30 October 2008

Breakfasts I Have Known

I've been enjoying baking more now that my apartment is starting to feel like a meat locker.

I realized, though, that I've never posted a recipe for scones, and that's just wrong because they are my absolute favorite breakfast tea accompaniment. These ones were a happy experiment, as I was looking to incorporate more seasonal flavors.

Pomegranate-Ginger Scones
Makes: 8 large or 16 small scones

2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish
2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
2 ounces chopped crystallized ginger
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, plus 1 tablespoon for brushing

1. Heat oven to 425°. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar into a medium-sized bowl. With a fork, mix in the pomegranate seeds and ginger.

2. Make a well in the center and pour in heavy cream, stirring gently until just mixed. Knead a few times in the bowl to form a ball, and place on a lightly floured surface. Pat into a disk about 1/2 inch thick, being careful to not overwork the dough.

3. Slice across the circle into triangles. Place on a baking sheet and brush just the tops carefully with the 1 tablespoon heavy cream. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.

4. Bake for 16-18 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer to a cooling rack and let sit for at least 15 minutes before eating.

The classic version (for me, that is, not for anyone British) is with 2/3 cup of dried cranberries and 4 ounces of coarsely chopped bittersweet chocolate instead of the pomegranate and ginger. It's divine.

I've also been toying around with danishes, notably a Nigella Lawson recipe for a quick, food-processor dough instead of the classic, butter-pounded, endless folding version.

This cheese danish turned out OK, but the dough really was a bit of a disappointment, misbehaving more than a spoiled, golden-haired Scandinavian boy. The filling was delicious (ricotta, sugar, melted butter, a bit of lemon zest), but I need to find a better recipe to enclose it.

I'm afraid it will have to be an authentic puff pastry. That's serious unchartered territory.

29 October 2008

Back to Sweet

Life can never be as bad as you imagine, if you have a slice of this cake and a cup of tea at your side.

This decadent chocolate confection was adapted from a Jacques Torres recipe; I baked it a few weeks ago for a friend's birthday and was simply too busy inhaling it to post. It's not made like a typical flourless cake, but don't be intimidated by the method: The result is an unusually rich, tender texture.

I dusted it with matcha and a little cocoa powder instead of the usual confectioners' sugar- there's just something about that green tea-dark chocolate combination that is so delicious it seems like it shouldn't be legal.

Flourless Chocolate Cake
Makes: 12 servings.

6 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar and 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon
1 1/2 teaspoons water
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
6 large eggs
Matcha, cocoa powder (for garnish)

1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch cake pan, then line bottom of pan with a 9-inch parchment-paper circle. Grease paper.

2. Over extremely low heat, melt together chopped chocolates, stirring constantly. Pour into a medium-sized bowl and set aside.

3. In small saucepan, combine the 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar and the water. Bring to boil over medium-high heat until all sugar is dissolved. Pour hot syrup into melted chocolate; whisk until well blended. Add butter; whisk until well mixed.

4. In bowl, beat eggs and remaining granulated sugar with a mixer until blended. Gently fold into chocolate mixture, and pour into prepared cake pan. Place baking pan large enough to hold cake pan in oven. Place cake pan in larger pan. Fill larger pan with enough water to come 1 inch up side of cake pan.

5. Bake in 350°F oven until surface is firm when pressed in middle, 35-40 minutes. Transfer pan to rack; let cool before dusting with matcha and cocoa powder, then slice and serve.

27 October 2008

Is It Possible for Me to Smell Any Better?

A question you should ask yourself at least daily.

If the answer isn't to your liking, then there is a temporary solution: green tea mints ($1.99) from Trader Joe's.

These were a true impulse buy at the checkout yesterday; Sunday nights always require a little treat, at least to get my upcoming week started.

And while they may play into the "it's green tea, so it's good for me" scam, these mints are quite tasty. Matcha is the second ingredient (after sugar, so you know they can't be that bad), providing a surprisingly authentic vegetal punch.

There's even a pleasant, lingering pepperminty finish, especially helpful on those days you may have forgotten to brush your teeth because you spent 35 minutes changing outfits and are now running really, really late.

Just resist the urge to eat the whole tin at one time. I did that with some cinnamon Altoids a few years back (I was at a bowling alley, hungry and bored) and haven't had mints since because of the damage done to my tongue- for a solid week afterward, any dairy products I ate tasted like I was licking knives.

Three of these in a row seems perfectly safe, however. Do your neighbors a favor and get some.

21 October 2008

The Joy of Cooking

I've had some requests for more savory tea-based recipes, and as you may know, I relish doing as I'm told.

I don't know why I automatically think sweet when cooking with tea. Am I a secret sugar addict? Perhaps.

Or maybe I just see the effect dessert can have on people. Salty, spicy and fatty foods certainly satisfy cravings, but it's the warm slice of gingerbread, the runny piece of sour cherry pie topped with creme fraiche, the hot fudge sinking into a scoop of vanilla ice cream that make the eater's eyes close in pleasure and quiet moans escape in that first exhale. Nothing is more pleasing to a cook than witnessing that transcendence.

Still, you do need salt to offset all that sugar. So here's a recipe I've been sitting on for years, for no reason other than unmitigated laziness. There's three ingredients, not counting water, so I truly have no excuse. And it's quite tasty- with a pleasantly exotic jasmine fragrance- so it's now going into the regular rice rotation (I'm working up to 20 servings a week).

Jasmine Tea Rice
Makes: 4 servings.

1 tablespoon loose jasmine tea
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups jasmine rice

1. Bring 2 1/4 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat and add tea; cover and steep for 5 minutes. Strain, discarding tea leaves; return brewed tea to the saucepan and stir in salt.

2. Bring tea back to a boil over medium-high heat. Add rice, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook 15 minutes, until tea is absorbed. Let sit for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.

I had it underneath a simple but rich Thai curry bursting with all my favorite vegetables (broccoli, carrots, mushrooms and tomatoes). The coconut milk played so well off the jasmine essence, it almost made me forget about dessert. Almost.

16 October 2008

Soy Polloi

Four small tables; pistachio-ice-cream-colored walls; a bathroom that could be found inside a 747.

With a steaming cup of genmaicha ($1.25) in hand, this is where I happily spent last night.

It's all at the tiny Japanese home-cooking restaurant Soy (102 Suffolk St., btw. Delancey and Rivington). I recently read an encouraging review, and I figured there was some tea to be tasted there. Plus I don't think I'd graced that particular block with my presence before, which could only boost the real-estate value.

Even though my tea was bagged, its nutty flavor went well with all the savories I tried: the crisp, homemade edamame-stuffed gyoza, the how-can-you-not-order-it treasure sack (soft tofu and vegetables wrapped in a sweet tofu pouch) and my favorite, the ginger tofu. If that sounds like a soy overload, it wasn't- and it was also less salty than Japanese food can sometimes be.

The star of the meal, however, was the green-tea cheesecake ($4.95): two layers of light, creamy deliciousness- fluffy matcha on top, and suprisingly rich tofu underneath. This, with another cup of green tea (which the waitress refilled my cup for, a small touch but one that is often forgotten) was the highlight of my day.

That may say something about my days lately. Or maybe it was just all the estrogen coursing through my veins.

14 October 2008

Cake Redux

One is never enough: I had to make another chocolate cake to celebrate, this time, a moist devil's food slathered in thick, grainy chocolate frosting.

A slice of this, straight out of the fridge with a hot cup of Darjeeling beside it makes getting older seem like a good idea- for a few minutes, at least.

Chocolate Satin Frosting
Makes: 3 cups.

1 cup heavy cream
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

1. In a small saucepan, bring cream to a boil. Turn off heat, add chocolate and let sit for 10 minutes.
2. Stir chocolate mixture and pour into a food processor. Add sugar, butter, vanilla and salt and blend for at least one minute, until throughly mixed.
3. Let frosting sit for a few minutes to thicken, refrigerating if necessary, before spreading on cake. This can be made ahead and refrigerated for a week before using.

This frosting would also grace a classic yellow cake quite nicely. Or even a yellow cake made with some matcha. Hmm.

12 October 2008

St. Regis, I'm Moving In

Coming off a recent afternoon tea in Cape May, I didn't expect one at the grand, sumptuous St. Regis Hotel (2 E 55th St.) in Manhattan to be all that different.

I was pleasantly mistaken.

The last time I stepped inside the St. Regis was back in my bright-eyed food editor days, and I was invited there for a Celestial Seasonings tea press event. I was agog at all the gleaming silver serving pieces and realized that morning that even when you're drinking bagged tea, if it's out of a gilded cup and you're clutching a cucumber-mint sandwich in the other hand, it can taste pretty good.

It's been more than a few weary years since then, and this time I was the one making the reservations and paying the bill (or rather, everyone I dragged in with me, since it was for my birthday). But it was no less splendid than I remembered.

Afternoon tea is served in the Astor Court, a golden, glowing, chandeliered room. Unlike at my house, the linens on the table are actually linen, and the plush couches and chairs practically beg you to stay for hours. It's just too hard to get up, especially when a waiter who dresses better than you do is pouring tea from a silver pot with a flourish and whisks in tray after tray of sweets. For all I know, the harpist in the corner would even take requests.

The tea list is outstanding on its own: there are over 20 varieties, from golden Assam, imperial osmanthus oolong and organic green to heady house blends with vanilla, cornflower petals, mangoes and lemon verbena. I picked a Chinese green scented with pear, and it couldn't have been better prepared: The water wasn't too hot, so the gentle, earthy flavor of the tea really came through.

The first course of savory sandwiches made me want to never eat anything with crusts again. The smoked salmon roulade with lemon-chive butter on pumpernickel bread and the sundried tomato and goat cheese spread on whole grain took the concept of finger foods to lofty new height.

The ensuing sweet course was layers of unimaginable delight, from the pineapple-almond tea bread, miniature lemon meringue tarts and two types of bite-sized chocolate cakes to the tender scones and accompanying spread choice of apple butter, strawberry jam, lemon curd and clotted cream- like an exquisitely unhealthy salad-bar toppings section.

Shockingly, the food, which all seemed so diminutive, proved more than enough to push my blood-sugar to dangerously high levels- especially when I was surprised by a rich, caramel-kissed tarte tatin topped with a scoop of green-apple sorbet and a birthday candle at the very end.

For the first time in my life, I didn't think I was going to be able to eat dessert.

I rallied, however, cleaned my plate, and then my party and I all tried to roll ourselves back out the door. But even more deliciously overstuffed couches in an adjacent mahogany sitting room beckoned, and we sat for awhile longer, digesting like true Astors.

Why can't just one afternoon every week be like this?

Afternoon tea, $48/with champagne $60; served Mon.–Sun. from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Splendor in the Afternoon

When answers are hard to come by, as they are in today's climate, people often look to the past. So what did the Victorians do when the bottom just fell out of everything?

Drank tea, probably. And ordered a few more dogs to be tossed on the fire with an ornate, engraved pair of sterling puppy tongs. Must keep that water hot, after all.

I tried to summon this devil-may-care abandon during a recent trip to Cape May, N.J., which besides the birds and beaches is well known for its Victorian decor and not surprisingly, preponderance of afternoon teas. What better place to escape from all those nasty red negative numbers?

My first tea was at the sprawling Queen Victoria hotel (102 Ocean St.), and was included in the room rate, as with most local bed & breakfasts. Despite the silver tiered trays of sweets and few different flavored teas, it wasn't much more elaborate than what I would make on an ordinary day to serve to guests.

But sitting outside in such good company, on a veranda in the deliciously soft October light while an endless stream of migrating monarchs floated by, made it worth the trip.

It's only a few hours south of New York City, but I felt it might as well be another, far more calm and civilized planet- albeit one populated by all old people in festive sweatshirts.

The next day I decided to try tea at the Carriage House Tearoom (1048 Washington St.), which is heralded in every Cape May guidebook as the place for an elegant experience.

The menu was certainly larger and the service more attentive than at the Queen Victoria, but still, the tea wasn't much to write home about.

It was all bagged, for one thing, even though it was proudly branded as Harney and Sons. This company's teas are fine, but still, they're in bags- the quality is never going to approach the full, round flavor of a cup of loose-leaf tea.

Against my usual nose-turn at flavored teas, I selected tropical green, which was an Indian green tea (intriguing, as I've never had this) mixed with pineapple. It was actually quite nice, and lightly fruity; if only the water in the teapot hadn't been boiling hot, it would have been a truly interesting cup.

The tower of homemade bite-sized treats, however, won me over. It may not have contained the most refined scones or the richest chocolate tarts I've ever had, but there is always just something so decadent about eating a sandwich the size of a lighter and with the crusts cut off. The clotted cream was real; the blueberry and pistachio-walnut tea breads were moist and tender; and the roasted vegetable and hummus, cucumber and mint cream cheese and egg salad sandwiches were delicate and just savory enough to offset all the sweets.

My favorite was the triple layered lemon-blueberry bar, which consisted of frozen lemon curd and a whipped, icy citrus layer atop a shortbread crust, straddling the end-of-summer, welcome-to-autumn feel of the whole vacation perfectly.

At $15.50 per person, it was a deal anyone could well afford to treat themselves to. Even if you're not royalty, you need clotted cream right now.

11 October 2008

Happy Birthday to Me

And what better way to celebrate it than a rich slice of homemade flourless chocolate cake, dusted with cocoa and matcha, chased down with a cup of Umegashima sencha?

Well, a few lovely presents- all tea-related, of course.

And a pinkies-extended, Champagne-laden afternoon tea in one of Manhattan's most venerable, opulent tea rooms. I'll tell you and this small brown puppy all about it tomorrow- I don't believe they allow dogs.

05 October 2008

A Perfect Pear

Chocolate and pears, that is- and black tea too.

I made this for a dinner party the other night, and to be honest, I chose it because I'd spent too much time and effort on the savory courses. It was a new recipe, but it seemed the easiest tea-related dessert that I could make and then slyly photograph and repurpose for the blog without my guests noticing.

It turned out to be much more than last resort recipe, however: The muskiness of the pears, saturated with tea, produced floral and spicy overtones with every moist bite. And the simplicity of the chocolate sauce- just chopped bittersweet bars melted into some of the tea poaching liquid- belied its velvety, rich taste.

This is an ideal season-transition dish; the pears and strong black tea definitely conjure autumn, but the subtle citrus note and ice-cream-sundae gilding bring back the quickly fading memory of summer.

And you get to use a melon baller, with which I've discovered it's impossible to be in a bad mood while wielding. Perhaps it's the instant, irrepressible 1950s vibe it gives you, a feeling that communism could indeed be defeated with cheerfulness and a clean apron.

The original recipe, believe it or not, was from the amusing cookbook Veganomicon, which, despite its somewhat lax editing, I'd recommend. Because I don't like anyone telling me what to do, I've just been making all its baked goods with real butter and milk- and, like these pears, they've been turning out full of omnivoric guilt, and quite delicious.

Tea-Poached Pears in Chocolate Sauce
Makes: 4-6 servings.

3 cups water
4 teaspoons black tea (try English Breakfast or Darjeeling)
1/4 cup sugar
4 firm Bosc or D'Anjou pears, peeled, sliced in half lengthwise and cored
Zest from 1/2 orange, in wide strips
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used one Ghiradelli bar of 60% cacao, one of 70%), chopped
Vanilla ice cream, for serving

1. In a medium-size saucepan, boil the water. Add tea and sugar, stir to mix, and let steep for 5-10 minutes. Strain the liquid into a serving bowl, then back into the saucepan, discarding tea leaves.

2. Bring tea mixture to a boil and add orange zest, vanilla and pears. Let simmer for 10 minutes, then remove orange zest. Simmer for another 10-15 minutes, or until pears are just tender when pierced with a knife. Transfer pears and liquid to serving bowl.

3. Remove one cup of poaching liquid and return it to the saucepan. Bring it to a simmer, then turn off heat and add chocolate, stirring to melt. Let the sauce and pears cool separately, about one hour, then serve together with ice cream, if desired.

Oh and yes, it is rather difficult to shoot ice cream dripping with hot fudge. I think it's time for a photography assistant/blog intern. I promise to review all resumes sent my way, and to offer my priceless words of unasked-for life advice as compensation.

04 October 2008

Nice Tea Meet You

I usually splurge on the tea I drink, not what I drink it out of. I've seen so many beautiful vessels lately, though, that I can't resist imaging them warm in my hands, a light curl of steam rising from the top.

I rarely reach for a solid, hefty type of cup, but what other form could this Nordic painted mug and infuser set (Gorsuch, $58), handmade in Hungary, take?

There's something about the lid that I like, too. And I'd imagine such a thick container would help keep your tea hot for far longer than the boring glass mug I use almost every day.

Just so I don't seem completely out of touch, I acknowledge that this is over $50 for one mug. But it's from a ski outfitter that has panda-trimmed parkas for a mere $4,000, so comparatively it seems like a bargain. Or maybe it's just me.

More reasonable, and far more unexpected, are the lovingly crafted mugs from the imaginative potter LovesGasStation.

Despite my diehard east-side mentality, this charming west love mug (Etsy, $25) makes me want to jump into my nonexistent '66 Mustang and head to the desert with nothing more than this cup full of green tea at my side.

But wait, there's a pale-pink-lined gumball cup (Etsy, $20) too, that I can imagine feels so reassuring in hand. Maybe for my second brew?

So it's just a tea towel (Toast, £5.50). But it's striped, linen, and British. And I could use it to dry all those new mugs.

Plus, it would look so perfect aside the classic lines of this betty teapot (Toast, £25)- which, in turn, wouldn't be complete without this cable-knit tea cozy (Toast, £35) in a soothing heathered blue.

I've never thought tea cozies were anything other than fussy and unnecessary, like fuzzy toilet seat covers. But this combination, for some reason, seems to make sense right now. The fact that the heat has yet to turn on in my apartment might have something to do with it.

The seconds teapot (Clio Home, $95), however, is too striking to cover at all. Large prints of acrobatic birds- a blue jay, cardinal or oriole- grace the delicate porcelain, ready to serve up your favorite brew.

Paired with some simple, white handleless cups, it would make for an elegant and unexpected setting.

Hmm, maybe for an upcoming birthday tea? Oh, that's so thoughtful of you to remember.