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.

“slow food”

There is beauty in slowness. I recently ran across the argument that we (as Americans, in particular) don’t value times of slowness and times of do-nothing-ness because they are times lacking in productivity, and for us, lack of productivity = lack of worth. So because I am not actively producing something when I curl in my favorite chair or “succumb” to the feeling of not wanting to read an article or compose a post or imagine a dish, I am being “lazy” or “wasting” my time.

But immediacy, and busyness, and the constant need to be doing something “worthwhile” can be damaging. I have to remind myself of that, especially as I hold in my consciousness the truth that I haven’t posted here in over a month, and mentally wring my hands that I haven’t been motivated to get in the kitchen and photograph my doings or try to imagine a dish that doesn’t already exist in 25 easier, quicker, and cleverer versions than the one I’m just beginning to consider.

This mental wringing has led to two possible “projects” for 2020, both of which I initially leapt upon with great enthusiasm. Yes. This was it. And then, as the first week of the month and then the second passed, and I started to consider grocery lists and recipe structures as well as planning my own scholarship and a sudden spate of meetings and a few necessary jobs on the house and a possible family visit and a handful of get-togethers with friends, they fizzled. And that’s okay.

So I have to remind myself, as I watch another week go by and get yet another (five or six at least) notification(s) from various social media connections to this blog that it’s been a while since I last posted, that slow is okay. Not posting is okay. It’s okay, in a labor of love that this blog is intended to be, if I don’t toss something up there just for the sake of posting. It’s okay to let things mull and slosh around in my brain for a while, deciding what comes next. This is an especially good reminder given the other kind of writing I’m sinking into this month, which is entirely academic: it’s okay if it unrolls slowly.

These truths together – that doing “nothing” is okay, and that slow does not mean lazy – help me see that, at least for a little while, I may need to change directions here, in this little space. This has been for a long time a recipe blog. It has been a place I use to show you what I am cooking in words and in images and provide you with the capability, through a recipe that is usually carefully planned but sometimes, I’ll admit with only a glimmer of shame, approximated, to recreate the dish about which I must wax poetic. But this space began, back in 2008, as a replacement for an old Live Journal that was turning into a meal-planning diary. It was a place for me to talk about food: the food I was growing, the food I was cooking, the food I was consuming and what I thought about it. And that was exciting.

I think, for a little while at least, I’m going to return to that. Instead of fighting myself to create, develop, and perfect a dish that can be photographed beautifully and codified into an easy-to-follow recipe, which is how I’ve felt about this space in the last couple of months, I’m going to take a breath and just… talk about food. It’s a bit of a low-pressure refresh: slow, thought driven instead of schedule-driven, reflective and free.

Let’s see what happens.

Zucchini Spice Bread with Cherries (now with post and recipe!)

This past summer, we did not grow zucchini. Still traumatized by the various baseball bats we had to consume the previous year, N. flatly refused it. He couldn’t find the humor even in my joke that we would only grow a small one… Needless to say, no zucchini graced our table this summer.

But I missed it. In particular, I missed my favorite zucchini bread recipe, a cinnamon-spiced affair with an appealingly-crusty top but still-moist center from The Bon Appétit Cookbook that I’ve made probably at least a dozen times. It’s lightly sweet, it’s not overwhelmingly, well, zucchini flavored, and you don’t even have to squeeze out the grated squash before adding it to the mixture. In fact, you shouldn’t; the recipe relies on some of that wetness to attain the correct consistency. Buying zucchini from the grocery store to put toward this purpose just didn’t seem right – this was, as the book itself declares, a recipe designed for a zucchini harvest.

So when one of my coworkers advertised her bounty, I suggested that I’d be willing to take one of her prolific squashes off of her hands, and as a result I received a delivery at least as long as my forearm. Yes. This meant zucchini bread. To keep myself interested, in this incarnation I not only included the deeply toasted chopped walnuts the recipe calls for, but subbed in some almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour to add extra nuttiness and – not that this recipe needs it – assured moisture. I also added my most recent baking obsession: a generous few handfuls of tart dried cherries. And then, since just a loaf will never do, I made four. And I still had a chunk of zucchini left that’s probably still at least 6-7 inches long.

This recipe calls for two cups of grated zucchini. And that seems like a lot, until you realize it really only takes one reasonably sized squash to make that amount. So here I’m offering a recipe for two loaves, since if you’re facing down a bed-full of zucchini, that’s the least you’ll want to make. They freeze beautifully too, so you can sock away a loaf or two until you, or your family, or your neighbors, are feeling zucchini-receptive again. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, just in case the end pieces feel a little dry, toasting and adding a generous smear of cream cheese is revelatory.

 

Zucchini Spice Bread with Cherries
Adapted (barely) from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves 9x5x3 inch loaves
2 cups chopped walnuts
6 large eggs
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond meal or almond flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
4 cups coarsely grated zucchini, not squeezed
2½ cups dried tart cherries, such as Montmorency

 

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. While it heats, scatter the walnuts on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven to toast. The nuts should go about two shades darker brown and look slightly oily when you take them out. Once nicely toasted, remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • Prepare two metal loaf pans by spraying with non-stick cooking spray or rubbing with butter or oil.
  • Using an electric mixer or a stand mixer, beat the eggs in a large bowl until they are foamy. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar, then beat until the mixture is very thick and pale. This takes a good 3-4 minutes. Slowly beat in the oil, then the vanilla.
  • In another bowl, whisk together the flour, the almond meal, the salt, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder. With the mixer on low speed, beat in this dry mixture in three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl in between.
  • Gently fold in the walnuts and cherries to ensure even distribution. The batter will be extremely thick. Don’t despair! Fold in the zucchini (it will be almost too much for a standard stand mixer, but it will fit. Mostly). The batter will loosen up considerably as the grated pieces release moisture.
  • Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake at 350F until the top is dry and crusty, and a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out clean. This pretty dependably takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Cool the loaf for at least 5 minutes in the pan before turning it out onto a rack to cool completely.

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.

Tarte au Citron au David Lebovitz

Now with photos!

As I mentioned way back in August, while in France this summer N. fell head-over-heels-silly in love with tarte au citron. This is far from shocking; as far as I’ve been able to determine – and I’ve been feeding him for some time now – his two favorite flavoring agents are lemon and plain old black pepper.

Of course I intended to make him one – well, us; I can’t say I don’t also love what is essentially lemon curd in pie form – but somehow months passed and I never got around to it. And this weekend, facing down the disappointment of a wonderful green salsa I intended to share with you until it almost caused an electrical fire and may have destroyed my blender, at which point I stopped paying attention to quantities and photography, I had to square off against the equally important truths that it’s been almost a month since I last published anything here, and that I just didn’t feel like engaging in recipe development to try and make something innovative when the existing reality is basically perfection already.

So I’m trying something new. I’m allowing myself an option I shouldn’t think of as “lazy,” but as informative. I’m reporting on a recipe I used. Here, I’ve made David Lebovitz’s tarte au citron, employing an unusual method for tart dough he learned from a friend, and a filling that was exactly what I needed to make loving use of two lemon-filled bags I received recently from friends (thanks, M. and A!). Those contributions not used here went into a big pitcher of pisco sours I, regrettably, didn’t think to photograph until they were half gone. What kind of blogger even am I?

The method for the dough reminded me of the base for pate a choux, which you’d use for cream puffs, eclairs, or churros: the butter is melted and the flour gets stirred into it; no obsession with cold fat here. I found the quantity of dough just a touch less than I comfortably wanted to press into my tart pan, and in fact a few cracks did develop as it baked, but the genius idea of saving a piece of raw dough “about the size of a raspberry” to patch cracks prevented any filling leakage.

I do think I cooked the filling a little longer than I should have, as it took a while to strain and there were some suspiciously eggy looking bits left in my sieve. But hey, less time in the oven?

N. made “mmm” noises a lot while he ate his slice, so I think it passed muster, though the edges of the crust were uneven and we weren’t sitting at a table outside a restaurant in a cobbled alley in the south of France. The tart shell here is buttery and crisp, though I wonder if cooking the butter a touch longer would offer the extra luxury of brown butter flavor. Many of Lebovitz’s commenters said it was flaky; I found it more like shortbread, but was pleased with the texture. The curd inside is rich and silky and not overly sweet; tasting it made me salivate a little in a way I appreciate from tart desserts.

My “original” addition here is limited to adding some blackberries before serving. While it’s certainly not particularly innovative to add fruit to a dessert, they were a nice textural change and flavor pairing for the lemon. And they were on sale. If you’re going to do the same, you might even toss them lightly in some sugar before placing and serving (though if you’re going to try this, you’ll need to slice and eat fast, because sugaring the berries will make them bleed juice into the pristine sunshiny surface of your tart).

Tart Dough recipe here

Lemon filling and assembly recipe here