28 January 2010

The Best Afternoon Tea in New York City

It's not where you think.

As promised with yesterday's blueberry coffeecake muffins recipe, here's where to go and linger over a perfect pot and pastries that you will swear have come from the gods: Locanda Verde (377 Greenwich St.).

I think I have found my spirit baker, and it is pastry chef Karen DeMasco. It's almost embarrassing to admit I've tasted- OK, inhaled- practically everything offered here, but it is all absolutely irresistible: lemon-rosemary scones, olive oil coffeecake, pistachio-huckleberry tart, apple cider donuts, pumpkin spice bread, even a straight-up buttermilk biscuit slathered with quince butter.

And hold on to your hot water, because Locanda Verde also has well-prepared, high-quality loose-leaf tea. That may not seem terribly exciting, but in all the tea drinking I've done here in New York City, it's shocking but true: most restaurants- the fanciest, high-end afternoon tea spots included- cannot brew a decent cup. Either they use dusty old teabags or pay no attention to water temperature and brewing time, resulting in a bitter, overpriced drink.

But you don't have to take it anymore. A selection of three pastries ($11) and a pot of loose-leaf tea ($4) here is about half of what you'd pay for a hotel high tea, and it is all prepared with outstanding care. The tea is from In Pursuit of Tea, one of the better large loose-leaf merchants (try the intriguingly lilac-scented nantou oolong, or the springy, vibrant lemon verbena), and the staff is trained to treat it right: the leaves are steeped for the correct amount of time, then removed before the pot is brought to your table.

And keep in mind, this is from a restaurant, not someplace promoting itself as a tea shop. Could this be an indication that chefs and owners realize tea is as precious and venerable an ingredient as organic, locally-sourced produce or sustainably-caught seafood? Let's hope so.

If you live so far from New York that tears are now mixing with your drool, be heartened: DeMasco's new cookbook The Craft of Baking has many of the treats served at Locanda Verde, and they're truly simple and satisfying to make.

All you have to do is bake some cookies or quick breads, plate them on cutting board, and brush up on how to brew a perfect cup. It will be almost as good.

27 January 2010

Blueberry Coffeecake Muffins, And Why Tea Crushes Coffee

I had started a brilliant diatribe about coffee drinkers versus tea drinkers a few days ago, and then my sister called last night to tell me about a recent trip she'd taken to a neat little tearoom and art exhibit in Houston, Texas. That really screwed everything up.

OK, so I had only written it in my head. But it was to be a straightforward post, or so it seemed to me until we spoke: coffee drinking is social; tea drinking is not. Coffee is loud and brash, like the president of a sorority holding court at lunch; tea is calm and subtle, like the class bookworm buried in Hardy over her sandwich in the corner of the cafeteria.

But my sister brought up what the owner of this teashop had said about tea being social, whereas coffee is not: tea's unhurried pace fosters intimate connection and conversation, while coffee's immediacy and hyper-specialization precludes anything but an isolated experience.

I'm not sure which side makes more sense. To me, tea seems the only drink for a quiet, solitary state- but that probably stems from an innate need for both tea and tranquillity, and thus a deliberate equation of the two.

And this doesn't mean I'm not going to share tea with any guests to my home- as you can see, I happily did with one of my dearest friends who was visiting for the weekend. It just means that even if I am drinking tea with someone over a lovely conversation, I've likely already had two cups that morning in complete stillness, while watching the sun rise and the steam curl off the surface of the water.

With tea, both experiences can peacefully coexist. And the benefit to a social tea is the excuse it offers to bake an accompanying treat, like these blueberry coffeecake muffins. Something sweet was needed to balance out those bracing cups of Assam, and tender, lemony cakes studded with pecan-brown sugar streusel and plump bits of dried blueberries was the only sensible choice.

Blueberry Coffeecake Muffins
adapted from Karen DeMasco's The Craft of Baking

1 1/2 cups pecans, finely chopped
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Finely grated zest of two lemons
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sour cream or yogurt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup dried blueberries

1. For streusel, heat oven to 350°. Spread pecans on a baking sheet and bake until toasted, about 5 minutes. Remove from oven, pour into a medium bowl and let cool. Mix in brown sugar, cinnamon, salt and melted butter.

2. For muffins, line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper cups. With an electric mixer, cream together butter, lemon zest and granulated sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl, and add egg, then sour cream and vanilla.

3. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Add to butter mixture and beat on low until just combined.

4. Using a large spoon, fill muffin cups one-third with batter. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of streusel on each muffin, then top each with remaining batter. Sprinkle remaining streusel, then blueberries, evenly over tops.

5. Bake, rotating muffin pan halfway through, until just firm to the touch, about 25 minutes. Transfer to wire rack and let stand 10 minutes, then turn muffins out on rack to cool completely.

Too lazy to make them, or even a pot of tea? Then come back tomorrow, and I'll tell you where to take a friend for a transcendent serving of both. (Conversation optional.)