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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rice crispy treats

rice crispy treat 1

a few years ago, I studied abroad in beijing. I had heard about the air quality and imagined that it would look something like los angeles, but the reality, a greyish-yellow fog that often obscured buildings across the street, was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. within days, I had developed a hacking cough that made it nearly impossible to speak in full sentences, a condition that ex-pats termed the “beijing cough”. 

a few weeks later, my cough had finally disappeared and my abroad program held a food preparation contest judged by our chinese professors. my friend and I, both huge dessert fiends, wanted to do something sweet, but in the hot and humid beijing climate, we did not want to use too much heat. we settled on rice krispie treats, trekking to a large carrefour to find marshmallows and rice krispie cereal, then melting it all together in a giant pot we borrowed from a chinese student. we actually ended up winning the contest because our chinese professors had never seen rice krispie treats before and thought they were really exotic and creative!

the contest took place on one of the few sunny days of that summer. the sky was a clear cloudless blue. the night before, a thunderstorm had hit with raindrops so huge, they hurt when they hit my bare skin. we half-joked that the government could control the weather, could create a rainstorm so ferocious that it washed away all the pollution. whether it was true or not, the day after  a thunderstorm in beijing was always clear and blue.

I cannot even remember what my friend and I won – it was probably some coupons to a local bubble tea store. but I do remember eating warm watermelon in the sweltering heat, happy to be able to see across the street for the first time in weeks and feeling like I could breathe again.

in the wake of dangerously high levels of air pollution that have made the city almost unlivable, beijing has issued its first red alert for the first time. and for the first time, the chinese government has put environmental concerns before its emphasis on rapid economic growth through industrialization and signed on to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

and here in the northeast, global warming has now made it possible to frolic on a beach in december, then head into the city for some outdoor ice skating (because apparently we still are willing to waste energy for “winter traditions”). so save some energy and add these (super-legitimate chinese teacher’s) award-winning, no-bake rice crispy treats into your holiday sweets repertoire. 

rice crispie

makes one 8•8in pan

1/4 lb (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 tbsp vanilla paste
1 10-oz bag marshmallows
heaping 1/4 tsp kosher salt
6 cups rice krispie cereal

deb perelman. salted brown butter crispy treats. smitten kitchen. 2 nov 2011. accessed 22 dec 2015.
1 grease an 8×8-in square pan.
2 in a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. using a silicone spatula, stir frequently until it turns brown and begins to smell nutty. immediately turn off the heat and mix in the vanilla paste.
3 stir in the marshmallows until smooth. if they are not completely melted, stir over low heat until completely smooth. add salt and stir until well-combined.
4 remove pot from stove and stir in rice krispie cereal. using spatula, quickly press into prepared pan.
5 let cool completely (~1 hr), cut into squares, and serve.