Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In thick, dreamy wafts

Some of my proudest moments living in France were spent standing behind the glass counter of my neighborhood boulangerie, ordering. It was one the few times I could actually pass as a chic young Parisienne, breezily picking up her baguette or pain au chocolat, ready to dash off to her next engagement of the day. Okay, so maybe I didn’t always pull off the chic part, even with my shiny ballet flats and black wool coat (it was wintertime, mind you), but I swear the counter people believed I was a true French girl at least 90% of time, especially if they didn’t recognize me from the last time I was there. Just as long as I didn’t obviously fumble with my order or speak too slowly, I could walk out the door with my head held high and white crinkly bag in hand. It may seem like a small feat, but sometimes I felt I needed that boost of confidence after a particularly difficult and self-esteem crushing French class. 

In truth, the most difficult part of the whole affair was deciding what to get in the first place. Sometimes I went to a specific spot that I had read about and ordered whatever the book had recommended, other times, I went on a whim, counting my Euros to see what I could afford. I will say I had a soft spot for those tender, crumbly butter cookies called sablés, often sold in cute little cellophane bags tied with a ribbon. It was sort of thrilling to go in there with an idea of what I wanted and come out with something totally unexpected in my bag, a bonus, you might say, for later after I trudged up to the sixth floor of the apartment half-soaked from getting stranded in a rainstorm without an umbrella.

I think I had this idea that living in France would be endlessly exciting and new, each day filled with the discovering of foods, museums, parks and shops. While this was often true, what I remember most vividly about my stay were the routines—the bakeries I went back to more than once, and the wide avenues and narrow streets that I walked on every day on my way to and from school. I think it’s true wherever you are, really. There’s only so much newness we can swallow before we long for places in which we have history, no matter how brief. In a similar way, there is something reassuring about going to sleep each night knowing breakfast the next day will be the same as it was the day before—which over there was toast and confiture, yogurt and café au lait. A glass of orange juice from the bottle, too, all arranged on that little marble table in the kitchen, each morning around 7am.

There was also something tremendously comforting about the prospect of teatime, after both chaotic French classes and rainy days. Now, just to be clear, when I say ‘teatime’ I’m usually referring to something other than just tea, or in absence such imaginable treat, the idea of something besides just Earl Grey or jasmine pearls. For while a pot of black tea with milk and honey is all well and good, the addition of cookies or a sliver of cake makes the whole picture into something quite handsome indeed.

In Paris, I had two main teatime snack sources – Monoprix, the supermarket chain with a cookie aisle daunting in scope, or, of course, my choice of bakery. The cookies from the market were significantly cheaper, and quite good actually, but even in France the packaged cookies never quite live up to the freshly made ones. I got into the habit of eying the cookie selection whenever I went in to get a chausson aux pommes, and every once in awhile, I would actually get a bag of sablés, which are appropriately named after their characterisic “sandy,” crumbly texture. Later, I discovered madeleines, and finally tried macarons, but sablés really couldn’t be beat, so beautifully pale, and round, and modestly sweet.

But why all this talk of France, now? Well, mostly because I just made a batch sablés, like I often do this time of year. If I feel at times a tug inside for the place I left a year ago, I feel an equal pull for home, for wandering these streets and rain-glistened sidewalks. Only here, my mind is whirling with all the kinds of cookies I want to make and eat and wrap up in pretty little boxes to give away. For when baking brings with it a kitchen smelling of butter and sugar and lemon, permeating the air in thick, dreamy wafts—well, I don’t know about you, but that’s a place I’d like to stay for a while, cause it is cold outside and the holidays are fast approaching, which means cookie season is definitely in full swing.

Lemon Sablés
Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan

These are the kind of cookies that are nice to have around not just for tea, but to go with a strong coffee, too, or even a cup of hot chocolate (yes, really). I have also made them for  holiday gifts. Do keep in mind that sablés require a little bit of advance planning because they have to chill for at least three hours before baking. I made them the night before and baked them the following afternoon. They also require a delicate hand in their mixing process, which insures the sandy texture of the cooled cookies. Note too that you can make these plain, without the lemon zest, and with or without the decorating sugar (I made them sans sugar this time, but I like them both ways); the sugar on the outside does make them look a bit more festive.

- 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ½ cup sugar 

- Grated zest of 1- 1 ½ organic lemons
- ¼ cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- Decorating sugar (optional)

In a small bowl, rub the lemon zest into the granulated sugar until the sugar is quite moist and very aromatic. Next, working with a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter at medium speed until smooth and very creamy. Add the sugars and salt and beat until well blended, about 1 minute. The mixture should be smooth and velvety, not fluffy and airy. Reduce the mixer speed to low and beat in the egg yolks, again beating until the mixture is homogenous.

Turn off the mixer and pour in the flour. Drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself from the flying lfour and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. If you look and there is still bits of flour visible in the dough, pulse for a couple more times; if not, remove the towel. Continue mixing at low speed for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough and the dough looks uniformly moist. If there is just a little bit of flour at the bottom of the bowl, use a rubber spatula to incorporate the rest into the dough by hand. The dough should be very soft, moist and rather clumpy.

Scrape the dough out onto a smooth work surface (I put a piece of parchment onto our wood dining table), gather into a ball and it in half. Then, working on a piece of plastic wrap, shape each piece into a smooth log about 9 inches long. Wrap the logs well and refrigerate them for a least 3 hours, or preferably overnight. (At this point, the dough can be kept in the refrigerater for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months.)

When ready to bake, center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350º F. If baking all the cookies at once, line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats, otherwise, you just need one. Remove a log of dough from the refrigerator, unwrap it and place on a piece of parchment paper. If using the decorating sugar, whisk the egg yolk until smooth and brush some of the yolk all over the sides of the dough, then sprinkle the entire surface of the log with the sugar.

Trim the ends of the roll and slice the log into 1/3-inch-thick cookies. Place the rounds on the baking sheet(s), leaving an inch of space between them.

Bake one sheet at a time for 17-20 minutes, rotating the baking sheet at the midway point. When properly baked, the cookies will be light brown on the bottom, lightly golden around the edges and pale on top. Remove from the oven and let the cookies rest a minute or two before carefully lifting them onto a rack with a large metal spatula to cool completely. 

Repeat with remaining log of dough, if using, always beginning with a cool baking sheet.

Makes about 50 cookies.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In just two bites

The allure of a good soup, so often, is that we can’t quite tell what is in it, at least at first. The color alone does not immediately give away the ingredients—especially when puréed. Take, for example, the soup I made last night. It is a deep green, but on a lighter side of the spectrum, like clover, or evergreen with a dash of cream. The aroma offers hints of cilantro, lemon and something bright and fresh and leafy, perhaps. Then comes the first bite. I think if we really break it down, for a split-second, all sense of taste is momentarily lost; in that first spoonful our senses are overwhelmed with the sheer pleasure of its warmth, and it’s only after the second bite that we can fully grasp the delicate flavors that were hinted at in the first. After that, everything starts melding together, one bite indistinguishable from the next.

I admit that’s quite a lot happening in just two bites, and this is soup we are talking about, not truffles, or chocolate, or fine wine. It’s mere vegetables, at the end of the day, gussied up and cooked with some onions, in broth, until they soften and burst. There is a grounding quality to sitting down to a bowl to a soup, particularly when the seasons are changing and one is feeling a bit worn at the edges from the cold days and longer nights, but there are also a lot of weighty, unexpected things that can happen in the space of two bites of hot soup. It’s at moments like these, at the table, that I could imagine foregoing meat altogether if vegetables could be so satisfying all by themselves. Regardless, such questions are good to ponder, I’ve found, while smearing salted butter on torn pieces of bread, one's place setting a mess of flour and shards of crust. 

In the film Ratatouille, the perpetually grouchy and aptly named restaurant critic Anton Ego has an epiphany over a plate of the dish that shares the movie’s title. He literally melts with the first bite, having this momentous flashback to his childhood. There are many things I liked about this movie, but I especially loved that the dish that changes everything is, quite simply, a French peasant’s version of stewed vegetables.

Certainly, I’ve had such epiphanies, but usually they aren’t so grand or life-altering. Nor can I say anything about the dish itself, which I've never actually had. I will say that many of my mini-epiphanies came in the form of a bowl, with something extra special inside—granola, for instance, or macaroni and peas, or soup. This time, like I was beginning to describe, it was a very green soup, perfect for those of us feeling a little bit under the weather. Like ratatouille, one of its stars is zucchini, a vegetable more known for it’s overbearing presence in the garden than it is for its culinary value. Taste-wise, somewhat ironically, it doesn’t have a very strong character, but it makes up for it in versatility. The spinach makes the soup beautiful and deep grassy green—the zucchini is primarily just there for a boost of texture and body, as are the potatoes. The last punch of green is made from the addition of fresh cilantro, a whole cupful in fact, just at the end. The result is pure comfort, yet vibrant and fresh, perfectly instilled in the hollow space of a bright white bowl.

All this began one day when I found myself with an enormous zucchini my mother had grown in her garden. I had made zucchini bread at home and we all agreed it was good, all spiced and moist with a tender crumb, but when I brought giant zucchini #2 to the City, I found a very intriguing and savory use for it on Heidi’s site. You are probably wondering how I could possibly have a zucchini when we are nearly on the brink of winter, but let's just say it was a very late crop this year, and we had an Indian summer. Anyhow, Kyla and I were on a soup run, barely having finished a butternut squash one I had made a few days prior, and she was beginning to believe I was putting her on a "soup diet." We laughed about it, but between quarts of soup from our local gourmet foods store, Bryan’s, and my homemade efforts, some not so successful, we had been quite busy heating up our meals in saucepans on the stove, I’ll admit.

A week goes by and I’m still thinking about that soup. That, and the amazing lunch we had at Chez Papa, the Brussels sprouts with bacon from Mark Bittman in the New York Times, and figs, in all their delicious forms. We had both been craving greens, thus it seemed only natural to dig out the recipe again. And so I did just that, using three small red potatoes and the other half of the zucchini that I had leftover in a zip lock bag. Miraculously, it was still good, like it was just waiting for me to hurry up and use it. I even conquered my fear of the The Blender, which nearly exploded all over me last time. Everything was going to be Okay, with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil, the zucchini shining quietly through - as if Summer had lingered one more day to see the leaves of Fall, and then left, just shy of November.

To get the recipe for Spinach and Zucchini Soup, click here

My only change is that I used “Better than Bouillon” instead of actual vegetable stock. Hopefully the soup gods will forgive me for not using my own, which I do intend on making one of these days. I'd also love to try adding crème fraîche at the end, like Heidi suggests in her notes.