Foodie Tuesday: When Baking Gives You Lemons…

You should find it dazzlingly obvious by now, if you’ve been visiting here for more than a week, that I am not a Baker. Exactitude is a form of patience that I lack, so much so that following a recipe to the letter—an important characteristic of baking’s central processes, whereby the necessary chemical and physical elements are able to perform their required duties and make the food do the particular tricks it’s supposed to do—is impossible for me, or close enough to it. As a consequence, I have made many, many baked goods that were not entirely, well…good. So many dishes that should have been light and fluffy come out more suited to supporting a truck while a mechanic fiddles about underneath it. What could and should have been moist and dense is instead frequently crumbly and dry and better designed in texture to use as kitty litter than as dessert, despite pleasant enough flavors. [Disclaimer: if you think this is an admission that I have eaten actual kitty litter, you have either greater faith in my scientific daring or even less in my common sense than I deserve.] Disappointing, these results, but enlightening, if I pay enough attention. Sometimes even remediable. There may be hope for me yet.

Maybe that’s why I don’t stop meddling with what should be fairly straightforward recipes. I trust that, at least some of the time, what doesn’t turn out best on first effort might be rescued by a further experiment or two.

This winter I was given a gorgeous, huge, tree-ripened lemon. My friend hand-carried it from her mother’s garden a couple thousand miles from here, and it was so big and juicy and magic-laden and perfect that I wouldn’t dream of letting it go to waste as a mere additional squeeze on dinner’s salad or a piece of fish. I sliced it thinly; not very evenly, because as I have surely mentioned before, my knife skills are less than impressive, but I gave it a go, and I did slice it fairly thinly. Then I layered those slices with cane sugar in a tight-fitting jar and filled all of the remaining space with plain, high-octane white alcohol (vodka, probably) and let it sit for a couple of months, just giving it a shake or tip once in a while to get the sugar to melt in and absorb and the lemon flavor to be intensified. When I opened the jar last week: Elysium! A rush of deeply floral, lightly sweet and highly lemony perfume bursting from the jar with the reassembled fruit in it. A whiff made for fainting over, if one breathed it in long enough. A liqueur not to be spent lightly, either.

I’d had this fancy, for a while, to try my hand at making some sort of citrus-cornmeal torte. I’ve read recipes for various kinds, particularly olive oil enriched ones from Sicily that sounded uniquely tempting, and decided to give my own version a try. Oranges and/or lemons, olive oil, corn meal. Not too sweet, not too bland. Just honest and refreshing. Sigh. None of the recipes I found was precisely what I thought I was salivating for at the moment, though. I still wanted moist and slightly dense texture, almost a steamed pudding character. What to do, what to do…. Of course: experiment, again. Knowing that baking still requires some commitment to precision, I did as I always do and turned to a tried-and-true basic recipe of somewhat similar character and substituted this for that and these for those. What resulted was not precisely what I’d had in mind, but not too shabby, either.

Photo: Lemon Cornmeal Torte

When I inverted the torte out of the springform pan, I broiled it briefly to finish coloring and caramelizing the lemon slices. If you have one of those dandy little brûlée torches, have fun with it. I don’t recommend an acetylene welder, however, unless you’re baking in your foundry.

Lemon Cornmeal Torte (Take One)

Preheat oven to 450°F/232°C (or whatever approximates those temps in your oven). Mine, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, is old and unreliable, so I must needs watch it like the vultures watch I-35.

I decided to use my springform pan. I lined it, inside and out, with heavy aluminum foil because, given the experimental nature of all of this, I was a little worried about leaks and other non-ingredient surprises. Not to mention that that uppity oven of mine might explode in a fireball or something. Probably wasn’t necessary, in the event, but still. On with the recipe:

I mixed about 3-4 T melted butter with an equal amount of cane sugar and spread it in the bottom of the pan, and then laid the lemon slices out across that syrup base.

Combine dry ingredients with a fork or whisk: 3 cups cornmeal, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp baking soda, 1-1/2 tsp salt, 1-2 tsp ground cardamom, 1 T citrus zest. Since I’d macerated the Queen Lemon, her zest wasn’t fit for the task anymore, so I grated the peel from a couple of the clementines I had on hand.

In a separate bowl, beat together the wet ingredients. [These are where I think I would have done well to go a slightly different path.] I combined about 2-3 Tablespoons’-worth of flavorings from the following: liqueur from the preserved lemon, fresh lemon juice, and ginger syrup. I added enough buttermilk to the flavor mix to equal 2 cups total. [In retrospect, I would have bumped the flavorings’ amount to a full half cup and used 1-1/2 cups of the buttermilk.] Whatever the eventual “design” of the recipe, on this occasion I rounded the wet ingredient list with 1 cup orange juice, 2 large eggs, and 2/3 cup fine extra-virgin olive oil. I suspect I could well have added another egg at the time with good success, too, but I didn’t. We shall see!

Combine the wet ingredients with the dry and stir until mixed. Pour the batter in the pan over the lemon slices, set it in the oven, and bake just until set, the center not quite visibly moving anymore when you bump the pan, somewhere around 35-40 minutes.

Served with a very lightly sweetened whipped cream, it was pleasant and tasted of spring. But it wasn’t quite what I was craving, just yet. I wanted brighter, juicier lemon flavor and yes, this torte was still on the fragile, crumbly side. Onward, I say! The next day was good enough for reevaluating and rethinking. And rebuilding. That night we’d had a table-full of guests, but there was also another cake, so both desserts stretched beyond our needs. That left me, on the next day, with half a torte, or more accurately, a big quart bowl brimming with lemon-ish torte remnants. Make a trifle with the remaining whipped cream? Perhaps. But it wouldn’t fulfill my fancy, still, of that zingy, moist dessert I was imagining. Instead, I made:

Photo: My Pudding ReTorte

Even a tasty steamed pudding is often not so much to thrill the eye, so I served this little dish of mine with a puree of fresh strawberries in orange juice and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds just for the jazz of it. Less elegant looking than the original version, more zingy to eat.

Steamed Lemon Pudding (My Re-Torte)

I put the torte crumbles, sliced lemon topping and all, into my food processor with not only the almost-equal amount of leftover whipped cream but also a very hefty splash of lemon juice and three large eggs, and blended everything into a new, thicker batter. I poured it into a greased, covered casserole and steamed it until, again, it was just set. [It could easily steam in your oven or pudding steamer in the traditional way, but with my oven being so recalcitrant, I opted to steam it, covered, in the microwave instead.]

Photo: Rose Explosion

Roses *and* primroses: those pale tissue-pink sweethearts on the lower right are my first real crop of the dainty wildflowers since I seeded them two years ago in my backyard mini-meadow. Yay!

When I let it cool to room temperature, that iteration of lemon-cornmeal dessert proved to be more what I’d had in mind all along. It was just about the texture of a good Christmas pudding, but of course more seasonally fit in both color and flavor for what we did when my visiting friends returned for our afternoon coffee: we sat on the patio and spooned it up while sipping, chatting, gazing at the explosion of roses, and enjoying one of the nicest bits of outdoor-friendly weather we ever get in these parts.

Hot Flash Fiction 13: Eternity Beckons

Photo: Science by CandlelightEternal life has always been the masters’ magnificent goal; no wonder that great magister and alchemist Osteodaimon was also determined to solve this elusive mystery himself, to plumb the Stygian depths of knowledge collected by the most piercing minds and intrepid souls ever to walk this dangerous earth. He began with years of reading, apprenticeship, exploration, privation, and experimentation. What Osteodaimon learned most quickly was that the process of becoming immortal was in fact incremental; it was a long series of tiny steps and grand leaps, of fallings-backward and soaring upward, all of which took him through both his long and arduous life of study and also a few strange periods of stasis, in which, all told, he began this mystical transformation of his into one truly able to transcend death. Many and terrifying were the missteps and passages, rites and elixirs, incantations, and the heart-shaking, wrenching feats of bravery and agility required of his profound intellect and the ever-disintegrating body that sought answers from that abyss.

One winter’s night, when he had traversed the grueling routes both between his birth and the ninety-two cycles of the seasons that already marked him as uniquely time-defying by his ancient era’s reckoning, and between the smoothly un-furrowed innocence of youth and his avidly acquired brilliance, he recognized in the ice crystals forming along his lashes the last increment required to complete his journey. Carrying the tinctures and potions that would preserve his last bits of mental and physical strength for the ritual, he set forth in the falling snow and moonlight to go farther into the frozen wilderness than he, or anyone, had ever plunged before. He began to notice as he went forward that the slower he moved, the faster the vastness of ice seemed to recede before him, until it was clear that his pace of progress was directly opposed by the increasingly swift passage of time. He knew that his own final breath was hardly a hairbreadth ahead of him, racing both toward him and away, and that only by letting the speed of it catch up with the glacial slowness he himself was approaching, at exactly the right juncture, and by taking the last dram of his precious medicine at exactly the same instant, could he affect the perfect circumstances for his final transformation.

Osteodaimon finally marked the spot. He lay down on the bottomless swath of blue-black ice, took the last draught of his alchemical magic into his gaunt grey mouth, and stopped. He became fused to the ice there instantly, his eyes made into a pair of wide, dull mirrors for the relentless moon and faded stars of perpetual polar night.

When he returned to himself and forced his eyes to focus again, his vision was oddly fragmented, and he sensed that he had drifted from his last stopping place far more than he had imagined he would have done. But the new place, also moonlit and cold, was pleasant enough, and he knew that soon his vision would clear and the slight buzzing in his ears would pass as he regained his strength. His sense of physical power, indeed, astonished him immediately as it returned; it was not only as though he were young again but as though he had new and exhilarating powers that would easily surpass those of his remembered early years, when he had labored so mightily in his pursuit of conquering death. This new Osteodaimon was a super-being to be reckoned with, and he took off at great speed to see what he could now accomplish in this next passage of his life.

It startled him how quickly he was able to go from place to place, how he seemed now to see things from so many new perspectives and rarely wearied of dashing about, looking, stopping to sup cold water or wine, or have a little food when he chose, but endlessly pursuing the delights of his renewed life. We cannot be sure, for history has failed to record all of the details perfectly, but it may be that it was only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before he realized that he could no longer read.

This proved a surprising disappointment that he would attempt to address soon enough. Not quite soon enough, perhaps, that he was ever able to learn the story of how, in A.D. 1867, a small group of botanists on the steppe discovered a perfectly preserved man encased in ice at the edge of a receding glacier. How the intrepid scientists chiseled their magnificent find out of his tomb in a manageable block and labored to drag it back to their fledgling university by sledge and wagon and train. How they built an ice-house museum room for the express purpose of preserving and examining this amazingly lifelike ancient man. How, one awful night in 1871, the city and that little-known museum in it were consumed by fire. How the ice-entombed mystery man had been spared cremation himself only because the conflagration had taken so long to melt his ice block that he remained weirdly, wonderfully intact, his eyes dully mirroring the moon once again.

Surely Osteodaimon could not have learned how to read again even in time to make sense of the tale that followed, of the chaos after the city’s destruction that prevented anyone from having further sightings of this miraculous time-traveler that had so clearly been the earthly form of the great magister and alchemist himself. Even if he had been able to read again, there would be no document to explain that his ultimate disappearance meant neither that he had finally ceased to exist nor that his old ideas of perpetual life being possible were entirely incorrect, for in the days and weeks immediately following the Great Fire, there was far more concern for removal of dangerous debris and rescue of injured and homeless known victims than for tidying up the remnants of an obscure museum. Had there been a witness to record it, there might have been something that Osteodaimon could hope to learn to read, something telling him that his thawed remains had rotted in the post-apocalyptic drear of an abandoned building, showing no more activity than the usual decay and natural recycling would show.

He might also, of course—had he been able to read it—thought that perhaps the early philosophers and proto-scientists were not entirely wrong but only slightly misdirected in their belief in spontaneous generation. For he would have found in the documentation of the ice-man’s progress that feeding on his mortal remains had been the usual generation or two of avid creatures that led to his emergence, eventually, as revivified carbon in the form of a blowfly. Once alive, always alive, but not, perhaps in precisely the way he had long imagined it.Digital illustration from photos: From Here to Eternity. Maybe.

Risk/Reward

Breaking free of our bonds can send us soaring. Or it can make us crash hideously. Sometimes the same experiment or adventure can lead to both results, and sometimes that can happen in short shrift. Hubris leads, often enough, to overreaching and all manner of unrealistic expectations and lets us take stupid risks, if we get too caught up in our dreams or delusions to pay attention to their practical details.

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Breaking free of all constraints has its challenges; it can be a long, laborious, and sometimes dangerous task.

Icarus, My Cousin

A bird, aloft on updrafts in the sun

Above the path, could see one tiny soul,

Alone as if in death, yet singly, whole,

Complete and full contented as that One—

For on that path, and in that blessed place,

He knew such deep delight, such peace and calm

From drawing in each breath of nature’s balm

With that sweet sun so gentle on his face—

It seemed that like the bird, he too could fly,

Could rise above the green enchanted wood,

Need only think it and, behold, he could

Leap up at will, suspended in the sky—

Yet, knowing he could not thus really do,

He suddenly wept, bitter now with rue—

So turns the heart of merely mortal man,

Full in one moment of outlandish joy;

The next, despairing like a little boy,

Because the joy’s imperfect, as it can

Be seen by clearer eyes to truly be;

So rose that wanderer up to the crest,

Where soon the path was free of trees, and best,

Clear-viewed down from the cliff there to the sea—

He bound upon his shoulders feathered wings,

Sleek as the bird’s, to take by force his flight

And steal the sky, but its great burning light,

The blazing sun, had no use for such things,

And cast him, melted, in the ocean swell,

Gravity’s slave, thrown back from heav’n to hell.

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The world, powerful as it is, cannot fully contain me.

For myself, I will concede that I have been known to aim higher than my reach many a time, to think I am better or more skilled or more prepared for certain things than I really am. I have gotten knocked on my backside more than once; turned down, failed, fooled, exposed. There are fissures in the earth to prove the grandness of my fall. But what little I have accomplished was done mainly by dint of that same outsized expectation of my success, and without that I would hardly have moved since birth. So while I may grow and change as slowly as a tree breaking roots out of its paved prison cell, I will take my cue from that tree and keep expanding and hoping, and just see what I can do.

Foodie Tuesday: Nearly Great Eating

Just because I’ll eat practically anything doesn’t mean I don’t care what I eat. I would far rather wait a bit longer between meals than eat something not entirely thrilling just to fill myself. On the other hand, if it’s dinnertime and something I was fixing didn’t come out entirely the way I planned it, I’m loath to let it go to waste. So while the skillet potatoes I put together for a recent meal weren’t quite what I had thought I was going to have, I ate them without much complaint, and so did the others at the table. I made them from thinly sliced raw russet potatoes, the peel still intact, and thought to create something between a country-fried potato dish and Hasselback potatoes and yet different, layering these on top of a handful of sliced almonds, seasoning the potatoes on top with salt and mixed pepper (my home grinder blend of pink, white, green and black peppercorns and whole cloves) and drizzling the whole dish with a small splash of almond extract and a very large splash of melted browned butter. The verdict after baking: good concept, poor execution. I liked the flavors very much but the texture will be far better next time when I add a good dose of broth to the pan to soften the potatoes into submission.photoBetter luck next time, I say to myself, but hedge my bet for the current meal by choosing a trusty standby for another part of the dinner. For vegetables, the range that will please my spouse is very narrow, and though I’m not averse to making separate things that I alone will eat, on a day when I wasn’t fully satisfied that one part of the meal was exactly as I’d planned it so we’d both enjoy it to the highest degree, I opted to keep on the ultra-safe side by using only the most uncomplicated and uncontroversial ingredients. So I just steamed some nice carrots and celery and baby corn (not pickled), buttered them up, and Lo, it was very good.photoWhen it was all plated up it didn’t look like a recipe fail day at all. And it was all perfectly edible, if some in more appealing ways than others.photoThe last part of the meal to get prepared was fairly quick and simple, and despite being an untried variation on my standard approach to a stir-fry of beef it wasn’t so far afield that I didn’t trust its outcome. So while the pan was heating up, I sliced a lovely grass-fed skirt steak and whizzed up the frying sauce of fresh ginger root (about two tablespoons of small-diced root that I preserved in vodka in the fridge, with just a dash of the vodka to help it blend), Tamari, lime juice, a tiny bit of honey, and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Spicy but not fiery, and full of fresh ginger flavor.photoQuickly searing the beef and adding the sauce at the last so as to keep it from scorching while it could still caramelize a bit, I gave a shout to my dinner partner in the other room, and we piled up our plates. The potatoes were fine, if not exactly stellar; the vegetables were predictably comforting in their apologetic simplicity after the potato near-miss, and the beef was tender and zingy with ginger’s welcome tingling heat. I’d say I’m working my way up in the culinary world, gradually at least.

Foodie Tuesday: Drink Me

photoShe may have had quite the colorful and sometimes even delicious adventures, but Alice never had so much good fun in Wonderland.

At least, it couldn’t have quenched her thirst in the same delightful ways. Because, of course, what I’m talking about is the titillating tipple. And perverse or subversive as that sounds, I mean only that I’m referring to some scintillating drink. There are a lot of versions of it out there! Many of them are ones I’m very happy to taste, test and share whenever I get the chance. There are even some standouts I’m willing to admit are probably quite fantastic even though I’d rather never drink them myself.photoThing is, I think few of us are as adventuresome as we ought, perhaps, to be. We don’t put as much thought into what we drink as we do into our eating. More’s the pity, my friends. Why on earth should we be dullards about food or drink when there is so much tremendous, dreamy, splendiferous stuff for the choosing? Me, I’m rather chuffed when I manage to remember not only to pay attention to the details but to enhance the food and drink by finding a great complementary pairing of them. Good food? Good! Good drinks? Goody! Good combination? Better yet!photoStill and all, I must say that no amount of clever combining will save the day if the drinks aren’t magnificent right from the start. Yes, let’s just get cut to the chase: good drinks are a benison and a crowning glory and a celebration altogether. Alcoholic or not, indeed. And I adjure you, when you are serving non-alcoholic drinks at the same time as alcoholic ones, be sure to make the ‘dry’ ones as pretty or impressive as the boozy ones or someone will feel slighted. Kids, especially, but why encourage either children or sober guests to covet that which they oughtn’t have? Differentiate clearly so that those who aren’t meant to have the tipsy treats can’t mistake them for the abstemious ones. But give everyone something equally delicious and glamorous-looking, and they’ll all be happier. I know I would, anyway.

Some drinks are so lovely as-is that they require no further doctoring than to get them, one way or another, from container to mouth. Even purely good, sippable liquids, though, can be friends in combinations that make them that much more spectacular.photoThis includes liquids that are stellar as individual drinks, from water right on up through numerous juices and nectars to the top of the drink charts. It would also, of course, include in my estimation a number of brews and elixirs and decoctions that combine those original ‘root’ ingredients aforementioned into singular teas, wines, liqueurs, beers or liquors that are magnificent drinks in their unadulterated forms. But sometimes I think people get a little too prissy, if not ossified, in their reverence for such beautiful things, thinking it sinful to even consider enjoying them in new ways or combinations. Even a modestly fine Scotch, for example, is often pretty expensive and gets people intimidated out of being imaginative with it when in a fabulous mixed drink it can actually get a little life-extension by sharing the stage with other ingredients and yet still be admirably present in the mix. And as for cocktails and any other kind of mixed drinks, I have the same attitude I was taught for food appreciation: don’t put into a recipe anything (with very few exceptions) that you wouldn’t happily eat on its own. Seriously–don’t put corn syrup based imitation stuff in front of me and expect me to choose that over pure maple syrup. (And while you’re at it, gimme Grade B–the more intense the maple flavor, the better I like it.)  Don’t cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink! Don’t make a cocktail with cheap and dirty booze! Garbage in, garbage out!

Bentley Cocktail: 1 part Calvados or apple brandy + 1 part Dubonnet Rouge
on the rocks. That’s the simple classic version. But why not play with the idea and enjoy the apple aspect further by garnishing with a sprinkling of apple pie spices? Or serving the drink with salted dried-apple crisps? Or, as with many apple-eating delights, by offering sharp cheddar crisps (did you know you can make those by simply oven-browning small heaps of grated cheese and cooling them on a rack or paper to absorb released fats?) alongside to complement the apple sweetness? You can make a fair non-alcoholic facsimile of a Bentley simply with substitutions of, respectively, strong freshly pressed apple juice (I’d use unfiltered for the fullest flavor) and cream soda or birch soda.

Gimlet [‘Vodka & Lime’, as it was introduced to me in London when I was a stripling, is my favorite version rather than the gin original]: 1 part Tito’s vodka + 1 part Rose’s lime juice on the rocks. This is essentially a grownup version of a very old-fashioned fountain drink that I loved as a kid and still love, the Green River Phosphate. So for nonalcoholic versions of it you can easily either buy Green River soda right off the grocery shelf, make a homemade version with any of the online recipes easily found, or you can even be more extravagant and make homemade lime simple syrup, simmering both juice and zest into the sugar water, and mix it with carbonated water or soda. If you’re going that far, it only makes sense to use the same lovely syrup for both the ‘hard’ version and the other drink, no? And again, why not emphasize the clean lime taste with a little complement or contrast, and consider visual impact as well as taste; classic presentation is not the law, only a set of codified cues. I’m not against even playing with frozen slices of carambola (star fruit) for the rocks in a gimlet because they have a bright citrusy taste with the added element of a surprising grassy note, they look like stars, and they keep the chill in the glass in a cheery green way without diluting the drink as they thaw. The kid in all of us, alcohol-aged drinkers or not, likes a starry surprise once in a while. I can imagine it being both entertaining and tasty to put together a simple little tribute to the tertiary color triad: a sprightly, lime-y Gimlet garnished with a bold twist of orange zest and served with a batch of sweet and salty beet crisps.

Scotch and Ginger: 1.5-2 oz. Scotch poured over ice in a tall glass, then filled with ginger ale or ginger beer (sodas, sometimes fermented). When going to have a Scotch and Ginger, I’ve seen folk shudder with horror at the very idea of adulterating decent Scotch with soda, but as you can see, my attitude toward such things is more of the [OK + OK = just more of OK] vs. [Good + Good = Better] variety. The optional iterations are so many that one could drink nothing but S&G and hardly ever have the same drink twice. I think perhaps my top choices for experimentation with this might be something like the following:

S&G 1: The Macallan 12 year old Sherry Oak Scotch + GuS Grown-Up Soda Extra Dry Ginger Ale vs.

S&G 2: Laphroaig 10 year old Scotch + Vernors ginger ale (a particularly sweet and gingery soda, it’s the oldest US ginger ale still in production)photoThese are, of course, existing and well-known mixed drinks, and among the simplest of them as well. The more numerous the ingredients, the more a drink recipe can be tweaked for fun and pleasure. It’s no wonder the new recipes never cease to, ahem, pour forth. And luckily so: I know I’ll always be thirsty for more. Here’s looking at you (through the bottom of my glass)!