Monday, August 30, 2010

Five Years

Five years ago today, I was hit by a car while jogging near my mother’s home in Brookline. I fractured my pelvis and my sacrum, and tore the tendons and ligaments in my left knee. I smashed the back of my skull against the windshield and, as a result, I lost my sense of smell.

My starting date at the Culinary Institute of America had been set for only months away. But without smell, I lost my ability to detect flavor in food and hence, my dream of one day becoming a chef. Devastated, I suddenly operated in a world where I could not tell if milk was fresh or sour or if my clothes were clean or not. I could no longer detect the warning signals to fire or leaking gas. And even worse, I lost my ability to read people, to summon buried memories of my childhood, to fully function in a landscape filled with rich layers of sensory perception, the one that suddenly felt blank.

The accident changed my life. It changed the way I view eating and cooking, chance and purpose and even love. Instead of culinary school, I moved to New York City. Instead of handling chicken stock and confit, I worked my way through positions at magazines and newspapers. I returned to school for a masters degree. And, slowly, all the while, I regained my sense of smell. I’m lucky. I think about that every day.

This morning I baked a cake. It’s a simple cake, a butter-rich one scented with cinnamon and orange zest, and dimpled with plums. I made the same cake last year, on this exact day. I was at a writer’s residency in upstate New York then, and in the middle of writing this book on the sense of smell, one that I was afraid I would never finish. Today, the book is with my editor. Though it won't be published until next summer, it's practically complete. I’m proud of it, this project that has taught me more about perception, science and writing—and, well, about myself—than I knew was possible. Last year the cake, as I wrote, filled the kitchen with a sweet, warm scent—one of “fruit and caramel and autumn.” Today it did the same.

I didn’t purposefully bake the same cake on the same day two years in a row. At least not consciously. But I suppose it makes sense. This is a simple, easy cake. If I’ve learned anything over the last five years, it’s that these simple things mean the most: the bouquet of flowers picked from my mother’s garden or the sunset on an evening walk with Matt, a bite of homemade vanilla bean ice cream or the sizzle of the grill on a summer night. The deep purple, nutty brown scent of a plum cake here, now, today.

Dimply Plum Cake
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
1/3 cup flavorless oil, like canola or sunflower (confession: I used olive oil)
Zest of 1 orange, grated
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
8 purple or red plums, halved and pitted (I used only 4, perhaps they were large)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter an 8-inch square (or round) baking pan, and dust the inside with flour. Tap out the excess and place pan on baking sheet.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

Working with a mixer, beat the butter at medium speed until soft and creamy, about 3 minutes. Then, add the sugar and beat for another 3. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for a minute after each. Then, beat in the oil, zest and vanilla. The batter will be smooth and creamy. Reduce mixer speed and add the dry ingredients, mixing until incorporated.

Scrape batter into pan and smooth the top. Arrange the plums cut side up in the batter, jiggling them a tad so that they settle in.

Bake for 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and puffed. Transfer to a rack and cool for 15 minutes. Then, run a knife around edge and unmold. Invert and cool right side up.

You can wrap the cake once it has cooled and keep it at room temperature for a couple of days. It will get softer and with more moisture. I highly recommend this. Also, I highly recommend serving it with a fat dollop of whipped cream.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Next Week

This week, after finishing the copy edits on my book and overnighting the manuscript to my editor in New York, I’ve had more time to cook. I thought that more time in the kitchen would mean more thought in my menus, more effort into my technique, and a whole lot more recipe success. I was wrong.

This week in the kitchen has been sub par.

I made a sweet potato and lentil curry, which was mushy and bland, and a spicy cabbage slaw with raisins and tomatoes that was both too sour and too sweet. I made a chicken dish stuffed with cilantro pesto and mozzarella cheese, which packed a punch with flavor, but emerged from the oven with a texture too soft and fine. I baked a flat loaf of cinnamon bread that rose improperly, either due to aged yeast or my own lack of patience, and sliced into doughy pieces not even I wanted to toast. I made a peach and apricot tart using a new crust recipe designed for a rougher, flakier bite. It was rough, all right. Yikes.

None of these dishes were colossal failures. Nothing hit the trash. I couldn’t pinpoint a forgotten ingredient or mistaken technique. The meals were colorful, and the kitchen often smelled divine. But each bite came with that tug of disappointment, the desire to apologize for it all.

Ever since I lost my sense of smell, five years ago almost to the day, I have struggled with trust in the kitchen. Can I operate at the stove without a full sense of smell? Without perceiving the entirety of flavor in the food I make? Can I cook for others when sometimes I feel that I can’t even cook for myself?

This hasn’t been much of an issue of late. It’s been a long time since I haven’t been able to smell something that those around me can. I’ve been training my nose and when acquaintances ask me if I’ve recovered, I always say yes. I feel good at the stove; I’ve had success at the table. But the failures, I’ve found, often come in spurts. And when they do, it’s hard not to let them get me down.

In the first draft of this post, I finished with a question: will my confidence ever fully return? I had Matt give it a read. He told me that I was being too harsh—on myself and on my food. “Bad weeks happen to everyone,” he said. “You just need to shrug it off and say, ‘Oh well.’ Next week will always be better.”

He’s right.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Summer

I've never done this before, but I've always liked the whole Wordless Wednesday thing. I thought I'd give it a shot.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Toasted Cheese

Laurie Colwin writes about her first New York City apartment in the essay "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant." Hers was a tiny studio that fit a twin bed, a night stand, a small desk, and a wicker chair. The kitchen consisted of a metal counter, a little refrigerator, and a hot plate. "The ceiling was fairly high - a good thing since a low one would have made my apartment feel like the inside of a box of animal crackers," she writes.

I reread this essay a number of times last year, while living in my own miniature New York apartment alone. Mine was in Brooklyn, not Greenwich Village. I had an oven and four burners on my stove. But, like Colwin, I had very little room. Just enough space for a bed, a desk, a chest of drawers and a little folding table that pushed nicely up against the window. My bathroom couldn't fit a sink; the kitchen one had to do. "Many thought I must be insane to live in so small a space," Colwin writes, "but I loved my apartment and found it the coziest place on earth." Me too.

In her essay, Colwin writes about what she ate while she lived in that breadbox apartment alone: soup, spaghetti, eggplant in all forms. One time, her mother gave her a toaster oven to augment the two-burner stove. "I began with toasted cheese," Colwin writes, "that staple of starving people who live in garrets." I love the word garret. It reminds me of home.

Sunday afternoon in Boston was rainy and cool. Sitting in my new apartment, which is much bigger than any place I've ever lived before, I thought about Colwin, about coziness, about toast and cheese. I began to miss my cramped studio in Brooklyn, the one that kept me so snug while Matt was in Afghanistan, the place where I made many solitary meals, where I carved a life on a very limited budget alone. Then, I ate a lot of toasted cheese. Suddenly, I wanted more.

I find that toasted cheese is best made in the oven, on fresh crusty bread. I like to eat it with just a little sprinkling of Worcestershire sauce, like my mother used to make me as a child. Yesterday I sliced a sourdough loaf from the farmers' market and shaved some Gruyere off a thick hunk I had been saving in the fridge. I ate it alongside a mug of coffee, over a well-worn copy of a good book.

Friday, August 20, 2010


My mother and her boyfriend, Charley, went to Colorado for a long-weekend hiking trip and when they returned, they brought me a bundle of dried chiles. I hung them on a vacant nail above the kitchen archway, one that had been hammered in place by the last tenant and not quite in the right spot. As a result, they dangle a bit awkwardly—half above and half below the wood, a blip in the peripheral vision, like mistletoe.

Matt doesn’t want me to use them to cook because, bright red and just a bit wrinkled, they are beautiful against the faded green of the wall. But I can think of little else I need when dinnertime rolls around. I sneaked one into a quick ginger-beef stir-fry. I sliced one to add to a sweet-and-sour marinade for pork. Tonight I’m making enchiladas and, well, you know. These chiles are intense and spicy, not for those with sensitive palettes. I love their not-so-subtle kick.

I am looking at the bundle of them now. They remind me of when I was small and my family took a trip to New Mexico during one summer vacation. There, we stayed in a small house with an adobe roof and sandy walls. I remember the burnished shades of orange and gold on the carpet in my bedroom. I remember the dry heat of the desert sun and the sharp prick on the soft flesh of my palm when I grabbed a cactus with my bare hands. I remember returning to Boston with the same kind of string of chiles, which my father hung in the archway between the kitchen and living room of my childhood home. I wasn’t interested in cooking then. I didn’t pay much attention as they slowly dried and then crumbled.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Chocolate Chip Cookies

A few weeks ago, on a bright afternoon smack in the middle of that odious national heat wave, I decided to bake. I’m not sure why. The small air conditioner installed in my bedroom window certainly didn’t reach the kitchen, which shimmered at 95 degrees.

But one of Matt’s good friends from the Army was just about to return from a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. I couldn’t be there at the airport to greet him as well, and I wanted to send something sweet in my stead. So I pulled out a cookbook, my mixer, and a glass bowl. I set to work.

I wanted to bake something simple, something that filled my kitchen with the scent of butter, something that reminded me of home. The decision was easy: chocolate chip cookies.

I decided to use a different recipe than I normally do—one from the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion, a cookbook that was given to me as a present last Christmas and never before used. I opened it to one of the still-unstained “essential” recipe pages. There were two options for this particular cookie: crunchy or chewy. I compared them.

The crisp cookies required more fat—both butter and vegetable shortening opposed to only butter—which, writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, "lubricates the solid particles of flour and sugar and encourages the cookie to spread and thin." The crunchy cookies used less flour and fewer eggs, loosening the dough and reducing the moisture. They also called for a higher proportion of sugar—which, says McGee, can cause more sugar to dissolve while baking in the oven. "Then when the cookie cools, some of the sugar recrystallizes, and the initially soft cookie develops a distinctive snap...." The chewy recipe, on the other hand, included corn syrup to retain moisture and an additional egg for a more cake-like texture. Interestingly, both called for a tablespoon of white or cider vinegar—to temper the sweetness of the sugar, I read in the cookbook, and to react with the sodium bicarbonate in the leavener to give the cookies a bit of a lift in the oven.

I had never given much thought to the science of chocolate chip cookies. In the end, I made them both.

For each, the ingredients came together swiftly. I had chocolate on my fingers and trays of mismatching rounds cooling on the counter within an hour or two. The crunchy ones emerged as advertised: crackling crisp, not too sweet, and full of butter. They were bold cookies. Heat wave cookies. Perfect in a cold glass of milk. The chewy ones, however, turned out to be quite cake-like. They were tamer cookies, quiet attempts at miniature scones. Ones that should be eaten in autumn, while sipping hot tea. Both were very good.

In the end, I sent a towering plate of the crisp cookies away with Matt, who soon left to meet his returning friend. Intense experiences require intense flavors, and I could think of little else to welcome him home.

Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion

1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all purpose flour
3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease or line two baking sheets with parchment.

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, shortening, sugars, vanilla, salt, and vinegar. Add the egg and beat until combined. And then add the baking soda and flour. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Drop the dough by the tablespoon onto the pans. Bake 12 - 14 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and transfer to a rack to a cool.

Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
Adapted from the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion

3/4 cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 tablespoon white or cider vinegar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
3 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease or line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a mixing bowl, cream butter, sugars, corn syrup, and vinegar. Then, beat in the eggs. Beat in the vanilla, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Add the flour and chocolate chips: stir.

Drop the dough by the tablespoon onto the pans. Bake for 10 minutes, until just set. The centers will look underdone. Remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New York Minute

I walked down Broadway early on Wednesday evening, a fleeting free moment in a whirlwind forty-eight hour trip to New York City. It was hot and humid, and despite my light summer dress, I felt like I was swimming through the air. I had taken the bus from Boston that morning, carrying only a small computer bag and my purse. It was my first time back to the city since I moved two months earlier, and I was surprised to find that most things there were exactly the same (the vendors in the farmers’ market, the cracks in the asphalt, the scent of the café near where I once worked) and also a little bit different (new restaurant signs, strappier summer outfits, earlier hours at that same café). I had a dinner scheduled that night and meetings throughout the next day, but with a couple of hours to kill before it all began, I decided to walk. I love to wander.

I walked around Gramercy, past the line for the Shake Shack snaking through Madison Square Park, amid the honk and screech of taxicabs and the rumbling of the subway beneath my feet. I lingered at the market in Union Square, checking out the boxes of fuzzy peaches and shiny purple plums, apricots almost neon in their orange. I bought a book at the Strand, and flipped through the racks at an overpriced thrift store or two.

Around 5 p.m., I stepped into a familiar bodega downtown, looking for a moment of air conditioning and perhaps something sweet, and picked up an icy coconut popsicle, one of dozens of flavors stacked in the freezer in rows. I peeled off the plastic wrapper and ate quickly as I walked. It immediately began to melt.

Weaving there among tourists in baseball caps and business men in suits, I remembered how much I love Manhattan on a summer afternoon—meandering and anonymous, my neck damp with sweat, my tongue frozen with the taste of sugar and vaguely tropical fruit.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wild Blueberries

I have a lot to write about. Nothing big. Nothing life changing.

This has been a slow summer, one taken day by day, moments at a time. Now that Matt is home from Afghanistan, I’m remembering what it’s like to be in a relationship. Now that my book is almost done, I’m remembering what it’s like to take time away from work. This summer I’m trying to concentrate on the small stuff, the tiny things – the smells and tastes; recipes and meals; the best pulled pork sandwich I’ve ever had, last week at a roadside diner in East Tennessee. But it’s been more than a year since I’ve written regularly here on the blog, and I find myself unable to sit down at my desk, open my computer, and simply begin. It’s all about taking small steps, I suppose.

To start: Matt and I rented a tiny cabin on the coast of Maine for one week in July. We hiked mountainous trails in Acadia National Park, and bicycled miles and miles around the seascapes of Schoodic Point, which smelled of salt, sea and pine.

In the evenings we drank whiskey while sitting on our porch, reading books and watching the sun as it went down over the bay. Sometimes I cooked in our miniature kitchen: pastas with sausage and kale, frittatas with onions and peppers and Gruyere. Other nights we went out for lobsters or lobster rolls, fried oysters or fish and chips. There was a lot of vanilla soft ice cream and a couple of blueberry-flavored beers.

One day we drove north on Route 1 to Lubec, Maine, the eastern most point in the continental United States. We stopped at the lighthouse at West Quoddy Head. It was dark with fog and cold with the ocean breeze. I felt like I was standing at the edge of the Earth.

Later, we ate turkey sandwiches with mustard and Swiss cheese while sitting on our car, overlooking the sea. We shared an oatmeal cookie – one studded with wild blueberries and a soft sugar cream, which we had purchased that morning at a neon-blue, dome-like building called “Wild Blueberry Land” on the side of the road.

The cookie was nondescript—a medium sized oval, brown with sugar and blue with berry juice. But it tasted so unexpectedly good that I stared at it, distrustful for a moment. It was tender and moist, spiked with cinnamon and nutmeg, perfect-fruit sweet. It reminded me of a blueberry crisp, a huckleberry buckle, a cookie I once ate at a State Fair near my aunt’s summer home in Pennsylvania.

On our way home we stopped at Wild Blueberry Land again to buy more. But the tray on which the cookies sat before was empty except for a piece of parchment paper and a few stray lines of grease. We asked for the recipe at the counter and watched as a young baker wrote it out on the piece of notebook paper now sitting crumpled in my bag. Back in Boston, I keep telling myself to bake them. But I haven’t yet, and I’m not sure I will.

I’m afraid that was a moment that belonged only there, on the wind-swept coast of Maine.