Posts filed under ‘Pies/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.
So I’m officially a college sophomore. Could my freshman year have gone by any faster?
After classes ended, I headed up to Maine to spend a week with my boyfriend I- and his family in the pine tree state. My last trip was full of snow and bluster, but this time, sunlight broke through the morning fog and the coastline couldn’t be bluer. Maine is beautiful in the spring – all crabapple blossoms and forsythia flowers. It makes you want to grab plastic sunglasses, tumble through grassy fields, and buy fish and chips from the roadside seafood shack.
The food in Maine is good. My theory is that the town is so small, your business has to be solid or people won’t come back. In the mornings I ate eggs, sunny-side up, blueberry pancakes, home fries and chewy bacon. I tried a sweet potato and carnitas burrito (mind-blowing) and a triple-decker crab BLT. For dessert, we gorged on soft-serve hot fudge sundaes.
The food at I-’s home was delicious too. My first night there, I practically inhaled my dinner. It was such a comfort to eat a hot, home-cooked meal that didn’t come out of a can or a microwave. For dessert, I-’s mother gave me a spoonful of strawberry rhubarb crisp and a generous scoop of ice cream.
“By the way,” she added casually, “the rhubarb is from the garden.”
I can count the number of times I’ve eaten rhubarb on one hand. I know it’s not an uncommon ingredient, but we don’t grow it, and my family generally passes it as overpriced in the grocery store. Rhubarb is a luxury for me, something that elicits oohs and ahhs. “Will you make it again with me?” I asked.
I-’s family has made this crisp for years. I-’s mother pulled a card from a tightly packed box of recipes. His parents cut the recipe out of a newspaper 30 years ago – the paper is yellow and faded, and they can’t remember which paper it came from anymore. The clipping is full of cross-outs, changes and substitutions as they made the recipe their own over the years. I told them that made it officially theirs.
She cut a bunch of rhubarb from the plant outside. They sat on the counter, striped red and pink and cream, billowing into dark green leaves. I couldn’t believe how vivid and thick the stalks grew. Then I tried fresh rhubarb for the first time. I bit off an end, gnawing down the fibers, and slowly chewing. It was definitely more bitter and stringy than I’d expected, but I dipped the end into sugar and discovered tangy bliss. I-’s mother peeled off the rhubarb skins, like glossy ribbon on a birthday present.
We tossed the rhubarb chunks and strawberry halves into a bowl, and let them macerate in sugar and their own juices.
After dinner, I made the topping with I-’s father. He popped the butter in the microwave until it was just shy of melty. I used my fingers to rub it into the almonds, oats, and flour. Together, we tumbled the fruit into a pan, blanketed it in crumble, and slid the dish into the warm oven. “It’s that easy!” he said, smiling at me.
As the fruit bubbled and I walked up the stairs, I realized how much I’d missed family time in the kitchen. It’s not just about good food, though I ached for that too. I missed the intimacy of standing side by side at the counter, slicing potatoes and whisking salad dressing. I haven’t danced around my parents in so long, the three of us weaving among each other to grab pots and pans in our too-small kitchen. I suddenly wanted to sit at the dinner table after a long meal, listening to water run while my mother filled the dishwasher, a sleeping dog against my toes.
In my year away, I’d started to forget that family is the smell of simmering beef broth, and that home is the warmth of hot oven air. I called my mom, dad, and grandma that night. As much as I loved Maine and half wanted to stay forever, deep down I also wanted to see my family.
I’m home at last. I already long for the bustle of Boston. Sometimes I get bored without the rush of classes, work, and extracurriculars. I miss my friends, my roommate, and especially I-.
But Seattle is sunny and even greener than I remembered. I love the familiar murmur of rain on the roof at night, the way the towering trees nestle around our house. When I came home my mother showed me around the yard, pointing out where the groundcover had spread and the plants that had burgeoned forth.
She led me to the vegetable garden, dotted with slender green stems and tiny leaves. I saw the apple trees, lush and fragrant with blossoms – I can’t wait to see the branches bowed over with ripe fruit. But most hopeful of all? Our strawberry plants, which have seriously flourished, carpeting the entire ground.
They make me crave rhubarb.
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.