Sunday, June 26, 2011
It’s hard to put my mind around all that has happened in the last week.
I went to New York City.
My book was published.
The week was overwhelming. But also fantastic. It was week in which I often had to stop and ask myself: is this real?
A few moments stood out:
The chocolate cake with cream and cherries at Café Sabarsky, which I shared with Matt on a brief moment of calm.
A long walk through Central Park, taken alone and early, accompanied only by the scent of coffee from a takeout cup in my hands and the sound of Nick Drake humming in my ears.
The evening I attempted to cook dinner for my brother and his girlfriend, Ashley. Well, attempt is the wrong word. I did successfully pull off dinner: Salmon with a mango-jalapeño salsa, and asparagus, which I roasted with salt, pepper, and parmesan. The problem came later. His apartment, five days out, still smelled like fish. Ah, unventilated NYC apartments. (Sorry, Ben!)
The Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, which is light and airy with artfully arranged stacks of books. When I read there on Wednesday night, we filled the store with some of my favorite smells: rosemary and chocolate, garlic and cucumber. Laundry detergent, too. (Strange? Perhaps. But, hey, why not?)
And, of course, there was the moment when I stood in the center of a room in the back of a restaurant. The room was filled with family, friends, and colleagues. I had a glass of white wine in my hands. The book-launch party was in full swing. My mother AND my father were there, as well as their significant others. I looked to my right to see my brother, Ben, and my boyfriend, Matt, standing side by side. To my left were some of the scientists and anosmics I wrote about in my book. There were old friends, and new ones. My agent and my publicist. My editor, also named Matt, quieted the room to give a beautiful, moving toast. As he raised his glass—as all of these people who stood by me as I struggled, who watched me as I moved on, raised their glasses, too—I experienced the funniest sensation rising in the back of my throat. I couldn’t tell if it was the beginning of a laugh or a cry. But when it emerged as a smile, I thought my cheeks might burst.
There’s a lot more to write about. I’m going to write about it soon. But right now? I’m back in Cambridge. And I spent Saturday afternoon baking.
My original plan was to leave you with some food rather than further attempts to sort out the messy jumble that is my brain. Because that’s what it all comes down to, right? My love of cooking was the inspiration for my book, the way I got myself through the ups and downs of writing it, one of the many ways I can now celebrate with friends.
But, as often seems to happen, things did not go exactly as planned.
I baked Joanne Chang's Lemon Bars. I've made these intensely lemony lemon bars a few times now. They aren't quick. Nor especially easy. But I love them. There's nothing more calming, I think, than standing at the stove, stirring a slow-heating pot of lemon curd, watching it move from pale to deep yellow with each swish of my wooden spoon. The moment when it changes from a thin liquid to thick, pillowy curd is magic.
Fresh off the train from NYC, though, I believed that I could complete this recipe without all equipment needed. The last thing I wanted to do was make an emergency run to the market. But I've realized something very important for this recipe, something you shouldn't do without: parchment paper. Because yesterday I baked the shortbread; I made the curd. Together, they came out of the oven a perfect daffodil yellow, jiggly like a very firm Jell-O. But this morning, when I went to slice and serve them, I couldn't get the bars out of the pan. Without the layer of paper underneath, they were completely stuck. Even my sharpest knife would not save more than just a few. I had planned to bring these to a party tonight--looking perfect, of course--and in my frustration, I may or may not have slammed around a few pots and pans.
The carnage was delicious, though. You just need to eat it with a fork from the pan, rather than with your fingers from a cocktail napkin. And I guess it's fitting. The inspiration for my book was food, yes. But it was also failure, and loss, and what it takes to move on. A fork, a pen...whatever. I'm happy to be where I am.
Joanne Chang’s Lemon Bars
From her cookbook, Flour
2 sticks butter, unsalted, room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons confectioners sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups lemon juice (about 14 lemons)
1 stick butter, unsalted
¼ cup heavy cream
4 egg yolks
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
First make the shortbread: In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use a handheld mixer, or a wooden spoon) cream the butter, sugar, and confectioners sugar until light and fluffy. (This will take about 5 minutes in the standing mixer; 10 in the handheld, or with a spoon.) Beat in the egg yolk and vanilla until combined, another couple minutes. (Make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as you go.)
Sift together the flours, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl. Slowly add this to the butter mixture, mixing on low speed until fully combined and evenly mixed. (About 15 seconds.) Wrap the dough in plastic, forming a disk, and then store it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes (and up to 5 days).
Now, make the lemon curd: In a nonreactive saucepan, mix the lemon juice, butter, and heavy cream and place over medium-high heat until just about ready to boil. Meanwhile, in another bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolks until blended, and then whisk in the sugar. Take the lemon mixture off the heat. Add a tiny bit to the egg bowl, whisking away. Add a tiny bit more. Whisk. Keep doing this, slowly, until all of the lemon mixture is combined with the eggs. Now, pour the entire bowl back into the saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly with your wooden spoon, until the curd thickens enough to coat the back of the spoon (about 8 minutes). Make sure to regularly scrape the bottom of the pot as you make this so that the eggs don’t scramble.
Remove the lemon curd from the heat. (Chang suggests you strain it through a fine mesh strainer here. I don’t. But I’m sure the curd would be just a bit smoother and more uniform if I did…) Whisk in the salt and vanilla. (You can store this in the fridge for up to 4 days. Just add a few minutes of baking time if you do.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. I highly suggest you follow Chang's directions to flour the dough disk and two large sheets of parchment paper. Place the dough between the sheets, and roll it out into a 9 x 11 inch rectangle, about 1/4 inch thick. Peel off the top sheet of parchment, and transfer the bottom sheet and the dough into a 9 x 11 inch baking pan. Press the shortbread out with your fingers to fit within. It’s okay if it’s not smooth, but the dough should evenly reach every corner of the pan. Bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and pour the lemon curd on top, spreading evenly across the top.
Bake for 15 – 20 minutes more, until the curd has set and jiggles, as Chang says, like firm Jell-O. Let cool to room temperature on a rack. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours before you cut. And then, of course, enjoy!
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
My first book, Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way, is officially out in the real world today! (It's available to order here, or here, or here. Or, find it in a bookstore near you!)
For my New York friends, I’ll be doing a reading/discussion with my excellent editor, Matt Weiland, at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn tomorrow, Wednesday, June 22nd, at 7:30pm. For my Boston folks: I’ll be reading at the Harvard Book Store on Tuesday, June 28th, at 7pm. (I have some other events scheduled, too, which you can see on my website.) I would love to see you any/everywhere!
*Update: I had the date for my Brooklyn reading originally wrong in this post. (Whoops! Coffee = needed, STAT!) It's June 22nd, (not the 23rd), at 7:30pm. See you then!
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
I baked seven pies in thirty-six hours.
Seven (7!) pies. That’s a lot of pie for a household of just two (2!). As a result, for a while there I was eating pie for breakfast, and then again after lunch. I gave away thick slices to family and friends, wrapping them tightly in plastic, ferrying them away on china plates. One night, even, Matt and I ate pie and only pie for dinner. Well, no. There was ice cream, too. But, still, that’s a lot of pie. Why? Well, let’s backtrack a minute:
When I was small, my mother baked strawberry rhubarb (or often just rhubarb) pies. She used a recipe from her mother, Marian, who had written it neatly in cursive on an index card now yellowed with age. I wrote about this pie in my book. And I’ve written about it here before, too. For that blog post, I played with the recipe a bit. I substituted my butter-and-shortening piecrust for my grandmother’s all-butter one. I reduced the amount of sugar in the filling, because I found the original overly sweet. But despite these changes, the pie was not my own. Not really. It was still my grandmother’s, and my mother’s, fitting snug in with the memories of my childhood.
When Pete Wells, the editor of the New York Times Dining Section, asked me to develop a recipe to run with this article about Season to Taste, one that pulled at the themes of the book, I immediately thought of that pie. After all, this particular pie deals in emotion and memory, smell and taste and flavor, baking and home. Not to mention the fact that strawberries and rhubarb are in season. Done!
(But, wait. Can we pause for a second here? An article about Season to Taste in the New York Times?!? Pete Wells asking ME to develop a recipe?!? Excuse me while I go do a little dance. Or, alternatively, take a long nap. Getting my head around this fact is exhausting.)
But for this article, I wanted to make the pie my own. To spice it up. And to do this, and do it well, I had to experiment. I had to test some different things out. And so I did. Seven times. In thirty six hours. Deadline baking! It was fun.
In the end, I made a streusel topping, rich with butter and crunchy with pecans, and added orange zest to the filling. I used three kinds of ginger: candied and a bit of powdered in the topping, and grated two tablespoons from a knob of fresh ginger in the crust. It’s crunchy and smooth, sweet and tart with a little bit of spice. I didn't end up taking any pictures of the final version, only the numerous iterations in between. Though you can find the finished recipe here.
I know that I’m biased, but this pie? Even though I’ve eaten more pie in the last couple weeks that I have in the last few years combined, and sometimes wonder if I’ll ever want to again, I think it’s great.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Thursday, June 09, 2011
I had forgotten the scent of summer. The sweet green aroma of grass. The flowery, petal-pink whiffs of my mother’s garden. The thick, wet cloud smell that hovers in the air in the hour before it rains.
Matt and I moved into this apartment a year ago this week. That day, sweaty and exhausted, we paused after hours of moving heavy boxes up the stairs. The breeze blew through our open windows, bringing the aromas of sun-warmed brick and barbecued smoke. I remember inhaling and thinking, hey, this can be home.
Today it’s raining, and the scent of earth wafting through those same open windows is particularly intense. I’m watching lightning pierce the sky in a way that looks more like special effects in Hollywood than Reality, Cambridge, MA.
I’m going to make dinner in a few minutes.* It’s the same dinner I’ve made a few nights this week. It involves six things: Lettuce (arugula), asparagus (steamed), pecans (toasted), goat cheese (crumbled), and a vinaigrette (balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil). I toss all that together in a big bowl, and top it with chicken breasts (bone-in, skin-on) that I’ve roasted, let cool, and sliced. This is my favorite hot weather food. It tastes like summer.
*I made it. It was good.
Monday, June 06, 2011
On Sunday, my father and stepmother threw a party for my book.
Season to Taste is going to be published this month. (Two weeks!)
At the party, I wore the perfume that I bought in France, back when I was reporting the book. Its smell reminds me of the beach.
I talked with some new friends and some old friends. (And a baby named Hannah, with perfect, perfect toes.)
There was cake.
(The air smelled like champagne.)
I read from my book.
Because not only did they throw me a lovely party.
But they took care of me when I was down.
(They sure know how to celebrate, too.)