Sometimes the only cure for homesickness is distraction. There are little salves — Skype, colder weather, some of the accents on Family Guy — that make far seem closer only to disappear, leaving an imprint that you realize didn’t match the original to begin with.
After a brief trip home, the events in Boston of the last few weeks have made me miss it in a way I’d never felt before and I can’t quite explain without sounding childish, defensive and absurd. Almost as if I wanted to take it back and yell, “Mine!” Almost as if, from such a distance, I could watch over the city from above and that that somehow helped.
Clearly, I needed some old-fashioned comfort food.
Sure, I could make Boston baked beans or Boston cream pie, my dad’s mushrooms or my mom’s bourekas. I wouldn’t be the first to tell you that food can be comforting, and maybe all of those things would be. But they wouldn’t be the same.
So rather than pine for Santarpio’s pizza or any decent clam chowder, I’ve decided to appreciate Australia’s bounty while I’m here.
Australia does meat right so dinner is steak, lots of steak. The lettuce and tomatoes here actually taste like lettuce and tomatoes, so they’re pretty much always on the menu, too. We’ve recently discovered a place nearby that sells dozens of interesting and tantalizing salts (from porcini to espresso to vintage merlot, etc.), so they’re on the table. And we have yet to go wrong with Australian wine, despite the fact that we choose it based almost entirely on the label.
So what does all this have to do with orange poppy seed cake? Nothing. I made it because I was served a similar cake (that Stella devoured) at a lunch last weekend and I wanted to recreate it. It has a history that isn’t even worth mentioning. It does not remind me of Boston or family or Cape Codders or fried clams. It’s just a really, really good cake. And sometimes? That’s comfort enough.
ORANGE POPPY SEED CAKE
This makes a lot of cake, which is never a bad thing. I didn’t have a big enough bundt pan, so I made a small bundt and two 7″ cakes. You can definitely make it a day or two ahead…the glaze needs to soak in anyways. Which reminds me: don’t skip over the glaze. Without it, this will just be a poppy seed cake. Again, never a bad thing, but not as good as the original. Serves 16, and makes an ideal offering for breakfast, brunch, tea or dessert. Adapted from a recipe found on She Loves Simple via Tastespotting.
1 cup (2 sticks/250 grams) butter, softened
3 cups sugar
1/3 cup orange juice
3 cups flour
1/3 cup poppy seeds
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 cups sour cream (or full-fat yogurt)
1/4 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1/3 cup orange juice
To make the cake:
Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Grease a large bundt pan or a few smaller cake pans.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar for a minute or so. Beat in the eggs, then the orange juice.
In another bowl, combine the flour, poppy seeds, baking soda and salt. Add this mixture to the butter mixture alternately with the sour cream, stirring until just combined.
Pour batter into the prepared pan(s). Bake for anywhere from 40 – 60 minutes (depending on size of pan) until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. If the cake is not cooked reduce heat, cover top with foil to prevent burning and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Let cake cool before removing from pan.
To make the glaze:
In a small saucepan, melt the butter, and stir in the sugar, and orange juice until the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to a boil for 1 minute stirring constantly, then remove from heat. Pour the still-warm glaze over the cake. It will take a few minutes to soak in, so go slow and keep adding until it’s all soaked in.
By the looks of my kitchen, it looks as if the world was about to end. We have pounds and pounds of fresh fruit (peaches, figs, cherries, grapes), muesli bars, and cheese. And I just made enough granola to keep us alive for weeks (months? possibly a year). There’s granola everywhere. In jars, in Tupperware, in the crevices of the stove top. I even tried to give some away last night to a dinner guest, but was all out of jars.
Why so much granola? First of all, the friends who are staying with us all this month are the kind of friends who can stuff our fridge with coconuts and overload our internet data plan downloading B movies and we still love them. One is a scientifically trained nutritionist, the other, a Cross Fit enthusiast who counts the grams of protein he consumes in a day. I made us a breakfast cake and it took the five of us so long to eat it that it ended up going to the dog. So I tried a new tactic. Granola. High protein granola, to be exact. The nutritionist approves (it has flax, bran, wholegrain rolled oats, dried fruit, nuts and no added sugar), the Cross Fitter loves, and even my habitual housemates, breakfast loving purists as they are, woke up early with granola on their minds.
Granola is essentially just a mixture of dry things (oats, flax, seeds, nuts, whatever you want) and wet things (honey, peanut butter, maple syrup, vanilla, whatever you want) that you mix together. The only thing tricky about this granola is that the quantities are so enormous that even my largest bowl, the one I stole from an ice cream shop I used to work at (the one that was big enough to hold all the sprinkles for dipping, a big f*#&$ing bowl), couldn’t handle it all. Mixing the wet with the dry meant that granola ended up everywhere. Even Charlie, my loyal sidekick in the kitchen slash vacuum cleaner, gave up searching for all the errant sunflower seeds. To bake it, I used a huge baking dish and a tray and yeah, it was messy. Granola everywhere. Everywhere!
But you know what? It’s really ridiculously delicious. It’s not too sweet, it’s crunchy, it’s full of all your favorite things (I added chopped dried figs, raisins, almonds and currants). It’s perfect with milk or yogurt or on its own. And it’s substantial, it’ll keep you going all morning. And it lasts. Keep it in an airtight container for weeks or freeze it for months.
So if you’re in the Northeast of the US and under 3 feet of snow, you certainly have the time to make some granola to keep to alive if the next blizzard really cuts you off. If you’re in Australia, and it’s summer, granola is the perfect hot weather breakfast food (and SO much better than the muesli you all are so addicted to). If the world does end, find shelter with us. We have bad movies and granola, we can survive anything.
The proportions and ingredients are approximate. The oats are kind of mandatory, but other than that, feel free to add/subtract whatever you like. After it’s all baked, then you can add in dried fruit and chocolate if you want. The recipe below is very loosely based on a recipe from Cooks.com, which in original form is super high protein. The only thing to be careful for is burning. I didn’t have any problems, but most granola recipes warn that it burns very easily, so make sure you’re able to check on it every 5 minutes or so. If you’re not ready to have a kitchen full of granola (or lots of gifts to give away), half the recipe.
1 – 2 cups chopped almonds (I used whole)
1/2 c. chopped pecans (optional)
1 cup sunflower seeds (optional)
2 cups shredded coconut, unsweetened
1 cup wheat germ
1 cup bran
3/4 cup corn oil (I used canola)
1 cup honey (I used a little less)
1/4 cup maple syrup (to taste)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup water
Sometimes summer gives way to rain. The dog refuses to go outside and the thirsty plants explode upwards.
Today, the sun finally came out, just when the tomatoes decided to be perfectly ripe and my little basil plant looked hearty enough to harvest. And so, we eat friselle. I’m no expert in southern Italian cooking, but I do know that frislle (or freselle or frise) are loved all over Italy, especially when the weather is hot.
Friselle are very dry, very hard disks of twice-baked dough. They come in various sizes, either white or whole wheat, and usually have a hole in the middle. They’d be almost inedible on their own, and could probably last a decade in the pantry. But they never last that long, because once the tomatoes decide to be perfectly ripe? There is nothing better to do with them than make friselle.
Traditionally, the top of a frisella is soaked with cold water (so it’s soft enough to be bitten into, essentially) then topped with chopped tomatoes, olive oil and fresh herbs. I usually skip the water and just use the juices from the tomatoes, which form a hefty pool as I let them sit with capers, chopped olives, basil, olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar.
The friselle can be made by hand, of course, but here in Sydney it’s far too summery to turn on my oven. (If you live in the Northern Hemisphere and have the time and good tomatoes, here’s a recipe.) We’ll eat them tonight with fresh stracchino and cold rosé as a precursor to pasta maritate con cozze e ceci and a stone fruit galette with salted caramel and white chocolate gelato.
We’ll sit outside among the happy plants. I’ll be grateful for the sun and remember why I always have a pack of friselle in the back of the kitchen cabinet. For days like this. Because you never know when the rain will come back.
The following is just a suggestion, really. You could do anything with friselle as long as they’re moistened enough to not break your teeth. I’ve heard of people softening them with wine. Just saying…
friselle (store bought or homemade)
5 ripe tomatoes, chopped into small cubes
2 teaspoons capers (non pareilles)
black olives, chopped
a big glug of extra virgin olive oil
a splash of balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
fresh herbs – oregano or basil or both
Place all the ingredients (except the friselle) in a large bowl. Add the herbs, olives, capers and salt and pepper to taste. If you let it all sit for a bit — even as little as 15 minutes — a nice amount of juice will form on the bottom of the bowl. When you’re almost ready to serve the friselle, arrange them on a serving tray (I think a cheese or cutting board works well). (If you have really big frislle, you can break them into managable pieces before soaking and topping them.)
Spoon some of the tomato juice onto each one; you want them to be soft enough to bite into. You will probably also want to give each friselle (or piece of friselle) a good dose of olive oil. If they’re not soft enough after you’ve used up all the tomato juices, add a small amount of cold water. Remember, though, that they will continue to soften a bit when the topping soaks in. Then spoon the tomato mixture evenly over each frisella. Top with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and some ripped fresh herbs.
Though we are up to our elbows in cookies, and time is running short, there is something more pressing to share. If you’re looking for something to bring to that holiday party that won’t cause heart disease (or be the only dessert left over), this is it.
I first tried this cake a few months ago when my dear friend John brought it over. It bowled me over, but I so often am by whatever John makes. So I (along with everyone else who tried it) asked for the recipe, but dismissed it as just another product of John’s culinary genius.
We had friends over last week, so I decided to try my hand at it. Earlier I’d bought a box of polenta for no apparent reason, so I had the cornmeal. I had everything else I needed: some almond meal and lemons. I had no excuses. But I also had a backup plan.
Despite my reservations about cooking a cake for the first time for guests with a flourless recipe that uses weight instead of volume measurements, it turned out pretty great. So great that I highly, enthusiastically, emphatically recommend it to anyone who needs to impress people. Not because this cake is pretty – it’s not. Not because it’s exotic – I think cornmeal is pretty run of the mill (haha?). But because it’s stunningly delicious. It’s fresh and bright yet moist and substantial. It’s now on the top of my list. No backup necessary.
LEMON POLENTA CAKE
I’m going to copy and paste the recipe the way I got it from John. I’m not sure where he got it from, but I Googled around a bit and it seems to resemble a Nigella Lawson number. It can (and should, I think) be made a day ahead. Makes 1 (gluten-free) cake that feeds about 10.
100 g cornmeal
200 g almond meal
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
2-3 pinches of salt
200 g caster sugar
200 g soft butter
zest of 2 large lemons
125 g icing sugar
juice of 2 large lemons
rum (ad lib)
Preheat oven to 180C/350F degrees. Sift dry ingredients together once, making sure there are no clumps.
In a separate bowl, beat butter & sugar until creamed and light in color. Add eggs and dry ingredients in alternation to the butter-sugar mixture.
Butter and line a spring-form pan. Bake at 180 for 40-45 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix icing sugar and lemon juice for glaze. Heat on the stove for a few minutes and whisk to combine. Add rum when the glaze comes off the heat. Remove cake from oven, puncture its surface (an uncooked spaghetto does the trick) and douse the hot cake with the hot glaze.
Tis the season.
For lots of things: cookies, wrapping paper cuts, glitter-filled greeting cards and drinking too much.
Tis also the season for roasted chestnuts. You may have noticed them at the grocery store and dismissed them as nothing more than the best part of that Nat King Cole song.
But roasted chestnuts are the easiest and arguably the most classic thing to offer guests with their sixth glass of red wine. Even guests who, like me, think that chestnuts are for squirrels. Last night we roasted chestnuts on an open….pan on the stove…and I kept up with the best of them, peeling and biting and chewing and swigging and laughing. They are decidedly addictive. The only thing missing will be Jack Frost nipping at your nose.
Use as many chestnuts as you want here. The average buzzed celebrant can stomach anywhere from 5 to 15. Be sure to serve with red wine. Happy roasting!
Using a sharp knife and taking care to avoid fingers, carve a cross into the side of each chestnut. (Symbolism?!?!?!)
Put all the prepared chestnuts in a large pan over an open flame or on the stove. Cook over high heat until the peels begin to come off a bit and the chestnuts are soft inside. The chestnuts will be a bit blackened.
Take a tea towel and moisten well. Wrap all the chestnuts in the towel and squeeze them – they should crack somewhat, helping the peel come off easily.
Put the chestnuts in a bowl and cover with the tea towel to keep warm. Serve with red wine and little plates on which to discard the shells.
In the few occasions each year I find myself far from my husband, I take full advantage.
Meaning? I watch 60 Minutes and Dateline (contrary to popular belief, Francesco’s kind of television is bad television: America’s Tackiest Weddings is one memorable favorite), drink the occasional Nescafe (which would trigger his gag reflex) and, finally, I make all sorts of unorthodox pasta.
If you’ve been following me for more than a little while, or if you’re lucky enough to know him in real life, you know that Francesco’s pasta standards are high. Almost untenable. He likes simple. He likes classic. He likes spaghetti al pomodoro and tagliatelle al ragù. And though I respect his focus on tradition in the kitchen, sometimes I want a big, messy, creamy, cheesy bowl of pasta. And I’m sure you do, too.
Good thing my dad is the King of the Cream Sauce. In fact, at Thanksgiving (which was our first at home) the gravy was all white wine and shallot and not…gravy.
As I was walking around our local grocery store, a sleeping almost-toddler in my arms, I found a little jar of truffle slices preserved in oil. Yes, please. We picked up a bag of oyster mushrooms for bulk and flavor, and, obviously, some heavy cream. The store was all out of fresh pappardelle so we got lasagna sheets instead, and sliced them into long strands.
The smell of truffles filled the kitchen as the pasta spent a few minutes underwater…and then….heaven.
The pasta with its 5 ingredients takes almost no time to make and less time to eat. It’s heavy and rich – a little goes a long way – and it might make an Italian laugh out loud, but it makes me hungry just thinking about it.
And who knows, maybe I can convince the purist to try a little. If not, that’s OK, too. I’m sure someone will be able to finish it.
CREAMY MUSHROOM AND TRUFFLE PASTA
1 1/2 lbs fresh pasta (pappardelle, tagliatelle or lasagna sliced)
olive oil and a few tablespoons of butter
2 cups oyster mushrooms (approx)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
1 jar truffle salsa (optional)
Put water on to boil for the pasta.
Put the cream and the crushed garlic cloves in a small pot and set to simmer as you prepare the mushrooms. Be careful, as cream is wont to boil over if you don’t watch it. You want the cream to reduce by at least half.
Remove the stalks from the mushrooms and add the stalks to the cream.
In a large pot, heat a little olive oil and a few tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Once melted, add the oyster mushrooms (sans stalks) and stir to coat. Allow to cook until wilted completely – it should take about 10 minutes. Add a few gratings of fresh pepper if you want.
When the water is boiling and the cream has reduced enough, add some salt and throw in the fresh pasta for 2 minutes. Strain the cream and discard the garlic and mushroom stalks. Add the strained cream to the sauteed mushrooms and, if using, add in the truffle salsa and turn off the heat.
Add the cooked pasta directly into the sauce using tongs. Toss with grated Parmesan cheese if desired. Serve immediately.