Sunday, November 19, 2006

On Becoming a Muffin

I think that am turning into a muffin.

I baked a plump batch of pumpkin muffins three days ago and now my muffin-consumption frequency has officially reached a dangerous level. In fact, as I made my way out of my apartment last night (after my fourth muffin of the day, yes) I glanced in the mirror and I’m pretty sure I could see the beginning traces of a pumpkin-orange hue emanating from my skin.

I am in the midst of a baking kick. It began a few weeks ago with a dinner party and an almond cake, moved along to bread, some batches of oatmeal cookies, and has now landed in the realm of muffins.

Perhaps this baking spree has something to do with the cooler weather, the encroaching holiday season. I love when my oven is full. And baking, comfort, home – they are all intertwined.

Or perhaps it is more of this anniversary syndrome. One year ago, after all, I was working at the Bakery, hammering out apple pies and chocolate babka in the hectic ambush of Thanksgiving orders. When I got home each night my hands, despite numerous washings, felt constantly encased in a thin film of butter and phyllo dough. My lips always tasted of sugar. Those long hours I spent hunched over a large wood table in the bakery kitchen, carefully tracing lines of colorful frosting onto turkey-shaped sugar cookies are now speaking to my culinary subconscious.

This year I have yet to bake anything resembling a barnyard animal, thankfully, as that would be truly troubling. And despite my initial worry, I believe these vivid orange muffins – light, cakey and moist; with a subtle layer of sweetness – are worth the risk of over-consumption. If you had to transform into some non-human thing, I think that they are an excellent choice. I suppose as a pumpkin muffin you wouldn't be able to turn the pages of the book you're reading, ride a bike in the park, or see over the seat in front of you at the movie theater. But, no matter what, you would be an excellent companion to a steaming mug of ginger tea, a bit of Miles Davis, a rainy evening, and a writing project to complete at my desk.

Pumpkin Muffins
adapted from Gourmet Magazine, November 2006

1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin
1/3 cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

-Preheat oven to 350 F.
-Whisk together flour and baking powder in a small bowl.
-Whisk together pumpkin, oil, eggs, spices, sugar, baking soda and salt in another, larger bowl. Once smooth, whisk in the flour until just combined.
-Butter a muffin pan and divide the batter evenly into each inlet (should make 12 muffins).
-Bake for 25-30 minutes, until puffed and golden. A toothpick stuck into the center should come out clean.
-Let rest in the pan for five minutes, and then take out the muffins and allow them to cool on a rack until at room temperature.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bread that Needs no Kneading

The streets were always empty in the chilly pre-dawn hours as I drove to the bakery. The headlights of my car illuminated the street signs, the highway's concrete divider, the brambled bushes lining the back roads. Every morning the radio quietly hummed the news, a metal carafe of coffee steamed in the cup holder by my side, sleep lay heavily in my eyes – I felt as if I were the only one awake.

It was the summer before my freshman year of college and I was working as an assistant pastry chef near my home in suburban Massachusetts. I stumbled into the job not knowing much - my first experience in the professional food world - and left with an ingrained set of culinary skills that have stuck with me ever since. I frost a mean cake, let me tell you.

When I walked into the bakery around 5am each morning, the day’s crop of bread was just emerging from the oven. A result of the night baker's toil, the boxy brown loaves cooled on movable metal shelves until the front doors opened to customers at 7. The muffins and croissants would soon go into the oven, along with the cakes and pastries and scones. The construction of sandwiches and soups was imminent. But at that first moment, right when I arrived and stood talking to the head baker about the day’s work, another cup of coffee cradled in my hands, the room was filled with the scent of pure, unadulterated, overwhelming bread. It was an important part of my daily routine and I loved its warm, sweet aroma - the earthy undertone of yeast. It smelled of the sunlight peeking slowly through the bakery’s window as the day began; the taste of chocolate cake; the feel of puff pastry dough; the fear that lurked constantly in mind with thoughts of my impending college career. It was a scent that made those very early mornings worthwhile – and for a time in my life when I was not so overly food-obsessed and was often out late at night with my high school friends as we shook off those last vestiges of childhood – that says a lot.

When my sense of smell was damaged in the car accident, about 14 months ago now, it was incredibly difficult to come to terms with some of the specific aspects of that loss. The scent of fresh bread being one of them. As my olfactory nerve has healed, certain scents that mean a lot to me have come back with relative haste – rosemary, chocolate, wine – but bread had yet to reemerge.

Yesterday, however, I sat at my kitchen table with a good book (Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka), a mug of tea (green-ginger), some good music (Elvis Perkins, a recent discovery) and I could not stop sniffing the air. Like a great many others, I had been inspired by a recent recipe in the New York Times: the Sullivan Street Bakery’s no-knead bread. It was in the oven and my apartment smelled like the bakery – sweet, nutty, warm. There was even, perhaps, an undertone of puff pastry and sunlight.

The bread itself was shockingly easy to make. On Friday I had tossed some flour, water, yeast and salt into a bowl. Saturday afternoon I threw it (in a pre-heated, covered, cast iron pot) in the oven. And when I removed the it 50 minutes later, there was a beautiful, crusty brown loaf. I cut myself a large slice (not waiting nearly long enough for it to cool... I have very little patience in matters of tasting freshly baked things), slathered it with butter (Lurpak is delicious) and took a bite. It was damn good. For half of its baking time the bread is sealed in a heavy pot and with the steam amassed, the ending texture is wonderful - crackling crust on the outside, soft and fluffy within.

The easiest recipe I have ever come across produced some of the best bread to ever exit my oven. The world works in strange ways.

photos above: the final rising of the dough; my oven swallowing the pot of bread as it baked below: bread in a pot; bread in my hand.


On another note:

One unseasonably warm day last week, as I walked from my office to the subway in midtown Manhattan, I passed a large pile of trash bags. They were full, stacked on top of each other on the sidewalk, and waiting for the garbage man to take them away. As I maneuvered around them I was suddenly overwhelmed by scent. It took me a moment to recognize what, exactly, I was smelling. (It’s been over a year since my olfactory receptors could register anything unpleasant…) But I stood still for a moment, my nose twitching as I sniffed the air. The stench of rotting trash will probably never again bring such a joyous smile to my lips.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Nothing Better than a little Chocolate with your Chorizo

On Thursday night I met my friend Becker on the expansive sidewalk outside of a busting Chelsea restaurant, Tia Pol. A well-lauded Spanish tapas establishment, its name immediately jumped to mind when deciding where we should eat - in part through Luisa's recent inspiration, but I have also eaten there once before and knew that in this protracted work week (one that screamed for recompense in the form of good food) Tia Pol would not disappoint.

It didn’t.

Becker and I stood perched in the narrow space between the bar and the brick-studded wall – it is a small restaurant, a long snaking hallway studded with tall tables and a semi-open kitchen to the side – and sipped some Rioja (chosen from their all Spanish wine list) as we waited for a table. The room was dimly lit yet colorful with movement and laughter. We could hardly hear ourselves speak through the din of happy diners.

We were brought to sit, a half hour later, at a small table nestled against the brick siding, across from the kitchen. A highly set window carved into the wall gave the view to an “open" kitchen and throughout the meal I watched a bobbing mop of dark hair and blue and white polka-dotted bandana that belonged, I could only assume, to one of the chefs. Every so often steaming plates of food would pop up onto the window’s ledge, to be quickly whisked off by a waiter or waitress. Alexandra Raij, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and her husband, Eder Montero, who once worked for Ferran Adria in Barcelona, man the kitchen - a job that they found advertised on craigslist - and now produce Iberian-inspired tapas with high quality ingredients to a constantly flowing crowd.

The service of our own (handsome) waiter was friendly and attentive – a list of specials was spouted glibly, and Becker and I were left to the difficult decision of what to order.

We began with a plate of roasted green peppers – small and posed for one-bite-consumption by holding their dangly long stems - they were browned with heat and covered in olive oil and salt. There were the aceitunas tia pol - black empeltres, manzanillas, arbequinas: bowl of assorted olives, a mottled variation on browns and greens. And pinchos morunos - skewers of succulent pieces of lamb, their flavorful juices absorbed by thick slices of French bread into which they were stuck. The taquitos de atun relleno de boquerones was beautifully plated - a little row of geometrically aligned color - chilled slices of seared tuna, stuffed with marinated white anchovies and topped with what looked like a tiny dollop of olive paste, perhaps, and two small slices of red and green pepper. With concentration we could taste the anchovy – the peppers were overwhelmed by their salt however, and, we thought, could have used some spiciness to round out the flavors.

My favorite, by far, was the chorizo con chocolate – small slices of white bread laden with a melted swipe of thick bittersweet chocolate. Spicy, rich chorizo (a Spanish sausage) was balanced above, topped with a sprinkling of saffron. The flavors combined so surprisingly well that Becker and I had a moment of silence in order to concentrate fully on taste. To top it off we split a warm almond cake – sweet, nutty, and moist.

In the end I was, to say the least, very full. But very happy. And already planning what I will eat the next time around…

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Balzac's Beets

Last Friday after work I met Jon in Bryant Park and we walked through a cool drizzle to the Museum of Modern Art. It is open late on Fridays, free, and always filled with interesting people to watch.

The statue of Balzac that looms in the front hallway of the museum is an old friend. He is larger than life, a study of thick ridges and cavities. Leaning slightly back, his craggy dark head faces upwards, looking beyond the museumgoers that pass below. Swathed in a robe of cast bronze, his dynamic presence lacks detail but makes up for it with a raw sense of movement. Haughty and thoughtful, he oozes what I have always considered a sensual intellectualism. If it’s possible to have a friend-crush on a hunk of inanimate material, well, then I do.

There is a lot of art – art that I have loved my whole life, art that I concentrated on while studying it in college – that is just so familiar, so often viewed, and so engrained into my visual memory that even their basic color palettes are comforting. Some of it resides in MoMA, much of it does not. Monet’s windblown haystacks… a seductively lounging Tahitian woman of Gauguin’s… a few frank portraits that Cezanne did of his wife… the pointed, mechanical brush-dots of Seurat… a certain Filippino Lippi painting in front of which I spent hours while living in Florence. Auguste Rodin’s Monument to Balzac.

At the museum Jon and I circled around the bronze Balzac for a few minutes; I wanted to say hello. We walked up through the special exhibitions and briefly visited some Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg. It was a short visit, but intimate all the same – like catching up with an old friend over a good cup of coffee.

Afterwards, when hunger and exhaustion pushed us far from any sort of abstract expression, Jon and I emerged from the F train a good ways downtown. It was pouring; I had no umbrella. With my scarf wrapped (a bit grumpily, I’ll admit) around my head, we quickly walked up 2nd Avenue until we arrived at our destination. We landed ourselves at Veselka, Manhattan’s bastion of Ukranian food, and a restaurant that we had been talking about going for a long time. Veselka, after all, is known for its borscht. And for two people who have been known to roast multiple batches of beets on days of searing 90 degree heat in an apartment with no air conditioning, good borscht is something in which to invest some quality time.

We sat at a rickety little table by the window and soon had large bottles of the local (and by local I mean Ukranian) Obolon beer in our hands. When the steaming bowl of vibrant purple soup was plunked down in front of me I shed the last vestiges of my frizzy-haired bad mood. It was thick, rich, and hot – filled with that sweet, earthy beet flavor. A familiar, favorite taste, done right.

In addition, there were the seasonal pumpkin and farmer’s cheese pierogis, Jon’s of hearty ‘Bigos’ stew – consisting mainly of meat (a mixture of kielbasa and pork) with some sauerkraut and onions thrown in the mix (“a substantial meal, fit for a hunter,” the menu said) – and an oozingly sweet apple crumble. The pierogis were a bit bland and the stew a bit too hunter-esque for my taste. But the dessert hit the post-borscht spot just right. In general, everything from the food to the service was homey, low-key and warming.

It was a comforting, familiar evening of art – both fine and culinary. And sitting at the table in the brightly lit corner of Veselka, listening to the rain come sloughing down outside, it seemed fitting when a large, older man stepped into the restaurant, a thick book tucked under his right arm. Swathed in a flowing red robe, his long gray mustache and beard cascaded down the front of his chiseled face. He peered around the room –a haughty yet noble gaze – and I could see a light of recognition when his eyes landed on Jon and me. He moved slowly towards our table, ignoring the raised eyebrows of pink-haired hipsters as they conspicuously judged his outfit. Sitting heavily down at the empty seat to my right the man sighed gruffly, brushing the rain drops off of his shoulder. He glanced haphazardly at the menu and then turned around to catch the eye of our waitress as she walked past. Flipping open her notepad, pen poised, she asked, “What can I get ya?”

And in a stilted, thick French accent, my friend Balzac said, “I’ll have the borscht, please.”