Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Blueberry Cheesecake

My pregnancy cravings have been pretty stereotypically comical: beer-battered oysters deep fried in lard, onigiri wrapped up in extra nori, so much fish sauce in everything, cucumber salad with all the dill and vinegar, mac and cheese. There was even a pickle incident in the first trimester.

And, of course, cheesecake. This one, a blueberry swirl cheesecake, is wonderfully custardy and makes an excellent second course at breakfast (after the eggs and oatmeal).

If I can, I like to use cream cheese and sour cream that are made from just cream & cultures. Most cream cheese is made from skim milk powder and cream held together with some sort of gum or thickener. Same for sour cream. If it's just cream, it will not only taste more delicious, but also be quite low in lactose, which matters for some of us. The gums and thickeners in cream cheese will also glue your cheesecake together, which isn't really a problem except that you lose the tender custardiness.

The key to getting nice swirls is to have the blueberry sauce fairly similar in consistency to the cheesecake batter. The first version I tried just gave me blueberry glob cheesecake, which I devoured with gusto.

Blueberry Cheesecake

Leave at room temperature to soften:
3 8-ounce packages of cream cheese

Prepare & bake one cheesecake crust in a 9" springform pan. Like this almond meal shortbread crust.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Zest and juice:
1 small lemon or half a large one

3 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch

In a small saucepan, combine cornstarch mixture and
1.5 cups washed, sorted blueberries
1 tablespoon of the lemon juice

Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, for a minute, until blueberry sauce is thickened and cornstarch becomes transparent. Set aside to cool.

2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Add to the cream cheese in a large mixing bowl and beat until well combined.

Stir in:
1 cup sour cream
lemon zest
2 teaspoons vanilla

One at a time, beat in
4 eggs

Pour batter into prepared crust. Drizzle with the blueberry sauce & make several strokes with a table knife to form swirls.

Place the springform pan on a rimmed cookie sheet and bake at 350 for 60 - 70 minutes, until the sides are puffed and the center has risen somewhat but isn't set. Turn off the oven and prop the door ajar for ten minutes. Remove to a cooling rack and run a knife around the edge. After an hour or so, continue cooling in the refrigerator. Serve when completely chilled and set up--the next day is the best bet.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sourdough Millet Oat Flatbread

My Aunt Linda developed this wheat-free recipe for flatbread, because weird diets are genetic. If you use a gluten-free starter and gluten-free oat flour they will also be completely gluten free, if that's what you're after. I adapted her original recipe for sourdough fermentation and found that using oat flour let me cut out the xanthan gum that most wheat-free breads require. Oats are plenty gummy all by themselves.

In the absence of wheat, cooked millet provides the structure and chewiness of these flatbreads. The long sourdough fermentation gives them the sweet-savory addictive quality usually missing from "substitute" breads. I make them constantly.

Actually, they're so sweet-savory, I wonder if some koji organisms floated out of my miso crock and found their way into my sourdough starter. The starter has taken on a fabulous umami character and seems really good at breaking down carbohydrates, so that any dough it ferments quickly becomes sweeter and softer.

Make sure your starter is quite active before you begin--feed it 8 hours or so before starting. You can make your own wild sourdough starter (use teff or brown rice flour if you want it gluten free) or order one from Cultures for Health. The millet and potato flours can be switched out for other things, like teff or tapioca flour. I wouldn't add much more oat flour, or the flatbreads will be hard and dry. Same for rice flour.

Sourdough Millet Oat Flatbread

Makes 18 4-5" flatbreads

In a large bowl, combine:

4 cups cooked millet, cooled somewhat*
2 cups oat flour
1 cup millet flour
1 cup potato flour

Stir to evenly distribute the cooked millet & break up any lumps. Then add:

1/2 cup active sourdough starter
1.5 cups water

Knead briefly to mix everything evenly, then cover with a tea towel and place somewhere warm to ferment.

Let the dough ferment for a few hours, depending on the temperature. My kitchen has been in the 90s lately, so a few hours are plenty, but each rising can take 8 hours or more when it's down in the low 60s in the winter. The dough will not really rise, either--that's a lot to ask of a bread without gluten. Instead, it will puff slightly, develop cracks in the surface, and become fragrant with sourdough as the starter reproduces. The dough will also soften considerably as it absorbs moisture from the cooked millet, and you'll need to stir it rather than knead it. Let it rise again for a similar amount of time.

When it has puffed and cracked a second time, whisk together:

3 tablespoons of honey
1/4 cup olive oil
1.5 teaspoons of sea salt

Pour over the dough and stir until well combined. With the honey and olive oil, the dough will be quite wet now.

Line two large baking trays with parchment and pour 1/4 cup olive oil in a little bowl. Scoop large spoonfuls of batter onto the trays, about 9 per full-size sheet tray. Oil your hand well and pat the spoonfuls down into smooth 5" circles. Dip a little more oil onto your hand before patting each flatbread. They should be quite oily on top, so pat on a little extra if you have any oil leftover at the end. Let the flatbreads "rise" again until a bit puffier, another hour or two.

Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then switch the baking sheets and bake for another 10 minutes. They should be golden all over and a bit brown at the edges. Use convection if you have it, or run each tray under the broiler for a minute at the end to get some extra color on them. Let cool on a rack.

After the first day or two they'll definitely need to be toasted to be delicious. They freeze well and can be toasted from the freezer.

Seeded flatbread: Add 1/2 cup each chopped walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and 2 tablespoons sesame seeds to the dough with the honey and olive oil after the first two risings.

Note: Over the course of a long fermentation, the enzymes in honey can have unpredictable effects on bread dough. Saving the oil for the end makes the honey easier to mix in. The honey is delicious, of course, encourages browning, gives the yeast a little boost for that final rise, and helps the flatbread retain moisture, but you could certainly omit it and add the oil and salt when first mixing up the dough.

*Rinse & drain 1 part millet and add 2 parts water, bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for 20 minutes until the liquid is absorbed.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Almond Meal Shortbread Crust

If you get this crust browned just enough, it takes on a macaroon-like quality. It's slightly sweet, salty, tender, nutty, and excellent under anything from pumpkin pie to cheesecake.

The almond meal should be made from blanched almonds. You can make it from whole almond meal, but it will be a distinct creature: grittier and heavier.

The rice flour and water are pretty important supporting players here. Without either, the crust would just be a collection of buttery crumbs. Be sure to use sweet rice flour, which is ground-up sticky rice. It's more tender and gluey than regular rice flour. In mainstream grocery stores, you're most likely to find the Bob's Red Mill brand, if you find it at all, but you can also get it online. It's known as mochiko in Japan (because it's what makes mochi so delicious), and chapssalgaru in Korea. Also called glutinous rice flour.

Almond Meal Shortbread Crust

Makes enough for a 9-10" pie crust.

Whisk together:
1 cup almond meal
1/3 cup sweet white rice flour
1/2 teaspoon salt (heaping if using sea salt)
2 tablespoons sugar

Stir in:
4 tablespoons melted butter

Then add:
1 tablespoon water

Stir well and dump into your pie pan or springform pan. Spread the crumbs out and press them firmly and evenly all over the bottoms and sides. Try to make the top edge fairly thick, as it will brown so much faster. When I'm using this recipe for a cheesecake, I only push the crumbs 1/2 inch up the sides.

If the pie will not be baked very long, or if the crust is for a cheesecake, I pre-bake the crust at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or so, until browned around the edges and a bit golden all over.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

An Understated Hummus

There's a little notebook I've been filling with lists and recipes for the past three years. It's got pages like "Questions for the Midwives," "Virginia Packing List," and a 24-hour record of nursing sessions for a baby who now can now recite all the Frog & Toad books verbatim. It has an hourly schedule for a moving day last fall, which happens to include items like "pick up the pig" and "make a dozen pies" because we were supposed to move well in advance of the housewarming party, but remodeling projects don't work like that. And it has enough lists--grocery lists, camping lists, cleaning lists, reverse packing lists--to paint a full & nuanced portrait of my neuroticism. It even has a list of blog posts I should have written. In case it wasn't clear, I'm definitely a Toad who wishes she were Frog.

But now the notebook is completely full, and I need to upload some of these recipes before moving on to the next book, and while I still remember them well enough to read them through the dense tangle of my son's drawings. Most of these notebook recipes are neither fancy nor particularly involved. They're just basic workhorse recipes, ones of my own, or ones I get tired of looking up in cookbooks and blogs.

So here, we'll start with one I've been making for years, and which has rated high on my preggo-round-two craving list: hummus. Soon after college, I worked as a line cook at Vios, a fantastic Greek restaurant in Seattle. It was 2007, I finally started noticing all the skinny jeans, and it had only been a few years since my family bought its first ever bottle of olive oil. I'd only experienced hummus from the health-food hippie side of things. So I was totally blown away by Vios' perfect, careful, understated hummus. 

I should clarify that this is not Vios' hummus recipe--I wasn't involved in making the hummus there, apart from soaking the garbanzos for the morning crew. But I took my old pasty garlic-bomb hummus recipe and made it more Vios-like. For a while I was stuck trying to use as little water as possible--figuring it would only dilute precious flavors--but that was just silly. Hummus is an emulsion, so liquid lightens it--and you can only use so much lemon juice. Also this recipe is gentle with the garlic, not because I dislike garlic in the slightest, but because too much raw garlic overpowers itself.


Makes 3 cups of hummus.

Soak 1 cup dry chickpeas in several cups of water overnight. In the morning, drain the chickpeas, add several cups of fresh water, and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat for an hour or two, until the chickpeas are quite tender. In general, older dry beans take longer to cook than fresh ones. Drain off the cooking liquid and let the chickpeas cool for a bit. (I don't save soaking or cooking liquid because it tends to contain extra FODMAPs I don't need, see neuroticism, above.)


the cooled chickpeas
1/3 cup tahini
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 large or 2 small lemons)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4-1/2 cup water
1 medium clove garlic
1.5 teaspoons sea salt

Puree with an immersion or regular blender. Add more water as necessary to get a nice fluffy creamy consistency (the amount needed varies from batch to batch depending on how much water the chickpeas absorb). Chill for an hour or so to let the flavors meld.

Try serving it sprinkled with ground sumac and a drizzle of olive oil.

Hummus keeps for a week in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Milch Maid: Being Food

Nursing is pretty cool, like those dreams where you finally discover your latent magical powers. I've read enough fantasy novels that I have a lot of those dreams. Like this, say:

Now spin a silver thread of milk / And out of it a baby knit. / Then take the milken thread again / And mend your broken heart with it.

It's shimmeringly magical to watch my milk transform into a new person, a beautiful little sprout-in-the-snow, a bright-throated piper, up to his eyebrows in eyelashes. And how delightful that this small wild creature needs me! I am his habitat, I am the twig this bird has lit upon, and, indeed, this is the milk he came expecting.

There is the grunt work, though, fueling the magic. And "fuel" really is how I think about food these days. Staying fed is heavy work. It feels like I am always running out, and when I get something, I've barely cleared the dishes before there it is again: I'm hungry. If my own kitchen feels inadequate, restaurants are mostly hopeless. Such silly little morsels in the middles of big plates. Such tiny dabs of cheese on those greens. Moderation, mindfulness, kale salad--lols.

It's like this. I gained 25 pounds gestating. Then I lost 40 lactating, leaving me lighter than I have ever been at my adult height, and technically underweight. And it's the especially nice fat that's gone--the smoothing subcutaneous fat, the curvy gluteofemoral fat. I'm sharp, fibrous, aged. My baby likes chewing on my collarbones. Underwires scrape my ribs. Nothing is wrong--I checked, twice--and it does make sense. Nursing, especially nighttime nursing, suppresses estrogen and the subcutaneous fat it encourages. Then consider that I walk everywhere with a 25-pound weight on my back, a 25-pound weight who periodically siphons calories directly from my dwindling body, and it's easy to see how I wound up like this.

But I am eating like I have never eaten before. Every morning it's three eggs and a bowlful of porridge with heavy cream and maple syrup, dark chocolate, tea with more cream. I eat pot roasts and cheesecakes, hash browns fried in butter, pupusas under sour cream, sauerkraut, salsa, avocado. Salmon and miso, cornbread and blueberry jam, baked oysters, noodle-y bowls of beef tendon pho, steak, mashed potatoes, gravy. Heaping skillets of sautéed leeks and rutabagas, kettles of buttered kale, roasted squash, creamed turnips, lasagna. If it doesn't overflow my dinner plate, it's a garnish, not a salad.

That all sounds pretty good, but I'm so hungry that it gets weird, too. Sticky whole dates stuffed with butter and rolled in coconut. Canned sardines and rice. Cheese rice. Cold rice with cream. There's this feeling I got postpartum, where I felt sort of homesick and seasick and lost. Sometimes, now, in that frantic hour before dinner, when my toddler does not want to play with his wooden fruit or rummage through the recycling bin or unroll the parchment paper and crinkle it all up, but only wants to be up on my hip and watching what I'm doing, which is dangerous and requires two hands and needs to be done so I can eat it, then I get a little wave of that homesick feeling and it doesn't go away until we've sat down and eaten a deep and extensive meal. With sauces and butters and all. I don't know why snacks stop working then. No matter how much cheese or almonds or leftover oats or buttered dates I eat, I'm lonely and adrift until I anchor my unfamiliar body with serious food. Then the evening gets its glow back.

I hope I don't sound like I'm complaining. It's sort of hard to talk about bodies without either complaining or pseudo-complaining. But in fact, my baby has transformed me into his environment--a strange, unfamiliar environment--and I feel awesome. I've never been stronger. When I go walking without the child on my back, I feel uncomfortably light, like there isn't enough friction. It's just not the body I'm used to, and not what I expected (and yes, I know--name of the game).

Let's be clear. It was hard, too. Milk production is triggered by progesterone withdrawal, and I really hate progesterone withdrawal in normal everyday circumstances, let alone withdrawal from the glorious pregnant quantities of progesterone, orders of magnitude higher than at any other point in life. So I cried a lot, and I also cried because my baby's latch wasn't great and I'll tell you all about what that feels like if you're ever curious. But the crying was over by six weeks thanks to my great midwife/IBCLC, plus happy chemicals like theobromine and caffeine. Ever since then, nursing has been one of the nicer and easier and more magical things I do as a mother.

The picture up top is a spoonful of cream I made. I hate pumping milk. I haven't done very much of it because my milk has excess lipase, an enzyme which breaks down fat and makes my stored milk taste like dish soap after a few hours. But the other day the child took ill and wasn't nursing much, so I had to pump for relief. I stashed the milk in the fridge in case I thought of something to do with it (I mean, it always starts tasting like soap and I always wind up chucking it, but still, I have to give it a chance).

Anyway, a downright shocking amount of cream rose to the top. As toddlers eat more solids, drink more water, and nurse less frequently, a mother's body adjusts the milk recipe to be richer and more satisfying. I knew this, but to see it? What a marvel. Think of all that magical buttery cream my child is drinking! No wonder that last night while nursing to sleep, he paused to tell me it was "yummy." We've got ice cream on tap.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home, and Some Thoughts on Writing

It's out! Today is the official publication day of my second book, The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home. You can find it at the usual places, like your local bookseller or Amazon or Powell's. Now that I have two books out, it must not be a fluke. So I think I'll indulge myself and talk a little bit about what it feels like to write books.

Books are an odd, slow medium, not at all like essays or saying clever things at parties. There's a big gap between the audience and me. And things are rather messy on this side of the gap.

For starters, I'm a physically awkward writer--I pull on my mouth, walk to the kitchen for a sip of water, grimace at people outside my window, lean on my desk, prop up the other foot. I start to sweat as the creative adrenaline builds. I frown and squint, and say nonsense things to the cats. If people are around I become conscious of all these mannerisms and distract myself. This is why I'm no good at saying clever things at parties.

I work at a stand-up desk (a butcher block counter in the living room), which helps enormously. I suppose in my case it should be called a fidgeting desk, because standing still is not what I'm doing. When I'm tired of being upright, I do sit, but cross-legged or half-squatting on a bench. Sitting still makes me cold and tired, and I can't sit properly in a chair with my feet on the floor anyway, since all the blood runs out of my brain and into my feet. Low blood pressure.

I'm a slow writer, too. Mostly I edit. All the fidgeting helps me become sort of disembodied, helps me reach that abstract state where ideas get wrangled into words. Walking is perfect for this, and so is the opposite sensory deprivation of lying awake at night (as pregnant people do, before they discover that a chopped liver sandwich is the cure for insomnia). But in general, the effort and concentration of writing and editing are so exhausting that I often dread the work, and can't keep it up for more than a few hours at a time.

For months, as I work on the book, "the book" means awkward, ugly, sweaty solitude, and a general sense that I'm letting everyone down. Then it goes to the publisher, and they lay it out and design it and I feel slightly embarrassed about all the effort they're going to. Finally, after I've started to forget what I even wrote, "the book" pops into existence as a real book with covers and pages, and strangers read it and say things about it. If by chance they don't say, "What an awkward, ugly, sweaty book," I am rather surprised.

Today, the book is indeed out, and people are saying stuff about it. I read the very first stranger's comments on it yesterday, when I found out that Publishers Weekly called it "an utterly charming collection of recipes and how-tos for the 21st-century hipster homemaker," and then compared us to "postmodern Elizabeth Davids." That made me so happy! The gap between the audience and me must be flatteringly large.

You could almost think from this self-absorbed meta-writing that I'm making plays or novels. No. All this sweating and whatnot is just for straightforward instructional nonfiction, where for the most part I don't even have to second-guess the plot! I already know how the chutney is going to end. That's the other part of my job, and yes, I do know how lucky that makes me. I know how lucky the whole thing is, and what a gift it is to do the thing that makes me fidget most.

(Of course I feel obliged to add that I'm not a very good hipster, in case anyone wondered how I ought to be typecast. Also, I made no fewer than fifteen trips to the kitchen for water during the course of writing this.)

Monday, October 01, 2012

Grape Jam

A couple of hours from our home in West Virginia we had some friends with a vineyard. We used to drive over there--four mountain ranges between us--to make grape juice with them every year. Imagine a wine crush party, but with calico aprons and no booze. Anyway, our friends didn't grow wine grapes, or even standard table grapes, but the splendid dusty blue Concords and their kin.

And these Concords, derived from the wild grapes of North America, are the source of the canonical grape flavor. It's the flavor of the jelly in the classic PB&J, the flavor of purple grape juice, the flavor half-heartedly attempted in purple candies and sodas--and yet, we hardly ever sit down and eat Concord grapes. Concord types are too pungent, seedy, and tannic. They're inconvenient. (My preferred way to eat them is to squeeze the grape out of its skin and into my mouth, spit out the seeds, eat the sweet center, then suck the sweetness out of the skin and swallow it whole before it gets too bitter.) These are not the grapes to feed empresses reclining on divans. You won't find them imported from Argentina in April. 

After we permanently moved down from West Virginia, across those four mountain ranges, I worked on our friends' farm for years. Picking grapes was by far the nicest work on the farm. Picture two teenage girls with ass-length braids, clipping grapes from lush arbors at twilight, singing stupid songs about drunken sailors. The bleached-out glare of summer was gone, leaving the sky vivid blue again, and there were new people to fall in love with at school.

The seasons are subtler here in San Francisco, and the summer-fall transition is particularly unrecognizable. So what a delight when a friend stopped by and left me some Concord-type grapes! I dug up this recipe for grape jam from my grandmother's taped-together copy of The Mennonite Community Cookbook. This sort of continuity is crucial when reenacting lost seasons. I did, however, ruthlessly cut the sugar, as I do for all old jam recipes. It's still very, very sweet.

Grape jam is far less common than grape jelly. Since grapes are so seedy, you have to strain them anyway, so lots of people just make jelly while they're at it. The difference is that grape jam gets pressed through a strainer or food mill, making it cloudy and dark, whereas jelly is allowed to slowly filter through a jelly bag, making it lovely and clear. But when you mash the pulp, you get a very robust flavor and a much better yield, plus I imagine those cloudy particles have some small nutritional value.

Grape Jam

Adapted from The Mennonite Community Cookbook.

Wash 4 pounds of Concord-type grapes and pick them from the stems. You should have about 2.5 quarts.

Put the grapes in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, add half a cup of water, cover, and bring to a simmer. Let the grapes cook until they're quite soft; something like 20-30 minutes.

Mash the grapes through a food mill. You should now have about six cups of grape pulp. Return the pulp to the pot and add three cups of sugar. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat and cook down until thick enough that the jam runs from the spoon in one stream, rather than individual drips. This could take 20-35 minutes, depending on the dimensions of your pot and the power of the burner.

Pour into hot sterilized jars and cover. You can keep the jam refrigerated for a long while, or properly can it (5 minutes in a boiling water bath) so it's shelf-stable.

Makes 4-5 cups of jam.