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.

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.

vegan momofuku milk bar funfetti cake

vegan funfetti 2

well that name’s a mouthful.

anyways, some backstory. the other day, a friend sent me a picture of christina tosi’s visually arresting funfetti cake. she’s one of the most creative bakers out there – it’s a treat to read through her recipes and marvel at the playful presentation of her desserts.

I actually took on the milk bar funfetti cake years ago. thankfully no pictures survive. my sister had requested it, and even though at that point the only cake products I’d made were muffins and brownies, I took on tosi’s recipe. it began to feel like the inception of cake recipe – layers upon layers of preparation of different components, then the assembly of said components into one round 6-inch cake.

first of all, man, does tosi have a sweet tooth. anyone who knows me (even if they’ve known me for only one day) can attest that I’m an unabashed sweets fiend, but even I have a limit to how much saccharine sweetness I can handle. the icing was fine, but the cake itself was sweet to the point that we all had two bites and just couldn’t take any more. I had also tried to assemble the cake without the acetate, and even though my cake layers were quite squat, the cake still managed to sag to one side. if I remember correctly, I also dumped too much liquid into the icing, so by the end of the meal, the icing had started to squelch out into a sad moat around the cake. so that was the last time in a looooong time that I tried to make a layer cake.

then earlier this year that I attempted a tosi-inspired cake again. and it actually won an office competition! (and made some enemies – success!) when my friend sent me that funfetti picture, I figured it was time to take on a real tosi recipe.

except then I didn’t. I veganified it so all my friends could enjoy it, and would you believe me if I said you really can’t tell it’s vegan? it’s just a really awesome, intensely vanilla cake filled with sugary pops of color. tosi recommends clear vanilla extract, which results in a whiter cake and a true boxed mix flavor, but I just love the savory undertones of vanilla beans. also, be careful with the sprinkles, I recently learned that some sprinkles use confectioner’s glaze, which is apparently the excrement of some kind of beetle?! (sorry if I just ruined your appetite…but hey, at least this cake is excrement-free!)

p.s. if you’re wondering, I’ve heard mccormick makes some vegan sprinkles, but I had no luck at my supermarket. I found my generic brand confectioner’s glaze-free sprinkles at a value store.

vegan funfetti
makes one 6-inch, 3-layer cake

360g almond milk + 2 tsp apple cider vinegar
210g sugar
68g vegetable oil
18g vanilla paste
250g all-purpose flour
27g cornstarch
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
53g + 1 tbsp rainbow sprinkles
vanilla frosting
153g vegan butter (I used earth balance)
102g vegetable shortening
285-330g powdered sugar, sifted
13g vanilla paste
2 tbsp almond milk
cake crumbs
100g sugar
25g light brown sugar
90g cake flour
2g baking powder
2g kosher salt
20g rainbow sprinkles
40g vegetable oil
9g vanilla paste
milk soak
27g almond milk + 2g vanilla extract

christina tosi. momofuku milk bar. new york: clarkson potter, 2011.
isa chandra moskowitz. vegan cupcakes take over the world: 75 dairy-free recipes for cupcakes that rule. new york: da capo press, 2006.

cake|1 mix together the almond milk and apple cider vinegar and let sit for at least 5 minutes. grease three 6-inch cake pans and line with parchment paper. preheat oven to 350ºF.
2 in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat together sugar, oil, and vanilla paste until frothy.
3 in a medium bowl, sift together flour, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. using a spatula, gently fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until just combined, then gently mix 2/3 cup sprinkles in to the batter.
4 pour into the cake pans (~330g/pan), tap on the counter to level the batter, then bake for 22-25 minutes, until the tops are springy. let cool in pans for another 15 minutes, then invert onto wire racks to cool.
frosting|1 in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat together butter and shortening for 2-3 minutes, until light and creamy.
2 add powdered sugar and beat on low to incorporate, then beat on medium-high for 2 minutes. add vanilla paste and beat for another minute until well-combined.
crumbs|1 preheat oven to 300ºF.
2 in a small mixing bowl, combine sugars, flour, baking powder, salt, and sprinkles. using a fork, stir ingredients until well-combined.
3 add oil and vanilla and mix again with the fork until the mixture forms clusters.
4 pour crumb mixture onto a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. let cool completely before using.
milk soak|1 combine almond milk and vanilla. set aside.
assembly|1 if cakes are domed, level each layer. place the 2nd best-looking layer on the bottom and brush with the cake soak. dollop some icing on top, then spread almost to the edges. scatter some birthday crumbs on top, then press into the icing (with the back of your hand or a knife). spread some more icing over the top of the crumbs.
2 place the worst-looking layer on top, brush with cake soak, dollop icing on top, scatter crumbs, press them into the icing, and spread on more icing.
3 place the remaining cake layer on top. cover the top with icing, then crumb coat the cake with the remaining icing. press the remaining birthday crumbs into the top of the cake.
4 transfer the cake to the freezer and freeze for at least 12 hours to set the cake. at least 3 hours before serving, pull the sheet pan out of the freezer and defrost in the fridge.