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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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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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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