A Baking Weekend.

Marcella and I had A Plan for my Valentine’s visit.  For several weeks we had been swapping recipes, talking about kitchen tasks and asking each other questions about cookies, so it seemed only natural that we would have a baking weekend — in addition to our normal to-dos like catching up, gossiping and eating out.  Not too long ago, Marcella had purchased a new cookbook — Baked: New Frontiers in Baking — that was calling our names, and I had been wanting to try another madeleine recipe, so I packed my pans in my bag before leaving home.

browniesAfter thumbing through Baked (which, I should mention, is from the men at the eponymous Brooklyn bakery), we decided to make brownies, which apparently is one of Oprah’s favorites.  Since we didn’t have quite the right size pan, we doubled the recipe — big mistake.  Normally, having twice as many brownies is a scrumptious and wondrous thing, but in this case it was terrible.  You try dealing with two times as many fudgy-on-the-inside, crunchy-on-the-outside chocolate bombs and then tell me how you feel.  Honestly.  We cut them up into bitty bites for a reason.  These suckers are intense.

madeleinesAlso intense are David Lebovitz‘s madeleines: a lemony glaze amps up the sunny citrus flavor, and each little cake walks along, holding hands with her friends Moist and Dense, combining to make the most perfectly textured thing ever.

We gave a shell-shaped sweet to Marcella’s mother; not knowing what she was eating, Mrs. Hammer said, “I’m sitting underneath the Eiffel Tower.”  When we told her what she had in her palm was a classic French treat, she beamed.

Indeed, I can’t tout this recipe enough, though when I make them again I will omit the baking powder to compare the difference in its consistency.  I’m not worried though — like Marcella says, “You can’t go wrong with a recipe from David Lebovitz.”

So true.

“Baked” Brownies, from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito
Makes twenty-four brownies

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder
11 ounces dark chocolate (60 to 72% cacao), coarsely chopped
1 cup (two sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 ½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°.  Butter the sides and bottom of a 9-by-13 inch glass or light metal baking pan.
  2. Whisk the flour, salt and cocoa powder in a medium bowl.
  3. Put the chocolate, butter and instant espresso powder in a large bowl and set it over a saucepan of simmering water; stir occasionally until the chocolate and butter are completely melted and smooth.  Turn off the heat but keep the bowl over the water; add sugars.  Whisk until combined, then remove the bowl from the pan.  Cool the mixture to room temperature.
  4. Add 1 egg to chocolate, whisking to combine.  Repeat with remaining eggs, whisking each egg thoroughly into the chocolate before adding the next.  Whisk in vanilla.  Do not overbeat.
  5. Sprinkle the flour mixture over chocolate.  Using a spatula, fold flour into chocolate until just combined.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.  Bake in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes, rotating the pan at the halfway point, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan comes out with only a few moist crumbs sticking to it.  Let cool completely before cutting into squares.
  7. When tightly covered with plastic wrap, the brownies will keep at room temperature for up to three days.

Lemon-Glazed Madeleines, adapted by David Lebovitz from his book The Sweet Life In Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious — and Perplexing — City
Makes twenty-four cookies

for the cookies
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
rounded 1/8 teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder (optional)
zest of one small lemon
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature, plus additional melted butter for preparing the molds

for the glaze
¾ cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons water

  1. Brush the indentations of a madeleine mold with melted butter. Dust with flour, tap off any excess, and place in the fridge or freezer.
  2. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, whip the eggs, granulated sugar, and salt for 5 minutes until frothy and thickened. Spoon the flour and baking powder, if using, into a sifter or mesh strainer and use a spatula to fold in the flour as you sift it over the batter. (Rest the bowl on a damp towel to help steady it for you.) Add the lemon zest to the cooled butter, then dribble the butter into the batter, a few spoonfuls at a time, while simultaneously folding to incorporate the butter. Fold just until all the butter is incorporated. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (Batter can be chilled for up to 12 hours.)
  3. To bake the madeleines, preheat the oven to 425°.  Plop enough batter in the center of each indentation with enough batter which you think will fill it by ¾’s (you’ll have to eyeball it, but it’s not brain-surgery so don’t worry if you’re not exact.) Do not spread it. Bake for 8-9 minutes or until the cakes just feel set. While the cakes are baking, make a glaze in a small mixing bowl by stirring together the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and water until smooth.
  4. Remove from the oven and tilt the madeleines out onto a cooling rack. The moment they’re cool enough to handle, dip each cake in the glaze, turning them over to make sure both sides are coated and scrape off any excess with a dull knife. After dipping, rest each one back on the cooking rack, scalloped side up, until the cakes are cool and the glaze has firmed up.

Storage: Glazed madeleines are best left uncovered, or not tightly-wrapped; they’re best eaten the day they’re made. They can be kept in a container for up to three days after baking, if necessary.

Note:  If you use baking powder, they may take another minute or so to bake since the batter will rise higher. They’re done when the cakes feel just set if you poke them with your finger. Avoid overbaking them.

Advertisements

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.

I mentioned the other day that I like to wait for the buzz around restaurants to quiet before going in and sampling the menu. The same applies to how I feel about books; if everyone is talking about a certain book, I can’t read it. Too much market saturation, I suppose. I’ll happily wait a few months or even years to go to the bookstore.

(Strangely enough, this isn’t how I feel about films. I have to see them before the hype builds, otherwise I end up terribly disappointed.)

Jonathan Franzen‘s third novel, The Corrections, is precisely one of those books. It was absolutely impossible for me to read it during the frenzy of The Oprah Incident, let alone the novel’s winning of the National Book Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. There were just too many people talking about this book, and I didn’t want my opinions to get colored by the reviews, by the prizes or by Oprah.  So I went on my merry little way, and read everything I could get my hands on that wasn’t written by Franzen.  It wasn’t until I saw Franzen speak at Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference last month that I realized it was more than time for me to hunker down with The Corrections.

And hunker down I did. At 576 pages, The Corrections is by no means a light read. This is the kind of reading that, should you read while riding public transit, causes you to almost miss your subway stop and makes you bolt madly for the doors before they zip firmly shut on your foot.  This is the kind of reading that compels you to put off cooking dinner, feign a headache and not feel guilty about ordering in some greasy pizza, as a slice is easily eaten one-handedly as the other turns pages. This is the kind of reading that, at the risk of sounding altogether cheesy, leaves you breathless.

Franzen’s writing is funny; it is clever; it is charming; it is painful.  With almost maddening ease, he tells the story of the five Lamberts: father Albert, mother Enid, older brother Gary, middle child Chip, and little sister Denise.  Each Lambert’s past and present swirl around them like so much mist, but Franzen carefully directs us through their chaotic lives with an assurance that is truly enviable.  Each character, for all their faults and deep flaws, is allowed moments of true likability.  It would have been so easy to turn sensible Gary into a cold-hearted brute and yearning Chip into a pervy academic, but instead, Franzen gives his cast something truly special: humanity.

My Reading List, and Some Reasons Why.

Here’s a photo of the books I’ve currently got waiting in the wings, in no particular order. They are all for pleasure, except for The Poet and the Murderer, which is for book club. That’s not say, of course, that the books my friends and I pick to read together aren’t pleasurable — the difference is that I chose the six others for myself, and for no reason other than just plain wanting to read them.

  1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  2. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
  3. Messenger by Lois Lowry
  4. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  5. Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh
  6. The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall
  7. Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

Excluding The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, again, The Poet and the Murderer, I purchased these books this past weekend at the Muse and the Marketplace. I attended a lectures by both Jennifer Haigh and Lois Lowry (big surprise, that), chatted with Michael Lowenthal at lunch on Saturday and attended the keynote brunch the following day with Jonathan Franzen. There were several books to be purchased at conference, but I went with these not only because these were the writers who impressed me the most, but also because I had a very limited amount of room in my bag.

  • Do I really need to say anything more about my great affection for Lois Lowry?
  • Jonathan Franzen read excerpts from his most recent book, The Discomfort Zone, and answered many questions on what I can’t help but think of as The Oprah Incident. He also discussed the German language, his unsuccessful pursuit of girls and the contemporary North American writers whose work he enjoys reading. I should also mention that Mr. Franzen’s voice is absolutely lovely to listen to. Immediately afterwards, I went to a seminar with John Sedgwick, who wondered how a voice like that could be attained. Nicotine, he concluded.
  • Jennifer Haigh’s workshop on how to get a novel started was undoubtedly one of the most helpful, and not to mention exciting. In clear, concise words, Ms. Haigh spoke about some of her writing tricks; I know that I’m going to use them myself from here on in, with the hopes of being even a quarter as successful.
  • Michael Lowenthal was a funny and friendly lunch companion — though our eating together was pure happenstance. I nervously sat down at a table, and found myself with published, acclaimed writers and a charming, witty agent. I’ve never felt like such a fraud before in my life. Mr. Lowenthal was easy to talk to, and had so many fascinating things to say about his recent time at the Instituto Sacatar, an artists’ colony in Brazil.