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.
Advertisements

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.

garlic potato purée

mash potato 2

in the modern age, “looks good enough to eat” takes on significant meaning – emphasis on the word “looks”.

the first cookbook I ever used was the dean and deluca cookbook, a paperback publication void of any pictures. as evidenced by its stained pages and creased binding, my family loved that cookbook. in it is the recipe for our usual holiday mashed potatoes, which we have used for the past decade.

presently, it is unheard of for a cookbook to have no pictures, and people rely heavily on how food looks as an indicator of how it tastes, especially when choosing recipes online. I admit to totally judging food by its appearance, but am also amused by the lengths to which some photographers go to make a dish look more attractive. there’s the small stuff – spritz salad with oil to give it that sheen, arrange the accoutrements ever-so-artistically atop a soup, twirl the pasta enticingly around a perfectly polished fork. then there’s the ridiculous – I recently tried a coq au vin recipe whose photograph promised a rich burgundy shade of stew. either those people dumped in a tablespoon or two of utterly unnecessary red food coloring or someone got a little overzealous adjusting the colors on photoshop. the dish itself tasted amazing, but came out rather brown (which, in retrospect, is the absolutely correct color for a wine-flavored chicken stew).

as I planned out the thanksgiving menu this year, I abandoned the traditional mashed potato recipe, seduced by the glossy pages of thomas keller’s ad hoc at home and the promise of consuming a premier chef’s (side) dish without having to sell an organ. as I plated the garlic potato purée (better known by its plebeian moniker, “mashed potatoes,”) and preparing to photograph them, one of my cousins asked what I was doing. “I’m creating more surfaces for shadows, to take a better photo,” I replied, while gently pressing creases into the swirls of mashed potato with a wooden spoon. (yes, it looked just as ridiculous as it sounds.) in my opinion, keller’s recipe is superior to dean and deluca’s – faster, involving less human labor, and with a more complex flavor profile thanks to the chives. but dean and deluca’s has this awesome punch of roasted garlic flavor – something that is impossible to capture in a photograph.

at dinner, the mashed potatoes were well-received. but then again, so was the stuffing, butt-ugly burnt edges be damned.

mash potato
makes 6 servings

1/4 cup peeled garlic cloves
1/2 cup canola oil
4 lb large yukon gold potatoes
kosher salt
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
5 tbsp cold unsalted butter, cut into 5 pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp minced chives

thomas keller. ad hoc at home. new york: artisan books, 2009.

1 cut off and discard root ends of garlic cloves. place cloves in a small saucepan and add enough oil to cover them by 1 inch.
2 set saucepan over low heat. cook the garlic gently; very small bubbles will come up through the oil, but should not break the surface. cook garlic for ~40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cloves are completely tender. remove the saucepan from heat and allow the garlic to cool in the oil.
3 meanwhile, place potatoes in a large pot and cover with 2 inches of cold water. season water with 1/4 cup salt and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat.
4 adjust heat as necessary to maintain very gentle simmer and cook for ~20 minutes, until tender enough to purée. drain potatoes in a colander and let them steam until cool enough to peel.
5 heat the cream over low heat in a heavy saucepan; keep warm.
6 in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add one-quarter of the potatoes, top with 1 pieces of butter and one-quarter of the garlic, and purée. repeat with remaining potatoes, butter, and garlic in 3 batches.
7 warm potatoes in saucepan over medium heat. as they heat, whip the cream into potatoes. season to taste with salt and pepper and fold in chives. transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle with the remaining chives, and top with a dollop of butter.