Peanut Butter Jelly Time

April 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

There has only been one April Fool’s Day in my life that I’ve “celebrated.” It was my freshman year in college. My friend, Emily, slathered the doorknob of my dorm room with Vaseline, then, as if that wasn’t enough, she took all my furniture and moved it into the hallway. In retaliation, I convinced her twin sister, Kate, to help me steal her mattress and throw it on a roof. Ahh, memories.

I have not had an April 1st like that before or since that year. Now my April Firsts are much more tame: filled with first-time visits to new bakeries. I met a friend at Sun Street Breads in the Kingsfield neighborhood to check out the goods. Though the day was cloudy and overcast, it was sunny and warm inside the bakery (insert live audience’s exaggerated “awww” here). The bakery is the newest project of Solveig Tofte, who was the head baker at Turtle Bread Company. On my quest to taste baked treats from ovens everywhere, I was eager to try what Sun Street had. As you can see in the above photo, I decided to indulge in a ginger cookie with an americano. Mm, giant chunks of candied ginger, crunchy and soft at the same time… The place was adorable and delicious. We sat at a small table and watched the line build with patrons eager to order biscuit sandwiches, loaves of bread, cookies, and pastries. I particularly like the little smiley face emblem they stamp on everything, including the tables.

Now, just because I didn’t celebrate April Fool’s Day doesn’t mean I wasn’t preparing to celebrate a different day. According to my sources, today—April 2nd—is National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day.

Ahem.

So, naturally, I’m taking this very seriously. I’m crazy about PB&J’s. I was debating whether or not I ought to do a classic sandwich with Smucker’s strawberry (never raspberry!) and Jiffy (creamy) on standard grocery store bread—or, if I should do it up gourmet style. The gourmand’s PB&J. I guess that’s kind of a no-brainer, huh?

I bought a loaf of Sun Street’s chestnut-fig bread, and started to ponder what kind of peanut butter and what kind of jelly I was going to buy. I remembered last summer when I visited my friend, Ben in Portland, Maine—we had lunch at this great place called Peanut Butter Jelly Time: This place was not foolin’ around. When you ordered your sandwich, you chose your bread, your peanut butter flavor, and your jelly—all of which were offered in a wide variety. If memory serves me correct, Ben and I tried a natural-organic crunchy peanut butter with blackberry jam on whole wheat bread. That hit the spot. Yum.

As for me and my chestnut-fig bread, the bar was already set pretty high. I mean, come on—spreading Skippy on this bread just wouldn’t feel right. I ended up buying a ritzy natural crunchy PB—the kind you have to stir really well to mix in the oils that sit on the surface. I love the extra crunch of the peanuts, too. To accompany the PB, I bought an organic blackberry pomegranate jelly. I toasted a slice of the bread this morning and did an open-face sandwich with the PB and J. With a cup of Tanzanian Peaberry coffee, I was in heaven.

It’s the little things, right? Trying good bread at a new bakery, picking out yummy spreads at the grocery store, and enjoying a morning filled with meowing cats, toast, and gourmet kid-food.

Save The Crusts

March 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

I love the bread basket they bring you when you go out to eat at a restaurant. My favorite restaurants tend to be the ones with particularly excellent bread baskets. At Domicin, my favorite wine bar in Stillwater, they bring you a plate with slices of ciabatta bread and a little dish of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. I know it sounds standard, but I’ve been to some places where the bread basket is just awful—or worse—nonexistant! Some places have the nerve to make you pay extra!

One of the best bread baskets I’ve ever tasted was from Spoon River in Minneapolis. It was a potato boule with real chunks of sliced fingerling potato in the bread. I was impressed, and when I said so to the server, she told me the bread came from none other than my favorite bakery for European-style bread in the Twin Cities (what an intro). Behold: Rustica. Ever since I tasted a perfectly flakey croissant from Rustica a few years ago, I was hooked. Now, as a disclaimer, I haven’t tasted the boules and loaves of bread from all of Minneapolis and St. Paul’s bakeries, but I have always been very, very happy with the bread I’ve found at Rustica.

It’s just as good as the baguettes I’d buy everyday in France. Julia Child was right—it’s not so easy to reproduce that incredible chemistry that France, and Europe at large, churns out morning after morning. So much of our bread here just doesn’t have that thick, impermeable crust. It’s all about that good crust.

Well, this weekend, I bought a loaf of ciabatta bread from Rustica whose crust I was particularly smitten with. It was like armor. Rhino bread. Bread chain-mail. Protecting that spongy-soft interior, so airy and light. Delicious to eat. Difficult to draw: My friend, Anna has talked to me about ciabatta bread before. The challenge of baking it. She speaks not from experience, but as an observer. Her husband has taken on the challenge of baking good bread, and from the sounds of it—it takes some practice. I’ve proclaimed on numerous occasions that I want to do this: bake my own bread. However…for want of time, I’m satisfied to buy a boule and carry it across the parking lot to my car.

Now, I don’t mean to keep waxing poetic on that crust, but man… look at this: There’s something to having a thick crust. A strong conviction. An exterior that takes effort to crack. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately, and most of the poets I’ve read have alluded to something I’ve always believed: when you’re in a solid relationship, or a true friendship with someone, you let them see that spongy-center part of you. In this way, you become vulnerable, but the relationship becomes more valuable.

It’s not the same to be a Wonder-Bread-kind of person, where you are always ready to pour your heart out, share your secrets, and open up. No—it’s far better to have that tough crust. Not just any Average Joe will buy that bread, and not just any Average Joe will be able to get beyond the crust. I know I’ve entered into that oftentimes foggy Land of Metaphor, but I think most of you will get what I’m trying to say. I’m talking about breaking bread with people that matter most to you, having conviction enough not to live your life like a loaf of Wonder Bread and—having the good taste to buy quality European-style bread for your own table. Here’s to tough exteriors and sweet interiors.

Pi = 3.14159265… Pie=OMG/purejoy

March 14, 2011 § 1 Comment

People say that you don’t need an occasion to celebrate. Your waitress will sell you another cocktail and say you deserve it. People write, “Happy Tuesday,” or Wednesday, or whatever, at the close of an e-mail, making the day seem special. So it would appear that there’s a lot of enthusiasm for spontaneous celebration. But how often do people actually make good on holidays that aren’t mainstream? Hm?

Me, I love to celebrate (who doesn’t), but I’ve always felt like I need a reason to do so. Granted, that reason can be totally ridiculous, but as long as there is a reason, it makes sense to me and actually makes me even more enthused. So, last Monday, it was National Cereal Day (according to Mr. Breakfast) so I ate a gigantic bowl of Cheerios with bananas and almond milk for breakfast. This Thursday, I will drink a Guiness and eat potatoes in some form. And today? Today I eat pie. It is, of course, March 14th today. Birthday of Einstein. Middle of March. And the beginning digits of pi, the mathematical constant whose value is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Ms. Podowski taught me that. So that’s pi for you.

And here’s pie to me: I knew I wanted to celebrate Pi Day. What I wasn’t sure about was which flavor I ought to get. I drove to Joseph’s in Stillwater (a family restaurant known for their legendary pies). I knew I’d come to the right place when the gentleman behind the desk confirmed that he was aware of Pi Day. (He should’ve been more excited though. I mean, come on. Pi Day. Pi Day. Brilliant.) The gentleman advised me to get the chocolate caramel pie, which did look really exceptional. However, it had a cream cheese filling, so, technically, I think it’s cheesecake in pie’s clothing. I wanted a classic pie. Well—-if that’s what I wanted, I told myself, I better just get classic, all American apple pie. So that’s just what I did.

I took it back to the house, put the pie on a plate, and because the giddy happiness and kid-like joy from celebrating a dessert/math holiday had gone to my head, I did a kind of silly thing: I took a few portraits.

Here is apple pie with a backdrop of royal purple wallpaper: Here is apple pie, plain and simple, traversing the hardwood floor: And here is apple pie: classically reclining in perfect afternoon light: Ohhh, what can I say? I get a little carried away when I’m allowed to celebrate something obscure and food-related. Last year I got my friends in Montauban all psyched to celebrate. There were not 2, not 3, not even 4, but 5! Five pies on my kitchen table to honor pi. We totally pigged out. I made the famous apple and gruyère cheese pie from the amazing TV series “Pushing Daisies”: Graham made this savory steak pie: Becky made another savory pie with chicken: Tanya made banoffy pie (Wow, for anyone who’s never tasted this: run, don’t walk, ok?): And Libby’s pie was a chocolate pudding pie in a cookie crust that never really gelled. We ate hers with spoons like it was soup. The best chocolate pie soup I’ve ever had. So here’s to celebrating miscellaneous food holidays, everyone. It just makes so much sense. Why not? You know? I don’t think it takes much arm-twisting to convince most people they ought to eat pie though. Well, I hope most of you did, or will some time in the near future. Happy Pi Day!

Crackin’ Down

February 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

Things have been serious lately. I mean, I’ve been taking inventory of all my furniture, all the bulky things and thoughts that fill the room of my life. Under my clear green visor, I’m counting with precision and not so much as a smirk.

Is it a seasonal thing catching up with me? My car, Chuck, was buried under a fresh mound of snow this week. Snow that canceled two rendez-vous of mine. This is serious. But it doesn’t have to be.

I like to think of Tom Robbins when life gets too stiff and constricted. He’s great to loosen things up, oil those joints, think outside the box, etc . Here’s something from Skinny Legs & All: “She decided that there were things in this world upon which it was best not to dwell lest they attach themselves to one’s keel like barnacles, and slowly cause one to leak, to list, and eventually to sink.”

So I’m sick of this straight jacket. There are a couple things I’d like to see: cracking of ice as it melts on the lakes and the cracking of more smiles. Oh look: crackers.

So, to spell out the very obvious metaphor here, I decided to make my own crackers. Half of them were plain and half had toasted sesame seeds in the dough. I’m a big fan of cheese and crackers (with all their fancy friends: olives, dried meats, dried fruit, jams and honey). Instead of ripping open another box of my old stand-by crackers, I made my own dough. I chilled the dough in the fridge for an hour or so, then rolled it out in long strips, coated it with a egg-and-soy-sauce wash, and threw them in the oven. Either I didn’t roll my dough thin enough (probably), or I added too much baking soda, because these guys had less of a crunch and crack, and more of a wimpy snap. Well if my crackers can loosen up, maybe I can too. Crackers, anyway, are just vehicles for different creamy cheeses and spreads. With that in mind, they turned out perfectly. That’s a blueberry stilton cheese on that plate. So good. Didn’t blend so well with sesame seeds and soy sauce, but went well with the plane-jane crackers.

I’ve got to say, it’s hard to shake off the winter numbness, the doldrums, the strict severity that comes with long days indoors, sitting down, looking outside. (Man, seriously, I think I’m suffering from a major case of seasonal depression!) But I’m determined to get sillier, go where the laughter is, and seek out the positive.

Let me close with this positively abstract drawing I made of my homemade crackers:

Sweet Potatoes, Sweet Memories

February 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

Plunging temperatures in Minnesota. Ice fishing abounds on the lake outside my window. There’s activity out there on the tundra, but no way am I leaving this house or this sweatshirt unless I have to. Instead, I’m cozying up next to my space heater with a stack of old journals. If you keep journals then you know how black-hole-like they are. You start reading the fictions of your past, and you get sucked into your own stories, ideas, images, dramas.

The journals I was reading were from my formative France months. I have eight of them—some are thicker than others. All are full of wine bottle labels, ephemera found in the street, thoughts that tumbled out daily, and sketches of buildings and people. It’s easy to get pulled back into those books where you’ve documented such a departure in your life…

Between the pages, I stumbled upon a recipe that I’d noted, but never actually tried. For sweet potato muffins. The recipe was one I picked up when I visited Penzey’s on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown prior to leaving. Penzey’s is this incredible spice shop with every variation on traditional (and non-traditional) spices you could imagine. Next to the Venetian cinnamon, I found this recipe noted.

Since I am crazy about muffins, I think my heart skipped a beat when I scanned the list of ingredients. Carrot cake muffins drive me wild, so this one that called for another orange vegetable intrigued me. Mashed sweet potatoes, crushed pecans, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg? Yes. Yes. And yes, please. I never had time to bake a pan before hopping on my plane for France Land, but last night I closed that gap. I peeled, boiled, and mashed a giant sweet potato, then combined it with all the good stuff: loads of butter and sugar, of course. I licked the batter off the spoon after tucking the muffins into the oven, and a memory from last year came flooding back to me.

My friend, Libby liked to eat the raw batter more than she enjoyed eating the finished product (cookies or pies or what-have-you). Libby was another American teaching English in the French town where I lived. We lived in single apartments about 4 minutes from each other, so often she would walk across the Place Nationale and climb the stairwell to my kitchen where we would bake treats we missed back in the states. Chocolate chip cookies and the like:

It’s funny looking back on a year. February in Montauban, France was so different from February in Minnesota. I heard something on the radio the other day that noted the peculiarity—the downright abstraction and mystery—of getting onto a big metal airplane in one city then walking off in a completely different city. Different climates. Different languages. Different people and culture and food.

I sunk back into my journal-reading as I waited for the sweet potato muffins to finish. Remembering with curiosity how scared I was when I needed to call the plumber to visit my apartment and fix my broken faucet. How nervous I was with my French speaking. How enchanted it felt to wake up at 5am and go for a walk as the market stalls were being set up for a busy Saturday morning. Memories are real, can recast themselves like short IFC films when you jog them. The oven beeped, piercing the reverie.

I gotta say: wow. Thank you Penzey’s for giving me this awesome recipe. Glad that I noted it in the weathered pages of an old journal. Going back and revisiting the past can taste pretty sweet.

Sweet Potato Muffins

1/2 cup butter (soft) … 1&1/4 cup sugar … 2 eggs … 1&1/4 cup cooked, mashed sweet potatoes … 1/4 cup milk … 1&1/2 cup flour … 2 tsp baking powder … 1/4 tsp salt … 1 tsp cinnamon … 1/4 tsp nutmeg … 1/2 cup raisins … 1/4 cup chopped pecans (…) topping: 2 TB sugar … 1/4 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven 375 degrees. Cream butter. Gradually add sugar. Add eggs, one at a time. Stir in sweet potatoes and milk. In separate bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, & nutmeg. Add to creamed mixture, stirring just until moistened. Fold in raisins and pecans. Spoon batter into greased muffin tins (2/3 full). Mix together sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle on top of muffins. Bake at 375 for 25-27 minutes.

Makes about 20 muffins.

Breads Fall Apart

January 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

When I was living in France, I did my fair share of baking. Mostly cookies and scones. I’d bake them on aluminum foil inside my “Magic Oven.” The difference in flour, butter, and the metric system—-these things never seemed to get in the way of my baking. Any dough that went into the oven emerged golden brown, beautiful, and delicious. I guess you could say I started to expect good results. Even with limited effort. There, I set myself up for the inevitable fall.

The day when something horrible and inedible would appear between those potholders. That day was yesterday. Behold: What is that? How did it happen?

Well, it was supposed to be “Pain de Fromage Pour Bien Boire,” or “Cheese Bread To Give You A Thirst.” Obviously, that’s not what it’s giving you, or anybody. Judging by that photo,  it’ll probably give you a stomach ache instead.

To explain how this atrocity happened: I was taking a leap, using an old cookbook that was first published in French in the 30’s. Inside its binding are recipes from the late 19th century, thus—these ingredients, these directions—-this everything—-is very risky for the hopeful cook. I should’ve looked before leaping, but I had the “Magic Oven Syndrome,” thinking I was invincible in an apron.

The recipe reads as follows:

Mix one hundred twenty-five grams of flour, seventy-five grams of grated cheese—Gruyère or Parmesan—salt and cayenne pepper, half a coffee spoon of Alsatian yeast. When you have kneaded it all together, add seventy-five grams of butter and the yolk of an egg.  Lay out the paste, cut it in strips or rounds, glaze with an egg yolk, put it in a hot oven for about ten minutes.

Voilà. C’est tout. Not the most information to go off of. Still, I told myself that with all that butter and cheese, how could I mess up? Take a look at the photo of the dense cheese-&-butter balls in the above photo, and you see how. So I should have rolled that dough flat, okay. That was my first mistake. But look—the yeast was never proofed before it went into the bread dough. What’s that about? And the only thing really holding these things together was that one measly egg yolk. No wonder things went awry.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. I plopped my chin on my fists and stared at the failed bread. If I knew more about baking, or if the instructions were clearer, or if I had done more research before launching myself into this…

Actually, the Magic Oven Syndrome is applicable to my current situation at home. I, like many others, am treading water in a sloshing pool of job applicants, all looking for full-time work. In the past, it seems as though jobs have found me, and I’ve worked them happily. I’ve never put too much sweat, toil, and preparation into the hunt. Things just kind of…worked out.

There’s a lesson here. Being prepared is better than crossing your fingers and hoping all the hurdles will be cleared. Knowing what to expect and feeling confident is foolproof. And maybe Magic Ovens only exist in France. Who knows! At any rate, I did some homework and tried again, this time leaning on a more modern recipe and adding some rosemary and fresh cracked pepper to the dough. I have to say, the results are much better than the dastardly doughballs that I created yesterday. Uff.

So, I think it’s best to apply this same process to any kind of search. Before diving in, it helps to know what you’re looking for. You’ll recognize it pretty quickly when you find it. 

Say Life Gives You Lemons…& Dried Blueberries

January 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Streets clogged with the shells of squashed packing peanuts. That was Minneapolis last night. It was impossible to drive in all that snow. My car (which I named Chuck Norris, aka Chuck, aka Charles—-if he’s feeling fancy) was having a heck of a time with the snowbanks. He had to roundhouse kick his way out of the parallel parking job we found pre-concert at Bryant Lake Bowl.

After a night of electro-static-sweetness and Thom York-esque crooning (by OME), I drove home, collapsed in bed and proceeded to dream about the lake behind our house, hamburgers, swimming suits, and summertime in general. All things that are most definitely out of season. So, this Saturday morning found me disappointed and thinking of warmer days. It’s true, I woke up at the groggy hour of 10 AM with full-on sun shining on my face, but there was also the sound of neighbors out snow-blowing their driveways, so yeah—-still winter time.

I meandered downstairs on a mission. I haven’t baked scones in the longest time, and now that I was thinking of weather that was impossible to enjoy, the least I can do is bake something that, if not for cross-country shipping, I would not be able to do.

So, bring on the lemons, bring on the blueberries. And accompany those with a side of blackberries and strawberries: all things that are best enjoyed in the summer. Preferably post-dip in the lake. I had a recipe in mind. It was something I stumbled upon on Epicurious. Blueberry-Lemon Scones with a buttermilk glaze. I stole the skin of a florescent lemon. I meshed my butter into my flour with some blueberries. I turned this out with some flour, then threw them into the oven for half an hour.

It’s crazy, when you think about it, that we can enjoy any fruit or vegetable, or what-have-you, any time of the year. True, those roma tomatoes taste like a lot of nothing during the winter, and berries cost an arm & a leg, but still—-if we want it, we can have it. It is possible. Most of the time though, the things we want most—-maybe even think we can’t live without—-are not available to us, or they won’t be available this season. It’s that aching feeling. If you’re from the Midwest, it’s easiest to liken this ache to snowscapes: looking out the window with a cup of tea, feeling melancholy as you dream of the days you won’t have to kick your boots off before getting inside your car to get the snow off. If you’re far away from someone you want to see, it’s the same thing. Wrong season. There’s no vegetable truck that can bring these things to you. Culinarily speaking though, we’re spoiled.

We can spend nights out spinning tires in the slush, dream of warmer days, then wake up to at least taste some semblance of what we want.

Oh—-and, in case you’re wondering, this scone recipe was bomb.