cookies and milk, taste so fine . . .*

 Well now. I was all ready to talk to you about the simple things in life, about how a good chocolate chip cookie can become its most perfect expression by merely having patience and increasing the size of the chocolate morsels, and about how, on a stressful afternoon, a glass of milk and a warm cookie are a welcome refuge while you wait for the world to straighten itself back out.

But then I got on Twitter. And I read about Aran's mesquite and chocolate chip pancakes, which caused me to Google mesquite flour, and now I'm obsessed. And convinced that what I thought was a perfect cookie recipe is actually still one tiny step away from being perfect. I want some mesquite flour! As one site described it, "Mesquite flour's distinctive, rich flavor and aroma is similar to mocha coffee, cinnamon and chocolate." How can I possibly try to attach a superlative like "most perfect" to a cookie that doesn't have mesquite flour in it?

Obviously, I can't. This simple revelation has done the needed job of reminding me that there aren't many objective superlatives in food. One person's "best" can't and won't ever be everyone's "best." We will never have tasted everything, tried all the possible combinations and permutations. There will always be new flavors, new experiences, new memories and quests. Culinary epiphanies and moments of incredulousness. Which is exciting to think about, and to look forward to. Even my chocolate chunk cookie recipe will probably continue to evolve. In its current state it is a combination of a couple of different recipes and techniques I've tried over the years (including David Leite's famous version) - so why should I think it will suddenly become static? But each time I bake them I will try to make them the best cookies they can be, at that moment.

So, not bad for a cookie recipe, eh? Some personal reflection on the fluidity, limitations, and subjectivity of life might make it the best internal discussion I've ever had regarding chocolate chunk cookies. Which, as these things go, will surely be bested by yet another period of critical introspection at some later point in my life. Ah, c'est la vie.

For now, the following is a great jumping off point for discovering your personal favorite chocolate chunk cookie recipe. And as soon as I am able to track down some mesquite flour, I'll be sure to let you know.

Almost Perfect Gluten-Free Chocolate Chunk Cookies
yields 2 dozen cookies, using a 1.5 oz portion scoop

8.5 oz unsalted butter, room temperature
152 grams granulated sugar
110 grams light brown sugar
6 grams vanilla extract
100 grams eggs, room temperature
206 grams gluten-free pastry flour blend
119 grams gluten-free all-purpose flour blend
30 grams amaranth flour
7 grams xanthan gum
5 grams salt
4 grams baking soda
285 grams chocolate chunks (I like Callebaut, but Nestle will also do the job)
flaky sea salt, for sprinkling (I used Portuguese sea salt)

In a medium bowl, sift together the flours, xanthan gum, salt, and baking soda. (I use a whisk for this - you want to whisk it for long enough that everything looks evenly blended.) Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a medium bowl if using a hand-held mixer), cream the butter and both sugars on high speed until very light and fluffy.

Add the vanilla and eggs, and mix until combined. Add the flour mixture, and mix on low speed until just combined. Add the chocolate chunks, and mix on low speed to combine. (If you're using a hand-held mixer, it may be easier to stir these in by hand.)

Now, here's the hard part: you really should put the whole bowl of batter into the fridge and let it sit at least overnight before you bake the cookies. Longer is better. This is one of many lessons I've learned from Shauna/GlutenFreeGirl and David Leite, and it really will make a discernible difference. But delayed gratification when it comes to sweets is not one of my strong suits, so I will totally understand if you must bake some now. But try to save at least half the batch to bake the next day - they're also best the day they're baked (no matter how long they did or did not rest in the fridge), so this way you'll have two days in a row to enjoy warm, fresh-from-the-oven cookies. And who could complain about that?

To bake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking pan with parchment or a silicone baking mat. Using a 1.5 ounce portion scoop (or a large spoon, or your hands - you know your favorite way to scoop cookies), scoop batter onto baking pan, leaving room for the cookies to spread. Flatten them slightly, and sprinkle with your favorite flaky sea salt. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until cookies are golden brown (centers may be a light brown, but that's okay - they'll be softer that way). Cool on pan until firm enough to move, then transfer to a rack to finish cooling. Make sure you eat at least one while it's still warm. You don't want to miss out on that!

Cookies keep, covered and at room temperature, for up to three days, but are best on day one.

* Yes, I realize that this is the second post I've titled with a Raffi song. You must understand, I have a 4-year old and a 1-1/2-year old - Raffi is a big part of our everyday lives! I feel thankful that I can at least sit down in the evenings and type without rhyming everything . . . but I'll try to keep things here more adult in the future, okay?

to market, to market

I found out over the weekend that we missed our town's first farmers' market of the season, which was last week. Now, being in Maine, we didn't exactly miss out on a ton of veggies, since the growing season is just getting going here. But still, the farmers' market is one of the harbingers of summer, and given the recent summer-y weather, it felt wrong to miss it. We made up for it today.

 As soon as we woke up, I told the boys we were going to the market. There's nothing like getting your children excited about an outing to hold you accountable for actually making it out the door for said outing! Last year we made it to very few farmers' markets, due to some crazy scheduling and lack of organization on my part; this year we'll be different. There's really no excuse - the market site is so close we can almost see it from our house! It's held at the public landing, which means that in addition to all the veggies, plants, flowers, cheeses, meats, fish, baked/preserved/fermented goods, chocolates, artwork, etc. for us to ogle, there's also the lovely view of the harbor to take in. Which is beautiful - albeit blindingly blue - on a sunny morning. And still empty - in a couple of weeks, this expanse of water will be packed with sailboats and yachts! But right now, it still looks like the working waterfront that it is for the majority of the year.

We got there early, before many of the vendors were set up (apparently I'm one of the few who thinks the market should open at 8am), but luckily our favorite farmer shares my sentiments and was ready to go. We picked up pea shoots, radishes, and rhubarb. (The rhubarb is already poached and waiting in the fridge, ready for a dessert idea that's been kicking around in my head for a while. More soon, if all turns out well!)

Then we wandered around a bit, stopping to chat with our favorite chocolatier. (Goodness, it will be hard to resist coming home with truffles each week!) As we moved from booth to booth, Kalen said, "I'll tell you what to take pictures of, and you can put them on your blog." The kid's got quite an eye!

The lupines are a favorite of mine, and pretty much everyone else in Maine. Have you read Miss Rumphius? The author, the late Barbara Cooney, lived in Maine, and it seems that the notion of a "lupine lady" is very appealing to many of us. Plus, lupines just spread like crazy, so even without the book, we'd probably have a lot of them around here.

As we chatted with the farmers and craftspeople, I played a "name that plant" game with Kalen. He was able to identify kale (his namesake), broccoli, and tomato seedlings! I must say I was very, very proud. Our home garden is already paying off!

After about 45 minutes, we had to head home - we had yeast waffle batter waiting for us. We topped the waffles with a honey-berry sauce we made with frozen berries, but in the near future I see us picking up our breakfast fruit at the market along with our other locally-grown goodies. I read yesterday, in an article by Michael Pollan, that, "In many cities and towns, farmers' markets have taken on . . . the function of a lively new public square." This feels especially true here, as our market seems to be a meeting place for old and new friends alike, and I'm excited for my family to be active participants!

I'll see you here again tomorrow - I've got a fantastic gluten-free chocolate chip cookie recipe queued up share with you (and by typing this, I'm holding myself accountable to you now), but for now I'll just leave you with this teaser image . . .


summer lovin'

Summer seems to have arrived in one big rush around here. Spring was so early, and so prolonged, that we all got fairly used to the idea of temps in the 60's and chilly nights. Without the usual gradual warm-up, the abrupt heat (hitting 80 some days) has felt hot. We're not acclimated. We seek shade and cool breezes like lizards in the dessert. Our skin is still tender from over-wintering, and feels raw and conspicuous when exposed.

Truth be told, it feels great. To be sprung so suddenly into a season, one which our bodies crave in so many ways throughout the rest of the year, is much like being surprised on your birthday. You know it's coming, but you didn't expect it to feel so special, so good. By August, we'll be tired of it all, the scorching heat and smothering humidity and cranky, sweaty kids, but right now it's reason to celebrate.

As soon as the heat hits, my body always decides it wants more fruits and vegetables, now. Green salads, which are not normally my favorite, look appealing again. Strawberries and cherries are a special evening treat. Carrots and cucumbers and avocados become regular snack foods once more. And tomatoes, oh the tomatoes . . .

It's not tomato season here in Maine yet. That's still a ways off. Luckily, we have Backyard Farms tomatoes at our local grocery store, so we can get summer-tasting tomatoes year-round. But it feels weird (albeit luxurious!) to experience that flavor in the dead of winter, so we usually don't. Now, though, when tomato season is so close we can almost smell it (literally - I love to put my nose into our tomato plants growing off the front porch!), we've been scooping these scarlet beauties up by the vine-full, and eating them every which way.

Layered into sandwiches. Added to stir-fries. Paired with avocado and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic must. Eaten out of hand (Wylie's current favorite). And, just the other night, roasted into a sublime tomato-ricotta galette.

While Wylie is all about tomatoes these days, Kalen is primarily not. Somehow he had decided that he didn't like tomatoes. We tried in vain to remind him that he likes salsa, and pizza sauce, and pasta sauce, to no avail. If it looked like a tomato, he wouldn't eat it. Enter the galette. Which, to a four year-old, looks an awful lot like pizza. Made from pastry dough, which he loves, and smeared with an herb-ricotta filling that's an old friend of his from past pizza experiences. From this vantage point, do you see how easy it was for me to convince him to take a bite?

That one bite was revelatory for him. You could see it is his whole body, all hesitation gone, as he settled in for the simple pleasure of eating. It tasted good, and not just because of the crust and cheese. He was amazed to discover that he really liked the flavor of tomatoes! Granted, roasting does bring out some of the best qualities of a tomato, concentrating its flavors and intensifying both its sweetness and acidity. But for Kalen to devour a large slice of this galette, tomatoes and all, felt like a triumph to me. We really will have a great summer! (For how could summer truly be summer without the involvement of bushels of tomatoes?)

And, while it was not my intention, something about opening him up to the goodness of tomatoes has made him much more willing to eat veggies he's been avoiding for months. Last night, he surprised himself by liking both lettuce and avocado in his taco! (Really. He couldn't stop talking about it.) And tonight, the mushrooms in the stir-fry were consumed sans complaint. Is his body telling him the same thing mine is? Is he finally craving vegetables? I feel like this is my chance - what else can I get him won over on before he changes his mind? Spinach, cucumbers, and celery are all waiting in the wings. Do I dare go so far as okra and eggplant? Or should I just stick to the tomatoes, and be thankful we've gotten this far in such a short time? After all, we have so many seasons ahead of us to explore flavors together - why rush it?

Tomato-Ricotta Galette
yields a roughly 10-inch galette

This is really lovely summer food, if you know what I mean. It tastes fresh and light, yet satisfying. It's versatile, so you could add whatever's at its peak in your garden, or farmer's market. It's also great cold or at room temperature, so I think it would be the perfect thing to bring to a summer picnic. Pair it with a crisp white wine (or a rose - is that craze still happening?) and it's a perfect meal. And I know I've already mentioned how much I love this pie crust, but I just can't get over it's amazingness. While I was eating it, I believe I told Josh that the crust was so good, I'd like an entire pie made solely of crust. I'm still toying with the idea.

One recipe Best-Ever Gluten-Free pie crust, or the crust of your choosing

1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten (reserve 1 tbsp for egg wash)
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan (I use my microplane)
1 1/2 Tbsp chopped fresh herbs (I used thyme and rosemary)
salt and pepper to taste
2 large tomatoes (or an assortment of small ones)
stone-ground cornmeal, for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly dust a baking sheet with cornmeal. While oven is preheating, mix together ricotta, beaten egg (minus 1 Tbsp), Parmesan, chopped herbs, and salt and pepper. Refrigerate until needed.

Slice tomatoes into 1/8-inch thick slices, and lay them between paper towels to absorb some of their liquid.

Once oven is preheated, roll out pie dough on a lightly floured board to a diameter of approximately 13 inches. Transfer to cornmeal-dusted baking pan. Spread ricotta filling evenly over the dough, leaving at least a 1-inch, if not more, edge bare. Arrange tomato slices over ricotta, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Fold the edges of the dough over the filling, just enough to hold everything in. Brush the dough with the reserved egg wash, and pop it into the oven. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the crust is lightly browned and the ricotta is just beginning to brown in spots. Serve warm or at room temperature. A drizzle of really great olive oil across the galette just before consuming is not a bad thing.


a scone twofer

My mother will tell anyone who will listen that she is not a cook. That she doesn't like cooking, and doesn't know how she ended up with all these cooks in the family.

I, on the other hand, insist that my childhood memories are filled with delicious foods, made from scratch, by my mother.

Were we even in the same house?

I don't know. I've said to her - many times - something along the lines of, "But you always made such good food! You were always cooking for us!" At which point she always baffles me with an offhand comment like, "Oh, but I never liked cooking." Huh? Then why go to all that trouble?

The best I can come up with, especially now that I've got my own kids to feed, is that she looked at us and realized that she'd be doing a better job as a parent by cooking wholesome food for us than if she was feeding us processed foods. Which, of course, is what mothers do: you push aside your own personal biases and dislikes, and do what is best for your children. But still, given her prejudices, I really think she went above and beyond what most parents would do. Because, as one raised by a non-cook, I found myself eating some pretty good homemade meals:

Split-pea soup, as thick as could be, and chock full of carrots and potatoes . . .
Homemade, whole grain breads, in lots of fun shapes . . .
Perfect gingerbread man cookies, firm enough to roll and cut and decorate, but soft enough to yield easily to a young child's bite . . .
Tapioca pudding . . . oh, how I loved tapioca pudding . . .
Homemade ice cream, that we'd crank by hand every summer . . .
"Rice and vegetables" - the catch-all term for any number of stir-fry combinations . . .
Skillet cornbread, with its silky layer of sweet custard . . .
Salads full of organic veggies straight out of our garden . . .
Scratch-baked birthday cakes, every year . . .

And the best of all: after my father was diagnosed with celiac disease, she started baking gluten-free for him. Pizza, cookies, pie crusts, brownies - all back in the early 80's! This was long before we knew about any alternative flours other than rice flour, and had never heard of xanthan and guar gums. Suffice to say, her efforts wouldn't hold a match to today's gluten-free goodies, but at the time, simply attempting to re-create some of Dad's favorite foods was certainly a special gesture.

All this from a woman who doesn't like to cook. It may not have been gourmet, but it was good, and it certainly sent me down the food-loving path I've spent most of my adult life exploring. When I think about the alternatives, about what most kids of that era were growing up eating, I feel ever more thankful that Mom managed to grin and bear it so well. In the age of the microwave meal, of Chinese take-out and fast food, we sat down to a real dinner, every night. We were the lucky ones.

This helps explain why it is so important to me to maintain this tradition within my own little family. I assume it is easier for me to do than it was for Mom, since I take such delight at being in the kitchen. But still, life happens, and there are days (and sometimes it feels like whole stretches of days) when the idea of stopping everything to prepare a meal is not high on my pleasure scale. And then I look at my boys. And I think about how important the act of eating is, and how I want them to remember me making delicious, healthy food for them, rather than copping-out and giving them something pre-made, from a box. So yes, I use Maternal Guilt to force me to cook when I don't want to. And I'm proud of it.

I am also proud to have figured out a few tricks to get a good meal on the table with a minimal amount of fuss. This is especially important when you have more than one kid running around, as the late-afternoon (or early morning) struggles seem to multiply exponentially when you add clashes of personalities and willpower to the mix. We've been relying fairly heavily on Thomas Keller's recipe for basic roast chicken these past couple of months, not the least because of its no-fuss preparation. The fact that it turns out an amazingly moist and flavorful bird every time has also helped. As has the variety of appealing meals we can make with the leftovers.

I've also found myself needing a couple of do-ahead breakfasts for mornings when we need to be out the door in a timely manner. Yeast waffles are great for this. (Josh remarked the other day about what a charmed life he leads, when, on rushed mornings, he has to settle for fresh waffles for breakfast. It's tough over here, I tell ya.) Another breakfast favorite, that I've already alluded to in this space, is scones. Usually full of cheese and bacon, so that we can at least fool ourselves into thinking it approaches a well-rounded breakfast. But yesterday I mixed things up a bit by doing a sweet version, studded with raisins and warmed by cinnamon.

Raisin scones are another food that brings back childhood memories of Mom baking for us. She used to make them for a study group that met at our house, and I loved them. They seemed so exotic! I don't remember anyone else in my life making scones, and I never saw them on the menu at cafes or bakeries. (Which is not to say they weren't there. I was young. I could have been blinded by pie or some such.) It's been many, many years since I've had them, but when I call up my recollection of their flavor profile, I wonder if they had oats in them. There was a nuttiness, and certain crumbly characteristic, that reminds me of rolled oats. I suppose I could just call up Mom and ask if hers was a recipe for Scottish oat scones, but I like this internal guessing game better.

The scones I make now are much more tender, and not really crumbly at all. Both the sweet and savory versions have such a soft, pillowy mouthfeel that it's hard to believe they are not only gluten-free, but that they have quite a bit of rice flour in them! The secret? Heavy cream. Heavy cream is magical - it smooths out the rough edges of just about everything it comes in contact with, and imparts a richness to baked goods - and a moist-but-not-wet texture - that's hard to beat. And paired with gluten-free flours, which we all know can't get tough from over-kneading, it makes the ultimate scone. Really. If you're not gluten-free yourself, I suggest running out right now to find yourself a gf buddy to bake for, just so you'll have a reason to make these (and be sure to hold some aside for yourself). It's a sure path to instant friendship!

Gluten-Free Cream Scones
yields 8 scones

The technique for both sweet and savory scones is the same - even the ingredient lists are almost identical - so I'm giving you two lists of ingredients, but just one set of directions. These are meant to be simple, easy, uncomplicated food. The recipes, minus the "flavorings" (bacon, cheese, dried fruit, etc.) can be used for any number of variations. Just pick your favorite flavors and substitute them for the ones listed. I particularly like dried blueberries or crystallized ginger in the sweet dough, and herbs de Provence in the savory dough. Any way you go, they'll be good - just don't add anything too wet, since the dough itself already has so much moisture.

Cream scones are eternally do-ahead friendly: you can make the dough the night before, and just bake them off in the morning. Or, if you're really organized, make a double recipe and freeze half of the (unbaked) scones. Then, the night before you want them, pop them in the fridge and let them defrost overnight. Quality-wise, you'll never notice the difference.

Bacon Cheddar Scones
200 grams gf pastry flour mix (at the end of this post)
80 grams gf all-purpose flour mix (at the end of this post)
3/4 tsp xanthan gum
3 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
30 grams cooked, chopped bacon
85 grams shredded cheddar cheese
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 1/3 cups heavy cream, plus more for brushing

Cinnamon Raisin Scones
200 grams gf pastry flour mix (at the end of this post)
80 grams gf all-purpose flour mix (at the end of this post)
3/4 tsp xanthan gum
3 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
65 grams granulated sugar
85 grams raisins
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/3 cups heavy cream, plus more for brushing

To Make:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

In a medium bowl, whisk together all the dry ingredients. Add the heavy cream and mix well (you may end up using your hands after a while). Note: if you're making the sweet version, the dough is going to be VERY sticky - it's from the sugar. Please resist adding extra flour! Simply lightly flour your hands and the top of the dough when patting it out, and you'll be fine.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and pat it into a circle, about 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick. Cut into 8 wedges. (At this point, the scones may be refrigerated for the night or frozen for up to two months.)

Transfer the scones to the prepared baking sheet and brush with heavy cream. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until they are lightly browned. Cool on a rack.


a day off

Ah, Mother's Day. That loveliest of days when moms everywhere are treated to a day of pampering as thanks for all of the hard, never-ending work we do. And which, inevitably, leads first to feelings of discombobulation, as your whole balance is thrown off when you aren't responsible for or in charge of every little thing throughout the day, but which invariably turns quickly into feelings of appreciation and longing for every day to be Mother's Day. Oh, how nice that would be. Unproductive, but nice.

My Sunday was no different. Things happened to me that day that never happen in my real life. I was showered with handmade presents. I was not responsible for the day's housework. I got to go running, by myself - which is a whole different game when you're not pushing a double stroller, let me tell you! - and then I got to take a nap! (Really, that nap was probably the most out-of-the-norm happening of the whole day.) And to cap the day off in true festive form, we went out to dinner. During which time I was allowed to eat my entire meal in one sitting, without having to be the one to race after an errant child. A truly remarkable day, clearly. Thank you, Josh, Kalen, and Wylie, for making me feel so special and loved.

The following are some shots of our dinner out - feel free to scroll quickly if what you're after is a recipe. It's down at the bottom, I promise, and it's a good one. But please indulge me for a moment, as I just couldn't keep to myself the proof of the rare act of all four of us eating together in public. We went to our neighborhood French-inspired bistro . . .

. . . where we snacked on house-made pate, local fiddleheads, and frites with aioli.

Pommes frites with aioli are a family favorite. It's always fun when, at most restaurants, Kalen asks for mayonnaise to go with his fries, and gets odd, questioning looks. But here, they understand completely.

We moved on to halibut with yellow-eyed peas and house-made chorizo,

scallops with a spring pea risotto,

and duck with local rhubarb.

It was all wonderful. Equally wonderful was the treat of knowing that, when dinner was over, someone else would be in charge of dish duty! The magic of restaurants on Mother's Day. So, so nice.

Here is Kalen, who has apparently decided not to smile for photos any more, as every shot I got of him that day was in this same spirit:

And Wylie, whose "smile for the camera!" face is always his goofiest:

My, how I love being those boys' Mom. Sometimes it's hard to believe all my good luck. Which is why, I suppose, it's good to have a day to reflect on it.

We left the restaurant without getting dessert, which I never do, but we were secure in our decision. Because waiting at home for us was:

A chocolate-orange cake I had made earlier in the day! Gluten-free chocolate genoise soaked in a vanilla-kumquat syrup, layered with Mandarin orange cream, coated with a bittersweet chocolate glaze, and garnished with candied kumquats. A pretty spectacular chocolate-orange cake, if I do say so myself.

This cake has a lot of components, yes. But don't worry, most of them are do-aheads. On Mother's Day itself, the only job I had was to make the chocolate glaze and assemble the whole thing. I'd already done the rest in advance, which made even spectacular-cake-making feel relaxing.

My inspiration for this cake actually came from Pierre Herme's amazing lemon cream, which I've already gushed about here. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, and when I was at the grocery store recently I spotted some Mandarin oranges and impulsively grabbed a handful, determined to adapt the lemon recipe for them. I halved the recipe and decreased the sugar, but other than that the recipe is still pretty much all Pierre.

I wasn't sure if I liked it, at first. It tasted like a Creamsicle to me, which was never one of my top ice cream truck treats, and after my amazing, intense love affair with the lemon version, I felt a bit let down. I certainly didn't feel like eating spoonfuls of it straight from the bowl, as I had eagerly done with its tart sibling.

But my eyes were opened to the possibilities once I paired it with bitter chocolate. The sweetness and light-yet-creamy texture were the perfect foil for the intense chocolate, and it was so fluffy and spreadable that using it for a cake filling didn't seem at all unconventional.

The rest of the cake just fell into place around it. I already had the candied kumquats (and their poaching syrup) leftover from an earlier dessert, and the chocolate glaze, as opposed to a buttercream, seemed like a much more dignified (and quicker!) coating for such a special confection.

So here we are, early Thursday, and there's still a little bit of cake in the fridge. I don't know if I should be proud, for our great resolve in not quickly gobbling up the whole thing, or embarrassed, for having no qualms about letting my family eat five-day-old cake. (Well, it has been refrigerated!) Either way, at least I can tell you absolutely that this cake keeps well. Unless you have more than two AAEs (adult-appetite-equivalents) in your house - in that case, you'll be lucky if this cake lasts more than two days.

Chocolate-Orange Layer Cake
yields one 8-inch layer cake

The candied kumquats are great with this cake, but certainly not necessary. I had them leftover from a buttermilk panna cotta dessert and so it was quick and easy to incorporate them here. I used the poaching syrup, thinned out with a bit of water, to brush over the cake layers, but you could just make a simple syrup with a splash of orange juice to moisten your cake.

 Mandarin Orange Cream
adapted from Pierre Herme's Lemon Cream

108 grams eggs
30 grams sugar
108 grams Mandarin orange juice
zest of 2 Mandarin oranges
150 grams unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and at room temperature

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together all but the butter. Place the bowl over a pot of just-simmering water (or use a double-boiler), and cook, whisking constantly, until the custard thickens. (You want your whisk to leave tracks through the custard.)

Immediately strain the custard through a fine sieve, then allow it to around 140 degrees (warm to the touch). Begin slowly adding the butter, using an immersion blender to blend the cream. Continue blending and adding butter until all the butter is incorporated and the cream is light and airy. (Alternately, if you don't have an immersion blender, strain the custard into a blender, and blend the cream that way while adding the butter.)

Press plastic wrap on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming and chill for at least four hours before using.

Mandarin orange cream keeps 6 days refrigerated, and up to 2 months if frozen.

Gluten-Free Chocolate Genoise
adapted from bittersweet, by Alice Medrich
yields one 8-inch round layer

Ms. Medrich says, "Before you begin, remember that when you make a genoise, all of the details matter. Yes, please sift the flour and cocoa before measuring, and again and again and again afterward as instructed. Take no shortcuts." I agree.

4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup sifted (before measuring) Tara's gf pastry flour mix (found here)
1/4 tsp xanthan gum
1/3 cup sifted (before measuring) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
4 large eggs
2/3 cup granulated sugar

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of an 8-inch round cake pan with parchment paper.

To clarify the butter: In a very small saucepan, or in a narrow glass jar in the microwave, heat the butter, without stirring, until it is melted and very hot. The butter will separate into foam on top, clear yellow oil beneath, and water plus some milk solids on the bottom. Simply spoon off and discard the foam on the surface (tilt the pan if necessary). Transfer 3 Tbsp of the clear yellow butter (avoid the watery liquid on the bottom) to a medium heatproof bowl. Add the vanilla to the bowl and set aside.

Sift the flour, xanthan gum, and cocoa together three times; return to the sifter and set aside.

In a large heatproof bowl, preferably the bowl of your electric mixer, use a whisk to combine the eggs and sugar thoroughly. Place the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water. Whisking constantly, heat the eggs to lukewarm (about 105 degrees). Remove the bowl from the pan; leave the skillet on the stove but turn off the heat. With an electric mixer, beat the egg mixture at high speed until it has cooled, is tripled in volume, and resembles softly whipped cream.

Meanwhile, set the bowl of butter and vanilla in the skillet of hot water, with the burner off, to keep it warm.

Sift about one-third of the flour and cocoa over the whipped eggs. Use your largest rubber spatula to fold in the mixture - quickly but gently - until combined. Fold in half the remaining flour and cocoa, then fold in the rest. Remove the warm butter mixture from the skillet. Scoop about 1 cup of the batter into the bowl and fold together with a small rubber spatula until completely combined. Use the large spatula to fold the butter mixture completely into the remaining batter. Turn the batter into the prepared pan and tilt to level.

Bake until the cake begins to shrink slightly around the edges and the top springs back when pressed with your finger, 35-45 minutes. Cool the cake completely in the pan on a rack.

To unmold, run a small knife or spatula around the inner edges of the pan to release the cake. Invert it onto a rack and remove the parchment liner. Turn the cake right side up, so that the "skin" on top of the cake does not stick to the rack. The genoise can be wrapped and refrigerated for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.

Glace a L'Eau
from bittersweet, by Alice Medrich
yields about 1 3/4 cups

8 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
8 Tbsp (1 stick, 1/4 pound) unsalted butter, cut into several pieces
1/2 cup water
pinch of salt

Combine all the ingredients in a small heatproof bowl set in a wide skillet of just-simmering water; stir frequently until all the chocolate and butter are almost completely melted. Remove from heat and stir gently until completely melted and smooth. Let cool to 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) before using as a glaze.

The glaze can be kept, covered, at room temperature for several days or refrigerated for up to 2 weeks; freeze it in a sealed container for up to 6 months. (Soften or defrost in a pan of just-simmering water or the microwave before using.) 

To assemble cake:

Cut the genoise into two even layers. Place the bottom half on a cardboard cake round. Brush your syrup of choice over the bottom layer to moisten well. Spread Mandarin orange cream evenly over the surface, right to the edge of the cake. Top with the other layer of genoise, cut side up, and brush more syrup over this layer. Use a spatula to smooth any orange cream that may have seeped out between the layers. At this point, the cake can be chilled while you make the chocolate glaze. Once the glaze has cooled to 90 degrees, pour it over the cake (which you should set on a rack over a piece of parchment, to catch all the drips) and gently spread it over the sides. The chocolate will set quickly, especially on cold cake, so work fast. Garnish with candied kumquats, if desired. Transfer the cake to a serving platter and cover. Cake keeps, refrigerated, for up to 5 days.


bread alone

I'm feeling particularly proud of myself tonight. And quite full. Which makes it a bit of a miracle that you're reading these words. Lots of starchy food is known to put people into food comas, and with the quantity of baguette I've consumed, it's a wonder I'm still able to type coherently.

Yes, you read that right: baguette. I've been eating baguette. And not just baguette. Baguette with Tarantaise cheese. Baguette with pistachios. Baguette with Nutella. And it's felt soooo good. I am absolutely the type of person who will, given the right food, happily eat the same thing day after day after day. For me, that food used to be bread (of almost any variety). But eleven years ago, the whole celiac/gluten-free thing happened to me, which sent my favorite breads packing. (Was this when I switched my loyalty to ice cream?) Since then, authentic bread has been my impossible dream, as it has been for most everyone in the gluten-free community. But recently, some intrepid bakers have decided that gluten-free breads should be able to stand up to their gluten-full counterparts, and several really great recipes have been developed. Now, we can once again lavish our affection on chewy, crusty boule and tender focaccia, just like everyone else! As you may know, I've already posted about my renewed love affair with crusty bread (with an updated ingredient list here), but I feel like I need to revisit the subject one more time.

Because, somehow, baguettes seem different. Baguettes are sophisticated and chic, yet all-purpose in a fancier way than a rustic boule. Baguettes love to be eaten on the go, as you tear big hunks off the end, sending crackly shards of crust across your lap. Baguettes can turn a piece of fruit and some cheese into a complete meal the way no other slice of bread could hope to. And because, when you really get right down to it, no other bread can make you feel quite so worldly, so European, even when everything else in your day is pushing you relentlessly in the direction of Frumpy Frustrated Mom. For this, I have fallen in love with baguettes.

Now, anyone who knows anything about traditional bread baking will see right away that this is not an authentic baguette recipe. But how could it be, when it can't have gluten in it? So just let go of that expectation. But what this recipe is is a labor of love for me (now in its sixth incarnation!), one that produces a baguette-shaped loaf of bread with all the characteristics that I used to love in the original. The crust is shatteringly crisp, with a slightly sweet soft interior crumb that is chewy, but not gummy. Eat it plain, eat it with chocolate, eat it with cured meat - this bread can take it all!

This bread also has a scarily-long list of ingredients. With every batch, every alteration I made, I complicated things further and further, until I arrived at my favorite version, which has a whopping seventeen components! So, making this is not for the faint of heart. For which I am so sorry, because offering up a fantastic bread recipe is just cruel and teasing if one look at the ingredient list sends everyone running. I hope to find time to work backwards, simplifying it until I can produce a similar loaf with much less hassle. Believe me, if I do, you'll be the first to know. Until then, trust me when I tell you that this baguette really is worth the time it takes to weigh out all the flours and liquids. And hey, at least you can take comfort in the fact that there's no kneading involved!

Gluten-Free Baguette
yields one baguette; recipe can be doubled or quadrupled

I really wish I could make each of you a baguette, so you could all try it before jumping in yourselves. I know many will be turned off by all the specialty flours and such, and will thus miss out on a truly delicious gluten-free bread experience. But if you, like me, were a Bread Fiend in your former, gluten-full life, then you owe it to yourself to give this recipe a chance. I think one taste will be enough to make you forget any inconveniences.

35 grams brown rice flour
22 grams millet flour
22 grams buckwheat flour
40 grams gluten-free oat flour
40 grams potato starch
35 grams cornstarch
30 grams tapioca starch
8 grams active dry yeast
3 grams fine sea salt
2+ (but not quite 3) grams xanthan gum
2 grams guar gum
5 fluid ounces water, lukewarm
1 fluid ounce whole milk, lukewarm
1 fluid ounce coconut oil (I warm it in the microwave to melt it)
1.5 tsp honey (I use raw)
50 grams egg whites, lightly beaten

Whisk the flours, yeast, salt, xanthan gum, and guar gum in a large mixing bowl. Combine the water, milk, oil, and honey in a liquid measuring cup; set aside.

Add the egg whites to the dry ingredients and stir while pouring in about 1/3 of the liquid mixture. Continue to stir while pouring in another 1/3 of the liquid. Add the final 1/3 and stir until the dough is nice and smooth. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rest on the counter for 2 hours. At this point, the dough can be refrigerated and stored for up to seven days, but I always want to bake my bread now.

Using wet hands, remove the dough from the bowl and place on a piece of parchment paper. Use your hands to gently stretch the dough into a long baguette shape (you'll want to keep dipping your fingers in cold water for this). Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rest on the counter for 25 minutes (75-90 minutes if using refrigerated dough, depending on how warm your kitchen is).

Place a pizza stone on the bottom rack of your oven. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Using a serrated knife dipped in water, cut slashes in the top of your proofed dough. Gently pick up the baguette, parchment and all, and slide it onto the preheated pizza stone. Place a metal baking pan on the floor of your oven and pour a cup or two of boiling water in it. (This creates the steam that gives your baguette its beautiful crackly crust.)

Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until the baguette is a dark golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when you tap it. Cool on a rack. Like all baguettes, this one is best eaten the day it is baked, but it's still good the second day.


thanks, pierre

I've had my share of "whoops!" moments in the kitchen. Sometimes it feels like more than my share, actually, but when I consider how much time I spend in the kitchen, I guess proportionately it all evens out.

But still, it seems to happen all the time. With little things, about which I should clearly know better, given my history and training. Two weeks ago, I made pancakes for breakfast. Now, I do this every Sunday, almost without fail, and I should be able to do the whole routine asleep, or at least with my eyes closed. (Which, on some very early Sundays, is exactly how it feels like I'm doing it.) Sometimes I switch out the milk for buttermilk. Separating the eggs and whipping the whites into a meringue always leads to good things. I recently stirred in some whole milk ricotta, to great applause. The recipe is so solid, it can withstand lots of tinkering and still turn out delicious pancakes.

So imagine the family's surprise when the batch on that particular two Sundays ago seemed . . . dull. Flat, both in flavor and structure. Boring. Eating them didn't really give our mouths the joy we were accustomed to. What had I done wrong?

Salt. I had, in my haste and desire to keep Wylie from upturning the whole bowl of batter, forgotten to add the salt. Boy, let me tell you that there's nothing like the absence of salt to drive home the crucial lesson of its importance in baking! Really, the lack of flavor wasn't that surprising, as all cooks know that salt makes everything taste like the best possible version of itself. But how many of us stop to think about the textural role salt contributes? I'm no food scientist, but I'm here to tell you that our normally light-and-fluffy pancakes were leaden and thick, in a not-good way. I don't know if it's tenderizing the crumb, assisting the leaveners, or performing some other type of culinary magic, but salt is apparently crucial to creating a pleasing mouthfeel in baked goods. Or at least it is in my gluten-free pancake recipe. Lesson learned.

Okay, so moving on, four days later I threw together some last-minute muffins. We were getting ready to leave for that two-day medical trip I mentioned, and there was leftover oatmeal from breakfast, and I thought whipping up a batch of muffins would be a great way to use up the oatmeal and give us yummy snacks for the car. I know, most people would have been packing or finishing up household chores, but I wanted to bake. That's just how I work. Anyway, I'd like to tell you that stirring oatmeal (especially if it's made with cinnamon, brown sugar, and raisins) into a created-on-the-spot muffin batter is a really good idea. I mean, it's economical for the leftover factor, but it also lends a really nice flavor and pockets of moistness to the muffins. I would also like to tell you (and this is the part you should really pay attention to, just in case you're skimming) that xanthan gum (or guar gum, if that's your thing) is absolutely vital to turning out baked goods that can be eaten out of hand, rather than as a pile of crumbs, that you sort of awkwardly scoop and press together into some semblance of a piece that will hopefully make it to your mouth before collapsing back into its crumbly state. It has been such a long time since I have baked anything gluten-free without xanthan gum (intentionally or otherwise), that it was shocking and comical for me to see how unmanageable those muffins were. Can you believe that, years ago, when we had no idea what we were doing, all our gluten-free goods were like that? And we felt like we shouldn't complain, since at least we were eating! My, how things have changed. So, lesson number two: pay attention when baking without a recipe, and for goodness' sake, don't forget the xanthan gum!

There you have it: two major, rookie mistakes in the span of four days. Now you see what I mean about more than my share? But luckily, things swing in the other direction for me fairly often as well. There are plenty of times when my "whoops!" moments are really more like "wow, I had no idea that would turn out so well!" revelations. Which is exactly what happened this past Sunday.

We were invited to a friend's house for dinner, and I offered to bring dessert. But our weekend was pretty packed, and I didn't have much time for baking, never mind sorting through cookbooks and stacks of recipes looking for inspiration. So I looked through the fridge, instead. And found a bag of Meyer lemons that was looking pretty forlorn and forgotten, which a Meyer lemon should never be. I had been wanting to try a dessert pairing lemon and chocolate for a while now, so I decided to make Thomas Keller's chocolate mousse, with something lemony as a counterpart. The briefest of brief Internet searches led me to an unassuming (and uncredited) recipe for something called lemon cream. The ingredients looked like lemon curd, but the photos did not - more like lemon whipped cream, maybe. Well, okay, I'd make it and even if it wasn't great, there'd be chocolate mousse, too, and how can you go wrong with chocolate mousse?

Oh good lord. Forget about the chocolate mousse - that's everyday stuff compared to the lemon cream, which is truly in a league of its own. It's sort of like the xanthan gum situation: How did we ever get by without it? It is gentle and soft and light, with true lemon flavor and no cloying sweetness, and when you eat it, it feels like something that should be forbidden. Josh has proclaimed it the best thing you can do with a lemon, ever. This lemon cream was truly revelatory for me, and not just for its flavor and texture. The technique is brilliant - it's like making mayonnaise, with your emulsion in this case being one of lemon custard and butter. And as anyone who really knows me can attest, I love making mayonnaise, so this is right up my alley.

I had to know more about where this gem came from, so back to the Web I went. Another quick search led me to . . . Pierre Herme. Of course. I should have known that something so phenomenal was the work of a pastry genius, but it also probably means that I should have known about this recipe long ago. Ah well. Yet another lesson well-learned.

And in case you're wondering, the lemon cream paired fantastically with the mousse (the recipe for which can be found here), separated by a line of crushed gluten-free chocolate cookies, and everyone loved it. I don't repeat desserts much, but this one will certainly go on my short list of standards. It's just perfect.

Meyer Lemon Cream
adapted from Pierre Herme's Lemon Cream

215 grams eggs
75 grams granulated sugar
215 grams Meyer lemon juice
zest of 3 Meyer lemons
300 grams unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and at room temperature

In a large bowl, whisk together all but the butter. Place the bowl over a pot of just-simmering water (or use a double-boiler) and cook, whisking constantly, until the custard thickens. (You want your whisk to leave tracks through the custard.)

Immediately strain the custard through a fine sieve, then allow it to cool to around 140 degrees (warm to the touch). Begin slowly adding the butter, using an immersion blender to blend the cream. Continue blending and adding butter until all the butter is incorporated and the cream is light and airy. (Alternately, if you don't have an immersion blender, strain the custard into a blender, and blend the cream that way while adding the butter.)

I immediately topped the cups of mousse with this cream, then chilled them. But if you aren't assembling a dessert with it right away, press plastic wrap on the surface of the cream to prevent a skin from forming and chill for at least 4 hours before using.

Lemon cream keeps 4 days refrigerated, and up to 2 months if frozen.


in the interim

Oh goodness.

It seems that time has gotten away from me, no? A whole week of silence was not what I meant to leave you with after my last post! Ah, but life has been gathering speed at a remarkable pace lately, and simply keeping up with it has taken all my efforts. In the span of seven days, I have had no less than three social engagements (which is three times my normal rate!), plus some time-consuming and put-off-'til-the-last-minute professional work to finish, and a two day, out-of-state medical trip that needed to be squeezed in (don't worry, we're all fine, and it turned out to be quite a fun trip). And we've had a couple of days of glorious weather, which means the boys think we need to be "outside right now and forever" (and they're right, that garden does need to get planted!). Needless to say, I have been baking less than usual, and I have obviously been blogging much less than usual!

And tonight is no different, I'm sorry to say. While I really will get you that bacon scone recipe soon, plus the instructions for some of the delicious desserts we've been enjoying with friends, the time it takes to edit the photos and type up the recipes is time I don't have right now. A couple more big hurdles to clear, and then I'll be back in the kitchen.

For now, though, just so you don't leave without any visuals, here are some images of how we've been spending our time this past week.

{The gluten-free baguette. It's almost there.}

{Bacon-cheddar-thyme scones. A good way to wake up.} 

{Julia Child's bouillabaisse. Highly recommended.}

{Buttermilk panna cotta with stewed rhubarb and candied kumquats. Fancy single-malt scotch optional.}

{Our medical trip included an "adventure" of being stuck on the highway for two hours. Everyone was friendly, at least.}

{It was warm. Why stay in the car?}

{We saw TONS of honey bees, no doubt on their way to a very important pollination job. Minus the hundreds that lost their way on the highway, of course.}

{Bought Ameraucana blue eggs on the way home for this morning's breakfast. Some of the best-tasting yolks I've had the pleasure of eating. Good to note that Pete & Gerry's donated 2200 dozen of these to food banks in the northeast just before Easter.}

I'll be back soon!

Creative Commons License