23 November 2009

Sencha in Seattle

I paid my first visit to Seattle- and to the Pacific Northwest, actually- a few months ago. The delay in writing about it is all due to fault with me, and none with the place itself.

The food was outstanding- I'd never seen so many vegetables, fruits, cheeses, grains all in season at the same time- tea was plentiful (although I did pack some to take with me, just in case), the weather was gorgeous, and the light, everywhere, was marvelous. My friend who I was visiting agreed when I exclaimed over how subtly different everything, from leaves to water to bricks, was illuminated. Her explanation was that the sky seems closer here.

She was completely right; the clouds seemed tantalizingly within reach, like a pile of meringues behind a pastry case.

Each morning, I'd tiptoe through her kitchen, silently preparing my first cup of tea, and slip outside to a dock steps from her door to watch the sun rise over Lake Washington. Curling around the cup, listening to the waves' hollow lapping under the piers, it seemed to me like nothing else was awake, except a snow-capped Mt. Rainier emerging like a mirage across the water and spiders slowly stretching in their glistening webs. After I finished my tea, on the way back to the apartment, I'd pluck dewy blackberries right off the vine and straight into my mouth, marveling at this world of green and blue well within city limits. And I finally understood how she could leave New York and call this place home for the past four years.

I tried to be diligent about tasting, taking notes and photos of all the other places I had tea over the long weekend, but I really was enjoying it- and eating- too much to stay focused. (Consuming donuts at every meal, three days in a row, didn't help my concentration either.)

So in lieu of a tea-room rundown, I wanted instead to capture the essence of the place, back here in my kitchen. As I somehow managed to stave off diabetes on the trip, I was leaning more toward savory than sweet.

It's been some time since I've made a traditional, slow-rise, knead-for-15-minutes-while-you-space-out-and-revert-to-a-trancelike-prelingual-calm bread. But with those local dried cherries and farro I stuffed into my suitcase (those two pounds of kippered salmon I carried back in my purse were consumed long ago), it was clear what to do.

Baking is a ritual that both comforts and commemorates- one of the most basic, and most satisfying. And so here is whole-wheat farro bread: how I remember Seattle.

Whole-Wheat Farro Bread
Makes: 2 loaves.

1 cup farro
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon molasses
1 cup dried cherries
1 package (scant 1 tablespoon) active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups bread or all-purpose flour
2 cups whole-wheat flour
1 to 2 cups white whole-wheat flour

1. In medium bowl, combine farro and 1 cup boiling water. Cover and let sit 30 minutes, then stir in salt, olive oil, 4 tablespoons molasses and dried cherries. Cover and let stand an additional 30 minutes.

2. In large bowl, dissolve yeast in 1 cup warm water. Stir in 1 teaspoon molasses, then mix in 1 1/2 cups bread flour. Cover with a damp cloth, set in a warm place, and let rise 30 to 45 minutes.

3. With a wooden spoon, beat farro mixture into risen dough until completely incorporated. Gradually stir in 2 cups whole-wheat flour and 1 cup white whole-wheat flour into the dough, adding more flour as necessary and turning dough out onto a lightly floured surface once it becomes too stiff to stir. Knead for 15 minutes, adding flour only if sticky, until dough is smooth and supple. Lightly oil large bowl and turn dough in it to coat. Cover with a damp cloth and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

4. Punch dough down and knead lightly for a few minutes. Divide in half, and shape into a free-form boule or pat into an oval, and place in an oiled loaf pan. Cover each with a damp cloth and let rise until doubled, about 45 minutes.

5. Heat oven (and pizza stone, if you have one) to 400°. Bake boule directly on stone or baking sheet, or loaf in pan, for about 45 minutes. Let cool on rack, turning bread out of pan (if using) after 10 minutes. Cool completely before slicing.

This bread is slightly sweet, from the molasses and cherries, but it's balanced out by the whole-wheatiness and chewy, nutty bites of farro. And while it is delightful all on its own, a toasted slice with butter or melted cheese along with your afternoon cup of tea is heavenly.

If you can't find farro, another grain like bulgur, brown rice or oats- or even chopped walnuts- would be an excellent stand-in. Or you can just plan a trip to Seattle to get some.

For more gluteny goodness, check out YeastSpotting.

13 November 2009

Coffee, Tea ... or Both?

It's rarely a difficult choice: people are either coffee or tea drinkers. There may be a cup of the other enjoyed now and then, but your heart belongs to just one.

But you can actually have them both, and be able to look at yourself in the mirror the next morning.

The secret is cascara, a tea made from steeping the dried skins of coffee cherries, which today are normally discarded during processing. This tea is actually an ancient drink known as qishr, and the original way coffee was prepared beginning around the 9th century in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethopia).

Do you understand what this means? Before extra-foam triple half-caf grande soyaccinos, coffee was tea. I'm not being all teaist, either. It's just a fact.

Cascara is simple to make, but a lack of available information or research invited experimentation. Playing around with the dose, water temperature and steeping time, I found 5 grams per 1 cup of just-boiling water, brewed for 8 minutes, to be ideal.

The few other guidelines I turned up recommend a 7-minute maximum brew, but as you can see (photo, below), this produced a much fainter- in color and flavor- cup of tea. It didn't seem that an additional minute would make much of a difference, but it brought out the deep, cherrylike sweetness in way that made the botanical connection suddenly hit on your tongue: Coffee comes from a fruit.

I'm not advocating it as a traditional tea substitute, but for any espresso addicts in search of a transition drink, this could get you off the junk. It's much closer to a fruit or berry tisane than a true (Camellia sinensis) tea, but it's a start.

Plus, it's made from what is usually considered trash. How eco is that?

If you still don't believe me, here's a little video of the whole process from the Square Mile Coffee Roasters, in London, which is where this batch is from.

26 October 2009

Along Came a Cider

I went apple picking recently. And it's already vaulted into my List of Favorite Things: the light but palpable fragrance of ripe fruit in the cool air, the sharp crack of the apple stem as you twist it from the tree's jealous grip, and of course, the succulent crunch of that first bite.

Ending up with a peck of apples for $8 wasn't bad, either. I've eaten one a day, devoured apple crisp and applesauce oat bran muffins and still, somehow, crave more.

I wanted to incorporate tea into an apple dish, however, instead of just serving it alongside. Why not brew the tea directly in apple cider? a little nagging voice whispered. It usually offers me far worse advice, so I didn't see any harm in trying a novel method- and let me tell you, not much tastes better in the slanted autumn afternoon light than a cup of this cider tea.

It takes mere minutes to prepare, and it makes your kitchen smell like a spice merchant being seduced by Aphrodite. (You'll know what I mean when you make it.)

You can use any strong black tea, but I chose a fragrant, spicy apple-flavored tea (pictured below) from David's Tea that I'd been wanting to try for awhile.

It's a blend of black and green leaves with chunks of dried apple and bits of cinnamon and almond. Brewed alone, I found it a bit too sweet (one of the reasons I usually avoid flavored teas), but when combined with the natural tartness of apple cider, it worked beautifully.

Spiced Apple Cider Tea

In medium saucepan, bring 2 cups apple cider to a boil. Turn off heat and add 1 tablespoon tea; let steep three minutes, then strain into large measuring cup. Pour cider back into saucepan and stir in 1 cinnamon stick, several cloves and a few slices of crystallized or fresh ginger. Bring just to a boil and simmer 10-15 minutes. Serve hot.

Garnish with a few slivered almonds or cloves, and make sure each serving has a piece of crystallized ginger- a sweet and spicy reward for finishing the cup, although little incentive will be necessary.

23 October 2009

Apple iCrisp

As I was getting the ingredients together for this apple crisp, I was talking on the phone to my mother, who had just happened to be pulling one out of the oven. I wondered at the coincidence, but reminded myself that she was the one who introduced me to baking- and to tea, in fact- so it shouldn't have been much of a surprise.

But when I told her I was trying new recipe, from Alice Medrich's luscious cookbook Pure Dessert, and it had apricots along with the expected apples and oat topping, I could hear her recoil. A barely audible "ew" made its way over the line, and I tried to reassure her that it would be even better than a traditional apple crisp.

I was right. But I don't blame her for her reaction; she spent decades attempting to feed me and the rest of my incredibly picky family, and the battle scars that make her shy from foods like apricots, almonds, roasted garlic, cabbage and cream cheese are deep. Still, she managed to nourish us all and make it seem effortless- and pass on to me an inveterate respect the food I eat and drink. I can't express in words my gratitude to her; a ramekin of this apple-apricot crisp, and a cup of smooth, soothing Darjeeling, is all I can offer.

I know she'd love it. You have to be inhuman not to.

Apple-Apricot Crisp

1/2 cup all-purpose or white whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
Scant 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 cup sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/8 teaspoon salt
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
1/2 cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped
About 1/4 sugar, depending on the tartness of the apples
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 crisp, flavorful apples (I used Macintosh and Cortland)

1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and heat to 350°F. Liberally butter a 2-quart baking dish.

2. In medium bowl, stir together all topping ingredients until well blended. Set aside. For filling, in a medium saucepan, combine orange zest, orange juice and chopped apricots. Bring to a simmer and cook a few minutes, until apricots are soft. Set aside.

3. In large bowl, stir together sugar and cinnamon. Halve and core the apples, then cut into equal-sized chunks. Add apples to bowl and toss with sugar and cinnamon. Stir in apricots and juice from the saucepan. Scrape mixture into buttered baking dish and spread evenly. Crumble topping evenly over apples.

4. Bake until crisp is browned on top and the juices are bubbling and thickened, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours. Serve warm or cold.

Apple crisp is a messy dessert, but an appealing one- and when you leave the skins on the apples, not only can it get in the oven faster, the fruit also takes on a beautiful rosy blush. This recipe also showed me that the natural sweetness of apples requires little additional sugar, especially in combination with fresh orange juice and bright bursts of chopped apricot.

One of the other important culinary lessons my mother imparted is that the ideal breakfast is very open to interpretation. Having just finished off the dish of this crisp with a few cups of tea, I can assure you I've learned it well.

19 October 2009

She's No Lady Mendl

Sometimes you just need high tea. Yes, it's fussy, affected, disturbingly anglophiliac and drags having a cup of tea out to a two-hour affair, but there's still something delightful about it.

And so a languid Sunday afternoon was spent at Lady Mendl's (56 Irving Place), where a lovely five-course tea ($35) slowly unfolded in a plush, cozy space.

The restaurant is named for Lady Mendl (née Elsie de Wolfe), a prominent, turn-of-the-century interior decorator whose motto was, "Never complain, never explain." Far from just another high-society aesthete, however, Lady Mendl practiced yoga, dyed her graying hair blue, and lived in an openly gay relationship- not quite who you'd picture sitting docilely, pinkie extended, through afternoon tea.

The menu here is very traditional: an appetizer of a mushroom-goat cheese tart was followed by delicate finger sandwiches of smoked salmon with dill cream cheese, and cucumber with mint creme fraiche; tiny, moist scones, served with clotted cream and a rich raspberry jam, were next.

By the time the crepe cake- oozing with layer after layer of vanilla pastry cream- and then tender shortbread cookies and strawberries dipped in chocolate arrived, I was feeling a bit overindulgent.

But that's what the tea is for. The selection is decent, although a bit too skewed toward black and herbal teas for a sencha addict's tastes. With the brazen spirit of Lady Mendl in mind, I chose a pot of Russian caravan, and the smoky, deep Chinese tea was a welcome counterpoint to such rich food.

It was brewed perfectly, and served with grace. I'm curious as to whether they treat green and white tea as well- I suppose I'll just have to go back next week.

16 October 2009

It's Chai Time

It's 41° outside, and the constant, tiny daggers of rain for the past two days have made the thought of going anywhere absolutely preposterous.

Conditions like this spawn countless fair-weather (or rather, inclement-weather) tea-drinkers. That's fine with me; if you're not man enough to chug three steaming bowls of matcha when it's 95° and you're already pouring sweat at 8 a.m., that's your issue. I believe tea should be a part of every day regardless of the temperature, but then again, I've been accused of being stubborn or opinionated by almost everyone I know. Good thing I balance it out with such humor and charm.

And I don't think I'm above improvement. I made a big pot of chai earlier this week, and after a few unbiased, independent tastings, it became clear a recipe edit was needed. Playing off the classic chai that initiated TeaSpot, my new version is bolder and richer- thanks to a more concentrated spice infusion and smaller-leaf assam tea, as well as a bit of heavy cream- and shockingly (for me), less sweet.

Replacing the granulated sugar with honey conjures a subtler but more intriguing sweetness, and if you can find lavender honey, a warming vision of Provençal summer that gently spreads across your tongue and throughout your body. (Especially welcome as I sit here with two wool sweaters and a cashmere hat keeping me company.)

New Chai Tea

In a medium saucepan, combine 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup heavy cream with 3 cups water. Lightly crush 1-2 cinnamon sticks, 6-8 cardamon pods, 6-8 cloves, a small pinch of black peppercorns and a hunk of fresh ginger, peeled, and add to milk mixture. Heat over medium-high until simmering, then cover and remove from heat. Let steep 15 minutes, then gently reheat to simmering and add 4-5 tablespoons assam tea. Cover and remove from heat; steep 4 minutes. Strain and stir in 1-2 tablespoons honey.

The very concept of a "new" recipe, especially for a drink as ancient and open to interpretation as chai, is a bit silly. But there's never anything wrong with working on your improvisation skills.

05 October 2009

Gourmet, R.I.P.

I was on my third cup of tea this morning when this arrived in my inbox: insanity.

I know nothing is safe, or even really sacred, in today's world. But the shuttering of such a culinary bible makes the stinging slap of this recession feel fresh. I'm stunned, hand to cheek, as I look through the September issue, which is one of the most gorgeous publications I've ever seen- and I read a lot of food magazines.

The only fitting tribute is to make something from its lush pages, photograph it, and then eat it. And I will, as soon as I sort through the 20 recipes I marked.

Are digital media- like this very blog- in part to blame for the demise of print? I'd certainly like to think not. The immediacy of the web is appealing, but how can anything compare to holding an affordable piece of art, like Gourmet, in hand, and gently paging through spread after luscious spread? Seeing it on screen just isn't the same.

This is such a blow to the entire food world, and right now, the only constructive spin is that there's going to be a gaping void needing to be filled. But to follow the loss of such a reigning authority, it's going to have to be something superlative.

29 September 2009

A Study in Lemon and Poppy Seed

I know things have gotten a little preachy here recently, but anyone who loves food needs to read all eight pages of this Michael Pollan article. (And I do believe he himself falls a bit into the food-celebrity trap- maybe not for being flashy, but for the rabid dedication he inspires in his devotees. Is it possible I can continue to distrust people just because they're popular?)

It's a keen portrayal of the sad state of cooking in America today, how we're spending less time preparing food and more passively watching others do so. There is one quote that really struck me, from Sartre-charmer Simone de Beauvoir, talking about elevating the art of baking as a “revelation and creation; and a woman can find special satisfaction in a successful cake or a flaky pastry, for not everyone can do it: one must have the gift.”

Beauvoir wrote this in The Second Sex in 1949, but 60 years later, I'm still attempting it, almost every day, in my little dishwasherless city kitchen. Most recently, creativity was inspired by these lemon-poppy seed shortbread cookies from the lovely Lottie + Doof blog.

As I've said before, shortbread is an ideal vehicle for showcasing flavors, and these simple little cookies do so like champs. I used white whole-wheat flour to add a deeper, nutty flavor, and to pretend that they're actually good for you.

Lemon-Poppy Seed Shortbread
adapted from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups white whole-wheat flour, sifted
1 1/2 tablespoons poppy seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until creamy and smooth, about two minutes. Add the lemon juice, zest and vanilla and beat well.

2. In a bowl, whisk together flour, poppy seeds and salt. Add dry mixture to butter mixture and beat until combined. Form the dough into a disk, wrap and chill for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.

3. Heat oven to 300°. Roll the dough between two sheets of wax paper to a 1/4-inch-thick rectangle. Return dough to refrigerator for 30 minutes. Cut shortbread into squares or use desired shape cookie cutter, and place 1 inch apart on parchment-lined baking sheets. (Do not reroll scraps, if using cookie cutter.) Prick shortbread with a fork and bake until pale golden all over, 23 to 25 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

Well, they're good for your spirit, at least. And if you have them with a quiet green bowl of matcha, they're practically healthy.

23 August 2009

Toast Points

Pound cake is delicious.

Toast is delicious.

Therefore, toasted pound cake will be delicious.

I remember learning about the transitive property in geometry class- incidentally, the only math class I ever got even a B in (probably because it involved letters, not just numbers).

When you add heat to certain foods- I'm thinking of the fat and sugar variety- something interesting happens. For example: Cheese, good. Grilled cheese, murder-worthy. So while this blueberry-yogurt pound cake I adapted from the July Martha Stewart Living (I'm a bit behind on the reading, too) was quite delicious on its own, toasting it was transformative: the moist, velvety sweetness gains an almost savory dimension, and the coarse grains of sugar on top caramelize into a beautifully crunchy crust.

I didn't think I could love pound cake more- it's one of those confections, even straight-up, that gets shoved into your mouth increasingly quickly. There's no frosting, you think, so it's not like eating regular cake. And it's designed for tea, an elegantly simple sweet requiring no sauces or utensils.

The thick, bold grassiness of a megami sencha was a perfect foil to the richness and the intensity of the warm blueberries, which burst, juicily, in every bite. But there's something about the green tea-blueberry formula that makes me think any other sencha would be equally as delightful.

Blueberry-Yogurt Pound Cake
Makes: 1 cake.

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup blueberries, washed, tossed with 1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

1. Heat oven to 325°. Butter one 9 x 5-inch loaf pan and set aside.

2. In small bowl, sift together flour and salt. With electric mixer, cream butter, yogurt and sugar together until pale and fluffy, about five minutes. Beat in vanilla.

3. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low and beat in flour mixture until just combined. Gently fold in blueberries, and pour into prepared pan. Tap on counter to distribute batter evenly, then sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

4. Bake for 65 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool in pan on wire rack for 30 minutes. Remove from pan, and let cool completely before slicing and toasting.

If you've never made pound cake before, let this one be your motivation. It's quite simple to make- as long as all the ingredients are at room temperature (leave the butter and eggs out for about an hour before you start baking) and the butter and sugar are thoroughly creamed, that smooth, rich texture will result.

07 August 2009

Feed Thyself

Dear TeaSpot,

I never believed this could happen to me. I forgot to blog for an entire month!


I've also neglected to cold-brew iced tea, bake anything dangerous or delicious, and form complete, grammatically correct sentences. Don't worry, I haven't exactly been pounding Snapple and Chips Ahoy; more like re-balancing my intake and output. Of everything.

After so much time, even taking a decent photo of a cup of tea in the 7 a.m. sunlight can seem an arduous process. But tea isn't about suffering; in fact, it's about the complete opposite. And I've never stopped enjoying its quiet yet essential role in my every day.

I've also been thinking a lot about the role tea plays for its other adherents, and it seems, at least in most media, to be one of effect: There's no lack of articles extolling its health benefits, or even how to boost its value.

But when any food is considered solely as a vehicle for its nutrients, or evaluated primarily as preventive medicine, something strange happens. What we consume is such a fundamental part of what makes us who we are, and that gets lost if we look to products like green-tea pills and tea extracts. Yes, it's possible to isolate catechins in a laboratory, study their antioxidant effects and attempt to create a live-forever supplement. That doesn't mean it should be done.

I'm all for reading labels, and using nutritional science to understand what you're putting into your body. But food is not medicine. It's food. It provides, it nourishes, it comforts.

You don't need to analyze tea- just enjoy it. So sit down, shut up and drink a cup of matcha already. It's what I've been doing every single morning for the past month, and it's been sustaining me.

23 June 2009

Strawberry Gets Its Piece

Cherry pie has paeans devoted to it; the last slice of apple pie, at least from my family's Thanksgiving table, is handled more carefully than an antique diamond brooch, hidden in the refrigerator, and fought over when discovered missing the next morning (there is little better for breakfast, and it does pay to get up the earliest).

But what of the strawberry?

As the first ripe fruit of the season, it deserves tribute: a simple, fresh strawberry pie, the kind you could imagine your grandmother pulling out of the oven one June afternoon in 1949.

Of course, she would have probably paired it with a neat glass of absinthe, but it pairs just as well with a tart cup of strawberry tea (which I was lucky enough to be introduced to by some friends in Poland one spring; it's just dried strawberries, and it tastes like spring in liquid form). It can be difficult to find here, but even adding some sliced strawberries atop your favorite tea will make a worthy accompaniment.

Strawberry Pie
Makes: 8 servings.

Pate brisee (pie crust), fully baked in a 9-inch pan
6 cups strawberries
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1. Wash strawberries, removing green tops. Drain, and cut any large berries into halves or quarters. Measure out 4 cups into a medium bowl and set aside. Puree remaining 2 cups strawberries in blender or food processor.

2. In medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, cornstarch and salt. Whisk in water, then stir in pureed berries, lemon juice and butter. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, and cook 1 minute more. Remove from heat.

3. Into cooked pie crust, spoon half of reserved berries. Pour half of hot berry mixture over, gently shaking pie pan to coat berries evenly. Cover with remaining berries, then top with remaining hot berry mixture.

4. Let cool at room temperature for 30 minutes, then cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours before slicing.

15 June 2009

The Decisive Moments

We work in union with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize on upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it...

Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move...[T]he only pair of compasses at the photographer's disposal is his own pair of eyes.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment (1952)

I have terrible eyesight, but I've always loved photography.

It's made focus and lighting more challenging, certainly, but that has just fostered a more dedicated work ethic (which is in dangerously short supply for every other area of my life). A recent conversation inspired me to pull out some of my old photography textbooks and hundreds of black-and-white prints from school, and in going through them, a motif reappeared that struck me as pertinent to the art of making images as that of making tea.

Much like Kodak's point-and-shoot cameras- from the Brownie of 1900 through the Instamatic of the 1960s- digital cameras have transformed the art of photography; or cheapened it, as purists have argued for over a century. Cameras that require minimal training or technical knowledge to operate have long wrested picture-making from the elite, which is both a great thing (liberating art enables more to partake) and a dangerous one (in the proliferation of mediocrity).

In traditional processing, which I first learned 15 years ago, you must spend hours and hours in the darkroom, in that soft, dark, unearthly red light. It's been awhile since I've developed photos, but I can instantly summon the feeling that would wash over as I rocked the blank paper in the tray of developer and after that endless minute and a half, watched the image regenerate, myriad shades of gray filling in as if by an unseen brush, some remaining faint, others deepening into inky black.

The decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson described above, is fractions of a second before the snap of the shutter, but for me it was also right before that photograph was developed to the edge of where I wanted it, just before I would place into the stop bath so as to fix it indelibly. It was before the photo was finished processing, before the chemicals were washed off, before the paper was hung to dry; but just at that moment, suspended in that shallow tray of water, the blacks and grays saturated and gleaming, that I would never see such beauty.

Outside the darkroom, the same process happens with the cup of sencha I prepare each morning: It takes about as long as developing a photograph, and the sense of that moment, just as the leaves have been caressed by the steaming water for the right amount of time and the color has intensified to a bright emerald green, is as arresting.

The equipment itself is insignificant when you look at it this way. Cartier-Bresson, one of modern photography's most seminal influences, used a 50-mm Leica. Emotionally, I'll always be more attached to an old-fashioned print than the images from my cheap little digital camera, but as long as I can still harness that moment of beauty, it's done its job. And whether your morning cup is antique porcelain and prepared by a Japanese tea master or disposal paper from the water cooler in a florescent-lit office, if you've grasped that ideal, nuanced balance in the brew, each sip will be a work of art.

It's the process, and attention you devote to it, that matters.

31 May 2009

A Sunday Morning Suggestion

Sunday mornings seem more indulgent than Saturday's. Perhaps the looming threat of the week inspires decadence for breakfast, and the need to eat it while still in pajamas.

Although then what excuse can I use for cookies on the couch for breakfast every other day of the week?

I'll come up with something, as soon as I finish another luxurious spoonful of this chocolate croissant bread pudding. The recipe is adapted from Nigella Lawson, and who better to instruct us in a culinary life of hedonism?

It's an effortless start to your day, and will reward you with possibly the most comforting dish to ever come out of an oven. It is rich, but it manages to quiver somewhere between savory and sweet. And just like that '80s movie misfit who is transformed into the most popular kid in school by upgrading from glasses to contacts, chocolate croissants will never be looked at quite the same way again.

Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding
Makes: 6 servings.

3-4 day-old chocolate croissants
3 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
3 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream

1. Butter a 6-cup overproof dish. Cut croissants into 1-inch-thick slices and arrange in dish. In large liquid measuring cup, whisk together sugar, egg, yolks and vanilla. In medium saucepan, bring milk and cream just to a boil; pour a few tablespoons into egg mixture, whisking. Slowly pour in remaining liquid and blend thoroughly. Pour over the prepared croissants and let sit for 10 minutes.

2. Heat oven to 325°. Bake bread pudding for about 50-55 minutes, or until softly set.

A breakfast this extravagant requires a strong tea, and I found the tannic notes of a black (such as Assam or a Tanzanian) preferable to a green, for once. Assam in particular plays well with the chocolate notes swirled throughout the pudding.

All you need to do now is scoop out another serving, and get back in bed.

26 May 2009

It's Chinatown

I'll never forget that first sip.

It was a pot of milky, sweet black sesame tea and I was sharing it with my small New York crew at St. Alps Teahouse, on Mott St., in Chinatown.

As the first cluster of inky, gelatinous balls hit my mouth, I recoiled from the tiny table. It was such an unexpected sensation- something chewy in a drink- and I couldn't quite wrap my head or palate around it.

But the very next day, at work in midtown, I was seized with an irrepressible urge around noon. I surreptitiously gathered my bag and coat and hopped on the train to Canal St., raced the several blocks east to the shop, ordered a cup of mango green bubble tea and then hustled right back to the subway. It took over an hour and a half, but as I gulped down bubble after bubble, I was strangely soothed. And addicted. Almond and coconut milk tea, taro, passionfruit; with the exception of plum (strangely reminiscent of a McRib), I loved every flavor I tried.

Now, bubble tea is all over the city (and St. Alps is under new management), so I don't often trek to Chinatown. But when I do make the special trip, it's always worth it. My new go-to is Ten Ren Tea Time (79 Mott St.), a claustrophobic cafe adjoining the venerable Chinese tea company shop. The flavors seem fresher, the balls chewier, and it's the only spot I've found that offers a matcha-based bubble tea, which has a lovely balance of strong, vegetal green tea and syrupy sweetened condensed milk.

On my most recent visit, I even tried a new flavor- jasmine- and was pleased to find my old love for bubble tea still aflame.

If only I could make it last more than two minutes.

23 May 2009

So This Lemon Walks Into a Bar

Lemon bars are that rare anachronistic dessert yet to be exploited by the foodsionistas like cupcakes and soft-serve ice cream.

There's no cult around lemon bars: Celebrities aren't spotted accessorizing their plates with them, and celebrity chefs don't serve them. There's something inherently old-fashioned about their sticky-fingered ways that refuses to permit deconstruction or reinvention.

Perhaps that's why I've always loved them so, especially for breakfast with a cup of tea. But what about with tea inside? The naturally sweet, floral profile of chamomile seemed a good match for all that tangy citrus.

Of course, some would argue that now I'm exploiting a classic. The only response that comes to mind is bite me. Then you'll see.

Lemon-Chamomile Bars

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2-3 tablespoons chamomile tea
Powdered sugar, for garnish

1. Heat oven to 350°. Line an 8 x 8 baking pan with nonstick foil. In pot used to melt butter, mix butter, sugar, vanilla, salt and flour and mix until just incorporated. Press dough evenly over bottom of pan. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until crust is fully baked, well browned at edges and golden brown in center.

2. While crust is baking, prepare topping: in medium bowl, whisk together sugar, flour, eggs and lemon zest. In small saucepan, bring lemon juice and chamomile tea to a boil; immediately turn off heat and let steep for two minutes. Press through a strainer into topping mixture, and stir until incorporated. Pour onto hot crust.

3. Return pan to oven and lower temperature to 300°. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, or until topping no longer jiggles in center when the pan is tapped. Remove from oven and let cool completely on rack.

4. Lift out of pan and cut into squares. Serve at room temperature or refrigerate for up to one week.

The crust hits your tongue first, with a buttery crunch of caramel, then your teeth sink through the lush, pillowy layer of tart lemon. The chamomile is in there, too, with a gentle, applelike sweetness that comes up like a unexpected breeze behind you.

If you pair it with a cup of chamomile tea, it's even more pronounced. I rarely do that when cooking with tea, but this has convinced me that I've been missing out by not tasting the tea alone and as an ingredient.

The potential here is endless- orange bars with Earl Grey, lime bars with jasmine pearls, and maybe even demand for me to open New York's first lemon bar bar.

13 May 2009

Ding Dong, Tea Calling

I usually dread the trip from New York to Boston. It's not much more than 200 miles, but it can be spectacularly uncomfortable at best, and longer than a flight to Europe at worst (12 hours, but that's a story for another time). But it was mother's day this past weekend, and during the celebration I discovered a treat worth traveling for: a Hong Kong Ding Dong from the Bread & Chocolate Bakery Cafe (108 Madison Ave., Newton).

My mom has taught me much about tea, and chocolate. And luckily she's still up for culinary exploration, so we headed to this bakery- which features a unique take on that classic childhood indulgence- as soon as I arrived. For $3.50, you're handed a hefty square with a glossy, bittersweet chocolate coating and telltale squiggle. I was a bit wary, recalling all the ho hos and ding dongs that have disappointed me over the years (and there have been countless, not always in dessert form).

But this is some fine chocolate, and tender, moist green-tea cake underneath. Even the sticky marshmallow filling is homemade, and it renders this cupcake so far from anything packaged or mass-produced that calling it a ding dong seems an insult.

It's more like a petit four on steriods, and simply mouth-crammingly delicious. And I like to think it's helping to introduce tea to those who would turn their nose up at a bowl of matcha under any other circumstances.

It may not be in its purest form, but sometimes purity is really overrated.