Scone Experimentation

IMG_2657Over the past week, the number of dreary, grey days has increased as the number of leaves on trees has decreased. Though I love apple cider doughnuts, loose and comfy chunky sweaters, snuggling into my winter comforter, and all other cozy autumn activities, it is always sad to feel the warmth of summer fade.

But autumn brings its own vibrancy, with leaves like flames and multicolored fruits and vegetables ripe for harvest. I had always associated pomegranate seeds with summer because of their “tropical” fuchsia hue and the exoticness of a fruit whose seeds shone like edible jewels embedded in bitter white pith. However, after I discovered they were in fact a fall fruit, pomegranates became a favorite fall time treat (though of course, apple cider doughnuts will now and forever be the best part of fall).

After a week of drab, depressing days drained of color, I needed something delicious, sweet, and visually striking, even borderline garish. Enter my favorite breakfast pastry, the scone, combined with my favorite exotic flavors, green tea and pomegranate seeds. Matcha imparts an earthy, slightly bitter taste, while the pomegranate seeds provide small sparks of juicy sweetness. Paired with a mug of hot tea, these scones are rays of light on rainy fall days.

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Two Years

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It must be serendipity: last year, I posted a tomato tart recipe to celebrate the one-year anniversary of my blog, and this year, without even planning to do so, I have another tomato tart recipe!

…Or maybe September is tomato season, and I’m deeply unoriginal.

Well, it’s a certainly at least a little comforting that despite the difficulties of the past year, there are parts of me that remain unchanged. I still love tomatoes, I still adore pastries and butter and learning to cook, and I am still writing about it all.

It’s been two years of discovering that my love for food extends beyond desserts and sweets, and that I may not be as useless in the kitchen as I first thought. Two years of learning family recipes from my dad, exploring new cuisines, gaining confidence with each success, and learning from failures.

Well this is a horribly cliché post, but honestly, I (and everyone else I know) never thought Kitchen Whimsies would make it past its first year. In ancient times, if a baby lived past two years old, parents could begin to believe that their child might actually make it to adulthood, or at least adolescence. I don’t know how to measure the lifespan of a blog – in dog years? In blog years? – but hey, what matters is that somehow, we’re still alive.

I think this year’s tomato tart turned out a little better than last year’s, and I certainly had fun trying out a totally new and totally easy way to make tart crust. Enjoy :)

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Madeleine

IMG_2576When I was ten, my family chose Paris as our big summer vacation destination. After flying to Hong Kong every summer, you think we’d be used to grueling flights and jet lag, but we suffered terribly that first afternoon in Paris.

After arriving, we found ourselves at a small cafe overlooking a river, facing a menu written entirely in French. My dad recognized select words, but not enough to really understand what the dishes were. The waitstaff could not, or would not, speak English. So we just ordered blindly, and of course, some of the dishes were total misses.

I had never really been in a situation where nobody in my family could speak the language of the native population – though my sister and I understood zero words in Hong Kong, my parents had grown up there and navigated the streets and language flawlessly. In Paris, my mom and I tried to find a chocolate shop and even with a map, we soon lost ourselves in the labyrinth of cobblestoned streets. We gesticulated wildly at strangers and they gesticulated back, every person we asked pointing in a different direction. Three hours later, we finally stumbled into the shop.

Our half day of wandering and questionable food left us all crabby and drained. In our cramped, dark hotel room, we quickly fell asleep (then woke up at 4am, and spent the rest of the night fruitlessly tossing and turning).

The next morning, we came down to an airy lobby filled with light. Outside, the bustling sounds of chatter, cars, and mopeds could be heard, and in the center of the lobby was a large, circular table with a platter of madeleines. Our first half day in Paris faded like a nightmare as we sampled our first madeleines, then quickly reached for seconds.

Each morning started with that first madeleine, its light sweetness holding promises of the adventures to come. We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower like good tourists, and wandered the halls of Musée d’Orsay for an entire day, not realizing how sore our feet were until after we had left. We came across a fair in a park close to our hotel, and rode what felt like the biggest Ferris wheel ever. We ate seafood and duck and pigeon, all cooked impeccably, and delicious French pastries that have since haunted my memory.

Since that trip to France over a decade ago, I’ve eaten copious quantities of croissants, brioche, and macarons, and yet, I never returned to the madeleine, perhaps because I had built it up to such an unattainable symbol of unbridled wonder that I had experienced as a child in Paris.

However, I recently flipped through a cookbook that nobody in my family remembers buying, and came across a madeleine recipe. I felt like fate must have intervened just a little, so I ran out and bought a madeleine pan that night. And these little cakes were sweet morsels of sunshine, a perfect start to our mornings in Paris and at home.

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Tour of a Witch’s Garden

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The Mulford Farmhouse in East Hampton, NY, is described on multiple websites as “one of America’s most significant English colonial farmsteads.” Being a bit of an early colonial history aficionado, I eagerly searched online for what traits made this farmhouse so ‘significant’ – maybe it housed a legendary colonial figure, or stood on the site of some crucial battlefield – and found…not much.

Mulford Farmhouse, you tease. Of course we had to go check it out.

We ended up getting a tour from an enthusiastic woman, a self-confessed colonial re-enactor whose reenactments had crossed from her work life into her home life – she described how her husband had built a bed with straw bedding and rope slats, as well as a full-on 18th century fireplace in which she made a turkey that she brined, soaked in alcohol, stuffed, and cooked over the course of four days.

As an added bonus to our tour, we received a human rights lecture and other political statements, but the real highlight was our tour of Rachel’s Garden, an herb garden where familiar herbs took on significant and mystical meaning. They could reveal to you your true love, they could save you from smallpox, they could cure the common cold.

By the end of the tour, I almost believed what she had said, not only about the extraordinary healing powers of herbs, but also about the completeness of colonial life. She gushed about her four-day turkey as the most flavorful, most tender turkey she had ever had and recounted how fermented food had saved Civil War soldiers from disease. She wondered out loud whether our diet and lifestyle today was missing something, if we had lost something crucial along the way.

And while I don’t condone a return to the colonial way of life – after all, the Mulfords owned slaves and women were treated as witches, or worse, property – I do wonder about how different, and simpler life was back then when it seemed that good things would happen if you believed hard enough.

We now live in an age where we don’t even know where most of our food comes from (though that’s slowly changing) and yet we know the contradicting statements our politicians have made, we know about conflicts in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. It’s difficult to imagine a time when people had such an intimate relationship with food that they believed it held supernatural powers.

So maybe I still don’t know what makes Mulford Farmhouse so ‘significant,’ but I’m glad their attempt to attract more tourism enticed me to visit. We laugh at the superstition, the ignorance, of the colonial era, but would they not laugh at us for our ignorance about how to produce our own food, our own clothing, our complete dependence on others for our comfort – and survival?

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Dreams Come True

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Jiro dreams of sushi. But I dream of something else.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love sushi and really all that Japanese cuisine has to offer, and it might be cuisine that I cook the most. (Or Italian – the number of risotto recipes I’ve racked up is a little alarming.)

But my true passion is baked goods. I once read that gluten has an opiate effect on people, that when you stop eating gluten, you can experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Well let me tell you, I went gluten free for six months and after two months, I simultaneously wanted to cry, hurt something, and stuff my face with bread. When I returned to gluten, I almost cried with happiness. It still gives me a headache (though I think this is more of a food coma effect from overeating every time I’m around sweets), but the tradeoff is (mostly) worth it.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming of biscuits. I never really loved biscuits until I went to Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. (I already wrote about my experience before so I’ll spare you a longwinded repeat.) Immediately afterwards, I tried and failed to recreate them. Since then, I’ve been tormented by my failure, and I resolved to try again. Buoyed by my recent success with re-trying Shakshuka, as well as inundated with boredom on a Friday night (I have friends, I promise), I gave it my best shot.

Guys, I don’t know if I totally nailed it, but if I didn’t, I came pretty darn close. These biscuits are fluffy, with moist layers you could peel apart, and a shiny glazed and slightly crunchy exterior. Now I can finally lay my biscuit nightmare to rest, and move on to dreaming of other sweet things.

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Shakshuka Revisited

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Back when I was still a wee little college junior, I started this blog to help me reconcile with some big changes in my life. I had just returned from a life-changing summer in China, recently become single, and was living in a pseudo-apartment for the first time. One of my goals for junior year was to become a decent cook – it didn’t start out pretty, but I’d like to think my cooking skills have improved, even if my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

I once totally screwed up Shakshuka in a classic example of a beginner cook overeager to use fancy machines for cooking. I blended three beautiful tomatoes into pulp, then threw in some eggplant, and served the watery mess to my friends. (Sorry guys!) Well this summer, I’ve had nothing but time, which has, among other things, allowed me to take the analog approach to cooking. (That and my blender, the only electronic equipment I brought with me, broke en route to Boston, kind of forcing my hand.)

It’s also allowed me to reflect on what lies ahead as my friends and I move away from Boston and to different corners of the world (…but mostly New York and D.C.). I fulfilled my goal of learning to cook, but for a while now, I’ve been a little lost, consumed in filling out assignments and checking off tasks (with an unhealthy dose of life drama on the side).

I can’t go back and fix all the mistakes (perceived or real) that I made in the past and dwell on all the lost relationships I had, but I can work on moving beyond them. Cooking has become therapeutic, a challenge with each new dish, but also comfort in repeating the familiar. And so I don’t gain like 100 pounds, long bike rides and not-so-long jogs are also calming in their own way, as I focus on the rhythm of my breaths and the constant motion of my legs and clear my head.

And so I’ve revisited Shakshuka, that dish I made as a cocky fledgling cook that reminded me that I still had so much to learn about cooking. (1. Always read through the recipe carefully. 2. Always read through the recipe carefully. 3. Don’t make changes to recipes when you have no idea what you’re doing.) And I think I finally got the hang of it! Now it remains to be seen if I can get the hang of life goals…

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Captivated by Caraway

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Cooking for one person is no easy task. Lately, my pantry has been getting precariously full and some of my perishable items were beginning to edge dangerously close to expiration. I needed a sweet recipe that involved zero new ingredients.

I settled on a scone recipe (because you can never have too many scone recipes) which called for fruits — great, I have blueberries that I bought for no reason — and a tablespoon of caraway seeds, which I also had and honestly never expected to use. Before making goulash, I had never used or even heard of caraway seeds. The goulash had so many flavors, mainly paprika, that I wasn’t really sure what caraway seeds would add.

I don’t know if this is a testament to caraway seeds or to the fact that I have no life, but that first bite of scone was the best part of my day. The seeds added an earthy, sharp flavor and a spice-y aroma that I instantly fell for. So of course I had to do a little research on the origins of caraway seeds. According to NPR, caraway was Europe’s oldest condiment and became a staple in Northern European cuisine before being spread by the Romans to Southern Europe. However, it was shunted aside in favor of exotic spices and because it appeared mainly in homier dishes consumed by the lower-class, it never garnered the same appreciation as cinnamon or even dill and parsley, members of the same plant family as caraway.

Funny how history works — I’d say more people know the flavors of cinnamon and pepper than the that of caraway. Traditional North European dishes like sauerkraut and pumpernickel bread and some Scandanavian spirit called aquavit still use it, but it has disappeared from the mainstream diet, while pepper is part of basically all cuisines.

Caraway deserves a comeback in a big way. It is no longer the spice of your German grandma; it imparts a truly unique flavor and adds texture to baked goods. I look forward to future forays with caraway seeds…though I guess I’ll have to wait until I clear out a couple more items in pantry :p.

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The Battle of the Buttermilk Biscuits

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Biscuit #1: Island Creek Oyster Bar

About a month ago, I took my parents to the highly (over)rated Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. I’ve never met anyone who loves fish as much as my mom, so the supposed best seafood restaurant in Boston was the obvious choice for dinner. But you know something’s wrong when your favorite parts of the meal involve beef and biscuits…and no seafood.

But oh my god, those biscuits. We ordered one as a side dish and it was large enough for three people to enjoy as much as they wanted (as in, my parents each had maybe two bites and I ate the rest). The layers were delicate and pull-apart buttery, and the entire biscuit had been glazed in a delicious honey-rosemary mixture. After ordering our regrettably dry and chewy strawberry shortcake doughnut dessert (sounds good in theory, but in practice involved us trying to use our spoons as knives and sending doughnut chunks flying across the table), I wished that we had just ordered another biscuit instead.

Of course I had to see if the recipe was online. Immediately. Breaking fancy restaurant/basic human decency etiquette, I whipped out my phone and found the recipe. Saveur had posted a recipe, but looking at the ratio of ingredients, I felt that the ratio of liquid to flour was off, as in, I had no idea how 1 3/4 cup of buttermilk was supposed to hydrate an entire 5 cups of flour and make a cohesive dough. So instead of sleeping like a normal person would at 2am, I decided to do a comparison – Island Creek Oyster Bar’s biscuits (according to Saveur) v.s. Smitten Kitchen’s favorite buttermilk biscuits.

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Biscuit #2: Smitten Kitchen

The verdict? Well, as predicted, more buttermilk was needed for the ICOB biscuits. I used about 2 cups of buttermilk and still, the dough was dry and did not hold together well. I also found the biscuits to be surprisingly salty. But they ended up looking pretty cool, and with the sweet honey glaze (which ended up getting soaked into the biscuits and not really glazing them), they still edible, but nowhere near amazing (UPDATE: I tinkered a little with the ingredient ratio and now they’re amazing). For the Smitten Kitchen recipe, I used the ICOB method of grating frozen butter, but otherwise followed the recipe to a T. The biscuits did not brown for some reason, but the layers looked beautiful and the biscuit itself was delicately sweet, fluffy, and light. They went perfectly with a dollop of jam.

However, neither recipe came close to the near-religious experience of eating the Island Creek Oyster Bar’s real biscuits. I have a feeling that Jeremy Sewall (the chef at ICOB) probably weighs out his ingredients rather than use cup measurements, and something got lost in translation in the Saveur recipe. Next time I need a fun 4am activity, I’ll experiment again :)

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From Hungary, With Love

IMG_1519Before my sophomore year of college, I knew little about Eastern Europe and even less about the little country of Hungary. Back then, I was a self-proclaimed francophile, and in true French spirit, I also had an interest in Japan. (To be fair, my interests lay in Japan’s “economic miracle” rather than the artistic glorification of Japanese culture, but close enough.) I took a class on the the history of financial crises and completely by chance, my academic focus changed completely.

Each student had the opportunity to choose a country that had been affected by the 2008 financial crisis. I was (surprise, surprise) sick on the day we chose countries, so I missed out on Japan and France. My professor suggested Hungary. I agreed, apathetically believing that I would have to write yet another paper about a topic for which I cared little.

However, Hungary turned out to be more enthralling than I could have imagined. Since that initial paper about how Hungary was one of the countries in the Eurozone hit hardest by the crisis, I have since studied everything from why the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 failed, to brain drain and refugee inflow problems post-1989, to the evolution of Hungary’s citizenship policies. The political culture of Hungary has proved especially fascinating, as more extremist parties gain power amidst riots and general social unrest.

When I started this blog, I knew it was a matter of time until Hungary made its inevitable appearance. Friends who’d visited Hungary while abroad raved about the food and the beauty of Budapest and I realized that while I might intimately understand the political culture, the simple culture remained an unknown. I came across a recipe for Budapest coffee Bundt cake and decided to do a little research on the name. Turns out, Hungary once had a thriving coffee house culture before even Paris or Austria. Not only did Hungarians brew great coffee, but they also made delicious cakes and pastries in accompaniment. Artists and writers, many of whom had no heating in their homes, flocked to coffee houses for the warmth, but also the company and the refreshments. (The stereotype of ‘starving artist’ has deep historical roots – just look at what happened to poor Mozart.)

However, Hungary fell under the iron curtain after World War II and the Soviet Union, fearing that the coffee houses would become hotbeds of dissent, moved to shut them all down. In the 24 years following the fall of the iron curtain, coffeehouse culture has made a sort of comeback, though many coffee shops are frequented by tourists rather than locals.

While I continue my quest to learn everything (literally, everything) about my new favorite country, I’ll content myself with enjoying moist, cinnamon-cocoa slices of Budapest coffee cake and imagining the day when I can actually visit the vibrant coffee houses of Budapest. One day.
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Ready-Made

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As a kid, I rarely ever experienced pre-packaged food. The “TV dinner” (and TV in general) remained a mystery to me, a concept that existed only in the fantasy world of books and movies. I remember sneaking in little snippets of TV shows on the rare afternoons when nobody was home. Lunchables were another forbidden fruit, neatly packaged in colorful plastic, the ultimate cool kid’s lunch.

My parents always emphasized the importance of home-cooked food. Even as my mom went back to work and everyone grew older and busier, we did our best to never reach for any pre-made dinner in a box (even Trader Joe’s pre-made Indian dinners, which are actually really delicious and managed to derail even my family). Eventually we resorted to takeout Thursday and reheated lasagna.

Simultaneously, my dad began to develop his latent and extensive cooking talents using all the weird left-over ingredients in the fridge. (Seriously, he’s at the point that he can taste dishes at restaurants and basically recreate them. It’s semi-frightening.) My sister spent a summer at culinary arts camp and…never ever cooked any of the dishes she learned for us. The point is, for my family, the home-cooked meal never lost its allure.

As a kid, I never fully appreciated how great it was to sit around the table with my family, just chatting and enjoying whatever my parents had made that night. I remember loving Lunchables because I could choose the ratios of cheese to sauce to pepperonis. I thought they fostered creativity. But at the end of the day, Lunchables are four ingredients in a little plastic box (as opposed to a refrigerator, which can literally house endless possibilities).

I’m proud to say that everyone in my family can cook. (And a little less proud to say I was the last one in my family to catch on.) As one of my friends said yesterday, cooking has ‘value.’ Now I just wish someone would let Stop N’Shop know stuff like this is not okay:

IMG_1485This is not a joke, not some plastic display of dishes offered in Asian restaurants. These are pre-packaged meals on a whole new level.

That being said, here’s yet another baking recipe. Sorry guys, I keep forgetting to take pictures of my dinners.

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