Monday, November 17, 2008


Sometimes the slow moments sneak up on me.

I had been spending my days working away, lost in reams of Word documents and stacks of library books, feeling little but the adrenaline of deadline and excitement of production. But then, suddenly, the articles were filed. The revisions were made. The endpoint never ceases to surprise me.

I woke up on Sunday morning with nothing more pressing than the newspaper, wrapped in plastic and the damp red leaves that had fallen from trees the night before. I’m really not used to free time. I baked a cake to take off the edge.

I have been transfixed by Suzanne Goin’s cookbook: Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Her “pumpkin” cake—understated and sweet, made with roasted butternut squash and a whiff of honey—transformed the house with scents of pecans and butter. It spoke to late autumn, early dusk, and lazy afternoons in the kitchen.

“Pumpkin” Cake with Pecan Streusel
Adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques

1 butternut squash
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 vanilla bean
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 cups heavy cream
3 extra-large eggs
1 tablespoon honey
Pecan streusel topping (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Cut the squash in half lengthwise and place on a baking sheet, cut side up. (Don't remove the seeds yet; they give extra flavor.) Cover with foil, and roast about 1 hour, until very tender. Let cool 10 minutes, and then scoop out the seeds and discard them. Puree the warm squash through a ricer or food mill and measure out 1 1/2 cups.

Turn the oven down to 350F.

Butter and flour a 10-inch pan (I used a springform)

Place the butter in a medium saucepan. Slice the vanilla bean in two and scrape out the seeds with your knife into the pan. Add the seed pod as well, and cook over medium heat 6 to 8 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the butter browns and smells nutty. Remove the pod.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg into a large bowl. Add the salt. Make a well in the center.

In another large bowl, whisk the reserved 1 1/2 cups squash puree, milk, 1/4 cup cream, eggs, and honey to combine. Pour the liquid into the well in the dry ingredients, and whisk until incorporated. Stir in the brown butter.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake 25 minutes, then remove the cake from the oven and sprinkle the streusel evenly over the top. Bake the cake another 45 minutes (or longer--mine was in for an hour), until the topping is crisp and cake has set. (The center of the cake will still be somewhat soft and won't pass the toothpick test.) Cool the cake on a rack for at least 15 minutes.

**Update: Originally, I had listed the quantity of heavy cream needed as 1 and 1/4 cups. The cake recipe calls for 1/4 cup, with the additional cup meant to be whipped and served along side the cake. I didn't make the whipped cream myself, and neglected to remove the measurement from the recipe when I wrote it up here. My apologies for the confusion!

Pecan Streusel Topping

1/4 cup pecans
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon dried nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 375.

Spread the pecans on a baking sheet, and toast them 8 to 10 minutes, until they darken slightly and smell nutty. When the nuts have cooled, chop them coarsely. Toss the nuts with the oil and salt.

In a food processor, pulse the butter, sugars, flour, cinnamon, and nutmeg until just combined. Remove to a bowl, stir in the salted pecans, and chill until ready to use.

Monday, November 10, 2008


I’m in the middle of an overwhelming writing project. It consumes my days, and some of my nights. I spend a lot of time at my desk. I'm sitting there now. Through the window, I can see a big, gnarly oak tree. It’s leaning to the left, stretching to touch its very last branch to the roof of the house below. Over the past two weeks I’ve watched the red leaves fall, one by one, and now it’s bare.

The excitement of this past week has been surreal, especially when experienced against long hours of concentration and Word documents, watching autumn slowly melt away.

But it has been exciting. I sold some freelance work and found a yoga studio near my house. I baked Edna Lewis’ Fresh Apple Cake with Caramel Glaze, and under-seasoned a mediocre pot of cauliflower soup. My car got a flat tire. I avoided fixing it for as long as possible. And, of course, Obama is President-Elect.

I cooked dinner for my family last night. It was a calm Sunday evening to prepare for another week—a calmer week, but one still laced with hope and change. My favorite part of the meal was the Julia Child’s Alsatian Onion Tart.

Now, I took a short cut. I admit it. I used frozen puff pastry rather than the "from scratch" Julia would have wanted. But I have no regrets. The sweet onions melted against its flaky crust just right.

Alsatian Onion Tart

Adapted from Baking with Julia

1/2 pound puff pastry, chilled
4 very large onions, peeled and diced
1 cup chicken broth
3 tablespoons heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 pound bacon

-Roll out the puff pastry until very thin on a lightly floured surface. Julia recommends cutting it into a circle using the lid of a pot as a guide. I left it as a rectangle. Place it on an un-greased baking sheet, and prick dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate until needed.

-Put diced onion and chicken broth into a saucepan and cook over medium heat for around a half hour, until onions are soft. Drain, discarding liquid, and let cool. When cool, add heavy cream, season with salt and pepper, and stir.

-Cut bacon into 1/4 inch cubes. Blanch for one minute in boiling water. Drain and rinse with cold water. Pat dry with paper towels. Then, heat a medium skillet over moderately high heat, and cook the bacon pieces for a few minutes, making sure they don't get too tough. Remove from heat, and drain on paper towels again.

-Preheat oven to 350 F. Remove pastry and top with the onions, spreading all the way to the edge. Scatter bacon over top. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown. (I cooked mine for closer to 45.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008


Today I bought Alinea, the new cookbook by Grant Achatz. There are hundreds of recipes, which are based on tasting menus at his Chicago restaurant of the same name, and stunning photographs. Many of his dishes are out of my league, as I don't own a Vita-Prep blender nor do I have any calcium ascorbate lying around the house. But I couldn't help myself: There is a short section on Achatz's use of scent in cooking.

Aroma, he writes, offers two possibilities for the chef. "The opportunity to flavor a dish by way of smell, and to add a layer of complexity to a concept by triggering an emotional response to a familiar smell. These two facets of the technique became so important in our cooking that the idea of aroma itself became a creative avenue."

Achatz has fought a well-documented battle of his own in the last year. Diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2007, he underwent radiation and, as a result, temporarily lost his ability to taste. I've followed his story with great interest. My own experience of sensory loss and regain has changed the way I look at food and cooking, taste and flavor. I can only imagine what it has done for one of the country's best chefs.