liquid gold

Today's the day! It's the fourth Sunday in March! Yippee!

You have no idea what I'm talking about, do you? You're obviously not from Maine.

Today is Maine Maple Sunday! We've got family in town, and grand plans for touring a sugarhouse and sampling lots of syrup. Read on to find out how we spent the day two years ago, Maine maple sundaes and all. I'll let you know how our celebrations go this year!

 It felt like winter. The sky was a mottled grey, the wind was sharp, and snow kept spitting down on us. But our minds would have none of that; we were squarely focused, full steam ahead, on Spring. Because the sap was running and it was Maine Maple Sunday, surer signs of Spring in New England than even the red-winged black birds and crocuses.

Always the fourth Sunday in March, Maine Maple Sunday is the day syrup makers here throw open their doors, welcoming the public to experience with them the heady delight of boiling sap down, down, down into its most perfect state: pure maple syrup. And in a cozy sugar shack humid from the billowing fragrant steam, with samples of maple ‘tea’ to sip, it was easy to forget the uncooperative weather outside. While sugarhouses vary widely in size (some in Northern Maine boast tens of thousands of tapped trees), in our neck of the woods the sugar farms are mostly small, family-owned operations, with maybe a couple hundred taps. This makes for a nice, intimate celebration of the syrup season, and gives one a sense of how much of the sugaring process has remained unchanged over the past 300 years or so. 

 We checked out the wood-fired boiling evaporator, learned about other tap-able trees (who knew birch syrup has its own following?), and got the kids good and maple sugared-up. We learned that it takes a whopping 40 gallons of clear sap (“sweetwater”) to make 1 gallon of this uniquely North American sweetener, and that the sugarmaker knows the syrup has met the required-by-law minimum sugar density of 66% when it reaches a temperature of 219°F. 

 Watching the gurgling and bubbling liquid, my sister and I reminisced about our childhood, when we would suck the sap straight from the tubing of a friend’s tapped trees. Always on the lookout for a new food to try, this got my husband thinking about ways to use the unconcentrated liquid in his restaurant. A bourbon and maple water, perhaps? My brother-in-law got us up-to-date on the lucrative state of the organic maple syrup market, where, at a going wholesale rate of $80 a gallon, it’s easy to see where the ‘liquid gold’ moniker came from!

And then, because we just couldn’t help ourselves, we came home and made our own Maine maple sundaes, complete with homemade vanilla ice cream, Maine blueberries, and warm local maple syrup. Because it’s Spring in Maine, and that’s what we do. We take the dogs to the beach, grill on the front porch, and eat maple sundaes. Even if it is snowing.

Maine Maple Sundaes

1 pint of the best vanilla ice cream you can find (or just make your own – it’ll be cheaper and better!)
1 cup wild Maine blueberry sauce (see recipe below)
¼ cup pure Maine maple syrup, gently warmed

Scoop ice cream into bowls, spoon blueberry sauce over, and drizzle with maple syrup. Serves 6 to 8, if you can exercise restraint in your portions!

Wild Maine Blueberry Sauce

2 cups fresh, or 10 oz frozen, wild Maine blueberries
6 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
1½ tablespoons instant tapioca
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Combine all in a nonreactive saucepan over medium heat. Stirring frequently, bring to a boil and simmer until sauce reduces and thickens, about 10 minutes. Cool and refrigerate for up to a week.


comforting times

I've been away from this space for a while, for a mix of reasons. Too many to go into all of them here.

But like everyone else, the recent global disasters (both the natural and man-made ones) have consumed much of my thoughts and energy. I don't really know how to talk or write about crises that I can't even think about without feeling my breathing become anxious and my heart simultaneously stop and race. Unfathomably bad things are happening around our world, and to tell you the truth, I feel guilty for not being more personally affected by them. Earth-shaking events that threaten to sweep one away? In my life, those are all metaphorical. There are no violent demonstrations and uprisings in my neck of the woods. In fact, there's not much violence, period. These days, it's easy to see how lucky we are to be living this life. How much we have to be thankful for, how much we have to give.

And yet, we are still living through challenging times. The heart-breaking pain of learning about a childhood friend's accident. And then the thrill and joy of a miraculous recovery. The sadness of trying to explain to Wylie why he needs another surgery, which he is now slightly fearful of and extremely set against. The familial stress of being displaced from our home for eighteen days, only to return to find poorly-done construction and extra work ahead of us. The fact that, over the past two weeks, I have navigated through more ridiculously uninformed and disorganized bureaucratic institutions than I ever dreamed I'd come in contact with, and it's not over yet.

Lately, all I want is comfort. I'm finding it in places both unusual and entirely expected.

A late-winter ice storm hit my parent's town while we were staying with them during part of our home exile. Power was knocked out, roads were treacherous, there was no heat or water. But outside, it was beautiful. A world of glass, crystalline stillness, every detail outlined and highlighted, and when a breeze blew, nature's wind chimes sounded from the forest around us. Two days later the ice still hadn't melted, but the sun finally shone down, and it was like a child's dazzling dream of the land of ice fairies. Diamondlight pierced the air, emanating from the trees, which remained majestic even as they bowed under the weight of their gems.

These images? They comfort me.

Our home that we left weeks ago, the one that was cushioned by three-foot high snow drifts, shed all the trappings of winter and cold during our absence, and welcomed us back with the beginnings of crocuses peaking out from the now-soft earth. Losing all that snow makes the ground suddenly feel much farther away. That, or I feel taller. Either way, it is growth and forward-motion and I am comforted knowing that.

The restaurant is flourishing. Only a month after opening, and during the historically-slow Maine winter at that, and the place continually gets busier and busier. The feedback has been incredible, and so encouraging. We are doing this right. I can't tell you how comforting that is to me and Josh. And as daunting as it is to think about what this ever-increasing pace will culminate in at the height of summer, all we can really respond with is, Bring it on. We're ready.

Juggling the new-to-me demands of work, parenting, and home has been interesting. My use of the word "juggling" here is intentional; I've realized that finding "balance" is a long way off, and that right now my job, my goal, is to simply keep all the balls in the air. And if I do happen to drop one, all I can do is hope that I won't be so distracted by the others that I don't notice it lying there on the floor, and proceed to neglect or (god forbid!) step on and squash it. So in the meantime I look for ways to make the process go more smoothly, and occasionally I find them. Food helps. Especially sweet, fried food. Because, I ask you (only slightly tongue-in-cheek), what better way to comfort and ease children through the mid-day transition from one parent – and location – to the other than with a bowl of fresh doughnuts?

And with that, my friends, we have finally reached the food portion of this post. Sometimes, you can't just talk about the doughnuts, you know? You have to talk about all the other stuff first. But let's move on . . .

Did you know that March 19th was St. Joseph's Day? It's not nearly as popular as that other Saint's day two days prior, with fewer raucous traditions accompanying it, so if (like me) you're not Catholic, you might not have heard about it. You also might not know that St. Joseph is a patron saint of pastry chefs. And if you don't know these things, then you probably don't realize that it's traditional to eat zeppole on St. Joseph's Day. It's good knowledge to have, though.

Zeppole. This is a word you need to know. Otherwise known as Italian doughnuts, zeppole are light and airy balls of fried dough. For many of you, I know, this alone will convince you of their greatness. In fact, they might be my favorite doughnut version of all time.

But it gets better.

Zeppole batter traditionally contains ricotta cheese, which I am forever in love with. And you can make a pretty amazing batch of zeppole with just minor tweaks to oh-so-versatile pâte à choux dough. This method results in satisfyingly crisp exteriors (don't even try to resist coating them in cinnamon sugar), which is the perfect contrast to the tender, satiny interior, with a flavor much closer to custard than the bread-like hints of so many American doughnuts. You see? Don't they sound amazing? And they are absolutely comforting, in the indulgent way that only warm fried dough can be.

You should make them, this weekend. You'll discover your new favorite comfort food.

Adapted from Blackbird Bakery's Pâte à Choux
Yields approximately 2 dozen

8 gr (1 Tbsp) sorghum flour
15 gr (2 Tbsp) tapioca starch
40 gr (5 Tbsp) cornstarch
1 tsp xanthan gum
70 gr (5 Tbsp) unsalted butter
18 gr (1 1/2 Tbsp) granulated sugar
1/4 tsp fine sea salt
5 Tbsp water
1 Tbsp heavy cream
1 Tbsp whole milk
2 large eggs plus 1 egg white (to yield 160 grams), thoroughly whisked
3 gr (3/4 tsp) baking powder
100 gr whole-milk ricotta cheese
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
canola or safflower oil, for frying
cinnamon sugar, for coating

In a small mixing bowl, combine the sorghum, tapioca, cornstarch, and xanthan gum and whisk to thoroughly combine. Set aside.

In a medium-sized heavy-bottomed saucepan set over medium-low heat, melt the butter, sugar, salt, water, heavy cream, and milk until the butter is completely melted and the mixture has just come to a gentle boil.

Once the butter/milk mixture has come to a boil, add the flour mixture to the saucepan and stir constantly with a wooden spoon, cooking for two to three minutes. You'll know the batter is ready when it comes together in large, smooth clumps and leaves a film of butterfat residue on the bottom of the pan.

Immediately transfer the batter to a food processor fitted with the blade attachment and pulse for 20 seconds to cool slightly. (Alternately, you can use a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for this.)

Add the baking powder to the eggs and whisk until smooth. With the food processor (or mixer) running, pour in the egg mixture in a slow, steady stream and process until the batter is a thick, smooth paste, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the ricotta and vanilla, and process until fully combined.

In a large, heavy pot, heat 3 inches of canola or safflower oil over high heat until it reaches 375ºF. (A candy thermometer is very useful for this. Alternately, just admit you love fried food and buy yourself a home deep fryer!) Drop the zeppole batter by the tablespoon into the hot oil, five to six at a time, being careful not to crowd them. Fry, turning as needed, until all sides are evenly golden brown, about 4 to 6 minutes. Drain zeppole on paper towels, then toss in cinnamon sugar until evenly coated. Serve warm.

Note: Zeppole batter can be made in advance and refrigerated, covered, for up to three days. Allow batter to come to room temperature before frying. And if you want to get really traditional, you can fill the zeppole with pastry cream. But that sort of negates the whole light-and-airy aspect, don't you think?


changing the way we think

We're having some weird times, food-wise.

It's especially, ironically weird considering the existence of the restaurant. One would assume that the owners of a bustling Italian bistro would eat well, all the time. At work, there would be a procession of enticing dishes to choose from. At home, with culinary inspiration continuously bubbling over, there would be lots of creating, playing with new flavors and reimagining family favorites. On the road, all the hidden gems would be sniffed out, making even travel a rewarding adventure.

One would be wrong.

 In my case, at least, if I'm at work I've barely got time to finish everything on my list, and that's without all the unanticipated interruptions that are sure to slow me down. There are deliveries to receive, phone calls to answer, repairmen to talk to, and I scour the kitchen for a good 15 minutes looking for the juicer before I realize it's out at the bar. Where I find a leaking sink and flooded floor, that needs to be attended to now. At some point, I manage to complete my to-do list, but eating never crosses my mind. In the car on the drive home I realize I'm ravenous.

Once home, the dog needs attention, Kalen is as hungry as I am but without any of the ability to hold off just a little longer, and Wylie is whimpering and clingy because it's naptime and he can't hold it together long enough for me to get a real lunch on the table. So I let the dog out, hoping the neighbors won't hold it against me if she starts barking to be let in before I cycle back to her in my attention-giving, sit Kalen at the table with some crackers or string cheese, and take Wylie up to bed. When he's asleep, I look around for food for Kalen, realizing how limited our options are since I rarely make it to the grocery store anymore. I can usually throw together a sandwich for him, but sometimes it's leftover brown rice with cheddar cheese melted over it, and a clementine. I need food for myself, but by now the dog is barking insistently and I really can't ignore her anymore. And the phone rings and it's Josh reminding me of other phone calls I need to make, which I'd better do now before I forget, and Kalen needs his water refilled (as does the dog) and I just realized there's laundry that's been waiting for days to be put in the dryer, and now it's going to need another rinse or it will turn out musty. So I think to myself, maybe I can have a piece of toast or a handful of cashews and make it another hour?

And travel? Who has time to seek out good food when you're driving two hours out of your way to buy the only 3 1/2" tartlette pans in the state, because the ones you ordered were the wrong size and you need them today? Or when you're en route to and from a doctor's appointment with no time for off-the-highway exploration because you're trying to avoid a midnight arrival home with two young kids? But everyone still needs to eat, and the kids are clamoring for a "restaurant" (guess they didn't like the travel plaza earlier), so you get off the highway and take them to the first place you find: Ruby Tuesday. Gourmet it is not. At least everyone eats.

Last week I roasted a chicken. It was the first time I had turned on the oven in ages, and it felt significant. It meant that I had finally had the time and forethought to go grocery shopping for more than just the bare minimum of eggs and milk and peanut butter and toilet paper, and that I was then at home long enough to get the oven preheated and the bird roasted for almost 1 1/2 hours, without dinner being late. A huge accomplishment these days.

I still have time on my mind. I'm more and more conscious of it's pace, and what I'm doing to fully utilize it (or not) each day. I'm also thinking about how important it is to feel slow sometimes. I'm especially aware of it when it comes to transitions. The best example I can give is sleep: when I am awakened abruptly and forced quickly out of bed, I am immediately out of sorts. I need to gently ease myself through that blurry, thick space of mid-wakefulness, to willingly let go of one way of being and accept another. My kids exhibit this need too, after naptime. Getting back into the activity of the day can be a difficult, grumpy exercise if naps are not immediately followed with snuggles, talk, and quiet play, all in bed. Lately, with life being so hectic, I have barely had the time and patience for this, and have then had to endure the unpleasant results. It's hard on everyone around, and creates cantankerous energy that is hard to banish.

Our family is going through several transitions right now, bigger and more complex events than just sleep→awake. I can't necessarily control the speed that these transitions take, the time frame in which they must happen. But I can choose to add some slowness to our days, in order to ease us through this tumultuous time. A thrown-together dinner can still be enjoyed by candlelight. I can stop packing up the kitchen for 10 minutes to help Kalen teach Wylie to play Dots. When the kitchen is finally all boxed up and stacked in the living room, we can leave the house for two hours to spend the evening with wonderful friends who feed us and laugh with us and love our children. And certainly, I can find the patience every day to put aside my urgent tasks and quiet my clattering mind and snuggle Wylie each afternoon for as long as it takes him to step, bright-eyed, back into the hustle of our life.

I'm not trying to slow down time. I'm trying to be ok with letting time continue to rush past me, without having to be right in the middle of it, every moment of the day. I'm trying to accept that my life is hectic and a bit scattered right now, without letting it consume and overwhelm me. And, inspired by my friend Erin's Year of Choice, when I find myself in a frustrating, discouraging place, I am trying to acknowledge and embrace my ability to make a conscious choice to put a better spin on the situation.

Take dinner. Having the time to prepare that roast chicken was a fluke. I've been having a hard time even getting ready to think about dinner before 5pm lately. But instead of getting irked and flustered about it, I've realized that, for one thing, it's a result of us having such full and fulfilling lives. This is good. Dinner can suffer occasionally because of this, and none of us will be the worse for it. And secondly, it means we have more opportunities than ever to have pancakes for supper.

Pancakes. I will always love pancakes, and they're the only food I instinctively turn to when I'm in a breakfast-for-dinner sort of mood (or time frame). And yet, on some responsible, parental level they never feel quite right. They're too sweet, too cakey, too screaming to be smothered with more sweetness. This is not what dinner is supposed to be!

Which is why I have been so glad to have an extra reason, a need, to make pancakes this past week. The amazing Shauna recently pitched an exciting idea to a group of us fellow gluten-free bloggers about baking together. Which, honestly, would be wonderful in and of itself if that was all it was. But it's not simply baking together. Shauna has created the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally, to change the way people think about and approach gluten-free baking. (The wonderful logo was designed by the talented Anile Prakash.) Baking by ratio is not an entirely new concept, but it's been spotlighted lately by Michael Ruhlman's book Ratio. It's an enormously helpful way of understanding traditional cooking and baking, but I've noticed some hesitation about applying it to gluten-free baking. Would it even work with all our crazy flours? Would a good gluten-free ratio be adaptable to a variety of flours? Would it make gluten-free baking even more daunting to the uninitiated?

Yes, yes, and thankfully, no. It really works. And it's easier than you think. At Shauna's urging, the members of the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally are all baking by ratio, working out the tweaks, for all of you. Each month, we choose a baked good to focus on, and then each of us determines our own personal ideal qualities for that item, and develops the ratio to achieve it. And then we give them all to you, so that you not only have dozens of solid recipes, but the templates from which to build your own personalized recipes! Gluten-free baking can now be simple, straightforward, and intuitive. Honestly, I don't think I ever thought those adjectives would be applied to from-scratch gluten-free baking. This feels big.

We're launching the project with pancakes, which I think is appropriate. Pancakes are every day food, yet they can be the stuff of ritual and celebration across generations. They can be simple or fancy, hearty or sweet, thin or thick. They are incredibly accommodating to a variety of ingredients, and they're a great way to both begin and end a day. They're universal, while being universally variable. And they're just what I needed last week, when dinners were at risk of becoming an afterthought.

Although at the outset I had merely intended to take my much-loved, but not-so-nutritious, standard pancake recipe and throw a few more whole grains into it, in the end I have something swerving much closer to the realm of savory pancakes. They have just a hint of sweetness from the touch of maple syrup, but I wouldn't want to spoon a berry compote over them. They're earthy and nutty with amaranth, buckwheat, and teff flours, which is the perfect backdrop for the richness of the bacon and the high note of the chives that are distributed within. I cuddled them up against some cheesy scrambled eggs for an immensely satisfying weeknight supper. (In case you're wondering, they're still lovely with maple syrup, if you simply must pair your pancakes with a drizzle of sweetness.)

Supper pancakes. Thick and soft, dark and wholesome, this recipe has served us well. Three times in the past week, in fact. They get extra credit in my book for how easily they can make the switch to sweeter, more traditional breakfast pancakes. Just leave out the bacon fat and double the butter, and swap out the bacon and chives for your favorite berry(s) - easy! And if you prefer the flavor of different flours, or need to use what's already in the pantry, the ratio makes it simple to adapt the recipe. Want millet, sorghum, and brown rice flour instead of amaranth, buckwheat, and teff? Just keep the total weight of your flours at 5 'parts' (in this case, 5 ounces for a single batch) and you're good to go. Do you need to eat dairy-free? Use 4 fluid ounces of your family's preferred milk and 2 ounces of your favorite fat, and don't worry that your substitutions will create problems. When you have a solid, working ratio, the possibilities for successful improvisation are endless.

So welcome to the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally. I hope you join us in our baking explorations, and I truly, truly hope that if any of you harbor fears and insecurities about your ability to successfully bake gluten-free, this Rally will banish them. With the right knowledge set, we can all be great gluten-free bakers! Even if all you're baking is pancakes for supper at the end of a crazy day.

Follow these links to read the inaugural Gluten-Free Ratio Rally posts from the rest of the wonderfully-talented bloggers involved in this project, and then go make some pancakes!

Lauren at Celiac Teen made Whole Grain, Egg-Free, Vegan Convertible Pancakes
Karen at Cooking Gluten-Free made Multi Blend Gluten-Free Pancakes
Silvana at Dishtowel Diaries made Sticky Cinnamon Swirl Pancakes with Maple Icing
Irvin at Eat the Love made Quinoa Cornmeal Lemon Honey Pancakes with Rosemary Maple Syrup
Britt at GF in the City made Teff Spice Pancakes
Lisa at Gluten Free Canteen made Potato Pancakes
Shauna at Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef made Whole-Grain Gluten-Free Pancakes
Kate at Gluten-Free Gobsmacked made Hazelnut and Dried Cherry Pancakes
Jenn at Jenn Cuisine made Hazelnut/Coconut Pancakes
Erin at The Sensitive Epicure made Oatmeal Buckwheat Pancakes with Bananas and Pecans
Carol at Simply Gluten-Free made Maple Oat Bacon Pancakes

Also, if you're on Twitter, our official hashtag is #gfreerally, so you can follow and join in on our Gluten-Free Ratio Rally conversation there.

Whole Grain Supper Pancakes
yields seven to eight 4-inch-diameter pancakes

The ratio for these pancakes is:
5 parts flour
4 parts liquid
1 part sugar
1 part egg
2 parts fat

2 oz Tara's gluten-free pastry flour mix
1 oz teff flour
1 1/2 oz light buckwheat flour
1/2 oz amaranth flour
1/2 tsp xanthan gum
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp (scant) fine sea salt
4 fluid oz lowfat buttermilk
1 fluid oz pure maple syrup
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 oz unsalted butter, melted
1 oz bacon drippings (reserved from cooking bacon)
1 oz chopped, cooked applewood-smoked bacon (approximately 3 thick-cut pieces)
1 Tbsp finely chopped chives

Combine the flours, xanthan gum, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk to thoroughly blend.

Add the buttermilk, maple syrup, egg, melted butter, and bacon drippings and mix until blended.

Stir in the cooked bacon pieces and chopped chives.

Spoon batter by the quarter-cup onto a well-greased skillet or griddle, preheated oven medium-low heat, and spread to a diameter of about 4 inches. Cook until the top begins to look dry and the bottom is crisp and a deep mahogany brown. Flip, and cook until the other side browns. Serve warm with maple syrup, or pair with your favorite eggs.
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