Tuesday, March 14, 2017

When life gives you lemons...bake

2017 has been weird. I wasn't going to write about it, but for much of the year I've spent way too much time in hospitals, as a visitor to (and advocate for) loved ones who, before this year, were perfectly healthy. One of them—my husband—is walking around in the world now, but the other—my Dad—has been through a bitch of a struggle for the past two months, and just when we think he's on his way, something else happens. Podcasts and our trusty wagon have propelled me back and forth to D.C. to see him. Coffee is my friend.

The other portion of the time, when I'm not fumbling to catch up with my kids and make up for lost time and make it to school, I'm either ignoring the news or peering out at it,  terrified, through the cracks between my fingers. The whole experience of 2017 has left me feeling hollowed-out, discouraged, overstretched but still inadequate. But here's the wonderful cliché of it: cooking really does help. It helps me do and make something tangibly good for my family, and it's an activity I can engage in with my kids when we need to re-connect. The familiar rote actions—of clicking on the stove burners, tapping eggs on the counter, chopping onions, smelling
butter in a hot pan—take me out of my head and into my hands and senses. Baking is particularly, soothingly, mechanical: as long as I pay attention to the measurements, I don't really have to think all that much.

One night, as I arrived back into Brooklyn from D.C., the house was quiet and dark and everyone was already in bed. I opened the fridge, numb from the long drive, and stood a while in the glow, assessing our provisions; for some reason we had a glut of lemons in the fruit drawer, and they were starting to go soft in that way that means you should use them before you find them fuzzy and oozing all over your apples. We also had a container of quark, which I’d bought from the excellent Hawthorne Valley Farm store out of curiosity and then promptly forgotten about. I went to bed, slept like Punxsutawny Phil, and woke up the next morning with an idea to make a not-too-sweet lemon and quark loaf cake, something that would be more like a quick bread and capable of spanning breakfast, snack, and dessert. I did some research online and modeled my recipe very loosely off of one I found in The Guardian. And I baked.

What is quark? If you’re not familiar, it is often labelled a "fresh European-style cheese," but I think of it more as a cross between yogurt and sour cream—denser than regular yogurt but less mouth-coating than sour cream. By ounce, it is lower in fat than sour cream but a little bit higher than whole milk yogurt. In the U.S., you can find it at some natural food stores or international groceries. Our German friend and former au pair, Mari, cooks with it often, which is why it was on my radar in the first place when I found it at Hawthorne Valley. According to her, she uses it in about 80% of baked goods.

One day last year, she and my 10-year-old made a trip to a German bakery in New Jersey and came back with delicious, fluffy quark ball doughnuts; we all fought over them. That was my introduction, and while I haven’t yet tackled those coveted doughnut balls, I was pleased with how the lemon cake came out: tangy, a little bit springy, vivid and humid as a July night. It is a cake in the sense that a pound cake is a cake, but lighter. I find many lemon cakes cloying, and this one is not—and the flavor, thanks to the quark, is more nuanced.

This little cake won't heal your loved ones or cure the world's ills, but it's a good one to bake and enjoy during a March snowstorm, and to share with friends…if it lasts long enough.

Lemon Quark Cake
  • 7 fl. oz. quark (just shy of a cup in a liquid measuring cup)
  • 3 fl. oz. sunflower, canola, or olive oil (olive oil imparts a stronger flavor)
  • Zest of 2 large lemons (3 lemons if small)
  • 2 TBS fresh lemon juice
  • 5 oz. (¾ cup) sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 7 oz. (1 ½ cups + 2 TBS) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 pinch of salt
For the glaze:
  • 3 TBS fresh lemon juice
  • 2 oz. (½ cup) confectioner's sugar

  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Butter the inside of a 4.5" x 8.5" loaf pan (or similar size).
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the quark, oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, and eggs. In another, small, bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix until just combined—do not overmix.
  3. Scrape all the batter into the prepared loaf pan and put in the oven. Bake for about 35-40 minutes, rotating about halfway through. All ovens are different, so start checking after 30 minutes. You'll know the cake is done when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool completely.
  4.  Make the glaze by simply whisking together lemon juice and confectioner's sugar until well blended. When the cake has cooled, run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan to loosen it, then free the cake by carefully inverting it into a dish towel, then onto a serving tray. Drizzle or brush the glaze over the top of the cake, making sure to coat the edges liberally. If the cake lasts more than a day, wrap and store it in the refrigerator. 

Friday, January 13, 2017


Just about four years ago, an acupuncturist ordered me to make myself a pot of oxtail soup. I was about to bring my third child into the world, and I was tired. Every part of me ached, my winter coat no longer zipped over my belly, and the big, wise boy I was carrying was doing everything he could to avoid January in New York City; he stayed put for two extra weeks. I never did make that oxtail soup, but I always meant to, and there have been plenty of times when I could've used a bowl. The recipe Nana described to me was dead simple: simmer the oxtails gently for an extended period and season minimally at the end. That was it.

Recently, I asked my friend Min—who, like Nana, is from Korea—if she had a similar version. Turns out, she does, and she was just about to make some. To my text query she replied: “Oxtail soup recipe is really simple but your house will smell like a 🐮.” Later, she sent me a video of the brew bubbling away furiously on her stove like a jacuzzi. 

Min begins by soaking the oxtail to leech out the blood, then simmers the soup for two days, pausing overnight and adding back water to offset evaporation. The resulting broth is rich, milky, restorative. She seasons it with just salt, pepper, and scallions and uses the base for dumpling soup or ramen.

The excellent cookbook A New Way to Dinner, from the Food 52 team, contains an oxtail stew recipe of a more Italian flavor. As I set about cooking my first oxtails, I contemplated which route I wanted to take. 
I liked the purity and simplicity of Min’s and Nana’s version, the notion of allowing only time and hot water to coax the flavor and nutrients out of the meat and bones. When making stews, I usually take a rustic French approach, building flavor with lots of vegetables and aromatics and wine, the result being thick, dark, rich, and just a bit tomato-y. In the end I hewed to the familiar, because I wanted a heartier meal, one whose leftovers might be made into pasta sauce the next night.  

I started with meat from my favorite butcher, Fleishers, which sources humanely raised animals from New York State and can typically supply any part of the beast you'd like. At many good butchers, Fleishers included, you'll probably need to order the oxtail ahead of time; ask the butcher to cut the tail into segments along the joints. 

The size of the oxtail pieces will vary widely—just imagine a cow's tail (or don't) and you'll see why. Some were quite large, almost like osso buco. I recommend soaking them for a little over an hour to leach out impurities and blood. Be patient with the browning process, because it really does make a huge difference, and at the end of your long, slow braise you'll have intense flavor and richness. This is the sort of dish that benefits from a couple of days' rest in the refrigerator so the flavors meld together and the meat is truly falling off the bone. Don't be alarmed by the way the liquid congeals when it's cold, either—this is due to all the good gelatin and collagen that have infused the broth, and which will lend it a silky consistency. 

We'll enjoy this in Vermont this weekend as we build a fire with friends, play in the snow, and purposefully tune out current events. It's comfort in a bowl. 

Braised Oxtails 
Serves around 8 

  • 5-6 lbs. oxtails, cut into their natural segments
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 TBS olive oil
  • 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2"-3" batons
  • 2 stalks of celery, chopped into small pieces
  • 2 leeks, white and pale green parts only, sliced thin
  • 1 small onion, chopped into small pieces
  • 3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 2"-3" batons
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 bottle red wine
  • 1 cup chicken, beef, or vegetable stock (water will do in a pinch)
  • Several rosemary sprigs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Several parsley stems
  • Several thyme sprigs (optional)
  • 2 TBS tomato paste
  • Rind of 1 orange cut into large swaths, white pith removed
  1. Put oxtails in a bowl and cover with cold salted water. Let soak in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours. Once soaked, remove them from water and dry each piece thoroughly and sprinkle the surface with salt and pepper. Using kitchen twine, make a little bundle with the rosemary, bay leaf, parsley stems, and thyme if using. Tie securely.
  2. Preheat oven to 325°. In a larch dutch oven or heavy pot, heat the olive oil and brown the meat on all sides, taking care not to crowd the pot (pieces should not touch) or burn the bottom. As each piece is browned, remove it to a platter. 
  3. Once you've browned the meat, pour off all but a couple tablespoons of the fat (there may be quite a bit). Put chopped leeks and onions into the pot and sauté them for a few minutes, until they're starting to wilt, then add carrots and cook for a few more minutes. Remove vegetables to a bowl—you will add them back, along with the parsnips (which soften faster), later in the cooking. 
  4. Return meat and juices, plus the herb bundle you made, to the pot and pour the wine and stock over it. Meat will most likely not be fully covered. Bring the liquid up to a boil, lower to a simmer, and allow to simmer uncovered for 10 minutes or so. Put the top on and transfer to the oven. Every 30 minutes or so, turn and rearrange the meat so all surfaces get a chance to be submerged. After about an hour, add the vegetables, including the parsnips and garlic, into the pot. Stir in the tomato paste. 
  5. Continue to cook in the oven, rotating meat and vegetables occasionally, for a total of around 3½ hours. Add the orange rind in the last hour or so of cooking. Once it's done and fork tender, taste the broth and add more salt, if it needs it. Either serve immediately or allow to cool somewhat at room temperature before transferring to a storage container and putting in the fridge to serve later. The oxtails can be refrigerated for up to four days, benefitting from the rest, and also freeze nicely. When chilled the fat will rise to the top, where it is easily scraped off and discarded. Before serving, remove herb bundle and orange rind. You can serve meat right on the bone or shred it and serve it with broth and vegetables. 
  6. Serve hot over egg noodles or on its own with good, crusty bread. 
Optional: make a gremolata with chopped parsley, minced garlic, and lemon zest, and salt to taste; sprinkle on top just before serving.