Posts tagged ‘tarts’
Pulled pork tacos. Mexican cokes in slim, tapered glass. A bowl of kumquats, gem-like, straight from tree to counter. And food trucks selling $21 foie gras PB & J sandwiches – welcome to LA!
It’s not my first time in the city of angels. I came at 15 with a couple friends, but the trip was forgettable. We stuck to downtown, mostly malls, and the Sunset strip. We tried to find celebrities and instead lost the chance to really dig into LA. Where were the farmer’s markets and neighborhood dives? Where were the local vendors? Where was the character? It’s no wonder the state left a bland taste on my tongue. California, that colorless word.
As a result, I spent the last four years telling people, “Oh, I don’t really like LA.” When pressed for reasons, I said the city was superficial, and for good measure, “I like seasons.” But I couldn’t resist when C-, an LA-based friend from college, invited me to stay and visit. I resolved to make this trip different, if I had to eat my way across California to do it.
I admitted defeat two days later, the car parked on a ridge overlooking all of LA. The sun had dipped past the horizon. The palm trees I thought looked so silly became unexpectedly beautiful against the blackening sky. As night fell, millions of lights edged the foothills, the city actually shimmering like a mirage. “Okay,” I told C-, who had known all along that I’d be easy to break. “I kind of love this.”
Maybe it’s naïve to think there’s a “real LA” to discover, but I’ve felt it everywhere. I waited in line for cheap, cheap tacos piled with cheddar in Culver City. In Santa Monica, I fell in love with a fashion designer’s tiny house, decorated with lime green plastic couches and funky glass lights. C- and I had dinner in a Hollywood club with a full jazz/swing orchestra. Unbelievable.
It’s hard to call California bland while you sip watermelon-rosemary lemonade, nibbling the last bit of salted caramel macaron.
When C- goes to work, I take advantage of California produce. His parents graciously opened the whole house to me, saying that every ingredient and kitchen counter was available. When I opened the fridge and saw quality coconut milk, spice flecked pumpkin butter, fresh avocado and more cherries than I could eat, my fingertips began to itch. I found their food processor, pulsed the butter, and had a tart crust chilling in the fridge in a heartbeat.
While I was in school, I bookmarked hundreds of recipes I wanted to try but couldn’t make. No tools, time, or ingredients there – but here the afternoon was mine. Right away I knew I wanted to tackle a white balsamic custard tart, topped with a mosaic of fresh berries.
C-’s kitchen is a lot bigger than mine. I opened almost every cabinet and drawer trying to find white balsamic vinegar. I felt vaguely like I was robbing the house, but they’d specifically said I could look around. Finally, tucked in the corner of a slim cabinet, I found a raspberry blush white balsamic vinegar. It was even better than I could have expected.
A few turns of the whisk, some gentle heat on the stove, and a yolk-colored custard came together. Opening the plastic cartons of raspberries honestly felt like unwrapping rubies. I snuggled the berries around the perimeter of the crust, circling the custard, one plump blackberry topping the center.
I was worried the balsamic vinegar would be too sour, but instead, the custard’s flavor is tangy and elusive. If I hadn’t baked it myself, I’d have no explanations for the mystery ingredient. Not citrusy enough to be lemon or sweet enough to be yogurt, but unusually pleasant. Paired with the fresh berries and buttery crust, the tart didn’t disappoint.
There’s a little less than half the tart remaining, and a full seven days to spend in California. Will there be any leftovers after my trip to the Hollywood farmer’s market? When I get back from Disneyland? Who knows, but I don’t mind. More raspberries magically appeared in C-’s fridge this morning. I can’t wait to see what else LA offers.
17 and Baking turns two years old this week. I almost missed it.
In the past, I spent afternoons alone in the kitchen, flour dusting my palms and lots of quiet thoughts in my head. Afterwards I wrote about the baking process, my love for fresh ingredients, the joy of brainstorming desserts and sharing them with my family. I had more ideas than photographs.
I went a record-breakingly long time without posting as of today. Looking at my life it’s clear why I’m struggling to blog. Though I’m happier than ever, I’m living between sips of coffee and half hour power-naps. The biggest issue is that I haven’t been baking. At all. I use photographs of desserts I baked last summer to keep this blog running. While there’s a trunk of baking supplies beneath my bed and a working oven in the dorm building down the street, I haven’t used it once this year.
Over Thanksgiving and winter break, reunited with family, I obligingly creamed butter and whipped cream, but frankly, much of the magic was gone. I’ve never lost my passions for writing, photography and baking, but my weariness shows. I’m scared that 17 and Baking is in decline, that I’m losing something I consider such an important part of myself.
My boyfriend I-’s birthday was a few Fridays ago. He wanted to go up to Maine and spend several days with his family, and at the last minute I went along too.
“You’ll be able to bake,” he said, convincing me to come.
I was nervous to meet his parents and sister and his friends, more nervous than I wanted to let on. But for the first time in a long time, I was excited to make something for his birthday. That outburst of butterflies in my chest was so comfortingly familiar, so nearly forgotten, it was almost painful.
The next afternoon we drove to the local grocery store. I’m not used to buying staples at once – usually I have all the basic ingredients on hand, though I might need more chocolate slabs or an unusual spice. We picked up flour, sugar, heavy cream, local homemade butter. But I couldn’t decide what to make. I hadn’t flipped through a cookbook or wanted to make something in so long, and I actually felt out of my element in the baking aisle.
I- kept making suggestions, and I kept shooting them down. The possibilities were overwhelming. “You have to pick something,” he said finally as we wheeled the cart around the entire store for the third or fourth time. “Make a pecan pie.”
We threw pecans into the cart. “Maybe some walnuts?” I- was holding another bag. “Those might be good with the pecans.” Into the cart. “Milk chocolate toffee bits? In the pie? Yes?” Yes. He kept smiling whenever he saw me start to smile back.
I don’t always like getting a million suggestions from someone else when it comes to baking, but I didn’t mind. Even when he paused at the end of the aisle and added, “You should put in some coconut.” I know my dad will picture my usual eye-roll and heavy sigh but instead I said, “Why not?”
I watched every bag, carton, box pass across the scanner and pack into shopping bags. I helped carry them to the car trunk. At the house, I arranged them on the counter and stared for a good minute. It felt unreal.
I winged a good deal of the recipe, just throwing things in. I-’s mom and sister popped in a few times to see how I was making the pie totally from scratch. There was a moment when the crust was in the freezer and the nuts were all chopped in a bowl and suddenly I felt like I was breathing for the first time in months.
I-’s family and I ate dinner together as the pie cooled in the kitchen. When the plates were cleared, I’-s dad went next door to borrow a bit of bourbon so I could make bourbon whipped cream. I beat the cream to stiff peaks, folded in the bourbon, and cut the pie. I could feel my heart thumping and the heat rising to my cheeks as the first slices made it to the table, so nervous. What if it wasn’t good? What if I was really, really out of practice?
“Oh my gosh,” somebody said, and round 2 of pie became a reality.
Later I- and I brought a wedge of pie over to the neighbors, along with some whipped cream. It turned out the bourbon was decades old, saved from a wedding. I couldn’t believe something so special had been opened and shared. When I- and I headed back to his house, I kept hoping the pie would be delicious, wanting them to get as much happiness from it as possible.
None of the whipped cream survived the night, but in the morning, I pulled out the Canon and shot some food photography for the first time in too long.
An out-of-the-blue pecan pie, dropped into my life weeks before 17 and Baking turns two. There are a lot of things I love about this pie – it’s sophisticated and rustic, unfussy with complex flavors. It isn’t overly sweet or sticky and there’s no light corn syrup involved. I love that my boyfriend came up with most of it. I love that it was shared and gobbled up embarrassingly fast. In so many ways, this pie reminded me of why I love to bake and why I’ll continue to blog.
Happy birthday, 17 and Baking. Eat some pie.
Lately, it seems to me that one of the most important things about being alive is, well, food. Even before this whole “baking thing” :) became a part of my identity, food has been as important as housing and education.
I come from a family where my grandfather laid the foundation for food appreciation… Heavy, dusty potatoes, long, gorgeously orange carrots, crackly-skinned poultry and lots of real cream and butter (lots of it.) My father has kept the tradition alive, too – among my favorite weekend dinners are homemade butternut ravioli with home-grown tomato sauce, barbeque ribs made with his secret hand-mixed chili powder, and crisp, creamy sweet potato fries.
It’s not just the holidays and weekends when we eat well. My mother claims not to enjoy cooking, but I don’t buy it for a minute. I’ve seen her make potstickers, mixing together the skin with only flour and water, chopping pork and herbs for the filling. I’ve seen the way her face lights up when I taste test a new red bean filled bun. She likes to cook for the same reasons I do: to savor something delicious, and to watch other people do it too.
When I was in middle school, lunch was the only unhealthy meal I got, paid for out of a vending machine. I’d wolf down a bag of potato chips, a pack of sour gummy worms, and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. Not so much anymore. When I eat out, it’s sushi or potato and mushroom piroshkies; when I pack it myself it’s a turkey sandwich on homemade bread and a blackberry yogurt.
Most of the things I blog about aren’t healthy, but I don’t treat myself to chocolate cookies and peanut butter cheesecake every day. I know you’re meant to eat these things wisely and share the rest. It’s important to us to eat healthy, and that’s what we do. And even when it’s not completely “healthy,” like when we generously add heavy cream to our mashed potatoes or deep fry halibut cheeks, at least we know we’re using quality ingredients.
I can hardly remember the last time we bought bread, since my mother makes it all herself: fresh tomato basil, ciabatta, carrot dinner rolls, naan, pita pockets and hamburger buns. Our herb garden is flourishing under the shy Seattle sunlight, and the vegetables are following – acorn squash, Japanese cucumber, arugula, snow peas, butter lettuce. We’ve got the promise of apples, pears, currants, and Asian pears to come.
As for what we don’t grow or make, we get pickier and pickier as the years go by. We’ve switched mostly over to organic fruit now at the grocery store. We love the fresh, firm fish that the Puget Sound has to offer. I like to use organic evaporated cane juice instead of white granulated sugar. We still only buy what we can afford, and we budget our shopping list, but we have definitely gotten choosier.
When Mother’s Day rolled around this year, I settled on making a Jam Tart. I didn’t exactly plan ahead, so Sunday morning I had two hours to get the whole thing baked. I put the tart crust dough in the freezer to chill, and then I rummaged through the fridge until I realized we didn’t have any jam left. Drat.
I remember, as I drove to the closest grocery store, being annoyed at myself for not making fresh jam myself earlier. Blackberry? Orange marmalade? Strawberry? I could have made all of those from scratch, I thought. When I got to the store – one I wouldn’t have picked if I hadn’t been pressed for time – I stood before their unimpressive selection of jams and jellies.
I didn’t even bother looking at the inexpensive generic brands or the sugar free versions. I picked up a jar, turned it around, scanned the ingredients. I grabbed another, checked the origin of the fruit. On the top shelf, I finally found one small jar of marionberry preserves – a little glass thing faceted like a black diamond. The brand seemed solid and the ingredients looked good. It was also two dollars more pricey than anything else.
But I didn’t think twice before buying it and running back to the car, barely on schedule.
Inexplicably, days after the tart was eaten and gone, I found myself thinking about that jar. There was definitely nothing wrong with the jam. It was smooth, sweet, fruity – but it was expensive. And it wasn’t even eaten straight from the jar with a spoon or spread onto a crusty loaf. It was baked into a tart. In hindsight, perhaps I should have bought something a little more affordable. You have to make sacrifices somewhere, right?
Am I turning into a food snob? I swore I never would. But I’m the one person of my friends who won’t eat if we go to Qdoba or Wendy’s for lunch, instead walking to the next door Trader Joe’s or waiting to go home to eat. I shop for fruit the way some girls shop for shoes. And even though we can’t exactly afford it, I beg to go to Whole Foods on special occasions.
I think it’s a good thing to care about your food: where it comes from, what it’s been treated with, how fresh it is. But I think I’ve also got to consider what things are really worth, and when they really matter. It’s easy enough to buy a little $6 jar of jam when the only thing I spend my own money on is ingredients. But when I’m on my own at college three months from now, I won’t be able to get away with those kinds of food purchases all the time.
I think the key is balance. I won’t compromise my food ethics, and I’ll always have an appreciation for good food. But I’ll never force it on anyone else, and I’ll still have to be responsible about my purchases. Maybe not everyone will agree, but I think that’s just another aspect of caring about your food. For now, I’ll take it one meal at a time, forkful by forkful of Mother’s Day jam tart.
As my friends’ schedules become increasingly hectic and I continue to get by without a car, recently I’ve been taking the bus more and more.
For a long time, I resented it. There is not a lot to love about public transportation.
I’ve spent too many afternoons running behind a just-missed bus or waiting listlessly for an hour, so I’ve become overly cautious and give myself too much time. I rush out of school in that awkward state between walking and running, my backpack heavy against my shoulders, moving quickly to get to the stop. I stare at the stretch of road, trying to see the green roof of the bus emerge from around the bend, and I hate feeling as though the bus will never come.
Most of all, I hate the weary ride itself. It’s an hour long ride to my house, even though it’s a 15 minute trip by car, and the hour never passes quickly. My bus has sticky seats, a dirty floor, the smell of too many people come and gone and a lurching, roundabout movement that leaves me grouchy.
But the good news is that I’ve found an escape. I tuck my ipod into the pocket of my backpack every morning, and as the bus lumbers towards me I untangle the headphones. I’m almost always tired, so I choose something easygoing and simple, with strings or a soft-spoken correspondent on NPR.
I have the sort of headphones that eliminate your sense of sound. If you put them on without music, the world becomes shockingly silent, the kind of silence that makes you forget what noise was. I no longer hear the man snapping baby carrots between his teeth in the seat behind me, or the obnoxious beat pumping from the row ahead.
Instead it’s like I’m underwater, submerged into a place of only warm drafts and light reflecting against chrome. Everything is nothing, and suddenly I can feel all my other senses so much more acutely – dramatic, but true! I always marvel for a minute at the effect, and then I turn towards the window and turn on a song. Then, for an hour, the world is nothing but the blooming trees slipping past my eyes and the subtle reflection of my face in the glass.
I listen to music a few hours every day, and for the longest time I tried to make music compatible with baking. But it takes a lot of focus to hear my songs while the mixer is whirring loudly or while water splutters against silverware in the sink. I’ve tried turning on a radio instead, but the sound is washed out every other minute if I need to use the food processor or whip some cream.
I regretfully concluded that the two weren’t compatible after all. So I’ve started working silently, without any other noise at all. I’ve found that the kitchen makes music of its own.
The rhythmic churn of the KitchenAid, the crackle and pop of lighting the stove, the clinks and rolling as I open and shut the aged drawers one after the other. There’s the dingdingding of the timer and the satisfying, gradual pop! of a new jar finally opened. I love the quiet raking noises of zesting a tangerine, the insubstantial thud of a flipped-over cup of flour, and the low, sticky bubble of cooking sugar.
When I look back, I always remember little details about the baking process. Take this tangerine meringue tart… If I close my eyes and try to bring myself there again, I remember the sandy texture of the tart dough coming together between my fingertips and the silkiness of curd on my spoon. I remember the vivid orange of spilled tangerine juice on the old white counter and the smell of cocoa powder.
And more than anything, I remember the distinct sounds of each component coming together, using every instrument in my kitchen to create something beautiful. Chocolate crust, tangerine curd, marshmallowy meringue… it’s like a symphony in three acts.
I think it might be my favorite song.