Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mimesis and Midnight Chocolate Cake

I read somewhere that Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin impersonation contest and did not win. I don't know if this story is true but I like it. Something funny happens when we try to be ourselves. Now the Chaplin situation is more complicated I know. He would be impersonating an act, but still. I think about how complicated that could get, and my mind wanders. He would be competing against impersonators who have obsessively "perfected" their outfits, make up, acts... Did their immaculate re-enactments of his work make him uneasy? Did he overdo it or was he too casual? did he get out-Chaplined by the mimics?

Then I think about how strangely we sometimes act when our awareness of ourselves is heightened for some reason. I've struggled to explain this before. I still find it hard to articulate how easy it is to turn into an imitation of yourself when you are in fact aiming for the opposite. It's almost as if when you try to isolate whatever it is that you are, in order to be it, you interrupt the flow of the process of being. I've caught myself in such moments before. I don't like the feeling. It's like wearing wet jeans.

A few weeks ago when Steve was coming to visit me in my little town for a few days I started thinking about this. Just before he got there I looked around me and wondered what my life looks like; what I look like in it. But I quickly distracted myself to help the moment pass for fear of ending up in that hyper-self-conscious state of awkward and anxious mimicry. At midnight Steve told me he was really craving chocolate and I said I'd bake a chocolate cake with the rest of our bottle of red wine. 
-Right now?
-Right now. 
And as we ate our chocolate cake with spoonfuls of whipped cream from a mason jar at two in the morning whilst discussing faith or religion or rationality or god knows what, I thought: If we ever have to audition as ourselves, we should do this scene. I'm pretty certain no one else's rendition could even come close.

Chocolate Red Wine Cake 
(bake this cake when someone craves it, for it does not keep well.)

6 tablespoons soft unsalted butter
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup  white granulated sugar
1 large egg + 1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup red wine (we used chianti)
1 teaspoon good vanilla
1 cup + 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 cup good cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom of a medim round cake pan with parchment paper, and grease the sides.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and mix until fluffy: 2-3 minutes. Add the egg and yolk and mix well. Then add the red wine and vanilla. The batter will look a little strange but that's fine

Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together, right over your wet ingredients. Mix until 3/4 combined, then fold the rest together with a rubber spatula. Spread batter in pan. 

Bake 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean.  Cool in pan on a rack for about 10 minutes, then flip out of pan and cool the rest of the way on a cooling rack. Dust with powdered sugar and eat with whipped cream. 


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Charm in Beginnings

-Hi! There's music at the bottom of this post, just in case you wanna press play before you read-

 I was fixing my flat tire just off the trail near the university the other day and saw the procession of enrobed graduates walking in a distracted queue toward the convocation space; high heels poking holes in the grass and tassels hanging off the sides of serial manufactured graduation caps. The caps that no one outside of the movies can even keep on their heads, let alone throw up into the air in excitement (for in real life there is wind, and you never have a bobby pin when you need it). Anyway it got me thinking about all the similar ceremonies I have attended in said ill-fitting attire. Elementary, middle school, high school, university... there may even be another one on the horizon soon. As I changed my tube with the happy grads in my peripheral, I tried to remember: I'm sure there were speeches, I'm sure my parents were there... I'm sure I wore dresses, maybe even heels, but I really couldn't remember the details. I figure for most of us it's an awkward moment anyway... I mean, if what you do is anything like what I do, graduating usually signifies the following: Your funding is going to stop, your loans are going to start accumulating interest, your part-time job is now your full-time job (and yes it's the same job), your membership at the amazing library where you do most of your actual learning is going to be revoked, your ideas are still only partly developed, and you no longer have access to the brains of the awesome people who get paid to sit there while you're wide-eyed and under-slept and freaking out about "how amazing that sentence really is". Did I mention the point about library access?

 Jokes aside, though, I think I have more visceral memories of the first days of all the aforementioned experiences than I do of their respective graduations. I'm not sure if this speaks to my particular temperament or some kind of experience that is shared, but just to stay on the safe side (avoid sweeping generalizations: i learned that in school) lets say it's just me. I think I prefer beginnings. I think the vulnerability and excitement of the forward peek is more memorable than the retrospective gaze at the end. So on that note (kind of), here are some of the more memorable breakfasts of the last few weeks. Not just because breakfast constitutes a beginning, but also because I think above all I value making every day important. Because graduation may never come, I guess, and it would be a shame not to have celebrated a little every day. 
Blueberry-Bran-Yogurt Breakfast  Muffins 

1 2/3C plain or vanilla or berry yogurt 
2 tsp baking soda 
3/4C brown sugar 
2 eggs 
1/2 cup oil or melted butter 
1/2 c applesauce 
a little bit of vanilla 
lemon zest  (of like half a lemon)
2C bran 
2C whole wheat flour 
4tsp baking powder 
pinch of salt 
1C or more fresh or frozen blueberries 

Preheat over to 350 degrees and line your muffin sheets with muffin cups or grease. 

Mix yogurt and baking soda. Let sit while you mix everything else. it will bubble! That's totally fine. This will make your muffins spongy and airy and awesome. In a separate bowl, mix sugar, eggs, oil, applesauce, vanilla and zest. Add bran and mix well. 

Whisk  flour, salt, and baking soda in yet another separate bowl. 

Add the yogurt mixture to the egg mixture and mix well. Gradually mix in the flour until a you have a uniform batter. 

Fold in berries, scoop, bake 20-30minutes or until a sharp knife inserted in the centre of muffins comes out clean. 

(these muffins are moist so if you're keeping them around, refrigerate them. You can brush the tops with milk and pop them in the oven for a few minutes and they're like fresh.) 

Poached/Fried Eggs over bitter greens with spring asparagus 

2 good eggs (look at the colour of those yolks)
a bunch of rappini 
some asparagus 

Discard the bottom few inches of both rapini and asparagus stalks. 

Bring a shallow pan of salted water to a boil and have an bowl of ice water ready near by. Cook rapini and asparagus for 4-5 minutes. Then drain and submerge in cold water immediately. Allow to cool for a few minutes and drain again.

Poach or fry eggs to your desired doneness. I like my yolks runny over these greens, personally. Sauté the greens in a little bit of olive oil to warm them up. Place eggs on top. Season to taste. Want some toast? Up to you. And coffee, probably.

NOTA BENE-  here's another kind of beginning: my friend Jos Fortin recently released his debut album, Typewriter, which is so so charming. Have a listen, you'll agree! My favorite track is King Midas at the moment. The whole record just makes me smile. In fact, it's a great wake-up-and make-breakfast album I think...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

In Praise of Uncertainty

In quantum mechanics there is an assertion that the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice-versa. Then there is the "observer effect", which notes that measurements of certain systems cannot be made, without affecting the systems. Now I know we don't live at the quantum level, we are bigger; but here in my tiny kitchen tonight, with the permeating smell of the yeasty dough that is fermenting in the corner, I find comfort in equations.

I know this will not be an easy topic to agree on. Some things exist in such an array of variations that it is almost futile to even aspire to agree, but in this case that may in fact be totally apropos. By "this case", of course, I mean the case of uncertainty. So much of what we do seems to be in an effort to eliminate as much uncertainty from our lives as possible. We have been taught to find comfort in knowing, in mastering the possibilities, in making informed and secure decisions. We have entire careers dedicated to managing risk, maximizing efficiency, narrowing possibilities. We have formulas, weapons, armies, guarantees. This particular result, or your money back. But here from my little kitchen in my little town I'm writing to you in defense of something that we may have over-antagonized.

Lets shrink back to the quantum level again, for the sake of argument. The observer's presence effects the system being observed, and therefore the system's parameters become impossible to determine with exactitude. Is this not lovely? The system is marked by its observer, and by extension, the observer by his system. Am I the only one who finds poetry in that? I see this everywhere. I water the seeds I've planted in my little herb box and notice the chives peaking out and not the sage. I kneed the same dough that refused to rise last week, and which today is elastic and fecund. I write pages of a thesis that may never be completed or defended, edit poems that may never be read by anyone, daydream about a life which I may never find, and amid all this uncertainty I find a hazy kind of comfort. If my life were to turn into an instructional manual, I would like the bi-line to read: how not to know and like it.

nota bene: this time someone dismisses the "watched kettle doesn't boil" theory as superstition, play the quantum card and cite Heisenberg's "observer effect." Here is an equation: ψ = Σanψn

An Elaborate Ciabatta Recipe that may or may not yield good results

1/2 tsp active dry yeast (not instant)
3tbsp warm milk
3/4 C Water (room temp please)
250g starter (at least 12 hours old)
300g flour (maybe more)
1/2 tbsp salt

This will take a while.

Stir the yeast into the milk in a mixer bowl, and let stand about 10 minutes. Add the water, oil, and biga (starter) and mix with a wooden spoon until blended. Mix the flour and salt, add to the bowl, and mix for 2 to 3 minutes with spoon, then flour your hand and knead for 4 minutes. Rest, have a sip of wine, and knead again (in the bowl or on a floured surface) for a few minutes adding as little flour as possible, until the dough is velvety, springy, and moist. This is an important step. This is where you get strength and porosity for your dough, so try to do this part well.
Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 1 1/4 hours. The dough will be full of awesome big bubbles, very supple, and kind of sticky.
Cut the dough into 2 equal pieces on a well-floured surface. Roll each piece into a cylinder, then stretch each cylinder into a rectangle, pulling with your fingers to get each piece is longish and wideish.
Generously flour 2 pieces of parchment paper placed on upside-down baking sheets. Place each loaf, on a piece of parchment. Dimple the loaves vigorously with your fingertips or knuckles so that they won’t rise too much. The dough will look heavily pockmarked, but it is very resilient, so don’t worry your little heart. It will all be alright. Cover the loaves loosely with damp towels and let rise until puffy but not doubled, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. The loaves will look flat and stupid and unpromising, but don’t give up; they will become beautiful swans in the oven.
About 30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 425ºF (218ºC) and slide your baking stones on the center rack to heat. If you have no stones, buy some. If you don’t want to, use a griddle, or… maybe something cast iron. I like cast iron for bread.
Before baking the ciabatta, sprinkle the stones with cornmeal. Carefully invert each loaf onto a stone. If the dough sticks a bit to the parchment, just gently work it free from the paper. If you need to, you can leave the paper and remove it 10 minutes later. Bake for a total of 20 to 25 minutes, spraying the oven with water in the first 10 minutes. Transfer the loaves to wire racks to cool.
Let me know how it went. Ciabatta is just as hard to bake as baguette, if you ask me… so if you pull this off I’m really proud of you.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Tired Hands. Open Heart. Monk.

I wish I could capture it in one sentence, but I'm afraid I'm not a skilled enough writer to depict the thoroughness of my exhaustion with just one string of words. I'd have to describe, for instance, my eyes' finding no help even in the carefully polished lenses of my glasses, my feet wanting only to be bare, my spine begging to opt out of the resistance game it has played against gravity for so many consecutive hours... and maybe if I went on like this for one more paragraph, detailing every inch of my tired self, you would understand why even after polishing a bowl of pasta, a block of gorgonzola, and and a glass of Malbec, I still lie awake now writing. There is a degree of hunger that brings the loss of appetite, and a kind of tired that knows no sleep.

So I listen to piano and think about the many trips on foot and bike that I made between home, university, office, library, studio, and bank today to do what needed to be done. The pile of undergraduate literature essays that I only made a bit smaller, the many e-mails that still need to be sorted and answered. Allison's attendance mark has to be changed. My thesis adviser needs his book back. I need to buy a red pen. Did I leave my office window open?

My mom called me when I was making dinner tonight and I put her on speaker, explaining that I needed both hands to roll out the pasta dough that I had just cut into pieces and floured on both sides. She told me she likes that I never complain about being tired. I had to wrap that conversation up, clean my flour-dusted kitchen, and heat up some of the tomato sauce I still had left over from two nights ago. But as set the table for one, facing the open window of my kitchen, and poured myself a glass of wine I realized something. Maybe things like a fresh bowl of pasta, an open window, and a glass of wine after a day like this are why I find no need to complain. Sure, I can think of a few things that could improve, but for now I've got Thelonious Monk on, and I'm gonna reread Rilke's Orpheus poems and see what happens...

Basic Pasta (from Gennaro Contaldo's Passione)
makes pasta for one or two

75g 00 Flour (I buy mine from the Italian supermarket)
25g semolina
1 good egg (really. I mean it.)

Mix flour and semolina on a clean work surface or in a big bowl, and make a well in the middle. Break eggs in the well. With a fork or with your hands, gradually mix the flour with the egg until everything is mixed and lumpy. Knead until you get a smooth, soft dough. Form into a ball, wrap and leave for about 30 minutes or until you are ready to use.

Divide dough into 2 portions and put through pasta machine starting at the highest setting. As the pasta gets thinner, turn down the settings until you get to the thickness you desire. Depending on the sauce you may want thinner or thicker pasta. I like 2 or 3 on the setting scale. Use as much flour as you need to keep your pasta from sticking. The flour will wash off when you cook the pasta.

Dress your pasta with whatever you've got handy. Wine. Eat.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Eat, Memory

My grandpa always joked that my parents bought me from a gypsy family that passed through town. He'd look at me through the slight gap above his reading glasses and say " that's why you can't sit still, and you have music in your blood." Well, the wind was blowing again, and my heart was restless, and I was listening to Beirut, and one morning in February I opened my eyes and I was in Paris. I think we all know that things are never that simple, but to try and explain everything that led to my trip and everything that happened while i was away, and how it felt when I returned would be like including instructions for making butter, milking cows, grinding flour,and washing dishes, in a pancake recipe. It's been a while since I wrote here... if I'm a little rusty bear with me.

There was a bakery downstairs from my tiny room in Paris, where most of my days were begun. The coffee was decent and though like most bakeries in Paris, croissants and baguettes were a plenty, what caught my eye on the first visit, and accompanied my coffees on every subsequent day of my trip was a large plain-looking cookie that a neat paper sign taught me to call a Sablé Au Beurre. This cookie stole my heart with its honest flavour and satisfying texture, but also because when I first tasted one it reminded me of something I could not place. I told the baker (who also worked at the counter) about this hazy distant taste memory and he told me with a smile, that if I ate one every morning I might eventually remember.

On my last morning, when I opened the bakery door he was already grabbing my cookie with a square of waxed paper. I explained that I would like a few more this time, that I would be returning home, and was going to miss the cookies. He told me to wait while he grabbed a small box. I waited for what seemed liek too long to grab a box. It all made sense when he came back and gave me the recipe. As I walked away from the bakery I thought to myself that when I bake these cookies at home, it will be in the future, and that the present moment in Paris, which would then constitute the past, would be the memory I would attach to these cookies... so I stopped trying to figure out what other more distant thing they were reminiscent of. Here I offer you the recipe for what I now think of as the cookies i ate whilst walking around alone in Paris. It's nice to be writing here again. I had really missed it.

Sablé Au Beurre

150g unsalted butter at room temperature
115 g white sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla (his recipe calls for vanilla powder but i used extract)
1.4 tsp citrus zest (whatever you have on hand)
2c A.P. flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350 and line two baking trays with parchment or silicone.

With a Hand mixer, beat the sugar and butter for 3 minutes on medium speed. It will be light and fluffy. Then add the egg, vanilla, and zest. Beat one more minute. In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Add the two together and mix until the mixture is crumbly.

Turn out onto a floured board and bring the dough together with your hands. form a short thick log and cut it in half. Press each half down slightly into a disc, wrap in plastic a refrigerate for 15minutes. Using a rolling pin and on a floured surface, roll out to about 1/4" thickness, cut into desired shapes and place on a parchment lined baking tray.

These cookies should not spread, so they do not need to be too spaced out. Using a sharp knife score the surface of the cookies and brush the tops with egg wash (1egg beaten with 1tsp milk or water). Bake 8-12minutes or until the tops are golden brown.

NOTE: if you are baking in batches, keep what you are not baking in the fridge while the rest bake, and apply the egg wash JUST before putting the cookies in the oven. Also, the the cookies I ate in paris were the size of the palm of my hand, but I only have smaller cutters, which make cookies this size: