Staying in

This morning I woke to snow. It made everything seem better.

When I was in fifth or sixth grade I wrote a poem about a girl who believed that wishes made on the first snow would come true. I think of that poem periodically and it came to mind this morning when I saw the snow and shimmied deeper under my blanket. I tend to recall the poem with a tinge of embarrassment; I was so proud of it then, but the notion now - of poetic snows, wishes, and firsts - seems too idealistic and trite.

Since I was away for December and most of January, today's snow is my first of the year (I'm disregarding the wet surprise Montreal saw one afternoon in October). I've been staring at it for hours, thinking my eleven-year-old self may have been onto something. There is something very beautiful about the snow, something fresh, something quiet, and, I think, something magical. It's a tabula rasa in a way, wiping away what was there before and replacing it with something untouched.

Of course, there is also something about snow that makes you crave soup and blankets, and, happily, something about it that makes spending - yet another - entire day at home, alone, cozy, not dull.

Winter Squash Soup
adapted from Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris
serves four, and is wonderful leftover

My mom requested that I make this soup one night when she bought squash and we were home alone for dinner. Her recipes tend to be intricate, but this one was so simple, and so delicious. Both she and my sister have made it a number of times before and claim that my batch had a completely different flavor. It may be the squash, its flavors maturing as the season goes on, or it may be, as my yoga instructor suggested about practice one day, that you get out what you put in.

2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp good olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onions (about 2)
1 15-0z can pumpkin puree
1 1/2 lbs butternut squash, peeled and cut in chunks
3 cups of chicken stock
2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed stockpot, add the onions, cook over medium-low heat for ten minutes, or until translucent. Add the pumpkin puree, butternut squash, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover and let simmer for about twenty minutes, until the butternut squash is very tender. Puree the soup using the medium blade of a food mill or an immersion blender. I like mine thick and chunky. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve with grated Gruyere, creme fraiche, or croutons.


Whip it good

There was a time when I didn't like coffee and when hot chocolate was far too chocolatey for my vanilla-loving palate. In those days - when I was no older than ten - the only appealing offering in coffee shops was whipped cream. When I used to accompany my parents I would ogle cups of hot chocolate decorated with a generous hat of whipped cream. When they ordered me one I'd lick off the top in a single slurp. I couldn't stomach the chocolate, though. I'd swirl the liquid continuously making wonderful chocolate designs until it was time to leave and I could throw it out. It wasn't before long that my dad thought of a solution: skip the chocolate, keep the whipped cream. He'd plop me at a table, disappear to order drinks, returning shortly with his steaming cappuccino and, for me, a cup filled to the brim with whipped cream.

I wasn't a picky eater. I just really didn't like chocolate. Whipped cream and white rice, however, I liked. Really liked. I enjoyed them as much plain as I did combined with other foods. I still do.

On the farm this winter we rarely ate dessert. The volunteers' oven lacked a door for the first three-quarters of my stay, and we spent the majority of weekends eating enough ice cream and pastries to tide us over for the week. But one evening when we had plans to make a simple pasta dish, Sarah spotted the cluster of rhubarb in the garden. We'd been neglecting this rhubarb, and it wasn't likely to live much longer. How do we feel about rhubarb compote with whipped cream, sarah asked. I felt good, really good. Because I love rhubarb, and I love compotes, but I love whipped cream more. And this whipped cream, I suspected, made with raw cream from Cynthia's lovely half-Jersey Margarita and whipped by hand, would be particularly delicious.

It took us hardly twenty minutes to whip the cream into dense smooth peaks. We cooked the rhubarb with gooseberry jam and little sugar to concocting a tangy, flavorful sauce. It was a wonderful treat on its own, but when paired with the whipped cream, mmmm. I ate some truly delicious meals during my stay on the farm, but that whipped cream....

And almost the whole dessert - all but the sugar - came right from our farm.

Rhubarb Compote
serves four

10 stalks of rhubarb, peeled and chopped
3/4 c sugar, or to taste
berry jam with whole fruit or large pieces (optional)

Combine the rhubarb and sugar in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, making sure the sugar dissolves. Lower the heat to low, stirring regularly until the rhubarb is soft and the mixture resembles a soft jam. Add berry jam if desired, as much or as little as you like, stirring the compote regularly so it does not burn. Taste to see if it needs more sugar. When the compote has reached a consistency you like, turn off the heat. Let cool. This compote is best when served warm or at room temperature with a generous dollop of freshly whipped cream. Use the best quality of cream you can find, unpasteurized if possible.


On bread, a sandwich, and Valentines

I've had a busy few days. I use the term busy lightly, because my days, while productive, and often full, tend to be slow, and meandering. But, my friends, that makes the little joys, like the ones I have recently enjoyed, so much more joyful.

Friday began with the purchase of two new toys that I am certain will bring a continuous cheer to my life. The first: a heavy spouted bowl from Williams-Sonoma. The best parts, besides for its fanciness? It's yellow, and cost a whopping five dollars! That's oh-so-perfect for me right now, considering I a) do not currently have a kitchen of my own to store my new toys in (that's why I have a collection of them in my closet), and b) do not have money to be buying toys, especially ones for my non-existent kitchen.

The second toy is an exception because it has been on my wish list for a long long time. It is, my friends, an ice cream maker! Yay! Tomorrow, I believe, I will begin preparations for my first batch, a pumpkin ice cream, because my mom has canned pumpkin that's taking up too much space in her baking cabinet and because she baked an oatmeal cake that pumpkin ice cream will complement just fine.

Both good things, no?

Earlier this week I whipped together a little biga starter for a ciabatta recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible. The biga is simply a combination of water, a bit of flour, an even bittier bit of yeast (for this recipe, 1/16 tsp), and should have a consistency similar to that of bread dough. There's little to no room for error in this stage of the recipe, but I was convinced that my biga was a little off. I let it rest in an old wonton soup container, waiting for it to triple in size. It grew, and smelled wonderfully yeasty, but the container was embarrassingly large. I think it was mocking the biga, that had become tough and deflated, as it rested in the fridge until Game Day. But yesterday when I took the biga out to de-chill before adding it to the rest of the dough, it happily bubbled and rose a bit. I was optimistic when I mixed the final dough, but less so when it decided to rise only a very little after several hours. I blamed the kitchen, which I think is too cold, but also take some responsibility. I substituted the recommended regular flour for bread flour, which produces a firmer crumb. The catch is that if you use bread flour, you need less. I remembered this when making the biga, but not when making the dough. Even with approximately a quarter cup of too much flour then, I managed to produce a very tasty, if too-tough take on ciabatta.

That's the thing I've found about baking bread. It's difficult to get it perfect, but very very easy to produce something very very tasty. I happily devour my tasty imperfections as I'm learning.

This is long. I apologize. (I told you my days aren't actually busy). But I'd still like to share my lunch and post-lunch activity. Bear with me.

My mother snuck off to Fairway without me, but brought back with her a fresh remarkably tasty baguette, a really stinky wedge of brie, and vanilla beans for my ice cream making adventures! So, I forgave her for leaving me behind, and thanked her for inspiring my lunch: an open-faced baguette and brie sandwich decorated with sliced pears and mixed greens (also partially inspired by a grilled cheese I ate last week in Montreal - cheddar, apple, cucumber, and pesto. Really, really good. The cucumber sounds weird, but trust me, it was a very appropriate addition).

And finally, Valentine's Day is coming up. I have no job, a sorry social life, and a very creative sister who directed me to Martha Stewart's website and then drove me to the crafts store. I spent hours perched at the counter yesterday creating a beautiful mess of hearts and glue stick residue. I really, really suggest you do the same.

Homemade Valentines

Cardstock paper, in Valentine's colors
heart stickers
alphabet stickers
stamps or stencils
red and/or white doilies


What I've been keeping from you

It's been for no other reason that I was rushed and then uninspired. This is my new favorite banana bread recipe. It's been met with extreme satisfaction.

I was very pleased to return home last week to a batch of bananas browning on the counter. Banana bread time, I thought happily. There was already half a loaf of the ginger-chocolate take in the refrigerator, but I had a trip to Montreal approaching, a special someone there who thinks banana bread is just fine, and a special request for a loaf made with butter. Plus, banana bread is one of my favorite things to bake, and its batter is one of my favorite to sample.

I made this slightly cinnamon loaf and discovered that a house can never have too many banana breads hanging around.

Cinnamon and Chocolate Chunk Banana Bread

There is always and always has been a banana bread in the fridge at my parents' house. The best part of my mom's recipe was always the sugar she sprinkled atop the loaf's center before baking. She'd use turabin or just plain white, but since I was already straying from her traditional recipe I took the chance to go wild with the sugar. Cinnamon anyone?

for the bread
3 very ripe large-ish bananas
1 ½ c all-purpose flour
1 c sugar
1 stick unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
¼ c honey
¼ c milk (I used 2%, but whatever you have should work fine)
1 c dark chocolate chunks

for the topping
1 1/2 tbsp light brown sugar
1/2 tbsp white granulated sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Coat a a 9 x 5-inch metal loaf pan with cooking spray, or line it with parchment paper, with the excess draping over the sides. (So you can remove the loaf without jeopardizing the topping.)

Melt the butter. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Mash the bananas in a large bowl. Add the butter, eggs, honey, and milk. Mix until just combined. Add the dry ingredients to the wet. Toss in the chocolate chunks and stir well. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

In a small bowl, mix together the topping ingredients. Sprinkle them evenly over the batter.

Bake the bread on a middle rack for 50 - 60 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean. Cool the bread in the pan for 30 minutes, or, as I sometimes do, dig in while it's still warm. Watch the chocolate chunks - they burn!

This bread is delicious and lasts longer when refrigerated.


A treat from Argentina

I'm back! And I have something to share.

On my last day at the farm, as the volunteers were huddled over the counter in the kitchen making homemade dulce de leche, Cynthia told us a secret. Boil a can of condensed milk, she said. Don't forget to remove the label. Let it simmer. A few hours later, you'll have dulce de leche. That morning we were making a liter of the sweet with fresh milk and cream from her cow Margarita that we'd reserved for two days. Cynthia keeps five marbles specifically for when she makes dulce de leche. She tosses them in to the pot of boiling milk to ensure the liquid never stops moving.

Dulce de leche was never really my thing, at least up until that morning it wasn't. To me it was just a fancy term for the caramel sometimes found in too sweet cheesecakes, and the flavor featured in every Argentine ice cream shop. But when I tasted the first bite of Cynthia's homemade version, still hot from the pot and about half an hour away from truly being ready, I changed my mind. This dulce de leche was milky and creamy, rich and smooth, soft, but not too sweet. I licked the pot, my spoon fighting for a spot with those of the other volunteers and Cynthia's husband's, Nacho. I wanted more. Luckily, the jar Cynthia prepared for us cooled just as she pulled a loaf of homemade bread from the oven.

I tried all afternoon to stop eating, but every time I walked by the bread and dulce jar (That was often. Very often. They were arranged on the counter in the teeny casita I was staying in) I had to take just one more slice - I couldn't help it! The bread was still warm and so soft - and about three more spoonfuls. My stomach ached until the next morning.

The farm's volunteers - in December, three to five American girls in their twenties - headed into town on the weekends. We had a routine. Take the collectivo straight to the coffee shop. Order a large coffee with milk on the side. Enjoy. And then head to La Nona, a friendly bakery down the road. We'd often get three or four things each, planning to save for later, but never holding out for very long. On a day when we skipped La Nona for breakfast, I went in after lunch, craving a sweet snack. I didn't debate as I usually did in the mornings, and went straight for the mini alfajores, sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche and rimmed with coconut flakes. An excellent choice. The dough was dry and crumbly, almost bready, but not too heavy, not too buttery. A perfect complement to offset the sugary filling. I got another. And another every day after that that I could go back.

I thought of making dulce de leche every day since I learned how. I don't have a milk cow or special marbles for the occasion, so I devoted my day to tending a pot boiling two tiny cans. Making alfajores seemed the only natural next step.

Dulce de Leche
1 16-oz can of sweetened condensed milk

Remove the label from the can. Submerge the can(s) in water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so that the water simmers. Leave the cans simmering for 3 1/2 - 4 hours for a large can, and closer to 3 for a small can. Check periodically to make sure that the cans are always submerged.
Remove the cans from the water with tongs.

makes 18 sandwiches

1 stick good quality butter, room temperature
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tbsp cognac, or brandy
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 c orange juice
1 tsp orange or lemon zest
1/2 c sugar
2 c flour
1 c corn starch
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
dulce de leche
sweetened coconut flakes

In a medium bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy and creamy Add the egg yolks, beaten lightly, one by one, followed by the vanilla, brandy, orange zest and orange juice. With a mixer on low speed, combine well. Add vanilla and brandy and mix well.

In a separate medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Combine using a low speed until the dough is soft and cohesive. Using your hands, work it into a ball. Chill for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 325°. Roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thick on a floured work surface. Cut into 2-inch rounds and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for about 1o minutes. The cookies should dry, and not brown. Let cool.

Meanwhile, fill a bowl with coconut flakes.

When the cookies are cool, spread a generous layer of dulce de leche on one. Close it with another to create a sandwich, squeezing slightly for a little of the filling to peek over the edges. Roll the dulce de leche in coconut flakes to coat entirely.