Friday, April 27, 2012

armenian nutmeg cake [and a breather]

It has been an arduously long month, April. I can't deny that I'm happy to see it go, despite the unnerving reminder that the year is flying by whenever it comes time to post another DB challenge. A string of disappointments in regards to missed summer opportunities, though, has left me feeling hollow and inadequate these past few weeks. A terrible quality to have when coupled with particular academic shortcomings dispersed in between. I'm positive I've been quite the debbie-downer to behold for those around me as of late, and thus have spent the majority of my time, while not in class, sitting at home pouring over papers to scrape together decent term paper theses and assuring myself that the spring semester has not, in fact, gone totally to waste.

Nevertheless, sitting here in the comfort of a cozy coffee shop, warm mug of bottomless French roast in front of me [to which the barista grinned knowingly when I told him, under no uncertain terms, "give me the strongest you've got"], and small stack of philosophy texts by my side, I'm feeling settled. It's not currently the 27th, as is unsurprising since I rarely write these up on post dates, but after sitting in my room, distractedly alternating between John Rawls and Pottermore [unsurprisingly, Pottermore won out], and chancing a glance outside the window, I figured it was high time I got out of the house and back into some semblance of familiarity.

Staying cooped up in the apartment, lovely as it is, can be suffocating. A fact I discovered yesterday when Noosh and I took a drive Downtown to stroll through used bookshops, local boutiques, and cups of gelato [we both still deeply lament not purchasing a pint of goat cheese and fig ice cream while there], returning home feeling the most clear-headed I'd felt in weeks. So when I woke up to overcast skies and spent a few moments watching slow rain patter gently against my window, I realized I needed to get out.

I'm much less inclined to surf Pottermore in public, after all.

My coffee shop excursions were a constant last semester [as a means to get work done away from the distractions of my apartment], since I spent my Saturday mornings volunteering off grounds and easily drove myself to the nearest shop afterward, car on hand. This semester, though, aside from Monday night teaching sessions, my car stays stationed at the apartment and I find myself unnervingly dependent on the shuttle to get me to and from grounds.

Meaning, no caffeine IVs to help clear my head.

Today, however, a beautifully melancholy Sunday afternoon seemed the perfect time to take a step back, caffeinate, and make some real progress on work.

[Though, a small distraction for blog-writing seemed acceptable, particularly now that I've finally finished with Mr Rawls.]

A little chat with mom is also always enough to turn my mood right around.

Armenian Nutmeg Cake
Adapted from the April Daring Baker's Challenge

You'll need:

  • 1  cup milk
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 cups AP flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup [1 1/2 sticks] butter, cold and cut into cubes
  • 1 - 1 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup walnut pieces, chopped

Preheat oven to 350F and grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan. In a small bowl, combine milk and baking soda and let sit. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and brown sugar. Cut in the cold butter, either in a food processor or in a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, until mixture comes together as a crumbly dough. Take half the dough and press it on the bottom on the prepared pan.

In a separate bowl, whisk egg and nutmeg until light and frothy, about 1 min using a stand mixer or 2-3 mins using a hand whisk. Pour in the milk and baking soda mixture and whisk until uniform. Pour wet ingredients into the remaining dough mixture and mix until blended. Pour the remaining batter on top of the base in the pan. Sprinkle the chopped walnuts over the top of the batter.

Bake for 35-40 mins, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow cake to cool in the pan for 10 mins before removing. Enjoy plain, or serve with fruit jam or sweetened cream.

Being at uni, away from home, living at the apartment and met with familiar sights day in and day out, having adjusted to an unsatisfying routine of classes, part time job #1, and part time job's easy to forget that there is more to the world than just my limited bubble of activity. I took each rejection in stride, on the surface, though inside felt like each blow was a few steps thrown down an already-delicate ladder of self-worth.

This isn't meant to be some sob-story, though; it's meant as a reminder to myself that nothing is ever as bad as my often narrow-minded self makes it out to be. A shock when this reminder came, not from me, but from my mother. I had called her up after yet another rejection, weary and exhausted, and all she responded with was along the following:

"It's alright. Keep applying, keep trying, keep putting yourself out there. And if it doesn't work out, take the summer to relax. Can jams, read, make some money, get some thesis research done, enjoy the time."

Perhaps not verbatim, but the words were laced under her reassurances, under the 'don't worry, it'll be okay, it's the last 'summer break' you'll be having for quite some time, after all, so no need to spend it lamenting over what could have been.' Simple, obvious, startling.

And yet, true. Things will work out the way they're meant to, after all. It's a motto I've always lived by, though it is, admittedly, hard to remember when you're on the receiving end of life's disappointments.

Though, I suppose, the disappointments are only as big as you make them out to be, in the end.

So I'll take what I've gotten. Write these term papers with calculated efficiency, submit more cover letters, finish up these next two weeks with optimism, power through finals and let go of a stressful semester, cherish small miracles like 21st birthdays [Nora, Liz, Tommy, Nathaniel - my heart goes out to all of you in congratulations and love], look forward to being able to turn to JRR Martin instead of JS Mill, bookmark recipes for blackberry-lemon preserve, and just take a breather.

Life's too short to linger on the disappointments, after all. There's too much else to look forward to.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

momofuku crack pie

Holy. Guacamole.

So, I now understand why Momofuku oh-so appropriately dubbed this a 'Crack Pie.' I mean, if I were in need of a serious hit, I'd rather dish out $44 for one of these than the more illegal alternative.

[Not to mention it's probably the cheapest crack you'll find in the US.]

Or I could, you know, just bake one of my own for the fraction of the cost, and get it whenever I need it.

Okay, so, if you read my NYC-rant back in December, you'll know that I am absolutely enamored with Momofuku Milk Bar. We visited the Milk Bar in Midtown about 4 times during our last two days in the city because I could not get enough of their trademarked Cereal Milk Milkshake.

Momofuku itself is just this radical restaurant chain owned by the glorious David Chang, though I myself have never had the opportunity to visit any of his critically-acclaimed lunch and dinner Bars in person.

The Milk Bar is more credited to the pastry chef of Momofuku Ssäm, Christina Tosi, who is responsible for not only the Cereal Milk [for which I applaud her for literally being the only woman on the planet with a bigger sweet tooth than me, particularly since her Cereal Milk may be the closest mortal equivalent to ambrosia], but also this absolutely marvelous Crack Pie.

I mean, it is hard to go wrong when you have a crust that's literally made out of homemade cookies, topped to the brim with a rich, sugary sweet filling. The end result is a gooey, buttery, molasses-y pie that's somewhere between euphoria and sheer nirvana.

The true way to go about baking this pie is to use crushed cornflakes in the cookie crust. It adds the deliciously buttery, slightly salty flavor that makes the cereal milk so utterly perfect. Nevertheless, if, like me, you don't have cereal on hand, rolled oats can be substituted.

And don't worry, it's still astonishingly addicting.

Momofuku Crack Pie
Adapted from LA Times [adapted from Momofuku]
Yields two 10-inch pies

For the crumbled cookies, you'll need:

  • 2/3 cup plus 1 tbsp flour
  • scant 1/8 tsp baking powder
  • scant 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup [1 stick] butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • scant 1 cup cornflake crumbs [substitute with rolled oats, if necessary]

For the crust, you'll need:

  • crumbled cookies
  • 1/4 cup [1/2 stick] butter, cut into cubes
  • scant 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt

For the filling, you'll need:

  • 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 cup milk powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup [2 sticks] butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 8 egg yolks
  • confectioner's sugar, for dusting

To prepare the crumbled cookies:
Preheat oven to 350F and line and grease a cookie sheet.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, beat butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and beat until incorporated. Reduce speed to low and gradually mix the flour mixture into the sugar. Finally, add the cornflake crumbs.

Spread the mixture onto the baking sheet and bake for 18-20 mins, until golden brown and set. Allow cookie to cool to room temperature, then crumble it into small pieces. Don't hesitate to get handsy.

To prepare the crust:
Generously grease and flour two 10-inch pie or tart pans and set aside.

Combine the crumbled cookie, butter, brown sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse until mixture is crumbly. [A little of the mixture clumped between your fingers should hold together.]

Divide the mixture evenly among the two pans, and press the crust to form a thin, even layer on the bottom and sides of the pan. Set the prepared crusts aside while you make the filling.

To prepare the filling:
Preheat oven to 350F.

Whisk brown sugar, granulated sugar, milk powder, and salt until well-blended. Slowly pour in the melted butter and whisk until combined. Pour in the heavy cream and whisk until fully incorporated. Add the vanilla and mix, and finally whisk in the egg yolks. Be careful not to add too much air to the mixture.

Divide the filling among the two pie crusts and smooth with a spatula. Bake for 15 mins, then reduce temperature to 325F and bake for another 10 mins, until golden brown [but should still be slightly jiggly]. Cool pies to room temperature on a wire rack, then chill in the fridge until cold.

Pie should be served cold, and filling will be gooey. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.

I know what you're thinking and no, I don't think this recipe could be any longer. But it's certainly worth all the time and effort because it's just unbelievable.

Surprisingly, I do not have two 10-inch pie pans at my disposal, but unsurprisingly, I did have one 9-inch pie and and one 9-inch tart pan and so used those instead. If you're baking it in a smaller pan, be sure to bake it for an additional 3-5 mins (at 325F) to account for the thicker filling.

Why did I make these, you might ask? Well, for one, I've noticed that Momofuku has been appearing on Tastespotting and Foodgawker with a considerable amount of gusto as of late, and after my visit to the Milk Bar last year, I've been dying to recreate one of these. Unfortunately, I was the world's biggest failure and never actually ordered the Crack Pie while I was there [my full attention was centered solely on the Cereal Milk Milkshake], and so have more or less been salivating every time one pops up on my computer screen.

More importantly, though, I wanted to bake something new and marvelous to gift to my dear friend Tommy, who celebrated his 21st birthday last Friday. I figured my honorary sous baker deserved something rather wonderful, particularly after spending hours of his time helping out with DB challenges and my own birthday cake back in September.

So this crack-tastically addicting pie is dedicated to you, darling Tommy, in the hopes that it hasn't immediately thrown you into a diabetic coma.

As for me, I've benefited spectacularly from this two-pie recipe, seeing as how there's still one left over in my apartment. It's going to be a lovely few days.

Though, I'm not so sure what I'll do once I need another hit...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

key lime pie [and unproductivity]

I don't take well to being sick. Mostly because illnesses hit me hard. It's been one of those weekends: unprompted illness surfacing yesterday - a common cold blown out of proportion in the drama-queen-esque way aspects of my life are wont to do, most likely - leaving me with a head full of cotton, throat sore and swollen, and achy limbs screaming out in protest of any sort of physical exertion.

Incidentally, I had set an alarm to get up early enough to hit the Farmer's Market with Noosh. This resulted in me returning home with a cup full of vegan curry and rice and falling into a 4-hour nap that took up the entirety of what could have been a highly productive afternoon. Well, damn it all, I hate losing precious time to silly things like napping.

In any case, I woke up around 4pm and basically didn't want to get out of bed. So I didn't, for about an hour, and then realized that we were supposed to head to the nearest 3D-friendly theater for Titanic in the evening, so threw off the covers and put on some stretchy pants. And as much as part of my soul died contributing to overpriced ticket sales for a movie that came out when I was 6, it was actually quite spectacular.

Plus, I was actually feeling pretty alright the whole way through - the acquisition of movie theater popcorn [the paradigm of junk food nirvana] kept me more than happy - until the drive back home when my meds decided to wear off. A really bitchy play to pull when my body knew it would be trapped in an iron cage going 70mph down a highway for an hour. I metaphorically rolled my eyes [because doing so literally would likely have contributed to the throbbing albeit rhythmic flamenco going on in my skull], held out until home, and immediately crashed.

Today's been significantly better, though what I've gained back in cognitive lucidity I've lost in terms of any semblance of motivation for academics. Which is kind of a shame, since I've had a pretty fulfilling day in every other area of life. Tidying up some books around my room, a drive down to Whole Foods for a bag full of spring greens, planning out a week's worth of meals, and baking a pie.

Key Lime Pie
Yields one 9-inch pie

For the crust, you'll need:

  • 2 1/2 cups pulverized ginger snap cookies [put enough cookies through a food processor until you have the right amount]
  • 2 heaping tbsp granulated sugar
  • 6 tbsp butter, melted

For the filling, you'll need:
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 tsp lime zest
  • 1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 - 2/3 cup lime juice, fresh or bottled [to desired tartness]

For the whipped topping, you'll need:
  • 1 1/2 cups cold heavy whipping cream
  • 4 tbsp confectioner's sugar

Preheat oven to 350F and lightly butter a pie plate. Combine all crust ingredients with a fork until the mixture comes together. Press into the base and sides of the pie pan. Bake for 8 minutes and allow crust to cool while you make the filling.

To prepare the filling, beat egg yolks and lime zest on medium-high speed until light. Add condensed milk and beat for about 3 minutes. Slowly pour in the lime juice and beat until fully incorporated. Allow mixture to sit for 5 minutes, to thicken. Pour filling on top of the crust, smooth with a spatula, and bake for 15 minutes. Allow pie to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. Chill pie for at least 3 hours before topping.

To prepare the whipped topping, whisk heavy cream and sugar on high speed until the mixture forms stiff peaks, 2-3 minutes. Dollop the cream on top of the chilled pie. Garnish with fresh-grated lime zest or sliced limes if desired.

Really, though, it's like my mind is doing everything possible not to have to write term papers [of which I have two], start preparing for a 10-minute long presentation [which I have in two days], or sit down and whine my way through financial math problems [which I'm just not even considering a pragmatic use of my time at the moment, mostly because I don't like it]. Perhaps it's some juvenile, melodramatic, psychological form of rebellion against my laziness from yesterday, since I now have the capabilities to actually get things done. I've always been a recalcitrant little snot, as it were.

So instead, I take my meds, sit on the couch with my feet propped up on the table, allow the sudden burst of 85 degree weather to make me unbelievably lazy, and skim through cookbooks. But, I mean, not doing work also resulted in the creation of this pie, so there's a win in there somewhere, right?

Speaking of, this pie is glorious. I went with gingersnap instead of the typical graham-cracker crust because (1) it seemed unique, and (2) mom gave me an enormous bag of leftover gingersnap crumbs from her pie-baking endeavors a little while back and I wanted to put them to good use. The motivation was mostly the latter, particularly since the use of gingersnap cookies as a crust for key lime pie isn't quite as unique as you'd think. In any case, I had never realized how damn easy making key lime pie is. [Not that I actually used key limes, because half the juice came from a bottle, but it sounds odd to refer to it simply as a 'lime pie.'] Four ingredients whisked together, poured in a crust, and topped with a fluffy, sweetened cream.

And since this was a very welcome warm day after a bizarre, 50F average week, I figured a little celebration was in order. Even if it means I'll be scrambling to get things done later in the week. But someone once told me that college is the one opportunity to make poor life I'll go with it.

In fact, I may even have pie for dinner.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

baked brie with mint-strawberry jam

It has finally reached that point in the semester when my motivation has been almost totally zapped. Not that I've stopped, you know, actually doing work, since that's out of the question.

But that physical pain that you get right in your gut when you hear your alarm go off in the morning, the unbelievable amount of willpower necessary to swing your legs over the side of the bed, the sheer dread that shakes your core at the thought of removing the covers and having to face the day...

Oh man, it has hit full force.

I think it was that last math exam that finally did me in. [I have learned, though, that the only thing you get out of taking financial mathematics is the unshakable fear that you'll spend your entire life paying off loans, moving from cardboard box to cardboard box, and burning your collection of scarves for warmth.] That, and the fact that the Farmer's Market is officially up and running for the year.

I run on a food calendar, unsurprisingly, and now that asparagus and rhubarb are ripe for the picking, I can finally enjoy the season.

[Okay, admittedly, I've never actually seen rhubarb in my life, but it's a mystery I'm planning on unraveling this year!]

So, it's equally as unsurprising that I want nothing more than to sleep in until close to noon every day, with the sun shining brightly through the shades, spending the afternoon sifting through cookbooks to bookmark recipes I'm unlikely to get around to actually cooking.

[Like rhubarb and raspberry crostata, but only time will tell. I need to figure out what rhubarb is, first and foremost.]

In any case, after an excruciatingly long week of future financial terror, I decided to come home for the weekend. Stocking up on groceries with mom's credit card always does wonders for my psyche, after all. That, and the fact that during one of our numerous email exchanges over the week, she informed me that there was a wheel of brie sitting in the fridge, waiting to be put to use.


Brie, you say?




Clearly, the fates were calling on me to make the trek home. It's not every day that there's brie in my life, after all, and I fully intended on taking the utmost advantage of the situation.

Baked Brie
Adapted from any baked brie recipe

You'll need:
  • 1 sheet of puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 round of brie [do not remove the rind]
  • generous amount of mint-strawberry jam [recipe follows]
    • other fruit jams or preserves can be substituted; apricot is particularly divine
  • one egg, beaten
  • handful of sugar

Preheat oven to 350F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Lay out the puff pastry dough and place the round of brie in the center. Spread a good amount of cherry preserves on top of the brie, and fold the dough over top. Brush the beaten egg over the top and sides of the pastry and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until pastry is golden-brown. Let cool 10 minutes before slicing. Serve with berries, green apple slices, crackers, jam, and/or honey.

Mint-Strawberry Jam
Adapted from Showfood Chef.
Yields about 1 pint of jam.

You'll need:
  • 1 1/2 lbs strawberries, washed, hulled, and chopped
  • juice and zest of one lemon
  • scant 2 cups sugar
  • small handful mint leaves, hand-shredded
  • 6 black peppercorns, freshly ground

In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together strawberries, lemon juice, zest, and sugar. Cover the top of the bowl with a large plate or loosely with aluminum foil, and let sit for at least 1 hour.

Heat a medium saucepan over medium flame. Pour strawberries into pan and simmer until sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes. Run mixture through a sieve to remove strawberries, and reserve syrup to the pan. Over the flame, the pale pink syrup will foam up. Stir syrup gently until a candy thermometer reads 221F. [Lacking a candy thermometer, cook until the color deepens to a strawberry-red color.] Toss strawberries back into the jam and cook for another 5 mins, until fruit has softened. For a more pureed jam, run an immersion blender through the jam. Otherwise, lower heat to very low and let the jam cook until thickened a bit, about 3-4 mins.

Divide jam into sterilized mason jars. Jam will keep well in the fridge for up to a week and a half.

Oh, brie. How can I begin to describe brie? Brie is one of those cheeses... that you literally have to be dead not to enjoy. I mean, it melts in your mouth, it's divine with fruit or crackers, and you can bake it in a friggin' puff pastry.

I mean, it's just cheese and carbs. Silky-smooth, gooey cheese wrapped inside a flaky pastry. And it's the easiest thing in the world to make. You just cannot go wrong. 

Plus, I like puff pastry. Quite a lot, actually. It takes the difficulty out of ensuring that pastry comes out flaky. And anything that makes baking seem fancy without the need for actual skill is a big win in my book.

I'm sure you could do a savory version with a topping of sun dried tomatoes or wild mushrooms and pesto, but this makes a really beautiful appetizer or brunch dish. I mean, the colors are just unbelievable. Not to mention that it's friggin' brie with strawberries. I'd never baked with brie before, actually, so this was excitingly experimental.

As for the jam? I've always liked strawberry and mint together, and finding a recipe that incorporated the two was perfect. Plus the addition of black peppercorn, believe it or not, was sheer brilliance. Underscored some of the sweetness from the sugar in a really lovely way. I shy away from using packaged pectin, frankly because it weirds me out a bit, but lemons have a rather high pectin-content on their own so the jam still thickens up nicely. I didn't actually can these jars, as I've never done so before and wasn't in the mood to burn down the house this morning, but if you're more talented than I, this jam keeps very well.

In any case, the combination of the jam, brie, and pastry is absolutely divine.

Plus, with the sun shining warmly through now-green trees, mom, Yusra, and I were able to enjoy breakfast with the patio open the first time since moving into the new house. A late-morning breakfast of baked brie, berries, and tea spread out happily on table, wrapped up in sweatshirts against the cool breeze wafting through the screen door, anticipating a day spent reading books and not studying annuity formulas and amortization schedules... the perfect way to rejuvenate after a long week.

And, I suppose, with mornings like this, I could make it through the rest of the semester.