Sunday, July 31, 2011

cherry cake

"Happiness is a bowl of cherries and a book of poetry under a shade tree."
-Astrid Alauda

Nothing sings "summer" more beautifully than a handful of cherries. They make one's tastebuds dance, waltzing gracefully between sweet and tart, the sounds of gentle 'popping' filling the ears like Mozart. They stain the fingers like ruby paint on an empty canvas, elegant in their puerile innocence. They remind me of dirt and earth, Farmer's Markets, Sicilian breezes, and sunshine.

I love them.

I'm home for the weekend, since my parents officially received the keys to our new house on Thursday. We haven't moved in completely, yet [the date is set for this Saturday], but much of yesterday and today have been spent driving back and forth, seeing painted walls and polished wood floors, building bar stools and patio chairs, and marveling at how strikingly different everything is, now finished, since the last time I was home two weeks ago.

In honor of the occasion, mom had me bake. It was quite the interesting experience, baking in a completely vacant kitchen, lacking chairs and tables, almost like model kitchens one strolls past in a Home Depot.

Cherry Cake
Adapted from Joy of Baking

You'll need:
  • 1 pound fresh cherries, pitted
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup [1 stick] unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 tsp almond extract

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and grease a 9-inch springform pan.

In a medium sized bowl, sift flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and sugar on medium speed thick and bright yellow, 3-5 minutes. Pour in melted butter, milk, and extracts, and mix until incorporated. Lower mixer speed to slow and gradually add in flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Gently fold in the pitted cherries, reserving half cup of cherries for the top of the cake.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes. Remove cake from the oven, press the reserved cherries over the top of the cake, and return to bake for an additional 15 minutes, until cake is soft and springy to the touch. Let cool at least 10 minutes before removing from the pan. Serve warm.

But mom and my grandmother believe in blessings and good fortune. And so whenever we move, the first thing mom does is cook something sweet, as a way of bringing luck and happiness to the new home. Something my grandmother always did, something my mom learned from her, and something that has now passed down to me. Since I won't be here the day they move, I baked in our new oven, so that the first smell of food was the warm scent of cake and summertime wafting through empty hallways, filling vacant rooms with comfort and peace.

Even though it's still unfurnished, it made the house feel like home.

While at the house this afternoon [the old house, not the new], I whipped up a batch of toffee bars as well, as a thank you to the workers who have made the moving process so much easier and quicker than what we four, alone, would have been able to manage [which is, to say, nothing]. I brought them over, along with a pan full to the brim with unbaked batter, and so popped the pan into the oven, sliced up the bars and cake, and ate dessert off of small plates we brought back from the old house. A makeshift picnic in an empty kitchen, save for good company and good spirits.

A fitting way to spend a summer day, I think.

Though I will be missing the big move this weekend [heading back to the apartment on Tuesday], I'll be back home in another two weeks. I can't lie and say that I'm not excited to see how everything will look once furnished with familiar sofas and tables, how my room will look with its "inside of a cucumber green," so aptly dubbed by my mother, and how much the scents of turmeric and cilantro have permeated every nook and cranny.

I'm certain it'll feel as though I've lived here my whole life, but I'm more concerned with how our cat is going to fare.

Probably will have gotten himself locked in a cupboard, I'm sure.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

{DBC} frasiers and [im]perfectionism

Time flies by far too quickly for my liking. Individual days seem to drag on forever, but weeks vanish in the blink of an eye.

Disconcerting. Somewhat.

The moral of the story is that I'm not looking forward to having to be a real person. I'm very much enjoying student life, and not so much the thought of applying for internships. And jobs. And financial insecurity. And bills. And no longer having free time to watch inordinate amounts of Sherlock, Doctor Who, and others in what my Netflix profile has dubbed "Suspenseful British TV Shows".

Daring Bakers' Challenges, fun and exciting as they are, are more or less constant reminders of this rather unfavorable phenomenon. I feel like as soon as I submit one, I'm already writing up a post for the next. Only 12 challenges in a year, and we've finished seven. Frightening!

But I digress. I'll not be depressing.

I like to imagine that this is endearing in a 4-year-old-attempting-to-do-something-overly-sophisticated kind of way. Like long-division.

Though, I was pretty bummed to have missed last month's challenge - baklava - because it was so unexpectedly exciting. This month we've returned to the land of custard-like layered desserts with frasiers. I, of course, don't mind the custard; in fact, I adore custards.

It's more the layering bit that irks me.

Not that it's not pretty. Or scrumptious.

Just that I'm not very good at it.

And my perfectionist tendencies instill in me a feeling of self-loathing every time I unravel them.

Practice makes perfect!

[I just...need to practice...]

Fraisiers are lovely little French desserts [they would be] consisting of sponge cakes layered with custard and sliced fruit, topped with almond paste.

Delicious, in other words.

I had Tommy over to help me out, as per always, and we had a phenomenal time. He actually came over two consecutive evenings, since the dessert requires a bit of refrigeration and we both work full-time, so we spent one prepping the cake and custard and the second layering, cooking dinner, and eating while chatting over A Study in Pink [my plan is for this obsession of mine to permeate into everyone else's life, like a hugely entertaining breed of mold (also less horrifying than this poor analogy would suggest)].

As for the recipe, I'll just copy and paste. It is pretty long and elaborate, and doing absolutely nothing mentally stimulating for the past 4 weeks has left me rather lazy.

Adapted from the Daring Bakers' July Challenge

Basic Chiffon Cake:

  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons (270 ml) (5½ oz/155 gm) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) (4 gm) baking powder
  • 3/4 cups (180 ml) (6 oz /170 gm) sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2½ ml) (1½ gm) salt, preferably kosher
  • 1/4 cup (2 fl oz/60 ml) vegetable oil
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • ⅓ cup + 1 tablespoon (3.17 fl oz/95 ml) water
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) pure vanilla extract
  • 3/4 teaspoon (3¾ ml) (3 gm) lemon zest, grated
  • 5 large egg whites
  • ¼ teaspoon (1¼ ml) (1 gm) cream of tartar

  1. Preheat the oven to moderate 325°F (160°C/gas mark 3).
  2. Line the bottom of an 8-inch (20 cm) spring form pan with parchment paper. Do not grease the sides of the pan.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour and baking powder. Add in all but 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) of sugar, and all of the salt. Stir to combine.
  4. In a small bowl combine the oil, egg yolks, water, vanilla and lemon zest. Whisk thoroughly.
  5. Combine with the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly for about one minute, or until very smooth.
  6. Put the egg whites into a stand mixer, and beat on medium speed using a whisk attachment on a medium speed, until frothy. Add cream of tartar and beat on a medium speed until the whites hold soft peaks. Slowly add the remaining sugar and beat on a medium-high speed until the whites hold firm and form shiny peaks.
  7. Using a grease free rubber spatula, scoop about ⅓ of the whites into the yolk mixture and fold in gently. Gently fold in the remaining whites just until combined.
  8. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
  9. Removed the cake from the oven and allow to cool in the pan on a wire rack.
  10. To unmold, run a knife around the sides to loosen the cake from the pan and remove the spring form sides. Invert the cake and peel off the parchment paper. Refrigerate for up to four days.

Pastry Cream Filling:

  • 1 cup (8 fl oz/250 ml) whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon (2½ ml) pure vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon (1/2 ml) (¼ gm) salt, preferably kosher
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) (10 gm)cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) (2 oz/55 gm) sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) (1 oz/30 gm) unsalted butter
  • 3/4 teaspoon (3¾ ml) (4 gm) gelatin
  • 1/2 tablespoon (7½ ml) water
  • 1 cup (8 fl oz/250 ml) heavy cream

  1. Pour the milk, vanilla, and salt into a heavy sauce pan. Place over medium-high heat and scald, bringing it to a near boiling point. Stir occasionally.
  2. Meanwhile, in a stand mixer add the cornstarch and sugar. Whisk to combine
  3. Add the eggs to the sugar and cornstarch and whisk until smooth.
  4. When the milk is ready, gently and slowly while the stand mixer is whisking, pour the heated milk down the side of the bowl into the egg mixture.
  5. Pour the mixture back into the warm pot and continue to cook over a medium heat until the custard is thick, just about to boil and coats the back of a spoon.
  6. Remove from heat and pass through a fine mesh sieve into a large mixing bowl. Allow to cool for ten minutes stirring occasionally.
  7. Cut the butter into four pieces and whisk into the pastry cream a piece at a time until smooth.
  8. Cover the cream with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic wrap onto the top of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Chill in the refrigerator for up to five days.
  9. In a small dish, sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand for a few minutes to soften.
  10. Put two inches (55 mm) of water into a small sauce pan and bring to a simmer over a medium heat.
  11. Measure 1/4 cup (2 oz/60 ml) of the chilled pastry cream into a small stainless steel bowl that will sit across the sauce pan with the simmering water, without touching the water.
  12. Heat the cream until it is 120 F (48.8 C). Add the gelatin and whisk until smooth. Remove from the water bath, and whisk the remaining cold pastry cream in to incorporate in two batches.
  13. In a stand mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream until it holds medium-stiff peaks. Immediately fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream with a rubber spatula.

Simple Syrup:

You may choose to flavor the syrup. One way is to use flavored sugar (for example: apple cider sugar, orange sugar, or vanilla sugar) or to stir in 1-2 teaspoons of flavored extract. You may also infuse with herbs or spices, if desired or add four tablespoons (60 ml) of fruit juice or liqueur while the syrup is cooling.

  • 1/3 cup (2⅔ fl oz/80 ml) (2⅔ oz/75 gm) of sugar, flavored or white
  • 1/3 cup (2⅔ fl oz/80 ml) of water

  1. Combine the water and sugar in a medium saucepan.
  2. Bring the mixture to a boil and let the sugar dissolve. Stirring is not necessary, but will not harm the syrup.
  3. Remove the syrup from the heat and cool slightly.
  4. Transfer syrup to a lidded container or jar that can be stored in the refrigerator. Simple syrup can be stored for up to one month.

Fraisier Assembly:

  • 1 baked 8 inch (20 cm) chiffon cake
  • 1 recipe pastry cream filling
  • ⅓ cup (80 ml) simple syrup or flavored syrup
  • 2 lbs (900 g) strawberries
  • confectioners’ sugar for dusting
  • ½ cup (120 ml) (5 oz/140 gm) almond paste

  1. Line the sides of a 8-inch (20 cm) spring form pan with plastic wrap. Do not line the bottom of the pan.
  2. Cut the cake in half horizontally to form two layers.
  3. Fit the bottom layer into the prepared spring form pan. Moisten the layer evenly with the simple syrup. When the cake has absorbed enough syrup to resemble a squishy sponge, you have enough.
  4. Hull and slice in half enough strawberries to arrange around the sides of the cake pan. Place the cut side of the strawberry against the sides of the pan, point side up forming a ring.
  5. Pipe cream in-between strawberries and a thin layer across the top of the cake.
  6. Hull and quarter your remaining strawberries and place them in the middle of the cake. Cover the strawberries and entirely with the all but 1 tbsp. (15 ml) of the pastry cream.
  7. Place the second cake layer on top and moisten with the simple syrup.
  8. Lightly dust a work surface with confectioners' sugar and roll out the almond paste to a 10-inch (25 cm) round 1/16 inch (1.5 mm) thick. Spread the remaining 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of pastry cream on the top of the cake and cover with the round of almond paste.
  9. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
  10. To serve release the sides of the spring form pan and peel away the plastic wrap.
  11. Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Despite the aesthetic imperfections, it was mouthwateringly good.

And now I'm determined to master the art of layered desserts.


In other news, Friday is my last day interning. Bittersweet goodbyes.

I'm also out of food, again. Deciding whether or not laziness will outweigh my need for dinner. Raw cookie dough is always an option. And tomatoes. It's a wonder I'm still alive.

Monday, July 25, 2011

a tale of two tarts


I hate being sick. I rarely am, so when the occasional illness hits, it feels more like a being bruised and beaten like a rag doll in a cement truck. Spent 90% of my afternoon and evening yesterday lying in bed, and the other 10% alternating between the loo and the kitchen for water. And then, finally drugged up to oblivion, succumbed to sleep and fell into unconsciousness for about 10 hours straight.

I am feeling much better today, but, again, most of the day was spent sitting on the couch or in my bed, catching up with Doctor Who [David Tennant is marvelous], and taking frequent siestas. Would have been the perfect day had I not been coughing up my lungs like it's my job.

After about the third hour of immobility, though, I started to get antsy. That's the problem with being sick: I just get so bored.

Plus, my fingers have been twitching to make something delicious. I spent the weekend at Chelsea's home, and had a phenomenal time chatting about British sci-fi television, video games, cake wrecks, and traveling. And food. Always some delicious food, but when I'm with her family, it's to be expected. Mr. Sparta conjured up a magnificent dinner on Saturday night [perfectly-cooked skirt steak, Italian-styled beans, corn and pepper salad, and Swiss chard and ricotta souffle], as always, and on Sunday we went to 2 Amys, a Neopolitan pizza joint, DOC-certified and all. What does that mean? Well, it actually means that their pizza has been recognized as legit by Italian legislation.

[Yes. unless your food is worthy, the Italians won't deem it as legit. Any more reasons to ask why the Italians really do make the best food in the world? I thought not.]

In layman's terms, it means that their pizza is the best pizza I've had since visiting Naples. Easily. I never thought I'd see buffalo mozzarella again unless I took a plane to Italia, but this gem of a restaurant has it shipped over. Wood-burning oven, buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil: perfection. After three long years, my pizza standards have been met, and there's no turning back. So, if you're ever in the DC area and you don't go by 2 Amys, you've done yourself a huge disservice. End of discussion.

Good lord, what was the point of this post again?

Oh, right, tarts. Two, in fact. I've had some goat cheese sitting in the fridge for a few weeks now, and finally decided to put it to good use. In the form of a tomato and goat cheese tart, and a strawberry and honeyed-goat cheese tart.

Now, I love goat cheese. It's silky, creamy, and perfectly tangy, and on some nice, crusty bread, it's like heaven. So, probably against my better judgment, I took a short break and popped by Whole Foods to pick up some produce. Cherry tomatoes, spelt tart crusts [laziness wins out, today], fresh basil, and strawberries, and got to work.

Tomato, Onion, & Goat Cheese Tart

Adapted by me

You'll need:
  • 1 9-inch, unbaked pie crust [either homemade or store-bought work]
  • 6 oz goat cheese
  • half of a large onion, sliced
  • olive oil for cooking and drizzling
  • 3/4 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced
  • fresh or flaked basil
  • salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a fork, poke holes over the base and sides of the pie crust. Bake crust for 8-10 minutes, until lightly golden. Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a small pan, sweat the onion slices in a bit of olive oil over low heat, until lightly browned and soft, 8-10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Crumble the goat cheese over the cooled pie crust. Spread the cooked onion evenly across the goat cheese. Line the sliced tomatoes over the onions. Drizzle the top of the tomatoes with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Once preheated, bake the tart for 30-35 minutes, until onions are well-cooked. Let cool 15-20 minutes before cutting.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

cherry bakewell tart

I don't consider myself a terribly profound or sentimental individual, but I do occasionally experience bouts of musings of a more existential nature, complete with extremely one-sided conversations with myself [all in my head, of course] about life. Then again, working in almost total silence for eight hours a day, five days a week, with nothing but an iPod for entertainment and the occasional interesting read, gives my little brain ample time to think about anything and everything.

As of late, the topic has been that of firsts. My parents never kept a "baby book" or whatever, so there's no real record of my first steps [probably more falling than actual walking], or my first word [probably "doublechocolatechipcookie"], or my first tantrum [probably at 4 weeks]. But I do remember firsts that meant something to me at the time.

My first concert was Hellogoodbye, with Boys Like Girls opening for them, if that's any indication as to how long ago that was. My first real vacation was Disney World, when I was around 5 and terrified of roller coasters, but appreciative of older cousins who were kind enough not to berate me for it. My first injury was a broken elbow, after a spontaneously idiotic jump off the couch, and I still have the mark to show for it. My first instrument was the piano, one I continue to play away at, in all senses of the word "mediocre", to this day [the second being the flute and the third being 3-hours worth of self-taught guitar (which was, needless to say, a failure of epic proportions)].

But it was only just recently, skimming through my ever-expanding culinary bookshelf, that I stumbled upon my first cookbook. Desserts You Can Make Yourself. I'm not even sure it's still in publication. Mom bought it for me while in Pakistan when I was around 8 or 9 and already exhibiting an insatiable appetite for all things sugar, and consequently, the creation thereof. It was an English cookbook [yes, metric units and all] written for children like me, choc-full of endearing hand-drawn pictures and one-sentence baking instructions, and so naturally I fell in love. Mom and I spent many a summer evening baking pound cakes, sponge cakes, and jelly rolls from this book. I even recall my uncle once paying me $5 for requesting a chocolate cream pie [which really is divine], and the incredulous joy it brought me.

[After all, when you're 10 years old, a $5 payment for dessert is basically free license to develop a lifelong dream of opening up a bakery.

Or, perhaps that's just me.]

And perhaps one day I'll be trying the cherry pie.

Okay. So, admittedly, this recipe doesn't come from my cookbook. I assume that including desserts with the level of precision and time required for this tart goes against the marketing strategy of a cookbook geared towards children.

But I felt a pang of nostalgia for my nonexistent British roots, and so was inspired to bake something traditionally English. Not to mention perfectly fitting, what with the release of Deathly Hallows part II last weekend.

[I've also begun season one of the Doctor Who revival. ...Yeah.]

Cherry Bakewell Tart
Adapted from merging tons of varying recipes into one super recipe. [i.e. another Sherlockean experiment.]

For the shortcrust pastry, you'll need:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup almond meal
  • 1 stick butter, cold and cut into cubes
  • pinch of salt
  • 5 tsp sugar
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 tsp cold water
  • 1 egg white

For the frangipane, you'll need:
  • 3/4 cup preferred fruit jam or preserves
  • 10 tbsp butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 3/4 cup almond meal
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 1 tbsp sliced almonds

To prepare the pastry crust
Pour flour, almond meal, butter, and salt into a food processor. Pulse until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and water and pulse until dough comes together. Flatten dough into a disc, cover with plastic wrap, and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Once chilled, lightly grease a 9-inch fluted tart pan. Roll pastry into a disc of about 1/4-inch thickness and line the tart pan. Cut any excess pastry off the sides of the pan. Using a fork, prick holes on the base and sides of the pastry, and then cover loosely with plastic wrap and chill for an additional 30 minutes. [You want to handle the pastry dough as little as possible, and keep it as cold as possible.]

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the pastry has chilled [again], bake for about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, brush the base and sides of the pastry with egg white, and bake for another 3-4 minutes. Allow pastry to cool.

To prepare the frangipane
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add in eggs and egg yolk, one at a time, until incorporated. Fold in the almond meal and lemon zest. Set aside.

To assemble the Bakewell tart
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Spread fruit jam or preserves evenly over the base of the cooled shortcrust pastry. Carefully spoon the frangipane mixture over the jam, and spread evenly. Bake the tart for 20-25 minutes, until the surface is a light gold color and the custard has set. Remove the tart from the oven, press the slice almonds evenly over the top, and return to bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until golden brown.

Cool tart to room temperature before removing from the pan. Dust the top of the tart with powdered sugar before serving, if desired.

I've been to London just once in my life, so far, and have only a vague [read: half-blind in a dense fog] recollection of the grandeur of Big Ben and Trafalgar Square. But it's a city that I would love to visit again in the near future [I'm currently trying to persuade mom to agree to take me there after graduation, but only time will tell if my nagging is successful].

Even more so, the English countryside, but I feel like any good trip to the UK needs to start in London. Waking up to fresh-baked scones and clotted cream, spending cold evenings eating mince pies and Sunday roasts, and finishing every meal with a sticky pudding or fruit tart, all the while walking through bustling streets lined with bookshops, patisseries, and museums.

[And, ideally, chance encounters with Colin Firth, Hugh Laurie, and Benedict Cumberbatch.]

A little gooey in the middle, but that's what I get for turning down the oven temperature halfway through. Listen to the recipe, kids. [For the record, it was still irresistibly good.]

In any case, until the time comes, I'll stick to baking. Cherry Bakewell tart, specifically. Bakewell tarts are a very English dessert, dating back about two centuries, consisting of pastry crust layered with a fruit jam and frangipane [almond pastry filling], baked to bubbly, custardy goodness. I went with cherries because they happen to be exquisite, and I love them.

[The cherry preserves were simple, so I won't give a formal recipe for them. Basically cooked them in a saucepan over the stove with a splash of water until boiling, then added some sugar and lemon juice. Cooked for a wee bit, dumped the stuff into the food processor, crushed them, put them back in the saucepan, added about 2 tbsp of cornstarch, brought to a boil for about a minute, and then turned off the heat. Any sweet cherries will do.]

Regardless, I'd recommend going for a jam that veers on the tart end of the sugar spectrum, as the frangipane is quite sweet. The combination of the two is lovely on one's palate. I'd also recommend some sweetened cream on the side for this one. Not so much vanilla ice cream; it'd be too heavy. But plain, alongside a cup of tea or coffee, too, is delightful.

Much of the recipe can be prepared ahead of time, as well, and I would recommend it. The curd and pastry dough will keep well in the fridge for about a day [separately, of course; don't assemble until right before baking]. Store-bought pastry dough and jam works just as easily, though I always prefer traveling the 'from scratch' route. Your prerogative, as always.

And now the entire flat [apartment] smells like cherry tart. I figure it's time to put on the kettle [I don't own a kettle], make some tea [most likely grab some milk from the fridge], and read a novel [definitely watching Doctor Who until I pass out].

I anticipate a wonderful evening [at least I'm honest].

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

beginnings, endings, and mugs of butterbeer

I never realized how much my life revolves around books. And not even reading them, to be honest. Just the mere presence of them. Filling the air with thousands of stories. Invisible, like spirits wandering aimlessly until someone happens to stumble upon one. And then it becomes a part of that person forever, if they care enough.

I'm always reading something. More often than not, the material of choice is a cookbook. Not for the recipes, though, but for the vignettes, for the short stories that give me a fleeting glimpse into the life of someone who loves gastronomy as much as I do, or into their tales of travel across the world with memories in the form of babka or millefeuille. Lately, I've been revisiting Conan Doyle short stories [when I'm obsessed with something, it invades all aspects of my life, and yes, I have seen the entirety of Sherlock about 4 times at this point], reading ones that I'd read when I was much younger and others that I'd never bothered to explore.

And if I'm lucky, I'll happen upon a novel that I get lost in.

You know the feeling: like the story was written for no one but you, making you believe you're actually there, feeling attached to each and every character, letting them become part of you as much as you're a part of them.

I've been working full-time these days [as in, not interning, at least until the final week of July], and consequently have been spending the majority of my days in the basement of the Special Collections building. I work in Digital Curation Services, which sounds both more impressive and less boring than it actually is. Not that I don't love my job, because I do; as far as part-time jobs for undergraduate students goes, it's brilliant. And occasionally, incredibly rewarding.

Presumably, I digitize things. Specifically, books, manuscripts, photos, documents, letters, maps, pamphlets, and the like. I use technology worth thousands upon thousands of dollars, a number of different computer programs, and cataloging technique to digitize printed text. In a way, it's ironic. But a testament to a changing world, and the importance of preserving the past.

I enjoy it.

For the most part, I digitize things that often have me wondering why on earth I'm digitizing them at all. Like documents about azaleas for professors in the biology department. And I'm sure that, you know, such things are important, but after the 1000th page on azalea anatomy, it does get tiresome. But sometimes I'll get lucky, and I'll be given something special. Leonardo da Vinci manuscripts written in his beautiful mirror-script. First-run copies of Huck Finn. An original copy of the Declaration of Independence. Civil War diaries written by a soldier in 1862 [my first project, actually]. My current project is a copy of Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, from 1901. Fourteen hours and counting, yet slowly but surely, it's getting done.

Despite the fear of sounding cliche and sappy, these are things that bring me back to reality. An old reality, but a reality nonetheless. That things happened, stories were written, and these are the ways we remember them.

And during my one-hour lunch break, I head toward the second floor of the adjacent library, into the McGregor room. Since it's summer hours, it's almost always completely vacant, save for a few students on laptops scattered amongst the armchairs and wooden tables spread haphazardly across the carpet. Walking in through the tall wooden doors, it's like finding yourself in a library from the Victorian era [or the Hogwarts Library, quite fittingly]. It's the perfect atmosphere to read, sitting cozily with nothing but the welcomed scent of old books and candle wax to distract you, and I've made it a habit to go straight there when I have free time. I've missed it, to be honest, having a book to look forward to. During the year, there's enough going on that I don't realize what I'm missing out on. Over the summer, I've got some time to make up for it.

I read a lot as a child. I always had my nose in a book. I often wonder what ever happened to that drive. I suppose it got lost in the pages of chemistry textbooks and required reading novels from high school. A pity, really. But much of my childhood was marked by books. When I think of Pakistan, one of the first things to come to mind [besides the obvious memories of the scents of chicken tikka and fresh-baked naan] are Great Illustrated Classics. My uncles would take me to the biggest bookstores in Karachi so I could fill my arms with piles of the novels, and I'd spend my days distracting myself from the heat with pages from those books. At home, it was the Saddle Club, fueling my love of horseback riding [which I did for about 2 years before allergies shot that dream indefinitely]. Later, Nancy Drew and the Boxcar Children, the Lost Tales of Merlin, The Giver, Anderson and Grimm Fairy Tales. Anything and everything that would appeal to an elementary-schooler.

But nothing defined my childhood, both literary and otherwise, quite like Harry Potter.

Homemade Butterbeer
Adapted from my own experimentation, in the style of a certain Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Minus the threat of bodily harm.
Serves 6-8; this is a very heavy recipe

[Disclaimer #1: this recipe is, obviously, not the same as the one served at the park. The park's version is actually made without any dairy whatsoever, whereas this one is nothing but. It also lacks any sort of 'butterscotch flavoring,' because such products creep me out like the Bloody Baron at a Halloween party. Nevertheless, the flavor is all there, and it gives one a similar feeling of being warmed up from the inside out, in the most pleasant way. My version is slightly salty, because upon first read, I imagined butterbeer to have a comforting, salty-sweet quality about it. I like to think that Mrs. Rowling would approve.]

[Disclaimer #2: this recipe is pretty brilliant.]

You'll need:
  • scant 1 cup sugar
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 5 tbsp butter
  • scant 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 4 cups milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla 

In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, melt sugar until it turns a light amber color, about 5 minutes. Whisk constantly. Toss in salt. Add in butter all at once, and continue whisking until blended. Remove pan from heat and slowly pour in heavy cream in a steady stream, still whisking vigorously. Once blended as a uniform sauce, set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat milk on medium heat. Pour in vanilla and stir. Allow milk to heat until it begins to simmer slightly, and then pour in the caramel. Stir until blended, and once the mixture is at desired temperature [warm or slightly hot], shut off the heat. Using either a whisk or an immersion blender, whisk milk until light and frothy. Pour into glasses and serve immediately.


When the first book came out, I was 7 years old. Hated it. I found it boring and dull, and it escaped my thoughts for a while. Then, when I was 9, I picked it up again. And loved it. Drank up each word as though I had been traveling through a desert for months. And from then on, I eagerly awaited each new book in the series. At age 11, I was truly disappointed not to have received a letter inviting me to Hogwarts. [Not going to lie, I still dream about it.] I had mom drive me to Barnes and Noble each summer a new book was released, waiting in line and all but bursting with excitement at 11:59pm, surrounded by others with the exact same thing on their mind. Having thoughtful, philosophical discussions about Potter morality, religion, and politics with not only friends, but teachers throughout high school. Feeling my heart break throughout the final few books, as if the characters were people I knew and loved.

And really, they were. They are. I've grown up with them. We've all grown up with them. They're a phenomenon. Whether or not you enjoy the books [though, in my mind, if you haven't read them or liked them, you're not a real person], you can't deny that they've changed the world. They've made kids read. They've kept those kids reading well beyond their youth, into adulthood. A decade of books. An incredible series. Perfectly constructed. I know the Potterverse [that's Potter universe, for those of you not in the know] like the back of my hand. It's in my mind. Every winding street of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. The towering spires of Hogwarts Castle. The depths of the Black Lake and the Forbidden Forest. Even when I had schoolwork to occupy my life, I made time for Harry, Hermione, and Ron. And I'm not embarrassed to admit it because I know the same holds true for every other fan. One of the highlights of my second year of university was drinking a mug of Butterbeer at the footsteps of the Three Broomsticks, and purchasing a wand from Ollivander's.

I was 19 years old.

And I felt like I was 9 again.

And I loved every second of it.

Tomorrow night will be bittersweet. I'm sad to see the series come to an end, like millions of others who grew up with the books like me, but I can't think of a better way to end almost 13 years of an incredible series. I've always thought that 19 is a useless age, and I still do. Nothing changes, there's no excitement like one that accompanies turning 18 [though, I don't smoke or gamble anyway, so there wasn't too much excitement there aside from being able to sign my own legal documents], or turning 20 and leaving teen years behind.

But this feels like closure. It'll be turning 20 years old having completed a milestone.  It'll be saying goodbye to a best friend, one who has really affected me in an enormous way, and one that I will sob to leave. But it's served it's purpose, and perhaps this is the best way to say goodbye. It's made me genuinely want to read. It's given me something to love. It's made me laugh, it's made me cry, and it's made me learn. It really has been the series of our generation, and in a world that has been plagued by change, it was like a source of stability. Comfort and beauty for a 10 year old with the backdrop of 9/11, too young to understand the depths of the tragedy, but old enough to revel in the escape via Platform 9 and 3/4. And a similar comfort for a 17 year old, starting college with all the fears of the future, but with the Hogwarts Express to take her away for a little while.

And, perhaps, 100 years from now, someone else will be digitizing these books, preserving their pages in a changing world. But you know what? This reality was ours. And even if my childhood ends tomorrow night as I sit in the theater, dark mark on my arm, Ravenclaw scarf around my neck, and wand behind my ear, I've still got the pages to turn back to when I'm feeling nostalgic.

[Besides, it's only a matter of time until Pottermore is released. Yes, it is on my calendar. And yes, I will most likely dress up for the event. As always.]

Sunday, July 10, 2011

summer weekends & peach-berry cobbler

My first week back has drawn to a close, and with it ends my first week working part-time and interning. It's been relatively nice, despite the 9-5 days [which end up being more like 8-6, but nuances], and I absolutely adore Cville in the summer.

Not the heat, of course. I can't stand the heat. [To its credit, though, it's not humid here, which is a welcome change from back home.] Rather, it's the sheer peacefulness that's lovely, and it's really pleasant to drive through the small city with trees and mountains encircling campus.

My internship is somewhat tiring, simply because I spend 3+ hours with children between the ages of 6 and 10 first-thing in the morning, and being around them makes me feel a) old, and b) old. Old because I'm about a decade+ older than all of them, and also because I don't have nearly the same amount of energy as them.

[Something I could really use on school mornings.]

But they've been adorable, and after about two days became really comfortable with us interns and Profesora. We celebrated our week of Spanish teaching/learning with a cute little fiesta, which was a nice way to begin a Saturday, and a really nice way to spend an internship.

Nevertheless, I'm very much enjoying my weekend (well, half a Saturday and Sunday) off. Chelsea came down to visit, and we had a marvelous time catching up.

And cooking.

Since we are basically two of the biggest foodies on the planet.

Who enjoy nothing more than strolling through Whole Foods and thrift shops, planning out our life of travel with Anthony Bourdain in the background, and wasting away hours chatting over coffee at cafes downtown.

Our marvelous dinner of spaghetti tossed with cherry tomatoes and fresh basil, and roasted potatoes dipped in homemade pesto. Plus an amazing brunch of Egyptian ful this morning, prepared by Chelsea. We are so gastronomically spoiled for college students. And I love it.

Chelsea has been playing the vegan-game as of late, and so we stuck to a vegetarian dinner. I myself am not huge on meat anymore, so didn't mind in the least.

I was somewhat more skeptical about dessert, though [dessert was a given], without the use of any eggs or dairy.

But, you know, we persevered. Quite splendidly, might I add.

Peach-Berry Cobbler
Adapted from Chef Chloe

For the dough, you'll need:
  • 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 3 tbs sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup almond milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
For the filling, you'll need:
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh peaches, chopped [we used 4 large donut peaches]
  • 1 cup assorted berries [we used blackberries and raspberries]
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 1 tsp cinnamon, if desired

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and grease a large, shallow casserole dish.

To prepare the dough, combine all dough ingredients in a medium-sized bowl and mix with a wooden spoon until combined. Be careful not to over-mix. Set aside.

Toss chopped fruit with the sugar, flour, and cinnamon, and pour into the casserole dish. Spoon lumps of dough on top of the berries. If desired, brush the top of the dough with a bit of almond milk and sprinkle sugar liberally over top. Bake for about 45 minutes, until dough is evenly cooked and lightly browned on top.

Serve warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or sweetened cream.

We didn't have any vegan ice cream or cream on hand, unfortunately, so we just enjoyed it plain. I would definitely recommend eating it with either of the two, though, because by itself the cobbler is quite hearty and tangy.

Nevertheless, despite the cobbler being vegan, it's absolutely delicious.

And, to be honest, we preferred it the next day, after letting it sit in the fridge overnight. It tastes sweeter and more refreshing, and was a delicious afternoon snack before Chelsea left for home.

As for me, I'm alone at the apartment once again and plan on spending the rest of the evening (re)watching Sherlock and eating leftover pasta and cobbler for dinner.

I anticipate an excellent night.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

lemon-strawberry scones with a side of benedict cumberbatch

I'm not sure if I've divulged this in the past, but I have somewhat of an obsessive personality.

Not in a creepy way, or anything. Rather, when I really like something... I really like it. And want everyone else to like it. And will have it on my mind for days.

In the past 7 days alone, I've sifted through a number of different obsessions. Portal 2, buying cookbooks, taking siestas, LittleBigPlanet [specifically, Sackboy], writing vignettes, organizing and reorganizing, pad thai, pen sketching, the list goes on.

But my latest obsession has been interrupting my thoughts every few hours. It's been causing me to talk to myself in a British accent [yes, I talk to myself, and no, it is not indicative of an underlying issue]. It makes my fingers twitch for Netflix every time I turn on the telly. It makes me use words like 'telly.'

Sherlock. The BBC miniseries, to be precise. It aired last October-November, and I had it on my calendar to watch on Sunday evenings, but for some reason I ended up missing them. I think a combination of midterms, paper-writing, and FFVII was the problem, but it came and went, and I figured I would never again have the opportunity to watch it [legally].

And then, a few weeks ago, I discovered that Netflix in all its glory added the series to its instant queue. So, of course, I added it, and then promptly forgot about it. And then I went to Spain. And came home. And the day before I drove back to my apartment, stumbled upon it while I was browsing Netflix. And vowed to watch it once I was settled in Cville.

And on Monday evening, I hit the play button.

And in no less than 5 minutes, I fell in love.

Lemon-Strawberry Scones
This is an original bakedbeen recipe!
Recipe yields 10-12 scones, depending on the size

You'll need:
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar, plus 2 tbsp for dusting
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • scant tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 sticks butter, cold and cut into cubes
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream, plus 2 tbsp for brushing
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 3/4 cup chopped strawberries

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine flours, 2/3 cup sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt, and stir until well-mixed. Cut butter into flour mixture until dough is the consistency of breadcrumbs. Make a well in the center of the dough and pour in 1 cup heavy cream and lemon juice. Using your hands, knead the dough until it comes together in a mass. Add in lemon zest and strawberries, and knead until well incorporated.

Form fist-sized balls of dough and place them evenly across the baking sheet. Brush the tops of the scones with the reserved heavy cream and sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake for 12 minutes, until tops are golden-brown.

Serve scones warm or at room temperature. If desired, drizzle a simple lemon-sugar glaze over the scones, or enjoy with a light scraping of butter or clotted cream.

It helps that I'm obsessed with bromances [this is a rather consistent obsession, unlike some of my more fleeting ones]. I find them charming, and adorable, and hugely entertaining. And so when Guy Ritchi's adaptation came out with two of the most wonderful actors to be depicted as bromantic to ever grace the screen, I was more than happy.

[I was, in fact, ecstatic, and purchased the DVD within the first few days of its release.]

I've always been a fan of Holmes and Watson, but didn't really think anything could trump the Law/Downey Jr. portrayal of the two [their bromance, I should note, since the plot of the film itself left much to be desired], particularly Jude's portrayal of Watson as a competent, loyal partner and physician [contrasting with the less appealing caricature by Nigel Bruce].

That is, of course, until I watched Sherlock. I should have realized that no one could do Holmes and Watson better than the Brits [in terms of both characters, since I realize that Jude Law is, in fact, British]. And, really, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are marvelous together.

Especially Benedict Cumberbatch.


I mean, I'm not in love with him or anything.

Just mildly infatuated.

But I can't help it that he pulls of barely-socially-functioning, sociopathic, articulate, curt intellectual so well.

And looks dashing in a suit while doing so.

Like I said. Just a mild infatuation. Not an issue.

So why the scones? Well I've had all-things-English stuck in my for the past few days. And I wanted to come up with a recipe of my own. And I figured it would be a fitting snack during the miniseries finale.

Just as delicious as Mr. Holmes himself.

...did I say that out loud?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

torta di grigna

I hate moving. Not that I get particularly attached to any one location, so the issue isn't the fact that I'm leaving a house I've lived in for 11 years. I will miss the familiarity, of course, but as for the house itself. Well, when you're moving about 2 miles away, it's not going to be much of a loss.

The problem with moving is the moving. The boxes, the cleaning, the stress, discovering old things you thought you had thrown away, and regret not having thrown away because they bring back awkward memories of your childhood idiocy and embarrassing old hobbies [though, mountains upon mountains of Barbie dolls and miniature toy cars make quite an interesting dichotomy].

It's Sunday afternoon, and between absorbing the defense's closing arguments in the Casey Anthony trial [yes, I have been following this trial since my return home, and find it highly interesting, if not very sad] and listening to my father steam-clean the carpet for pending potential buyers coming to visit the house, I imagine how hectic the next month or so is going to be. Full of stress, cleaning, and boxes.

After all, there are 11 years of memories in this house. That's quite a lot to fit into cardboard and ship off.

Nonetheless, today I go back to the apartment, and I'll be there for the next two weeks. [Note that my return home aligns perfectly with the release of Deathly Hallows Part II. This is not a coincidence.] And by then, I assume I will spend my weekend home folding clothes and squeezing trinkets into small compartments, trying my best not to break anything [and probably failing anyway].

So it was only fitting that when I baked a chocolate and almond cake this morning, mom solemnly told me, in no uncertain terms,

"Sabeen, this is the last cake you are ever going to bake in this house. Ever."

I responded with a raise of my eyebrow and look of deadpan indifference. And then we both laughed, sliced the cake, and took a break from the chaos.

Since the start of the summer, I am pleased and mortified to say that I have ordered 5 new cookbooks. This brings my total collection up to...a number which is far too disconcerting to share. [Also, I'm not exactly sure how many. But it is a lot.] One, which I am currently enjoying immensely, is Jessica Theroux's Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. Jessica shares colorful stories of her year spent in Italy, traveling from Tuscany to Sicily, staying with twelve or so different nonne, tasting and cooking her way through the country's diverse, regional cuisine.

Basically, what I wish my life was always.

This torta di Grigna, or cocoa and almond cake, comes from the mountains of Lombardia. It's a dense cake, though not terribly sweet, so would be perfect with afternoon tea or coffee.

Or, if you're me, some sweetened cream or vanilla ice cream on the side to make it decadent.

Torta di Grigna
Adapted from Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

You'll need:
  • 1 1/2 cups [2 1/2 sticks] unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 5 large eggs, separated
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream [substitute with whole milk if cream is unavailable]
  • 1 cup raw almonds, chopped
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • pinch of salt 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease a 9-inch springform pan.

In a bowl, cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks and cream and mix on medium-high speed until fully incorporated, 3-4 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, stir in half of the chopped almonds [reserve the other 1/2 cup], flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and stir until blended. The batter is thick and stiff, so it may take a fair amount of effort to mix the batter well.

In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the cake batter, stirring with the wooden spoon. Spoon the thick batter into the prepared pan and spread it out evenly. Sprinkle the top of the cake with the remaining chopped almonds.

Bake for 60-70 minutes, until the center of the cake is springy, but not jiggly, and the edges of the cake begin pulling away from the sides of the pan. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes before transferring to a serving plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

It's a pretty good cake. Airy and light, despite the denseness, and the flavor of the almonds is warmly nutty without being too overpowering.

It was also a nice centerpiece for the downstairs table for our potential buyers, so a win-win situation all around.

On an unrelated note, I have never had more television shows on my list than I do currently. I did have an entire week to get to it, but I honestly think I watched a grand total of maybe 3 hours of TV since my return. [The trial doesn't count. That's current events. And anything relevant to life never counts as a waste of time.] But, really, when did television actually get good again? Sherlock, Camelot, Rome, Battlestar Galactica, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, the list goes on.

Good thing I've got nothing else to do for the next six weeks.