I’ve been dealing with a bit of writer’s block this past week. I’m not quite sure what’s gotten into me, but it’s been butting heads with deadlines, leaving me stressed out and needing to just get in my kitchen and get my hands dirty without worrying what to say about whatever’s coming off my stove or out of my oven. In fact, the first sentence here was the only thing on this page for hours after I excitedly, and successfully, baked and tasted what could be the greatest thing ever to come out of an oven anywhere ever. Hyperbole? Maybe. But come on now, say this with me: chocolate, peanut butter, banana bread.
Yes, you read that right. And it’s the thing that’s putting words back on this page. Last March, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen posted a recipe for what was, at the time, the greatest quick bread baked in New York City: double chocolate banana bread. I followed her instructions to a tee then (not even realizing that the cocoa I was using was, as she directed, in fact Dutch-process cocoa — but we’ll get to that later), and was in love. Last week was a food blogger lovefest, and just days after meeting Joy the Baker, I had the honor of meeting Deb and the great Melissa Clark of the New York Times at a WNYC event at the Greene Space in lower Manhattan. Again: two incredibly personable people who just want to make good food and share it with the world. I was inspired, but I still couldn’t write.
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On Sunday I had the honor of meeting the amazing Joy Wilson of joythebaker.com, who was in New York to promote her new book, Homemade Decadence. Filled with simple and elegant recipes, with a twist on the nostalgic, it’s a masterpiece of sweet. That’s sort of a lot of what Joy the Baker is, really, on her site, in her recipes, and in person. Disarmingly funny, she wants us all to eat, to enjoy. The best way to do that, without being directly in her kitchen? Make her recipes. I’d be fooling you all if I didn’t say that Joy was a huge inspiration for me when I started this blog. Her food and her writing are, unequivocally, her. There is no high-brow or low-brow. It’s just fabulous deliciousness that can be created equally by all.
Before heading to The Brooklyn Kitchen for the event, I had been keen on working on a pumpkin recipe for the ImaginariYUM. ‘Tis the season, after all. Last year, Joy posted a recipe for pumpkin pecan scones with brown butter glaze. This was during the time that I was convinced that my fella, Ray, hated scones — they’re too dry, too crumbly, he’d tell me. I had even saved him some of my nutella scone from Dean and Deluca three years ago, believing that he would fall over himself with glee when he tasted the glorious swirls of his favorite condiment embedded in such a tender crumb. I was wrong. So I kept the pumpkin scone recipe from my repertoire, but bookmarked it just the same. And since my love of scones hasn’t abated, I would have to make him love them, too. Over these last several years I’ve started wearing him down, creating scones with a more moist interior to please his palate. He’s started to ooh and ahh. After meeting Joy, I knew that the time was ripe for pumpkin scones.
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Years ago my aunt gave me a recipe for roasted tomato soup that called for beefsteak tomatoes, which, truly, are only available in good form in the summer. I made it several times, because, who are we kidding? I can eat soup on a hot day. Especially if it’s tomato soup. It’s a weird thing I picked up from my mentor at an internship eons ago: great soup (say, with a bagel) was filling – and cheap. It became a ritual. What can I say? I’m a creature of habit.
After I left that organization I needed to recreate the soups that got me through the simultaneous reaffirming and heartbreaking work (and gave me super human rights powers?), and this recipe, which I did only make in the summers, was spot-on. But the heat from the oven, and then the stovetop, was generally intolerable, so after a while that hand-written recipe left the rotation, relegated to the inner folds of my recipe binder, several pages down from two different summer-y panzanellas and nestled between two decidedly wintry soups.
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My brother got married over the weekend. The setting was a picturesque country club and golf course in the mountainous northeast corner of New Jersey, just over the New York border. Just outside the lodge, next to the gazebo where he and his lady would say their vows, was a gorgeous maple tree nearing its peak: bright red against what was, at the beginning, a cloudy October sky. It was brisk after pouring all day, and we froze in our dresses as we stood waiting for the photographer to get everything he wanted. But the scent out there was pure autumn. There’s always something about grass and trees after the rain, but it takes on even more fullness in fall. When I got home, I wanted that in my kitchen. I wanted apple cider doughnuts.
When I lived in Jersey City, we had an amazing farmer’s market just outside the PATH station, with several farmers and orchards from around my hometown, in the heart of northwestern New Jersey. I picked up cider doughnuts every week, sometimes more, for the duration of the apple season. Now, don’t get me wrong, Grow NYC – the organization that brings us the sprawling Union Square Greenmarket – is incredible and a boon to the community, and I would be utterly miserable without it. But in Astoria the markets are still small, with only two orchards, and to my spoiled taste buds the cider doughnuts sold by one of them are lacking. If you’ve ever fried doughnuts and eaten them the second day, you know how foul that soaked-in oil tastes. Fried doughnuts should be fresh every day, and – in my humble opinion – shouldn’t be bagged or boxed. They should be sold one at a time from a container that keeps the cinnamon-sugar topping fresh and crunchy. But that’s a discussion for another day.
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There are some desserts that are “anytime” treats – anytime of the day, anytime of the year – and most of them, obviously, involve chocolate. I know, on a 95-degree day, some of us might prefer a fruit sorbet to a heavy dark chocolate gelato, but I think we’re all in agreement that that gelato would still be mighty refreshing. Cookies, obviously, fall into this category. Especially that supreme being of all that is good and sweet in the world: the mighty chocolate chip cookie.
If a long distance runner tells you part of the reason she runs isn’t so she can stuff her face with pasta, she’s lying to you. True, most of it is the challenge, the endorphins, the yearning to be better than you were yesterday. But for many of us, we run so we can eat. And when you’re training for a marathon, you’re hungry. All. the. time. It took me a while to be okay with eating a second lunch – which follows brunch, which follows a very long run, which follows breakfast. I swear, though, not everything I eat is a pastry or a muffin or a biscuit – I also eat fruit and salads and proteins and potatoes rich with vitamin C. These are the things I crave after a 20-mile run. But before? Give me bowls of pasta. Lemon. Garlic. Tomatoes. Peppers. Whatever. As long as it envelops that perfect pod of a simple carb, it’s what I want to fuel me through those grueling miles.
We all grow up eating the stuff, though for many kids, like yours truly, many moons ago, we want it with butter. Or cheese – from a little blue box. We were the pain-in-the-ass kids who only knew tomatoes if they were in the form of basically orange, tangy water with little o’s swimming around. But once we learned how beautiful that fruit was? Forget it. I watched my mom make a bolognese hundreds of times growing up, but never made a basic sauce until I was 20, kind of poor, and living with an Italian-American roommate in Paris. On our first night in our apartment together, she made her grandmother’s recipe: slow cooked, fresh tomatoes, with garlic, onion, and raisins, to cut the acidity and add sweetness. My life would never be the same.
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