or frankly, why I don’t make it more often, but basically all you need to do is warm up some cooked black beans and rice with the thick, savoury broth from cooking the beans and some fried onions and cilantro, gently fry some bananas in butter, and serve.  You could, if you wanted, add some cumin or tomato paste or turmeric or chopped jalapeño to the beans and rice.  You could, too, add some maple syrup and flaked salt to the bananas as they caramelize.  There would be nothing wrong with that.   But there is something perfectly comforting about the salt-and-pepper simplicity of this dish that I prefer just as is.

Gallo Pinto with Fried Bananas

serves 4

notes:
Although the texture of cooked dried beans is nicer here, canned beans would work too – just keep the liquid from the can.
I used long grain brown rice, but basically any type of rice would work, leftovers included.

3 cups cooked rice
4 cups cooked black beans, drained but with cooking liquid reserved ( rice, leftovers included, would work)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 cup chopped cilantro
salt and pepper to taste

4 bananas, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise

a few pats of butter (or coconut oil)

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and then add the onions, stirring every so often to prevent sticking until onion becomes translucent, 5-7 minutes.  Add half of the cilantro and season with some salt and pepper.  Cook until the cilantro softens and becomes fragrant, then add the cooked rice and beans.  add about 1 cup of bean broth and let everything cook until the liquid is soaked up.  Keep adding liquid one cup at a time as necessary – you want a texture that isn’t quite mushy, but is dancing in that direction.  If you run out of bean broth, use water instead.  Once the beans and rice are hot and have reached desired softness, remove from heat and set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt about 2 tablespoons of butter.   Once the butter is hot and starts to smell like butter, add the banans face down, and let them cook until slightly caramelised.  It should take a few minutes, but you will need to lift a bit of banana to peek under and check progress.   Then, gently flip the bananas to caramelise on the other side.  (They will be quite soft, so if you want them to stay whole, be careful with this step.   Of course, they will taste just as good if they break apart, though, so don’t worry too much.)  If all 8 banana slices don’t comfortably fit in your pan at once, simply fry half at a time and repeat as need.

To serve, divide the beans and rice between four plates, place 2 slices of banana on each bean mountain and sprinkle with the rest of the cilantro.

commited to pickles

December 4, 2012  |  Food, Travel  |  , ,  |  2 Comments

Tucked into a lush, green corner of the German province of Brandenburg, just an hour outside of Berlin on the train, there is a web of canals called Spreewald.

Spreewald.

It is a place I might well have dreamed up.  A place commited to pickles.

Arriving to the town of Lübbenau, you will be pleasantly charmed by many things.  There is a castle, and there is a small town square full of stands selling  pickles.  Some bread, some beer, and some pastries too, but mostly pickles.  On the canals, there are boats full of comfortably seated passengers admiring the forests and towns they are slowly floating through as they are paddled by someone standing at the back of the boat, not unlike a Venetian gondolier.  There is even a pickle museum, a rickety wood hut full of dresses and beds, with walls covered in recipes for a dozen different kinds of pickles and one for pickle soup.

That is all very nice. I mean really, very nice.  But what really made my head spin in Spreewald was something we found after getting lost on the water.

If you ever find yourself in Spreewald and you too are a pickle lover, I suggest you rent a kayak; then, paddle slowly through the tiny canals that lace through the edge of the town, and with a bit more muscle and gusto as you reach the wider passages that curve through the quiet forests.  As you get deeper in, further away from any buidlings and any sounds not originating from a bird or the water (or your cell phone), you will run across the occasional sign like the one pictured above.  In your kayak, you might find a map like the one pictured below.

Still, in all likelihood,  as you paddle yourself deeper into the swamp-like nowhere and soak up all the green with your city eyes, you will get utterly lost.  And, with any luck, you will stumble upon the gold, the source of the aforementioned head-spinning, a place of worship for those who pray to the gods of vinegar. If you were in Cancun, you might swim up to something similar in a neon bikini and order a piña colada.  But here, you are wearing flannel, and you maneuver your kayak as best as you can to slowly dock against a small shack floating on the edge of a canal and order a paper plate full of pickles.  Pickled cucumber in all shapes and inclinations, be it dill, garlic, mustard, onion, or black pepper.  Pickled red peppers, pickled cauliflower, and if you are to believe your eyes and taste buds, pickle-scented beer (very sweet and vaguely hinting at the taste of pickle brine, we were told that this beer was for the ladies).

I came back from Spreewald with a good supply of pickles and high hopes of trying some of the recipes from the pickle museum.  But in Berlin, you can buy Spreewald pickles almost anywhere you can buy milk.  They are excellent, superior pickles, crispy and not as excessively sweet as most of the supermarket pickles I’ve tried here, and I am at my most content when my fridge is full of them.  But when I get to pickling myself, I usually end up keen to try something new, something non-cucumber and something I haven’t tasted before.  So, while I can’t vouch for the salty pickle recipe photographed above, I can sing a sour song about the recipes below, black pepper pickled fennel and orange, pickled grapes with mustard seed, and tumeric brightened zuchinni pickles, each unusual and versatile in their own way.

These three recipes use the same general method, but their flavours and textures are wildly different.  If it’s a vegetable, you salt it to bring out the water.  Then, in a medium saucepan, you heat the vinegar with sugar and spices until it comes to a boil, lower the heat and let simmer for a few minutes.  Let the brine cool down until it’s just warm (if it’s too hot, it will cook whatever it’s being poured on, and some crispness will be lost).  Pour the warm brine over the soon-to-be pickles, then scoop into clean jars and let sit overnight to pickle.  Then, dig in.

These pickles will all keep for a few months in the fridge, and will get stronger as time passes.  I find them best within the first week.

yield : about 2 pints

Black Pepper Pickled Fennel with Orange
adapted from here and here

2 large fennel bulbs, washed, trimmed and sliced thin (about 2cm)
2 tablespoons salt
1 orange, thoroughly washed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
2 cups apple cider vinegar

In a large bowl, toss the fennel with the salt.  Add very cold water to cover the fenel, just barely.  Let it sit for an hour, rinse, drain, and thoroughly dry the fennel and the bowl.  Cut the orange into quaters and then slice thinly.  Add them to the bowl with the fennel and proceed with the brine as described above.

Zuchinni Pickles
from Judy Rogers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook

1 pound zucchini (medium-smallish), trimmed and sliced very thin (about 1 cm)

1 small yellow onion, peeled and sliced very thin
3 tablespoons salt
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 scant cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard (I often use a spicy yellow wet mustard if I don’t have dry mustard handy)
1 1/2 teaspoons crushed yellow and/or brown mustard seeds
scant 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

In a large bowl, toss onion and zuchinni with salt.  Add very cold water to cover the vegetables, just barely.  Let it sit for an hour, rinse, drain, and thoroughly dry the vegetables and the bowl.  Proceed with the brine as described above.

Pickled Grapes
From Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life

1 pound red or black grapes, preferably seedless
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons brown mustard seends
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 (2 1/2-inch) cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon salt

Rinse and dry the grapes, then gently remove them from the stems and trim off what Molly refers to as the ‘belly buttons’ to expose a bit of the grape’s flesh.  Put them in a medium-sized bowl and set aside.  Proceed with the brine as described above.

homemade hoisin sauce and spicy green beans

August 26, 2012  |  Food  |  ,  |  1 Comment

I’m here, on this long-forgotten blog, to talk about hoisin sauce.  My hope is that I don’t forget about this stuff.  I mean, I know I won’t forget about hoisin sauce itself, but I hope I don’t forget how to make it.

When I updated this blog more regularly, it was nice having a place to check back on things I liked, a place where I knew I’d stashed a few things I found particularly stash-worthy.

I miss that.

And, when I tasted this sauce today and realized I had finally nailed it, I thought it might be good to stash it here.

I don’t generally buy too many condiments, since many of them are so full of sugar and preservatives – I find that I am a better person when I avoid keeping that sort of thing in my fridge.  But hoisin sauce is something I’ve always made an exception for. The sticky dark sauce that masterfully balances supersweet with addictively salty is something I really like having around.  It’s fantastic in stir-fries or mixed into soups, I like it on most sandwiches, and I love dipping slices of cucumber or radish in it.  My favorite way to use hoisin sauce is in a szechuan style spicy green bean dish, something I would always order at dim-sum restaurants in Vancouver and have now, due to circumstance and geography, started making myself.

Amazingly, hoisin sauce is so simple (and much healthier) to make at home.  I guess this recipe, accordingly to my condiment logic, makes me a better person.  Basically, you tear up some soft dates, remove their pits, and then put them in a bowl with chopped ginger and garlic, soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil.

Then you puree it all until you’re left with is a smooth paste that is entirely un-photogentic.  But taste the stuff now.  I think you’ll agree that its looks are forgivable.

Homemade Hoisin Sauce

Note: I played around a bit until I got to this recipe, and along the way I tried using maple syrup and honey instead of the dates and peanut butter instead of the tahini.  This recipe below is the version I liked best, but if you don’t have dates or tahini on hand, the other versions were also absolutely worthwile.  I’d suggest about 1 1/2 tablespoons of  honey or maple syrup and I’m sure whichever nut butter you prefer would work well here too.

5 large dates, pitted and torn into small pieces
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1 piece of ginger, about the size of the garlic clove, chopped
2 tablespoons tahini (thinned slightly with water if needed – it should be just barely runny)
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
2 teaspoons of rice vinegar
a few drops of sesame oil

1. Puree all ingredients in a blender or food processor.

Spicy Green Beans

serves 1 as a main, or 2 as a side dish

1/3 cup hoisin sauce (recipe above)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1/2 – 1 1/2 tablespoons sambal oelek (I would start with 1/2 and try it, then adjust to your preference)
1 large clove garlic, chopped
a piece of ginger about twice the size of a garlic clove, chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon each toasted sesame seeds and red pepper flakes (garnish)

1. Mix the hoisin sauce with the soy sauce, vinegar, and sambal oelek and set aside.

2. On medium-high heat, heat the canola oil in a large wok or frying pan with a lid. Once the oil gets hot, add the garlic and stir for a minute or so until it becomes fragrant.  Add the ginger and stir for another minute or so before adding the green beans. Toss the beans around until they are coated in oil.

3. Cover with the lid and let sit for about 10 minutes, stirring once after a few minutes, until the bean are blistered and blackened in some areas.

4. Pour the sauce into the pan and toss to coat.  Let it cook for a few minutes until the sauce is warmed and slightly thickened.

5. Serve warm, garnished with sesame seeds and red pepper flakes.

where the grass is green and the hosen are leder

July 30, 2011  |  Travel  |   |  3 Comments

If you drive down to Tegernsee, a lake nestled up against the Bavarian Alps, and spend the day hiking, you might get caught in an improbably strong summer rainfall.  You might just get completely soaked and need to increase the briskness of your pace as you climb back down the hills.

You might notice, when you make it down the hill, that the rain has now quieted.  It could encourage you to scrap the plans to picnic on sandwiches in the car and, even though you and your three friends are drenched and shivering slightly and your feet are undeniably blistered, to instead find a nice spot by the lake.  And you just might, on your way to the lake, stumble upon a little Volksfest that happens to charm the lederhosen off you.

It could happen.

You might end up grinning from ear to ear, looking around in marvel at the size of the beers, the sharpness of the local dress, and the incredible cripsness and flavor of fish painted all delicious with a mixture of melted butter, beer, salt and pepper and roasted on a spit.  You might just stay for a while.

where the white things are

June 26, 2011  |  Handmade Clothing  |   |  1 Comment

Hard to decide if the crispy white pieces from Loup Charmant’s collection would be better tie dyedfinger painted, or carefully framed and displayed on the wall.  I would say the price tags on these Indian Organic Cotton garments probably makes the latter most appropriate, although the other two options would certainly be fun.

website: http://loupcharmant.com/

how to : tie dye with what you’ve got in the kitchen

there is a pantry full of seemingly innocent foodstuff just waiting in your kitchen to color and stain your clothing.

protect yourself.  protect your favorite white threads.  do it yourself.

here’s what you’ve got to do.

boil.

in separate pots and heaps of water, boil the heck out of :
-purple cabbage (chop a head into quarters)
-turmeric (2 heaping tablespoons)
-black tea (5 bags)
-beets (4 beets, quartered)

let the soups cool down.

tie.

elastic bands are particularly useful. the goal is to create sections that will later be the nice shapes the different colors make.

dye.

soak different sections in different colored broths.  let the dye soak in and dry completely, then untie to see your designs.  iron over all the dyed areas to ‘heat-set’ – this will keep the colors from fading.

start with something simple:

then try out a few tricks:

if you’re not sure how to get the hippie dream-swirl, the first minute of this video gives a good idea: link. it’s also helpful to try out your designs on small scraps of fabric.

have fun.  play around.  experiment.

just be warned.

finger painting all grown up

June 5, 2011  |  Handmade Clothing, inspiration  |   |  3 Comments

These beautiful pieces from The Lake and Stars are making me want to press inky fingers all over my best white clothes.  Which could make for a fun summer project…

Also, their Spring/Summer 2011 campaign is strange, excellent, and full of the prettiest underthings.

halva ice cream and enjoying the road

May 28, 2011  |  Food, Travel  |  , ,  |  6 Comments

Looking through photos from the few weeks I just spent in Israel, I noticed a good chunk of them were taken on the road.  Photos taken out the window of the passenger seat of my friend’s little car as we zipped up and down and across that fascinating little country.

I have more photos from the drive up north through green rolling hills than of camping on the Sea of Galilee when we got there and more photos of the curvy desert road down 400m below sea level than of the Dead Sea itself.

I took a photos somewhere near the Lebanese border where we pulled over for a picnic before the driving back to Tel Aviv, but none of the hike we were driving back from.

Albums from other trips are overtaken by fluffy cloud formations admired on a flight or the reflection in the windshield of my feet resting on a dashboard. When I’m travelling, its so easy to see that the getting there is half the fun, that the sights on the road are often as beautiful as the destination and that every moment is worth appreciating in some way or another.

Back home, I find this feeling too easily slips away if I don’t make an effort to hold on to it, to stop focusing on where I will end up for long enough to enjoy the moment.  The last few weeks have found me particularly caught up in planning and thinking, so much so that I’ve started to forget to enjoy where I am right now.  I am in one of my favourite cities and knee deep in one the best seasons but can’t help but lose my thoughts to details of what lies ahead.  Bright red strawberries and green and white stalks of asparagus overflow out of the market stalls, and I no longer get weird looks for wearing sandals well before sandal season.  Sandal season is here (!!). Sunscreen, bare legs, and ice cream season too.  And as much as I am a believer in planning, to-do listing, thinking ahead and getting excited about the future, I am also a believer of the importance of putting all worries of where you are going and what you are doing on hold to allow space for thoughts of ice cream.  Ice cream has a very strong ability to tug a person back into there right-here-and-right-now.

I tried halva ice cream at a little gelateria on Ben Yehuda street in Tel Aviv after a day of relaxing + overheating + swimming at the beach.  Halva is a hard sesame based sweet from the middle east that I have never completely been a fan of.  It was often the only dessert on offer at family gatherings we would go to as kids, so I remember really trying to like the stuff.  The flavor is rich, nutty and delicious, but I never really enjoyed the rough, dry texture that left my mouth feeling strange after a few bites.  So I was intruigued when I saw it made into an ice cream, and delighted to find that it was all the flavour but none of the texture.

Back home I wanted to recreate the stuff, but decided to get the flavor by mixing honey with tahini, a paste of ground sesame, instead of buying prepackaged halva that is full of preservatives and sugar.

Halva Ice Cream

This ice cream is rich and nutty and though delicious, it’s definitely somewhat unusual tasting and less sweet than most ice creams.  So if you’re looking to satisfy a sweet tooth, this might not be your best bet (toasted marshmellow ice cream, on the other hand, would satisfy any and all cravings for sweetness).

Next time I might play around with adding a spoonful of roseflower water and some crushed walnuts or pistachios.  A swirl of chocolate would also be delicious.

3/4 c. tahini
1/2 c. honey
1 1/2 c. whole milk
1/2 c. heavy cream
2 egg yolks
sugar to taste (I used about 2 tablespoons)

1. Pour tahini and honey into a saucepan and warm over medium heat. When small bubbles start to form,  allow to simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly to prevent sticking.  Remove from heat and slowly add milk and cream, stirring  until well combined.

2. To temper the egg yolks, put them in a small bowl.  Add a spoonful at a time of the tahini mixture, stirring constantly until you have added 5 spoonfuls.  Pour the egg mixture into the saucepan and return to heat, gently cooking on medium-low for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and allow the mixture to cool – this should take about 45 minutes.

3. Give it a taste.  Add sugar accordingly, keeping in mind that things taste less sweet when they are frozen – so you’ll want to make it a little sweeter now than what you ultimately aim to end up with.

4.  If you have an ice cream maker transfer the mixture there and follow its directions. If not transfer the mixture to a container and place in the freezer.  Take out the container ever 45 minutes to an hour and mix it up with a spoon to break up any ice particles.  You will probably need to do this 2-4 times until the mixture has frozen completely.

5. Enjoy!

Mongolian felt making

May 26, 2011  |  Handmade Clothing  |   |  No Comments

a somewhat hypnotic video of nomads in Mongolia making felt in their traditional way.