3.20.2011

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.


Zeppole
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?

6 comments:

  1. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM,..I think that they will become a new favourite staple of fine foods to me!

    I am glad & happy that the restaurant is booming! Good luck with it all!

    Happy Times!! :)

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  2. I too have been struggling to find the words to write, with so much devastation all around. But by cooking and sharing, we are celebrating life, the best way we know how :-)
    Thanks for a beautiful looking recipe, yum!

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  3. Sophie - Thank you! Yes, it is indeed happy times!

    Emm - You are absolutely right. In times like these, it is so important and meaningful to celebrate life and family the best we can. Thank you!

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  4. I somehow missed this post a few days back. I am reading it wondering how to substitute for all of the dairy...I know soy-cream cheese and sour cream could go into it, hazelnut milk to sub for whole milk...I wonder about silken tofu for the ricotta cheese. The way I'd have to make it would be Vegan, but for the eggs. If I try it soon, I will let you know. It sounds pretty easy, really. But it could end up a mess. Oh, well, I enjoy a challenge. I could always eat it with the dairy, and pay later. A small problem to entertain considering what has been clouding peoples worlds recently. I'll take it. Beautiful job on the written descriptions, as well. Makes you forget everything else on your mind!

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  5. Oh, and BTW, forgot to mention, the ice photos are stunning! I especially LOVE the icicles on the tree buds, forming chrystaline knobs that look like life from another solar system. Enthralling.

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  6. Silky - I am completely intrigued by the idea of coming up with a vegan version of this zeppole recipe. The butter and milk/cream should be easy to replace, but the ricotta makes me pause. I'm wondering if a soy cream cheese would be the best option? I think silken tofu would be too thin. But really, I have so little experience with dairy substitutes that I'm just stabbing in the dark here. Please do let me know if you try making them, and how it works for you! Thanks!

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