Sunday, January 29, 2012

lemon-blueberry layer cake [with a side of sugar coma]

The benefit of living in a city that seems to have totally forgotten that winter is a season, is that it allows one to stroll downtown with old friends on a January afternoon with nothing but a jacket and good conversation for warmth. When that group of friends is comprised of wonderful people you've known for over a decade, it almost feels like summertime.

I can't actually believe that I've known these people as long as I have. These 'people', of course, meaning Nitya, Hannah, Noosh, Georgia, Matt, and Tommy. Elementary school friends. Fourth grade. All of us weren't particularly close back then, and I don't think any of us would have imagined that an odd-13 years later we would still be in touch, let alone driving down to visit one another for belated birthday parties, shopping trips, and coffee dates. It's amazing, really, when I think about it.

Much of my childhood was spent moving from place to place. I was born out of the country and my parents moved to the States when I was two. I grew up in the north; random cities in New York from apartments to townhouses while my parents scraped together enough money for a new life in a country very different from their own. It was a learning experience for them, certainly, though all my memories of frigid winters and breezy summers come primarily from photos and stories. There are the occasional genuine memories of course - I recall living next to an elderly couple whose home I would often visit to see their numerous pets and, on lazy days, plates of cookies and glasses of lemonade. I don't remember their names, but I do remember their kindness.

When I was about 7 years old, arm in a hot pink cast from a rather ungraceful fall off of a sofa, we moved to Virginia. Leaving yet another group of friends behind - I changed schools about 4 times while in the north as it was - I started the third grade rather alone. A few months went by, turning 8 years old and meeting new people, before we moved yet again to a different city. It was there that my parents decided to finally settle down for good, and it's there that they live to this day (after having moved to a different house this summer, but remaining in the same general location). I started spring of the third grade, yet again on my own, and found myself best friends with the entire third grade faculty. The following year I was transferred to the gifted program, and it's at that moment my life finally settled down. I finally met the people I would keep in my heart for the next 13 years.

Nitya was, essentially, my first true friend in elementary school. It was sometime at the beginning of fourth grade when we were all in the cafeteria for lunch, my younger sister's class heading back to their room - she was in the first grade at the time - and I caught her eye and gave a reassuring wave.

"Is that your sister?" Nitya asked me from across the table. I hadn't even realized she was paying any mind.

"Yes," or at least some derivative of an affirmative. I don't remember much of the details, but from there we  got to talking about whatever it is that goes through the minds of two fourth grade girls, and before long we had developed a close friendship.

A close friendship which, having expanded to the Fab Four and others who I first met that year as the fourth grader who finally found her place, has survived over a decade. It is remarkable, truly.

Lemon-blueberry Layer Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Sweetapolita.
Yields one 3-layer, 8-inch cake.

For the cake, you'll need:

  • 2 cups plus 6 tbsp flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 cups fresh or frozen blueberries, thawed and patted dry
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 cup [2 sticks] butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • lemon curd, for layering

For the lemon cream cheese frosting, you'll need:
  • 2 8-oz packages of cream cheese, softened
  • 3/4 cup [1 1/2 sticks] butter, softened
  • 2 tbsp lemon
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 4 cups confectioner's sugar

To prepare the cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease and flour three 8-inch cake pans. In a small bowl, toss blueberries with one tablespoon of flour. In a medium-sized bowl, sift flour remaining flour, baking powder, and salt. In another small bowl, whisk buttermilk, lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla. Set both bowls aside.

Cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 mins. Add eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Alternate adding flour mixture and buttermilk mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Gently fold in blueberries by hand. Divide batter among cake pans and bake for 25-30 mins, or until golden brown and set. Remove cakes from the pans and cool to room temperature.

To prepare the cream cheese frosting:
Cream butter and cream cheese on medium speed until fluffy, about 5 mins. Add lemon juice, lemon zest, and vanilla and mix. Lower speed and gently add in the sugar, and beat until light. Refrigerate until using.

To assemble the cake:
Place one layer on a serving plate. Frost the top of the layer with a generous amount of lemon curd. Spread a thin layer of the cream cheese frosting on top. Place second layer on top of the base and repeat. Place third layer on top and thinly frost the top and sides of the cake with a crumb coat. Refrigerate both the cake and the frosting for about 30 mins. Remove from the fridge and use remaining frosting to frost the top and sides. Garnish with a frosting border or lemon, if desired.

This weekend, 13 years later, my dear friend drove 4 hours up to the apartment - alongside the Blue Ridge Mountains, so she didn't mind too, too much - to spend the weekend with Noosh and I. Hannah drove down from her university as well, and so we had a wonderful weekend of Fab Four bonding, complete with diet Snapple and trashy magazines, visiting the downtown mall with Matt and Georgia and enjoying dessert with Tommy. 

Since Nitya was in Italy for the semester, I was unable to surprise her with a 21st birthday cake as I did for Hannah and Farnoosh. So for her big visit this weekend, she and I worked together on her belated birthday cake. After a lazy afternoon in used bookshops - a rather successful visit if I do say so myself, thanks to a wonderful local book shop owner named Dave - it was a lovely treat to enjoy in the evening. So happy belated birthday, my darling Nitya. I can't believe I've celebrated so many birthdays with you, and hope to celebrate many more in future. Without you, fourth grade would have been an enormous bore. 

Unfortunately, two days was not nearly enough for the four of us, but we made the most of the time we had with good food and more lovely memories to add to our repertoire. 

After all, we have all the time in the world for more.

Friday, January 27, 2012

{DBC} blueberry-lemon scones

I have to admit, I was rather pleased when I read this month's Daring Baker's Challenge recipe. Pleased and also amused, given my anglophilic tendencies as of late, most notably with the release of series 2 of BBC's incredible Sherlock.

[Of which I have gushed about more than enough in all manners of communication possible to a moderately technologically-inclined college student, so I will say nothing here. Except that it remains the best television series ever produced.]

It is not actually the 27th at the moment; in fact, it's the 22nd, but I'm amidst a rather lazy Sunday morning and so decided to take a break from Douglas Adams with a bit of blogging.

As it were, I'm sitting at my desk with headphones humming Rossini and a mug of steaming hot chocolate [a cup of milk heated with a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder, a few bittersweet chocolate chips, a splash of cream, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a pinch of chili powder if I'm feeling particularly daring (which, today, I was not)], watching the first snow of 2012 drifting unassumingly onto car roofs and tree branches, and the whole image is picturesque in a wonderfully pretentious way. But I figure a bit of faux-class on a Sunday morning after a first week of classes was forgivable.

Well, first week for most - one day for me. I've lucked out somewhat this term with my schedule, which leaves me with Wednesdays and Fridays off from class. Had I not had a part-time job [which fills my vacant week days], it would be a dream. But given my habit of spending all of my free time on and fiendish bargain-hunting for clothes online, I'll keep the job. Nevertheless, it's not going to be as lax of a semester as I'd have liked, what with a full load of philosophy seminars and history courses in Spanish [and a course in financial mathematics which I am choosing to pretend does not actually exist]. So I've been trying to fit in as much Hitchhiker's Guide as possible before Avicenna, Aristotle, and Nagel become my literary constants.

It had been going somewhat well until I became distracted by Tina Fey's Bossypants.

Blueberry-Lemon Buttermilk Scones
Adapted from the January 2012 Daring Baker's Challenge
Recipe yields 8-12 scones, depending on the size.

For the scones, you'll need:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 heaping tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp lemon zest
  • 8 tbsp butter, cold and cut into cubes
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 cup blueberries, either fresh or frozen

For the lemon glaze, you'll need:
  • 3/4 cup confectioner's sugar, sifted
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farhenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar, and lemon zest and mix thoroughly. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter or your hands [or do the entire thing in an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment] until crumbly.

In another small bowl, mix milk, buttermilk, and lemon juice until uniform. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Slowly pour about three-quarters of the milk mixture in the well, and knead the dough. If the dough is too try, add more of the milk. You may not need to use all of the liquid. Once dough is at the proper texture [it should come together, but should not be too sticky], gently add in the blueberries.

Using your hands, roll out biscuit-sized balls of dough and place on the baking sheet, three inches apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until tops are golden-brown. Let cool on the baking sheet for 5 mins before transferring to a serving plate.

To prepare the glaze, stir confectioner's sugar and lemon juice until the mixture is smooth. The consistency should be thin, but not watery. Add more confectioner's sugar or lemon juice as necessary. Pour the glaze on top of the warm scones and serve immediately.

The DBC recipe as given was for plain scones/biscuits, but I altered the recipe to allow for buttermilk, lemon, and blueberries, and this is the recipe that I've typed up. The texture of these is unbelievable, and the glaze is such an amazing touch. It helps that I am absolutely enamored with scones - they are, in fact, carbohydrates in their most transcendental form - and so I had quite a lot of fun coming up with, what I hoped would be, a fantastic flavor combination. I also did a buttermilk version of my oatmeal-raisin scones from a few months ago, which we ate with a spread of cherry preserves.

The scones were made yesterday afternoon with the help of my darlings Matt and Kyana, who had come to our apartment for an afternoon of Sherlock series 2, which Matt had not seen in its entirety. It was all very posh and adorable, gathered around the coffee table with a basket of scones, an assortment of teas, some quality conversation and theorizing about Moffat, Gatiss, and Thompson's incredible scripts, and Benedict Cumberbatch's unbelievably provocative voice serenading us with superhuman deductions.

[Did I say I was going to shut up about Sherlock? I should also have mentioned that I am an enormous hypocrite.]

If all goes as planned, the weekend of the 27th should be spent with my darling Nitya, who has graciously decided to make the long trek up to our apartment. I anticipate lots of baking and good food. Perhaps some quality television, even a trek downtown for used books. But the food is a given.

It's been a very fine start to 2012, I have to say.

Monday, January 16, 2012

6. russia: russian tea cakes [and a conversation]

A few months ago when I was interning with a university Spanish professor, I remember a particular conversation I had with one of my students at the camp. I'm not so sure why I still remember it, but the memory has stuck with me since then, quite vividly. We were practicing Spanish by ourselves, by which I mean I was having her repeat "how old are you?" and "I am but a little munchkin" over and over until she would, somehow, remember the phrases.

Well, I wasn't quite as successful as I would have hoped. But nevertheless, with some helpful hints in English, she was able to figure out what was going on. The conversation was going pretty smoothly...

"How old are you?"
"I'm six years old. And you?"
"I'm 19."

...until I told her how old I was. I remember her eyes going wide as saucers as she gaped at me as though I were something rather unpleasant on the bottom of her shoe.

"You're 19?!" she asked me in English, leaving the Spanish behind in favor of a language through which she could more easily chastise me.

"Err...yes." I responded. Admittedly, it came out more like a question, with an oddly placed inflection on the 'yes', but I was a bit taken aback at this point.

"Oh, but that's so old!"

At this I had to stop - "now wait a minute" - though I'm not so sure why I was getting so defensive about my age. I mean, I was 19. A little girl's astonishment at my seeming-decrepitude shouldn't have thrown me as much as it did, seeing as how she herself was only six. But the amount of horror that clouded her vision as she stared at me was unnerving, to say the least.

"But the other girls are 20 and 21! And senora is way older than we are! Besides, I'm only 13 years older than you."

"Yes, but it took you so long to get there!"

You know how people say that children are the best sources of truth? Well, I understand the sentiment. Having volunteered with kids for years and years now, I have to say, some of the most profound things I've ever heard have come from people much younger than me. Ironic, I think, since it's the adults who are supposed to be giving me valuable life lessons.

[I've realized that when a 13-year-old girl asks you why you want to be a doctor "because I don't think you'd be very happy as a doctor," you're probably not making the right life choice.]

But in a way, that little girl was right. Nineteen really isn't that old, at all. But at the same time, that's 19 years of growing up, experiencing new things, meeting new people, and becoming yourself. 19 years of traveling to Pakistan, Canada, Spain, Italy. 19 years of going to school and stressing about grades and classes. 19 years of worrying about the future, and reminiscing about the past.

And suddenly, 19 seems like the oldest thing in the world.

Russian Tea Cakes
Adapted from Allrecipes
Yields about 36 cookies

You'll need:

  • 1 cup [2 sticks] butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/3 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 cup finely chopped nuts [I prefer pecans, but walnuts and pistachios work just as wonderfully]
  • 1/3 cup confectioner's sugar, for coating

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, cream butter and vanilla until smooth, 3 minutes. Stir flour and sugar into the butter mixture until just blended. Mix in the nuts.

Roll balls of dough, about 1-inch in diameter, and place them 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Press the tops of the cookies down very lightly with the back of a spoon to flatten a bit. Bake for 12 minutes and allow cookies to cool completely.

Once cookies are cooled, coat them in confectioner's sugar before serving.

I'm 20 now, but 19 feels so far away. In a way, it's because it is. I've only been 20 for three and a half months, but I've done so much since then that it feels much longer. Nothing hugely significant or worldly, but that's three and a half months of getting to know myself that I didn't have when I was 19.

As old as I am, though, I revel in the fact that I'm almost a year younger than most of my peers. [The beauty of starting school young.] My darling friend Kevin, for example, celebrates his 21st birthday today.

For the occasion, I shipped him a box of goodies, some of which were these little things. Russian tea cakes. They did originate in Russia, I've learned, though also go by the name of "Mexican wedding cookies" here in the States. These cookies appeared in the 18th century as a confection in tea ceremonies, but since the 20th century have been commonly eaten around Christmastime. I love them because they're rather mild in sweetness and have a wonderful melt-in-your mouth quality about them. And as the name suggests, they pair wonderfully with black tea (and a hint of cream) or coffee.

As much as that little, 6-year old girl was astonished by my age, I can't imagine being 21 already - eight and a half months of things I haven't experienced yet and the possibilities are endless. But during these next eight and a half months, I hope you, Kevin, fill yours with amazing experiences to look back on when you turn 22. Time flies, after all. Happy birthday, my dear friend.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

5. canada: nanaimo bars [and a moment of solitude]

'Solitude' is a condition that I'm well-acquainted with as of late. I've been back at the apartment since last Sunday and have the place to myself. Not only that, I have more or less all of grounds to myself, save for those poor, overachieving, GPA-boost-seeking souls here for J-term.

As for me, I'm here working part-time, which is actually getting me nowhere whatsoever since I spend every waking hour that I'm home with my feet propped up on a table laid with half-read books, a carelessly discarded PS3 controller in desperate need of charging, and the Mac open to tabs of Facebook, Tastespotting, and for easy-access online shopping.

[Needless to say, any money I've made so far has already been spent on the first four novels in A Song of Ice & Fire, two new scarves, and about three cartons of eggs I picked up last week for breakfasts.]

In any case, "solitude" has never been a word I've found melancholy or deplorable, or one associated with the social status of an elderly cat-lady. In fact, I love being alone. It's a characteristic my mother has found baffling ever since my toddler years, when I was perfectly content to sit by the window in my crib and engage in whatever musings strike a 2-year-old without the need to cry out for mom's attention or caregiving. I'm not sure why, but I just rarely feel lonely, and very much enjoy having hours upon hours to spend doing whatever I want.

Lately, that has been books. Now, I'm not one for new year's resolutions. I mean, I make them, in my head of course, with all intention to break them as quickly as possible and save myself the later self-loathing. So, in an effort to keep up tradition, I mentally drew up a list of unachievable resolutions. The list included the usual - lose 20 pounds, will myself to sleep earlier than 3am on weeknights, do a better job of keeping in touch with family, etc. etc. But I also made one serious resolution that I do actually intend on keeping: read more.

[I figure, if I'm going to be up until 3am anyway, I could at least spend it doing something intellectually stimulating, instead of just lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, making tragically desperate wishes for TARDISes and a 4.0 gpa.]

I mean, I realize that it has only been 8 days, but having read literally about 1,000 pages of literature since the start of 2012, I think I'm doing rather well so far. In any case, it's more than I'd read for pleasure during the totality of the 365 days of 2011. Currently I'm in the middle of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones and absolutely loving it. I work my 5-hour shifts every morning, come home by 3pm, and spend the remainder of the day alternating between novels and BBC television.

[Sherlock's back on for series 2 and I've definitely seen the first episode at least 5 times; another feat, seeing as how it was released exactly 7 days ago. Also not very surprising since this is me we're talking about.]

Today, though, has been a bit lazy. I haven't actually read at all yet, and spent the morning cooking, submitting philosophy papers to random journals, reading up on summer internships, and baking. First time baking in a little while, and so I settled on something I've always wondered about:  nanaimo bars.

Nanaimo bars are a delightful little treat from one of my favorite countries in the world, Canada. I actually did not realize prior to actually making them that they don't actually require any baking. [This was, in fact, so surprising that I felt the need to use the word "actually" thrice in the previous sentence.] Instead, they just chill out, layer by layer, in the fridge until they settle. It's a rather casual baking experience, which was even more welcome since I've tried my very best to move as little as possible today. The end result is a bit sweet for my tastes, but undeniably worth it for the ease of preparation.

Nanaimo Bars
Adapted from bakedbree
Yields 16 squares

For the crust, you'll need:

  • 1/2 cup [1 stick] butter
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1 cup coconut flakes
For the middle layer, you'll need: 
  • 1/4 cup [1/2 stick] butter, softened
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tbsp vanilla custard powder
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
For the chocolate layer, you'll need:
  • 1/4 cup [1/2 stick] butter
  • 4 oz semisweet chocolate

To prepare the crust:
Line an 8x8-inch square pan with aluminum foil, but do not grease. In a medium, heat-proof bowl, melt butter, brown sugar, and cocoa over a double-broiler [or microwave]. While the mixture is hot, whisk constantly while slowly pouring in the beaten egg. Be vigilant about whisking as to avoid scrambling the egg. Switch to a wooden spoon, add in graham cracker crumbs, walnuts, and coconut, and mix until the mixture comes together in a sort-of dough. Dump the dough onto the base of the pan and press it evenly along the base. Stick the pan in the fridge for 45-60 minutes.

To prepare the middle layer: 
Cream the butter, powdered sugar, and custard powder in a bowl. Slowly pour in the heavy cream and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Pour filling onto the chilled crust and spread evenly with a spatula Stick the pan back into the fridge for another 45-60 minutes.

To prepare the chocolate layer:
Melt the chocolate chips and butter in a heat-proof bowl until the mixture is smooth and shiny. Once the middle layer has firmed up, pour the chocolate on top and spread it evenly with a spatula. Chill the bars in the fridge for at least 60 minutes before removing from the pan and slicing. Cut into 16 squares and serve. Bars can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Yes, I realize that geographically, it makes no sense to move from Afghanistan to Canada, and that I hadn't actually planned on hitting Canada in my gastronomic journey around the world for quite some time, but I like spontaneity. [And many of the Asian desserts that I have on my list require fruit that is not currently in season, so I figured that jumping around from country to country keeps things interesting and prevents me from going against nature.] 

As for the bars themselves, I love the crust on these; it has everything I love about an unhealthy food item. Graham crackers, nuts, coconut, butter, and brown sugar. I mean, it really just doesn't get any better. The middle layer I'm less keen on, but it's more a fault of my personal character [I don't like the taste or texture that accompanies custard powder] than the actual bars. But sandwiched between such a delightful crust and a guaranteed-to-be-delicious ganache layer, I couldn't stop myself from nibbling on the bars as I sliced them up. 

A fine dessert, over all.

As I said before, I have no problem with solitude. I rarely feel lonely and am perfectly content being able to sit like a log on my sofa in PJs for the entirety of the day with nothing but my books, my BBC Sherlock, and my David Tennant to keep me company. But when one has the house to herself, one also runs into the problem of having all of one's dessert to herself. This may not seem like a bad thing to those not in the house who may actually want to partake in said dessert, but for the one all alone in the house, it is a bad news bears situation. Consequently, I've layered the bars up in some tupperware, stuck them in the freezer, and plan on taking them home with me when I head back next weekend to share with the family.

Of course, that's not to say that I've kept a couple in the fridge for some dessert after tonight's dinner, but no one has to know about that.