Cornmeal-Lime Cookies

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I have a bit of a bad habit: whenever I look at the operating hours of a place, I end up planning to get there five minutes before they close. Then I run late (of course) and blindly hope that they’ll stay open a few minutes later so I can sneak in.

Back when I was in Boston, I used to love-hate going to Flour Bakery on Mass Ave. I loved going – if they were open. But half the time, I’d get there fifteen minutes after they closed and stare in longingly as employees packed away the pastries. When I finally got my hands on the Flour Bakery cookbook, I reveled in the fact that I would never have to be punctual again. All of my favorite Boston bakery recipes could available in large quantities (…within six hours).

Well it turns out lack of punctuality runs in the family. The other day, my parents drafted me to make desserts for a brunch with family friends. The brunch started at 10am…we got there at noon. Whoops. Despite the fact everyone had already eaten their fill and then some, these cookies were still a huge hit. They’re a tangy, sweet reminder of the good times I had in Boston, and best of all, they’re super easy to make :)

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Chocolate Chip Cookies

IMG_2615Though much has changed since I attended lower school – babies adept at navigating iPads, kids playing video games instead of board games, and an increasing concern with eating healthy – one thing remains the same. School cafeterias still serve terrible food.

I have choked down my share of cardboard-crusted pizza, tortilla soup made using yesterday’s leftover tacos, and slimy and grey cold cut sandwiches. However, there was one thing my school got right: the chocolate chip cookies.

From a young age, I learned to love cookies, if only because they were the only food option at school that didn’t activate my gag reflex. Every day, I would take one or two bites of my meal, then relish my two chocolate chip cookies. I switched schools after middle school into a totally different environment – an all-girls high school – but the food quality remained the same, if not worse, and the only thing worth eating was, you guessed it, the chocolate chip cookies.

People often embark on somewhat quixotic pursuits of the “best” vanilla cupcake or the “best” yellow cake or the “best” chocolate chip cookies. I’m of the opinion that it’s all rather subjective, and for me, the best chocolate chip cookies will always be those soft, under-baked cookies served at my lower school cafeteria. They did not have sea salt sprinkled on top or fancy chocolate disks, but they were moist (hopefully with butter and not shortening or lard or some weird chemicals), sweet…and they were the only game in town.

But some childhood memories are better left unsullied by attempts to recreate them. And so, I turned to the New York Times best chocolate chip cookie recipe to see if I couldn’t achieve something a little more sophisticated. With two types of flour, neither of which are all-purpose, chocolate disks instead of chocolate chips, and refrigeration time of 24-36 hours, these are quite the project.

Whether they represent something more “adult” or is simply an overly involved variation on something that should really be quite simple, I’ll leave for others to decide. They came out quite good, with a chewy, slightly cakey texture at the center, and a crunchier edge. They don’t quite measure up to the chocolate chip cookies enshrined in the memories of my youth, but then again, I suspect that no recipe, even the original recipe used by my school, ever will.

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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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Peach Treats: Mason Jar Edition

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So I’m pretty sure I’m way behind the trend on this one, so behind that Mason jar confections are probably out of the florally trendy garden party scene and have now moved into the pages of the Martha Stewart magazine and onto the tables of parties hosted by the middle-aged. Thank god children will be children and always want big cakes – making something similar to that which parents make for their kids – now that’s a generational jump I’m not ready to commit to just quite yet.

I have always wanted to make a Mason jar dessert – a dessert focused on portability and durability. For a while I entertained dreams of decorating grandeur, where I would become the master of fondants and beautiful cupcake frosting, but alas, I quickly realized that I just don’t care enough. It all looks the same in my stomach anyways, right? I have instead aimed for delicious flavors and interesting textures and subpar to decent presentation. But Mason jar desserts? They’re the perfect marriage (ew, marriage) of practicality and adorableness. Especially desserts, where each different, delectable layer is displayed enclosed in glass, the color of the fruit component elevated by the shine of the glass, like a more decadent and probably much-less-healthy parfait (at least the American version, granola and yogurt. Apparently, Europeans know how to do it right and make it a proper dessert).

It’s ironic on many levels that the person who inspired me to finally take on this project was my professor, who is in her mid-fifties and is an incredibly healthy person who teaches a class about consumption which technically touches on different aspects of consumption, from fashion to food, but really just teaches us that organic local non-GMO food is the way to go. I absolutely loved her class (I actually did all the readings!) and wished only for the billionth time that I’d gone with my gut and majored in History. Sadly, today was the last class, and as a parting gift, she brought in strawberry shortcakes in Mason jars. Even she commented on the fact that they’re no longer in style (then again, she does teach a class on consumption habits, so she’s sort of an expert in these matters). But whatever, they don’t need to be in the height of fashion to be absolutely delicious.

(Peach Treats Pt. 1 is also delicious! Check it out for another easily portable and equally delicious recipe.)

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Backlog Pt. 1

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Well, it certainly has been a while. But fret not, not much has changed – my food photography skills remain as questionable as ever.

So first off, I suppose it’s worth addressing the elephant in the room. Why did I stop posting, and why am I now returning?

For me, this past school year can generally be divided into a “before” and “after.” A before when I was still pretty okay, and an after when everything seemed to be imploding in an almost-comical tweenage “end of the world” kind of way.

In the beginning, I would start to write posts, then realize they were freaking depressing, and while great food is metaphorically made with “blood, sweat, and tears,” no one really wants to read a sob story when all they were looking for was a cookie recipe. So I’d delete and start again and the post would take another down and dispirited route. I tried to write about movies I’d seen, places I’d gone, about my friends and my family. I discovered that it’s surprisingly difficult to write about superficial joys – and not-so-surprisingly difficult to write about people when you’re ignoring their calls (sorry family members!). Every post I tried to write sounded artificially saccharine and after a while, I stopped trying.

Eventually, I reached the elusive “rock bottom.” At that point, I’d been living off almonds and dried cranberries and packages of dried seaweed and not much else. I felt as if I had lost everything that had been my identifiers – my innocence (which is the nice way of saying gullibility), my deep connection to classical music, my love for food, my confidence in my intellectual capabilities, my tendency to be easily excitable and inspired.

While this was all happening, I’d sometimes wish that I could just “wake up,” that I could sleep off the weariness and the insecurities and the nothingness. Looking back, I have no idea why I thought waking up was easy – the number of times I’ve slept through really important alarms (e.g. that one time I was five hours late for my flight) is, well, alarming. I finally recognized that I could not just wait to wake up one day and feel fine.

I am returning now to this blog, and to the life that I put on hold during these lost months, as part of my reclamation of my ‘self.’ I refuse to ever again fall victim to the names I have been called and the rumors that have been spread behind my back.

I’ve chosen to post this recipes because first of all, it is one of my favorites – an airy, ricotta-based lemon cheesecake that is delicately sweet with a tangy kick. It’s also my dad’s favorite dessert that I make, and if there’s one thing I’ve (re)learned from all of this, it is that my family unconditionally loves me, which I somehow forgot along the way. Finally, spring took it’s sweet time arriving in New England, but I can finally pack away the sweaters and proudly display my lingering “insulation” from the winter in tank tops and shorts, and what better way to celebrate than eat lots of (kind of healthy) cheesecake?

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A Little Late for Pumpkins?

IMG_1637I’ve always found it interesting that people associate pumpkins with autumn when really, pumpkins are available all year round. People associate corn with summer, yet have less of an aversion to enjoying some canned corn in the winter than munching on some pumpkin in not-autumn.

…it’s only been a year or so and I fear I’m already starting to get repetitive.

But hear me out here. Pumpkins are native to North America. The Native Americans first introduced settlers to pumpkins and apples and corn. And we repaid them with, uh, diseases (sometimes intentionally inflicted) and forced hikes and their very own fertile, highly desirable parcels of land.

Anyways, pumpkin has become a staple in American culture – what would Thanksgiving be without some kind of pumpkin-based dessert? Or Halloween with no carved pumpkins?

Things that become staples in American culture tend to become overexposed, like Cold Stone and cupcakes. (Or as my dad just suggested most sinisterly, the American dream of a suburban house with two cars.) We burn through popular things in a never-ending, ferociously turning cycle of fads.

And yet, some things endure because they somehow become enshrined, become something that we voluntarily enjoy only infrequently. Like Thanksgiving turkey, strawberry shortcakes, and pumpkin pie. Last I checked, turkey, strawberries, and canned pumpkin are sold in supermarkets all year round (and in the case of strawberries, at surprisingly high quality even in the winter), and yet, we save them for the right moment. We imbue them with special value.

Back to pumpkin – it’s interesting, the Native Americans just ate them roasted, as a staple part of their diet. But in those early years, cold-resistant crops must have seemed like some kind of godsend to the early settlers, something to be celebrated.

Guess we’re not so ‘native’ to this land after all.

Personally, I would make this cheesecake all the time, I love it that much. It might be my favorite new recipe of 2013. But my mom, who actually is an immigrant from Hong Kong, was shocked (and maybe even a little appalled) that I’d suggest such blasphemy. Spoken like a true American, mom. Guess I’ll just have to wait (with baited breath) for the next holiday season.

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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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