i wasn't kidding

The full impact of it didn't hit me until the end of the day.

Late last Thursday night, talking on the phone with Josh while he closed up the restaurant, I was reflecting on the day we'd just had and remarked on what a crazy, completely bipolar day it had been. That is never a good way to remember a day.

There had been short tempers, snarkiness, tantrums, broken glass, slammed doors, a lot of tears, and very little patience to carry us through it all. It was a family affair; only the non-human occupants of our home seemed immune to it. It was interminable.

Except when it wasn't. Because, day of extremes that it was, there were also absolutely beautiful periods of calm and laughter, relaxation and rejuvenating solitude. To really understand the complete cliché-ness of those good times, you need only to know that they included snuggling adorable kittens and children running with abandon down grassy hills.

I wasn't kidding when I said the day was bipolar.

As challenging as it is to make it through a day like that in one piece, as hard as it can be in the moment to adjust to the pendulum swings of emotion, it can be useful to look back on them and notice the little things that carried you through. The extra hugs and cuddles, the forgiveness (even if it was born of exhaustion), the sunlight and vibrant strawberries.

Strawberries. The season starts a bit later here in Maine than in the rest of the country, but when it finally arrives, it feels like jagged sparkles of sunlight on the water and the morning chorus of birdsong and waves of heat rippling up from the sidewalk all rolled into one. Summer is here. And when it's accompanied by strawberries, the really good ones, the ones that are red through and through, that have never seen the inside of a refrigerated case, that have a heady perfume that reaches your nose while the berries themselves are still three feet away . . . well, it's just magic.

On that fateful Thursday I had snagged one of the last-of-the-first quarts of strawberries to show up at our farmer's market. For the rest of the morning, wandering amongst the stalls of radishes and tiny carrots and wildflower bouquets, I apologized to everyone who asked me where I got them, as I regretfully pointed towards the long-since sold out stand. That early bird adage really does have merit.

The boys and I were torn between wanting to devour them all right there on the grassy common, and bringing them home to "make something." Somehow, I couldn't bear to see those shiny, sought-after berries disappear so quickly, so all but the biggest, reddest, temptress berries on the top of the pile became homeward bound. (There is just something about eating a strawberry warmed by the sun that can't be completely denied.)

Later, during a too-brief pause in the ruckus that was threatening take over our day, I rushed into the kitchen, determined to do something with those strawberries. I pulled a disc of pastry dough out of the fridge, letting it shake off its chill while I attended to the fruit. Working with the speed and concentration of someone who knows her reverie might be broken any moment, I took stock of what I had and threw together a rustic berry-frangipane crostata. A not-too-sweet crostata. A redeeming crostata.

Because by that evening, its existence on the kitchen counter was one of the few high points of productivity and peacefulness for me as I looked back over the spiral of time that had us so shaken up all day long. And the next morning, at breakfast, it was an encouraging way to begin anew, gently, sweetly, and with appreciation.

Maine Berry & Frangipane Crostata
Yields 8-10 servings

Did you know that today, June 20th, has been designated Pie Party 2012? It might not be listed on any calendar, but it's an Internet event that's been taken hold of with enthusiasm, which is good enough for me. The Facebook page is where to go to find links to all sorts of lovely pies that people have been baking as a way of celebrating pie and sweeping away any fears that may linger over perfect crusts, soggy bottoms, and runny fillings. We did this last year, too, and it was so wonderful to see the blogosphere bombarded by pies of all stripes and sorts. Because pie is great. Pie is great even when it's not perfect. Pie can make not-so-perfect days feel much, much better when you've got a fresh slice in front of you.

You should make some pie.

1 single-crust recipe of gluten-free pastry dough, left on the counter long enough to soften slightly and become pliable
1 pint Maine strawberries, hulled and quartered
1 cup wild Maine blueberries (frozen is fine)
4 tablespoons (¼ cup) Maine honey
2 teaspoons tapioca starch
¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract
1 batch of frangipane (recipes abound online, or just do what I did and use the recipe on the bag of Bob's Red Mill Almond Flour, substituting gf flour for the all-purpose and increasing the butter and sugar each by a tablespoon)
Egg wash
Granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Line a baking sheet with parchment. Set aside.

On a gluten-free-floured board, roll out the dough to a diameter of roughly 14 inches. Dust the dough with additional flour as you roll, and rotate it a quarter-turn with every few passes of the rolling pin to keep it from sticking to your board. Transfer the circle of dough to the baking sheet.

In a mixing bowl, gently stir together the strawberries, blueberries, honey, tapioca starch, and vanilla and almond extracts. Let this sit for a moment while you spoon the frangipane onto the dough, spreading it evenly to within an inch and a half of the edge. Pour the fruit mixture on top of the this, easing it out to the edge of the frangipane. Gently begin folding the edge of the dough up over the filling, brushing the dough with the egg wash to seal the folds. When the filling is fully enclosed, give the crust one more brush of egg wash and sprinkle granulated sugar over it. Chill for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375ºF.

Bake the crostata for 45-60 minutes, or until the crust is a rich golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Cool on a wire rack, and serve warm or at room temperature. Crostata keeps, wrapped airtight and at room temperature, for up to three days.


{ratio rally} sandwich bread

I need to get something off my chest.

I'm getting tired of rustic, artisan bread.

That feels like a really bad thing to say. As if, by saying it, I'm also implying that I'd like to throw out all the artisan cheese, and the small-batch organic fruit preserves, the heritage pork, the farmer's market bounty, and everything else the current food revolution has brought our way.

No. Obviously not. I love all of it, and the whole truth is that I'm not actually done with gluten-free artisan bread, just finding myself needing more. More flexibility. More versatility.

More everydayness.

You see, I love the hearty, rustic breads I've learned to make over the past couple of years. I love the yeasty, nutty smell they exhale into my kitchen while baking, the chewy toothsome texture, the feeling that I'm being good to my body by feeding it all those different whole grains. Slices of them toasted and slathered with butter, nudging my morning eggs away from the center of the plate, are perfect. Alongside (and dunked into) a bowl of steaming, thick soup, they're comforting. And they make great cheese toast.

But sometimes, when I decide to give up some pride and be honest with myself, I'll admit that I don't really like those breads for sandwiches. Or French toast. They're useless for bread pudding, and they don't make good croutons. Versatile they are not.

But, stubborn one that I am, I resisted taking the next step and actually doing something about it, so loyal was I to artisan crusty boule.

It took the challenge of the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally to give me the kick in the pants I needed to finally admit that sandwich bread — soft, bendy, mild-flavored, adaptable sandwich bread — was urgently required.

If you had asked me before I starting working on this bread recipe what my top priority for it was, I'm sure I'd have said flavor. And that's still important to me. But now, having the benefit of the final loaf in front of me, and the memory of so many loaves of long-ago-consumed gluten-full sandwich bread behind me, I can definitively say that I am most excited and impressed by its springiness and bendiness. Truly, I was amazed when I held the first slice in my hand. Kalen was so impressed, he couldn't stop playing with it.

This bread can be folded. It can be twisted. It can be sort of scrunched in your fist, which you might find yourself doing unthinkingly when your children energetically launch into their 708th fight of the day. And then it boings back to its original shape.

Writing it out like that, it almost sounds too weird. Like it's rubber bread, and might bounce off your plate. I assure you, it's not rubbery. Or tacky or gummy or sticky. The interior is dry, with a nice crumb, not at all dense or coarse. The crust is firm and crisp, just enough to provide a good contrast to the loaf's tender insides. (It doesn't come close to the crust on that epic crusty boule from my childhood, the one so hard it knocked a not-yet-loose-tooth out of my mouth and flung it across my grandparent's kitchen, pinging it off the refrigerator before I had time to realize what was going on.) And it happens to taste really good, like a faintly sweet honey-oat bread.

The fact that it compresses gently when you take a bite of it, then springs back up, reinflating itself, should just be the icing on the cake.

Except that, in the often-frustrating realm of gluten-free sandwich bread, it suddenly seems like the most important thing in the world. The novelty will wear off eventually, I imagine. But until then, you can find me reveling in soft, untoasted sandwiches, tender, eggy French toast, and, especially, plain ol' bread and butter.

Gluten-Free Sandwich Bread
Yields one standard 8½ x 4½ inch loaf

I am so grateful to this month's host, Karen, of Cooking Gluten-Free, who challenged us Rally-ers to come up with our best versions of gluten-free bread. I know I wouldn't have made time in recent weeks for bread experimentation without her motivation! There is a great group of bloggers participating in the Rally this month, so be sure to check out the links to all the other entries that Karen has posted on her site!

This recipe makes such a lovely loaf of sandwich bread, I know that I'll probably be sticking to that for a while. However, I did try baking it as a boule, the dough shaped and risen on a piece of parchment, then put — parchment and all — directly onto a hot pizza stone in a 425ºF oven for 45-50 minutes. It was wonderful. Its adaptability is yet another reason I love this recipe!

The ratio for this recipe is approximately 4 parts flour:3½ parts liquid:1 part egg

100 grams tapioca starch
63 grams light buckwheat flour (I use this brand; darker buckwheat flour will yield a different result)
53 grams brown rice flour
40 grams certified gluten-free oat flour
1 packet (2¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
2 teaspoons xanthan gum
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon psyllium husk powder
110 grams whole milk, heated to 115º-120ºF
110 grams water, heated to 115º-120ºF
1 large egg, room temperature
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons honey

Lightly grease an 8½ by 4½ by 2½ inch loaf pan and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine all dry ingredients and mix on low until thoroughly blended.

Gently whisk together the remaining ingredients and, with the mixer running, slowly pour the wet into the dry ingredients. Mix on low until combined, then increase speed to medium and beat for one minute.

Scrape the dough into the prepared loaf pan, and use wet fingertips to smooth out the surface. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot for 2-2½ hours, or until the dough has risen to the top of the pan.

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Remove the plastic wrap, and bake the bread for 55-65 minutes, or until the bread makes a hollow sound when you thump it on the bottom. (I took my loaf out of the bread pan for the final 15 minutes of baking, and set it directly on the pizza stone that lives in my oven, because I wanted a crispier crust. Leave the loaf in the pan if you prefer a softer crust.)

Cool bread completely on a wire rack before slicing into it. (This is the hardest thing in the world to do. I suggest you leave the house and go run errands. Or at least occupy yourself with a complex project with the kids!) Wrap airtight, and store at room temperature.


it pleases you immensely

"We're Back!" the sign proclaims, below the hand-painted cartoon of a monstrous ice cream sundae, pressuring me every time I head north out of town to get excited, oblivious to the fact that I hadn't noticed its off-season closure.

It's the take-out shack that sprung up in a driveway last summer, the one that seems a little too home-grown, makeshift even, to be legitimate, the one that may actually serve excellent, cheap road food, which Josh and I will never realize, because we're too skeptical to go there. Why I get flushed with excitement over a food truck in the city, but squeamish at the thought of take-out from a roadside trailer, is obviously a case of foodie snobbery. Authenticity in measured doses, apparently. To ease my guilt, I tell myself it's simply because I know I won't be able to eat anything at a place that's all about fried food and burgers.

Because, also hovering there underneath the pastel-colored sundae, large, off-center letters loudly proclaim Fried Clams. I can't have those. I don't even like those, to tell you the truth. Clams are the only shellfish I've never understood the appeal of. Odd, coming as I do from a long line of fishermen and lobstermen.

But seeing that sign reminds me of that other fried clam shack, the one just over the bridge, on the edge of one of my favorite islands, the one we drove past every summer on our way to our annual stay at Uncle Skeet's camp, the one Mom always claimed had the best fried clams. Fat Pat's. A wobbly little building, perched on the edge of the road and adorned with a hand-painted sign, serving up pints and quarts of crispy, golden nuggets. That one, though, is long gone, and I wonder now how many people still miss the traditional stop there on their way out to Cundy's Harbor.

I always wanted to like fried clams. They seemed so ubiquitous coastal Maine, I felt it should be in my blood to want baskets of them every summer. One August night many years ago, Mom took a drive across the islands all the way to Pat's, and brought back to camp a fragrant batch of whole belly fried clams. It was a chilly night — not actually a night that should have felt cold, except that it had been a very muggy day, so the dark air was, appropriately, clammy. Which is good on the ocean, because air like that better carries the scent of saltwater to you and lays it thickly over your nose, lest you forget how lucky you are to be there. I had bare feet, naturally, and under them the ancient linoleum floor of the camp kitchen felt sticky. Gathered around the table, swinging our toes against that tacky floor, we ate the clams. I remember liking the crispy, salty batter coating the best. Because underneath that, there were strange, shifting textures and sandy flavors that confused my tongue, so different from the clean, high-pitched song of my favorite bivalve, crinkle-shelled clams. (Oysters, to the rest of you.) I tried not to pay too much attention.

My fried clam experiences after that were few. But it didn't matter, because for a long time I was blind to all other forms of fried seafood due to my deep, head-spinning, soul-satisfying love affair with fried Maine shrimp.

Those? Those I could eat by the bucketful. I did eat them by the bucketful. I became so predictable that, out to dinner with my grandparents, I didn't even need to look at the menu, and they didn't even need to ask me what I wanted. Fried shrimp basket, please. Extra tartar sauce. I even started to weave "fried shrimp lover" into the basic elements of my identity.

When you're up to your neck in an obsession, it can be hard to really understand why you're in that place. You just are, and it pleases you immensely, and there's no need to analyze it further. But it's interesting to note that I never branched out to fully embrace the entire category of batter-fried foods. Sure, I also loved onion rings and wouldn't pass up a good piece of fried chicken, but I never became doggedly single-minded in my consumption of them. I only had eyes for sweet, delicate Maine shrimp.

And then I went gluten-free. I don't remember doing all that much mourning when I first realized I had to give up gluten. (Living with my celiac father for all those years made the change-over fairly painless.) I do know, however, that it took significant willpower to pass up fried shrimp in the early days, and after a while I tried not to let my eyes even see them on the menu when I found myself at a seafood restaurant. Out of sight, out of mind.

It worked for a while, and eventually I didn't suffer despairing cravings when summer rolled around and fried seafood seemed to be all anyone in Maine could talk about. I learned to live without fried shrimp, and was even happy.

Until recently, when my children discovered them, and I was forced to sit and watch while they devoured the crunchy morsels, and hear about how good the fried shrimp were when they went out to eat with their grandparents, and suddenly I realized I wasn't over my obsession, not by a long shot. And with that, making batter-fried Maine shrimp jumped to the top of my short list.

I didn't have a trusted recipe to follow. I have no idea what type of batter my childhood favorite diner uses for their fried shrimp. All I could do was think about the qualities that were important to me, and go from there. Crispy and crunchy, but still delicate. A batter that would puff up, but not get soggy, during its time in the hot oil. Enough richness and spice in the batter that a dipping condiment, though appreciated, would not be a necessity. And it had to be easy - I wasn't up for the three-bowl affair that involves giving the shrimp layered coats of flour, egg, and seasoned crumbs.

Frying them up, they looked right. Out of the oil, they smelled right. I gave the first ones to the boys, who immediately forgot their insisted-upon-by-me fear of a pot of scalding oil as they clambered closer to me, begging for more. And as soon as I tried one, I knew. I knew by the headlong dive into a swoon my tastebuds were taking, by the feeling of urgent, passionate desire I was suddenly experiencing. I knew by the siren call repeating in my ear.

"We're back!"

Gluten-Free Batter Fried Shrimp
Serves 4-6

Deep frying. Two words that strike fear into the hearts of many, both for the fire danger and negative health implications they carry. I believe that caution and moderation will solve both of those problems. Make sure you aren't multitasking while frying (the quickest way to an accident, even if it's just burnt food, is to lose track of what you're doing), and have at the ready a heavy lid that can be quickly thrown over the pot of oil, should it catch fire. Long, close-fitting sleeves will protect your forearms from splatter burns. And, like cotton candy and triple-thick milkshakes, those other summertime treats our doctors wish we wouldn't indulge in, consider deep-fried shrimp (or deep-fried anything, really) a very rare, very delicious treat.

1 pound peeled, raw Maine shrimp (unlike other shrimp, there's no need to devein them), or the shrimp of your choice
4 fluid ounces whole milk
70 grams (½ cup) yellow cornmeal
66 grams (½ cup) all-purpose gluten-free flour blend (I used a mix of equal parts white rice flour, sorghum flour, and tapioca starch)
1 large egg, well beaten
2 tablespoons sake (or dry white wine)
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon psyllium husk powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon smoked hot paprika
liberal dash of Tabasco sauce (optional)
Salt and pepper, for seasoning
Canola or other neutral oil, for frying
Candy thermometer, for frying

Spread the shrimp in a single layer on a plate or cutting board. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and set aside, at room temperature, for 10-15 minutes.

Whisk together the milk, cornmeal, flour, egg, sake, baking powder, psyllium husk powder, kosher salt, paprika, and Tabasco until no lumps remain in the batter. Set aside.

In a heavy, deep pot heat at least three inches of oil to 350ºF. (You'll have to continually monitor the heat while you're frying, raising or lowering the heat to maintain as constant a temperature as possible.) While the oil is coming up to temperature, add the shrimp to the batter and stir gently to thoroughly coat.

Working in batches, carefully drop the shrimp into the hot oil. (I found it easiest to pick them up with my hands; that way, I avoided also grabbing big spoonfuls of batter.) Cook the shrimp until they're a deep golden brown, about two minutes for Maine shrimp, up to four minutes for larger shrimp, then remove with a slotted spoon or spider and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate.

Serve hot, with ketchup, tartar sauce, lemon wedges, etc.
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