Monday, January 31, 2005

Cleaning Out Leftovers

1. It would appear that I was not the only one having difficulty with my bread dough this past week. (Even the French bread I made yesterday failed to rise as spectacularly as it usually does.) My Fabulous Aunt reported similar problems with her cinnamon roll dough over the weekend, and after much discussion of the matter last evening, we decided that the yeast must have been adversely affected by either the solar flares early last week or the full moon. Perhaps both. You never know.

2. Speaking of my Fabulous Aunt, I now have her not-so-secret recipe for homemade caramels. I don't plan on making any soon, but I just thought you should know.

3. That carrot salad was so fantastic on my peanut butter sandwich last week that I made more salad and bought whole wheat tortillas so that I could continue to indulge this week. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm...

4. The last of the vegetable stock went into a Provencal artichoke soup yesterday, and I'm afraid I must report that I am not entirely pleased with the results. Although the stockpot marriage of carrots, potatoes, onions, and artichokes with orange juice and saffron is well-intentioned, this recipe is a little too heavy on "top notes"... too brightly tart, too aggressively flavored with little depth. I think I will try it again sometime and add garlic, thyme, and rosemary to see if that improves the flavors. Oh, and I am definitely going to omit the sherry. Sherry-laced soup can be a wonderful thing... and it can also be dreadful. In this case, it just didn't cut it.

5. I used up the rest of the dried cherries in the cupboard in biscotti... took the cranberry-orange biscotti recipe and altered it to include the dried cherries, white "chocolate" morsels, and a dash of real almond extract. A very happy combination, and just perfect for my morning tea time.

6. And since I had yogurt sauce leftover from the Georgian meal, I just had to get more green beans and make the borani again. I love beans! I tried fresh Italian parsley in the recipe this time, which was okay, but the cilantro was better, and I suspect the basil would be best of all. (Must try that this summer when I can pick it fresh from the garden.)

It's amazing what all I can get done over the weekend!

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Odd Couple

There are times when your cupboards and refrigerator are looking a little bare, and your paycheck is stretched a little thin. On days like that, you realize it's probably not a good idea to go out to lunch repeatedly, so you scrounge around at home for something that will keep you going, at least until you get groceries in a day or so.

So there I was last night, knowing that I would not have a chance to go home for a hot lunch today and wondering what on earth I could make to bring in to work. Thus began the kitchen inventory...

Well, let's see... there's bread. Good, I can make a sandwich.

And there's peanut butter. Fine, make that a peanut butter sandwich. But I know that won't be enough. I'll really want some kind of vegetable to go with that.

OK, so I could peel a carrot and have that. But wait! Hey... what if... you know, that Uzbek carrot salad I made for Dinner Club this week wasn't hard to make, so what if I just shred one carrot and make up a small amount of the dressing and have that to go with the peanut butter sandwich?

Or....

Better yet...

What if I put the carrot salad ON the sandwich with the peanut butter?????

Now, I know there will be some among my faithful readers who may think I have just slipped into a culinary hell of my own making, and it serves me right. But I beg your indulgence for just a moment.

If you have had Thai food, you have probably had some sort of dish that had carrots among the vegetables, soy sauce and sesame oil and garlic in the sauce, and peanuts on top. Perhaps you've had pad thai and enjoyed it, or maybe you've had rice paper rolls with a spicy peanut dipping sauce.

So it's not that random a leap to putting this fabulously flavored carrot salad on a peanut butter sandwich. (I even added a little cilantro.) And please believe me when I tell you that not only was it an amazing combination, but I think I've developed a new craving.

We all have strange and unusual food cravings that make other people raise their eyebrows or turn away in disgust. (I've read some very interesting ones of late, courtesy of another blogger, The Food Whore.) Clearly some of these cravings (if not all) address certain dietary deficiencies for each of us. (Most of my cravings have to do with salt, and since I'm blessed with low sodium levels, I can go ahead and indulge them as needed.)

So don't turn up your nose at my unusual peanut butter sandwich. Or as the Chef Mother would always tell me, "Don't knock it if you haven't tried it."

Go on. Try it. I dare you.

Uzbek Carrot Salad

1 lb carrots, grated
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T light soy sauce
2 T rice vinegar (ume plum vinegar is also good)
2 T toasted sesame oil
1 T sugar
1/4 tsp chili paste (crushed red pepper also works)
2 T toasted sesame seeds
2 T chopped fresh chives (fresh cilantro is a nice substitute)

Place carrots in serving dish. Mix remaining ingredients for the dressing. Pour over carrots, toss well, cover and chill for 30 minutes.

Serves 4

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Georgia on My Mind

Last night's Dinner Club, featuring food from the Republic of Georgia (and one neighboring country), was a hit. I know I was happy with the food and enjoyed seconds on a couple of dishes, as did some other folks!

The meal (cooked in part by my lovely sous chef Phoenix) included:

--a thick, bright-tasting tomato soup with finely chopped walnuts and broken bits of whole wheat vermicelli strewn throughout

--a borani that featured green beans sauteed with onions, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and cilantro and topped with the usual garlicky yogurt sauce

--an Uzbek carrot salad with an Asian "vinaigrette" of soy sauce, rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, garlic, sugar, red pepper flakes, and sesame seeds

--cheese bread (yes, there was still some left for the dinner... but no leftovers for me, alas)

--a tea cake, not too sweet, that had black tea and apricot-cherry preserves (in lieu of plum jam) in the batter

All of this was very satisfying, of course. (When are my dinner guests ever not satisfied?)

But the crowning touch came from the boiled walnuts, those mysterious little black orbs, glistening in a sweet syrup, that came directly from the Republic of Georgia, courtesy of the generous Mitch Heat. Those rich little morsels definitely pleased the palate at the end of a fine meal, and I think we're all agreed that we either need to find another couple jars of these delicacies (quick! somebody scour the ethnic groceries in the region!)... or we need to commission a certain someone to bring back more this summer.

I have to admit that one of the things I enjoy most about the Dinner Club is the opportunity to test and sample different cuisines. So far our meals have ranged from the Americas to Europe and all around Asia (China, Japan, Thailand, India), with field trips to enjoy other areas such as Africa (Ethiopia). It's been wonderful to explore different spice combinations and to appreciate some of the similarities between cultures (little dough-wrapped savory appetizers seem to have a certain widespread appeal). And it's been a delight to discover "new" cuisines and to expand my own culinary skills by traveling afar, at least through the kitchen.

It's all about the food, really. And it's the food, not some "old sweet song," that will keep this Georgia on my mind.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Why Can't I Get a Rise Out of You?

Bread dough can be a fickle friend.

You might have fresh yeast, fresh flour, water or milk at just the right temperature, just the right amounts of everything... and for some reason, the dough just won't hold together the way it's supposed to or rise as much as it should.

Maybe the house is too cold or too warm, too damp or too dry. Maybe the meteorological conditions outside are too unpredictable. Perhaps the planets are improperly aligned. Perhaps you are improperly aligned. Maybe the butter was churned by a disgruntled milkmaid. Maybe the yeast has a secret plot to overthrow the government.

(You think I'm kidding? Greater revolutions than this have been triggered by a scarcity of good bread. Hello, Russia? Bonjour, France???)

Whatever the reason, my dough for the Georgian cheese bread I made last night simply would not double its bulk. And to top that off, despite following the recipe, the dough turned out dry and stubbornly resisted pulling together. I kneaded and kneaded, but still it fought me, so I decided just to let it go. Fortunately, it did kick up a wee bit, but it wasn't much.

Thanks to that, instead of the three loaves that the recipe promised, I decided to make only two as I could sense that I would have difficulty rolling out the dough. Thank heaven for upper body strength, because I gave that dough every ounce of energy I had to roll it out into a shape and size that would fit the pans.

Happily, after all this effort and a really good cheese filling, the bread did turn out well, if a bit dry in the dough and rustic (read: homely) in appearance. In fact, it smelled so fabulous that after hemming and hawing about what I really wanted for dessert, I decided that the Dinner Club wouldn't eat two loaves and so I really could go ahead and cut into one. I carefully wrapped one loaf and put it in the fridge, then stood over the other, wielding a knife and grinning maniacally as I sliced off a large chunk.

Oh man. If the recipe is correct in saying that this cheese bread is the ubiquitous fast food in the Republic of Georgia, I may have to go and pay Mitch Heat a visit there. The salty cheesy filling (made with feta and cottage cheeses) nestled inside warm bread is so incredibly satisfying and comforting that it was all I could do to eat just the one piece... and not sneak downstairs to finish the rest of the loaf for a midnight snack!

But don't worry, folks... I saved some for you.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Sweet Success!

So far today the hazelnut squares have been winning rave reviews from the tech guys. Granted, they're pushovers for good homemade cookies, but these have had the guys kneeling at my feet, blowing kisses, and generally expressing their deepest approval and delight.

For those of you who want the recipe... well, I didn't keep this one, but you can modify the three-nut bar recipe to make the shortbread base simply flour, sugar (use confectioner's), and butter... then use hazelnuts and pecans for the nuts and (maybe) substitute honey for some of the sugar.

Yeah. I'm so good. Who's your daddy? er, mama?

Better make that "sugar mama."

Baking Up a Storm

When the weather forecast calls for cold temperatures, about 6" of snow, and high winds to follow, what's a girl to do???

Fire up the oven and bake, that's what.

As the first snow came drifting down Saturday morning, I started off the day's baking with a batch of sesame crackers (new recipe). I added some toasted sesame oil to the dough for an extra dark kick of nutty sesame flavor, and the tray of crackers that got browned the most turned out to have the most satisfying taste overall. Made an excellent sidekick for the soups I have lingering in the fridge!

Next came scones... ah, sweet sweet scones. I pulled out one of my favorites, the ginger-date recipe, and got to work. The original recipe calls for cashews, but as I was out, I substituted some mini diced crystallized ginger to layer that flavor a little more, and I also tossed in the remaining few cinnamon chips in the cupboard. As always, the scones turned out light and tender... just right for afternoon tea.

At this point, the snow stopped, and I was able to shovel the walk and the driveway... only to discover a few hours later that the snow had started falling once more, accompanied by the wind that threatened to undo all my work by blowing that powdery stuff back into drifts. So.... back to the kitchen!

I had some wild rice tempeh in the fridge that I've been meaning to roast (with the yummy Chinese brown sauce), so I made that up for dinner. Though I made too much sauce this time, I considered it a bonus, as I then had "gravy" to spoon over the rich, savory tempeh strips (and over the millet-cauliflower puree that accompanied the tempeh and the steamed kale for my dinner). A nice vegan twist on the old meat-and-potatoes standbys of my youth!

After a hearty dinner like that, what else is there to do but to make cookies? I tried a recipe for hazelnut squares with a shortbread base and a butter/honey/brown sugar/nut topping. They're very fine and delectable (and they made the cut for this week's tech sacrifices), but honestly, I have to say that I prefer my three-nut bar recipe because it has a better flavor and a softer texture to the filling. Still, I'm not complaining... my share of the hazelnut squares has disappeared, and I expect the same will happen with those I brought in to share.

Though the snow stopped and the skies cleared to make an absolutely gorgeous winter Sunday, after an invigorating (read: ridiculously cold and windy) walk to the grocery store yesterday morning, I knew it was time to fire up the oven yet again. This time I whipped up the Georgian tea cake recipe that will appear on the Dinner Club menu come Wednesday. There is actually black tea in the batter, along with some apricot-cherry preserves (I didn't have plum jam as the recipe called for), and a combination of baking soda and vinegar, followed by beaten egg whites, to give the whole cake an extra lift. It smelled wonderful and looks very moist and tasty, so you're all very lucky that I have a certain amount of will power (or is that won't power?) to avoid tucking into the cake before all you lucky Dinner Club members have had a chance to sample it.

Suffice it to say, with all this baking, my home stayed warm and cozy, with delightful fragrances periodically wafting through the rooms to tempt me back into the kitchen for more. I'm rather amazed I could tear myself away from such sweet scents to come to work this morning.

But then, I brought those sweet treats with me.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Tea for Two

I enjoy walking downtown to run errands and pick up groceries these days, even in the colder weather. And I particularly enjoy that quiet time to myself, both in the walking along side streets and in relaxing at one of the local coffee houses. So it's a special friend indeed who gets invited on these little trips... someone who has the same appreciation for that slower approach to life and the willingness to step out of ordinary time to do something different.

Such a friend is the lovely Phoenix.

She met me after work, and we strolled downtown, reveling in the new-fallen snow and talking about subjects near and dear to our hearts (mainly food). Part of our mission was to pick up provisions for a casual dinner back at my place as well as for next week's Dinner Club, but part of the mission was to share some time together over tea and Hungarian pastries at my favorite little cafe.

We sampled a couple of the more unusual teas: a red tea with cranberry and orange flavors for me, and a delicate white tea with the classic Earl Grey flavoring for her. Both were delighfully refreshing, and the white tea especially made us both wonder where we could find tins for ourselves. Our teas were served in beautiful glass tea presses (I had heard of them but not seen them before) that added extra charm to the whole ceremony of taking tea.

Of course, we couldn't pass by the wide selection of pastries! After much deliberation (and steaming up the glass of the display case in our eagerness), we settled on a raspberry Hungarian tea cake that was so fresh and tender, it nearly melted in our mouths. You would almost swear it had a cream filling (it doesn't) because it was so moist and velvety to taste. We also sampled the classic nut roll and poppyseed roll, both of which had that authentic not-too-sweet flavor that satisfies.

The owner of the cafe, a very elegant older woman with a radiant smile, talked with us about the different pastries and the other things she hopes to introduce at some point, and she invited us back for their grand opening celebration this Saturday so that we could sample more of the pastries and watch a baking demonstration. (It's very tempting.)

It's such a rare treat to sit down and let the whole world pass by while you slowly savor such delicacies, whether on your own or with a friend. And I don't think that's right. Being a high-achieving sort of character myself, it has taken me far too long to realize that slowing down and enjoying the moment is just as valuable... if not more so!... as checking items off a to-do list. Phoenix and I both expressed our great pleasure in being able just to sit there in this warm, inviting cafe while talking and taking our time, not having to hurry anywhere afterward.

Of course, we did eventually head out and continued back up the street to get the rest of the groceries... and then slowly walked back to my house, where we enjoyed a comforting winter dinner of leftover corn chowder, steamed kale, and some of the fresh wheat bread from the cafe. We kicked back, enjoyed the food, and just relaxed in a way that we all too frequently forget to do.

So now I will have to remember to add this to my to-do list on a regular basis:

Take time for tea time... and enjoy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Let Them Eat Cake!

Pancakes, that is.

Picture it: a cold winter morning... and the first thing I realize when I come downstairs in the dark is that the room is light from the lazily drifting snowfall outside the windows. What better way to warm up before stepping out in the chill than to make some fresh whole-grain pancakes and a cup of tea?

None, I say.

Part of my family "inheritance" has been my grandfather's recipe for the best pancakes in the world. (Challenge me. I dare you.) Over the past couple of years, I have tinkered with the recipe and come up with a fabulous whole-grain version (wheat flour and wheat germ, oat bran, and brown rice flour) that is not only incredibly good for you, but it fairly floats off the plate and melts in your mouth.

So I mixed up the vegan version of that this morning (with unsweetened soy milk and flax seed replacing the egg), added a robust dose of cinnamon, and cooked a couple for my little wake-me-up. (And there's still batter left for 2-3 more.) Topped them with slivers of butter that melted right into the grain, and drizzled some of the wonderful orange syrup left over from making candied orange peel. (Ohhhhh, that stuff is gooooood.)

While the cakes were cooking, I brewed a cup of that hearty Scottish breakfast tea for a little extra boost once I got out the door.

Ahhhhhhhhh. It's hard to beat a good breakfast on a cold morning. Lately I've had good oatmeal, creamy cheese grits, cinnamon rolls, and even leftover macaroni and cheese for my morning meal. But nothing comforts and satisfies quite like homemade pancakes.

Good morning! :)

Monday, January 17, 2005

Sweet Surrender, Pt. 2

I think I'm in love.

Symptoms: hungry desire to see the loved one, eager steps when walking to meet the loved one, can't stop talking about the loved one.

Yes, it's love all right. And the object of my affection is:

The new Hungarian pastry shop and cafe downtown. (Insert rapturous sigh here.)

I braved the cold winds and the blowing snow yesterday (OK, it wasn't the Arctic wastes, but it was chilly!) to walk downtown for a steaming espresso and a delicate little confection called a white chocolate almond honey cake.

So tender, so rich, so subtly flavored. What bliss.

I have hereby made it my mission to sample every baked item in this place (aside from the meat paste open-faced sandwiches). It's a tough job, but someone's gotta do it.

And it made such a lovely interlude for catching up on local news before heading to the used book store for a bit of a browse.

But I'm not a jealous lover. I'll be happy to share this new love with anyone who wants to experience such culinary ecstasy.

And the sooner, the better.

Stocking Up

During the winter, I tend to spend a good part of my Saturdays in the kitchen. If I'm not baking bread and enjoying the fabulous aromas from that, then I've usually got a pot of vegetable stock simmering away on the stove.

Vegetable stock has got to be one of the easiest things to make, mainly because a recipe for it is simply a guideline and can be tweaked or altered at whim. (And the process for making it intertwines well with doing laundry!)

Take a big pot. I've got a good sturdy Dutch oven that works well for me... you don't need to splurge on a big stock pot.

Peel and chop an onion, some garlic, and lots of vegetables (I usually use potato, sweet potato, carrots, and celery... do NOT use broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes, or bell pepper unless you want a stinking mess). Throw them all into the pot. Don't put too much effort into it, just get them clean and chopped up enough to let the nutrients leach out.

Add herbs: parsley, bay leaves, and chives are basics, but if you know what you'll use the stock in and want to give it extra flavor to coordinate, you can add basil, oregano, rosemary, sage, dill, ginger... whatever! (Just not all of them at once.) Fresh or dried, doesn't matter. Toss in some peppercorns and a few allspice berries, fill with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for an hour or so.

Strain the stock into quart glass jars and let cool, first on the counter and then in the refrigerator. (Don't try to freeze a glass jar of stock until the next day... the stock takes a long time to cool, and if you put it into the freezer right away, you'll find a frozen, shattered jar and unusable stock. Not pretty. Trust me.)

The vegetables that are left over make really good compost... and in the winter, tossing those steaming soft bits and bobs onto the compost heap is such a nice treat... you can feel it starting to break down the other scraps right away.

The end result of this whole process is a golden liquid that adds flavor to soups and stews and other recipes that would just use water (like rice dishes, sauces, etc.). You can also use it just for a broth, though you might want to saute some scallions or garlic and add some salt to enhance the flavor.

And your house smells great for the whole day.

Saturday I got three full quarts of stock out of the pot, and I promptly put one quart back into the pot later that evening while making corn chowder (with unsweetened soy milk... I love this stuff!). I'm not entirely satisfied with the chowder... it's a little bland for me... so I may experiment some more with it. But I've still got two more quarts of stock to play with, and though one may end up in the freezer tonight, I have an idea for the other one later this week.

Now, to make more crackers to go with the soup...

Friday, January 14, 2005

Cocktails for One

I finally picked up a bottle of pomegranate juice (actually, pomegranate-mango) last week as I'd been hearing good things about it (high in antioxidants) and, well, I do like the flavor of pomegranates.

So with my lunch of alphabet vegetable soup/stew/pasta salad? today, I tried a little bit. It's good, with a deep flavor and a rich sweetness. However, I didn't want straight juice for lunch... too intense. Instead, I mixed it with some club soda for a nice little non-alcoholic cocktail. And that was just right.

Pomegranate, mango, and soda. Hmmm. I think it just begs to be called the PMS. (I'll have to try the pomegranate-blueberry juice next... anyone for a little PBS?) You may differ.

But I think I'll have another.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Stewing Over Nothing

I've been meaning to make a pot of vegetable soup since the weekend, and since my play date with my nephews fell through yesterday afternoon, I figured that gave me as good a chance as any to get started.

(This is why it's always good to have some soup stock on hand... makes it so much easier to make these snap decisions!)

I'm perpetually amazed at how easy it is to throw together a pot of soup, even without a recipe. I started with chopping one onion and 2 cloves of garlic, then sauteeing them in my big pot with some olive oil until they were nicely browned (not burnt). I added a good sprinkling of salt and pepper, then a scattering of dried oregano and basil (probably about 1 tsp. each). I love how fragrant just a bit of seasoning can make sauteed onions... really adds some depth to the aroma.

Then I dumped in the vegetables: diced carrot, sweet potato, and potato; green beans; frozen corn; and a can of chopped tomatoes. I tossed them with the onions and herbs for just a few seconds, then added about a quart of vegetable stock and a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce. Once it came to a boil, I turned down the heat and let it simmer for an hour.

At that point, I added a couple of handfuls of a wonderful organic alphabet pasta that I keep tucked away just for soups, and let it continue simmering for about 10 minutes.

Now, here's the tricky part: I like my soups to be a little thicker, so I added some extra pasta. (I always eyeball it anyway.) So when I came back to the pot 10 minutes later, I found that my soup had turned into a thick stew because the pasta had absorbed almost all of the liquid! A bit thicker than I would have liked, but hey, it all worked out.

And if I want, I can add more stock to the rest of the soup/stew to thin it out again. But I don't know, I kind of like it this way!

Once I had a couple ladlefuls in my bowl, I grated some fresh Parmesan cheese over the top and had a very satisfying dinner. (Cheese on soup... what a fabulous idea! Who was the genius who taught me that one?)

For those of you who remember the "Red Dwarf" episode involving gazpacho, I leave you with the following (and highly relevant) quote:

"Souper!"

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Feeling My Oats

No, it wasn't anything quite like that, I promise... I wasn't really feeling my oats. OK, I was, but it was like this:

Last night I decided it was time to make cookies, but with no butter in the house, that eliminated several of the old standbys. What to do, what to do?

So I looked through my whole-grain baking book (Uprisings, if you must know) and found a recipe for oatmeal cookies that called for eggs, canola oil, and honey to be mixed together; then oats, wheat germ, dry milk, coconut, dates, and cashews to be mixed together; and then the whole lot to be mixed together.

And, well, I just had to push up my sleeves and get in there and mix it up by hand. None of this sissy wooden spoon stuff... I grabbed those oats (and other ingredients) and worked it all in, lifting and tossing and mushing everything together.

Yes, my hands were clean when I started.

Yes, my hands were a picture from a bad horror movie when I finished (all those moistened oats and such clinging to my fingers... I won't describe it because words would make it seem disgusting, and it was really just funny).

But let me tell you... those cookies were going to hold together no matter what.

They turned out thick and chewy and wholesome... and filling! Next time, I have to remember an extra pinch of salt and some cinnamon and ginger, but on the whole, they satisfied that craving for something sweet-but-not-too-too-sweet.

A hand-y treat. (I know, groan!)

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Naan-Sense

For my Christmas gift, The Gentleman promised to take me out to dinner at a restaurant of my choosing. Always an acceptable offer to someone who enjoys cooking but can't always be bothered with it! I did note, however, that in offering examples, he mentioned "that Indian restaurant" first. Let's face it... he enjoys good Indian food as much as I do, and Bombay Sitar is close to The Exchange, so we inevitably stop for him to pick up some used video games.

But we're not here to question The Gentleman's motives, amusing as that can be.

Dinner started in our traditional fashion with a plate of vegetable samosas. I mentioned to The Gentleman that every time we ordered their samosas, they smelled and tasted even better than the last time, to which he replied, "That's because it's always been a while since you've had them, and you're really looking forward to them." Well, true, but I really do think they keep tinkering with the spice ratio... and this time, the potato-pea mixture seemed even more buttery and savory, and the pastry a touch flakier. But, as is usually the case, it didn't last long enough for me to make a more comprehensive analysis.

Despite the variety of dishes on the menu, we have both (in less than a year!) come to settle on our favorites: chicken korma for The Gentleman, and channa saag for me. I broke out of that rut slightly last night by ordering the saag paneer, and though the spinach was still that wonderfully creamy texture and the paneer was very good, I do still prefer having the chick peas in the dish. It's good to try other things but have that initial preference confirmed.

The garlic naan, our obligatory "side dish," was as buttery and garlicky as usual... always a good reason for getting this bread over the regular naan.

We both aim for leftovers so that we can prolong the experience at home, so we requested takeaway boxes for the remainder. Our kind waiter returned with two boxes, with fresh rice already tucked in for us! And though we had declined dessert, both of us being right at that point of being satiated but not full, the waiter graciously brought us two small complimentary bowls of rice pudding along with the check. I don't normally order rice pudding as I'm a big fan of their ras malai and gulab jamun, but this pudding, though seemingly on the thin side, was rich and creamy and perfectly sweetened with just a hint of spice to make you savor each bite.

Add to that whole meal a conversation well-spiced with work humor, political discussion and satire, and other amusing topics... well, what better way to spend an evening with a good friend?

And what a great Christmas gift. Thanks to The Gentleman!

Monday, January 10, 2005

On a Roll

In a previous post, I mused that if I really wanted a sweet treat for breakfast, I should make cinnamon rolls.

Boy, I do get the best ideas sometimes.

As another friend has mentioned, there's nothing quite so wonderful as baking your own bread and having that warm, yeasty aroma provide a comforting, welcoming fragrance to your home. Add to that the sweet scents of cinnamon and sugar and butter baking in that bread, and it becomes well-nigh irresistible.

I tried a new recipe for cinnamon rolls this time, one that uses whole wheat pastry flour (I used a 2:1 mix of whole wheat and unbleached) to make it more wholesome... and honey, nonfat dry milk, and eggs to sweeten and enrich the dough in a somewhat healthier fashion. The recipe called for honey and butter to be whipped together and spread over the dough before sprinkling cinnamon over it, but I say you can't beat brown sugar for the sweet center of the filling.

Of course, if you plan to make rolls for breakfast the same morning, it can be sheer torture to smell those seductive aromas while your stomach is rumbling with impatient desire and hunger. Happily, this recipe took about 2 hours start to finish, so I didn't suffer too badly.

And the result? An extraordinarily tender pastry that was more roll than cinnamon but still satisfyingly delectable. What bliss!

And I have leftovers.

For Better, For Worse

The Quiet Man worked for me for a few years as my first web assistant, taking over our department pages from me and giving them a whole new, streamlined look and keeping them well-organized. After he graduated, he headed to grad school in Philadelphia and dropped a line occasionally, even asking for an occasional recipe (couscous comes to mind).

He announced a little over a year ago that he had gotten engaged to his college sweetheart, a charmingly warm-hearted young woman, and on Saturday, the two of them were united in marriage.

You'll forgive me for being a sentimental type, I know... but it was a lovely, simple ceremony held on campus, and the whole day resonated with the love that they share.

But of course, I wouldn't go on about this on a food-related blog if I weren't going to tell you about the reception, right?

Suffice it to say that the campus catering service came through in style, setting up the smaller dining hall with small tables, spotless white cloths, flowers and candles, bottles of wine at each table, and two buffet lines laden with delectable appetizers from the obligatory cheese and crackers and crudites to smoked cheddar puffs, vegetable spring rolls, bruschette, chicken satay, crab-artichoke dip, and much more. They also created a gorgeously simple three-tier wedding cake (which tasted just as a wedding cake should... moist and light with a sugary icing) and offered a decadent chocolate cake, a traditional cheesecake, and a chocolate peanut butter cheesecake as well. Whew!

The whole day was well-planned and -organized, thanks to some excellent scouting by the bride and groom-to-be back in the fall. As a rule, I'm not all that crazy about weddings as they can be so overdone, but this... this was about as close to perfect as you can get.

If you're wondering, given the title of this post, what I might consider to be the "worse" bit, I would offer only this... that two of the Quiet Man's cohorts from our department weren't able to make it. I know they'd have been thrilled to be there and see how happy our friend is with his lovely new bride.

A health to the Bride and the Groom... long may they live, long may they love!

Friday, January 07, 2005

Do YOU Have Fresh Donuts?

Some mornings, if I'm just a little bored (and when does that NOT happen?), I like to look at Blogger's list of new noteworthy blogs. So this morning I find this little gem:

All Things Dunkin' Donuts

That's right... someone is obsessed enough with the big DD to write a blog about it, from news stories to personal anecdotes. And as you've probably discovered by now, it's pretty easy to get sucked into blog-reading.

No, I don't know of any Dunkin' Donuts shops close by, and no, I wouldn't be a regular there even if there were. Personally, I favor a fresh hot Krispy Kreme donut or the selection and coffees at Timmy's (Tim Horton's, which is, I am happy to say, making its presence felt here south of the Canadian border). And I have to add that the little Amish bakery downtown makes a wicked good maple-covered creme stick. (And couldn't Americans come up with a better name for that?)

Ahem. I'm digressing.

Anyway. It's Friday. And now I have coffee and donuts on the brain.

What I really need is time this weekend to make some good cinnamon or pecan rolls to satisfy that sweet craving in a somewhat healthier way.

But doggone it, now I just want donuts.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Freshen Yer Tea, Guv'nor?

On a chilly, rainy day, there's nothing I like better than to curl up on the sofa with a pot of good tea and a book. It's a nice habit I got into over the winter holiday, and happily, I had the afternoon off yesterday and could indulge myself again.

I've been working my way through a tin full of a wonderfully hearty Irish breakfast tea... but slowly, as it's a little on the pricey side. Still, that warm amber color and full aroma it has when it's brewed is so inviting that, although I tend to save it for "special" occasions, I'm finding a lot more "special" occasions in everyday events.

Though I'm learning to appreciate the finer quality of (most) loose teas over teabags, I will also say that the same company makes an equally good Scottish breakfast tea (with the robust flavor and full body of a good Scotch, only using tea) that I like to get in teabag form (or sachets, if you like) purely for convenience.

Surprisingly, I haven't been drinking as much herbal tea or even chai of late... just plowing through the black teas. And let me tell you something... that cupboard is starting to look pretty bare. Definitely time for another field trip to West Point Market to stock up!

After all, it's my cup of tea.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Sweet Surrender

Truth be told, I'm a little off sweets right now. Surprisingly, I didn't have too much of all the desserts that I baked over the past month (well, aside from the ridiculously rich and gooey cappuccino brownies I just made), but it just all added up. However, there were some real treats to liven up my break:

1. Though the weather kept me from seeing the irrepressible Mitch Heat, I did get his Christmas gift... a jar of walnuts in honey syrup, a specialty of his village in the Republic of Georgia. Apparently these nuts are boiled whole for several days until the shells are soft, and then they are soaked in a sweet honey syrup. You then eat the nut, shell and all, and bask in the rich, thick, sweetness of it. Wow.

2. I discovered a new coffee shop downtown. But this is not any ordinary coffeehouse, oh no. This little cafe, straight out of the Old World, is a quiet shop with beautiful wood and glass cases filled with authentic and delectable Hungarian pastries. From Dobos torte to kifli and strudel, you can have your pick of any number of fabulous sweets (which, remarkably to the American palate, aren't excessively sweet) and enjoy them with fresh espresso. And yes, I expect to go back there VERY soon.

3. A post-holiday package arrived from my Fabulous Aunt, containing a few of her homemade cookies (she always makes good ones!), a sizable pack of her nut caramels, and about a dozen of her homemade buckeyes... the treat I beg for every year. So I will be rationing those to make them last as long as possible!

How wonderful to start the New Year on such a sweet note!

Comfort Food

Every year I look forward to having the span from Christmas Eve through New Year's Day off from work, and every year I plan to spend some of that time cooking. (And happily, I was one of the lucky souls who did NOT lose power thanks to that storm!) This year, since the break started off with a winter storm, my cooking started off with comfort food:

vegetable pot pie
more vegetable stock
chili and cornbread
macaroni and cheese (with some broccoli thrown in)
spinach-tofu calzones
spinach-rice casserole
squash-walnut lasagne
cappuccino brownies
and pots and pots of good tea

Some of these efforts made it to the freezer for later consumption, but others are long gone and but a happy memory in my stomach.

Of course, comfort food can also be the food you give to others in time of need, and as my other friends in town were without power, they were in dire need of this. I had made loaves of julekake (Norwegian Christmas bread, laden with raisins and cardamom) on Christmas Eve, and that gave some consolation to those friends who had to spend Christmas Day in a hotel room. And my Opera-Loving Friends were the beneficiaries of not just julekake, but also biscotti and baklava and pickles and homemade liqueurs and the remains of Pie in the Sky (as their whole family was together for the holiday once their heat came back on!).

In all, it was a good end to a year full of good food and good cooking, and I was thrilled to have so much time to devote to making some healthful and yummy dishes. And I was enormously grateful for having uninterrupted power and heat with which to cook!

Happy New Year to you all, and may your hearts (and stomachs!) be full!