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.

07 May 2009

Nero Twittered While Rome Burned

We all have our coping mechanisms in the face of dire situations. When I'm confronted with threats, be they porcine- or poverty-based, what do I do?

I make tea with Evian.

Of course it's foolish. But it's still cheaper than going out to dinner. And due to my unattainable dream career of scientist (thanks, organic chemistry), I have a soft spot for experiments.

This one's even easier than the drugging and mating of Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies) that I did way back when it was very illegal for me to do either. It was just a simple blind taste test: the same tea brewed in filtered tap water vs. bottled.

I used an Umegashima sencha- a green I'm very familiar with- in equal amounts and steeped for the same amount of time. It was no contest.

The version made with Evian was outstanding, and instantly identifiable. It tasted incredibly bright and smooth, albeit with that trademark, mineraly aftertaste of the plain water. My good old NYC tap water, in contrast, produced a murky, dull cup, with the grassiness of the sencha far more muted.

I've heard many tea experts claim that my city's water is stellar for a municipal supply, and I'd always believed it until now. Ah, well. At least I can finish the bottle for the rest of the day's tea, and pretend that everything is just fine with every sip.

02 May 2009

Safe and Sakura

Cherries are a magnificent thing. What else makes flowers like these above, and a dessert like this below?

OK, so technically these are from two different types of cherry trees, but I couldn't help being inspired on a recent walk through the soothing, feathery pink petals at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It's an annual ritual, and one of my absolute favorite things to do in the city. The best way I know to pay homage to something is in the kitchen, so when I got home I pulled out an old standby cherry crisp recipe that I wrote down years ago.

Due to an uncharacteristic bit of culinary planning, I always have sour cherries that I've pitted and frozen on hand. They're too good to enjoy only for their brief, weeks-long summer season. You could of course use fresh, if they're available, or the darker, sweet cherries- just adjust the amount of sugar used with the fruit.

Sour Cherry-Pistachio Crisp

1 3/4 pounds pitted fresh or frozen sour cherries (if frozen, thawed at room temperature for 30 minutes)
1/2 cup chopped unsalted pistachios
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup old-fashioned oats
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
Pinch cinnamon

1. Heat oven to 375°. In medium bowl, stir together pistachios, flour, oats, baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. In a separate medium bowl, beat butter, brown sugar and 1/4 cup of the granulated sugar with an electric mixer until creamy. Stir in pistachio mixture until just combined. With fingers, work into coarse crumbs; set aside.

2. In an 8-inch baking dish, stir together cherries, remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Sprinkle evenly with pistachio topping. Bake until golden and juices are bubbling up, 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool one hour before serving.

In Japan, the blooming of sakura (flowering cherry trees) is a nationally heralded event, so it just seemed right to pair the crisp with a sencha, the classic Japanese tea. When you have that clean, vegetal sip after a bite of the glistening, sweet-tart cherries, you'll see that there's no better way to pay tribute to spring.

The BBG's cherry blossom festival is going on all weekend, so don't miss your chance for a once-a-year walk through the very essence of pink. And if you make the crisp before you leave, it will be at the perfect temperature when you return.

It may be as ephemeral as the blossoms, but that just adds to its beauty.