Halloween

The dying lawn has received its annual farewell with a confetti of fallen red and gold leaves. Our quiet street outside my kitchen window is slick with intermittent drizzle. The sky is a muted white, a complete cloud covering above–the underpainting for stark brown lines of trees. A skeleton sits in a shallow grave on our front lawn. Fun-sized chocolate candies are scattered among the house. It must be Halloween.

No where to go this Sunday. No place to rush off to. We stay inside while our bodies and minds are allowed the space they need (following a very busy summer into early fall schedule) to settle and restore; to quiet down.

Last January I submitted my last post to Madison Magazine, completing the end of my contract. For the first time in three years, I did not renew.  With the exception of continuing my daily journal-writing practice, I promised myself I wouldn’t write for several months. I had decided that I was constantly putting my words out, leaving little time for replenishment. Instead I read novels and put the cookbooks down. I read less of the New York Times Food section and more of the Science Times. I purged my cookbooks and sold what no longer suited me. I cleaned the house. We had a yard sale offering what we had outgrown.

I had coffee with friends without looking for a story about the shop. I let my subscription to Bon Appetit magazine run out. And I cooked plain food for my family–mostly without recipes and mostly from what we had on hand in the freezer or pantry.

I worked my shifts at the bakery and simply did the work that was in front of me, without stressing over deadlines or questioning what it was I was doing with my life (Ok, at first I did do a little of that). But mostly I just trusted myself and waited patiently for my hunger to return.

And now I am feeling hungry; for food I make with my own two hands in my home kitchen for my family and friends. I am hungry for the family table, for a little more slow-down time–for glowing candles and a wreath of pine, birch, acorns. For the scent of cider warming on the stove with cinnamon, nutmeg and orange peel. For apple cakes and beef stew.

 

 

 

 

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All the little (dolce) things

Things are different now. The kids are getting older and don’t need me to remind them to shower, eat or even when to go to bed. The husband and I are still running them each to his and her activities: sports, music, a friend’s house. He and I see each other some days only in passing through this house, to drop off a bass, a baseball bag, soccer gear before making the next practice or game.

I gently ease my way out of this house before dawn, not unlike a cat burglar most mornings to make it in time for the opening shift of the cafe on the east side. I wash the floors and the toilets, put on the coffee, set out the pastries and switch on the open sign by 6:30. I note to myself that the kids and the husband are just now rising. The night before these shifts my bedtime is that of a well-scheduled toddler’s. I’m bathed and asleep most nights before 9 leaving the husband on the couch to watch a week’s worth of TV he’s DVR’d for us.

Auggie, our oldest, is about to become a licensed driver and is looking to have a summer job. Fritz and Harriet are still kids. All three now do their own laundry. And that, my friends, is going well. Except now there is chewing gum stuck to the inside of the dryer that the husband has been prying off for the past two days. I have since banned all gum from this house.

I am baking and cooking on my days off. I’ve recently purchased Dolce Italiano–Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen, a cookbook by the late Gina DePalma. I’ve made her baci di cioccolato (chocolate kisses) and pane di pasqua (Easter bread). In the past and not from this book, I’ve made her sausage and swiss chard soup, and her fig and walnut biscotti which I blogged about last year https://thelittleblueapron.com/2017/01/25/fig-walnut-biscotti/.

Her recipes bring me home to my Italian-American roots–to the family table. To a way of cooking and eating that I understand and know in my bones. Seasonal ingredients prepared simply by hard-working, thick hands. Nothing fancy, only good and made with passion, love and dedication to one’s family.

Whenever I feel lost or unsure of who I am, who I’ve become, I only have to go to my kitchen and I’m there with the women in my family wisely telling me to sit down and have a little something to eat. And asking “When’s the last time you went to the bathroom?” And when I reluctantly tell them, they say “Really? No wonder you have such problems. Go… try and go…you’ll feel better.”

And just when I think they’re all crazy–the problems of the world cannot be solved by a trip to the bathroom. I feel better and think maybe they’re on to something after all.

My Latest Interview: Melissa Clark, NY Times Food Writer

Recently Melissa Clark, food writer, author of the NY Times column: A Good Appetite and 38 cookbooks came through town promoting her latest work Dinner: Changing the Game.

I was able to sit down with the recipe maven responsible for creating both sweet and savory dishes for the NY Times on a weekly basis along with helpful and anxiety-reducing cooking videos. You can find my interview on Madison Magazine’s website here: http://www.channel3000.com/madison-magazine/dining-and-drink/cookbook-helps-those-in-a-dinner-rut/424537389.

The following are conversation bits left out of the original article for the sake of word count.

Clark doesn’t plan dinner for her husband and 8-year-old daughter ahead of time. It’s usually 4 o’clock in the afternoon when she gets around to thinking about it. Her family’s dinner staple (which her daughter won’t eat) is pasta with anchovies, garlic and chili peppers.

Dinner is her test ground–the starting point for her recipes. If it’s good she’ll make it again, this time measuring and taking notes. Then she’ll make it a third time to test it. It’s a keeper when her hired taste-tester makes it and approves it.

Dining out is part of her research. She says she will always order the “weirdest thing on the menu” and says, “It’s like a dare” to see if it works.

“I want to push myself. I’m testing. I’m changing. I’m trying to learn. I’m just there looking for what’s good.”

As for those weekly column deadlines she’s managed for ten years now, I wondered if she has a system, a schedule, a plan for getting it done. If it’s become an effortless process.

She answered a resounding No. “It’s always an assault every time. Every. Single. Time. That moment of looking at the empty page and the freezing of the muscles.”

And always she questions “What do I have to say? What do I have to say about this? I said that before. No one wants to hear that.”

Then she begins to talk herself down and instructs simply that you have to fight it.

“You have to. You have deadlines. Deadlines are lifelines.”

Finally, and this is when I think I got an opening into the most relaxed version of Melissa Clark. I told her how I had watched a cooking video where after she shows us how to grill a whole fish, she pops the fish’s eyeball into her mouth and chews it with delight.

I told her that I had to stop myself from gagging and she threw her head back and laughed so hard, a wicked, childlike laugh. At that moment it was like we were two kids out of ear shot from the grown-ups and she had won the What’s grosser than gross? contest.

Last I asked her what comforts her when she’s ill and unable to enjoy food. It’s her husband’s hot toddy and she happily shared the recipe.

  • 1 shot bourbon or brandy
  • 1/4 fresh lemon
  • big glug of honey
  • nutmeg
  • boiling water to fill the mug

She will take this in bed along with her lap top and says she doesn’t miss a day of work.

 

 

Good Dish: Flourless Matcha Tea Cake

photo credit: Macha Tea Company

Until this month, I was new to matcha, that gloriously green powder from tea leaves grown in Japan. I had viewed the ceremony of it many times, in food magazines and in documentaries on TV—the bowl, the whisk, the warm, frothy healthful drink it becomes.

And so I wasn’t sure how this tea–the flavor of which can best be described as a freshly picked young blade of grass– could be made the star ingredient in a flourless cake. Then again, like I said, I was a newbie.

What I didn’t know was something Macha Tea Company co-owner Rachel Verbrick (with husband, Anthony) knows very well, that a green cake—a flourless one at that—is a good cake. A really, really good cake.

Verbrick whisks by hand the vibrant matcha powder into egg whites and then folds the mixture into white chocolate melted with butter, before gently combining with the yolks and then baking at a low temperature under a watchful eye.

Of this moist and tender cake, she says that it’s a “good vehicle for matcha” and that it “shows what matcha can be.”

The matcha is not just there for color, but it certainly works to build intrigue. The flavor is present, gentle at the same time. Finished with a dusting of powder sugar, the memory of it lingers, long after you’ve savored the last bite.

And of course, enjoy it with tea. Something delicate, Verbrick offers. If not matcha then from their menu, perhaps Japanese Sencha or the Yue Guang Bai “Moonlight White”.

Of note, and an important one at that: Verbrick makes this cake when she makes it and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Best to check Macha Tea Company’s Instagram feed or Facebook page for the announcement that it’s about to come out of the oven and then get there.

Quickly.

Macha Tea Company

823 E. Johnson St., Madison, 608.283.9283

http://www.machateacompany.com/

 

 

Get out of Bed and Meet Madison’s Newest Coffee Shops

Madison is a highly caffeinated city. There are no shortages of cafes and coffee shops in every direction. For those of us who couldn’t (believe me, you wouldn’t want us to) go a day without imbibing the elixir of the roasted bean, we need look no further than to our own neighborhood to grab a latte, espresso and pour-over. Fellow java friends rejoice, for not one, but three new coffee shops have recently sprung up, bringing us to life with the buzz we crave and the cozy atmosphere we desire.

Stone Creek Coffee (1216 East Washington Ave., 422-5266)

In this Milwaukee-original shop, urban dwellers in knit hats sip lattes softly infused with dreamy flavors such as lavender, vanilla bean or cardamom spice. You can have a conversation and yet not feel intrusive upon the entrepreneur tapping away on his laptop at the table next to you. The  space is industrial-chic with tall ceilings and a large garage door that come spring will open to a patio facing East Wash. Madison Sourdough provides the scones and other sweet and buttery things.

Café Domestique (1408 Williamson St., 467-2021)

Domestique is a French term that describes the cyclist on the racing team who rides for the benefit of the team; who serves rather than tries to win the race for himself. You don’t need to be a cyclist or even own a bike to enjoy the camaraderie of Madison natives, Dan and Tim, two friends/owners of this Willy Street space serving coffee within the also newly opened Cargo bike shop. Here, beans from Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee Roaster’s are behind every cup. The rosemary brown sugar syrup latte is a surprise and worth experiencing as an afternoon pick-me-up. This is a cozy, if slightly narrow space, with a few tables that could seat 3 to 4 friends comfortably and a smattering of chairs that encourage a leisurely sip. Get your bakery fix from treats provided by next door neighbor, Batch Bakehouse.

Porter (640 West Washington Ave., Suite 101, 720-1110

Waiting for a train that never comes has never been spent so pleasantly at Gil Altschul’s (owner of Grampa’s Pizza and Gil’s Bar) coffee and sandwich shop located in the more than a century-old Milwaukee Road Depot just off West Wash.  Part of the revitalization of this historic train station, Porter joins Motorless Motion Bikes and La Lingerie along the boardwalk that faces a sunny yellow train car. Most seating is up on bar stools, but there are a couple of bistro tables with additional seating in the room that joins the coffee shop with the bike shop. We have Lazy Jane’s to thank for the delicious baked goods. The sandwiches are all Altschul. A stand-out is perhaps the Heritage Farms shaved ham breakfast sandwich with sharp cheddar, stone ground mustard, egg and red onions on a brioche bun. Along with a cup of coffee—maybe a flat white, this pairing is worth getting out of bed for.

Lunch Squad Slurps at Morris Ramen

Lunch Squad. That’s the name this group came up with when we first met back in September over lunch at the new West Washington Avenue location of Madison’s Red sushi restaurant. We’ve gathered at a different location every month since, usually on the last Thursday and have sampled some of the city’s new and solid standbys.

This month I put out the call again on Facebook: I have a reservation for eight at Morris Ramen, just off the Capitol Square. If you’d like to check out this new restaurant with us, say “I’m in!” in the comments. You should come!

Every month familiar faces blend in with new around the table and every month the group hits it off. By the time our checks arrive, new friends are exchanging Instagram handles, websites and random foodie facts–last month, someone asked what the difference in taste was for fresh tumeric vs. dried.

Lunch Squader and photo stylist @sunnyfrantz (check out her Instagram feed!)
Lunch Squader and photo stylist @sunnyfrantz (check out her Instagram feed!)

In October we visited Ha Long Bay on the east side–a stand-out is always the feel-good Tom Kha. In November we went downtown to Osteria Papavero (owner/chef Francesco Mangano’s Pasta al Forno that day was a tower of pasta, sauce, meat, cheese and peas–I ate that and followed it up with his That’s-so-damn-good! creamy and caramelly budino).

We went a bit farther east Madison in December to Om Indian Fusion. One look at the Galab Jamun at the buffet had us all eager to head back up for those fried pastry balls in cardamon syrup with cocoa and coconut.

Last month, we met back downtown and down the steps to cozy Layla’s Persian restaurant. I am still dreaming of the lamb shank I ordered that Laila Borokhim, owner/chef, served over fragrant butterful rice.

I can’t wait to share more about the Lunch Squad and what we eat next month. If you’re in Madison and we’re friends on FB, you too should come!

In the meantime, if you go to Morris Ramen and you should, here’s some helpful info.

  • Name: Morris Ramen
  • It’s about: fresh ramen noodle bowls from chefs/husband & wife: Matt Morris (who spent the last eight years at Shinji Muramoto’s Restaurant Muramoto–now Muramoto Downtown–and several months in Japan, immersing himself in the food and culture) and Francesca Hong, who gets props for being one of the youngest female executive chefs while at Shinji’s 43 North. And Shinji Muramoto himself (Muramoto Downtown, Muramoto Hilldale, 43 North) is also in this kitchen rounding out one hell of a ramen team.
  • And eat the: pork bun with pickle, hoisin and Hong’s chicken wings with kimchi ranch, pickled daikon
  • Open since: December 2016
  • Helpful Hint: Got long locks? Bring a hair tie and tie it up for maximum noodle slurpidge.
  • Location: in the former Red sushi restaurant just off the Capitol Square on King St. And before that, Muramoto’s first restaurant location.
  • Address: 106 King St., Madison
  • Hours: Lunch: Mon-Fri 11 am -2 pm; Dinner: Mon-Sat 5-10pm
  • Website: http://morrisramen.com/

 

Put a little sugar in these cookies

They’re naked. I know. These sugar cookies went fast. And smelled so good (vanilla with a touch of fresh lemon) right out of the oven that they didn’t last long around here. And now I get to make more.

I don’t know about you, but growing up, sugar cookies came once a year in the shape of Santas, Christmas trees and bells and were covered in red and green sprinkles. Sure, cut-out cookies take a little more effort than dropping your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe by scoopfuls onto a baking sheet, but you can avoid rolling out sugar cookie dough by simply forming it into a log and slicing into rounds.  When something tastes this good, why not consider bringing it to the family table more than once a year? At the very least you and your loved ones deserve to enjoy these cookies throughout the many months and moods of winter.

I have found an excellent sugar cookie recipe and have used it as the inspiration for my own buttery-sugary cookies. I’ve made it several times as Santas and bells, snowflakes and flowers. It’s Dorie Greenspan’s grandmother’s and it’s very good and if it comes from anyone’s beloved grandmother, than it is good enough for me. What’s more, it seems to take very well to a heart-shaped cookie cutter.

Dorie Greenspan’s Grandma’s All-Occasion Sugar Cookies (as spied on The Splendid Table)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 stick plus 2 tablespoons (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest (from a large lemon)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, salt, baking powder together and set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter at medium speed for a minute until smooth. Next beat in the sugar until light and fluffy and pale yellow in color. Beat in the lemon zest.

In a small bowl, gently beat the egg and egg yolk. Add the eggs one tablespoon (eye-ball it) at a time until fully incorporated. Beat in the vanilla.

In three batches add in the flour mixture, mixing on low to incorporate. After the third addition, mix only until it all comes together.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut in half and roll each half, one at a time, between two sheets of parchment to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Place both sheets of cookie dough onto a cookie sheet and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Returning to a lightly floured surface, and working with one sheet at a time (leaving the other in the fridge until you’re ready to work with it) carefully peel back the top sheet of parchment. And gently place it back on the rolled out dough. Now flip the dough over and pull back the bottom (which is now the top) sheet of parchment and set aside. Cut out cookies and place them on the parchment-lined baking sheet. You can re-roll the scraps–using as much of the dough as possible–between the same two pieces of parchment. You may have to put the dough back in the fridge for a few minutes if it becomes too soft to work with.

Repeat with the second batch of dough.

Bake for 8-10 minutes or until they begin to take on a slight golden brown color around the edges.

Share these with the ones you love.

 

Fig & Walnut Biscotti

I didn’t know she’d died. But then again, I did. I just hadn’t remembered until I began researching the creator of these delicious biscotti. Gina DePalma, a James Beard Award-winning Pastry Chef at Babbo in New York City (Chef Mario Battali’s place) and cookbook author, died of ovarian cancer at 49–a year ago this past December. These are hers.

I recently found her on the Smitten Kitchen website and only then had I remembered reading a touching tribute about her on Adam Roberts’ food blog a year ago.  He had written about the lentil soup with sausage and swiss chard she made for him–the same soup her mother made for her while she was recovering post-surgery. More on this soup in an upcoming post–because I can’t stop thinking about it and as soon as the current snowfall subsides, will be on my way to the market for the ingredients.

But back to these biscotti…they are made for dunking in your mid-afternoon cup of tea or coffee. Crunchy from the walnuts, soft and chewy because of those sweet dried figs, this traditional Tuscan dolce carries in every bite the essence of winter flavors: orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves. They’ll last in an airtight container for two weeks, however I truly believe they’ll be enjoyed long before that.

I’m sorry Ms. DePalma is gone. I would’ve liked to have written her. To tell her that she’s inspired me to remain true to my heart which says to always keep desserts simple and to allow the flavor of whole ingredients to come through–without getting all fussy about it. We know this to be true for cooking, but yes, it should be true for baking as well.

She says, You might look at one of my plates and think, ‘Wow, she really just slaps it on there.’  But when there isn’t all that busyness to distract the eye, the beauty of the actual food itself has to shine through.

and…I feel very strongly and quite personally that desserts should not be an object of whimsy or nonsense.

*Both quotes are from her obituary in The New York Times.

And now, Ms. DePalma’s Fig & Walnut Biscotti (Makes approximately 24 biscotti, although I didn’t count before eating them and giving some away; also, I followed Smitten Kitchen’s recipe as author, Deb Perelman, cut the recipe in half and that was enough for me.)

  • 1 cup walnut pieces
  • 1 cup dried Black Mission figs, quartered (original recipe calls for Turkish or Calimyrna figs–for a guide to figs, check out Martha Stewart’s website)
  • 3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
  • 6 tablespoons dark brown sugar, packed
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • grated zest of 1/2 a large orange
  • 1 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 egg white, lightly beaten with a fork to a froth

Take out the butter to soften. First grate the nutmeg and set aside (that way your microplane will be easy to wipe clean before zesting the orange). On a baking pan (the same one you’ll use to bake the biscotti) toast walnut pieces until fragrant–about 5-7 minutes. In the meantime, quarter the figs. When the walnuts are completely cooled (I removed them from the pan and placed them on a dish to speed up the wait time) finely chop them in a food processor along with the figs (if you put the walnuts in first, it may help the figs not stick to the bottom and the blade).

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, first beat the butter for 30 seconds or so, then add the sugars until light and fluffy. In a small bowl, beat the eggs gently with a fork and add to the butter and sugar mixture one tablespoon at a time until fully incorporated.  Scrape down the sides, then beat in the vanilla and orange zest.

In a medium bowl, gently whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. In three parts, add the flour mixture to the butter/sugar mixture beating each time until just combined. Take the bowl off the mixer and stir in the walnuts and figs by hand, again until just combined.

Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator until firm–2 hours or overnight.

When the dough has chilled, preheat the oven to 325° and lightly butter a baking sheet. Sprinkle flour onto your kitchen table or other work space and using your palms roll the piece of dough gently back and forth until it becomes a log slightly shorter than the length of your pan (it will expand as it bakes in the oven). Place the log on the baking sheet.

Brush with the frothy egg white and sprinkle generously with sugar (I used about 2 tablespoons). Bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden brown, firm to the touch and just beginning to crack slightly.

Allow the log to cool on the cookie sheet until cool to the touch, about 40 minutes. Here’s the tricky part, carefully, using two spatulas, move the log to a cutting board. Mine broke in half, which really wasn’t a problem. Using a serrated knife, slice into 1/2-inch slices. Lay the slices on the cookie sheet in a single layer; return biscotti to the oven and bake for 20 more minutes until toasted and crisp. Centers will continue to be soft.

 

 

Dear Mr. Sifton

Dear Mr. Sifton,

Your story about clam chowder pizza “American Pie” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/12/magazine/why-clam-chowder-pizza-is-the-best-kind.html?_r=0  that appeared in this week’s New York Times Magazine has the calming cadence of an anxious heart beginning to catch its breath. It is tender, vulnerable and honest; an offering to those who are perhaps confused and hurt by our country’s current state of disarray.

Bacon fried and rendered in butter, leeks softened in the richly aromatic fat, wine and clam juice added until it becomes a syrup finished with heavy cream and tender clams–these warm flavors fill the kitchen at home before being baked into a crisp and charred pizza. This is a comforting thought. I believe thoughts such as these will be a balm, a grey flannel blanket to wrap ourselves in for the days ahead when winter just feels like a bit too much.

A recipe brings an order of tasks to complete one at a time–chop, fry, render, combine, simmer…In this piece especially, I read your words and hear the rhythm of your voice. It will be okay. It will be okay. All will be okay.

Because, yes, Mr. Sifton, Cooking is a practice, a kind of devotion, a form of mindfulness.

And now more than ever, we must

Practice.

Practice with our hands, so that the beating of our hearts remain steady.

With gratitude,

Kathy Brozyna