Saturday, November 5, 2016

Rustic Apple Strudel

A couple of weekends ago, we ushered in fall in upper Vermont and could have continued on to Canada if we’d wanted to, just to say we’d done it…but we didn’t. The leaves where we stayed in Warren were pretty much at peak, and the ferns along the mountain trails stood out green and electric against the changing maples. The air smelled like wood smoke at night, and there were ominous frost warnings, but we got a trace of sunburn during the day.

Ben will always be a sucker for the mountains of Vermont, since his family once had a farm up there. Five of them—six if you counted the dog—would pile into their wood-sided Wagoneer most Fridays and power up from Westchester; bathroom stops may or may not have been permitted. I would not have wanted to be in that car for anything, based on the fate of his sister's Teddy Ruxpin one particularly fraught trip (I think animatronic toys were banned from the car thereafter). The Sunday night returns were no doubt more subdued, after they’d tired themselves out running or skiing through the mountains, tearing along trails on their four-wheelers, helping their neighbor on his Christmas tree farm.

Naturally, since we were in the neighborhood of the old farm, we couldn't not pop in for a visit; it had been over 15 years since Ben had set foot on the soil there. So our family of five drove down the winding roads, along the Mad River for a stretch; past the old garage that he remembered new but which now looked all weathered and decrepit; past Farmer Frank’s ramshackle cabin. All the while we saw hand-painted signs pointing the way to Megan and John’s wedding…which, as fate would have it, was going down right on his family’s former property. I won’t get into too many details, but my children are forever scarred by the experience of crashing a stranger’s nuptials, and were plastered to the floor of the back seat as we rolled up to the upper field—just in time to see Megan, in crinoline and cowboy boots, emerge from the barn on her father’s arm. 

The next day turned colder, a bracing wind sluicing off of Lake Champlain down from Canada, and we went apple picking at the excellent Shelburne Orchards, in view of the lake. We bagged close to 40 pounds of fruit—about the same poundage as the 3 year old—as we shivered in our inadequate fleeces. We’re working our way through it, still. 

If Mari, our excellent au pair and friend from Germany, were still living with us, we’d have made greater progress by now. There are a lot of things we miss about Mari, and her apple strudel is one of them. Sometimes, on dark winter mornings, we would haul ourselves down to the kitchen to discover she’d baked us a surprise the night before, and suddenly the morning was more of a gift; that’s the kind of person she is. Fortunately, she hand-penned the recipe for me before she left. It comes by way of her friend Andrea, so it got translated from Czech to German and then to English by the time it reached my hands, and it virtually lacked instructions. I’ve had to hit Mari up for crucial details but haven’t had to change much. 

This is not one of your fancy apple strudels, which require lots of rolling and stretching of dough and turn out worthy of a window display in a Viennese bakery. This is one you can throw together with minimal ingredients one night when you have some extra apples and the oven already hot from dinner—and have a wonderful, quick breakfast the next morning. You can even make it with no sugar at all and substitute half whole wheat flour, and it's relatively healthy.   


This dough is forgiving to the extreme. I have a feeling the quantity of vinegar is somewhat responsible for this; it may seem like a lot, but trust me, this pastry works—it comes out light and flaky but still manages to hold the apples in securely. Sometimes when I make this, it’s a downright hideous, lumpen mass—the Jabba the Hutt of pastries. But somehow, after baking, it all seems to come together and the finished product is lovely in its rustic way. If only the world worked like this pastry does, we could solve a lot of problems. 

Rustic Apple Strudel
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour 
  • 1 stick cold butter (4 oz.), cut into small cubes

  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 4 medium apples 
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • ⅓ cup slivered almonds or chopped walnuts
  • optional:   cup raisins, soaked for a few hours    


  1. In a food processor or by hand, cut the flour, butter, and salt together until it has a sandy consistency with some larger (lentil-sized) chunks of butter still in. 
  2. Whisk together egg and apple cider and quickly mix into the flour mixture until it just comes together; if it seems to dry, add a few drops of cold water. Shape into an oblong disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and allow to rest in the refrigerator at least an hour. 
  3. Preheat oven to 375. Peel apples and grate them, using the coarse holes on a grater, down to the cores (discard cores). Stir in sugar (omit if you prefer) and cinnamon. Before you transfer apple mixture to the dough, you’ll want to squeeze it lightly in your hands to remove excess liquid. 
  4. On a floured surface roll out the dough into an oblong rectangle/oval shape, using as much flour as it takes to keep the dough from sticking. Dough should be about ¼ inch thick, and rough edges are OK. 
  5. Carefully move the dough to a parchment- or silpat-lined baking tray. Working lengthwise, line up the apple mixture along one side of the dough, allowing a 1-inch margin. Fold the long side over until the edges meet, and then pinch or twist them together, empanada-style. If any holes spring up, just patch them shut with an extra scrap of dough. Place tray in the center rack of the oven and bake for around 40 minutes, or until the crust is nice and golden. Cool for a few minutes before cutting. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream, or nothing at all. 

Other things: 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Winter Survival

It's the little things that get us through winters like this, when the predominant sound some nights is the rumble and scrape of snowplows, and morning brings the shriek of car wheels spinning in icy parking spots. During blizzards, I've found myself looking forward to watching our neighbor's late-night shoveling routine, which involves pushing every flake of snow away from his house, off the curb, past the gutter, and all the way out into the middle of the street, where he deposits it into staggered piles reaching almost to the supermarket up the next block. After each heave, he stops to lean on his shovel and re-adjusts the old-fashioned cap balanced atop his head. Depending on how persistent the storm is, he might repeat this process several times in a night. For him, nearly getting whacked by speeding delivery men on mopeds is better than ending up with a permanent, trash-studded snow bank like the rest of the block. 

Being from parts farther south, I find that diversions such as these keep me going when those days in the minuses have knocked the breath out of me. There are other bright spots: the total makeover our brown and grey neighborhood undergoes with the first blanket of snow, and pouring a glass of big red wine as the sky goes dark and the flakes swirl in the streetlights. Slow braises, coffee with friends, root soup, warm boots, and, on the weekends, a trusty wood stove. Skiing with my girls and husband, and curling up to read "Busy Busy Town" with the warm two-year old. The weather forces us to huddle indoors together, bickering and joking our way through cabin fever but also sharing simple meals, 80's movies, and never-ending games of Monopoly. 

Lately, I’ve needed something not so seasonal and not so local to break me out of my winter torpor. And that something, very often, turns out to be as simple as a salad. It started with an obsessive stockpiling of avocados in all shades of ripeness, from impossibly hard and green in the fruit bowl, to nearly-there, to ebony outside/buttery inside in a special corner of the refrigerator. I’ve been dreaming about perfectly ripe avocados all winter, and of citrus fruits. And so they often find themselves tossed together in the salad bowl, tumbling around with a juicy dressing and handfuls of strong, dark greens, scattered with some toasted nuts and flaky sea salt. Give me your kale/Brooklyn jokes, but what I keep coming back to for this salad is finely sliced, raw lacinato (Tuscan) kale. Also good are arugula (but not the wimpy packaged kind) or watercress. You can use any good orange you happen to have, but a blood orange and a meyer lemon together are so much better. This duo, I’ve found, gives greater complexity of flavor than just a regular orange, and the taste is subtly different with each bite. Meyer lemons (which are sweeter than regular lemons) add surprising little bursts of tartness, and blood oranges have a hint of bitterness and greater depth of flavor that makes them more interesting than their paler cousins. All this brightness plays nicely against the suavity of the avocado, and for the crunch you can try toasted handfuls of sliced almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, or pine nuts. 

Soup is nice, but this pop of color — and vitamins — is sometimes the strongest medicine on the bleakest days. 
Winter Rescue Salad
Serves 2

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium-sized blood orange (or any other orange)
  • 1 small meyer lemon
  • 1 avocado, ripe but still firm
  • 2 fistfuls of dark, sturdy greens such as watercress or finely-chopped lacinato kale
  • 1 endive, thinly sliced, base and core removed
  • ¼ cup sliced almonds or pine nuts, lightly toasted in a skillet or oven
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • ½ teaspoon white or red wine vinegar
  • ¼ cup grapeseed or extra-virgin olive oil
  • Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)
  • Freshly ground pepper
Instructions: 1. Prepare citrus: “Supreme” segments of orange and/or meyer lemon by first cutting off ends, then standing on one of the flat ends. Using a sharp knife, cut down and around to remove all the skin, including the bitter white layer. Now, holding the orange in hand, cut into the segments along the dividing membranes, to release them. Reserve supremed segments and pith, separately. If you're using meyer lemons, cut the segments into smaller pieces. (here's a video if you're confused)

"Supreming" citrus

2. Squeeze the leftover membrane into a small bowl to capture all the juice. Whisk in mustard and vinegar. Whisk in oil, gradually, until incorporated. Taste, and add more oil if you think dressing needs it — which will depend on the tartness of your fruit and how much juice it yields. Add salt and pepper to taste. 


3. Slice or dice avocado. If using lacinato (Tuscan) kale, cut it into very thin ribbons crosswise. You can include the stalk. Put greens and citrus segments together in a salad bowl. Drizzle the dressing over gradually, not using it all at once, so you can control the amount — you may have some left over. For sturdier greens, you can let the salad marinate in its dressing for a few minutes, up to a half hour. Next, add the avocado and endive and toss gently. Add a little more dressing if you wish. Serve on plates or in bowls, scattering nuts and flaky salt over top of the salad at the last minute.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Carrot Cake

Last week we celebrated our boy’s first birthday, and I’m not entirely sure how that happened, since at the time of my last posting he hadn’t yet glimpsed the light of day. But then, a lot of things don’t add up — like the fact that I also have an almost ten-year-old and recently (gulp) rounded another decade. The boy and his fellow creatures have kept us busy, so much so that I haven’t had much mental space to devote to this blog — though I’ve really wanted to, since food has been such a central and sustaining part of this past year. First, I intended to write about all the wonderful meals friends and family cooked and delivered to us in those dizzying and disorienting first days (no, it’s not necessarily easier the third time around). The soups and stews and chilis; the taco kit; the roast chicken and healthy muffins and kale salad; the amazing Korean meal that arrived in its own cooking pot, complete with separately packaged garnishes like tiny, dried anchovies. I haven't forgotten any of them. They all reflected their makers’ personalities and tasted better than any food has tasted in my life, ever.

I’ve been hungry a lot this past year, chasing around a little hulk and keeping pace with growing tween daughters and their many activities. It's not always pretty, but I’ve found my way back to the stove. There are tussles over stove knobs. After all, they are bright red and make real fire shoot up if you turn them — cooler than any toy Fisher Price ever made. The baby is not the only dude in the kitchen, either, as Ben has embraced his inner chef, this Christmas eve donning my apron and banning me from the kitchen while he made Boeuf Bourgignan for eight.

Our newest member is hands-down the most impressive eater, square inch wise, of the family. We now go through more bananas than the monkey house at the zoo (come to think of it, it kind of feels like we're living in the monkey house). Among his culinary conquests, this baby can count kimchee, sushi, shakshuka, dog kibble by the fistful, ramen, pork paprika, American Girl doll money, and last week, homemade carrot cake.

For his birthday celebration, we continued the tradition begun with my first daughter, on her first birthday. Back then, I had wanted to serve something that was healthy yet undeniably a treat — meaning I would grant her access to that devil, sugar. More importantly, I was pregnant with my second daughter at the time and had a fierce craving for this, my most favorite of cakes. I can’t remember exactly how I cobbled together the recipe, but what resulted was a hybrid of a few carrot cake recipes I had found online and in books. I started with good, organic ingredients and packed as many sweet carrots as I could into the mix — there are more carrots than flour in here. I dispensed with the pineapple and coconut, since I can’t get behind tropical flavors in my carrot cake. Likewise, I forewent the nuts, which I do like but can be tricky where one-year-olds are concerned. I added raisins, safely chopped up, for a little texture and natural sweetness. The frosting was the result of an experiment gone nicely – I love the traditional cream cheese frosting but not the pulse-pounding sweetness that often comes with it, so I lightened the cream cheese with whipped cream and added organic sugar, tasting, until it was just sweet enough to get away with — much less sugar than is recommended in most recipes. People big and small raved over the result, so I repeated it 20 months later, in cupcake form, for my second daughter's birthday. Nearly seven years after that, I vowed not to make our boy the neglected third child, and resurrected the beloved carrot cake. Somehow, in spite of never having written it down, I found my way back to a similar version to the one I'd made before. Party guests snagged seconds and the birthday boy dug in with both hands, not sure how he’d gotten so lucky, and smeared frosting in his face and hair. I think that’s a fair indicator of success, and probably in some cultures a polite show of gustatory appreciation. 


I only hope it doesn't take another baby or the passing of seven years to make this cake again. 


Carrot Cake  

Ingredients:  

Cake:
  • Butter for greasing pans
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 ½ cups light brown sugar
  • 1 ¼ cups canola oil
  • 4 large eggs
  • 3 cups grated carrots (peeled first – approx. 4 large carrots)
  • 1 cup chopped raisins (soaked beforehand if they are very hard)

Frosting:

  • 2 packages cream cheese, at room temperature
  • ½ cup heavy (whipping) cream
  • ½ cup organic confectioner’s sugar – more if you like it sweeter. (note: I have also successfully used fine-textured organic sugar — the off-white kind)
  • 1 lemon, finely zested and reserved for juice

Equipment:

  • Two 9-inch round cake pans

Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 350°. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. In a separate large bowl, whisk together brown sugar and oil until combined. Add eggs one at a time, then flour, stirring until just blended. Stir in carrots and raisins.

2. Prepare cake pans by greasing with butter then sprinkling with flour; swirl around flour to coat, then knock out the extra. Divide batter equally between pans, smoothing down top with a spatula if necessary. Place in center rack of oven and bake for 25-35 minutes, rotating the rack midway through baking time, particularly if your oven is uneven. Cake is done when it passes the toothpick test and looks slightly browned on top. Remove from oven and cool.

3. Make frosting: you will need two separate, medium bowls. Using an electric mixer (or a strong arm), beat heavy cream and half of the sugar until stiff peaks form. Set aside. In another bowl, beat the softened cream cheese and other half of the sugar until it is smooth. Fold together the two creams gently, along with
the lemon zest and about 2 tablespoons of juice, until combined. Taste the frosting — this is important because you may want it sweeter or more lemony; if so, add more sugar and/or lemon juice.

4. When cake is cooled, gently run a knife blade around the inside rim of cake pans to release. Carefully invert one layer onto a plate, then onto your serving plate or cake stand so the top side faces up. Using an offset or regular spatula, spread nearly half of icing onto the bottom cake layer, covering the top and sides completely, then add the second layer and finish the job. I like to make dips and swoops in the surface. Refrigerate if you don’t plan on serving right away.