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.