26 February 2009

How Chutney Changed My Life

Long before I knew my life's calling was to drink tea and eat outstanding food all day, I was still taken aback by a few certain meals. What made them memorable was the quality, of course, but also the novelty. When a dish incorporated ingredients I'd never tried- or even thought I didn't like- it was all the more revelatory.

My first trip to England is forever cemented in my palate for this reason. Despite all the tales of culinary shock horror, I was delighted at every table, from my first cup of sweet, milky black tea (which was shocking in its collective consumption) to luscious spoonful of clotted cream. I was also schooled by one particular sandwich at an organic cafe in London; this was in the mid 1990s, when the word "organic" had yet to be uttered by even the most devoted American foodie.

Perhaps a grilled cheese on crusty, whole-grain bread with a fine mist of sweet, shredded carrots and slathering of fresh mango chutney doesn't seem so exotic today, but at the time I'd never tasted anything even remotely like it. One bite of the oozing, pungent cheese and chunky chutney, and everything just made sense: Salty needs sweet for each to shine.

I've been hooked on mango chutney- and tea- ever since that trip, but it's always beneficial to keep exploring. So I finally made this apricot variety, from Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking (one of my first cookbooks). I just wish I hadn't waited so long- the rich, sweet-tangy taste, studded with plump currants, may be my new favorite.

Even with just some glistening amber dollops on crackers and cheese, it elevates a cup of tea to something fit for a queen.

Apricot Chutney
Makes: 1 1/2 cups.

1/2 pound dried apricots
2 cups hot water
5 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 x 1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 cup dried currants

1. Place apricots in a heavy, medium-size saucepan and pour hot water over. Let soak one hour.

2. With an immersion blender or in food processor, blend garlic, ginger and 2 tablespoons of the vinegar until smooth. Spoon into saucepan along with remaining vinegar, sugar, salt and cayenne. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, stirring frequently, for 40 minutes.

3. Stir in currants and cook another 15 to 20 minutes, until the chutney becomes thick and glazed-looking. Let cool, then pour into a glass jar and store, refrigerated, for several weeks.

Or, if you want (and I think you do), make a grilled cheese with a sharp English cheddar, some finely shredded carrots and thick layer of chutney spread inside. Serve with a hot black Indian tea like Darjeeling for a nod to those clever colonizers, and stir in a bit of honey and lemon.

It may be the best lunch you've ever had.

25 February 2009

Cure in a Cup

Even avowed non-tea drinkers (those poor, misguided morons) will usually have a hot cup when sickness strikes.

One of my favorites for a cold or sore throat is fresh ginger tea; for stomach problems, fresh mint tea. I've seen a brews that combine them both, though, so even though I feel fine today, I decided to test some combinations out- which I can attest is easier when you're not suffering from any energy-draining ailments.

The one I liked the best is based on an ancient Indian concoction that usually contains fennel seeds in the mix.

(I am aware fennel is allegedly a very effective antidote to indigestion, but I think that's only because you feel less nauseous by comparison after you stop eating it and tasting that nasty flavor.)

It's simple: a warming brew of ginger, sweet cardamom and fragrant mint is tempered by a few spoonfuls of honey.

And that all seems too overwhelming from your sick bed, just stir some honey and mint into a mug of bagged tea. I'll forgive you in your weakened state.

Ginger-Mint Tea

In a small saucepan, over medium heat, toast 8 crushed cardamom seeds until fragrant, about a minute. Pour in 2 1/2 cups water and a 3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in several sprigs fresh mint and 2 teaspoons honey. Let sit 5 minutes, then strain into cups, adding more mint for garnish if desired.

Just a few sips will soothe, even the object of your affliction is external- a significant other, a relative, the IRS, or an employer (or, more likely, the Department of Labor). And if that describes all the same person, your problem might be beyond tea.

22 February 2009

The Tea-Tree Connection

It's cold, wet and gray here today, but there's an upside: I can drink an endless amount of tea and spend the afternoon reading between cups without feeling obligated to do anything more active.

And what better to read than an interview with Charlie Baden, blendmaster for Celestial Seasonings tea?

The first tea I ever tried- probably around age 10- was some variety of Celestial Seasonings. My mother was addicted to it; I grew up thinking Red Zinger was an exotic type of fruit and Morning Thunder was a tea you could order in any restaurant.

I always choose loose tea over bagged now, but when I go home to visit, I do find Celestial Seasonings teas consistently fresh tasting (which is difficult to say about almost any other mass-market bagged tea). The company also has a fascinating history, transforming itself from a small company (which sold wild herb blends gathered by hand in Colorado's Rocky Mountains in the late 1960s), to a worldwide recognized tea brand today- all decades before anyone was slapping "artisanal" and "locavore" labels on their food products.

And talking with Charlie really makes me wish I could introduce myself as a blendmaster at parties.

Tea Spot: How long have you been Celestial Seasonings' blendmaster?

Charlie Baden: I began my career with Celestial Seasonings in the summer of 1975. Working in production I developed an interest for the art of tea blending and was promoted to the position of blendmaster in 1984.

How did you first get involved with the company? Did you have a prior background in tea or horticulture?

Honestly, I was just looking for a job. Fortunately the opportunity arose at this start-up herbal tea company named Celestial Seasonings. [As it was] the 1970s, I saw it as a product with high potential [and] a career worth looking into. I had no prior background in tea but grew up in an agricultural environment, on a Maryland farm growing commodities such as soybeans and tobacco.

What was the first tea you ever tasted? Did you like it initially?

First tea? That would be Red Rose tea, freshly brewed, loaded with sugar and poured over ice. Really couldn’t taste the tea, just the high sweetness level from the sugar. It was refreshing on a hot, muggy, summer day. Just an interesting tea fact – 80% of the commodity black sold in the USA is consumed iced.

I know it's nearly impossible to narrow it down, but if you could only have one tea, which would it be?

Although I truly enjoy a high-quality jasmine pearls green tea or silver needles white tea, my everyday enjoyment comes from Celestial Seasonings English breakfast. I drink six to eight cups a day to keep me energized and loaded up with antioxidants for increased health benefits.

Not surprisingly, considering Celestial Seasonings' eco-conscious origins, the company has launched a new campaign to promote planting trees worldwide. Do you believe it will reach the one-million-trees goal?

We feel confident the program will be a success. The program began in January and we are already halfway to our goal! We are providing our tea drinkers with two simple and fun ways to plant trees and take part in this important cause: They can simply purchase a box of their favorite Celestial Seasonings tea or visit our site to plant a virtual tree now through March 31. We know our tea drinkers will get behind this important effort to help us plant more than one million trees ... in developing countries throughout the world. [Our partner] Trees for the Future has assisted thousands of villages in Asia, Africa and Latin America by planting more than 70 million trees so far- restoring sustainability and productivity to over 25,000 acres of land that had previously been degraded and abandoned.

That's something we can all drink to.

And it makes me feel better about how many cups I've had so far today. If Charlie's on eight a day, a couple more this afternoon can't hurt me.

20 February 2009

White Like Tea

I'm often inflicted with the "I could do that better" disease. I see something in a store or taste something at a restaurant, and immediately think about how I can make it at home for a fraction of the price (but unfortunately, a multiple of the time it would take to just buy it.)

My $5 cup of earl grey hot cocoa at City Bakery was a recent inspiration- delicious, no doubt, but the tea flavor was faint at best. And I'm never one to turn down a chocolate experiment in my kitchen.

The base drink needed to be less assertive, to allow tea's subtle essence to surface. So instead of bittersweet, I turned to my standby white hot cocoa recipe.

Before you gag in disgust, keep in mind that I never touched white chocolate until a few years ago. I always turned my nose up at it, due to an association with a particularly prissy girl I went to school with (which meant from ages 6 to 18, in a town as small as the one I grew up in). She adored white chocolate and wouldn't shut up about how it was the best type of chocolate, especially if she spied you cramming Reese's or M&M's into your mouth. I successfully ignored her all that time, but it did make an impression- just not the enlightened one she was hoping for.

I'm so old and wise now that I can admit that I was wrong to write white chocolate off completely. Clearly, young taste is questionable (think about who you had a crush on when you were 15); only now I can appreciate its creamy, sweet taste and its quiet place in the choco-spectrum.

And when it comes to flavored hot cocoa, white chocolate just blends better with tea- dark chocolate dominated any tea I paired it with, no matter how bold a brew on its own.

Green Tea-White Hot Chocolate
In medium saucepan, heat 2 cups milk with a dash of vanilla extract over medium-high, stirring. When steaming, whisk in 2 1/2 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped, until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and sift 2 teaspoons matcha over the top; whisk vigorously to blend and serve immediately.

If you don't have any matcha, shame on you, but you can still make this- just heat 2 teaspoons of sencha with the milk until steaming, then remove from the heat and cover for 10 minutes. Strain the milk and continue with the recipe, but realize that the green-tea flavor and color will be diminished (you can see this version in the top photo, upper right).

With the matcha, however, it's like drinking the sweet essence of spring. It may not turn you away from the dark side of hot cocoa forever, but it's a delightful change of pace.

18 February 2009

I Know the Muffin Man

"The Muffin Man" was always a favorite song in my house growing up. I'm not sure why, because (contrary to popular belief) I wasn't raised in Victorian England, and no one was prancing down the lane delivering fresh baked goods.

But there were always plenty of muffins at home, thanks to our dear friend Thomas. I have yet to make my own English muffins, but I do make plenty of American-style ones. And in an attempt to soothe the savage sugar cravings, I decided on a variety, originally from Martha Stewart Living, that can actually be called healthy. The sweet comes more naturally from applesauce and dates, two of my favorite foods.

Now I really do sound like I was born in 1890.

Applesauce Oat Bran Muffins
Makes: 1 dozen.

2 cups unsweetened applesauce
2 ounces dates, pitted and chopped (1/2 cup)
1 cup wheat bran
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
1 large egg
2 tablespoons honey
3/4 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon old-fashioned oats

1. Heat oven to 375°. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin with oil. Place applesauce and dates in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until mixture is reduced to 1 1/4 cups, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool completely.

2. Transfer applesauce to a large bowl, and stir in bran, buttermilk, egg, honey, ginger, and vanilla. Let stand for 10 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, whisk together flour, flaxseed, baking soda, salt, allspice, and 1/4 cup oats. Stir into bran mixture.

4. Spoon batter into prepared tins, filling to the brims. Sprinkle remaining 1 tablespoon oats over muffins. Bake until a toothpick inserted into center of 1 comes out clean, 21 to 23 minutes. Let cool completely in pans on wire racks.

These muffins aren't cupcakes-disguised-as-breakfast- whose ubiquity here I still blame on the incomprehensible glorification of Sex and the City and Magnolia bakery- so don't expect that sort of saccharine-fueled mental or dental decay.

Rather, they're full-flavored, spicy and moist, rendering any jam or butter completely unnecessary. Eating one will make you feel virtuous, but not in an annoying way- more like in a Little House on the Prairie way.

And you get to one-up those rusted-pot coffee-drinking pioneers by pairing it with mao jian ($4 per ounce), which may be the first Chinese green tea I could grow to love. It has a light, natural sweetness as opposed to the earthy flavor of many Chinese greens, and a soft edge of floral notes, like a strong white tea.

And I'm loathe to admit it, but mao jian would probably go equally well with a cupcake.

16 February 2009

Sumac Attack

A few weeks ago, I spotted a stand at the Union Square farmer's market with several steaming cauldrons. I'm usually overloaded with kabocha, potatoes and parsnips (my newest love), which makes me reluctant to stop for a drink, even on a frigid February day.

But this wasn't spiced apple cider, it was tea. And a type I'd never heard of before.

Sumac tea? Without even closing my eyes, the chaos of gray was covered by a vision towering, voracious trees that covered the hillside beneath my parents' house. The leaves turned a brilliant red each October, outshined only by the plump, clustering crowns of fuzzy fuchsia berries. It grew like a weed, and was treated with as little respect.

But staghorn sumac berries yield a vibrant, tart brew, as Native Americans knew for centuries; it's still colloquially referred to as "Indian tea" in some areas. And not surprisingly for such a deep-colored fruit, sumac is full of antioxidants and vitamin C. Even lugging 15 pounds of root vegetables and the subway entrance right in front of me, how could I resist?

Once again, this is an herbal tea- not a true tea- but it was absolutely outstanding. Even mixed with apple juice to counteract the tartness, the very essence of scarlet still shone with every tangy, warming sip.

It was gone in seconds. And I'm already planning my own sumac harvest the next time I go back home.

14 February 2009

Chew Me, Baby

Nothing will be better received this Valentine's Day than a crumb-coated slice of blackout cake with your after-dinner tea (I'd recommend mint, if you've been overindulging as much as I have while baking).

Well, maybe a few other things. But this one will last until tomorrow and even the day after.

Blackout cake was invented in the 1950s by the famed Ebinger's bakery, a longstanding (and sadly, long closed) Brooklyn dessert institution. I wasn't around to taste the original, but after licking the bowl clean, sweeping all the crumbs off the counter into my mouth and "tasting" about 1/2 cup of the thick, rich custardy frosting, I think I've done it justice.

If you're reading this, you may be feeling lonely today and a bit sorry for yourself. Enough. That's even more reason to make blackout cake- you don't have to share it. And you even get to completely crumble one of the layers, during which you can constructively (or destructively) reminisce about love gone wrong.

Don't think me cruel. If a cake is too much to handle today, then just make my hot fudge sauce. It's quick and dirty. I know you can do it.

Blackout Cake

3/4 cup cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
Filling and Frosting:
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Heat oven to 350°. Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. Cut 2 circles of parchment paper or wax paper to fit bottoms of pans; butter paper.

2. Sift together cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt into medium bowl. With a mixer on medium speed, cream butter, shortening and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

3. Reduce speed to low and beat in cocoa mixture until well incorporated. Mix in flour alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour. Beat just until combined. Divide batter evenly between pans.

4. Bake cake for 30-35 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out almost clean. Cool in pans on wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn out onto wire racks to cool completely.

5. Filling: In medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, cornstarch and salt. Whisk in milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. reduce heat to medium low and cook, whisking constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes more, until very thick. Remove from heat and pour into bowl. Add chocolate; stir until melted and custard is smooth. Cover with plastic wrap, lightly pressing plastic against surface to prevent skin from forming. Stir occasionally until custard cools to room temperature. Refrigerate 2 hours or overnight.

6. Using long, serrated knife, cut cooled layers horizontally in half. Reserve 3 halves for finished cake. Crumble remaining half with hands into fine crumbs and set aside.

6. Place 1 cake layer on cake plate or serving platter. Spread with one-fourth of the custard. Top with another cake layer and custard. Top with remaining cake layer; cover top and sides of cake with remaining custard. Coat side and top of cake with reserved cake crumbs.

7. Cover loosely and chill for at least 1 hour, or until ready to serve.

Remember, there's nothing wrong with loving dessert.

12 February 2009

Brew Me

A post on the ever-informative Not Martha about an electric tea kettle- with five precise water temperatures for varying types of tea- has been stuck in my mind.

Sometimes, in my nonvirtual life, I'm a copy editor. So what I'm about to say may be shocking.

Accuracy isn't always the most important thing.

(Actually, it's probably more surprising than shocking, unless you too are a sometimes copy editor.)

If you really think about it, though, it's true. Text can be over-edited; words so scrutinized that the emotion and life behind the piece is completely lost. Maybe that's why the concept of electronically precise brewing for something as ancient and as basic as tea just seems off to me.

I do still own a rotary phone, though, so perhaps I'm not the most impartial reviewer of electronic products.

The correct water temperature is crucial for the type of tea you're making (see these brewing guidelines). But my method is usually a finger in the water: If it's too hot for me to do that, it's too hot for green tea.

But there is a more lyric- and less painful- method to calculate water temperature, eloquently codified in Lu Yu's Cha Jing, or The Classic of Tea. Written in China around 770, this is the oldest book on tea. Author Lu had a fascinating life: after a peripatetic youth (involving an orphanage, an escape from a Buddhist monastery and a traveling opera troupe), he decided to embark on a tea quest to definitively compile its history, production and techniques in one book.

The publication of Cha Jing led to Lu's widespread recognition- and two requests for appointment to the imperial court (both of which he turned down)- as well as his posthumous designation as the patron saint of tea.

So even though he wrote during the stone ages, this man knows what's he's talking about. Water still behaves the same. Here are the Cha Jing's descriptions, which use visual cues to indicate temperature:
  • "column of steam steadily rising": a pillar first appears from the surface, 170°-180°F (for green teas)
  • "fish eyes": large bubbles first break the surface of the water, 180°-200°F (some greens, oolongs)
  • "string of pearls": tiny, champagne-like streams of bubbles circle to the surface, 190°-200°F (some oolongs, black)
  • "turbulent waters": a full, rolling boil, 200°-212°F (pu'er)
I adore the poetry of his method, but my favorite thing about Lu is how he blew off the emperor- twice- so he could make tea in peace, far from the restrictions of society and politics of the day. Really, how else can tea be enjoyed?

Tea is suitable to be a beverage for its chill nature, especially for those who prefer moderate, plain living. In case of thirst, melancholy, headache, weariness of eyes, or trouble in limbs and joints, a few of sips can be sweet dew from heaven. Cha Jing, Lu Yu
You said it, Lu.

11 February 2009

Nice Assam

My relationship with black tea is a bit bumpy.

Even though it's the first kind of tea I was exposed to, I often find it too assertive and lacking subtley. I sip it much more reluctantly than I do a green tea. But I'm incredibly open-minded, so I keep trying.

In my kitchen, black tea usually ends up getting mixed with other flavors. It doesn't mind- it's bold enough to not lose its integrity. One of my absolute favorites is a Gujarati recipe that combines the bright flavors of lemongrass with Assam tea, rendering a soothing but invigorating brew.

Assam, located in the lush, tropical northeastern corner of India, is the largest tea producing region in the country, and has been for centuries.

When the tea-thirsty British tromped into Assam the early 1800's, they found rumo(u)rs of cultivation in the region to be true. Even though they failed to realize it initially- the Assam tea bushes were different than the Chinese type that the British assumed was the only true tea producer- the indigenous tribes had been tending and consuming a wild variant of tea for centuries.

You can see why even before the first sip: It brews up a gorgeous burnt sienna, with a nuanced aroma. The luminous liquid has an almost malty flavor and a smoothness I rarely taste in black teas. When mixed with a vibrant floral kiss of lemongrass, something magical happens.

Leelee Chai

Thinly slice the bottom 6 inches of 2 stalks fresh lemongrass and combine with 4 1/4 cups water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat, cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Strain the water into a teapot and stir 5 teaspoons Assam tea; cover and steep five minutes, then strain and discard tea. Serve plain, or with milk and sugar.

Not surprisingly, I've always chosen the sugar route. But I was brave this morning and for my second cup, poured it straight up.

You'd assume (much like those know-it-all British) that combining the tannins in such a vibrant black tea with the astringency of citrus would result in a mouth-puckering taste, but it's actually not so at all.

Even without the creamy-sweet roundness of milk and sugar, the fresh, springlike bouquet of the lemongrass unfurls in the steam from the fragrant tea, then in each smooth sip.

And if you're as sick of winter as everyone else seems to be, this is a welcome reminder than warmth is on the way.

Don't be an assam. Give it a chance.

10 February 2009

Honeybush, Can You Get Me Another Cookie?

I am officially disgusted. My freezer has NO. MORE. ROOM.

After I wrapped up my latest sweet creation to tuck away in there, I opened the door to a packed-solid mess: five pounds of sour cherries I lovingly destemmed, washed and pitted during their fleeting two-week season in June; a bag of pistachio-rosewater cookies; about two dozen orange-pistachio crescents and an equal amount of brown sugar-almond cookies; even a few gingerbread-chocolate chunk monsters left over from the holidays. And that's not even counting any of the breads!

It's sad like the economy, but in reverse. I need to stop baking.

For a week, at least.

Luckily, tea doesn't take up very much room. And I already finished making these chocolate-chip cookies, so I'll just have to make room somehow. They probably won't last long; this version is an addictive take on the classic, from Elizabeth Faulkner's Demolition Desserts. She likes to play around with sugars, and what results is a delicate tug-of-war between the crunchy, floral demerara and the deep, spicy muscavado varieties. Add in toastiness from chopped oats sauteed in a bit of beurre noisette, soft centers full of rich chocolate chips and crispy edges where the sugar bits are just on the edge of caramelizing, and you'll forget you ever worried about any dumb little recession.

Chocolate Chip Cookies Version XS
Makes: about 4 1/2 dozen.

1 1/4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed muscavado sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons demerara sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped, or 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

1. Pulse oats in a food processor for 15 to 20 seconds, until the texture of sawdust, but with some recognizable oat flakes. In a small pot, melt 4 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat and cook for about 3 mintues, or until it browns slightly. Add the oats and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes, or just until you smell a toasty fragrance. Spoon the oats onto a plate to cool.

2. In a large bowl, with a wooden spoon, cream together the remaining 12 tablespoons butter and muscavado sugar until smooth. Add demerara sugar and vanilla and stir briefly, just to mix. Add egg and stir to combine.

3. Add in toasted oats, then sift together flour and baking soda over the dough. Add salt and stir gently to combine. Mix in chocolate; cover bowl and refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes.

4. Heat oven to 350°. Place 1-inch balls of dough 2 inches apart on two ungreased baking sheets. Bake cookies about 10 minutes, rotating pans halfway through. Let cool on sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.

Needless to say, the sugar consumption has been getting a little out of hand around here. So I've been turning to herbal teas to help settle things down, especially The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf's African Sunrise ($8.20 for 20 teabags)- a smooth, bright blend of honeybush leaves, orange peel and vanilla.

OK, so it's bagged, but it's higher quality than you'd expect- while on a glucose up spike I even broke one open just to make sure. Amazing name aside, honeybush is high in minerals and allegedly has nutritious and calmative properties.

I could definitely fall asleep right now, after the two cups I just had. Or maybe that's just the sugar leaving my bloodstream.

06 February 2009

Bar Won

How satisfying is it to have something you've wanted for years?

I'm not trying to be all smug about it, but finally making these kitchen sink buttercrunch bars is making my life feel complete.

Originally from Lisa Yockelson's Baking by Flavor cookbook, these jumped out at me while I was collecting recipes for the holiday 2002 issue of the magazine where I worked. It was a special publication, which meant it was produced much faster and cheaper than the regular issues. But no matter how I hinted, wheedled, then finally begged, none of the chefs had time to test the recipe.

Heath bars, almonds, chocolate chips; the ingredients stayed in my mind all these years, almost taunting me. Can you imagine how delicious we'd be all mixed together? they teased.

Only seven years later, I've taken matters into my own hands.

I needed to bring something to a Superbowl party a few days ago. While I couldn't care less about anything on TV, much less a sporting event, any excuse to bake something new is a welcome opportunity. And this would ensure that I couldn't eat the entire pan myself.

Those little voices were right. These bar cookies are crunchy yet tender, with rich toffee and almond notes chorusing among the chocolate. Don't deprive yourself and wait as long as I did to make them.

Kitchen Sink Buttercrunch Bars
Makes: 20 bars.

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
4 packages (1.4 ounces each) Heath bars, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
3/4 cup coarsely chopped almonds, toasted
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1. Heat oven to 350°. Line 9 x 9-inch baking pan with nonstick foil, or grease and flour lightly.

2. In medium-sized bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, salt and nutmeg. In another medium-sized bowl, mix together melted butter and both sugars with a wooden spoon. Mix in egg and vanilla and almond extracts until blended. Add in flour mixture and stir until just combined. Stir in Heath bar pieces, almonds and chocolate chips; batter will be dense. Scrape into baking pan, spreading evenly.

3. Bake 25 minutes or until set. Transfer pan to a cooling rack; let cool for 30 minutes, then cut into bars. Let cool completely, in pan, before recutting and serving.

For my tasting, as I cut the bars up for the party, I tried a Kenyan sencha ($7 for 25g) which I'd never heard of until last week. Japanese-style green tea from Africa is a bit like wine from Massachusetts or olive oil from Texas: it's fascinating as a concept, but does the taste measure up to the novelty factor?

In this case, yes. The tea brews up a lovely tawny golden color, with a light, mild smoothness that you wouldn't expect from sencha. The resemblance to Japanese sencha is faint- think first cousins rather than sisters- but it's a lovely tea in its own right. It cut through the bars' brown-sugar, candy-coated sweetness perfectly, enabling me to have a few more.

Take one last, longing look. While it is incredibly satisfying, fulfillment is also incredibly fleeting.

05 February 2009

You Got Chocolate in My Tea

A little shock is good for the system.

That's why this post is coming from the inside- inside the City Bakery (3 W 18th St.), which is holding the 17th annual celebration of the second best drink in the world.

We all know it's no tea, but at the restaurant's month-long Hot Chocolate Festival, a different flavor is available every single day, from caramel, lemon and passion fruit (yes please) to beer, banana peel and bourbon (no thanks). And today's, god save the queen, is earl grey tea hot chocolate ($5).

Does the combination work? Well, it is the best hot cocoa I've ever had out- it's like drinking liquid pleasure- but that characteristic earl grey flavor is a bit overwhelmed by the rich creaminess of the chocolate.

Still, sipping it right now- between bites of City Bakery's unique salty-sweet pretzel croissant ($3.75), of course- I can't think of anyplace I'd rather be. (It being 17° out makes staying here, hands wrapped around the warm cup, even more enticing.)

Bundle up and get over here for possibly your only chance at drinking tea and hot chocolate simultaneously. Because after today, this flavor is gone.