Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

We often speak as though we must earn the right to enjoy our lives.  The pleasures of being alive are couched in this language of deserving.  It can be as innocuous as thinking I've been working really hard this week, I deserve to buy this thing -- dress, bottle of olive oil, what have you -- or it can be as dangerous as This person has hurt me deeply, (s)he doesn't deserve to be happy.  Who am I to say what I, or anyone else, deserve?  My buying whatever thing isn't really connected to how hard I've worked this week, and someone else's happiness isn't really connected to what they've done to me.  I want to buy X, so I moralize why I should have it -- and I want X person to be unhappy, so I moralize why it should be so.  

No matter the extent to which we are religious or philosophical, we as individuals hold our own moral codes -- and we can see them in action when we talk about what we, and those around us, deserve.  This moralizing becomes tricky when we look at these scenarios another way.  What happens when I want this thing, but I don't have the money or This person was horrible to me, but look at how happy (s)he is.  What about what I deserve?  What about what that person deserves?  I've decided that, for me, it's healthier to stop myself from moralizing, and ask the real questions behind what I deserve.  Is this (buying X or wanting X to be unhappy) worth my money/time/effort?  Do I have the money/time/effort to spend?  If I am completely willing and able, I don't need to couch my decisions, to buy something or put something behind me, in this language of morality.  I make the decision and follow through -- that's it.  

I'm sure you didn't come here for my philosophical musings, and so, I present you with cake.  This is no ordinary cake -- it starts like a bread, with yeast.  It's a traditional pastry from Florence, ubiquitous in bakeries around the time of Carnival, in late February.  It's scented with orange and vanilla, and is an excellent snack with coffee for these sunny, melty days, when the air feels more like spring -- wet and smelling like new grass -- but still holds on to the chill of winter.  This also happens to be the perfect time to buy yourself tulips, because you can, and you are more than completely willing.

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

2 1/2 c (300 grams) all-purpose flour
3/4 ounces (20 grams) fresh yeast dissolved in some warm water (or 7 grams instant dry yeast bloomed in some warm water)
3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) lard (or, less traditional, softened butter)
1/2 c (100 grams) sugar
1 egg plus 2 egg yolks
Zest of 1 orange
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Powdered sugar for dusting (optional)
Powdered bittersweet cocoa for dusting (optional)

In a medium bowl, combine the flour and yeast (along with the water) until you have a dough.  The original recipe didn't specify a specific amount of water, but you can start around 1/2 c.  Cover with a clean towel and place in a warm, dry spot to rise for about one hour or until it has doubled in size.

In another bowl, beat together the lard (I went the less traditional route with butter), sugar, eggs, orange zest, vanilla and salt until well combined.  Add the butter mixture into the yeast dough and beat until combined.  Place the dough in a buttered rectangular tin, cover with a clean towel, and let rise for 2 more hours.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F before the dough has finished rising.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the surface is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Turn onto a wire rack to cool.  Once cooled completely, dust liberally with powdered sugar.
If you are feeling crafty, cut out a mask of the Florentine lily and dust with cocoa powder. 

Baked Sweet Potato Falafel

Friends, it's spring break.  And Chicago says: WOOHOOOO SPRING BREAK TAKE YOUR HOODS AND SCARVES OFF YEAHHHH!!!!  Because can I tell you something gross?  It snowed here last night.  What even.

Also, I can't take credit for the anthropomorphism of Chicago -- my roommate Alexander gets all the snaps for that one.  It's just so fitting that I had to use it.  We've been bro-ing around the apartment this weekend, watching Netflix and eating and pretending that we don't have papers we should be writing (for my fourth year roommates, their BA deadlines are approaching, and I have grant proposals to be working on -- oh well).  And I've been on a cooking spree of epic proportions.  Last night's gem was an awesome apple cake from Luisa of The Wednesday Chef, which was completely devoured before I could even take pictures.  I also made a traditional Italian orange-scented, yeast-based cake called Schiacciata alla Fiorentina yesterday that you'll see a post for soon.  Homemade ricotta cheese and pasta will be turned into lemon herb agnolotti from Kelsey of Happy Yolks tonight for dinner (I'm terribly excited to see how this turns out, it's involved a lot of labor), and I plan to make the super delicious sesame bread I made last spring break again.  And, of course, the star of this post, sweet potato falafel were made and devoured for lunch today.  

Like I said, a cooking spree.  And not soon enough.  I've been so neglectful of my need for cooking this past week, with studying for finals and writing grant applications and generally soaking in the depression that seeps out of all the campus libraries during this week of every quarter.  I came home on Friday after all of my responsibilities were done for the week, and cleansed myself by cleaning all 3 of our apartment's bathrooms with an alarming amount of bleach (but damn, those showers are sparkling now, let me tell you).  These are small victories that snap me out of the too-lazy-to-function zone I can fall into when finals week hits, and remind me that cooking is something integral to my being a well-functioning human.

Baked Sweet Potato Falafel (for 4 people)

2 medium sweet potatoes, cooked, cooled, and peeled (I roasted mine at 425 degrees F for an hour or so until soft)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 small cloves of garlic, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 big handfuls of fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of half a lemon
Scant cup (120g) chickpea flour
Splash of olive oil
Salt and pepper

To be served with:

4 pitas, warmed
2-4 avocados, sliced length-wise
2-3 carrots, peeled
2 handfuls parsley leaves, whole
Juice of half a lemon
Splash of olive oil
2 tablespoons tahini
Couple dashes hot sauce 
Salt and pepper

In a medium bowl, mash the cooked sweet potatoes with cumin, garlic, coriander, fresh cilantro, and lemon juice.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the chickpea flour and mix until completely incorporated.  Let the mixture chill in the fridge for at least an hour.  If the mixture seems too wet (it should be sticky and hold its shape when you mold it), add a little more flour.  The sweet potatoes vary in how much water they contain, and yours may not be the same size as mine were, so use your judgment.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Drizzle a baking sheet with olive oil, then roll heaping tablespoons of the mixture into balls and place on the pan.  The original recipe said it would make 18 falafel, but I ended up with 28 pretty good-sized ones, so it's really up to you what size you make them.  Bake in the middle of the oven for 15-25 minutes, until the falafel are firm and the bottoms are golden brown.

Meanwhile, prep the sides.  Warm the pitas in the oven during the last couple minutes of cooking.  In a medium bowl, use a vegetable peeler to create thin ribbons of carrot.  Toss the carrot ribbons with parsley (I left the leaves whole, just pull them off the stems), a squeeze of lemon juice (around a quarter of the lemon), a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper.  Slice the avocado and set aside.  In another bowl, whisk together the tahini, the remaining lemon juice, salt and pepper, and enough water to create a sauce.  

When the falafel are done, cut the pitas in half and stuff them with the carrot-parsley salad, avocado, and a couple falafel, then top with the tahini sauce.  

Cannellini Bean Pasta

I felt incredibly inspired to cook and photograph today.  Even with the fleeting promise of spring buried under yet another snowfall, and the illusion that I am on top of my work confronted with the reality of finals week, there was so much gentle, beautiful sunlight this afternoon.  I couldn't wait to be barefoot in the living room, styling my food, taking pictures.  As I walked home, splashing through slush and bowing under branches laden with snow, the light streamed through the trees and warmed my face, lifted like a sunflower toward the sky.   

I set my groceries on the counter and went to work, fixing dinner.  I felt the weight of the chef's knife in my hand and the warm, tomato-infused steam against my face.  There was nothing else, just me and my hands and my meal coming to life in the late sun.  

The tall windows in our living room captured the soft edges of the afternoon light and scattered them across the floor, across the tables and chairs, across my arms and hands.  My world was still and quiet, and bright.  I was so at peace. 

Cannellini Bean Pasta

1 pound pasta (I used the gemelli shape, but it doesn't really matter)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, sliced in half moons
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
Palmful of capers
1 15 ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
~1 c ground tomatoes
1-2 tablespoons tomato paste
~1/2 c water
1 bunch beet greens and stems, washed and sliced
Shaved parmesan cheese, to taste

Put a large pot of water over high heat and bring to a boil.  Meanwhile, in a medium sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add in the sliced onion with salt and pepper to taste.  Cook for 5-10 minutes until softened and beginning to caramelize.  Toss in the beans and capers, cooking for ~2 minutes until they've begun to incorporate with the soft onion, then add in the tomatoes, tomato paste, and water.  Simmer until the sauce has begun to thicken and reduce, and the onions are beginning to melt.

Once the water has come to a boil and you've begun to cook the pasta, fold the beet greens and stems into the tomato mixture.  Stir frequently to wilt down the greens and incorporate them into the sauce.  With the pasta cooked and drained, add it back into the hot pot and cover with the bean mixture.  Serve with shards of parmesan cheese (unless you want this to be vegan or are not keen on cheese).  

Pudla with Cauliflower and Thai Chili Chutney

This too shall pass.

Until then, Ghirardelli chocolate squares are on sale at CVS.  So there's that.

Llevame lejos desde aquí.

Pudla with Cauliflower and Thai Chili Chutney
(Chickpea Flour Crepes)
from The Kitchn

1 head cauliflower, de-stemmed
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon whole caraway seeds
~1/4 c olive oil, divided
1 1/3 c chickpea flour
1 c water, plus more
1 1/2 c fresh parsley leaves, divided
1/4 c fresh mint leaves
1 1/2 inches fresh ginger, divided
1 tablespoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
2 teaspoons lemon juice, divided
3 Thai chilis
3 medium garlic cloves
1-2 plum tomatoes

In a medium bowl, whisk together the chickpea flour, water, 3/4 c parsley, mint, 1 inch ginger (grated), 2 teaspoons salt, chili powder, and 1 teaspoon lemon juice.  The original recipe called for 1 c water, but I ended up adding at least another 1/2 c to my batter (Maybe because my flour is old?  I have no idea.) -- just use your judgment.  If you think it's going to be too thick to spread easily in a thin layer in a hot pan, you should add more water.  Let this mixture sit for at least a half hour, or up to 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Slice the cauliflower into bite-sized pieces, then toss in a bowl with a couple tablespoons olive oil, cumin, caraway seeds, and a teaspoon of salt.  Roast in a sheet pan until softened inside, crispy and browned on the outside.

Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes into a small dice.  Let them marinate in a bowl with the other teaspoon of lemon juice while you finish preparing the rest of the dish.  In a food processor, blend the remaining 3/4 c parsley, 1/2 inch ginger, chilis, and garlic into a paste.  Set aside in a bowl for serving

Once your batter has sat for long enough and your cauliflower is almost done cooking, heat a nonstick pan coated with cooking spray (or canola oil) over high heat.  Once it's screaming hot, reduce the heat to medium-high and add around 1/3 c of batter into the pan.  Tilt it around immediately to distribute the batter in a thin, even layer.  Cook for 30 seconds to a minute on the first side, then flip and repeat on the other side.

To serve, you can rip the crepes like naan bread and use it to pick up the veggies, or use the veggies to fill the crepes and roll them up.  Either way, they're really satisfying.

Fig and Date Swirled Cookies

Hey kids, I'm sorry that I've been quiet for a while.  I've been feeling particularly apathetic lately about expending effort on activities other than eating and learning Spanish; so, while I've been making all sorts of food and going on all sorts of adventures, I haven't been motivated to write about any of it.

Last night, though, I made a glorious molasses bundt cake with my amazingly lovely crew sister Suzanne that I want to share soon.  Also, I recently decided to return to pescetarianism - I've been going strong for a week now, huzzah - but don't panic, it's only for a little while, there is still bacon in my future.  For all the happiness (and sleep, my goodness) that has filled me up these past couple months, I've still had those anxious, overwhelming days where I don't feel like I have any control at all, where I just want to curl up under my blankets and magically be older, settled and peaceful and strong.  I suppose those moments won't ever leave me, no matter how well I am.  

During when I was pescetarian a couple years ago, I found that removing meat from my diet inspired me to be more creative and thoughtful about the food I make.  Cooking is so therapeutic for me because it is simultaneously a creative exercise, an assertion of control over my existence, and nourishment for both my mind and body.  It's really easy to make something delicious with meat (baaaacon); but it's an entirely different thing to compose something that's hearty and interesting mostly from vegetables (I can't afford to eat fish everyday, let's be real).  I enjoy that challenge.  It makes cooking even more of a creative exercise, which is something I've really been craving.  My coursework this quarter isn't terribly stimulating, and I've been hammering away at the same project at work for a couple weeks now.  I've run into a wall with Spanish where I know enough vocabulary and constructions to try conversing with my friends, but I don't have enough experience to be intelligible, so I end up having to be corrected most of the time.  Of course that's a crucial part of learning a new language, but I feel like I'm accumulating all of this knowledge without being able to use it.  It's frustrating because I just want to be proficient already.  This is all quite unreasonable of course, but I'm impatient.  

I can't complain for too long, however, when I remember that I have such wonderful people who care about me, and cookies.  Mostly cookies.

Fig and Date Swirled Cookies
adapted from Gourmet via Lottie + Doof

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 c sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg yolk
1 3/4 c all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 c soft dried dates
1 c soft dried figs
1 tablespoon honey
1/3 c water

Whisk together flour, allspice, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.  In another bowl, cream together the butter, cream cheese, and sugar for 3 minutes until pale and fluffy.  Beat in the vanilla and egg yolk, then add the flour mixture.  Once the flour has just become incorporated, split the dough evenly into two pieces and wrap each one separately in plastic.  Chill for an hour.

Meanwhile, puree the dates, figs, honey, and water in a food processor until smooth.

Roll out one half of the dough at a time into a 9x7 inch rectangle, 1/3 inch thick or so, between two sheets of either wax or parchment paper.  Remove the top layer of wax/parchment paper, then spread half of the fig-date filling over the dough, leaving a 1/4 inch border on the sides.  Starting on one of the long edges, use the bottom layer of paper to help you roll the dough into a log (like you're making cinnamon buns).  If you want, you can coat the outside of the log in Muscovado sugar at this point.  Either freeze or refrigerate it until solid (~4 hours in the fridge).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Cut the roll crosswise into 1/3 inch-thick slices and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Bake for 15-17 minutes until golden brown, then cool slightly before devouring.    

Ginger Gelato

Friends, this was inevitable.  I love ginger.  See the gingerbread yogurt scone post for an ode to my favorite aromatic.  I can't get enough.  It's been really hard to pace myself with two pints of this gelato in the freezer, so, I basically haven't been pacing myself.  Let's be honest, there are no longer two pints in the freezer.  

Last night, I was asked to write a short blurb on my trip to France for La Traversée de Paris in October.  Apparently the University is sponsoring a Paris-themed dinner at the dining halls on Wednesday to honor us, which will be great publicity for UChicago Crew and a free meal for me, so I don't hate it.  Why this is happening three months later, I have no idea.  But reflecting on the trip was an interesting exercise for me, not only because I had to write articulately and captivatingly about it, but also because I'm an incredibly different person now than I was then.  Well, maybe not different at the core, but in a wildly different place in my life, which of course changes my perspective on what happened then.  I've included the blurb below for you to read.  What I wound up writing sounds so rosy when I read it back to myself now.  In many ways, though, that weekend was as incredibly beautiful and breathtaking for me as I've described.  All that I wrote, all the emotions I tried to evoke in the piece, were and still are real; but that trip was also terribly painful for me, a layer of the memories I didn't include below.  I think it's better this way, not only because I'm assuming it's going to be printed somewhere for the dining event, but also because this is the way I want to remember it.  The very fact that I was able to recount my experience this way - bringing all the wonderful memories to the surface and stripping away the sad ones - demonstrates the kind of power we all have to shape and redefine our personal histories.

Forty seven hours. How can you breathe in such a city as Paris, in such a fleeting moment, without being consumed by the desire to grasp every piece of it at once?

From the very first jolt of wheels hitting tarmac at Charles de Gaulle, we were swept up and set down on the banks of the Marne. There, our incredibly gracious hosts at the Aviron Marne & Joinville Rowing Club welcomed us for their biennial celebration of the lasting friendships forged by rowing, friendships that unite both people and cities. On the eve of La Traversée de Paris, we raced, ate, and danced with our fellow French rowers well into the night; and in the black hours of the early morning, we awoke to carry our wooden shell down to the waters of the Seine. As five Chicago students in a floating parade of a thousand costumed rowers, we shared thirty four kilometers of downtown Paris from a rower’s singular perspective; a perspective, which reveals that the Eiffel Tower, Cathédrale Notre Dame, Musée d’Orsay, and all the trappings of Paris are bound by a watery thread that is stronger than both cobblestone and concrete.

Even as we laced through the streets on foot in the late afternoon light, the river wound round us, anchored us. We could still see its outline in the dark of that last, quiet night, when we stood at the foot of La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre, at the highest point of the city. Paris, colored by warm street lights and purple shadows, sprawled out before us. Although our hours in this city had passed so suddenly, we had grasped and breathed in as much of Paris as the river could hold. And that was enough.

Ginger Gelato

1 c heavy cream
2 c whole milk
4 large egg yolks
2/3 c sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger, plus 1/2 teaspoon
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger, plus 1 tablespoon
1/4 c crystallized ginger, chopped and frozen

In a medium saucepan heat cream, milk, and 1 tablespoon fresh ginger to 170 degrees F, stirring frequently.  Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat the yolks, sugar, and 1 teaspoon ground ginger until the mixture has thickened and turned pale yellow.  Carefully stream in a 1/2 c or so of the hot cream-milk mixture, whisking constantly, to warm up the yolks without cooking them (technical term: you're tempering the yolks here).  Pour the yolk mixture back into the pot, then heat slowly to 185 degrees F, stirring frequently.  

Strain the custard through a fine mesh strainer into a medium bowl, to remove any tiny bits of cooked yolk (you'll end up straining out the fresh ginger, but fear not, there will be more).  Whisk in the 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger and 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, then cool completely in the refrigerator for a few hours.  

Churn the custard in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions (~20 minutes).  When it's almost finished churning, add in the frozen pieces of crystallized ginger, being sure to separate the chunks that have stuck together.  Freeze until hard, or not, if you can't wait.  That's cool.  I hear you.

Mexican Wedding Cookies

Otherwise known as Russian Tea Cakes, Mexican Wedding Cakes, snowballs, or nutty butter cookies blanketed with copious amounts of powdered sugar.  Oftentimes they're shaped as crescent moons or meatballs and then rolled in sugar; but, since I was baking with Tor, we made them in the style of a similar-tasting Greek cookie, pressing them into thumbprints and dusting them with the powdered sugar instead.  The recipe comes from a neat book on Texas-style cooking that Jimmy brought for me during crew preseason, from which I'll also definitely be making Puerco en Salsa de Comino (Pork in Cumin Sauce) at some point because it sounds super yummy.

Tor and I made a big batch of these in early January when Chicago was hit by the Polar Vortex that transformed the city into an icy Chiberian wind tunnel.  We had a cold day off from class that Monday, so naturally we watched the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy in extended edition, ate lots of dessert, and serenaded each other with verses from Let It Go and Do You Want to Build a Snowman? off the Frozen soundtrack.  Because what else do nerds do on an unexpected day off from school?

Speaking of days off from school, I played hooky on Friday (mwahaha) and made an extra-long weekend for myself (taking advantage of MLK Day on Monday) to visit Jimmy in DC.  It was amazing and lovely and eeeep I'm so happy.  SparkNotes version of our adventures, since I don't want to make y'all too jealous of our little vacation: wanderings through downtown DC (featuring Embassy Row and the Lincoln Memorial), the Inter-American Development Bank, the West Wing (!!!), Georgetown's campus, and Takoma Park; lots of yummy food (read: lots of yummy bacon, and delicious French food); and some shenanigans with two of his adorable little cousins.  Of course, the precious days rushed by us, no matter how thoughtfully we cherished them, and were gone again; but they were wonderful, and so worth it.  

Mexican Wedding Cookies

1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons powdered sugar, plus ~1/2 c for dusting on the baked cookies
1 c all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 c walnuts or pecans

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Cream together the butter and 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar.  Sift the flour into the butter mixture, stir to combine, then add in the vanilla.  Pulse the nuts in a food processor until ground but granular, being sure to stop before creating nut butter.  Fold the nuts into the mixture.  Roll tablespoonfuls of dough into balls, then place on the prepared baking sheet and press with your thumb to create an indentation.  Bake 25-30 minutes until set and slightly golden brown.

Dust a clean surface with a layer of powdered sugar (I just laid out some tinfoil on the counter for easy cleanup).  Just when the cookies have come out of the oven, place them onto the layer of powdered sugar and dust plenty more sugar over the top with a sifter.  I dare you to try to eat these without getting powdered sugar all over your shirt and/or face.  

Protip: you can't.  Just embrace it.