I once worked for a place that mandated a group coffee break every Friday. When the time came, we’d file from our cubicles into the conference room and sit around a massive U-shaped table. Someone would produce the week’s snack and pass it around to go with whatever tea or coffee we’d carried in from our desks.
The gathering was a nice idea, something that should have fostered collegiality and generated some laughs. But it was, unstoppably, dreadful. MORE
When I was eleven years old, my family moved to a house that had once been owned by a botanist. She left behind antique apple trees, a row of lilac bushes and a rhubarb patch the size of a queen bed. Every April, the rhubarb would start to unfurl from the soil and I knew that spring was really and truly on its way.
Rose water is like that sequined, lime green blazer you have sitting in your closet. Totally impractical to wear every day yet, on certain occasions, it can take an ordinary recipe and transform it into something with extra flare and a special unique quality. But when exactly is the “certain occasion” for rose water? Frilly tea parties, with dainty pastries? Or perhaps hosting a super swanky bingo night for the ladies over at the nursing home? After all, there’s no getting around the fact that the perfume-esque liquid smells a little bit like your grandma.
When I was in culinary school, I learned that the tools of any pastry chef are flour, butter, milk, and eggs. With these four ingredients, you can make nearly anything in a pastry shop: flaky croissants, moist cakes, toothsome breads and more. The ingredients are few; the execution nuanced and complex.
Similarly, with two basic ingredients: cacao beans and sugar, plus the occasional dash of lecithin or vanilla, bean-to-bar chocolate makers create chocolate. Cacao beans are fermented, dried, roasted, and crushed into small pieces called nibs. The nibs are then ground into a paste, to which sugar and lecithin is added, and the resulting chocolate is refined until it’s silky smooth.
In the examples below, these chocolate companies add salt and nibs to their chocolate. The result is chocolate in two forms—the kind that melts on your tongue, plus the kind that crunches between your teeth—kicked up with a salty crackle. And tasters diligent (or curious) enough to pry the nibs from the bar can taste chocolate’s more primitive form.
There’s nothing romantic about February. In most of the northern hemisphere, the shortest month is also the dreariest: a gray, wet, slog through yet another winter month, with spring a little too far away to offer much hope. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of the world’s most madcap celebrations take place in the February gloom: Mardi Gras and other pre-Lenten bacchanals tend to fall in this month, and the young men of ancient Rome celebrated Lupercalia mid-February by running naked through the streets and slapping young women with strips of leather.
Between the middle ages and the industrial era, St. Valentine’s feast day had something of this carnivalesque character in England, though more restrained. February 14th was one of several feast days that offered a brief reprieve from the grind of work and prayer, and the celebrations were playful, giddy, perhaps even a little irreverent. Unmarried village men and women played fortune-telling games to divine their future mates; one such game involved dropping names into a box and drawing out the name of your “valentine,” or the person Fate was disposed to match with you. Songs were sung, small gifts were exchanged.
The first morning of a recent business trip to British Columbia, I walked into a bakery for coffee and walked out with coffee and a fascinating treat called a Nanaimo bar. I took a bite. I was a goner. Along with the butter tart, the Nanaimo (pronounced Nuh-NIME-oh) bar is one of the great Canadian sweets, a 3-layer chocolate-and-vanilla cream confection that puts the drab brownie to shame. The genius of the bar lies in its contrasting flavors and textures. A nubby cocoa crust is iced with cool, smooth vanilla cream which is in turn capped with a thin layer of melted chocolate. The recipe first appeared in a 1952 hospital auxiliary cookbook under the name “chocolate square” and while no one is sure who invented it, or where, the town of Nanaimo takes the credit. I spent the next four days of my trip sampling Nanaimo bars everywhere I went, which was easy because they are ubiquitous, the chocolate chip cookie of British Columbia. For the record, if you’re ever in Victoria, Bond Bond’s bakery made the best Nanaimo bar I tasted, although the Nanaimo bar at a Vancouver Starbucks was pretty terrific. MORE
If licorice conjures memories of movie theaters and popcorn, then turn your thoughts to the dark side. The distinctive flavor of black licorice is usually associated with chewy candy, but there’s so much more to it. Salted licorice offers a satisfying chew that’s part savory, part sweet. Anise seeds have an earthy, almost spicy character. Fennel gives two more options: Raw, it has a crisp, bright taste and cooking brings out its syrupy sweetness. Star anise makes for a pretty garnish, but it also has a delicate sweetness. And tarragon’s subtle licorice flavor is tempered with herbaceous notes.
Given the versatility of licorice flavors, it’s a prime candidate for combining with chocolate. It can be tricky to pair the right type of licorice flavor with the right type of chocolate, but in the hands of these three chocolate companies, the results are something to savor. MORE
If a couple weeks ago you earnestly pledged yourself to some New Year’s resolution, I’m a little annoyed at you. This is for several reasons.
One, chances are, your resolution involves getting in shape. Not to discourage in-shape-itude here, but the thing is, when all of you, the Resolved, suddenly descend on the gym on January 2nd in your new white sneakers, you take up all the good treadmills before I get there. Then, I get stuck on the old one that squeaks, behind the guy whose butt is exposed, plumber-like, atop his ill-fitting basketball shorts. Yes, this only lasts about a month before you let your memberships languish, but still. Not cool, guys.
Two, resolutions as we know them set us up for disappointment. If your resolution is to abstain from dessert, then the instant you cave and eat an Oreo sometime in February, you feel like a loser and go back to your old ways, inhaling whole sleeves wood-chipper style. And so I’m annoyed at you for depriving yourself of the chance to genuinely improve your relationship with dessert.
So, instead of convincing ourselves we can swear off sweets for good, let’s spend 2013 enjoying a better kind of sweet. The kind the planet invented all by itself.
Why are there no classic grapefruit desserts? We love orange souffle, Key lime pie, and lemon bars (and cookies, cake, tart, curd, pudding, ice cream), but the only grapefruit dessert that springs to mind is grapefruit sorbet. Which doesn’t count. Sorbet is extremely cold juice, and however delicious, it is not really dessert.
Is the dearth of grapefruit desserts because people associate the fruit with misery and dieting, not pleasure and indulgence? Or is there something in the nature of a grapefruit that doesn’t lend itself to dessert?
I decided to try grapefruit in different dessert formats. Here with the results:
Cookies. By substituting grapefruit (zest and juice) for lemon in a basic Martha Stewart recipe, I ended up with a tasty cookie that made peoples’ mouths tingle and tasted like Fresca. In a good way! But while all the cookies were eaten, no one begged me to bake them again. MORE
Peanuts get a bad rap these days, from outright bans at schools to bags of Halloween candy proudly declaring their peanut deficiency. But when I was a kid, the more peanuts, the better. I present for your deliberation: Mars versus Snickers. Mars bar? Cloyingly sweet with an oddly slick texture. Snickers bar? Caramelly, chewy, and delicious—and stuffed with peanuts. I rest my case.
If peanuts are good, then peanuts and chocolate is better. There’s a reason that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups have endured since 1928, and it isn’t because my college roommate used to—and probably still does—eat them compulsively. MORE
Every December I decide to make an English steamed pudding, and every December I don’t make an English steamed pudding. Why not? Plum pudding sounds like the most magical Yuletide dessert, rosy and succulent and full of plums. Then I pull out a cookbook, read the ingredients, and remember why I’ve never made one. Plum pudding is not rosy and succulent and plummy; is is black, alcoholic, and raisiny. This would be ok with me, but no one else in my family would touch such a dessert. Figgy pudding, packed with dried fruit and rum, would be every bit as unpopular. So how could I ever have a steamed English pudding for the holidays? MORE
I recently decided to go gluten-free and, most of the time, it doesn’t really bug me. I don’t mind skipping the starchy foods I used to rely on for the easy quick-prep meals that characterized my diet. Of course, there are those little things I miss now and then, like whipping up a plate of fluffy pancakes on Sunday morning, or sinking my teeth into a really good slice of crispy thin-crust New York pizza.
But at this time of year, I’ve found myself only missing one thing: Cookies. When Thanksgiving ends and the holiday season officially begins, seemingly earlier than the year before, the pumpkin pies and cranberry scones disappear in favor of brightly decorated reindeer-shaped sugar cookies and wide-eyed smiling gingerbread men.
If you’re anything like me, you may be worried that your family won’t want to give up their usual holiday cookies in favor of gluten-free treats that you can enjoy. But here are some delicious alternatives everyone will love—so make sure you have extras! MORE
During my childhood, my parents always gave homemade gifts to their friends, co-workers, and employees during the holiday season. My dad would stir up industrial-sized batches of his super-secret pancake mix, package it in zip top bags, and pair it with jars of my mom’s blueberry jam.
In exchange, we’d receive plates of chewy homemade toffees, tins of dense, sugar-dusted pfeffernusse and giant bags of long-roasted Chex Mix. (I loved the nearly burnt bits most of all.)
Since becoming an adult, I’ve spent years searching out my signature holiday treat, so that I could have a thing that my friends and neighbors would look forward to each December. I’ve tried tiny frosted sugar cookies (too much work), dark chocolate toffees (delicious, but I could not abide the endless wrapping), and pumpkin seed brittle (good, but not everyone likes grassy flavor of pumpkin seeds). MORE
If we’ve learned anything from the locavore movement, it’s that relationships are important. Those heirloom tomatoes, the ones with furrows like a bulldog’s forehead? They’ve been imbued with the passion of the tomato farmer, whose face may or may not be equally wrinkly. That tomato is the vehicle for a relationship—one between you and the tomato farmer. Logically, that relationship extends to other foods, like eggplants, kale, and strawberries. But when it comes to food other than produce, such as cheese, wine, or chocolate, things get a bit more complicated.
Consider the chocolate truffle. If you take pains to shop at local businesses, then you probably know the person who made it. This person is a chocolatier—someone who buys chocolate and uses it as an ingredient. For example, they can add mint-infused cream and a knob of butter to make mint truffles, or dapple a thin layer of chocolate with fruits and nuts to make bark. Or they can pour liquid chocolate into a mold to have it emerge as a hoppy bunny or bearded man. MORE
The Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook by Christina Tosi is the most frustrating and ridiculous book I have ever tried to bake from. It is also one of the most brilliant. I pulled it off the shelf for the first time 10 days ago to attempt Tosi’s famous crack pie, which is supposedly so sugary that people start trembling after a few bites and so delicious that they keep right on eating. (The pie, a souped-up version of the classic Southern chess pie, retails for $44 at the Milk Bar bakery in New York City.)
I soon discovered that a key ingredient–freeze-dried corn–had to be mail-ordered. As I waited for that to arrive (I’m waiting still), I also discovered that once you’ve opened this book, it is hard to close. Milk Bar isn’t just another pretty collection of cobbler and cookie recipes. Tosi’s garishly colored confections range from the unusual to the demented, and they marry premium ingredients, like Plugra butter, to American junk food, like Cap’n Crunch. This is the only baking book on the planet that will show you how to make a Fruity Pebbles marshmallow cookie and a Saltine panna cotta. MORE
The way some people love antique furniture, I love antique pie recipes. Vintage American cookbooks are full of with mysterious, alluring recipes that hardly anyone bakes anymore — Marlborough pie, Osgood pie, syrup pie, brown-sugar pie, boiled cider pie — and they fascinate me. What does a Kentucky transparent pie taste like? Is it actually transparent? Why did people stop making Tyler pies? Are we missing out on something? Or do recipes go extinct for a reason?
About fifteen years ago I baked a chess pie, a vintage dessert still popular in the South, and I have baked one for Thanksgiving ever since. It is my favorite pie in the world, filled with a blond, jelly-like custard. What other lovely vintage pies would I discover if I started searching? This year, I decided to try to find a great old American pie to resurrect for the Thanksgiving table. I mined my old cookbooks for intriguing recipes, ruling out any that sounded remotely familiar. No chocolate pies, no lemon pies, no apple pies. As I told my daughter Isabel, “The pies have to be antique.” MORE
The 3D printer, that marvel of modern
science that makes it possible to fabricate solid objects such as a piece of jewelry or computer part seemingly from thin air, looks like something out of science fiction. I recently saw one in action at Hive, a science and education co-working space in Philadelphia, and watching three dimensional forms emerge line by line reminds me of the way a sketch artist builds depth in an image from lines and hatchmarks.
The 3D printer “draws” objects from digital models; the printouts can take just about any form that can be created in three dimensions, and can be made with just about any material that can be extruded or pushed through a syringe—even the good stuff: sugar and chocolate.
A few years ago, the New York Times ran a story about ladies in southeastern Alabama who bake fantastic multi-layer cakes to give away every December. A transfixing photograph illustrated the piece, a portrait of a grandmotherly Southerner and her so-called “little layer cake,” a towering confection of 14 yellow discs sandwiched with what appeared to be solid, glossy fudge.
As a native Californian, I find recipes from elderly Southern women far more mysterious and alluring than recipes from, say, Alice Waters. The cake went onto the list of things I want to bake someday, a list I consult every few days as I do not want to die before I make Sussex pond pudding, apple stack cake, or syllabub. MORE
My mom grew up in the fifties and sixties, in one of those idyllic suburban neighborhoods where kids walked to school unsupervised and played outside in the afternoons until the streetlights came on.
There was no better day of the year in her community than October 31. The streets would fill with miniature hobos, ghosts and witches, all clutching brown paper shopping bags to hold their treats, warm winter coats concealing most of their costumes.
These were the days before candy companies got wise and started producing snack and “fun” sized candy bars and long before homemade treats were deemed dangerous. This meant that my mom’s grocery sack ended up filled with full-sized Snickers and Chunky bars, freshly baked gingerbread men from Mrs. Rath and Mr. Brown’s famous popcorn balls. MORE
When it comes to home baking, I tend to be utilitarian. I can turn out a serviceable loaf of banana bread, am fairly comfortable with basic yeast doughs and make a mean oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. However, once I stray beyond my familiar territory, things often go sideways.
It’s not that I’m not interested in more adventurous baking, I simply haven’t had much luck when I’ve tried things like homemade Oreo-style sandwich cookies (the filling separated and tasted like a grease slick) and many-layered cakes (never has a baked good so resembled the leaning tower of Pisa). And while even the ugliest disaster can still be delicious, it’s nice when you find that sweet spot of both visual and palatable success.
Knowing this, you’ll understand that I approached Hedy Goldsmith’s Baking Out Loud with both excitement and a little trepidation. Goldsmith is a pastry chef based in Miami, Florida, who is known for making over-the-top versions of familiar treats (like Twinkies and Cracker Jacks) and her glossy, beautifully photographed first book contains many of the items that have made her famous throughout the South. MORE