1.23.2011

a promise kept

I've got to say, it feels a bit strange to be sitting here. Staring at the computer screen, typing in Blogger. Blogging has been very far from my mind lately, and yet I've missed this space so much! But my very non-virtual life has been demanding 110% of my attention lately, and blogging has had to take a backseat to all the activity swirling around me.


Josh's new restaurant will be opening soon. I am only halfway done with the dessert menu. I have yet to step inside the kitchen and set up the gluten-free pastry workstation. I need to sit down with the Bar Manager to discuss ways to use his herbal infusions in the pastry kitchen. And I'm a bit behind due to a massive 10-day halt to our life to deal with three of us coming down with a violent stomach bug. Ugh. It will all get done, though, and it will all be fabulous. I'm sure of it.

But not today. Today I am not working. Today is the day we are finally celebrating Kalen's birthday with friends and family! It is also the last night that Josh's soon-to-be former restaurant, Brevetto, will be serving dinner, and a large group of us are going over there for one last meal. Today is a day for celebrating, for reminiscing, and for looking ahead to the bright future.

But I had to drop by this space for just a moment. You see, a couple of days ago I made a promise on Facebook, and I think it's time I kept it. I will probably not be posting here the recipes for all the desserts I develop for 40 Paper; this space is not about high-end restaurant baking. But there is one menu item that is so easy, and absolutely delicious, that it definitely deserves a spot here. YOU deserve it.



Fried zaleti. A bit obscure, zaleti are a traditional pastry from the Veneto region of Italy, and are usually a cornmeal-based cookie/biscuit type of sweet. Lemon zest and Grappa-soaked raisins add punch, and the cookies are dusted with confectioner's sugar when they come out of the oven. They're a nice afternoon snack, but not exactly an appropriate way to end dinner in an Italian restaurant. But I really wanted cornmeal to have a place on the dessert menu, and didn't want to have to fall back on the polenta cakes that are so popular right now.

Enter the fryer. As soon as it occurred to me to fry the batter, I knew the recipe was going to be a keeper. Not just because frying makes food taste so good, but because of the textural contrast that was formed between the crisp, crunchy outside and soft, moist interior. The cookies were now dessert. I made a few more tweaks to the recipe, added a chocolate dipping sauce, and it was finished. My first menu item for my first real job in years. It felt good.

You'll have to imagine currants scattered throughout the zaleti - the photos were taken before I added them to the recipe!

These zaleti are a perfect, not-too-sweet way to end a special meal. They're small and easy to share, and they taste great straight from the fryer or left to cool to room temperature. Any chocolate sauce, store-bought or homemade, will make them seem just sophisticated enough to be grown-up fare. Pair them with an espresso, or a snifter of the same Cognac you use in the batter, and wind your way into the gentle, indulgent hours of a mid-winter night.


Fried Zaleti
yields about 20 zaleti, depending on the size of your scoop

2 Tbsp dried currants
1 Tbsp good-quality Cognac
1 Tbsp hot water
1/4 fluid cup (2oz) whole milk
25 grams unsalted butter
88 grams (1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp) cornmeal
70 grams (1/2 cup) Tara's gluten-free pastry flour mix
55 grams (4 1/2 Tbsp) granulated sugar
1/4 tsp xanthan gum
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
zest of half a lemon
pinch fine sea salt
1 large egg, lightly beaten

canola oil, for frying
confectioner's sugar, for dusting
chocolate sauce, for dipping

Place the currants, Cognac and hot water in a small bowl and allow to soak until the currants are softened.

In a small saucepan (or microwave-safe glass measuring cup), heat the milk over medium-low heat (or in the microwave) until warm, then remove from heat, add the butter, and swirl it around in the pan to fully melt it. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, pastry flour, sugar, xanthan gum, baking powder, lemon zest, and sea salt. Add the milk-butter mixture and the beaten egg, and mix until a smooth batter forms. Stir in the soaked currants and their soaking liquid.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 3" of canola oil to 350ºF. (A candy thermometer comes in handy for this.) Fry the batter in tablespoon-sized scoops, four or five at a time, until dark golden brown on all sides. Drain on paper towels and toss in confectioner's sugar to coat.

Serve warm or at room temperature, with chocolate sauce for dipping.

1.13.2011

hi everyone.

This isn't a real post. It's not even a semi-real post - one with a recipe but no photo - which I have been known on occasion to put up.

Nope, this is just me, popping in to say hi. Taking a break from the 55-plus hours of caring for a sick little one to tell all of you about one of the rare, sparkling moments that punctuated those 55 long hours with true food goodness. Letting you know that it's possible to be deliciously surprised by a PR person. (Which, of course, means you actually have to listen to those PR people, which is not high on everyone's list these days.) And telling you about my new favorite way to eat what is essentially a convenience food.


Kalen turned five on Tuesday. I could sit here for the next hour, writing rhapsodically about what an amazing person he is and how incredible it is that your children end up being exactly who you need added to your family, and how watching him grow into himself and become more complex each day has been one of the greatest joys of my life. But I really don't have time right now; I'm expecting to be called back to the boy's room any minute to again deal head-on with this nasty illness Wylie can't seem to shake.

Kalen's birthday ended up a lot more low-key than I had planned, due to the accommodations we had to make for Wylie. Oh, he still had presents and a special birthday dinner and the traditional hot air balloon release, but the rest of the day was pretty mellow. I was glad, however, that he got one of his favorite breakfasts: pancakes.

We haven't been eating pancakes as often around here as we used to. Josh has helped me realize that, as good and comforting as it feels, starting the day with a big plate of sweet starches isn't the best way to wake up our bodies. Protein, with sides of veggies and unrefined starches, feels much better. But Kalen loves pancakes, and the rule is: when it's your birthday, you choose the food for the day. (As a side note, this worked out phenomenally for dinner. Thanks to Kalen's awesome taste buds, we had lobster, sweet potato fries, and garlic bread!) So blueberry pancakes for breakfast it was.

This gave me a chance to try something that had been banging around inside my head ever since Simpli sent me a box of their gluten-free instant apricot oatmeal to try. To be honest, I'm not an instant oatmeal type of girl. In fact, Kalen has always referred to instant oatmeal as "the Nanny kind of oatmeal," because he's never had it anywhere but at my parent's house. If I want oatmeal, I want the real deal. Thick-cut rolled oats, slow-cooked with spices and vanilla and dried fruits, and topped with nuts and maple syrup. That is oatmeal. In contrast, instant oatmeal is always a gummy mess to me. Not appealing.

But the PR material that came with that box of free oatmeal suggested other uses for the product, such as adding it to smoothies and stirring it into pancake batter. And the more I thought about it, the more that pancake suggestion sounded like a wonderful idea - taking a not-so-healthy breakfast food and bettering it with the addition of a high-fiber whole grain and dried fruit. So Tuesday was the day, and I've got to say I loved it! Instead of feeling like I was eating cake for breakfast, I felt like I was eating a hearty, multi-grain flatbread. Between the sweetness of the frozen blueberries and the dried apricots, a mere drizzle of maple syrup was more than enough. The bits of oats stayed whole and were a textural pleasure, chewy and toothsome but not gummy the way they'd have been if stirred into a cup of boiling water. It was the kind of breakfast I'd want if I were gearing up for a day of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.


So anyway, that's my story. If you want your pancakes to be healthier and less cake-like, stir a packet of instant oatmeal into the batter. As long as the oatmeal isn't full of artificial sweeteners and colors and preservatives, I'd say any variety will turn out a great pancake. It feels odd saying it, since convenience foods don't usually get a lot of praise from me, but from now on, don't be surprised if you find a box of instant oatmeal stashed alongside all the other grains in my cupboard. And Kalen may get his pancake request granted a little more often now.

1.08.2011

leaving the city of my comfort


 A couple of nights ago I dreamt I was baking again for a bakery I used to work for. The space was different, but most of the faces were the same, and I felt my dream-self falling easily back into old routines. All the motions, the steps, the methods were almost instinctual, and as much as I had new-job feelings of uneasiness, I was reassured by the familiarity and consistency.

Then, of course, it turned bizarre, with miniature white mice scurrying around under sheets of parchment paper that were scattered across the floor, many of them dropping their tails, and me leaving to go hiking in Glacier National Park. It was a dream, after all.

But the sense of how freely and comfortably I could fall back into old routines stayed with me, and I've been thinking about it ever since. This is the time of year when everyone's talking about resolving to improve themselves in this way or that, or how they're NOT resolving anything due to the high incidence of NYRF (New Year's Resolution Failure, obviously). I haven't pledged a resolution in years, not any that coincide with January 1st, at least. But I have been thinking lately about comfort zones, and what lengths we'll go to stay in them, and why it's often a good idea to nudge ourselves out of them, and this seems right in line with the New Year's Resolution train of thought. (And is also what the great Alan Alda encourages us to do.)

I am the queen of trying to stay in my comfort zones. But, as is often the way with life, the past two years have found me getting pushed WAY out of many of them, in ways that I was not always accepting of, or even partially okay with. And yet, here I am, having been through a lot and realizing that I have come out so much better for all of it, and it's dawned on me that the experiences that felt the worst were actually the most beneficial to my own personal growth. Not a groundbreaking discovery, I know, but still it's nice to look back at difficult times and see that hey, not only am I still standing, but I'm standing taller and straighter than ever before, with a bigger smile across my face. It feels good.

So now, with a new year once again waiting to be jumped into headfirst, I've gotten to a point in my life when I recognize that I need to take some deliberate steps out of my comfort zones once again. This time, though, it's different in such a better way, since I get to decide the direction and timing and intent. But it still makes me uneasy to think about, and so far I haven't even accepted the thinking phase enough to actually be able to say out loud, this is what I'm doing now.


By now you're probably wondering just what, exactly, I'm talking about?

Well, there's a new restaurant in Josh's very-near future. A very hip, vintage-yet-modern Italian bistro. And he has mentioned several times that he'd really like the entire dessert menu to be gluten-free, but that he's not a pastry person and doesn't want to have to deal with that part of the kitchen anymore. In case it's not obvious, yes, it appears that I am being recruited. And it was such a surprise, although probably only to me. Everyone who knows me is always surprised that I'm NOT involved in Josh's restaurant, so to them this would look like a natural step for me to take.

But I've gotten used to not being an active partner in Josh's entrepreneurial activities. And I've gotten used to not working in a professional kitchen. And I've gotten used to being home every day with the boys. In short, I've gotten used to how my life is right now, and in order to take Josh up on his (tempting) offer, I'll have to accept that life will change. I'll have to move out of a comfort zone, on purpose.

Which is why I keep being drawn back to that dream I had. If starting to work outside the home again feels so unnerving and obstacle-filled, at least I can take comfort in knowing that the type of work I'll be doing has a degree of familiarity to me, and is something I think about all the time anyway. It would be new, but not in a manner to which I am wholly unaccustomed. New-but-with-a-built-in-comfort-zone-designed-just-for-me is the way I like to think about it. And I have to admit that for my creations to have a wider audience than just my immediate family would certainly be gratifying. As would knowing there is once again a place for me in a professional environment. And then there's the hope that by venturing back out into the world of the working, I might find a way to start pulling my own weight again, financially-speaking. All good things.

Hmm. It sounds like I've agreed to be Josh's Pastry Chef. Nevermind that writing that sentence is the closest I've yet come to saying yes to his standing offer. Still, things seem to be moving in that direction, irregardless of my inability to fully commit. Because I've already started brainstorming recipes, tested out one dessert, and today I perfected my gluten-free focaccia recipe.


Focaccia is not usually a pastry chef's responsibility. But as the resident gluten-free baker, I am by default responsible for all gluten-free baked goods, sweet or savory. And Josh doesn't want his gluten-free customers to have to continue missing out on the first round of nibbles the kitchen sends out to each table: tender focaccia with herbed extra virgin olive oil for dipping. And so I got charged with creating a celiac-friendly focaccia so good that those who needed to eat from that bread bowl would also really want to, and so that Josh would never feel the need to apologize for serving sub-par food to his gluten-free diners.

That last part is really the important message in all this rambling. If Josh (or any restaurateur, for that matter) was merely interested in having gluten-free options on his menu so as not to miss out on revenue from the gluten-free population, there are prepackaged, commercial products he could fall back on. It would be easy, without the hassle of training his staff and worrying about cross-contamination. And he could pat himself on the back for making his restaurant celiac-friendly. Many restaurants already do this.

But have you had the gluten-free options these places offer? From pizza to sandwiches to muffins, it's been an experience in constant disappointment for me. Better to stick with naturally gluten-free foods than waste my money (and appetite) on bland baked goods with unappealing textures. And yet, against all logic, I keep trying new items as I come across them on menus, holding out hope that finally I'll eat something as good as what I make at home. It rarely happens. And honestly, it's not that big of a deal for me, since I do eat so well at home. But I know that not everyone spends their time cooking and baking like I do. Many people who are gluten-free rely more heavily on prepared foods at home, and eat the same low-quality gluten-free products when they eat out, and that's assuming they even have gluten-free dining options available to them. The food is passable, but never phenomenal.

It doesn't have to be this way. Gluten-free food can be just as good - and sometimes better - than its gluten-full counterparts, when its creators truly understand the ingredients they're working with and are passionate about making a superior product. I know this because I live it. We don't eat food around here that comes with qualifiers. Well, for gluten-free it's pretty good doesn't cut it with me. When I bake for family gatherings, everyone eats the gluten-free cookies and pies and cakes, and not only does no one miss the gluten (or even realize it's not there), but they often rave about how great everything is. Just great. Period. No strings attached.

This is how Josh and I want customers at his restaurant to feel. If you're coming for dinner, and need to eat gluten-free? No need to apologize or worry or feel uncomfortable at the thought of the kitchen making you a special plate. The menu is covered with gluten-free items for you to choose from. And we won't be apologizing either, because we know that, whatever you choose, you will end up with a meal that rivals the quality and flavor of the dishes your gluten-full dining companions are enjoying. Because if it doesn't meet our own personal standards, it doesn't make it onto the menu. Everyone here eats well.


It sounds simple enough. Yet it's rare enough that it feels slightly radical, and very special. And it's this sense of embarking on a very significant adventure that makes me willing to say yes to a proposal that even two months ago was nowhere on my radar. Yes to an idea that is simply a logical extension of our personal culinary philosophy, but which has the power to change people's notion of what it means to eat gluten-free. Yes to the opportunity to make someone feel welcomed and included and, after that first bite, joyful. How could I have answered any other way?

So as I gear up to take on this new role, preparing for old comforts and routines to change, it feels right to start off with bread, that ultimate comfort food. This focaccia is lofty, with a springiness and airy structure that will shock anyone who still believes gluten-free means dense and heavy. The mix of whole grains mimics the hearty flavor of wheat, and the rosemary and kosher salt make the bread interesting enough that eating it by itself feels like what it was intended for.  In fact, it's exactly how I'd want to begin my meal at a very hip, vintage-yet-modern Italian bistro.

This focaccia? Simply put, it's great. Period.


Rosemary Focaccia
yields one 7- to 8-inch round

38 grams (1/3 cup) brown rice flour
37 grams (1/3 cup) sorghum flour
65 grams (1/2 cup) cornstarch
42 grams (1/4 cup plus 2 1/2 tsp) light buckwheat flour
12 grams (1/4 cup) potato flakes
16 grams (2 Tbsp) millet flour
3/4 tsp xanthan gum
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp fine sea salt
2 1/4 tsp (1 packet) plus 1/4 tsp rapid rise yeast
1 tsp coarsely chopped fresh rosemary, plus more for sprinkling
8 oz (1 cup) warm water, 110ºF
1 1/2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large egg, separated
coarse kosher salt and extra virgin olive oil for sprinkling

Grease a 7- to 8-inch diameter cast iron pan (or equivalent-sized baking pan) with olive oil and dust with gluten-free flour (I normally use sweet rice flour).

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flours, potato flakes, xanthan gum, sugar, salt, yeast, and 1 tsp rosemary. Mix on low until thoroughly combined.

Pour in the warm water, oil, and the egg yolk, and mix on low just to combine, then increase speed to high and beat for two minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl beat the egg white until it just holds stiff peaks. (I find it easiest to use a hand held electric mixer for this. But you could also just use a balloon whisk and elbow grease!) By hand, stir 1/4 of the beaten egg white into the batter to lighten it, then use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the rest of the egg white until no white streaks are visible.

Pour batter into prepared pan and use a spatula to gently spread and smooth it. Cover pan with a cloth and place in a warm area to rise for 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400ºF. Uncover the pan and drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the bread, then sprinkle coarse kosher salt and remaining coarsely chopped rosemary liberally over the surface. Bake for 30 minutes, or until a tester inserted near the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then remove bread from pan and finish cooling on the rack.

Focaccia keeps, wrapped airtight and at room temperature, for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.
 
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