vanilla bean shortbread

vanilla bean shortbread 1

I still remember the first time I read “the love song of j. alfred prufrock.” since I was young, I have been fascinated by the idea of perfection, which morphed later in life into an interest in the literary elevation of the ordinary. in “love song”, eliot captures so many normally inconsequential occurrences, from rolled trousers to thinning hair to life measured in coffee spoons, and imbues them with portentous significance. these moments flow together and against each other into a poem that is at once a dismantling of eternal perfection and a “love song” to the passage of time measured in mundane moments, more specifically to the way that the passing of time slowly but steadily brings about disintegration.

and yet, rather than feel dread, eliot writes with a certain acceptance – after all, the universe inclines naturally towards entropy.

I love too, that in this poem time is not a sequential concept, but instead becomes something more like tangled and bunched string, how at moments we can seem to have enough time left in our lives, or too much; too little, or none at all.

in modern society, the tradition of a formal, mid-afternoon respite has been forgotten by the younger generation. to us, every moment is somehow measured and aging has become something to avoid, to rail against with all of one’s strength. we spin ever-forward, we pause to catch our breath, we commence again.

baking has long been my solace – when I find a free moment, I love to fill my space with the scents of sugar and butter. I roll out some shortbread or cookie dough, I boil a kettle of tea. I sit and I read, and time falls away.

the love song of j. alfred prufrock [excerpt] | by t.s. eliot
there will be time, there will be time
to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
there will be time to murder and create,
and time for all the works and days of hands
that lift and drop a question on your plate;
time for you and time for me,
and time yet for a hundred indecisions,
and for a hundred visions and revisions,
before the taking of the toast and tea.

 
makes one 8•8-in pan

255g (1 cup + 2 tbsp) unsalted butter, very soft
1/2 tsp kosher salt
beans scraped from 1/2 vanilla pod
255g (1 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp) all purpose flour
75g (1/2 cup + 2 tbsp) cornstarch
70g + 55g (1/3 cup + 1/4 cup) granulated sugar, divided

 
elisabeth m. prueitt and chad robertson. tartine. san francisco: chronicle books, 2006.
1 preheat oven to 325ºF. butter an 8×8-in glass baking pan.
2 place the butter in a mixing bowl. the butter should be soft – with the consistency of mayonnaise. (if it is not, melt small portions of butter and mix into the rest of the butter, repeating until all of the butter is soft.) add salt and vanilla beans to butter and mix well with a wooden spoon until it dissolves completely.
3 sift flour and cornstarch together into a bowl.
4 add 70g granulated sugar (I used vanilla bean-infused sugar to add more vanilla flavor) to the butter and mix until just combined. add flour and fold into the butter just until a smooth dough forms.
5 press dough evenly into prepared baking dish. (the dough should be no more than 2/3-in deep. bake until top and bottom are lightly browned, ~30 min. very gently shake shortbread loose from the sides of the pan (the shortbread is very delicate, so be careful), then place the pan on a wire rack to cool until warm to the touch.
6 sprinkle shortbread with the remaining 55g granulated sugar. tilt the pan so sugar evenly coats the surface, then tip out excess sugar. while the shortcake is still warm, cut shortbread with a thin, sharp knife into 32 rectangular fingers (1-in x 2-in), or whatever dimensions you prefer.
7 chill pan throughly before removing shortbread. using a small offset spatula, gently lift shortbread out of the pan. shortbread will keep in an airtight container in a cool place for ~2 weeks.
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pumpkin cheesecake brownies

pumpkin cheesecake brownie 2

before I moved out of the dorms my junior year, I fancied myself to be a fairly good baker. time has since taught me that I gratuitously overestimated my abilities. case in point: twice I experimented with pumpkin desserts, and twice I failed.

senior year of high school, I was gifted a terrible compilation of “essential baking recipes”. with characteristic stubbornness, I kept trying failed recipe after failed recipe until, after the worst banana bread ever created (seriously, how did the book author mess up banana bread?!), I threw the book away. but alas, before I did so, I tried a cinnamon sweet potato muffin recipe, and gifted the muffins to teachers who I hoped would write my college recommendations.

sometimes people ask me if I wish I’d done anything differently in high school. pretty high on my list: don’t give tasteless, mildly mushy baked goods to people who could decide your future.

my second attempt was a brownie swirled with pumpkin purée – basically a sadder, blander version of these amazing pumpkin cheesecake brownies from baked occasions. my friend had invited me to hang out with his beautiful actor-dancer friends. these kids were a few weeks out from winter showcases and what did I bring them? some calorie-loaded gifts. suffice to say they were not a hit. as one girl muttered under her breath, “I’m not wasting my calories on this.” (rude, but accurate.)

since then, I’ve learned quite a bit: first, pumpkin purée can be quite bland, and as the starbucks pumpkin spice latte has taught me, much of the so-called “pumpkin” flavor comes instead from the spices. second, when pumpkin is involved, you can never have too much cinnamon. third, not everything has to be a success – learning to cook and bake has at times been incredibly humbling.

after all the wonderfully awkward social situations I’ve caused with fire alarms and hours-late birthday cakes and bad baked goods, I have learned much from my failures and have come to appreciate the successes that much more. fudgey and moist with creamy swirls of spiced pumpkin cheesecake throughout, these pumpkin cheesecake brownies are a real deal.

pumpkin cheesecake brownie 1
makes one 9•13in pan

pumpkin cheesecake
1 package (8oz/226g) cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp (75g) sugar
3/4 cup (178g) pumpkin purée
1 large egg yolk
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp ginger
brownie
3/4 cup + 2 tbsp (105g) all-purpose flour
1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
8 oz (225g) dark chocolate (60-72% cacao), chopped
1 1/2 sticks (170g) unsalted butter, cubed
3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp (85g) light brown sugar, packed
3 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

matt lewis, renato poliafito. baked occasions.new york: stewart, tabori, and chang, 2014.

cheesecake|1 using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix cream cheese and sugar until smooth and creamy. add pumpkin, egg yolk, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger, and mix again until well-blended. cover and refrigerate while you make the brownie layer.
brownie|1 butter sides and bottom of 9x13in pan. if pan is light-colored/glass, preheat oven to 350ºF (I used a dark-colored pan at 330ºF.) line the pan with parchment paper, and butter the parchment.
2 in a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, and salt.
3 place chocolate (I used dark chocolate chips) and butter in a large, heatproof bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water (double-boiler method), stirring occasionally until the chocolate and butter are completely melted smooth, and combined. turn off the heat, but keep the bowl over the water and add both sugars. whisk until completely combined, then remove bowl from pan. add two eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until just combined. add the remaining egg and vanilla extract and whisk until just combined.
4 sprinkle flour mixture over chocolate mixture. using a spatula, fold them gently together until just a bit of the flour mixture is visible.
5 pour 2/3 brownie batter into the prepared pan and smooth on top. pour the pumpkin cheesecake mixture over the brownies and smooth into an even layer. drop the remaining 1/3 brownie batter in heaping tablespoons on top of pumpkin layer. use a knife to gently pull through batters to create a swirl.
6 bake, rotating the pan halfway through baking time, for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs. let cool completely in the pan.
7 brownies can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
 

brownies

brownie 1

there are certain recipes that really can only be enjoyed in season; a pumpkin pie in april would just feel wrong. an apple pie tastes best when made with freshly-picked apples on a brisk fall day. but the brownie transcends seasons. when I’m living with the terrifying uncertainty of whether my car is driving or sledding, brownies are the perfect de-stressing recipe. when the outside temperature hits 61ºF and everyone jumps to wear t-shirts (when 61º really isn’t that warm) brownies are there to stick to spring-chilled bones.

the first time I made these brownies, the mid-atlantic had just been hit with an aggressive daytime snowstorm. for days afterwards, the backroads were reduced to paths of packed snow, more fit for horse-drawn sleighs than for cars.

the second time I made these brownies, less than a week later, the snow had melted to reveal destroyed roads littered with deep potholes that force realignment of your car frame (and your spine) every time you hit one.

with quintessential british understatment, nigel slater describes his brownies as “very good.” these are beyond “very good;” they are dense and fudgy without being mushy, structured without being cakey, and somehow achieve the elusive crisp crackly top. they are so good, I made them twice in two weeks, partially because my coworkers incessantly demanded it, but also because they really are just that good.

brownie 3

makes one 8×8 pan

1 1/2 cup (300g) sugar
(250g) butter
8.8 oz (250g) chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
3 large eggs + 1 egg yolk
1/2 cup (60g) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (60g) cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of kosher salt

nigel slater. the kitchen diaries. london: fourth estate, 2005.

1 preheat oven to 350ºF. line 8×8 baking pan with parchment paper.
2 in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat sugar and butter until white and fluffy.
3 break chocolate into pieces, set 50g aside and melt the remaining 200g in a bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water. as soon as the chocolate has completely melted, remove from heat. chop remaining 50g into gravel-sized pieces.
4 break eggs into small bowl and beat lightly. sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. with the stand mixer on low, add the eggs slowly. remove bowl from mixer and using a spatula, mix in melted and chopped chocolate. gently fold in flour cocoa mixture without knocking any air out.
5 scrape mixture into prepared cake tin, smooth top, and lightly scatter a little large-flaked kosher salt on top. bake for 30-33 minutes, until the top has risen slightly and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out sticky but without raw mixture attached to it. leave to cool for at least an hour before cutting into squares.