Posts tagged ‘nuts’
I’m sitting on a windowsill, trying to write this post, but I keep getting distracted.
There’s the jet lag I can’t seem to shake. I find myself asleep throughout lunch and wide awake at three in the morning, powering through the headaches that come and go and the occasional ear pop.
There’s the noise. In the hallway outside my room, I hear every step on the creaky wood floors that are older than me. Downstairs someone is playing the untuned grand piano. Whenever a door slams – and they have to slam or they won’t shut – the sound bounces up every flight of stairs, around the high ceilings, and into my jet-lagged head.
But most of all, there’s the beauty. From the window opposite me I can see into the courtyard, four even brick walls and a stone tower around a square of cobblestone. If I lean I can see the path continue into a drawbridge, then an open field. My bedroom window looks over the moat, slowly churned by a single fountain and home to one black swan.
I’m blogging from a small castle in the Netherlands, a three-hour bus ride from Amsterdam and a seven-hour flight from Boston. For the next three months, this is home.
I found out I’d be studying abroad way back in first semester, but it didn’t feel real until I was loading my bag onto the bus, lugging it through Logan Airport. I didn’t think I slept much on the flight but I blinked and the sky changed from charcoal to pink and apricot. Then the plane touched down onto the flattest country I’d ever seen, and “Welcome to Amsterdam” crinkled over the speaker.
Even though the airport was filled with English, nothing was familiar. I instantly regretted wearing my Boston sweatshirt, which made me feel extra touristy and kind of guilty. We boarded yet another bus and passed windmills, grassy stretches, and lots of cows until finally we arrived at the castle.
There’s a village ten minutes from here, where we can buy shampoo from “Everything Under One Roof” and applekorn shots from the bar (Wednesday nights are American Night.) Cars always honk warmly at us when we walk through town, elderly couples smile when they pass on bikes. So far I can’t help but adore the Dutch. Every local I’ve run into is friendly, to the point, and has a good sense of humor.
Still, the culture feels so new, with distinctions I haven’t really learned. I asked a teacher if I could find an oven somewhere in the village and her reply was polite, but brisk – “No. The Dutch are a private people. Nobody will let you into their home just to use a kitchen.”
I can’t cook, but I can eat. Our castle tour guide passed around a bag of stroopwafel, two thin waffles sandwiched with caramel syrup. I bought apricot tart at the village bakery. The dough was like bread and the apricots were so sticky sweet, they perfumed my fingers for hours. I’m obsessed with the tomatoensoep from the little café. It’s like marinara! I ended up dipping French fries into it because – sorry – I didn’t like the weird custard-like mayonnaise that came with them instead of ketchup.
I didn’t expect much from the castle’s dining hall, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Breakfast and lunch usually includes breads, deli meats and cheese, even fresh fruit. Dinner always has potatoes in one form or another, and a heavy white sauce. It kind of feels like home until you reach the spreads. Literally, a table full of various jars, available at every meal and totally strange.
There are two chocolate spreads. One is kind of like Nutella and the other is a milk/white chocolate swirled duo. I tried to read the back for ingredients, which were offered in six languages, none of which were English. I tried a strange black syrup on a dare – it turned out to be apple. There are cheese spreads, vegetable spreads, and more of that European mayo.
Then, for no obvious reason, every table has peanut butter and jam.
For the first time, I was reminded of something wholly American. I was thrown back to childhood afterschool sandwiches, thumbprint cookies, and this Peanut Butter and Jelly Loaf I made in Seattle. The pound cake is soft and sweet, and the sugar coating on the pan makes the edges slightly crisp like a peanut butter cookie. I couldn’t help but add dollops of grape jelly, which became set into a sticky swirl after baking.
I ate my potatoes and heavy white sauce but I kept thinking about that loaf. Finally I decided to make a PB&J. I expected the unexpected, because everything that looks familiar ends up being strange. The milk is extra thick, the yogurt is extra thin, the butter has a texture I can’t place. But I opened the two jars, spread each onto bread, and sandwiched them together.
Unbelievable. The peanut butter was creamy and sweet but really… A whole lot like Jif. And the strawberry jam? Maybe a few more strawberry chunks than I’m used to, but exactly like jam at the Boston dining hall. I ate my peanut butter sandwich and felt wholly American, and kind of okay with that. I have plenty of time to adjust, travel, and adapt. Next weekend I’m off to Amsterdam, and the weekend after that, Edinburgh. For right now, though, I’ll enjoy the occasional PB&J.
The internet is a little spotty, but I’ll keep blogging! Expect some photo-filled travel posts…
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.