Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sweet Potato Biscuits: (In)sanity restored

I underbaked my brownies on Wednesday night.

I don't know how it happened. I baked them the usual amount of time that I always do -- precisely 28 minutes -- at the same temperature I always do -- precisely 350 degrees -- and made sure to test them with a toothpick like a good little obsessive baker. Yet when I took them out of the fridge to cut them the next morning, they were unmistakingly gooey. I cringed as I surveyed the way the wet chocolate interior clung to my knife like butter.

"This is not good," I thought, as I hurriedly placed the parchment-lined brownies back into my 8 x 8 pan to take to work with me that day.

It was the first time I had made anything for my new coworkers, and I'd wanted the brownies to be perfect, wanted my colleagues to shudder and declare with ecstatic glee, "Diana, you are a baking goddess! Ina has nothing on you!" I wasn't supposed to spend half the brownie-inducing occasion apologizing and explaining, "I baked them the same amount of time that I always do!"

While my coworkers were polite and ate them without complaint, insisting that they like their brownies a bit gooey, I didn't believe them. I don't like my brownies gooey at all. I look at a sticky brownie and I think "Salmonella." I've even gone so far as to throw out a batch that a friend gifted upon me because they looked, in my eyes, like square bastions of disease.

It bothered me the rest of the day, and the subsequent day when my good friend in the office enthused, "Oh when they're cold, the gooeyiness makes them taste like fudge!"

Brownies are not meant to be like fudge. Fudge is supposed to be like fudge.

So I did what any normal (read: not normal) person would do to correct the situation. I woke up this morning and, while the sun was barely peaking out from behind the clouds, I made biscuits. Not just any kind of biscuit, of course -- sweet potato biscuits that, lacking any sort of egg, couldn't possibly transmit foodbourne illness.

"Biscuits will save me," I thought, as I lightly kneaded the dough to eradicate my feelings of self-doubt, disgust and shame that I, the queen of Clorox bleach and all things sanitary, could underbake brownies.

Nevermind that I had to purchase an entire container of buttermilk just for the 1/3 cup I needed for the recipe. Nevermind that I didn't even really want or need a buttery sweet potato biscuit dredged in honey after indulging in a donut crawl yesterday. Nevermind that my coworkers are already planning to bring plenty of baked goods for our potluck brunch at work tomorrow. I was going to redeem myself -- even if I had to throw out the entire carton of buttermilk and half my sanity to do it.

The biscuits are a bit denser than the average, non-sweet potato biscuit, but the interior is still pleasantly pliant -- a proper contrast to the craggly, crusty edges. I inhaled the one I "tested" for lunch today, greedily smearing honey over it, barely pausing to assess whether it would engender the desired reactions from my coworkers. Something along the lines of...

"Baking goddess."

"Just like Ina."

"The queen of all things sanitary."

They're quite simply, a good biscuit. Uncontroversial, unassuming, but perfectly pleasurable on a fall day when the only care you have in the world is whether your coworkers think you are trying to poison them.

Sweet Potato Biscuits
Lightly adapted from Molly Wizenberg via Bon Appetit

Makes 8-10 biscuits

1 3/4-lb sweet potato
1 3/4 cup of all purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons golden brown sugar, lightly packed
1 stick unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons for glazing
1/3 cup buttermilk

Do ahead: Peel sweet potato and cut into manageable 1-inch hunks. Steam or boil until soft. Remove from steamer (or drain from pot), and puree until perfectly smooth. Cool completely in the fridge.

Combine sweet potato and buttermilk together in a medium bowl. Whisk together until well incorporated.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and brown sugar in a large bowl. Cut the butter into 1/2 inch pieces and then use a pastry blender or your fingers to carefully knead the butter into the flour mixture. When the dough has reached a somewhat crumbly texture and the butter pieces are about pea-sized, add the sweet potato and buttermilk. Use a fork to stir together until just combined.

Bring the dough together in a large clump and, using your hands, knead into a 1-inch thick patty. Place on a lightly floured sheet of wax paper with extra over-hang to wrap the dough up. Cover it completely with the paper than place in the fridge to chill for approximately 30 - 60 minutes. The key to flakey biscuits, pie crusts, scones, etc. is keeping the butter as cold as possible before baking.

While dough is chilling, preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Remove dough from the fridge. Using a 2-inch diameter-ed glass or biscuit cutter, cut circles out of the dough and place on a lined or greased cookie shoot. Bring the scrapes together to make additional biscuits. Melt the two additional tablespoons of butter and use a light hand to glaze the tops and sides with a pastry brush. You'll likely have a little butter left over.

Bake for approximately 20-22 minutes, turning the sheet once, or until lightly browned on the top and golden brown on the bottom. Cool on a rack or eat immediately, smeared with honey or the seasonally appropriate apple butter.

Biscuits are meant to be eaten within a day or so, but do freeze well as long as they are sealed tight. You know, to keep out any unwanted freezer burn. Or any germs that may somehow exist in the frigid temperature of your freezer.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Peanut Kale with Delicata Squash: A culinary freak flag?

"Weird." I thought. "This is definitely weird."

I'd been home for a good ten minutes, but hadn't actually made it inside the door. Or even out the car door for that matter. I was sitting in my hot, parked Toyota reading Twitter because I didn't want to move. Didn't want to get up and carry my purse, lunch tote and keys the approximately 30 feet to my front door. It seemed so daunting a task -- far too daunting for me to handle at the moment.

And it wasn't the first occasion.

I regularly arrive home and sit in my car reading emails as I wait to build up the resolve to finally lug myself the momentarily insurmountable distance to my apartment.

I was convinced that no one else could be this weird/lazy/freakish until dinner with a girl friend last Monday night.

"I do the same thing too, Diana!" She confided.

And just like that, I didn't feel so weird any more. The following day I proudly sat in my car for 15 minutes refreshing my Twitter feed while I psyched myself up to open the door and get out. Since I knew at least one other individual was engaging in this bizarre ritual on a regular basis as well, I suddenly felt exonerated to sit and tweet as much as I liked. To wave my freak flag confidently, like only a freak who knows she isn't the only freak can.

The same, of course, extends to food and food combinations that I'm convinced no one else in the world would possibly want to consume. I shamefully eat them in private like I'm a teenage boy watching porn -- pouring milk over my quinoa to eat as cereal; washing chocolate down with Coca-Cola, and drenching everything I can in obscene amounts of lemon juice and garlic -- until someone admits they do the same thing too. That person becomes my savior -- someone whom I look to for reassurance that it's totally normal to use four cloves of garlic and the juice and zest of an entire lemon in a single serving of food, regardless of what the general population thinks.

This past Friday night, as I was whipping up some peanut kale and tofu (a fairly standard pairing, inspired by the version at M Cafe de Chaya), I suddenly got the urge to add delicata squash to the dish. Even though my kale was already lightly steamed and enrobed in a thick mess of peanut sauce, all I could think about was how it would taste with sweet cubes of squash mixed in.

I couldn't shake it. I needed to try it.

"Weird." I thought, as I fired up the oven and began chopping up the squash into neat cubes. "This is definitely weird."

But when the final dish came together, I couldn't get over how not weird it tasted. The sweet, lightly caramelized cubes of squash were an addicting contrast to the salty peanut sauce. It got even better the next night when I added cayenne-spiced roasted squash seeds to the mix. The heat completed the flavor trifecta, adding a sharp bite that helped cut through the muddiness of the sauce.

"I can't be the only one..." I mused as I typed "peanut squash" into Google (from my couch, not my car). The search immediately returned a myriad of recipes for peanut squash (or pumpkin) stew, a common African dish that also incorporates heat, usually in the form of chilies. Yet as I realized just how sane my seemingly insane pairing was, I felt the slightest twinge of disappointment. As though I actually wanted the peanut squash combination to be my culinary freak flag, inspiring horrified whispers of, "She eats squash with peanut butter!"

Deep down I sort of liked the idea of being the only one. Just like deep down I kind of enjoy being the crazy quinoa lady who can't go to Whole Foods without stocking up on at least 2 lbs.of the grain that's actually a seed.

As much as I like feeling that interconnectedness with other "freaks" who find moving from one's car akin to Homer's Odyssey, and as glad as I am to have friends whose taste buds have also become immunized to garlic, every once in a while it's fun to be the only weird one. The definitely weird one.

And the one who might some day eat peanut squash in her car, while reading emails and refreshing her Twitter feed.

Peanut Kale with Delicata Squash, Spiced Seeds and Tofu
Serves 4

2 cups cubed Delicata squash, seeds reserved
1 large bunch kale, washed well and coarsely chopped (approximately 8 loosely packed cups)
1 medium red onion, finely chopped (approximately 1 cup)
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Cayenne pepper
Sea salt
10 ounces extra-firm tofu, cubed

Peanut Sauce:
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Shake of red pepper flakes

For serving:
1 cup quinoa, prepared according to package instructions (optional)

For peanut sauce: Whisk together ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside. If needed, can thin out with rice vinegar or splash or water.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Soak squash seeds in water for 15 minutes to ensure all the squashy bits are cleaned off. Drain and rinse well, then rub dry with a paper towel. Drizzle with a teaspoon of olive oil, a good shake of salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Stir to coat evenly, then spread out on a cookie sheet. Bake, stirring occasionally, for approximately 30 minutes or until nicely toasted. Set aside.

Meanwhile, toss squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil, season with salt and roast for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure it achieves a light caramelization on both sides.

While squash and seeds are roasting and toasting, heat large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 teaspoon of olive oil, swirling to coat the base of the pan. Add the tofu and stir fry until browned on all sides. Remove and set aside. Add the last teaspoon of olive oil to the pan, then add the garlic and onion. Stirring frequently, cook onion and garlic over medium heat until onion is translucent -- approximately 7-10 minutes. Reduce the heat, add the kale, then a good shake of salt. Cover and simmer over low heat for 10-15 minutes or until the kale is lightly steamed/braised.

Remove the lid, toss in the squash, tofu and then stir in the peanut sauce. Serve immediately, preferably over quinoa. Top with spiced squash seeds.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Brussels Sprouts Salad with Dates, Almonds, Red Quinoa: This I know

"It's like you are buying flowers for his family," The Apple Store sales associate had told me on Friday night when I was purchasing my new iPod Nano.

"I totally am!" I'd practically squealed, unable to contain my delight at his clever justification of my unnecessary, but totally necessary purchase. "It's even pink!" I'd said with pride.

It had seemed ironic earlier in the day when the sound on my three-year-old iPod had stopped functioning in the middle of my bike workout at the gym. After I'd gotten past the initial horror of having to finish my workout sans musical accompaniment, I'd realized it was almost appropriate given the recent passing of Apple Co-Founder and former CEO Steve Jobs.

Usually this type of technical failure would dishearten me -- another expense to add to the ever-growing list -- but I'd felt empowered that day. "I'm just going to buy myself a new one!" I'd thought defiantly, not letting myself think about the expense of my recent car repairs or the Chicago trip I have coming up at the end of the month.

I felt like a fierce, independent woman as I strode through the Grove shopping mall that night, shiny new iPod in hand. I'd even allowed myself to flirt with the tattooed associate for a few minutes before getting embarrassed and saying, "I have plans when some girl friends," when he'd asked me what I was doing after.

It felt like a victory to me -- a declaration of adulthood and my ability to buy myself what I wanted at the precise moment I wanted it. Just like when I'd bought myself my MacBook computer nearly five years ago. Just like when I'd signed the check on the deposit for my first one bedroom apartment. Just like when I'd slapped down my credit card and said, "Let me get this one," when I'd taken a friend out for dinner a couple months ago.

So today, when I found out the software on that five-year-old MacBook is incompatible with the version of iTunes I need for my new iPod, I felt like a child again. I stared blankly at the Apple Store Genius as he told me that I needed to buy the new software update so I could download the most recent version of iTunes.

"But my disc drive doesn't work any more," I protested. "Isn't there any other way I can get the update? Can't I download it online?"

He shook his head.

"Are there any older version of iPods available that would be compatible with the iTunes I have now?" I pressed, not wanting to believe that there wasn't an easy way to correct the situation.

He shook his head again.

I sat dumbly on the bench, waiting for him to come up with some "genius" solution. How he could telepathically update my computer so I wouldn't have to replace my disc drive just so I could actually use the iPod I'd triumphantly purchased two days prior. Surely this couldn't be it. Surely he or the tattooed associate could employ some Jedi mind tricks and just wave their hands over my computer to make everything work exactly as it should.

This was the Apple Store -- the land off possibility, not shaking heads.

"So, there's really nothing you can do?" I asked one last time.

He shook his head once more, a curt, definitive motion that made it clear this was the end of the road. It was time for me to get up and leave and let him not help the next person in the long queue of customers waiting for their Genius consultation.

I walked slowly toward my car, clutching my bag from the Farmers Market that contained a jar of whole grain mustard I had purchased to make my lunch. The pride I'd felt so vividly on Friday was gone, replaced with an overwhelming sense helplessness. There was nothing I could do to fix my problem in that moment.

All I could do was go home and make lunch.

Lunch I can fix.

Lunch makes sense to me.

I know that if I toss Brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them in the oven for 30 minutes, they will emerge crinkly, crispy and tender to the fork. I know that if I make red quinoa with just slightly less water than the ratio of two parts liquid to one parts quinoa it will fluff up perfectly. And I know that if I combine whole grain and Dijon mustards with apple cider vinegar, honey and a splash of oil, I'll have an assertively tart and sweet dressing ideally suited for an eclectic mix of sprouts, quinoa, dates, almonds, and sauteed tofu.

This I know.

Without using a single Jedi mind trick.

Brussels Sprouts Salad with Dates, Almonds and Red Quinoa
Serves 4

This salad is inspired by one of my favorite deli salads at my beloved Los Angeles cafe Joan's on Third. Collapsing Brussels sprouts are tossed with an assertive whole grain mustard dressing that is counterbalanced by crunchy almonds, manchego cheese and sweet dates. My version includes red quinoa and tofu for a little extra bulk -- my way of turning the side dish I always want to eat a pint of into an actual main course. Feel free to adjust according to personal taste -- leaving out the quinoa or swapping in manchego for the tofu. I think apples might do quite nicely in here as well.

1 lb. Brussels sprouts, stems and outer leaves removed
1 cup red quinoa, rinsed well
10 ounces extra firm tofu, sliced into 1/4 inch thick, 1/2 inch sticks
6-8 Medjool dates, chopped
1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Slice each Brussels sprout from the top down into four even pieces. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in oven safe baking dish for approximately 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes to scrape up any leaves that start to stick to the edges of the dish. Sprouts are down when they can easily be pierced with a fork.

Meanwhile, bring 1 3/4 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the quinoa, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for approximately 25-30 minutes. Red quinoa takes longer to cook than white, and is done when the white shells have visibly separated from the red kernel. Fluff with a fork and set aside to cool.

Heat large nonstick pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add a teaspoon of olive oil and swirl to coat the base of the pan. Add the tofu, reduce heat to medium and stir fry until well-browned on all sides, approximately 7-10 minutes.

While salad components are coming to room temperature, prepare dressing. Whisk together both mustards, apple cider vinegar, honey, olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Taste and adjust accordingly.

Toss quinoa, Brussels sprouts, tofu, dates, and dressing together. Chill at least an hour.

Just prior to serving, stir in the almonds.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pudding Cake of Honey, Cinnamon and Plums: Two Plums Up

My kitchen light went out on Thursday night.

Seemingly not a big deal -- at least not for the normal, "average Joe" type person. It's an easy fix -- requiring merely a minimal amount of intelligence to 1.) Figure out that the light bulb needs to be changed, 2.) Locate a new light bulb, and 3.) Replace the old bulb with the new bulb while repeating the mantra, "Righty tighty, lefty loosey."

This is why there are jokes that begin with, "How many ___ does it take to change a light bulb?" Usually said jokes are at the expense of blondes, the presumption of course being that blondes are not the most brilliant of individuals.

Clearly this stereotype doesn't apply to me.

Usually.

In the year and nine months that I've lived in my apartment, I've never changed a light bulb. Not that I've had an overwhelming number that needed to be changed, but the last time my kitchen light went out, I waited until my dad came up to visit me in LA so he could fix it. Since then, two more lights have gone out -- one in my bathroom and the other in the ceiling fan above my dining room table.

Which was why the kitchen bulb going out was suddenly so momentous and potentially calamitous.

"What now?" I thought in desperation as my eyes traipsed back and forth from the unlit ceiling fan to the kitchen fixture. I knew that in approximately one hour it would be dark outside meaning the majority of my apartment would be as dim as the stereotypical blonde that I am clearly not because I went to Northwestern and can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Usually.

I panicked, as I realized it would be impossible for me to cook my tempeh with roasted eggplant and squash that night without a functioning light.

"Do I call Ashley?" I wondered, clutching my phone in my hand. "I know she'd know how to fix it. She has screw drivers and drills and stuff." (Ashley is a far more rational blonde who also went to Northwestern and can walk and chew gum at the same time. Not just usually -- always.)

I hovered my finger over her number, primed to hit "dial" so my friend could come over and rescue me from my own lazy stupidity. It took only a few moments for me to realize what I was about to do. It took only a few more moments for me to realize that at 28 years of age I might actually be able to fix the light bulbs myself.

I rummaged through my storage closet until I found the floral hammer/screwdriver hybrid that my dad had gifted me when I'd first moved out on my own, located the light bulbs my mother had bought me when I'd moved into the apartment, and then climbed up on one of my dining room chairs.

"Righty tighty, lefty loosey," I repeated as I unscrewed the glass fixture from the overhead light in my kitchen. Less than a minute later, light was flooding through my kitchen again. Two minutes after that, the ceiling fan that had been dark for the past four months, was shining brightly -- triumphantly -- over my dining room table.

Thrusting my fist in the air, I reached for my phone again -- to call someone -- my dad, Ashley, anyone who would listen -- so I could report my victory over the domestic disturbance in my ceiling. It took me only a few moments to realize what I was about to do. It took only a few more moments for me to realize that at 28 years of age, changing a light bulb is not the type of significant activity that invites a "Way to go, champ!" type response.

At a certain point in life, these things are expected. Like parallel parking, killing a cockroach, bleaching the tub. While to me, these things are huge deals -- activities that clearly mean I am an accomplished woman and successful at being a grown up -- to the average person they are everyday type affairs. No more noteworthy than brushing one's teeth or walking and chewing gum at the same time.

So to receive that affirmation that I crave so I don't feel like a child still floundering around in space, I do what to me actually isn't a big deal.

I make cake.

Honey, cinnamon and plum pudding cake that is composed word for word from the recipe that Molly Wizenberg recently posted on Orangette.

It's a seemingly basic endeavor -- reading, measuring, stirring -- but when I triumphantly presented it to my dad for his birthday last night, it elicited the response I'd been wanting to hear when I'd successfully changed not one, but two light bulbs.

"Mmmm."

Which, of course, can be roughly translated to mean, "Way to go, champ!"

Nigel Slater's Pudding Cake of Honey, Cinnamon and Plums
Not at all adapted from Orangette who adapted it from Tender, Volume II

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 slightly heaping teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 slightly heaping teaspoon of cinnamon
2 pinches salt
5 ripe plums, pitted and quartered (I used only 4 because of the large size of my plums. Possibly less because a couple bites may have gotten lost in my mouth)
2/3 cup golden syrup (procured from my local Whole Foods)
1 stick + 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons honey
3/4 cup golden brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 square baking dish with parchment paper. (It's not necessary to grease it, but I usually do on the off chance that the parchment paper might suddenly decide to fail me.)

In a small saucepan, combine syrup, honey and butter and melt over medium-low heat, stirring frequently so the syrup doesn't burn. When the butter has melted completely, stir in the brown sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool a couple minutes.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl.

Using the same whisk, combine eggs and milk in a separate bowl.

Add the syrup-butter mixture to the flour and stir to combine. Batter will be thick and might smell a bit like fall in a bowl. (Do not be tempted to eat.) Pour in the milk and eggs and continue stirring. Do not be distressed if the batter seems to initially reject the milk and eggs -- keep gently stirring -- it will come together!

Pour the batter into the greased pan. It will be quite liquidy (almost alarmingly so) at this point. Evenly distribute the plum quarters across the top, and again, don't be distressed if and when the plums sink to the bottom. It's possible that slicing them thinner might help aleviate the sinkage -- an experiment I will likely try the next time I make this cake. (And yes, there will be a next time.)

Bake for 35 minutes, then cover loosely with a piece of tin foil and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes. When placing the foil over the cake, form it into a bit of a tent so it doesn't stick to the top like mine did (resulting in the swirled affect you see above). When the center is still a touch jiggly, turn off the oven and let hibernate in there for an additional 15 minutes.

Cool the cake on a rack for at least 20 minutes before lifting it out, using the parchment paper as handles. Continue to let cool before slicing.

Of course nobody would hold it against you if you decide to eat it warm, smothered in a scoop of Haagen Daas Five Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. In fact, I highly recommend you do just that. And then triumphantly thrust your fist in the air.