Brownies, N’importe Quel Type…

August 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Craving chocolate something fierce. I came home from work, where I’m surrounded by all facets of chocolate. Work, where I eat crumbs of chocolate-flavored things from the beginning to the end of my shift. Where I am shameless; sometimes using a butter knife to scrape off the bits of brownie that stick to the pan—sweep those into a half-bite. And what I should have done all along: baked a pan myself.

I ended up improvising. Milk chocolate in lieu of dark. Pecans instead of walnuts. Coconut shavings because, well, why not.

Improvisation is stalking me these days, I swear. It’s hard to let go of those proclivities to nail down stability though. As a rule-follower, as an approbation-seeker, I’m struggling now to decide the big answer to the What’s Next Question. I’m getting there, I think, but how can you improvise your way through life when you know there are formulas out there—formulas that other people are using (formulas called “grad school”), and are thusly resting easier then us improv-kids—how can you wander into the crux of circumstance empty-handed and simply make it up as you go along? How does that work? I realize I’m being all vague and ambiguous and wordy.

Back to before though—lest I forget why I’m writing—all I knew was this: I want chocolate. And that was enough for a base. From there, I kind of tossed in what I had on hand. What’s here: coconut, pecans, a little cocoa powder, some Hershey’s chocolate that’s better suited for smores but oh well—etc. I mixed my miscellaneous ingredients and baked them. The smell of chocolate filled the house. Family congregated. Chocolate brownies were consumed with vast quantities of milk. It was glorious. Almost as glorious as this giant cow I saw on Highway 36 yesterday: …which has nothing to do with improv-brownies, but is just quirky and cool. (The driver of the truck and I had a conversation at the stoplight. Also quirky. I won’t say that was cool though. Kind of weirded me out, mostly.)

But back to the brownie cravings! The ramshackle, stump-the-cook-style baking. The shelf-scouring. Sometimes, I think it just feels like we have to go digging in the pantry. Throw something together. Do what Modest Mouse says and “build something out of nothing.” Or better yet—decide what you’re craving. Simply. One single ingredient. Chocolate. Or pickles. Or spearmint. Or whatever. There’s your base. Now add onto that and see what happens. That’s what this whole experiment is all about after all, isn’t it?

Last week, I encouraged a customer to bake his own pan of chocolate chip cookies.

“I don’t bake. Too many exact measurements. Too precise. No—I let my wife do the baking and I do the rest of the cooking.”

“I dunno—I think if you add enough butter everything turns out amazing,” I said. He laughed and walked out with a big smile across his face.

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Smokin’ Cheddar & Herb Scones

August 21, 2010 § 2 Comments

The scones are smoking.

Wait—what?? The scones are smoking!! What’s going on??

This is not how my Saturday morning was supposed to start, with stupidity and melting wax. So here’s what happened: I woke up with scones on my mind (as per usual, one could say, these days). I limped downstairs, dragging my clubfoot, started the coffee and scanned the kitchen for ingredients to toss into a batch of scones. Bingo: cheddar cheese and herbs. They wouldn’t pair very well with the blueberry jam I made yesterday, but savory scones with coffee just sounded ideal on this blurry-grey morning.

I wanted to have the scones ready for my mom and sister when they woke up, so I was trying not to make a racket (you know how boisterous people can get when baking), but somehow mom found her way downstairs at the early hour of 9:00, small yorkshire terriers close behind. Thank goodness she did, too, because I ran into a disaster 5 minutes after putting the first pan of scones in the oven. Okay: check out the above photo. Does it, or does it not, appear that those cartoon cookies are sitting on a sheet of this wax paper, which in turn, is sitting on a standard baking sheet?

I should know that when wax gets hot, it melts. But, as it turns out—-that slipped my mind. I baked my first batch of cheddar herb scones on wax paper instead of parchment. I realized my mistake when the scones started to smell like melting crayons instead of savory herbs and butter. When I opened the oven  door, mom started shrieking: get those scones outta there! We made quick work of transferring the scones to parchment paper, then Jules started lecturing me about kitchen safety. I countered her with the fact that it looks like the cartoon cookies are baking ON the wax paper! We scoured the box of wax paper and found no warning not to bake on it. Mom suggests we try to sue “Homelife Wax Paper.” I don’t know how far we could get in that legal battle. As you can see, not all was lost. The cheddar herb scones came out just fine after that first scare. I recommend eating them with coffee and a glass of milk. I do not, however, recommend spreading them with blueberry jam. You probably didn’t need to be told that… There are some things you just don’t combine. Things like hyper-sweet with mega-savory. Things like wax paper and 400-degree ovens. Twenty-five-year-old women and ambiguous illustrations of cookies on cardboard boxes.

Cheddar Herb Scones

Les Ingredients

2 cups flour….4 tsp baking powder….1 cup shredded cheddar cheese…..5 Tbsp unsalted butter…….1 Tbsp white sugar…….2/3 cup whole milk……1/4 tsp dried thyme…….1 tsp salt……..3/4 tsp dried basil….then various pinches of other herbs (herb of Provence, ground red pepper…well—do this at your own risk)

Les Directions

Sift flour into medium-sized bowl, add baking powder, herbs, sugar, and salt. Stir this well. Now, wash your hands. (Well, this should have been the first thing you did, but—yeah, make sure you do it at this point is all.) Use your fingers to crumble in the 5 Tbsp of cold butter and add the cheddar cheese. Now make a well in the middle of this tumult. Pour the milk in the well. Knead all this until you get a sticky mass of dough. Now comes the tricky part: put dallops of this onto PARCHMENT PAPER and bake for about 13 minutes at 400 degrees. I cannot stress the paper detail enough. Don’t use the wax paper. Why even buy it? Good goll.

Blueberry Scones and Runner’s Blues

August 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

People are hard to listen to sometimes. Who wants to hear about what I dreamed last night? Only if my rêves include you should I divulge details about my surreal synapses. I sometimes feel like the same rules should apply to complaints. If I know you haven’t yet done your taxes and I haven’t touched mine either—then it’s fine to go out for coffee and gripe about paperwork.

If I really think this, I ought to quit whining about my right calf, which has been a ball of twisted, teased muscles for about 3 weeks. I have no idea what’s wrong. As an runner, it’s difficult to be spending these beautiful August days off my legs. I used to smile and wave to my fellow runners on the road, now I see them plugging along when I ride my bike or walk to where I need to go, and it’s a shame: I shoot them a look of bitter jealousy.

At the moment, I am icing my faulty limb and watching my arch-less pied wince and tense in response to the ice packs. (Wait–is it supposed to do this? It looks weird.) I brought home a blueberry scone from work today at the Bikery, and so think I’ll just munch away my leg stress with this: In the words of my friend Libby: “Whaaaaaaaat.”

So here I am, knuckle-deep in blueberry juice, crumbs falling all over my lap: a real mess. And because I’ve got my leg elevated, I just look like Apathy Personified.

But really–when I’m eating scones, I’m far from apathetic. It’s hard to bake a good scone! Sometimes they just come out of the oven like globs of hardtack, and other times they’re just too soft, like a limp handshake (Oh man, do I hate those!). I remember when I worked at the Gathering Garden Café in Lake Elmo (no longer in business, unfortunately), the gal who opened the shop was using her family’s recipe for scones. They were beautiful. We referred to them as Lori’s Secret Scones. My mom would ask me to bring home scone specimens that she could study: efforts to whittle Lori’s recipe loose from the perfect spongy interior and crunchy exterior. My mom almost had that recipe too—she will taste something, slowly savor it, look around the room, then look at you—dead in the eye—and say the ingredient.

“Ginger.”

“Nutmeg.”

“Anise.”

I just hope mom uses her tasting powers for Good and never Evil. I pop more crumbles of this perfect blueberry scone in my mouth. The ice pack falls off my sad little leg. I redistribute the weight and watch the weird tensing and I finish my scone and feel a little better. Not totally, but as you might have inferred by now (Or I’ve told you directly. Or you knew immediately due to the name of this blog)—eating baked stuff makes me a happy gal. Can’t complain…well, I could if you asked me to.

Shortbread, All-Too-Short-Rendez-Vous

August 17, 2010 § 3 Comments

When was the last time I ate a shortbread cookie? When was the last time I saw a fellow English Major from college? Two questions that prompt head-scratching and guessing games. This past weekend, I enjoyed the company of both. In the words of my friend, Emily, I was blissed out.

Imagine one of those sickeningly gorgeous Saturdays: sun is shining while the wind is blowing, making for a perfect temperature. It feels like a Fall Preview. I can almost taste the chai spices. Almost see the orange leaves. I picked up my friend, Erin, who I haven’t seen in over a year. We catch up in the car as we wiggle down Minneapolis streets toward the Mill City Farmer’s Market: a truly magical place.

The sky was this rich blue, like a hyper-saturated cyanotype photograph. Clouds look like a handful of happy brides took off their veils and tossed them into the atmosphere to float around for a while. The market was swathed in live folk music, sweet smells of Indian-spiced mini donuts, coffee, and whiffs of basil here and there. Toddlers are hopscotching between zen-faced farmers selling zucchini, potatoes, and beets. The above photo is what Erin and I saw sitting on the steps next to the Guthrie, exchanging stories from a year apart. She, off in the deserts of Utah, climbing into the mountains with a backpack, her tent, and some misguided youth to counsel. Me, meandering the avenues of Toulouse and Montauban looking for my next bottle of Bordeaux or wedge of brie, trying to make romantic French words fall from my lips. It’s funny how far each of us gals have been flung. And a few years ago, we were proofreading one another’s poetry and drinking flavored coffee in the Oneota Valley. Guess one’s 20’s are the volatile years, but no one predicted these places. All that catching-up-for-lost-time got us real hungry. And watching the people mill around with plastic bags of goods or paper baskets of donuts was making us salivate something fierce. We did a couple rounds, checking out the spread. We settled on Venetian iced coffee and some lavender-ginger shortbread cookies from Bramblewood Cottage.

We found a patch of grass to sit in, took off our shoes, and savored the cookies. The lavender made me think of antiquity–old flavors and scents you don’t often find. I think of doilies, grandma’s dishes, and embroidery. Not all that appetizing, but that’s memory for you. Sometimes the associations just make zero sense. The ginger in the shortbread married perfectly with the lavender–and sprinkled with these big sugar granules? In the words of Erin, it was amazing. (Erin just loves the word “amazing,” and she’ll use it liberally. This particular instance, I’m 100% with her.) Buttery. Smooth. Melt-in-your-mouth shortbread. Sometimes, you have to dunk shortbread cookies in coffee or tea to soften them because they’re too biscotti-like. Not so with these babies. Highly recommend. They taste even more amazing if you munch them while discussing Life’s Big Questions in the company of an old friend.

Sunrise Muffins

August 11, 2010 § 1 Comment

It was kind of weird: immediately upon waking I hightailed it downstairs, cracked the spine on my new cook book, and started throwing handfuls of flour in a bowl with allspice and cinnamon. The first words out of my mouth for the day were: since when do we not have a tub of quick oats on hand?

I was making “Sunrise Muffins,” as my handy-dandy Ball Blue Book calls them. I’ve known this type of muffin as a Morning Glory Muffin, and it’s had most of the same ingredients, plus coconut and shredded carrots. This recipe was all about putting a filling inside the muffin. (It did, in fact, come from a cook book for jams and jellies, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.) I’m not crazy about things that have a gooey center though. Danishes and jelly donuts always grossed me out, and custardy fillings just strike me as messy. So, needless to say, this morning during my hyper-bake-a-thon, I went without the marmalade that was supposed to go inside.

I started crunching pecans into little baby-teeth-sized pieces and stared out the window into another syrupy-foggy morning. No doubt sticky. No doubt a thick paste that, if embarked within, would coupe my journée into as fine of shards as these toasted nuts, rendering me a puddle of procrastinating anxiety. I preheated my oven and listened to it tick up to 375 degrees. What was I thinking of at this time last year, I ask. What were my thoughts. I was preparing to leave for France the following month. I was working my last few shifts at French Meadow Bakery & Café. I was taking long, long walks alone with book or a podcast. Now I’m back in the house I was living in a year ago, and I’m looking for a new place to put my energy and anxiety. It’s not enough just to bake Sunrise Muffins and avoid the chaleur.

I mix my butter and brown sugar. I add a few tablespoons of flax seeds to my batter for good measure. I make a sinfully delicious, pecan-studded crumble for the top of these little guys. I send them into the yawning mouth of the oven and I retreat back upstairs, still waking up with a mug of coffee, and I do something that could be a major time-suck: I start rereading my old journals. It turns out that I’m basically the same person I’ve always been with the same proclivities and peccadilloes. So why do I feel an urgency? A pressure to have advanced? Changed? I thought Europe was going to magically spit me out: more complete and sophisticated. Instead of goopy muffin batter, I’d come out this perfectly formed sweet thing with brown sugar and butter crumble on top.

Nope. Still asking Life’s big questions.

At least some things never change: baking muffins early in the morning, the house filling with the scent of cinnamon and toasted nuts and butter, and a big ol’ pot of coffee. This is always a good thing. A comforting thing. It says: sit down, take a load off, put away your past, and eat this delicious morsel.

Sunrise Muffins

adapted from Bell’s Blue Book recipes

Les Ingredients

2 cups flour (divided)….1 cup quick oats (or, in my case, 2 packets of instant cinnamon-flavored oatmeal)….1.5 tsp baking powder….1 tsp cinnamon….1/2 tsp allspice….3/4 tsp baking soda….1/4 tsp salt…..1 cup brown sugar (divided)….1/2 cup unsalted butter (divided)…..1 egg….1.25 cups milk…..1/2 cup raisins…..1 cup chopped pecans….3 Tbsp flax seed

Les Directions

Roll up sleeves and hurl together your dry ingredients with gusto: 1.5 cups of flour, oats, baking powder, cinnamon, allspice, baking soda, and salt. Now take half a stick o’butter (1/4 cup) and make sure it’s as soft and moldable as play dough. Combine this with 1/2 cup brown sugar and one egg. Mix this well: with fury. Unless you’re feeling really zen; then just mix in normal-style with no expression whatsoever. Add your flour mixture and milk to sugar mixture and stir well. Now toss in those raisins. Now sprinkle this morning’s sunrise with dewdrops made of flax seeds. Now spoon this mixture into greased muffin tin. Set this aside for a second. Preheat your oven to 375.

Time for the topping, which is the best part, so don’t skimp out on the butter and brown sugar. Combine 1/2 cup of flour, chopped pecans, and 1/2 cup brown sugar in a bowl, then cut in remaining 1/4 cup butter. Make sure the crumble is uniform so no one muffin feels gypped on its toppin’. Sow this crumble gingerly on the plains of your as-of-yet naked muffins. Bake these little Sunrises for 25 minutes. Eat ’em with copious amounts of coffee and hopefully the fog outside will have lifted and the real sunrise will show itself.

The Rainy Brunch

August 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

Two surprises today: this morning’s fulminous skies and sudden torrential downpour, and then, the more pleasant surprise brunch at Lucia’s in Minneapolis. I showed up to the restaurant (one of my absolute favorites) expecting to learn how to can jam and salsa. Words cannot express the peaks of my bliss when I found out that we were going to be fed, too. I almost hugged the poor woman who led me to the horseshoe table attended with fellow foodie media types and a beautiful spread.

I love the occasional perks of working for a food magazine. Writing for Edible Twin Cities makes me feel like a celebrity now and then. I was given a laminated name tag (my head immediately swells; I don’t think I can throw this away). I was given a chair and a cup of coffee right away…then a glass of fresh orange juice, a slice of tomato-chive quiche with sweet corn salsa, fresh fruit, and…oh, the bakery stuff!! I swoon for Lucia’s baked goods. Perfect pop-overs that I spread blueberry-rhubarb (blubarb) jam on, toasted almond scones, blueberry muffins, and my favorite: these little muffins called (I think) Budapest muffins. They basically taste like someone took a cinnamon roll, tapped it twice with a magic wand, and transformed it into a muffin.

So, yes, I did actually learn a thing or two about canning: preserving jellies, jams, salsas, tomato sauces, etc. Yes, I wrote up a little report on the canning kit that was presented at the demo. What I keep salivating over is that Budapest-Whatever muffin that I totally snarfed. If at all possible, you gotta get over to Lucia’s to give it a taste: Mmmm…In other news, life in the boondocks (aka, Lake Elmo, MN) is drizzly, humid, and sultry in the crepuscular hours of the day. I am getting used to enjoying a glass of moderately-priced-to-dirt-cheap-priced wine around 5:30 everyday, while I poke through papers that accumulate on my desk. Page through the stacks for writing opportunities. Daydream about my next pastry… Actually, I’m thinking my next attempt will be a loaf of homemade, hand-kneaded bread. The last time I baked my own bread, it went decently, and I’m at a loss as to why I stopped there. It was a delicious rosemary-&-olive loaf. It’s time to try again and see what comes out of the oven.

Oatmeal Raisin-d’être

August 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

It was a soggy Monday, okay? I woke up before my alarm clock (again).

I hold that it’s not natural for a body to wake itself up at 5:37 am.

I wandered downstairs like a washed up soap opera starlet, streaks of last night’s makeup and all, and found Mom in the kitchen brewing Guatemalan coffee and singing to Enya (didn’t know anyone other than Enya, herself could sing along to Enya). Mom dangled her car keys in front me and told me that there was a heat advisory for the metro area today; I had better take a car in lieu of my bike (I have been wont to make the trip par velo). Ahem, excuse me–I am waking up early and listening to Mom sing “Sail Away” at this ungodly hour for a reason: I work part-time at a coffee-come-bike-shop called (cleverly): The Bikery, in Stillwater. And, as I am car-less, I hop on Precious, my champagne-&-maroon-colored Schwinn, and bike through the misty moors of Lake Elmo to roast Sumatra beans, make lattés, and sell gorgeous–but gorgeous–pastries.

I’ve been working in coffee for years. I could pull shots of espresso in my sleep. What keeps me awake is customer banter and baskets of buttery-sweet baked goods. Cue the drum roll: today’s spotlight falls on the old standby, the oatmeal raisin cookie.

Let me pledge my allegiance to you, oh cinnamony-sweet plateau of butter and landmines-of-rum-soaked-raisins, mine. I tried to ignore your spice-infused aroma for a the first weak-eyed hours of the morning behind an espresso bar, but around 10 am, I fell for you. Hard. What I like to do when consuming cookies: keep a glass of milk chilled in the fridge for a while. Ideally, we’re talking a tin cup, one of those royal blue cups that have the white flecks in it. Tin to contain the cold. Tin to compliment the richesse of a mammoth cookie. I totally, totally indulged today: cookie dunked in ice cold milk (albeit, no tin cups were to be found, high nor low in the kitchen).

I swear, Life lately has been either easy as a batch of oatmeal cookies and milk, or hard as scrubbing the coffee bean oils from the roaster (sticky and the color of elderberry honey). One minute I’m thinking about writing and illustration and how blessed I am and how much I love my family. And thank goodness I’m living with them again! And get to partake in their messy-beautiful lives! …The next minute I’m all dirty-coffee-roaster, ruffling my oily feathers over the fact that I miss speaking French, I wish I could settle on a project/a relationship/a job that wasn’t so…so…well? You know how coffee without cream is coffee at its purest? But cream or milk is sometimes necessary to give life to a flat brew? I want a well-rounded life that doesn’t need cream or milk or sugar. That’s just full-bodied and delicious as it is–plain.

I keep thinking of that cookie I ate today. Oatmeal reminds me of homey, nothing-fancy, no-one’s-judging-you food. And raisins are just standard. Ugly, even. But there’s something incredible about the combination. And with a glass of chilled milk? It’ll put your worried, basket-case-Mondays head to ease.

Check out the The Bikery’s earth-shattering-yet-plain-jane oatmeal raisin cookies.

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