14 August 2009

Entirely at peace

I am a girl entirely at peace now. At least for a while, until a surge of desire to bake strikes again, and like a junkie I will have to anxiously wring my hands while craving for my next fix, and nervously count down the days when I could possibly take over somebodys else's kitchen again. This is how it works for me. Baking is meditation as well as addiction.

This time, the initial plan was to make a few recipes -- for granola and Scottish scones -- at Luke’s, but like I wrote, I had a suspicion I wouldn’t stop there. Blimey, I was correct.

Luke is a banana buff. He loves the fruit and always keeps a bunch of them on a large, oval, mosaic-patterned plate on his kitchen countertop. Yet it so happens that sometimes he does not take a proper care of them, which would be eating the beggars before they eat themselves, so to say. We all know that the best way to reanimate a dying banana is to put it to use in a baked something or other. A great cook as he is, Luke is not much of a baker. As soon as I cast my shadow over his doorway and saw something that formerly looked like a glowing tropical fruit but with dignity long-lost by now, the first task I applied myself to was, of course, bake banana bread.

I am proud to report that the mission was accomplished ‘with gusto’, as Luke, the enabler of my baking dreams, said. I made Molly Wizenberg’s banana-coconut bread with rum.

The whole enterprise was not easy, I must confide. While preparing the batter, I had to combat an army of fat stinging wasps who didn’t seem to be bothered by the mere fact that the kitchen was mine for the weekend.

There were many of them and I was scared. No kidding. A good thing that the recipe called for booze; I had the swift intelligence to use that not only for the batter. A few sips, and things seemed less dreadful. I even didn’t cry when I saw the final product turn out somewhat flat. I now blame it on this self-rising flour (in place of all-purpose one) as well as on an oblong baking dish (instead of a standard loaf pan) that I wound up using, both being my only options. But never mind, because despite its being deflated, this banana bread tasted and smelled supreme. Its soft, moist and coconut-laced crumb was a home for a scent so heady that it felt like there were a million of ripest bananas inside. To me, it smelled like Opium of the banana world. To eat it unashamedly in excesses was the only way to pay respect to the goodness. Which Luke and I did.

Then we walked. And while strolling through the fields with grazing cows, we ate Italian gelato.

What you see in the picture right down there are scoops of hazelnut and pistachio gelato on the right, and banana and raspberry on the left.

When at home and awaiting for another batch of baked something or other, we played video games, watched movies and ate Luke’s home-made curry. After which we walked again. And ate more ice-cream, natch.

Then there were scones. Sweet Jesus, they were viciously good. In fact, these beasts were the highlight of my baking 'work-out' past weekend. Seeing that it was my first ever attempt at scones making -- there is no excuse why I spent previous twenty four years of my life without scones in the first place -- I can’t express my delirium enough about the fantastic results I reaped, courtesy of Molly and her recipe for Scottish scones with lemon and ginger (should you own Molly’s book, A Homemade Life -- which you really should; it is a truly beautiful, personal account of food, but most importantly of life itself -- the recipe is on page 174).

I made the scones in question on Sunday morning, and they were gone sooner than they reached the table. Basically, what I did was rub butter in flour, fold in sugar and chopped crystallized ginger along with lemon zest, stir gently to incorporate, and then pour in egg-milk mixture. After which I kneaded the batter until it just came together, patted it in into a circle that I then cut into wedges.

After having hopped around them in elation, I sent them lovingly into a pre-heated oven for a mere 10-15 mins.

Reaching over a kitchen counter, Luke ate three pale-golden, puffy wedges right after I’d pulled them out of the oven. I went for two, one after another. The rest disappeared within a few successive hours.

All I can say now is that, in my opinion, Sunday mornings are made for shameless affairs with baked goods named scones.

These particular species they don’t shout ‘butter’ or ‘sweetness’ or even ‘lemon-ness’ at you. Instead, they talk in low, subtle voice of mysterious ginger and lemon zest punctuated with sugar just enough so as to allow for a sweet layer of something or other atop. They are the scones of soft and tender crumb jacketed in a thin and rugged, ever so crispy outer layer. Once in your mouth, they fall apart, or, I’d even say, melt lazily, making you crave for more. They are both tantalizers and satisfiers, these simple scones.

As Molly writes: ‘They are pretty perfect in general'.

They undoubtedly are.

But soon it came Monday with its misty morning.

Daring sun beams sneaked in through the milky haze every now and then, falling on the hay-colored floor and a cutting board, and the granite kitchen countertop.

I packed my belongings including a huge box of home-made granola -- I’ll get to that in one of my next posts -- as well as the memories, and left back to Amsterdam, to my (temporarily) oven-less life.

Scottish Scones with Ginger and Lemon

Adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
Yield: 8 scones

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
3 Tsp light brown sugar
2 tsp grated lemon zest (from about 2 medium lemons)
1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
1/2 cup milk, plus more for glazing
1 large egg

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C)

In a large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt, whisk and add the butter. Using your fingers, rub the butter into the flour mixture until it looks pebbly. Add the sugar, ginger and lemon zest. Whisk to combine.

In another bowl, beat the egg with the milk, using a fork. Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and stir gently to incorporate. Don’t overmix. With your hands, form the dough into a rough bulk and turn it onto a lightly floured countertop. Knead it until it holds together. That’s ok if there is some unincorporated flour left. Pat the dough into a circle and cut it into 8 edges.

Position the wedges on a baking sheet layered with parchment paper. Using a pastry brush or a small piece of cotton wool, brush the tops of the wedges with the milk (2-3 Tsp) to glaze. Bake for 10-15 mins, or until pale golden. Let cool for a few minutes. Serve warm plain or with butter or jam or even both.

7 August 2009

Baking bonanza

But my good friend Luke, the man of many curries, does. So today I am packing my suitcase and going to the city of Nijmegen where Luke and his oven are. I should also mention that it is now a knocking-out heat wave in Holland, and that I will have to spend two and a half hours of my life today on a train down to Nijmegen, and that instead of tons of clothes I’ll be carrying eggs, butter, flour, oats, nuts, oils and various sweeteners in my suitcase the colour of dark wine.

I anticipate a weekend of baking bonanza. As of now I plan to make two granola recipes and a few for Scottish scones. But I think I won’t stop there. In the haze of heat I’ll bake a hell lot of goods in the oven that does not belong to me. Nobody should stay in my way.

I am crazed.

Stay tuned, Dear Reader! More to come.

P.S. For those of you who asked (thank you, friends!) about my thesis, here is the latest news. I had to make a few changes with a view to increase my chances for a better grade, as advised by my professor. I was working on that this whole week, and a handful of minutes ago I re-submitted my paper. To celebrate this, I ate a bowlful of rosy-cheeked apricots and plumps, sweet plums the color of the bottle.

3 August 2009

If sunshine had a taste

While crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s in my premaster thesis that I submitted today with the hope that my professor will finally approve it, I realized that many don’t get it why I chose to do my Master’s in English Linguistics in not exactly an English-speaking country – the Netherlands. To be honest, I still don’t get it myself. Nay, actually I do. I mean, I know what brought me to the country some four years ago in the first place -- I needed to resolve an unresolved relationship with my Dutch ex-boyfriend. That of course I did not do; some men are just cowards. Instead, I found solace in the beauty of Amsterdam and talked myself into coming back, preferably quite soon, not because of somebody but because of me. I got enamored with Amsterdam. And despite the fact that I was not sure this is really my city (there is Paris I haven’t yet been to, after all), I wanted to be an Amsterdammer. And since English, my old flame, had always held my heart, I decided I should start from there and pursue my Master degree in English Linguistics in Amsterdam.

But first was a break-up. Although I think I can call it the break-up, my, so far, the most painful heart-wreck.

I met Nikolai (a Dutchman with Slavic heritage) online --please, don’t roll your eyes; I was nineteen and naïve -- in the year 2002. During the next two years I would mistakenly believe that we had something what others call relationship. Would I so much as doubt him when he even asked my parents for my hand during the one and only time he was visiting me in my hometown in Russia, back in crisp and blue-skyed September, 2003? I didn’t smell any lies, not unlike my mother, though, who sensed a brewing hoax, and did not hesitate to inform me on her suspicions with a dedicated regularity, which drove me up the wall, although deep in my heart I knew she was right (I just didn’t have the crust to admit it to myself.The reason for all the doubts was that soon after Nikolai had gone back home, his telephone calls became as rare as rain in desert, and generally, every promise he’d make he’d easily break. The misery lasted until the August of 2004 when one windy afternoon I called to simply say hello and in return got dumped -- on the phone.

I knew long before that to be a dumpee is no fun. What I learnt this time was that to be a dumpee by phone is hell. The whole situation seemed to me unbelievable, as if I watched a waiter spitting in my presence on my sunny side-up, for instance. It just didn’t make sense. So after thirty minutes of telephone agony, I made a hell of an effort over myself as to finally hang up, my face purple from tears, anger and pain. The memories of what I did afterwards, besides crying, crying and crying, are blurry now, yet two things I do remember.

First, soon after I stopped howling like a wolf (in a week or so), I figured I should somehow go to the Netherlands to have Nikolai for a final word. That was a classic ‘easier said than done’ scenario, since I couldn’t afford to just nonchalantly hop a plane to Amsterdam or whatever. (That I would do one year later by participating in the Au-pair student programme in the Netherlands.)
Second, I emerged in the kitchen and made my mother’s eggplant ragout, or stew, something reminiscent of ratatouille, and yet not quite like it. In retrospect, I don’t think I intended to make this eggplant stew per se; I wasn’t in the mood for pretty much anything. Not even for chocolate ice-cream, my all-out mood booster. Yet I felt like chopping and dicing (one of the post break-up syndromes, I believe). And since there were those shiny globes of eggplants on the kitchen countertop, I jumped at the idea to turn them into the eggplant ragout. Seriously, it was the dish that comforted me while I was grappling with the rough waters of the break-up. I made batch after batch of it. As I stood by the countertop chopping onions, mincing garlic, grating carrots, dicing shiny red bell peppers along with glossy dark-purple eggplants, I felt all right. I felt still. I even smiled at the sight, sound and smell of the onion and garlic dancing in a skillet in a pool of heated olive oil, joined then by the army of the fragrant, vigorously chopped and diced, seasonal vegetables that eventually would mingle into something so infinitely delicious and simple, something that would taste even better on the second or even the third day making me aware that in certain circumstances time indeed works wonders.

I wouldn’t meet Nikolai during my first year-long stay in the Netherlands; like I said, some men they chicken out so easily, even when it’s only about closure. But that’s the deep past now, so be it.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been tirelessly making my mother’s eggplant stew again. No break-up involved this time. Today I, quite simply, value this dish for its miraculous capacity to remind me, at least over the summer months, that the sun is always shining, even behind the now-curly, now-thick clouds that are aplenty over here, in Amsterdam.

And if sunshine had any taste, in my world it would be that of the eggplant stew.

Russian eggplant stew
(one of the many variations)

Although eggplant stew and its variations are thoroughly enjoyed in Russia throughout the summer months, there is no distinctive Russian name for this dish. It would be fait to say that Provencal ratatouille or Sicilian caponata are European cousins of this Russian eggplant stew in question. Unlike the former two, though, the latter also contains carrot as main ingredient. In the herbs department, fresh dill or flat-leaf parsley or both were what my mother would swear by when seasoning her eggplant stew. Served with boiled potatoes and more fresh dill for sprinkling, it was – and still is – my summer comfort food. Simple, smile-inducing and mysterious.

Yields 4 servings

1 large eggplant, diced
1 tsp fine sea salt
1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 medium red pepper, cored, seeded and diced
1 medium carrot, grated
5 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped OR one 14 oz. (400g) can whole peeled tomatoes, mashed and juices reserved
1 tsp ground coriander
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ cup or more finely chopped fresh dill leaves (or flat-leaf parsley or basil; no matter what herb you go for, just use a lot)
Olive oil

Put the eggplant in a colander and sprinkle with the salt (1 tsp). Toss well and set aside. (Salt will soften the eggplant and also rid it of its internal moisture.)

In the meantime, heat 2 Tsp olive oil in a large deep skillet over medium flame. Dump in the onion, and cook, stirring often, until soft but not browned, 4-5 mins. Add the garlic, bell pepper and carrot and keep cooking, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften, about 5-6 mins; they will slightly reduce in volume. Add the tomatoes, along with the reserved juices (I used canned tomatoes), and stir to combine. Add the eggplant -- you don’t have to rinse it, which is handy because this way you won’t have to need to salt the dish again -- black pepper and ground coriander. Stir well to incorporate. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until everything is tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat. Taste, and adjust the seasonings if necessary. Fold in the fresh dill (or other herbs of your choice).

Serve as spread on toast, side dish to meat, over boiled potatoes, in pasta, with greens. Possibilities are endless; joy is yours, Dear Reader.