31 March 2009

Walnut Bread Rx

Walnuts are tricky.

They're one of the healthiest foods you can eat- positively loaded with omega-3s- but much like green tea (an even more potent elixir), they're often snubbed for their too-bitter taste.

But it's all in the quality, and presentation. If you start with the freshest nuts, or tea leaves, and treat them right, they will reward you with a deep, rich flavor and subtle sweetness.

This French walnut bread, or pain au noix, is proof. Another of Nancy Baggett's no-knead loaves, the recipe is from Serious Eats, and wouldn't change a thing. (Just make sure your dough is very stiff throughout the process- I think mine was a little too moist, so it didn't crown into that classic boule shape.) Regardless, the bread turned out incredibly flavorful, with a pleasant chewy texture and none of the denseness that can plague whole-wheat loaves. Using a Dutch oven to bake it is a simple method for a toothsome, gorgeous reddish-brown crust- plus, you get to say "Dutch oven" when people ask how you made it, and that's always funny.

Brew up your favorite green tea (try a delicate, creamy Uji Gyokuro) to have alongside a few slices, and the antioxidants coursing through your body will be almost palpable. And on top of those health benefits, you'll gain that delicious sense of superiority as you eat your toast with melting puddles of butter and honey, thinking, "My breakfast is better than yours."

For more gluteny goodness, check out YeastSpotting.

25 March 2009

Why Cabbage Is King

When you're slumped on the couch watching an interview with Alice Waters while double-fisting Doritos and Reeses' Big Cups, it's time for an intervention.

Overindulgence requires a return to equilibrium, so I brewed up a pot of golden oolong- a toasty, well-balanced Chinese blend- and grabbed the jar of kimchi I made over the weekend.

Makes: 12 servings.

1 medium head white or Napa cabbage, separated into leaves
1/4 cup coarse salt
10 scallions
1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup minced garlic
1/4 cup sugar

1. Layer cabbage leaves in a colander, sprinkling salt between layers. Let sit in the sink for at least two hours, until leaves are wilted. Rinse and dry leaves.

2. Mix together scallion, red pepper flakes, soy sauce, garlic and sugar in a large bowl. Add cabbage and toss to blend. Serve immediately or pack into glass jars and refrigerate.

It may not be the most authentic version of this Korean staple, but you can blame Mark Bittman for that- it's his recipe, from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. But it is quick, simple, and surprisingly full-flavored for something so effortless; cooked with a bit of rice, it makes for a bold one-pot meal that has spicy, salty and sweet in every bite.

And somehow, more healthy than Doritos and Reeses.

Add some avocado slices on top, and you'll want to finish off the entire pot along with your oolong (which, I just noticed, is incredibly versatile, as it's equal friends with salty and sweet foods).

Or maybe that's just me overdoing it again.

Kimchi Rice

Heat 2 tablespoons sesame oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add one scallion, chopped, and saute 2 minutes. Stir in 1 1/2 cups Japanese (sushi) rice and saute 2 minutes, stirring; add 1/2 cup kimchi, chopped, and cook 2 minutes more. Stir in 2 1/2 cups water, bring to a boil, then cover and lower to a simmer. Cook 20 minutes, then turn off heat and let sit for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with soy sauce before serving.

17 March 2009

It's the Yeast You Can Do

One of my dearest friends, the first time we hung out, suggested making a few loaves of honey whole-wheat bread. Most people probably wouldn't consider that the start of a lifelong relationship, but I did.

I hadn't made a real bread since home ec class in junior high, but as soon as that warm, comforting aroma hit my nose, I swore I'd get back into it.

The transformation of yeasted bread is amazing. The process seems so basic, but it's still dramatic no matter how many times you witness it, from lumpy mass to golden, soaring loaf:

I've pretty much kept to my vow, and even if my kitchen isn't always stocked with fresh bread, the freezer is. And I still make honey whole-wheat a lot, but my new favorite is this Scottish oatmeal bread from Serious Eats. The recipe is excerpted from Nancy Baggett's Kneadlessly Simple, a book I now desperately need based on how well this one turned out: subtly spiced, with a bright trace of orange zest, and a lingering, nutty taste from the oats.

I may be falling in love with currants, too, which stud this loaf with bursts of tangy sweetness. They're like the thinking man's raisin.

Try a slice while the bread is still warm, with butter, or if you have any left the next day, toasted with ricotta and honey. Make a pot of English Breakfast tea- a strong black-tea blend- to drink alongside, and you'll wonder why it's taken you so long to make your own bread, you loafer.

(And happy birthday, Dad. I'd make a loaf just for you, but since you're the only person whose "will not eat" list is longer than mine, I think everything but the flour would be refused. Don't worry, I have another kitchen treat in mind.)

13 March 2009

Loaf of Darkness

When you get a package in the mail from your sister like this:

And inside, all you find is a note commanding you to bake with and blog about a bag full of this:

Then you do. (My sister is a not a force to be taken lightly.)

So you make this:

And have a slice with some delicate China white tea, to offset the cocoa rush.

And you realize maybe she really is older and wiser.

I'd never heard of black cocoa powder before, but it turns out it's a variety that's been super alkalized, or ultra dutched (both of which sound like something you'd overhear frat boys bragging about on a Monday morning). Any type of Dutch cocoa powder gives a smoother, milder taste than natural cocoa powder, and it really shines in a simple dessert like chocolate pound cake.

This one is adapted from Laura Brody's Chocolate American Style, and trust me, you will swoon over the first bite. You'll find yourself coming up with all sorts of excuses to have just one more slice- like it being your mother's 60th birthday, for instance.

Black Chocolate Pound Cake
Makes: 10 to 12 servings.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
1/2 cup black cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for pan
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup sour cream or yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting (optional)

1. Heat oven to 350°. Coat the interior of a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan with butter, then dust bottom and sides with flour, knocking out excess.

2. In a small bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Beat butter and granulated sugar in a large mixing bowl until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to low and add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each and scraping down the sides of the bowl as you mix. Beat in half the flour mixture, then sour cream and vanilla. Mix in the remaining flour mixture until just combined.

3. Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Bake for 60-65 minutes, until cake has risen and begun to pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove from oven and let cool on wire rack for 20 minutes. Turn cake out of pan onto rack, and let cool completely before slicing, dusting with confectioners' sugar if desired.

But it really is! Happy birthday, Mom. I'm trying hard to save you a piece, but I learned it (how to inhale chocolate, that is) from watching you.

12 March 2009

West Village Wandering

I always get lost in the West Village- it doesn't matter if I'm going to a pizza place I've been to 17 times before, or a friend's apartment who's lived there for 17 years.

So I go the neighborhood only armed with a specific destination, and today, it was McNulty's (109 Christopher St.), a tea and coffee shop that looks like it's from the 1800s.

Oh wait. It is.

The wood-paneled room is warm and worn, like a favorite chair from your grandparent's house, and as soon as you step through the doorway, the floral, musky scent of coffee and herbs envelopes you. The extensive offerings of loose tea are on display in heavy glass apothecary jars, and once you make your selection, they're carefully weighed on a giant brass scale. For someone who still lacks a cell phone, it's a comforting place (see, there's far worse Luddites than me).

Avoiding the preponderance of flavored and fruited teas, I picked Iron Goddess (Tiguanyin; $6 for 1/4 pound) and something labeled China white tea ($6 for 1/4 pound). It looked a lot like white peony (see photo below, left), but my asking if so was met with a denial, a bit of grumbling and no further description.

I've heard many good things about the attentive service in this shop, but none of these employees were exactly angling for a tip.

Maybe my new fangled photographic-making machine threw them off?

Still, McNulty's is worth a visit, especially if you drink blended teas- there's too few businesses these days that can boast of being a century old. And if the aroma is any indication, I bet the coffee is pretty spectacular too.

06 March 2009

The Only Bar You'll Ever See Me Near

It's the soft kind.

The kind that makes your kitchen fill with the dreamy smell of sugar caramelizing and chocolate and peanut butter slowly melting into each other. That's the kind of bar I like.

I came across these milk chocolate-peanut butter bars in Carole Bloom's The Essential Baker while looking for cake recipes and with a slew of guests due to arrive. (I'm excellent at being in denial.) There was no way a cake would be ready quickly, but I thought these would keep everyone happy along with their welcome afternoon tea. And I had all the ingredients on hand, except for the peanuts- which I do think the bars would benefit from, but I wasn't about to run out for just peanuts.

Keemum, a medium-strength Chinese black tea, is a natural pairing for chocolate desserts: The tea's own flavor is often described as chocolaty, with a pleasant, roasted aroma. Trying it just with a bit of the bars' milk chocolate- strictly for research purposes, of course- highlighted this, so I brewed up a big pot to have at the ready for everyone.

And if you can find it, use a dark milk chocolate- preferably at least 41% cocoa- for an increased depth of flavor. As it's a bit less sweet than traditional milk chocolate, it's easier to inhale more of while you're baking.

Milk Chocolate-Peanut Butter Bars
Makes: 16 squares.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup creamy or chunky peanut butter
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons firmly packed light-brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 ounces milk chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped (optional)

1. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick foil, or grease with butter. Heat oven to 350°. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt.

2. With an electric mixer, beat butter on medium speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add peanut butter and cream together well. Mix in sugar until blended. Mix in eggs one at a time, beating well after each, then mix in vanilla. Add flour mixture in two additions and beat just until blended. Stir in chocolate and peanuts.

3. Scrape batter into pan and smooth evenly. Bake for 35 to 38 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out slightly moist. Let cool 15 minutes before cutting into squares.

Keemum is delicious straight up, but do try it at least once with a bit of milk and sugar- it really draws out the chocolate tones in the tea, transforming it into a confection in a cup. You'll need that after the bars' inevitable disappearance.

03 March 2009

Get Thee to a Green Tea Shortbreadery

What is it that's so appealing about shortbread?

It's not a glamorous cookie, and I doubt it- unlike cupcakes or artisanal truffles- could ever spur a frenzy of trendy shortbread-only shops.

But its quiet, understated elegance is as stunning as that classic little black dress amid overblown silks, ruffles and sequins at a formal event. In a sea of achingly sweet, gooey and overloaded desserts, shortbread rises to the top with simplicity and purity.

The trifecta of butter, flour and sugar is complete on its own, but shortbread is a welcome canvas for bold flavors like vanilla, ginger, lavender or chocolate. Or tea, of course.

Traditional shortbread is barely sweet, and with the addition of matcha's grassy, deep flavor it's even less so. But you'll have no complaints after the first bite: the exterior of this green-tea version offers the slightest hint of resistance before the crumbly, moist cookie melts on your tongue, the granules of sugar on top yielding welcome bursts of sweet.

Green Tea Shortbread
Makes: 16 wedges or squares.

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and still warm
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon matcha
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups minus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
Turbinado or demerara sugar, for sprinkling

1. Grease a 9 1/2-inch tart pan with removable bottom, or line an 8 x 8-inch baking dish with nonstick foil.

2. In medium bowl, stir together butter, granulated sugar, matcha, vanilla and salt. Add flour and mix until just incorporated. Pat dough evenly into prepared pan and let rest at room temperature at least 2 hours, or up to overnight.

3. Position a rack in lower third of the oven and heat to 300°. Bake shortbread for 45 minutes. Remove pan from oven, leaving oven on. Lightly sprinkle the surface with turbinado sugar, and let cool 10 minutes.

4. Carefully remove shortbread from the pan. Use a thin, sharp knife to slice into wedges or squares and place pieces slightly apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, until lightly toasted, then let pieces cool completely on rack.

Don't skip the extra toasting step- this step (and recipe) is adapted from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert, and the lady knows what she's talking about: it really concentrates and highlights the buttery taste.

These tender treats are ideal served with any tea, but a Japanese green (this is an ideal time to try a delicate Uji if you never have) will open up the matcha flavor just like one of those early spring cherry blossoms.