BBQ Tofu Salad

I’m back! At least for the moment…

At the end of the semester, I got stuck. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I fell into familiarity. There are some foods we love, and we make over and over again, but they just don’t feel “blog-worthy.” One of the challenges of this format is the urge for new, insightful, creative, beautiful dishes (that are also, somehow, affordable, easy, and don’t take very long to prepare), and while I’m usually up for that, a little cruise through the standards can be comforting. (Interestingly, it’s also probably more environmentally friendly: the book I’m currently teaching in my composition courses – Edward Humes’ Garbology – includes findings from a study that people tend to create less food waste when they eat the same thing over and over. Less adventurous, perhaps, but more sustainable – since we know we like it, we don’t throw away the unexpected results or less-than-beloved leftovers.)

But we recently did our almost-annual road trip up to Oregon and back, and if there’s one thing I typically gain from vacation with friends and family, it’s ideas. Enter S. She’s a frequent contributor to this site, both in terms of feedback and inspiration. Living in Los Angeles has increased our meat consumption considerably, and being back in Eugene and staying with S. (who is vegetarian and whose current job requires her to think and live sustainably) reminded us sharply of meat’s high carbon footprint and resource use. It also reminded me how much fun it is to work one’s way around that protein-center on the plate and develop other flavors.

Perhaps my favorite thing S. made us while we were in Eugene was a salad. That doesn’t sound exciting, but for the five of you still reading, hang with me. Years ago, S. worked at California Pizza Kitchen, and fell, as many have, for their BBQ Chicken Salad. Of course she developed a vegetarian version and made other tweaks of her own to the original, and I found the bright, sharp, fresh and spicy bowl she put in front of us so craveable it was the first thing I wanted to recreate when we got home.

Like S., my version uses thick slabs of tofu drenched in BBQ sauce – either make your own or find a bottled version you like that isn’t too sweet – and then grilled. Toss together everything you like in a Mexican or Southwestern direction that belongs in salad with mixed greens – here we’re pulling together black beans, tomatoes, avocado, green onion, cilantro, and the non-negotiable coup de grace of fried tortilla strips on top. The original salad from CPK uses chunks of jicama and adds basil along with the cilantro; you could certainly do that as well.

As for dressing, S. used a tasty ranch, and added chunks of Monterey jack cheese to the salad. I went in a different direction, whipping up a blue cheese drizzle with equal parts buttermilk, mayonnaise, and blue cheese crumbles. We decided upon reflection we liked S.’s dressing choice slightly better, and in future incarnations of this dish we’ll swap out for that, and maybe some crumbles of queso fresco instead of the rich funk of the blue cheese or the neutral creaminess of the jack.

As you can see, this salad looks really nice in a composed presentation, either positioning all of the non-greens in sections around a center like spokes on a wheel as I did, or Cobb salad style, arranged in rows next to each other atop the lettuce mix. At the last minute, add on the dressing, another drizzle or two of BBQ sauce if you want, and the tortillas in a crispy stack. But if you aren’t feeling fussy, tossing everything together to serve will be easier and just as delicious.

Note: I tend to find in salad recipes that nearly everything is negotiable and, at best, quantities are approximations. That is, some people like more tomato than others, and some want to amp up the cheese. Some might not want as much dressing, and some think a whole can of black beans sounds excessive. To that end, I have provided you with quantities, but you should feel free to adjust as desired. Want more corn? Great. Use three ears. Want less green onion? Okay, do that. Want to backwards engineer the whole thing and replace the tofu with chicken? That would be tasty as well. The point is, it’s an outrageously delicious entrée salad that, minus frying the tortilla strips, requires nothing from your stove or oven, and would pair just as well with a margarita or a cold beer as it does with a frosted glass of lemonade. Certainly, my dog-friend here would have happily gulped it down even without an accompanying beverage.

BBQ Tofu Salad

Historical connections to CPK, though I’ve only had S.’s version of their original

Serves 4-6

2 ears corn on the cob

1 TB olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

16 oz. extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry

1 cup BBQ sauce of your choice (not too sweet)

6-8 cups mixed greens (I like a combination of romaine, red cabbage, and a kale slaw mix from Trader Joe’s I’m currently obsessed with)

¼ cup thinly sliced green onions, dark green parts only

¼-½ cup cilantro and/or basil leaves, roughly chopped

1 can (14-15 oz) black beans, drained and rinsed

1-2 avocados, pitted and cubed (I like this method of pitting from the kitchn)

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

½ cup cheese chunks or crumbles: either blue cheese, Monterey jack, or queso fresco

2-3 corn tortillas cut into thin strips

vegetable oil to fry

additional salt to season tortilla strips

~ 1 cup (or desired amount) blue cheese or ranch dressing

Additional BBQ sauce, if desired

Optional: lime wedges to serve

 

  • Preheat a gas grill or grill pan over medium high heat. While you wait, shuck the corn, removing the husk and as much silk as possible, but leave on the stem for easier kernel removal later. Rub the ears with the 1 TB olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper on all sides. Place on the preheated grill and cook over direct heat for about 8 minutes total, turning every two minutes or so, until the corn is fully cooked and has a healthy golden brown char. Set aside until it is cool enough to handle.
  • Slice the tofu block into 4 slabs and dredge each in BBQ sauce. Reduce the grill heat to medium and grill over direct heat for about 4 minutes per side, until nicely marked. Set aside with corn to cool while you make the rest of the salad.
  • In a large bowl, toss together the mixed greens, green onions, and cilantro and/or basil. Arrange or toss the black beans, avocado chunks, tomatoes, and cheese chunks or crumbles as desired on or in the greens mix.
  • When the corn and tofu are cool enough to handle, cut the tofu slabs into chunks of your desired size. For the corn, cut off the kernels by standing up the cob on your cutting board (you can use the stem to hold onto, if you’ve left it attached) and carefully cutting straight down the ear with a sharp knife, sawing the blade back and forth a bit to help loosen the kernels. When you get to the bottom of the ear, rotate the cob a half turn or so and cut again, repeating until you have removed all kernels. Add both tofu and corn to the salad.
  • For the tortilla strips, heat about ¼ inch of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium high heat until the edge of one of your strips sizzles when dipped in. Add the sliced tortillas a handful at a time, spreading them out in the skillet so they don’t overlap too much. Fry about a minute on each side, or until they are light brown and crisp. Remove to a paper towel lined plate and immediately sprinkle with salt. Repeat as needed.
  • To finish the salad, add the dressing over the top in a rough circle. If desired, drizzle 1-2 TB more of the BBQ sauce right over the dressing for a nice contrast of red on white. Collect the fried tortilla strips in two hands and arrange them loosely over the center of the salad like straws. Serve with lime wedges to squeeze on if desired.

Perfect Pizza Crust (no recipe)

I am deep in the final hurricane of grading at present and as such, though I have been cooking and eating (oh, so much eating. And drinking. But mostly eating), I have not been photographing or taking note of quantities. No recipe then, today, but I do have words to offer. That’s the main difference, I think, between food blogging and food writing: the blog has become dependent on artful photography, clever lighting, cunning props and ingredients arranged just so… and a recipe that is easy to follow, doesn’t take too long, and is introduced but not overshadowed by story.

Food writing, though, is about the words. The images, the measurements, the ability to remake the dish in question: that’s not the goal. The aim is to submerge oneself in the language of food. This is, then, a roundabout way of saying there won’t be any pictures on this post. Instead, let me at least plunge you into the shallow end.

We are, it transpires, fond of pizza. Over the years I’ve worked up a dough recipe that offers a flavorful crust with cracker-crisp base and puffy top edges golden with cheese. It rises overnight with the help of just a smidgeon of active dry yeast, and it collects some of its deep flavor and texture from heaping helpings of semolina flour and cornmeal. This is not it.

See, here’s the thing: it’s a good recipe. Really good. Everyone who has tried it has cooed over it. But it’s not the pizza dough of my dreams. It’s too… bready. My dream dough is perfectly crisp outside but chewy and yeasty with a perfect, pulling tear. It’s artisanal pizza dough that bakes up fast and chars perfectly as it faces off against an 800 or 900 degree wood burning oven. It can’t, I must concede, be made at home.

But oh how I’ve tried. I’ve played with Italian double zero flour. I’ve increased kneading time. I’ve added and deleted quantities of olive oil. I’ve played with more and less semolina, bread flour, honey vs. sugar to rouse the yeast; I’ve even tried cautiously tossing the dough (this did not go well). Results (once I cleaned up a bit) were good, but in every case, they weren’t what I wanted.

Until this weekend. In addition to all of the above, as you might expect, I’ve asked the internet. I’ve found all kinds of advice, most of it not useful, but in my most recent explorations two ideas stood out. One was, as I’ve read before, that the oven just has to be hotter. Commercial pizza ovens burn hundreds of degrees above what a standard household gas oven can manage, even if, as Molly Wizenberg describes in her first book, your boyfriend somehow manages to bypass limitations and crank your old machine up to near-restaurant degrees. The other was using sourdough to make the crust. Think about it: breads that use a starter of some kind, whether that’s a sour burbler that gets fed every few days or a biga for ciabatta, tend to produce lovely, chewy interiors with big holes and irregular structures – perhaps just what I was after.

Lucky for me, I was making my regular sourdough loaves this weekend, and determined to feed up a little extra to use in a pizza experiment. Unlucky for all of us, I tinkered and tossed and measured nothing, so my ability to recreate the revelation that happened remains in question. There are too many variables to know for sure what caused it, but this weekend’s pizza was as close to my dream dough as I’ve ever gotten. And it was close. Made with a generous glob of my fed sourdough starter, it rose very little in the refrigerator overnight, but after a few hours to warm up at room temperature, it was puffy and pliable and full of bubbles, and just a little bit sticky. Baked, it had gorgeous oven spring, and though it crisped well and retained crunch on the bottom of the pie, the inside – oh the inside – was everything. Swollen and soft and full of air, and chewy! And because I heeded the other suggestion as well, holding my breath and setting my oven at 500F and consequently cooking the loaded crust for less time than I usually would, I can’t say for sure which variable was most necessary for the miracle that was the pizzas we had Saturday night, easily the best homemade crust I’ve ever made.

So this winds up being a big tease of a post, then, since not only are there no pictures and no recipe, but no way of exactly recreating what I’ve done – even for me! But I can pass along the suggestion that if your homemade pizza dough isn’t doing what you want, and what you want is a chewy interior, use bread flour (or another flour with high protein content), consider raising the baking temperature and consequently cooking for less time, and consider also using some kind of starter and an overnight ferment for both chewier texture and more flavorful crust. And then call me, because I want to come over and help you eat it.

Okay, enough of this words business. There’s leftover pizza sitting made with this amazing crust in my refrigerator, and I’m going to say we’re within safe striking distance of lunch time.

Project Cook: Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream

Theologically, pride is commonly understood as the most serious of the seven deadly sins. For medieval Christian thinkers, it was the wellspring: the sin from which all other sins derived. Some writers interpreted that Lucifer – the morning star, the best and most beautiful of the angels – was ousted from Heaven because he exhibited pride: in trying to rise above his station, rule over others, or see himself as equal with God, he was guilty of pride and thus cast out. In Paradise Lost Milton famously equates Lucifer with Satan, showing the extremes of pride as a sin: rather than simply being cast out of heaven, he is thrown all the way to Hell.

I think, though, that as dangerous as pride may be, I have a right to feel it about this dish. I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons of The Great British Baking Show with its new cast (quick assessment: I love and miss Mel and Sue dearly, but I think Noel and Sandi are doing a fine job, and I think I might prefer Prue to Mary Berry just a tad – she doesn’t let Paul get away with as much. Happy to hear your thoughts, fellow obsessors…), and I’m certain that was the source of my inspiration. Certainly it was how I came to the combination of coffee and cardamom.

This is a glorious play of flavors. Each component of the cake – the sponge, the filling, and the buttercream – has its own star. Together it is a layered, complex combination, but each part is uncrowded. The cake, one of the moistest I’ve ever made, pulls together buttermilk, vegetable oil, and eggs to ensure a tender, luscious crumb. Strong black coffee and instant espresso add flavor, but surprisingly, that flavor is subtle – a suggestion with a sneaky kick of caffeine rather than the bitter slap a cup of the stuff can have.

Cardamom flavors the buttercream, and here I decided I wanted something new. I’ve dabbled in American buttercream before, and though I’ve achieved praiseworthy fluffiness and pipe-able texture, it remains as a product overwhelmingly, tooth achingly sweet. There are other buttercreams out there – French and Swiss and Italian – that rely on eggs, rather than pounds of powdered sugar, for their structure. In part to assuage the sweetness problem but in larger part because I have all this meringue powder left from my royal icing experiment a few weeks ago, I decided to try one out, and I was magnificently rewarded: the Italian buttercream that enrobed the cake was fluffy and rich but surprisingly light, spicy from the cardamom and not overly sweet, and it spread and piped like a dream (the first time I typed cream. Appropriate I’d say, Mr. Freud).

Italian buttercream, for all its advantages, is a bit of a terrifying bother to make. I used a King Arthur Flour recipe, which worked perfectly, but this component is a project in itself as it requires bringing a sugar syrup up beyond boiling temperature, making a meringue, pouring the molten sugar syrup carefully into the bowl of meringue while mixing, and then running your mixer until the whole thing cools by more than 100 degrees. Even then, you aren’t done: you next have to incorporate masses of butter, which can be neither too hot nor too cold, and you have to sit patiently through what looks like certain disaster as the whole bowl you’ve now coddled along for the last half hour suddenly turns into a sloppy, almost curdled-looking mess. But you have to be strong, and keep mixing, and eventually it does start to smooth and fluff and turn into buttery clouds.

With all this richness, the filling in between needed to be sharp and fresh, to provide contrast and keep the dessert from getting sickly. I went with plums: stone fruit of any kind works beautifully with the slight citrus notes of cardamom, but I think plums, with their sometimes surprisingly tart bite that I’m convinced comes from the oh-so-thin layer of bright red in between their skins and flesh, are the best pairing. Simmered down with a bit of sugar and a healthy squeeze of lemon, they made a successful quasi-jam to spread between the layers.

You may have noticed there are no pictures of slices, or of the artful “cake with a section missing” to show off the layers. There’s a very good reason for this: I had no real occasion to make this cake. I just wanted to bake, and with a surprisingly free weekend as a result of – ahem – not very many assignments turned in on time, I launched into the creation of what sounded like a delightful dessert. To avoid, therefore, eating the whole thing ourselves, I took the whole cake to work and left it in the mailroom for my colleagues to enjoy. I left it there in the 7am hour, and when I went to pick up my dish in the early afternoon, only crumbs remained. Don’t feel bad for N. and me, though. I always carve off the rounded tops when I’m going to make a layer cake, and those can’t go to waste… we sampled and then resampled and then decimated them (pride giving way to gluttony?), with a fair sampling of both the jam and the frosting. And let me tell you something: for years, despite my experiments with whisky, with champagne, with fruit, with mousse, N. has demanded only one cake for every birthday, anniversary, or what have you. But after our sampling-turned-gorge, he said it might be okay to sub this in for The Cake once in a while. So sin or not, wellspring or not, I must admit feeling justified in my pride.

Espresso Cake with Cardamom Buttercream
Cake and buttercream adapted from Molly Yeh and King Arthur Flour, respectively
Makes a 4 layer cake from two 8 or 9 inch rounds
For the cake:
1½ cups sugar
2½ cups flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoon baking powder
2-3 teaspoons instant espresso powder
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla
¾ cups strong, cold coffee (I used a cold brew concentrate from Trader Joe’s)
For the filling:
6 plums
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ cup sugar
For the Italian buttercream:
¼ cup water
⅝ cups sugar
¼ cup meringue powder
½ cup water
pinch salt
3 tablespoons sugar
3 sticks butter (24 tablespoons or ¾ of a pound) at a cool room temperature, cut into chunks
1-2 teaspoons ground cardamom

 

  • To make the cake, first preheat the oven to 350F and butter or spray two 8 or 9 inch cake pans with nonstick spray. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and soda, and instant espresso. In another bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients: eggs, buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and coffee. Carefully pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture and fold together just until everything is well incorporated. Be sure to scrape down the sides and check the bottom of the bowl for hidden clumps of flour.
  • Pour and scrape the batter into your prepared cake pans so each holds an even amount. Bake in the preheated 350F oven for 30-35 minutes, but begin checking for doneness at around 28 minutes. When done, a cake tester or toothpick inserted should have only a few moist crumbs. Remove from the oven and cool in pans for at least ten minutes, before removing from pans to cool completely on a wire rack.
  • While the cakes are cooling, make the filling. I opted not to peel the plums because I like the color and the texture the skins offer, but you can if you want: cut a small x in the bottom of each whole plum and immerse in boiling water for about 30 seconds. The skin should peel off fairly easily. Slice and pit the plums and dump them into a medium pot.
  • Skins or not, slice and pit the plums and add them, the lemon juice, and the sugar to a medium pot. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, and cook until the plums have broken down and the mixture has slightly thickened. For me, this took around 20 minutes. Scrape out of the pot and into a bowl (to cool faster) and set aside to cool completely.
  • Once both cakes and jam have completely cooled, you can set to work on the buttercream. Start the ¼ cup water and ⅝ cups sugar cooking in a small pot. Check the temperature occasionally – it needs to come to 240F. While that is heating, make the meringue by whisking together the meringue powder, the ½ cup water, and the pinch of salt in the bowl of a stand mixer on high speed until you can see tracks forming in the fluffy white mixture. With the mixer running, sprinkle in the 3 tablespoons sugar and continue beating until the mixture is stiff.
  • When the sugar syrup has reached 240F, carefully remove it from the heat and even more carefully, with the mixer running on medium-low speed, pour all of the hot syrup slowly down the side of the bowl. Once it is incorporated, turn the mixer speed back up to high or medium high and continue whisking until the meringue mixture cools to at least 80F. KAF suggests you can speed this up by wrapping the bowl in ice packs, and I found this worked well.
  • As soon as the meringue cools the 80F (and no sooner!), turn the mixer speed down to medium and begin incorporating the butter a few pieces at a time, allowing them to fully integrate before adding more. When most of the butter is in the mix, add the cardamom: 1 teaspoon if you want a mild flavor, 2 teaspoons for a more assertive flavor.
  • After all the butter is added, keep on whisking. At a certain point the mixture will collapse on itself and look like a greasy, clumpy mess. Don’t despair. Just keep on mixing. As long as your meringue was no warmer than 80F when you started adding and your butter wasn’t melted, eventually it will start to smooth and get fluffy, and you’ll have frosting.
  • To assemble the whole thing, use a long serrated knife to carefully carve the rounded tops off each cake, then slice each in half for four thin layers. On a cake plate or cardboard round, place the first layer bottom side down (that is, the side that touched the bottom of the cake pan). (Reserve the other bottom for the very top layer; this allows for a flat, less crumb-y layer on the top.) Scoop a generous amount of buttercream into a piping bag fitted with a tip that has a wide opening of any shape. Pipe a circle of buttercream around the top edge of the bottom cake layer to create a border so the filling won’t escape. Inside this border, spoon about ⅓ of the plum jam and use the back of a spoon to carefully spread it out just to the buttercream.
  • Place another layer of cake on top of this buttercream and jam, lining it up carefully so it’s even with the one below. Repeat the border of buttercream and ⅓ of the plum jam.
  • Repeat for the third layer – you should now have used up all of the plum jam.
  • Stack the final cake layer with the bottom side (that is, the side that originally touched the cake pan) facing up.
  • To create a crumb coat, use an offset spatula to smooth a thin layer of frosting all the way around the cake. The idea here is to catch any crumbs that detach from the cake in this thin layer so when you add the rest of the frosting it will not have any tell-tale cake crumbs in the smooth frosting.
  • Scoop and pile all but about 1 cup of frosting onto the top of the cake and use an offset spatula to gently move it toward, down, and around the sides, until you have a smooth, even layer all the way around. Scoop the remaining cup or so of frosting into a piping bag fitted with a tip of your choosing – I used a large star tip – and decorate as desired.

Potato Crusted Salmon with Pea and Arugula Puree

There’s not much of a story here, only an observation my sister made that it seems like I’m into fancy food lately. I attribute this to spring break, when I made the dishes in my last three posts, because I had some time on my hands and I wanted to play. This recipe, and the deviled eggs crostini from last month, came from a list I keep on my laptop of food ideas, which oddly enough doesn’t often get used – I write down delicious-sounding concepts, and then I forget about them.

Not so with this one anymore. Very loosely imagined after a dish N. had years and years ago on the Oregon coast that just wasn’t as good as it should have been, I decided to top salmon filets with an herby crab salad, then wrap the whole thing in wafer-thin slices of potato and serve it over a velvety smooth puree of peas and arugula. Very spring.

The finished dish was good, and the flavor was delicious. It was not, however, as perfectly beautiful as it could have been, largely because I think to make this dish as gorgeous as it deserves to be, you really need a mandolin or a v-slicer, which is equipment I don’t have (largely because my kitchen storage situation leaves a bit to be desired). I made do with a potato peeler, as can you, in a pinch, but the results were only passable, not stellar.

Notes below about crab and puree options: jumbo lump is, of course, the premium choice, but lately I’ve found a mixture of jumbo or regular lump and claw meat is just fine. As for the puree, as I note below, you can choose your texture to please your palate (and your partner’s); I went with something pesto-like, but processing or blending further would offer a smoother sauce, and passing through a strainer, though somewhat time consuming, would produce a silky bright green sauce. Proceed as desired.

Potato Crusted Salmon with Pea and Arugula Puree
About 45 minutes
Serves 2 (with leftover crab salad)
For the crab salad:
Zest of one lime
Zest of one lemon
3 TB finely minced dill + a few extra sprigs to garnish if desired
1 TB finely minced chives
2 TB finely minced celery and/or radish
10 ounces crab meat, carefully picked through for cartilage pieces
about 3 TB mayonnaise
salt and pepper to taste
For the salmon:
2 6 ounce boneless, skinless salmon filets
3-4 medium Yukon gold potatoes
salt and pepper to taste
1 TB butter
1 TB olive oil
For the pea and arugula puree:
4 ounces defrosted frozen peas
2 TB butter
2 ounces baby arugula
1 TB lemon juice or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
Optional: blanched pencil asparagus

 

  • First, make the crab salad: combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. You can use whatever sort of crab you want; I like a mixture of lump, for the sweetness, and regular or crab and claw meat, for the affordability. Start with the recommended 3 TB mayonnaise, but you can add more if desired. You are looking for just enough that the mixture starts to hold together. Set the finished crab salad aside until it is time to assemble.
  • For the salmon, preheat the oven to 375F. Do a quick but thorough check of the filets to ensure there are no bones. Salt and pepper the fish on both sides, then set aside until the potatoes are ready.
  • The easiest way to proceed is to make very thin vertical slices of the potatoes on the wider side using a mandolin slicer, so you end up with long, wide strips. If you are using a mandolin, you will probably only need 2 potatoes worth of wide strips. Use the third potato to make round slices, like potato chips, by cutting horizontally across the small ends. If you don’t have a mandolin, you can do a passable job with a y-shaped potato peeler. Again, try for the longest, widest slices you can manage. You’ll probably need all 4 potatoes if you are using a peeler, because at a certain point you won’t be able to carve out clean slices anymore. Use 3 of the potatoes to make the long, wide strips, then use the fourth one to make the round, potato chip shaped slices.
  • To assemble, on a cutting board, lay out a row of long, wide potato strips, slightly overlapping, about an inch longer on each side than the filet. Add a second row just above it, again overlapping, so you have a kind of carpet of potato slices, as in the photo below.
  • Set the filet in the center of the potato slices, flesh side up (that is, the side where the skin used to be should rest on the potato layer). Using a spoon, top the filet with a few tablespoons of the crab salad, spreading it evenly across the surface.
  • Now the hard part: working quickly, begin wrapping the potato slices around the salmon. As you bring the overlapping layers up to the top, shingle on a layer of the round slices to hold the long pieces up and together. Check out the photo below to see what I mean.
  • Okay, now the other hard part: heat the butter and olive oil together in a medium skillet over medium high heat. When the fat is quite hot, use a spatula and your hand to carefully but quickly add the wrapped filets to the skillet, trying to get the shingled top side into the butter and oil mixture first. Sear without disturbing for 4 minutes, then carefully flip and place the whole skillet into your preheated 375F oven for 10 minutes.
  • While the fish is in the oven, make the pea and arugula pesto: in a small pot, cook the peas with the 2 TB butter just until they are hot. Add them to a food processor with the arugula, the lemon zest, and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Process until fairly smooth, then taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.
  • If you want to be fancy, you can strain the puree until a thin, smooth sauce. I decided to leave it more like a pesto texture, though, for ease.
  • If you are making the asparagus, now is a good time to blanch it and toss it with a tiny bit of butter, lemon, and salt.
  • To serve, place a scoop of the puree in the center of a plate or a shallow bowl. Use the back of a spoon to spread it into a circle. Alternatively, if you strained the mixture into a sauce, just pour some into the bottom of the vessel you’ve chosen. Place the potato-wrapped fish carefully just to the side of the center, so you can see some of the bright green circle underneath. If you made the pencil asparagus, you can nestle this between the fish and the edge of your plate or bowl, as in the photo earlier in the post.

Rain check

Yargh, such a bad blogger! Though if I’m being kind to myself, it would be more accurate to say I’m such a busy blogger I don’t have time to be a blogger.

I did have a post for you today. I promise. But yesterday I got so busy making the extravagant “project cook” recipe for next week that I ran out of time to write about the post I’d intended for today. Irony, no?

So here’s the question, then, so we can be up to date and set to go for next week: which would you rather see next, cake or salmon? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to get my act together for next Monday.

Small Batch Lemon Lavender Sugar Cookies

This is a story about two of my friends. They are very different, and our friendships are very different, but they both have a connection to these sugar cookies.

In high school, M. was my best friend. We met at the beginning of our 8th grade year, and as a newcomer to the area, I was on the lookout for a companion. Within about three weeks, our friendship was cemented. We were in many of the same classes, we played the same instrument, we lived within a mile of one another, and we had many of the same interests. That’s a pales-in-comparison way of saying we spent at least a chunk of almost every weekend together from eighth grade through our senior year.

We had a number of misadventures in our years together, and though we grew apart a bit during college and fell out of touch for a while in graduate school, these movements punctuated by increasing geographical distance as she went to the East Coast and then to Great Britain, we made little sparkling moments of contact, particularly around food – I sent her a box of Triscuits because she missed American crackers (she was horrified by their saltiness, far more than she remembered), she sent back a box of Maldon sea salt, astounded by its U.S. prices. We weren’t able to attend one another’s weddings, but thanks to the coziness of the internet we can keep an occasional eye on one another, and that feels nice.

The most crucial of our adventures for this post was one chilly afternoon in high school. We were at my house, as was typical, and decided we wanted to bake some cookies. Not chocolate chip this time, though. Plain old sugar cookies. We dug out my Complete Guide to Country Cooking book my nana had sent me when she first learned I was interested in cooking, and went to work.

The problem with sugar cookies is that they have to be rolled out and cut, and that requires workable dough. Our instructions, the same instructions I’m following here, called for the dough to be chilled for at least an hour. But we wanted cookies! We decided it probably wouldn’t require a full hour of chilling. We’d check on it earlier. We may have waited ten minutes. We tried rolling and made a squelchy, horrible mess. Back into the fridge went the dough for maybe another ten minutes. Ad infinitum.

It turns out that when you lug a bowl of dough out of the fridge every few minutes, try and fail to roll it out, and then do the same thing ten minutes later, the butter doesn’t have enough time to harden back up and come to a rollable consistency. I don’t remember exactly what we did with the mess we finally abandoned; it probably went into the trash and we headed up to the computer to entertain ourselves with SimCity or King’s Quest or something. But our handiwork remains both in my mind and on the page bearing that recipe, and it was indelible enough for M. that she coerced a group of her college pals into recreating the cookie-baking episode on VHS (!!) for me as a birthday gift one year.

In graduate school, VV was one of my friends. We weren’t tremendously close, as she entered the program a few years after me and thus circumstances put us at different places in our studies and in our lives, but we always got along, and I remember a lovely afternoon teaching-evaluation-disguised-as-coffee-session during which we chatted about the classroom experience. VV and I, too, stay connected via that simultaneous glory and trash fire that is the internet – her Facebook page gives me a little window into her life and, most importantly to this particular story, another kind of baking: her current adventures in ceramics. Shortly before Valentine’s Day, VV showed off some hearts with inspirational messages she was preparing for the kiln, and being her generous self, offered them up to friends who admired them. A few weeks later, I received a beautiful heart, dark rose in color, with spiraled floral patterns surrounding the encouraging words “Be Brave.”

VV, then, needed a thank you. And inspired in part by another ceramics project in which she pressed lavender stems into clay to create lovely little garden signs (“Welcome Spring!” “Welcome bees!”) I realized it was time to dig out the old sugar cookie recipe and shake it up a bit with the addition of some culinary lavender and a little lemon zest.

I’m calling this a “small batch” recipe because it only makes about 18-20 cookies, if you use my size suggestion of 2×3 inch rectangles. But I really think, unless you are having a party, that’s enough. Almost two dozen cookies is enough to last a few days: it’s not so much piping that your hand cramps up, the cookies don’t get stale, and you don’t get tired of them. Though if we’re honest, with the sharp lemon and the hint of perfume from the lavender, there’s really no danger of that.

A few notes: the cookies taste a touch on the salty side by themselves, because I wanted to account for the sweetness of the frosting – with 4 cups of powdered sugar at minimum, it has the potential to quickly become overwhelming. If you aren’t frosting these, go ahead and halve the quantity of salt I’ve called for.

I’ve also gone a bit overboard on the decorations – I wanted them to reflect their inspiration, so I crafted little portrait frames and piped my best attempt at lavender onto them. I include an approximation of my method below, but you could opt for flowers of any kind, or birds, bees, butterflies, or whatever you’d like. For filling but also delicate detail piping, the best option for cookies is royal icing. It is reasonably easy to make, you can mix it with different thicknesses – firm enough to hold its shape in detail work, or thin and flowing in what’s called “flood” icing – and it dries rock hard. Since I was sending these through the mail and since I didn’t know how VV would feel about a traditional royal icing’s requirement of raw egg whites, I opted for meringue powder instead, which works near miraculously.

 

Small Batch Lavender Lemon Sugar Cookies
Makes 18-20 2×3 inch cookies
2-3 hours, including time to chill, cool, and ice finished cookies
For cookies:
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon culinary lavender
3/8 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 3/8 cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
For royal icing:
¼ cup meringue powder
¼-½ cup water
¼-½ cup lemon juice
4-5 cups powdered sugar
optional: gel or liquid food coloring

 

  • To make the cookies, first add the sugar, lemon zest, and lavender to your mixing bowl. Use your fingertips to rub the zest and lavender into the sugar, releasing their oils and breaking up the blossoms a bit. Add the butter and use an electric mixer or the stand mixer paddle attachment to cream the butter and flavored sugar together until they are light and fluffy.
  • Add the egg and the lemon juice and cream together again. It may look slightly curdled thanks to the acid in the lemon juice, but don’t worry. It will be okay.
  • Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and gradually add it to the creamed mixture. It will seem a bit dry at first; mix it a few seconds more and you’ll almost see it start to moisten and come together.
  • Pat the combined mixture into a ball and then chill the dough for one hour, until it is easy to handle.
  • When the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, or, my preference, place it between two large pieces of parchment paper. Use a rolling pin to roll it out to a rough rectangle of ¼ inch thickness. It may take a few minutes for the dough to warm up before it becomes rollable.
  • Cut the dough into 2×3 inch rectangles (or use a flour-dipped cookie cutter of your choice) and place on the parchment lined cookie sheets. Reroll remaining dough and cut again, and so on until you have used all of the dough.
  • Bake the cookies at 375F for 8-10 minutes, until they are just barely golden around the edges. If you’ve cut different sized cookies, you may have to adjust this baking time. Remove to wire racks to cool completely before icing.
  • To make the royal icing, mix ¼ cup meringue powder with ¼ cup water and ¼ cup lemon juice. Beat until peaks form and the mixture is glossy.
  • Working about 1 cup at a time, add 3½ cups sifted powdered sugar and beat until fairly stiff. This will be approximately the right texture for the “flood” icing, which is useful to fill areas, as I did with the white surface on my cookies. Scoop out about half of this into a separate bowl.
  • To the remaining mixture, add another ½-1 cup powered sugar and beat until very stiff – you are looking for something pipeable that will hold its shape.
  • Load about a cup of the firmer icing into a piping bag fitted with a small round tip. If you don’t have a piping bag, you can cut off a small piece of the corner from a ziptop plastic bag and fit the tip into that. I haven’t tried doing this without a metal piping tip, but if the hole in the bag was small enough you might be able to make it work.
  • Starting from one corner, pipe a thin rectangular border around the top surface of each cookie, as in my photo above. Don’t go quite to the edge – a very thin visible edge of cookie looks nice.
  • Using a spoon, a small spatula, or another piping bag loaded with a tip that has a wider opening, fill the space inside your piped borders with the thinner “flood” icing. If this icing isn’t thin enough to spread quite easily, you can add more water and/or lemon juice 1 tablespoon at a time until it is the consistently you want. It should still be thick, but almost flow when you tip the cookie back and forth. Use the spoon, spatula, or piping tip to coax the icing into all crevices until you have a thin but opaque layer of icing totally filling your piped border.
  • When you’ve finished filling in the tops of the cookies, it’s time for intricate decorations. If you’re using color, divide up your remaining firm icing. You’ll need as many separate bowls as you want separate colors. If you are using gel coloring, add just a small smear to begin with, as it’s very strong. I used just a fractional bit of green, and a few drips each of red and blue to make my “lavender” purple. When you have the colors you want, load up a piping bag fitted with a small round tip and get started.
  • To pipe lavender stems, start with the green. Draw a straight or curved line about 2/3 of the way up the cookie from the bottom edge of the frosted portion. Add a few leaves on either side by piping just a small straight line of icing attached to the main stem.
  • To pipe the lavender flowers, using pale purple icing in a piping bag fitted with the small round tip, squeeze small dots starting from the top edge of your green stem up until your flower head seems tall enough. Right next to that column of dots, do another one. Squeeze a final column of dots right in the center, on top of and between the other two, as you can see in my photos above. Lavender sometimes has small, less developed flowerheads sprouting out from just above its leaves, so you can also pipe a dot or two above the leaves here and there, as you can see I’ve done in some of mine.
  • When everything is piped to your satisfaction, set the cookies aside. The icing will take several hours to dry, but once it has, it will be incredibly solid – hard enough, in fact, to make it in one piece through the mail from Los Angeles to Eugene, Oregon, yet not so hard that it hurts your teeth.