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6.23.2008

In its frilly finest

I love having house guests. It has been brought to my attention that this is perhaps not a very common or popular stance, but I am sticking by it. As a general concept, I think house guests are pretty great. It’s like having a slumber party, only you can cuss without getting in trouble, and the mean girl from second grade isn’t around to make you cry anymore, and instead of Dr. Pepper and Funyuns, you can share such things as salami and cherries and bottles of rosé and pappardelle with bagna cauda, wilted radicchio, and eggs fried in olive oil. I think we can all get behind that.


This past weekend, my friend Leah came up from California for a visit. A couple of months ago, over some cookies and milk at Sweet Adeline Bakeshop, I had suggested that she come to Seattle, and I must have been very persuasive, because she arrived on Friday morning, just in time for lunch.

The unofficial focal point of the visit was to be a day trip to Mount Rainier on Saturday, a trek we dubbed the First Annual Summer Solstice Picnic and Hike. However, as it happened, it was cold and rainy on the mountain, and the trail we wanted to take was buried under eight feet of snow, so our “picnic” took place in the car and our “hike” turned into a brisk 25-minute walk on a different, shorter trail. But it was okay, because Leah had some very cheering dirty jokes up her sleeve, and there is no situation that cannot be improved with a rousing impersonation of [warning: noisy link] Shooby Taylor. And thankfully, the other parts of the weekend went off without a hitch, and they involved even more important things, like cookies that taste like toffee, the aforementioned pasta, and Hasselback potatoes.


Have you ever had a Hasselback potato? It’s a Swedish invention, named for the restaurant in Stockholm that introduced them in the 1700s, and it’s traditionally comprised of a whole potato that has been peeled and cut to resemble a fan, dotted with butter, baked, and then topped with fine bread crumbs and broiled. When properly made, a Hasselback potato is crisp on top and creamy inside, a perfect hybrid of a roasted potato and a baked potato, dressed in its frilly finest. It’s tasty, but it’s also very old-fashioned, the kind of side dish usually relegated to stuffy, stodgy, white-tablecloth restaurants with waiters in starched vests. Until recently, I had never given it much thought. But one day a week or two ago, Brandon happened to mention the Hasselback potato, and the idea lodged itself in my mind - right beneath, come to speak of it, all those Shooby Taylor lyrics - and when it came time to decide on that night’s dinner, I thought, Hasselback potatoes.

To tell you the truth, I wasn’t particularly interested in the usual version, which would necessitate obtaining bread crumbs and pulling out the vegetable peeler. What I wanted was the pure heart of the Hasselback, which is to say a potato that straddles the line between roasted and baked, and that happens to be pretty too. So we made a rustic version. We bought some red potatoes, scrubbed them, and cut slits into them from the top down, so that they would fan open like accordions when they baked. Then, for extra flavor, we slipped slices of garlic down into the slits of some of the potatoes and, into the slits of others, some bits from a broken bay leaf. Then we drizzled them with olive oil, salted them generously, and baked them until they opened like strange flowers and their skins were wrinkled and crisp. We ate them with salmon fillets that Brandon had rubbed with crème fraîche and baked, and aside from the fact that there was way too much bay leaf in a few of the potatoes - see photo above - and one of us whose initials are MW proclaimed them “crazy, and not in a good way,” there was a lot of appreciative moaning around the table that night.

So when I thought about what to make for Leah on Friday evening for her first meal in Seattle, I decided that it was a perfect excuse for more Hasselback potatoes. This time, we flavored them with thin slices of shallot, which we all declared to be quite lovely, and we ate them with ratatouille and homemade lamb sausages. They’re just potatoes, of course, cut in a fancy way and jammed into the oven, but they’re oddly charming somehow. They look a little like roly polys, actually, which pleases me tremendously. (Is it bad to describe your food by likening it to a bug? Yes? No?) For lunch yesterday, I ate the leftovers with my fingers, dipping them into a small pile of salt on the side of the plate, and I highly recommend it. And though I do love house guests, I don’t intend to wait for another before I make them again.



Rustic Hasselback Potatoes

For this preparation, I like to use potatoes that are roughly the size of tennis balls.

Red or white potatoes, medium to large in size
Optional: thinly sliced garlic or shallots, fresh rosemary, bay leaves, butter
Olive oil
Kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Rinse (and scrub, if necessary) the potatoes, and dry them well. Working with one potato at a time, place it in the well of a wooden spoon, the kind you would use for stirring a pot of soup. Starting at one end of the potato and working toward the other, make a series of crosswise vertical cuts about ¼ inch apart, taking care not to cut all the way through the potato. The wooden spoon should help with this; the knife will hit the sides of the spoon before it can go all the way through the potato.

Place the potatoes on a baking sheet. You can either leave them plain, as is, or you can now season them by slipping herb or aromatics into the cuts. If you want to use garlic or shallots, slip a small slice into each cut. If you want to use rosemary, wedge 1 small sprig into one of the center cuts. If you want to use bay leaves, slip 1 whole leaf into one of the center cuts. (Do not use more than 1 bay leaf, and do not be tempted to crumble it into bits to put in multiple cuts. Use only 1 leaf in 1 cut. See story above.) Then, whether you have seasoned them or not, drizzle the potatoes with oil. You’ll want to sort of open the cuts with your fingers while you drizzle, so that some of the oil gets down inside, and use nice amount of oil – not a dainty little wisp, but also not a huge splash. Sprinkle generously with salt.

Slide the baking sheet into the oven, and bake until the tops are crispy and the potatoes are cooked through, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Serve hot - and, if you like, topped with a finishing sliver of butter.

Note: My friend Hannah makes an especially daring version of the Hasselback. I love her.

6.16.2008

I baked you a cake

Wow. I’m not sure what to say today. I sent off my revised manuscript at 9:30 this morning, and judging by the mess around our apartment, my entire brain went with it. Just now, I retrieved the mail from its slot by the front door and discovered that, apparently, when I paid the bills last week, I didn’t put stamps on any of the envelopes. Consequently, they all came back today, like a small flock of homing pigeons, only flatter. Let’s hope that my brain does the same. Soon.


I’m not going to type for long today, because I feel a nap coming on. But I wanted to celebrate this little victory with you, because you’ve been very patient with me lately, and with my brain. I want to thank you for that. So I baked you a cake.


Well, actually, I baked it for a friend’s party, and it’s all gone now, but I saved the photographs for you. And the recipe. Does that count? I hope so.

I also hope you like carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. I know I do. To me, carrot cakes taste like picnics on red checked blankets and parties by the pool, and because I can’t give you a picnic or a party, I thought this was a good alternative. There are pecans in the cake part, and it was supposed to have raisins too, but I left them out, because I worried that you wouldn’t like them. It’s moist and lightly spiced, and the frosting is not too sweet, and it’s three layers tall, which means that there’s plenty for everyone. Brandon shaved a taste from of one of the layers before I frosted it, and he made all sorts of moaning noises and declared it the best carrot cake ever, and I don’t think he said that just to make me feel better about the loss of my brain. (Although maybe just a little.)

So dig in! And don’t worry about saving any for me. All I need is that nap.


Classic Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Bon Appétit

I know there are lots of carrot cake recipes out there, and with all sorts of embellishments, but it’s important to have a classic one in your repertoire, and I think this one will be mine. It’s simple and miraculously moist, and the flavors are spot-on.

Oh, and if you like raisins in your carrot cake, add ½ cup with the carrots and the pecans.

For the cake:
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 (slightly heaping) tsp. baking powder
2 (slightly heaping) tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
¾ tsp. ground ginger
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs
½ cup unsweetened applesauce
3 cups finely grated peeled carrots
1 cup pecans, chopped

For the frosting:
2 (8-oz.) packages cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup (4 oz. / 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 ¼ cups powdered sugar, or to taste
3 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon juice

Position racks in the top and bottom third of the oven, and preheat to 325°F. Lightly grease 3 (9-inch) round pans with butter or cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper, and then grease the paper too.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Whisk well to blend.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the sugar and oil until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well to incorporate after each addition. Add the applesauce, beating to mix. Add the flour mixture, and beat to incorporate, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula if needed. Add the carrots and the pecans, and beat briefly.

Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. (It will look pretty skimpy, but don’t worry; the cakes will rise nicely in the oven.) Slide the pans into the oven – I put one on the top rack and two on the bottom and rotated them once or twice during baking – and bake until the cakes begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. The original recipe says that this should take about 45 minutes, but in my oven, it only took 30 minutes. Cool the cakes in their pans on a wire rack for 15 minutes; then turn them out onto the rack to cool completely.

When the cakes are cool, make the frosting. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth. Sift in the powdered sugar, and beat on low speed until incorporated. Add the vanilla and the lemon juice, and beat well to incorporate. If the frosting is lumpy from the sugar, bump the speed up to medium-high and beat the crap out of it. That usually does the trick.

To assemble the cake, place one layer on a platter or cake stand. Spread it with ¾ cup frosting. Carefully place another layer atop it. Spread with ¾ cup frosting. Top with the third cake layer, and then spread the remaining frosting over the top and down the sides. Serve at room temperature.

Note: You can make the cake layers one day before assembling the whole cake. Wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, and store them at room temperature. The assembled cake can be prepared up to 2 days before serving. Store it in the fridge, covered with a cake dome, and allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

Yield: 10-12 servings

6.09.2008

49 degrees

Before I begin, I feel that a warning of sorts is in order. I understand that some of you people, especially the ones on the East Coast, are having a heat wave? Is that right? Well, if so, you might consider clicking away right now, because what I am about to say will have almost no relevance for you. Sorry.

That said, here goes. Today, June 9, it is 49 degrees and raining. I woke up and turned on the heat, got out my green wool socks, and now I am eating baked pasta.


Anybody still there? I’m not even sure I am, and I’m the one writing this thing. But I can tell you this for certain: the pasta is very tasty. Even though, at this time of year, I usually prefer to eat popsicles and strawberry shortcake.

We’re still on a Jamie Oliver kick around here. I think I’m in love. It doesn’t hurt that thumbing through Jamie’s Italy feels like sneaking, stowaway-style, into someone else’s summer vacation, which is something I would very much like to do right now. But even more than that, Jamie makes everything - the simplest spaghetti in a pot, the plainest bowl of greens, the most basic combination of pasta and tomato sauce and mozzarella - feel like something worth shouting from the roofs about.

Take, for example, baked pasta. When I was in high school, the cafeteria sometimes served it. (This, of course, was on the days when they weren’t serving creamed chipped beef, tuna noodle casserole, or turkey tetrazzini.) I don’t think I ever even tasted it. I didn’t see any need to. Baked pasta, for me, was Cafeteria Food, and that was that. But we have now made Jamie’s recipe, or a riff on it, two times in the past two weeks, and if this weather keeps up, we might even make it again. Like I said, I think I’m in love.

Baked pasta is, by definition, nothing fancy. It’s essentially just noodles with tomato sauce - which, in all fairness, you could technically eat on their own - layered in a pan with cheese and then baked. But there’s something so special about the way the cheese melts and bubbles, oozing into crevices here and there, and there’s also that lovely thing that happens to the top layer, the way it gets crispy and craggy, like the corner of a brownie. When baked pasta is good, it’s very good. And Jamie’s recipe is. It uses fresh mozzarella, for one thing, and a homemade tomato sauce, which - though it does splatter all over the stovetop and make a royal mess - is more than worth the trouble.


We first made it over Memorial Day weekend, and it gave us the most delicious leftovers. We hauled a Tupperware of it out to the Gorge that Monday, when we went to the Sasquatch Music Festival, and even at room temperature, with the smell of sunscreen and marijuana and stale beer hanging heavy on the air, it tasted absolutely terrific. If that isn’t high praise, I don’t know what is.

However
, for as good as it was, we did find ourselves wishing, just a little bit, that we had used Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce instead. Jamie’s recipe had quite a bit more onion than we usually like, which made the tomato flavor less pure and tomatoey, and anyway, once you have eaten what we now simply call “Marcella Hazan Sauce,” or MHS, you have little patience for others. So this past Saturday night, we made baked pasta again, but this time, we used a double batch of MHS. We tweaked it just a little, cutting back on the butter and including some garlic and hot pepper flakes, and we upped the quantity of pasta too, so that we would have plenty of leftovers. The sauce takes a while to simmer, I have to admit, but while it does, you can take care of all sorts of important things, like opening a beer and playing some cards, or bitching about the next-door neighbor who dug a post hole for his new fence in the middle of your herb garden.

And then, when it’s all done, you have not only dinner, but also lunches, delicious warm lunches, for at least a few days. And when you live in Seattle and it’s early June, that means a lot.


Baked Pasta with Homemade Tomato Sauce and Fresh Mozzarella
Inspired by Jamie’s Italy

We like to use chiocciole for this, but you could use almost any smallish pasta shape.

2 (28-oz.) cans whole peeled plum tomatoes
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, peeled and halved
4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 to 2 pinches red pepper flakes
Salt
Red wine vinegar
1 ½ lb. small pasta, such as orecchiette, chiocciole, rigatoni, or ziti
¼ to 1/3 lb. parmesan cheese, grated
3 (~4 oz. each) balls fresh mozzarella
Fresh basil leaves

Dump the tomatoes with their juices into a large saucepan. Add the butter, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, and a couple pinches of salt. Place over medium heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Remove and discard the onion halves. Using an immersion blender (or a food processor, if need be), blend the sauce until mostly smooth. Return it to the saucepan, and continue to simmer it over medium or medium-low heat for another 45 minutes or so, until it has thickened to the consistency of a usual tomato sauce. It’s alright if it’s a bit loose, but you want it to have a least a little body. Taste it for salt and acidity, and if needed, add a small splash of vinegar.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

When the sauce is almost ready, cook the pasta - don’t forget to generously salt the water! - to al dente. Drain it well, and toss it with half of the tomato sauce and a handful of the parmesan. Take out a large (at least 9” x 13,” or preferably 10” x 15”) baking pan. Put a layer of pasta in the pan, followed by some of the remaining tomato sauce, a handful of parmesan, some chunks of mozzarella, and a couple of torn-up basil leaves. Then repeat these layers until all the ingredients are gone, ending with a layer of cheese on top.

Bake for about 15 minutes, or until warm and bubbling. Then, if your baking dish is safe for the broiler, broil the top for a minute or two, until golden.

Serve hot or warm, or at room temperature. It gets even better, I think, after a day or two.

Yield: about 6 to 8 servings

6.02.2008

Western Union

Hello working hard do not have time to write properly so decided to send telegram STOP Also do not have recipe STOP In past week, overcooked asparagus ate salami that tasted funny burned bread decided to eat celery with peanut butter for dinner but found celery molding in crisper drawer STOP Ate olives and cereal instead STOP Do not pity me STOP I like olives and cereal STOP Separately not together STOP And this too shall pass STOP Writing in telegram style is fun STOP Except am tired of typing stop STOP

Am guest blogging at everyday polaroid every day this week yes every day STOP so please come see me there STOP wont you QUERY