One Year Later

Mohnkuchen with Nutmeg & Crème Fraîche Ice Cream


One year ago today, I woke up with an unusually steely resolve for what I was going to accomplish that day: I was going to start a foodblog. It had only been a short time since I had stumbled upon this mysterious universe – a slow day at work and a sudden curiosity about the cuisine of the Seychelles had dumped me unceremoniously in the archives of Chocolate and Zucchini – but my induction had been thorough. I had read my way, feverishly, around the food blogosphere, awed at the effort and talent that people were putting into these online food journals, and absolutely over the moon that there were apparently so many people out there, who like me, couldn’t spend a day without thinking about food. Although it’s very uncharacteristic for me to take any potentially life-altering plunge without thoroughly considering the ramifications  – I am a Libra, after all – this one didn’t require even five minutes of debate. I had just found a community of people all talking about my favorite topic, and what I wanted more than anything was to join in.

I had, at that point, no clear idea of what I was going to write about or how long I would keep going – I just figured I’d write about whatever, whenever, as long as it had to do with food. Somehow that has managed to span everything from hot chocolate to whiskey; haggis to squash blossoms; weddings to breakups; homecomings to home-leavings to family secrets; humorous personal disasters to gut-wrenching faraway catastrophes. Along the way I’ve probably just about managed to circumnavigate the globe in recipes. Reading, interacting, cooking and writing this way have proven to be more than just an ongoing culinary education for me – it’s been an education in culture, in history, and in people.

Just as amazing have been the unexpected and delightful ways in which the consequences of starting this website have spilled over and affected my ‘real life’. The friends I’ve made, both in the flesh and virtually, the countless positive interactions I’ve had with people through emails and comments, and even the professional opportunities that have come my way, have made each and every day of the past year a little bit brighter. Who would have thought that a little food blog could do all that?

And today, 365 days and 86 posts later, the journey still feels like it has barely begun. My passion for food is as great – if not greater – than ever before, and I’m constantly thrilled to discover how many more avenues there are to explore. So to all of you who have taken time out of your busy lives to drop by here and share your thoughts, your knowledge and your experiences with me, and to all my wonderful fellow foodbloggers, who make this community so dynamic, so supportive, and so mouth-wateringly delicious: thank you. You have all helped to make this one decision I have never regretted even for an instant.

And as promised, the recipes:

Mohnkuchen (Flourless Austrian Poppyseed Cake)
Serves: 8
Source: Rick Rodgers’ Kaffeehaus
Notes: This unusual cake caught my eye the first time I leafed through Rick Rodgers’ Kaffeehaus, a gorgeous exploration of the pastry-making traditions of Central Europe. Unlike most poppyseed cakes I’m familiar with, this one contains no flour, instead relying on ground poppyseeds to provide both flavor and bulk. The result is something both visually striking – the color is almost blue-black – and delicious, as the cake is deeply imbued with the poppyseeds’ uniquely nutty, floral fragrance. If you grind them coarsely, you’ll have a lovely crunch as well. Just make sure to purchase your seeds from a place with high turnover (such as a bulk source, or an Eastern European market), as they go rancid and bitter all too quickly. Also note that I’ve suggested some optional flavorings for the cake – while the poppyseeds are good on their own as the original recipe presents them, I think they’re even better with a hint of vanilla, almond or citrus in a supporting role.

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks/150g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
5 large eggs, at room temperature, separated
1 cup (225g) sugar
1 3/4 cups (9oz/275g) poppy seeds, coarsely ground in a coffee grinder or mini food processor
1/2 cup (125ml) heavy cream
flavoring (optional): 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla or almond extract, and/or the grated rind of 1 orange or lemon
nutmeg & crème fraîche ice cream (below) or lightly sweetened whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Lightly butter an 11×8-inch baking dish (I used a 9-inch/23cm springform pan).

Beat the butter with a hand-held mixer until smooth, about 1 minute. One at a time, beat in the egg yolks and continue beating for another 2 minutes. Beat in the sugar. Using clean beaters, beat the egg whites in another bowl until they form soft peaks. Stir about 1/4 of the beaten egg whites into the butter mixture, then fold in the remainder, stopping before all the whites are completely incorporated. Fold in the poppy seeds, then the cream and optional flavoring. Spread the batter evenly in the pan. Bake until the top of the cake is puffed and lightly browned, about 40-45 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely before serving.

Nutmeg & Crème Fraîche Ice Cream
Yield: about 1 quart
Notes: I concocted this ice cream on the spot, imagining that the slightly acidic crème fraîche and spicy nutmeg would compliment the mohnkuchen well, especially as I had used orange peel to scent the cake and thought this would make a lovely flavor trinity. It did in fact, and I was also happy to find the ice cream equally good on its own (though I am a nutmeg lover – Manuel, on the other hand, couldn’t get the thought of frozen béchamel sauce out of his head…).

1 cup (250ml) heavy cream
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
1 cup (225g) sugar
pinch salt
1 teaspoon freshly-ground nutmeg
6 large egg yolks
2 cups (500ml) crème fraîche (sour cream will do in a pinch)

In heavy saucepan combine cream, milk, 3/4 cup sugar, salt and nutmeg and bring just to a boil. Remove pan fro
m heat, cover, and allow to infuse for 30 minutes. in a bowl whisk together egg yolks and remaining 1/4 cup sugar and hot cream and milk mixture in a stream, whisking. Return custard to pan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring, until it thickens and registers 170°F on a candy thermometer.

Remove pan from heat. Stir crème fraîche into custard until combined well and strain through a fine sieve into a bowl. Chill custard until cold and freeze in an ice-cream maker according to its instructions. Alternatively, freeze in a covered container, stirring vigorously to break up the ice crystals every couple of hours.

Gypsy Pot, or the Art of Vegetable Soup

Olla Gitana (Gypsy Pot) 


There’s a piece of long-held wisdom in the culinary world that the true test of a cook’s abilities is not how well they can execute the most complex dish in their repertoire, but rather how well they can do the most basic one. When Gordon Ramsay, for instance, hosted a television series a while back in which he helped struggling restaurants to get back on their feet, the first thing he often did upon entering the kitchen was order the chef to make him a simple, no-frills egg and butter omelette. In typical Ramsay style the vast majority of them ended up going straight from his mouth to the trash (accompanied, of course, by a copious shower of expletives), but his point was more profound: if you can’t do the simple stuff well, you probably won’t be able to do anything well, and before any cook thinks of moving on to foie gras and caviar, that omelette needs to be perfect. While I certainly wouldn’t dream of arguing the principle (especially not with Gordon), when it comes to the specifics, I will admit to a slightly different view. Ramsay and his cronies can slave over all the perfectly crafted omelettes they want – from my perspective nothing cuts to the chase of kitchen competence like a bowl of plain old vegetable soup.

Having spent the better part of a decade as a vegetarian, I can safely say that I know vegetable soup pretty well. In fact, there were times in which I had little else to sustain me. One of these was during my first year in college, when like all other freshman students, I was under obligation to live in university housing and eat on their meal plan. The dining hall there was catered by a well-known national firm that lumped our service into their hierarchy of quality at grade F, otherwise known as ‘food for those in no position to complain, a.k.a. prisons and colleges’. Every day, along with the flabby, grey meat in one form or another and deep-fried fish or chicken patties, there would be a single vegetarian dish, most often a variation on some kind of vegetable soup. Next to this there was a selection of two or three boiled vegetables that rotated daily: peas, carrots, potatoes, lima beans, corn, green beans, broccoli. The interesting thing was that the daily soup special had mysterious correlations with what had been gracing the vegetable chafing dishes the day before: if peas and carrots had been on the menu, we could count on a watery tomato broth with peas, carrots and maybe a handful of pasta. Some days we could even trace the vegetable lineage back two or three days, with those peas and carrots sharing space with some very dilapidated lima beans or corn. I suppose they served vegetable soup because it seemed like a safe bet, not only cheap but ostensibly nutritious, and because it functioned as a catch-all for nearly every dietarily-challenged group that might pass through the dining hall doors: vegetarians, vegans, diabetics, dieters, wheat-, dairy- and just-about-everything-else-allergics. And while none of it could be mistaken for a highlight of my culinary existence, the experience did leave me with one valuable thing: a particularly keen eye for a GOOD bowl of vegetable soup.

Vegetable soup, unfortunately, is often seen either as a dumping ground for what is too old or tasteless to consume in any other form, or as a form of punishment from the school of ‘if it’s healthy, it must taste accordingly!’ philosophy. This couldn’t be further from the truth, however, and even without the addition of truffles, foie gras, or copious amounts of cream and cheese, a little care lavished on a pot of top-quality vegetables can turn out something extraordinarily delicious. Case in point: this delightfully-named concoction I stumbled across in Anya von Bremzen’s The New Spanish Table, a wonderful compendium of recipes that illustrate how Spanish cuisine is evolving at breakneck speed to become one of the freshest and most exciting in the world. The gypsy pot (or stew, as it’s more commonly translated) stems from the region of Murcia in southeastern Spain, and owes its name to two things: its notable lack of meat which links it with poverty, and its seemingly anarchic list of ingredients: pumpkin, pears, chickpeas, almonds, tomatoes, mint and saffron (and from this you get a good sense of what the Spanish think of gypsies). Ollas are, in fact, common fare throughout Spain, but most draw the line at a few vegetables, some beans and a chunk of meat or two for flavor – I’ve certainly never been served one that incorporated anything this daring.

I was, then, surprised to discover that this is no avant-garde reinterpretation of a traditional peasant stew – on the contrary, this bizarre and intriguing assortment of ingredients is as traditional as it gets for Murcian stew-makers, though naturally the precise recipe varies. What surprised me most, however, was how delicious it was. Rich, earthy, with the slightly sweet note imparted by the pears marrying perfectly with the dusky saffron and the unexpected clarity of mint, it somehow tastes even more delicious knowing you can go back for as many guilt-free bowlfuls as you like. And trust me, you’ll want to.

Not to mention that armed with this recipe, in any contest of cooking ability I’m now sure I would blow away the competition. That is, unless they’d want me to demonstrate my omelette-making skills as well—which are, I’m afraid, seriously in need of some work. 

Olla Gitana (Gypsy Pot)

Serves: 4-6
Source: slightly adapted from The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen 

2 14-oz (400g) cans chickpeas, drained
1 fat carrot, peeled and thickly sliced
8 cups (2 l) rich chicken or vegetable stock
1 lb. (450g) pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) chunks
10 oz. (280g) green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch
(2.5-cm) lengths
2 medium slightly underripe pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch
(2.5-cm) chunks
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
a handful of blanched almonds
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon sweet paprika (not smoked)
2 medium ripe tomatoes, finely chopped
1 pinch saffron threads, crumbled
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
2 tablespoons slivered fresh mint

Combine the chickpeas, carrots and enough stock to come about 1 1/2 inches above the top in a large heavy pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the pumpkin, green beans and pears and season with salt to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the vegetables have softened, about 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the almonds and garlic and cook, stirring, until golden, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a bowl, leaving behind as much oil as possible, and set aside. Add the onion to the skillet and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the paprika and stir for a few seconds, add the tomatoes and a few tablespoons of the cooking liquid and cook until the tomatoes soften and reduce, about 7 minutes. Gently stir the tomato mixture and the saffron into the pot with the chickpeas.

Continue cooking until all the vegetables are very soft and the pumpkin is almost falling apart, 5-7 minutes longer, adding more broth if the stew seems too thick. Meanwhile place the fried garlic and almonds in a food processor or coffee grinder and grind until finely ground (you can also use a mortar and pestle). Stir in the vinegar, and add this to the pot with the chickpeas. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper and/or vinegar if necessary. Let the stew cool for about 10 minutes. Garnish with the mint and serve with lots of crusty bread.


The Focaccia Phase

Peter Reinhart’s Focaccia


"Good bread needs more than just flour and water, milk, or eggs. It requires nurturing and care." – Edward Espe Brown, The Tassajara Bread Book

I sometimes think I could draw a timeline of my life based on phases I’ve gone through. Several of my earliest years, for example, could be captioned with titles like ‘the Sesame Street sandals phase’, ‘the My Little Pony phase’, and ‘the reading Sweet Valley High under the covers by flashlight phase’.  These would be replaced further down the line by ‘the tomboy, dreams-of-being-a-professional-baseball-player-phase’, ‘the inspired-by-Ghost pottery class phase’, and later, ‘the tie-dyed everything, radical vegetarian phase’. Filling in the gaps there were many, many others, some worth remembering and many not, though admittedly most are good for a cringe or two now. One of my longest-running phases, however, not only quietly co-existed for several years with whatever else happened to be occupying my affections, but was remarkably un-cringeworthy: it was, in fact, bread baking.

I baked my first loaf of bread when I was nine years old, with the help of my mother. We baked a set of whole wheat loaves from one of the few cookbooks in the house, the Tassajara Bread Book, the now-classic exposition on natural breadmaking written by the head cook at the Tassajara Zen Center in San Francisco. The book itself is delightful, peppered with charming sketches illustrating every step from sponge to loaf, and brimming with Edward Espe Brown’s gentle, confident reassurances that good bread was as easy as following a few simple steps. As for me, even at such a young age I found the strange and cryptic procedures of bread making appealing: the hours spent tending the dough, the intense physical workout of kneading it again and again until it sprang up from the table like a rubber ball, the way the yeast miraculously brought flour and water to life. Though making a few loaves was always a full day’s job, it never seemed arduous – on the contrary, when the loaves emerged piping hot from the oven, it almost seemed criminal that for so little effort we could have something so remarkably delicious. "Bread is the one food that tastes of the love that was put into making it," my mother told me, and I believed her.

Some people have used bread making as therapy, and I can fully understand why – nothing is as soothing as nursing a loaf from inception to completion. Things like the rhythmic exertion of kneading, the awareness of details like the temperature of water on your wrist, and the gentle coaxing required to get a perfect performance from the yeast are, to me, something akin to meditation. In fact, I came to enjoy this process so much that over several years I worked my way through not only the Tassajara book but any others I could get my hands on. I kneaded, punched and stretched my way to a knowledge of many types of bread: dense whole grain loaves, sweet braided challahs, puffy pita, chewy bagels; there was even a sourdough starter I managed to keep alive for the better part of a year. Like all good phases, though, this one had a life span, and for whatever reason – dwindling enthusiasm, lack of new recipes to try, or something completely unrelated – I stopped making bread for well over a decade.

All of a sudden, however, I can’t seem to get thoughts of breadmaking out of my head. The fact that I have recently discovered the books of master baker Peter Reinhart is probably no coincidence. Like the effect Edward Espe Brown had on me years ago, Reinhart’s words about bread baking fill me not only with an intense desire to get my hands stuck into a bowl of dough, but with the unshakeable confidence that what comes out of the process will be magnificent. He writes with the clarity of a scientist and the simplicity of a teacher, yet manages to convey an enthusiasm about the magic of bread as if he had just discovered it himself. I’ve been particularly enamored with his small volume American Pie*, an enlightening and entertaining chronicle of his search for the best pizza in the world. I’d already tried his Neo-Neopolitan pizza, which was hands-down one of the most flavorful crusts I’ve ever eaten (though the whole experience was slightly dampened by my ineptitude at sliding the pizza onto my new baking stone face up… but well, that’s another story), so when I spotted his recipe for focaccia I knew it was next on my list.

Reinhart’s focaccia is not like any bread I’ve made before. It’s slow, requiring at least a day of advance planning to leave time for its trademark overnight fermentation, though the time spent in actual bread-making mode is quite short. It’s also so wet and sticky that you can’t knead the dough outside of the bowl (a fact I found mildly distressing as squishing a viscous, stubborn sludge inside a bowl is not nearly as much fun as slapping it around on the countertop). Any possible misgivings I might have had while making it, however, were more than made up for the instant it was out of the oven and had cooled enough for me to sink my teeth into. This was hands-down the best focaccia I have ever had. I don’t even know how to describe it properly – it was both light and substantial, chewy and soft, wonderfully irregular in shape and texture. And the taste… It was like the very essence of bread, full of fermented yeast and nutty flour and hot oven, permeated but not overwhelmed by a delicate parade of herbs, garlic, oil, and a tongue-tickling sprinkle of spicy chili.

Now, I know better than to try to identify a phase before it has even really started, but I have a sneaking suspicion that looking back at this particular point in time I’ll have no trouble identifying the ‘couldn’t stop eating focaccia phase’. And I must say, at least it has a better ring to it than My Little Pony, Sweet Valley High or tie-dyed t-shirts.

*I was delighted to see that our dear friend David gets a mention in this book. Apparently he was a dining companion of Peter’s at Chez Panisse one afternoon when, hot on the pizza trail, Peter attended a pizza party catered by Alice Waters herself. I wonder what David thought of the pizza?

Peter Reinhart’s Foccacia

Source: slightly adapted from Peter Reinhart’s American Pie

For the dough:
5 3/4 cups (26oz or 740g) unbleached bread (strong) flour
2 te
aspoons salt
2 1/2 teaspoons instant (fast-acting) yeast
2 1/2 cups (600ml) ice-cold water (you can substitute white wine, or even milk, for up to half of the water)
1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil

For the herb oil:
1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon granulated garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (optional)
pinch salt

For the focaccia:
focaccia dough (above)
herb oil (above) 

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt (I used Maldon sea salt)

Make the dough:
With a large metal spoon, stir together the flour, salt, yeast, and water in a 4-quart bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer until combined. If mixing with an electric mixer, fit it with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed for about 2 minutes, or until all the ingredients are hydrated and begin to form a wet ball of dough. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes. Switch to the dough hook, add the olive oil, and resume mixing on medium-low speed for 3 to 4 minutes, or until all of the oil is incorporated and the dough is sticky, supple, and smooth; it should clear the sides of the bowl and stick just a little to the bottom. If the dough seems like a batter and does not have sufficient structure to hold itself together, mix in more flour by the tablespoonful. Even though it is sticky, the dough should still pass the windowpane test. If mixing by hand, repeatedly dip one of your hands or the spoon into cold water and use it much like a dough hook, working the dough vigorously as you rotate the bowl with your other hand. As all the flour is incorporated and the dough becomes a wet ball, about 3 minutes, stop mixing and let the dough rest for 5 minutes.

Add the olive oil, dip your hand or spoon again in water, and continue to work the dough for another 3 to 4 minutes. The dough should be very sticky, but it should also have some texture and structure. If the dough seems like a batter and does not have sufficient structure to hold itself together, mix in more flour by the tablespoonful. Even though it is sticky, the dough should till pass the windowpane test.

Form the dough into a ball and place it in a bowl brushed with olive oil. Turn the dough to coat it with the oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and immediately refrigerate it overnight. The next day the dough should have nearly doubled in size. Allow it to sit at room temperature for about 2 hours before making the focaccia.

Make the herb oil:
In a bowl, whisk together all the ingredients. Let sit at room temperature for 2 hours before using.

Shape the focaccia:
Line a 12 x 17 sheet pan with baking parchment or with a silicone pan liner. Drizzle the 2 tablespoons oil onto the parchment and spread it over the surface. Working gently, scrape the dough into the prepared pan. Try to degas it as little as possible. Drizzle the herb oil over the surface of the dough, creating dimples and pockets all over the surface for the oil to fill. Do not press the dough outward toward the edges of the pan; instead, simply press downward at only a slight angle toward the edges. The dough will probably fill the pan a little more than half full before it begins to become elastic and spring back toward the center. When this occurs, stop pressing, and let the dough relax for 15 minutes. Repeat the dimpling process, beginning at the center and gradually working out toward the edges of the pan. Try to keep the dough somewhat even across the top. Let it rest again for 15 minutes. Repeat the dimpling; this time the dough should have stretched to fill the pan (don’t worry if it doesn’t quite reach the corners, as it will continue to expand as it rises). Let the dough rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours, or until doubled.

Bake the focaccia:
Preheat the oven to 500°F (260°C). Just before baking, sprinkle the salt evenly over the top of the dough. Place the sheet pan on the middle shelf of the oven, then immediately lower the temperature to 450°F (200°C). Bake for 20 minutes, then rotate the pan 180 degrees. Continue to bake for 10 to 20 minutes longer or until both the top and underside are golden brown and slightly crisp. Remove the finished focaccia from the oven and immediately transfer it to a cooling rack, removing the paper as soon as it is cool enough to handle. Cool for at least 20 minutes before cutting and serving.