Food Diary, Vol. 2: Day Three.

10.08 am: Warm milk with honey.

12.21 – 12.29 pm: Split half an apple with Keith while watching the Battle at the Berrics semifinals.  I spread mine with peanut butter, which I then get all over my fingers.  I’m messy.

1.30 – 3.30 pm: This is technically supposed to be brunch at Craigie on Main with Keith, Kelly, Nancy and Jonah, but since it’s after noon I say it counts as lunch.  I have something like three cups of coffee, all with cream and whatever sugar cubes Jonah doesn’t eat, as well as a yogurt-drenched fruit cup with some amazing figs, grass-fed and house-brined corned beef and tongue hash with a slow-poached egg and crispy onion rings and chocolate-smothered profiteroles with what is supposed to be mint-chocolate ice cream but really is just overwhelmingly minty.

6.35 pm: Coke Zero and half an order of large fries from McDonald’s while  we drive to New York. Keith eats the other half while I lick the salt from my fingers.  I know fries aren’t the healthiest choice in the world, but I love them so.

8.11 pm: A bite of Keith’s banana-walnut bread from Starbucks.  I’m the one driving at this point, so I pretty much cram the bread into my mouth in a very unladylike fashion.  My mother would be so ashamed.

10.06 – 10.46 pm: At my parents’ house, where I drink one of my dad’s Beck’s and share two and a half lamejun with the dog. He doesn’t mind that I’ve sprinkled my food liberally with fresh lemon juice.

11.15 pm: Two glasses Torii Mor Late Harvest Gewurztraminer with Keith and my parents while we discuss dogs, nightmares and Thursday’s Thanksgiving menu.

Christmas Brunch + Happy New Year.

Ack, here I am on January first, having not written you all in quite some time.  I wish I had some sort of glamorous reason why — A surprise trip to Bonaire!  An unexpected delivery of Vizsla puppies!  A new pair of Frye boots to break in! — but the sad truth is that I was just plain sick (though I did recently get those boots and love them).  Keith and I spent Christmas Eve at his brother’s, and come the day after Christmas, six out of the nine guests were moaning on their respective sofas.  We were two of them.

Instead of telling you how I felt during the three days immediately thereafter (unhappy, unwell, unpleasant), I thought you’d rather hear about the Christmas brunch I put together before the sickness set in. Unfortunately I’ve got zero photographic documentation, so please just take my word on how great everything turned out.

Brunch, or breakfast, is a meal I’m pleased to say I can turn out both really quickly and really well, something I fully credit book group with as we mostly meet up at brunchy times.  In fact, I recycled two successful recipes from some of those get-togethers — a jam crumb cake and a citrus salad — that are easy to throw together.  They also seem more impressive than they are, and are definite crowd pleasers.

Since I like to have something savory at breakfast, I decided to also make a quiche.  I didn’t think it would be cheating per se to use a premade crust especially since I was extremely limited on time, but I wanted to make up for it by choosing a recipe full of decadent ingredients.  A trio of cheeses, chopped leeks, strips of double-smoked bacon and a more than generous dollop of crème fraîche fit the bill exactly.

In spite of my morning preferences, I knew that my guests tended to lean more towards the sweet; for that reason I chose to do a baked French toast.  When you’ve a group of people coming over for breakfast, the last thing you’ll want to do is stand over the stove, mechanically flipping slices of bread — it’s no fun for you and besides, your friends came over to see you, not your back at the cooktop.  I don’t care if your back is particularly lovely, or if you’ve got a spectacular neck tattoo you’re dying to share — I prefer having my conversations face-to-face, and that is why a baked French toast is perfect.  All you have to do is arrange your bread in an oven-proof dish, douse it with custard, refrigerate overnight and slide the whole thing in the oven about thirty minutes before you plan to eat.  It couldn’t be any simpler, and it will most certainly be a hit with those craving something sweet.  And best of all, you’ll be able to spend time with your friends.

Speaking of friends, I wanted to take a moment to thank you all for reading my sometimes rambling messages.  I really appreciate it, and am wishing you all the best year yet.

Jam Crumb Cake, from Gourmet
Makes six to eight portions.

For cake
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
½ cup milk
1 large egg
½ cup raspberry jam or preserves

For crumb topping
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  1. Preheat oven to 400° with rack in middle. Generously butter a 9-inch square or round cake pan.  Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Whisk together butter, milk, and egg in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Dollop jam all over surface, then swirl into batter with spoon.
  2. Whisk together butter, sugars, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Stir in flour, then blend with your fingertips until incorporated. Sprinkle crumbs in large clumps over top of cake.
  3. Bake cake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about 25 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 5 minutes.

Note:  I’ve only got a ten-inch round cake pan, so I double the cake recipe but prepare just one recipe’s worth of crumb topping.  The cake then takes about thirty to forty minutes in the oven.

Boozy Baked French Toast, from Smitten Kitchen
Makes six to eight portions.

1 loaf  Challah bread cut into 1-inch slices
3 cups whole milk
3 eggs
3 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons Grand Marnier
zest of one orange

  1. Generously grease a 9×13-inch baking dish with butter.  Arrange bread into two tightly-packed layers in the pan.  Reserve one slice of bread to cut into smaller pieces to fill in gaps.
  2. Whisk milk, eggs, sugar, salt,  Grand Marnier and zest and pour over the bread.   Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The bread will absorb all of the milk custard while you sleep.
  3. Bake at 425° for 30 minutes, or until puffed and golden. This will take longer if you have additional layers.  Cut into generous squares and serve with maple syrup, fresh fruit, powdered sugar or all of the above.

Note:  I used a deep 9×5 baking dish, so I made this with three layers of bread.  It still took only thirty minutes in the oven until the bread inflated and turned gold.

Citrus Salad with Mint Sugar, Bon Appétit.
Makes six to eight portions.

2 white grapefruits
2 pink grapefruits
6 large navel oranges
½ cup fresh mint leaves
¼ cup sugar

Cut peel and white pith from grapefruits and oranges. Cut between membranes to release segments. Combine fruit in large shallow bowl. (Fruit can be segmented 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)  Place mint and sugar in processor. Using on/off turns, blend until mint is finely chopped, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl. Sprinkle mint sugar over fruit; serve.

Note:  There were some really gorgeous-looking blood oranges at Whole Foods, so I decided to use 4 ruby red grapefruits, 3 large navel oranges and 4 good-sized blood oranges.  The combination of colors was fantastically pretty.

Ham, Leek + Three-Cheese Quiche, from Gourmet.
Makes six to eight portions.

1 round of refrigerated pie dough for a 9-inch pie (from a 15-oz package; not a preshaped frozen pie shell)
¾ pounds leeks (about 3 medium; white and pale green parts only)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ pound thinly sliced smoked ham
3 ounces Gruyère, coarsely grated (1 cup)
3 ounces Italian Fontina, coarsely grated (1 cup)
3 ounces whole-milk mozzarella, coarsely grated (1 cup)
3 large eggs
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 ¾ cups crème fraîche (from two 8 ounces containers)

  1. Prebake pie dough in pie plate according to package instructions, then remove from oven and reduce temperature to 350°.  Meanwhile, halve leeks lengthwise and cut crosswise into ½ inch pieces, then wash well in a bowl of cold water, agitating leeks. Lift out and drain leeks in a colander and pat dry. Melt butter in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately low heat and cook leeks, stirring occasionally, until very tender, 8 to 10 minutes.
  2. Line warm pie shell with sliced ham, overlapping layers as necessary to cover bottom and side of pie shell completely. Toss cheeses together and sprinkle evenly into pie shell (do not pack cheese), then spread leeks evenly on top of cheese. Whisk together eggs, nutmeg, and pepper until combined well, then whisk in crème fraîche until smooth.
  3. Carefully pour half of custard on top of pie filling, gently moving cheese with a spoon to help custard disperse evenly. Slowly add remaining custard in same manner. Cover pie loosely with foil, gently folding edges over crust (keep foil from touching top of cheese mixture) and transfer to a baking sheet.
  4. Bake until center of filling is puffed and set (center will be slightly wobbly but not liquid), about 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours. Cool on a rack at least 20 to 30 minutes before serving (filling will continue to set as it cools). Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note:  I’m not a fan of ham, so I was really pleased to see a double-smoked bacon in the case at Formaggio Kitchen.  I mean, honestly — who doesn’t prefer bacon?

Brunch at Cottonwood Café.

Brunch can be tricky, particularly at a restaurant that only offers breakfast foods only on the weekend.  The Cottonwood Café is open for lunch and dinner all seven days; brunch is served only on Saturdays and Sundays, offering eggs Benedict, huevos rancheros and migas underneath the dining room’s arched ceiling — which, incidentally, looks as though it is lined with crimped steel mesh.

cottonwoodThe migas ($8.25, plus $3.95 for a side of steak) appeared to be a safe bet — theoretically exotic enough to match up with Cottonwood’s Southwestern theme, but not so bold as to send the unadventurous running.  Unfortunately, what you end up eating, though, is a plate of glorified scrambled eggs beaten with scallion and tomato.  The oddly enough, the eggs were a surprise, in that they were sweet: they had the tinned sunniness of canned corn.  Even less luck was had with the accompanying spicy hash browns, a depressingly mushy spoonful with absolutely no hint of the kick usually associated with spice.

Regardless of the overwhelmingly disappointing food, Cottonwood is something of a Boston institution, having inhabited its corner of Boylston and Clarendon for over ten years.  its age certainly shows with its dated eighties nouveau modern décor — did I mention that the ceiling is crimped?  The aesthetic is either overly angular or overly curvaceous lines done in melony pink, dusky blue and glossy black.  Not only is an updated look needed, but also some general maintenance as well; countless dents, dings and scratches marked the tables in walls.  Maybe with a sleeker appearance would mask the cuisine.

Then again, maybe not.

Cottonwood Café
222 Berkeley Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116

Cottonwood Café on Urbanspoon

Sunday Brunch with Book Club.

I’ve got to say, book club was definitely one of my better ideas. I don’t normally toot my own horn, but in this case toot toot toot. When else would I be able to get together with a bunch of chatty, intelligent women about Mormons, murders and Massachusetts poets? More importantly, however else could I possibly be able to make as good an excuse to basically bake and eat and ton of buttery, rich food?

I had agreed to host our get-together, but it was so very hot, and the idea of turning on the oven or the stove was starting to stress me out. I did cave in and do some baking the night before, after the sun had set because I knew I wanted to serve some scones — since they are both easy and delicious; I adapted a basic recipe for an orange-rhubarb as well as a chocolate-cherry. Earlier in the week, I had dug up an old issue of Gourmet, from which I had pilfered a recipe for a really simple crumb cake that I knew I could throw together with great results. To cool us down, I chopped up some citrus and mint for a refreshing salad.

This month’s choice was a piece of nonfiction from author Sarah Vowell. Called Assassination Vacation, the book follows Vowell and a few of her family and friends on a series of road trips visiting sites related to the nation’s first three presidential murders. With her distinct style, Vowell not only guides the reader back to the times of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, but also details the truly surprising thread connecting them all.

Please note: when I say “distinct voice,” I am not only referring to Vowell’s vivid style of writing; she literally has what could only be described as an extremely recognizable voice, one that can often be heard on NPR as well as in The Incredibles (she’s Violet Parr).

In the end, we all seemed to like Assasination Vacation. It’s peppered with humorous anecdotes, Vowell’s musings on history and interesting excerpts from interviews the author conducted during the course of her research. Not only that, but Vowell’s depiction of her charming group of chauffeurs is so funny; an avid non-driver, she is completely reliant upon a combination of public transit, mass transit and friends and family to help her reach to her far-flung destinations. I think our collective favorite of her travel buddies was Vowell’s then-three-year-old nephew Owen, whom she writes about quite fondly. Take this, for example:

…[My sister Amy] phoned me, saying, “I asked Owen what he wanted to do today and he said, ‘Go look at stones with Aunt Sarah.’ Do you know what he’s talking about? What these stones are?”

I do. “He means tombstones,” I told her. “When you were off parking the car at the cemetery in Cleveland, Owen and I walked around looking for John Hay’s grave. Owen climbed on top of it and hollered, ‘This is a nice Halloween park!'” (That’s what he calls cemeteries.)

Here’s another description of Owen, one I personally love:

He’s truly morbid. When he broke his collarbone by falling down some stairs he was playing on, an emergency room nurse tried to comfort him by giving him a cuddly stuffed lamb to play with. My sister, hoping to prompt a “thank you,” asked him, “What do you say, Owen?” He handed back the lamb, informing the nurse, “I like spooky stuff.”

Now that’s my kind of kid.

(Incidentally, Stephanie suggested that book club volunteer to drive Vowell around for the next topic’s researching. So, if you’re reading this, Ms. Vowell, there are six food-loving book groupies in Massachusetts willing to give you a ride.)

Jam Crumb Cake, from Gourmet
Makes six to eight portions

For the cake:
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 ¾ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
½ cup milk
1 large egg
½ cup raspberry jam or preserves (I used half strawberry, half raspberry, since that’s what I had in the fridge.)

For the crumb topping:
¾ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
¾ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F with rack in middle. Generously butter a nine-inch square or round cake pan. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together butter, milk, and egg in a large bowl, then whisk in flour mixture until just combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Dollop jam all over surface, then swirl into batter with spoon.
  2. Whisk together butter, sugars, cinnamon, and salt until smooth. Stir in flour, then blend with fingertips until incorporated. Sprinkle crumbs in large clumps over top of cake.
  3. Bake cake until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan, about twenty-five minutes. Cool in pan on a rack five minutes.

Brunch at Sel de la Terre.

By now, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I can often get stuck between a few menu choices.  This time, at brunch at Sel de la Terre, it was a couple of sandwiches holding me up, and the obvious solution was to con someone into splitting them so I could sample them both.

The first sandwich I was hankering to try was the slow-roasted pork. Served with baby arugula, a sundried tomato aïoli and Comté (one of my favorite cheeses!) on black olive bread ($8.95), it sounded too good to pass up. Unfortunately, this was an incidence of an item not quite reaching its full potential. The flavors were there, but they were not nearly as intense as I would have hoped. Not only that, but I could barely taste the Comté. (Really, that’s me being kind and diplomatic — I couldn’t get any sense of my beloved Comté at all. In fact, I forgot it was supposed to be there until I consulted the menu a second time.) Also, I couldn’t help but think that there was something missing from this sandwich — aside from depth of flavor, that is. I will say that I would be curious to try this as a panino; now that I think about it, this would be a great panino… with a more generous amount of Comté, of course.

The other sandwich calling out to me had one of my other favorite cheeses as a component. The skillet-roasted crabcakes with Gruyère, house-made bacon and romaine was served on a crunchy baguette ($8.95) and was absolutely delicious. The crab was sweet and delicate, with the bacon adding a nice savory saltiness to the mix. It, unlike the slow-roasted pork, was absolutely perfect as is, and would not have made a great panino. There’s no other bread that could have possibly stood in for the baguette; this sandwich would have been the sorrier for it otherwise.

The brunch offerings at Sel de la Terre definitely skew more towards lunch than breakfast; if you’re in search of apple-cinnamon pancakes with maple syrup, I advise you to keep walking. However, if what you’re craving is a duo of poached eggs with house-made bacon or perhaps a marinated chicken sandwich with hot house tomatoes, then make Sel de la Terre your first stop.

Sel de la Terre
255 State Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02109

Sel de la Terre on Urbanspoon

Brunch with Book Club.

This past Sunday, I hosted book club at my house and I must say I was incredibly pleased with the brunch I turned out — orange-cranberry scones, Bon Appétit‘s lemon-raspberry cupcakes, Mark Bittman‘s potato-asparagus frittata, and my mother’s mango salad (recipe below). As usual, I ate too much, but I don’t feel too terrible about it; as per my request, Darlington and Amanda brought their parents’ dog, and he happily ate half of what I had on my plate. Honestly, he’s a glutton.

For this month, we chose Rose MacMurray’s novel Afternoons with Emily; we try to have some sort of interconnecting thread between books. Last month’s selection was about an accidental arsonist and murderer who burns down the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst, Massachusetts, so it seemed appropriate for the follow-up to center more on the poet.

Afternoons with Emily is the fictional story of Miranda Chase, a Boston-born girl who, after a year of living abroad in Barbados, moves to Emily Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst. There, Miranda gains notoriety for her religious views; when Emily hears of this, she quickly extends an invitation to Miranda, and soon the two become almost friends. Miranda is both enchanted and disillusioned with Emily’s eccentricities, which she continually wrestles over the following years.

For what seems to be the first time over the history of book club, we all liked our choice-of-the-month. From the lush descriptions to the historic references, MacMurray’s writing truly takes the reader of the present and transplants him or her directly into the past. Sadly, the author died shortly after completing this, her first and only novel; her children worked to get Afternoons with Emily published last year, a decade after MacMurray’s death, leaving behind in their mother’s work an enveloping and interesting story.

Mango Salad
Makes eight portions.

6 mangoes
8 kirby cucumbers
1 plastic container of chives
1 plastic container of mint
juice of 1 – 1 ½ limes
Extra virgin olive oil
Korean red pepper flakes
salt, to taste

  1. Peel and cube mangoes; peel and cube cucumbers, taking care that manoges and cucumbers are the same size. Finely mince chives and mint.
  2. Emulsify lime juice, olive oil, red pepper and salt. The end result should be neither too tart nor too salty.
  3. Toss mangoes, cucumbers, herbs and dressing together and refrigerate for about an hour for flavors to develop. (Or, in my mother’s word, “One hour of standing will give it legs, and the flavors will get mixing and have a party.”) Serve chilled.