Making art.

This is a strange time. As I write this, I feel I am in a liminal space – hovering at a doorjamb I have not yet passed through. At this moment, I have not yet been truly impacted by the insidiously creeping virus that is COVID-19, snaking its way through increasing percentages of the population. I mean, okay, I braved grocery stores on Friday, standing with dozens of others in lines that stretched to the back wall, waiting to buy what ranged from a regular hand basket to a cart mounded with what would be, for us, more than a month’s worth of products. I may have overbought a bit, thinking forward to how nice it would be to avoid those crowds next weekend, should they continue. But apart from that, it’s not real yet.

It’s going to be. By the time you read this, it will be. This past week my campus, like many others, elected to cancel face-to-face classes at least through spring break, asking instructors to modify and move to online instruction. By the end of this week, I’ll need to do that: in class discussions will become discussion boards. Handouts will become shared files. I’ll have to – gulp – record a few lectures. And I waver between thinking that’s going to be fine, totally manageable, and thinking it’s going to be a disaster.*

So instead of going to work, I’ll be sitting in my home office. I like it in there. It’s bright, it’s small, it’s got a carpet and a desk and three shelves of cookbooks, and it’s where I stow my yoga mat and my stability ball. I’ve written there, I’ve edited photos, I’ve revised and graded and read and read and read. But I’ve never taught there. And by the end of the week, I will be. I’ll have to be careful that room doesn’t become the only room in my world – I love my job, and I want my students to do well, and it would be easy for me to fight the potential boredom of self-isolation or, as is increasingly likely, quarantine, by sinking too fully into the job.

But I’m seeing, through the social media and news sources I wander through, looking alternatively for information and for distraction, urges to create. If you are “trapped” at home, they say, whether you’ve chosen isolation or been advised to quarantine yourself, make art. Write poetry. Knit. Draw. Take pictures. Mold or sculpt or paint or make music. Cook. This sounds, to me, like sage advice. From between and within whatever walls you sit, or crouch, or pace, make art. Maybe for you, never to be shared; maybe tentatively posted somewhere someone might see and gain comfort from; maybe belted (can you belt opera?) from a balcony for your neighborhood to glory in.

So okay, balance matters. I’ll work, but I’ll try to do this as well. I’ll make art. I’ll design meals. I’ll practice my knife-work. I’ll write. Letters and posts and recipes and arguments. Maybe a poem. I’ll turn soil and pull weeds. I’ll turn flour and water and salt into dough, into batter, into bread. I’ll turn words into sentences and paragraphs. I turned what will become sourdough loaves today, rhythmically pulling from the bottom of the ragged ball up and over the mass, one after another after another. And it felt good to do: to create something that will become beautiful.

 

 

* And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be fancy or amazing or perfect. It’s a stop-gap measure, at least it is right now, that will allow my students to continue learning, even if it’s not in the ideal format for me or for them – neither of us signed up for this. But more importantly, it’s just a class, and it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be the most important thing in either of our lives right now.

The Fifth Sense

Largely because N. and I are big kids (and because we really wanted to watch The Mandalorian), we now have a subscription to Disney+. This is not particularly newsworthy in the food part of my world, except that we opted for a bundle that included hulu which, if you’re not aware, seems to have all back episodes of Top Chef. In preparation for the new season in mid-March, and because I had exhausted many of my other binge-able options, I decided to go all the way back to the beginning.

In one episode during Season Two, Padma Lakshmi tells the contestants that cooking is perhaps the one art form that employs four of the five senses: sight, smell, taste, and touch. In doing so, she is distinguishing it as special. Unless you are in the habit of tasting your oil paints (don’t do this) or crunching on the inhaled marble dust of your sculpture (also inadvisable), taste is a sense not often used for artistic pursuits.

But I think Padma’s evaluation is wrong – or at least it’s incomplete. Yes, we use sight, smell, taste, and touch when we cook. But if we’re doing a good job, we also use our ears. While you can tell a pan of hot fat is ready for the main event by sight, because oil “shimmers” and, if you want to live on the edge, smokes, the easiest determiner of readiness is the sound that slab of meat, or pile of diced onions, or broccoli steak, makes when it touches the fat. Chef and Food Network personality Anne Burrell tells students of cooking that they should hear “rambunctious applause” when food goes into a properly preheated pan. A faint sizzle – or worse, no noise at all – simply means the oil or butter or lard isn’t sufficiently warmed to sear properly. That means we employ our ears as well.

Even when we are preparing food without cooking, hearing plays an important part. I can determine how crisp a leaf of romaine or a slice of cucumber is with my eyes and fingertips. But if I combine taste and sound when I bite through an experimental piece of it, I’m much more informed about how fresh my salad will be, and what kinds of other textures I should add for enjoyable eating.

And more than information, there is pleasure in the sound of food. The sigh of a just-cooked salmon filet when I flake it with a fork. The deliberation of a whisk against a metal bowl as I whip egg whites or cream. The steady thud of my knife on the board while I’m decimating a pile of herbs. When I indulge in a dish of crème brulee, I want to hear the glassy thin sugar crack at the tap of my anxious spoon. When I bite through a pickle, I want to hear a crunch as well as feel it between my teeth. There’s something satisfying about others knowing how much texture it had, and unless I’m keen to share, that can only be truly achieved through the sound it makes. The pop and fizz of a champagne bottle would be much less celebratory if you could only see, not hear, the explosive carbonation.

If you made a dish inspired by sound, what would it be? Which flavors would play together to give your food a voice, completing the five senses it requires to be fully experienced?

Contrarian Chewy Not-Chocolate-Chip Cookies

As I’ve noted here before, I can be a bit contrarian about food. I like my risotto with anything but rice, somehow I always find myself frying food in the most disgusting heat of summer, and I’m that person who, instead of making something practiced and reliable for a dinner party, always somehow ends up trying something untested.

But perhaps my most blasphemous contrarian food tendency is this: sometimes I don’t want chocolate chips in chocolate chip cookies. I love the cookie part – the depth of the brown sugar, the butter, the just-crisp edges – and then that chocolate gets in the way. Don’t get me wrong: I do like chocolate. I’m not a total monster. But in a cookie, especially after it cools and the chunks or chips or boulders of chocolate solidify again, I could do without. I sometimes find myself looking forward to the cookie that comes from the very last scrapings of batter from the bowl, since it probably won’t have much chocolate in it.

Last month N. ran a half marathon and I, following what is becoming a tradition, decided to have cookies waiting for him when he came home. Not so contrarian as me, N. loves a good chocolate chip cookie (and a mediocre chocolate chip cookie too – in fact, let’s be honest: he’ll take just about any chocolate chip cookie). Inspired by a recent trip to Le Grande Orange Café in Pasadena, I decided I wanted to do a batch of thin, crisp-but-chewy cookies with a sprinkling of salt on top. Good for helping my runner rehydrate a little. I started with a Bon Appetit recipe, but played a little: almond meal replaced some of the flour, I was out of chocolate chips, so I chopped up some dark chocolate covered pretzels and, just for fun, couldn’t resist a little instant espresso powder to the dough as well. A little buzz of extra caffeine wouldn’t hurt N. as he unwound from a thirteen mile morning.

We both loved the cookies. But again, I found myself thinking how good they would be if they just… didn’t have chocolate in them. So I did another batch here, retaining the almond meal, but eliminating all hints of chocolate. These are designed to be crisp at the edges and chewy at the middle, and several elements of the recipe contribute to that: the almond meal is always going to add some pleasant texture, as is brown sugar. The powdered sugar allows for a denser final result, which contributes to chew in that not as much air is trapped in the dough. And using egg yolks instead of just whole eggs seems to help too, though opinions seem divided on this.

My contrarian cookies were simple. As I was mixing them up, I found myself thinking, “could I add anything? What about dried cherries? What about lemon zest? Could I put in some cardamom or cinnamon, or maybe chopped nuts?” And of course the answer is yes. I could. You could too. Toss in a teaspoon or so of some warm spice. Toast and chop and fold in about a cup of nuts or dried fruit. If you’re feeling particularly contrary with me, you could even reverse hack all the way into putting the chocolate back in; you’ll want about 8 ounces.

But when I chewed my way through the first, and then the second, of these simple, too-spread-out, just bendable,* still warm offerings, I wanted none of that. The texture was right: crisp around the edge, a chew similar to a good snickerdoodle in the middle, and the occasional delightful crunch from the sea salt. And nothing, nothing at all, disrupting that deep, lovely, buttery brown sugar taste.

 

* because these cookies spread so much while they bake, and because they are so soft when they first come out of the oven, I’d wager you could successfully cool them over the back of a muffin tin or ramekin for little cookie bowls to fill with ice cream or custard or fruit, or maybe even a deep, rich mousse to get the chocolate back in there…

 

Contrarian Chewy Not Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appétit
Makes about 18 cookies
½ cup (1 stick, or 4 ounces) room temperature unsalted butter
¾ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup powdered sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1½ tsp vanilla
1 cup all purpose flour
½ cup almond meal
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt + more for sprinkling

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick spray
  • In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter with the paddle attachment or with an electric mixer until it is soft and the big pieces have broken down. Add all three varieties of sugar and continue mixing until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg yolks, the whole egg, and the vanilla. Beat again, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until the whole mixture is pale and fluffy, about 4 minutes. This seems like a long time, but it does make a difference. It will look like buttercream frosting when it’s ready, and really, it basically is.
  • If you want to, whisk the dry ingredients (flour, almond meal, baking powder, baking soda, salt) together in a smaller bowl, then slowly add to the wet mix in three additions, mixing just to blend in between. If you don’t want to bother with the whisking, just add in stages: ½ cup flour, mix to blend, ½ cup almond meal, mix to blend, then remaining ½ cup flour with leavening and salt, mix just to blend.
  • Spoon tablespoonfuls of dough onto your prepared cookie sheets, spacing them at least 1 inch apart. They will spread. I wouldn’t do more than about 6 dough blobs on each sheet. Sprinkle the tops sparingly with kosher salt or flaky sea salt.
  • Bake in the preheated 375F oven, rotating the sheets halfway through, until golden around the edges, 12-13 minutes. The middles will seem very soft, but will firm as they cool. Let sit on baking sheets 3-5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely (unless you want to mold them – see * above).

Crunchy

If you know me, you know it’s no secret that I love food competition shows. Iron Chef, Chopped, Top Chef (omg, new season in March, and in the meantime there’s Hulu!), Great British Baking Show, Zumbo’s Just Desserts, Beat Bobby Flay (but not Nailed It); I could watch for hours. So it’s not surprising that I’ve found and am working my way through Netflix’s The Final Table. Chefs work in pairs to create interesting plates based on the “national dish” of various countries, assessed by a panel of food critics and celebrities from the nations in question, all in a quest to be “seated at the Final Table” with global chefs renowned in their fields. I like it because it’s international in both contestants and judges, there’s no monetary prize, and the variety and complexity of dishes is interesting and sometimes inspiring (this week’s meal plan has two items inspired by the show). The global reach and the lack of prize money make it less brashly, shoutingly American than some competitions (that I totally watch anyway) – I find that winner-take-all, “I didn’t come here to make friends” attitude off-putting and I yell at the contestants who engage in it.*

In one episode I watched recently, the contestants were tasked with cooking a Japanese dish. One team used geoduck clam in a sashimi, which food writer and culinary advisor to the Japanese government Akiko Katayama described as enjoyable in part because it was “crunchy.” Though this seems like an odd adjective to use for seafood, I knew what she meant instantly. And then I became suddenly, hugely unsatisfied with the word as it is used in English.

Let me explain. First, think of cucumbers.

Now, think of your favorite cracker or chip.

Now, think of – well – non-smooth peanut butter.

Now, think of the batter coating on a piece of nicely fried fish.

All of these are “crunchy.” All of them are so starkly different in their actual texture, yet we only have this one word to describe them. Oh yes, I hear you saying “what about crisp or crispy?” Yes, okay, that’s true. But we still use “crunchy” to designate all of them, and it simply isn’t sufficient. Chewy is the same way: we use it to describe the unhappy rubber of a poorly cooked ring of calamari, but also the lovely toothy pull of good ciabatta or the perfect pizza dough. And when we do have the right words, the precise, definition-specific term for the food in question, we often don’t use it because its connotations are all wrong. I’ve written about this with oily vs. buttery, but the same is true for a descriptor like “fatty.”

So the questions I’m pondering this week is: where are our other food adjectives? Did we used to have more, but somehow they were subsumed into these few, larger, not-quite-precise-enough options? How do we decide, among the adjectives we do have, which have positive and which have negative connotations, and who does that deciding? Can we reclaim words like oily and fatty and make them mean something positive again?

 

 

* That said, I could have done without a good bit of the show’s insistence on pageantry, especially in the final episode. The moment I hated and then loved and then hated was when all of the renowned chefs were being reintroduced, paraded onto a stage one to one side, one to the other, and I suddenly realized what was going to happen: although the chef from the United States had not previously been singled out with any special focus, here he was going to be the guy in the middle. But one of the renowned chefs – the one from Spain, I think – apparently didn’t get that memo, and stood in the middle spot for a few seconds before he either realized or was told the plan and quickly shifted over to leave room…

I think this could be a good show and I would willingly watch a second season, though I’d like to see them find a more comfortable stride and let some of the showboating fall aside. The host Andrew Knowlton, who I remember from his long-maned Bon Appetit and Iron Chef America days, is smart and food-savvy, and seeing him drop his Ryan Seacrest persona (the new haircut doesn’t help) and talk to the contestants about what they are making is great. His showmanship as announcer and host, however, could be less – well – showy. And the moment in the final episode when he paused in the middle of all the pageantry to take not just a photo of all the chef/judges on stage, but a selfie, made me cringe.

On Unfrosted Cake

Growing up, we had one cake. This one. I mean, of course we ate other cakes: coffee cake was a breakfast time treat, and Mom made other recipes (plus there was that one boxed coconut cake from Sara Lee that came out of the freezer every so often), but this simple chocolate cake, a variant of the Depression era wacky cake or crazy cake, was the standby for celebrations. And though the original recipe called for a thick, sweet buttercream, we always frosted it with lightly sweetened whipped cream instead, artfully (or sometimes something less than artfully) swirled on with a knife or a rubber spatula or, if someone was feeling really fancy, an offset metal spatula that got just so close to the bakery-smooth finish I, at least, was always after.

So as you might expect, as I “leveled up” in the kitchen I tried some fancier finishes (though for THE cake I always went back to the whipped cream). I found the perfect cream cheese frosting recipe. I flirted with buttercreams of various kinds, and with varying success.

Lately, though, I’ve been appreciating the simple pleasure of unfrosted cakes. I don’t know if this is a result of binge-watching so much Great British Baking Show, on which the Victoria sandwiches are simply dusted with sugar, but there is something satisfying about plonking down a cake that you haven’t spent time fussing over.

I’ve made three unfrosted cakes of note recently. The first is an almond cake recipe from King Arthur Flour. I did this almost exactly as the site required, subbing in some almond meal for some of the almond flour, a move that I think was a good one, and now has me looking for places to add almond meal for flavor and texture (stay tuned on this for cookies…). The recipe also taught me an interesting twist on pan preparation, requiring a dusting of sugar instead of flour atop the butter or non-stick spray layer. This results in a lovely, crunchy sugar coating on the bottom and sides of the cake (though the bottom usually ends up not noticeable) and, if you have the presence of mind to add it 15 minutes or so before the baking time ends, on the top as well.

The second unfrosted cake I’ve made recently was a recipe from Tara Jensen’s cookbook/journal/mini-memoir A Baker’s Year. She calls it “groomsman cake,” celebrating the man she met at a friend’s wedding who entered her life with curiosity and bourbon. I may have overbaked mine a tad, since the resulting bundt was a bit less tender than I was expecting, but it was nothing a tumble of raspberries and a heaping scoop of whipped cream – my current favorite combination for cakes without frosting – couldn’t amend.

Finally, in a major blast from the past, I made a rum cake from deep in my mom’s recipe archives for a viewing party last weekend. “Why rum cake?” Mom asked, and the answer was more about linguistic cleverness than anything else: because if you make the cake using Bacardi, then you can call it “lightly thematic” because the brand name so resembles that of a certain former Starfleet captain now back on screen and invested in returning to the galaxy out there… This was not only nostalgic in the sense that I pulled it forward into the 21st century (or 24th?), but in its composition: boxed yellow cake mix. Instant vanilla pudding. A boiled sugar glaze. For the second time in recent cakery, a bundt pan. And Rum Cake? This cake means it. A full cup of dark rum, half baked into the tender sponge itself (which emerges a shocking dandelion yellow topped with toasty chopped pecans), and the other half stirred into that boiled glaze and drizzled slowly over the cake until it has all absorbed. When show-and-cake-time arrived, I pulled off the layer of aluminum foil I’d dressed the cake in for travel and was caught off guard by the heady fumes that rushed out. Fortunately we had a full hour of show to enjoy before anyone drove home.

Despite that leftovers of this cake need to be enjoyed more in the 3:30pm hour than in the 10:30 snack slot (and despite my snobby concerns about its less-than-from-scratch ingredient list), it is delicious. Tender. Moist (how could it not be?). Beautiful flavors, and the aggressiveness of the rum somehow mellowed overnight, though the kick lingers. And that makes it even better as a party option: you can – you should – make it the afternoon before, giving you less to fret about on the day of whatever gathering it’s invited to.

Of course, an unfrosted cake requires less dressy fuss in terms of presentation, too. No fancy cake pedestals necessary. A large plate, a simple platter, even a wooden cutting board will do, especially if you can add a stack of plates, forks, and a knife to it, so the moment you bring the cake to the table is the only one needed to get everyone eating.

Tell me. Are you a frosted or unfrosted fan? What’s your current favorite flavor combination, or serving vessel, or cake variety, that makes the buttercream and the fondant and the cream cheese feel unneeded? Leave a comment here and let’s talk cake!

In praise of beans?

Last month I read Meghan McCaron’s article “Cool Beans,” about this most humble of ingredients and how it has slid comfortingly into our food scene, and was a mixture of transfixed and scornful. On one hand, there was the image of the author sitting on the floor, being nourished by a simple but enticing dish, so appealing-sounding I was willing to forgive its hipster overtones: “Brothy and luscious in a shallow ceramic bowl, served with oven-fresh focaccia and a zingy glass of natural white wine.” Although the scene takes place in a friend’s apartment, I imagined one of those adobe tile floors that seem to exude warmth and hominess, and maybe there were also small potted olive trees set around, and that’s it, for the rest of the winter I wanted to be in Tuscany eating beans. On the other, there was the cynic in my brain sneering and saying “really? Beans? What’s special about beans?”

McCaron goes on to point out that beans have swum slowly into our consciousness in recent years, but they have never been fully absent: as a species, we have been using them in one form or another for centuries, fresh or dried, as vegetable, as starch, as protein. And now, in the era of heirloom seeds, of the Insta-pot, of ever growing awareness about the environmental costs of meat, beans are… well, cool.

For me, as deeply as I sank into the article’s imagery, beans had never struck me as cool or as particularly delicious. I mean, sure, I love a good dal, and a pot of baked beans threaded with molasses is hard to say no to, and there is something appealing about a creamy cannellini or the perfect hummus, so smooth it feels unreal, like the one at Shawarma King in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that I had back in 2010 or so but still think about… oh. So I did have deep attachment to the unassuming bean after all.

And then I thought of two more bean dishes I’ve eaten. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were transporting, but they brought me miles closer to McCaron’s assessment. In our first year in Los Angeles, while N. still worked at an independent school, one of the students who attended happened to be the son of a restaurateur with an establishment in Culver City (and grandson of a certain spaceship captain in a galaxy far, far away). For a teacher appreciation event, the restaurant provided takeaway dinners, and N. brought home two. In my memory, he didn’t eat his, but upon delivery then went back out to some other school-related obligation. I stayed home and ate the proffered dinner: fried chicken, which I was tremendously excited about, and a small scoop of what turned out to be black or beluga lentils sitting on some frisee.

Beluga lentils are small, intensely black, and shiny, like little beads or beetles, and they, like French green lentils or lentils de puy, retain some texture when cooked, so they are often used in salad preparations. These were glistening and still just warm, and when I dug in a tentative fork I couldn’t believe how flavorful they were. Nothing I had ever done with beans had been so delicious and so simple. Of course, the only things I’d really ever done with beans, besides grind them into falafel, involved opening and draining a can.

My other mind-expanding bean dish was just last year, during a birthday dinner at local chef David LeFevre’s second Manhattan Beach spot: a little (and I mean little) oyster bar slash seafood restaurant just down the block from his better-known Manhattan Beach Post. Everything we ate I wanted more of, but the surprise star that evening was not the fish; it was the unassuming accompaniment on N’s plate: an almost risotto-textured scoop of corn and white beans advertised on the menu as flageolets, providing a warm base for a nice chunk of roasted halibut. Yeah, the fish was good. But those beans! With that sweet summer corn! There was a meatiness and a creaminess about them, and again, an intensity of flavor I didn’t expect.

I had to have more. As September stretched into October, my own bean harvest – from a prolific set of pole bean vines in my backyard – got out of control. Once standard green bean pods start to bulge from the expanding seeds inside, they just aren’t pleasant blanched or steamed anymore: the seeds are starchy and the pods are fibrous and hard to get through. On the contrary, flageolets are immature shell beans, meaning they haven’t yet matured fully into the bean that will be canned or dried and wind up on shelves as kidney beans, navy beans, and a host of others. It turns out overripe green beans make a suitable substitute for flageolets. I stripped them down, simmered them in broth with thyme and garlic and pepper, which they drank and drank and drank, added corn and a gulp of cream, gleefully measuring nothing. We slurped them down, and though I don’t think they quite qualify as “brothy and luscious,” we had them again only a few weeks later.

So I guess I’m on board for the bean love after all. I haven’t put myself in line for a Rancho Gordo subscription yet, but I will admit to saving some of my pole beans that were just too mature and dried out for my bean and corn recreation in hopes of replanting. And beans are finding their way onto my “want to make” list more and more frequently. In particular, I’m still savoring the leftovers of a lentil and goat cheese dish I made from an old (2005) issue of Bon Appetit. It’s been reproduced here; we had ours with black lentils instead of green, and I wilted the spinach into the whole mess and then served it scooped in big spoonfuls on toasted olive ciabatta. And though I haven’t made it yet, I’m all about adding Alison Roman’s shelf-emptying spicy white bean soup with broccoli rabe to my meal plan.

What is your stance on this staple? Are you aboard the bean boat? Are you a legume lover, no holds barred, or are they more of a labor of love for you, or just plain old labor? Let’s discuss, let’s share knowledge and complaints and, if you like, recipes too. Let’s talk beans.