If you give a moose a muffin

I have to teach myself time and time again to take my time with recipes. Or maybe, next time, I'll skip the movie so that I'm not tempted to begin baking at 12 am on a Friday just so I can save time - and not rush - in the morning. Oooh well.

I get frantic when I think I've botched directions. The other day in the car I was convinced I passed a road I was looking for, and decided to try some other road - just in case the town changed road names and Google didn't know. After that unsuccessful attempt I just turned around completely, only to go back in my original direction and find the right street minutes later. A similar saga almost occurred this evening when I didn't look properly for ground ginger and fetched candied ginger hoping to concoct a successful substitution. After one more just in case perusal I found ginger hiding under mustard. Silly spices.

I'm heading to Connecticut early tomorrow morning for a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving, hence the baking rush. I've been warned I will be treated with an assortment of pies, so although I've had my eye on several cake recipes - most involving ginger - I opted for a second cousin of cake: a famed muffin-like biscuit that my are a staple at Markowitz Thanksgivings.

I've never used such an array of measuring devices for a single recipe before, and I was so happy to be doing so in my mom's kitchen. She has a 2 tablespoon and teaspoon spoon, both of which came in very handy. She also has a pastry brush, beautiful whisks, and two real baking trays. At the moment I lack a single real one.

Mom's Thanksgiving Biscuits
adapted from Bon Appetit

2 1/4 c flour
4 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 c canned pumpkin
1/4 c whipping cream
1/3 c (packed) light brown sugar
2 tbsp honey
1 tbsp fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted

glaze and garnish
16 - 20 walnut halves
2 tbsp whipping cream
2 tbsp honey

Preheat oven to 375°, with a rack in the center. Combine flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, salt and cardamom in medium bowl . Add butter and rub in with fingers until mixture resembles coarse meal. Whisk pumpkin, cream, sugar, honey and lemon peel in another medium bowl. Add the pumpkin mixture and chopped nuts to dry ingredients and stir until incorporated.

Turn the dough out onto floured surface and knead gently until smooth, about 8 turns. Roll out the dough to 3/4-inch thickness. Using floured 2-inch-diameter cookie cutter, cut out rounds. Place biscuits on the baking sheet with a little space between.

Whisk the cream and honey left for the glaze in a small bowl and brush atop each biscuit. Garnish each with 1 walnut half. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the biscuits are light golden and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Let biscuits cool on a rack for 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. You can reheat by wrapping the biscuits in foul and warming in an oven at 350°F for 5 minutes or so.

Delicious as a breakfast or appetizer.


A lesson on the dangers of tasting too soon

I never told you about the espresso chili, about how divine it was, how (almost) everyone got a heaping bowl, and did everything but lick it clean.

I love that this recipe is a little eccentric, but after reading reviews of a similar recipe on Epicurious I was a bit hesitant to make this for a crowd. A few who had tried it were disgusted. Others adored it, recounting how it has become a regular staple and a hit at dinner parties.

With fingers crossed I stocked up on beans, lugged out our biggest stock pot, and went to work.

There are a few really delightful things about this recipe. It's incredibly simple, requiring basic ingredients and light chopping only. It's easy to double and store, and, as it turns out, terrific for a hungry and mostly vegetarian crowd. What I loved most, though, is how the flavors blend as the chili cooks.

I have a really terrible habit of sampling my recipes at every possible stage as I cook. This usually leaves me too full to properly enjoy the finished product, but I can never resist. After stirring the beans, coffee, tomatoes, sugar, and spices into the garlic-onion combo, I collected some broth on my spoon for the first taste. Disappointment. Watery, bland, but worst of all, bitter. Nervous that I'd be doing little more than serving a cup of bad joe to my friends, I dumped in a generous addition of sugar, and left the kitchen wanting to separate myself from what I was certain would be a disaster.

I returned to a warm and deliciously smelling kitchen. The chili had morphed into a gorgeous black stew, sweet and surprising. With time the flavors melded into a delicious blend. I didn't notice any repercussions from the sugar overdose, although more than one person asked, "What makes this so sweet?" Still, no complaints. Add "forgiving and flexible recipe" to the list of reasons why this is so great.

Experiment with this recipe. I stayed fairly faithful to the version printed here, adding only a few more tomatoes and onions, and that extra sugar. For the next time I'd like to add bell peppers or squash, or substitute the coffee for a mole-like chocolate version. Try serving it with polenta or a dense cornbread.

I'm sorry I don't have a picture to share, but I plan on making another batch very soon and I promise to document it.

Black Bean Coffee Chili

adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

3 tbsp neutral oil,
2 onions, chopped
2 tbsp minced garlic
3 c canned tomatoes, chopped (don't bother to drain their liquid)
2 c freshly brewed coffee, or 1 1/2 c freshly brewed espresso, or 2 tbsp espresso powder
2 tbsp chili powder
1/4 c dark brown sugar or 3 tbsp molasses
1 3-in cinnamon stick
2 cans of black beans (or 1 pound dried black beans)
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil over a medium high heat in a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. When hot, add the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Stir in the tomato, coffee, brown sugar, cinnamon, and beans. Add water to cover. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat so the liquid bubbles steadily. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the flavors have blended, anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes (although the chili can sit longer on a very low heat to stay warm). Add salt and pepper to taste and adjust the seasoning.


Banana Bread: from Mom to Molly

When I was little I stayed far away from banana bread. My mother was always making it, though. Her recipe was simple and delicious - requiring just one bowl and little else. It was years until I discovered the joy of the batter, so sweet and thick. I began linger in the kitchen as she baked, bobbing on the edge of the counter stool until she poured the batter and finally I could dive finger first into the bowl. I don't remember when I crossed to the other side. Banana bread has become a well known treat, one of my favorite things to both eat and bake.

The recipe was not originally my mother's, but over the years it has become hers famously. She's experimented with other recipes, but I never have. I'm convinced that hers reigns supreme. In college I'd come back from grocery shopping with a surplus of bananas. I'd bake a loaf regularly, creating customized versions for friends. Sophie likes hers loaded with chocolate chips, Sam prefers it plain. I experimented with vegan versions for Susannah and threw in raisins, coconut, and chocolate when I kept one just for myself. No matter how it was, everyone raved without exception. I felt silly taking credit for something so simple, and only ever revealed one secret: dust sugar along the center before putting the loaf into the oven. It creates a delightfully sweet crunch. The middle pieces are always everyone's favorite part.

I came home yesterday to my parent's house in New Jersey, and went almost immediately to the library. I was so happy to find Molly Wizenberg's book A Homemade Life. Later that night my mother was flipping through it and pointed out to me Molly's recipe for banana bread with chocolate and crystallized ginger. You know, I have some ginger in the cabinet, she said to me. And I'd really love to come home tomorrow to find this. So that was that.

Molly's recipe - by no means complicated - is far more intricate than the one I grew up on. I love that she includes yogurt and not so much butter that the bread becomes rich. With sugar on top, hers tastes remarkably like a chocolate chip edition of my mother's: moist, dense, and banana-y - with the sporadic zest of ginger.

Molly W's Banana Bread with Chocolate and Crystallized Ginger
adapted from A Homemade Life

6 tbsp unsalted butter
2 c flour
3/4 c sugar
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 c semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
1/3 finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 large eggs
1 1/2 c mashed banana (about 3 large bananas)
1/4 c well-stirred whole-milk plain yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 with a rack in the center. Grease a 9x5 loaf pan with cooking spray or butter.

In a small bowl microwave the butter until just melted. Set aside to cool slightly. In a large bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add the chocolate and ginger. Combine well and set aside. In a medium bowl lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add the mashed banana, yogurt, melted butter, and vanilla.
Pour the banana mixture into the dry ingredients. Stir gently with a rubber spatula until just combined. The batter will be thick and somewhat lumpy, but there should be no unincorprated flour. Scrape the batter into the pan and sprinkle the top with sugar.

Bake until the loaf is a deep shade of golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 50 - 60 minutes. Cool the loaf in the pan for five minutes, then tip it out onto the rack and let cool completely before slicing.


Bakery breakfast

I love bakeries on weekend mornings. A really beautiful shop, Mamie Clafoutis, just across the street from out apartment was packed today - a rainy, lazy Saturday, my last in Montreal. We ducked in this morning on our way to the pharmacy and came out with most perfect breakfast for my last Saturday in Montreal - pain au chocolat, sweet brioche, and a blue cheese-walnut ficelle. Joe and I took them to go, but stopped to huddle under an awning to protect our goods from the rain, and so that we could also enjoy them rain-free. After my bread baking adventures this week I'm really itching to concoct a recipe of my own. Cheese and walnuts were scattered throughout and an oozing pocket of rich cheese was hidden in the center. I'm happy that the scent of blue cheese will linger on my fingers all day.

We're preparing now for a farewell potluck this evening, trying to plan an array of dishes that will make use of thyme and fresh ricotta in the fridge and a chicken Joe has had frozen for months. So far the menu will include an espresso black bean chili, a roast chicken, maybe ricotta gnocchi or pizza, and likely a banana bread.

Off to China town, Jean Talon, and our favorite cheapy grocery store.


Olive bread

Jim Lahey's No-knead Olive Bread

3 c bread flour
1 1/2 cups roughly chopped pitted kalamata olives
3/4 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 c cool water
additional flour and cornmeal for dusting

In a medium bowl combine the flour, olives, and yeast. Add the water. With your hand mix until you have a wet, sticky dough, about 30 seconds. Cover the bowl with a towel or plastic bag and and let sit at room temperature until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled in size, 12 to 18 hours.

When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Ulsing a rubber spatula or well floured hands scrape the dough out of the bowl in one piece. Flour your hands again to lift the edges of the dough in toward the center and tuck in the edges of the dough towards the bottom to make it round.

Lay a tea towel flat and generously dust it with cornmeal or flour. Place the dough on the towel, seam side down. Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled. If you gently poke it with your finger, it should hold the impression. If it springs back, let it rise again for several minutes (15 - 30).

Half an hour before the end of the second rise, preheat the oven to 475° with a rack in the lower third. Place a heavy pot, preferably with a lid, in to preheat as well.

When the oven is heated and the rise is complete, remove the pot. Carefully unfold the tea towel and quickly but gently invert the dough into the pot so the seam side up. If you have an oven-safe lid, cover the pot and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes remove the lid and continue baking until the bread is a deep chestnut brown, but not burnt, about 15-30 minutes. If you do not have a lid, just bake the bread from 45-60 minutes until it has reached a deep chestnut brown color. You can also place a roasting pan on the bottom rack and fill with 2 cups of water to help achieve a crusty crust.

When done, use pot holders to gently lift the bread out of the pot and place it on a rack to cool completely.


To satisfy a craving

One of the really special things about DePiero's farm on sunny weekends is the Pickle-Licious tent parked beside the entrance. Growing up, I'd accompany my parents for our produce pickup. I was always happy to peruse the stuffed animal collection on the store's second floor or hang around the bakery counter until my mom bought me a giant elephant's ear, but I felt an extra surge of glee when I spotted the vendor amidst barrels of pickles. They brought along plates of samples. We rarely bought, but always tasted. I remember stopping with my dad for a taste. I have always been really shy about approaching sample stations, especially when I have no intention of buying the product, but when I was with my dad, we'd settle before the plates and taste each one, every time concluding that our favorites were the bright green.

Growing up we never kept pickles in the house and so they remained a special treat. Sometimes my dad would surprise us with a quart when he picked up the Sunday morning bagels. I'd squeal and have three before even considering a bagel.

Every so often I'm overcome with mad pickle cravings. I buy a jar and devour the whole thing within a day. The master recipe for these quick pickles warns that they're so good you won't be able to keep them in the house for more than a week.

Kosher-style Pickles
2 lbs Kirby cucumbers (about 8)
1 c boiling water
1/3 c kosher salt
1 bunch fresh dill
5-7 garlic cloves, crushed

Halve or quarter the cucumbers. Boil 1 cup of water. Transfer the water to a large bowl. Add the salt, stirring until dissolved. If the mixture needs to be cooled, add a few ice cubes. Add the cucumbers, garlic, and dill to water mixture. Add water until cucumbers are fully submerged. Leave to rest at room temperature. Taste the cucumbers after 4 hours if quartered or 8 if halved. Add enough water to allow the cucumbers to be fully submerged. If necessary, rest a plate with a weight on top to keep them down. Let rest anywhere from 4-48 hours until the cucumbers have reached desired amount of pickliness.

Refrigerate and store in their brine.

*Because there is no vinegar in this recipe, the pickles will not last more than two weeks.


An evening of cookies

Another down day despite concerted efforts to make it otherwise. Started out with a struggle to get out of bed, a pot of tea, and a date with my computer. I chugged away at a few things, and later got to cross the tasks off my to-do list. Oh the small pleasures. Productivity has been so satisfying lately, since I don't have anything really going on. Last night around ten I made egg salad so Joe could have some for lunch. He made mayonnaise this weekend, and while I found it more pleasing than most, I still prefer it in some sort of salady mix. So the day continued with egg salad and sprouts on toast - a delicious treat.

For what should be the last time, I stopped by the club to pick a few things up and say goodbyes. Diana is really so sweet. Once Sylvia left she would bring me in daily food treats, two of whatever she was eating - hardboiled eggs, yogurts, croissants. Only once did she suggest I go upstairs and sit with her while I eat. Otherwise, it seemed that the gesture of giving was simply enough for her. Caitlin asked me today if it's weird to be done. It's not. I don't feel anything, not even relief. A few weeks ago when I was practically counting down the hours I realized that I have been there for six months. Six months. Half a year. I thought immediately, of course, of all of the other more worthwhile jobs that I could have held in that time, of all the work that would have maybe made me happier. What a mistake. If only I could have made up my mind in April to stay in Montreal through the summer. If only. Wouldacouldashoulda. I'm trying now instead to see the glass half-full kind of way.

Joe met me at the club to collect the 380 empty beer bottles that were left. We loaded them in, and then out of the car only to discover that our friendly grocery store wouldn't accept bottles for businesses. So off to the dump we went! Not without a treat, though. The eco-dump is so conveniently located next to Cirque de Soleil's headquarters, their clown academy, and, in the lovely Bronx-like Italian town of St. Leonard, where Joe knew of a local eatery, Cafe Milano. We ate chicken and veal sandwiches alongside a row of men standing with their lattes. Behind the counter worked a gang of hollering young Italian guys, their voices decorated with an Italian twang.

We ate around five, and, I regret to say, without an early bird's special. But it was lovely to come home to a full evening, especially one filled with Audrey Hepburn's Charade and peanut butter cookies. Joe had his heart on a recipe that called for ground peanuts. Yet again, everything felt better once I was measuring and mixing. I'm so full of salt and peanut. Joe stuck his face in the batter bowl for a taste, and then suggested sticking a dab of peanut butter between some batter for an extra kick. Everyone eventually came to the kitchen for a batter taste, and then hung around for a taste of the final product. According to Caitlin, they were perfect.

Classic peanut butter cookies
courtesy of The New Best Recipe

2 1/2 c flour
2 sticks unsalted butter, cold, but softened
1 c packed light brown sugar
1 c white granulated sugar
1 c chunky peanut butter
1 c roasted peanuts, ground
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
3/4 c chocolate chips, optional

Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set oven at bake to 350. Grind peanuts in a blender until broken, but still chunky, about 10 pulses.

Combine flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a small bowl. Set aside. Cut the butter into small chunks. In a large bowl mix (I used a hand mixer) until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the sugars, and mix until fluffy. Add the peanut butter and mix until just combined. One by one, break in the eggs, mixing as you go. Add the vanilla and mix until just combined. Stir in the flour mixture, adding peanuts once combined.

Spoon small balls onto baking sheet leaving plenty of room in between. Cross the cookies using a fork. Dip the fork in a small bowl of cold water. Press lightly into the dough, slip back into water, and press in again, rotating 90 degrees. Bake cookies for 10 -12 minutes.


Cooking makes me feel good

Despite a bunch of wonderful things about today - pancake breakfast, lovely music, playing in leaves, fall sun, a full moon - I couldn't snap out of a funk.

I moped, and then I got hungry.

As usual, very little is in my fridge, and only a bit more in the pantry. I had been saving a can of black beans for The Minimalist's potato salad, but was chili- and lime-less this evening. Instead, a can of tomatoes and Bittman's
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian saved the night! The winner? White rice and black beans.

Disheartened because I was also without cilantro and, more importantly, a stove-friendly and oven-save pan, I gathered my ingredients and stared into the cabinet thinking of ways to doctor the already so simple recipe. As I had resigned myself to a stir fry concoction, dear Joe screwed the plastic handles off a pot, and bam - we were in business.

My misery eased as soon as I began chopping, and was gone completely by the time the onion, pepper, and garlic made it onto the burner. Following a recipe and watching the food transform with each stage is satisfying, dependable, and exciting. It's what I love about cooking and baking. And hiccups happen, of course - tonight I discovered a plate and cookie sheet left in the oven from this morning's pancakes and then burned myself while taking them out. Still, the process totally centered me.

This was perfect comfort food - warm, easy, and delicious. Thanks, Mark Bittman.

Rice and Black Beans
adapted from Mark Bittman's
How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
makes 4 - 6 servings

extra virgin olive oil
1 med onion, chopped
1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 - 2 cans of black beans
1 1/2 c long-grain rice
1 c canned tomato, chopped with their liquid
salt and pepper
1/2 c fresh cilantro leaves
sour cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Heat a large ovenproof pot over medium heat. Drizzle olive oil in the pot for about a minute. Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Cook until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add the beans. Mash or use an immersion blender until about half of the beans are pureed. Stir in tomatoes and rice. Salt and pepper generously, adding a few pinches of chili powder is desired. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes.

Sprinkle with cilantro and serve with a dollop of sour cream.