Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sticky business

If I had a husband and four children, perhaps then I could have a cherry tree in my back yard. Though I'm doing just fine without a full house right now, this crossed my mind as I pitted about 3 cups of cherries for a cobbler Friday afternoon. About 1 cup in, I was already tired of it and wondered who could possibly do this with cherries by the tree full.

Then I thought of the only cherry tree owner I know personally, a woman named Kitty. She's my friend Dana's mother-in-law and she has a husband and four children — a household equipped with enough pairs of hands to pit bushels of cherries. In my imagination, the cherry tree (perhaps even trees?) and the four children are all part of the same life plan, because how else could you handle so much fruit? Now that all those kids are grown, I hope she has neighbors who don't mind getting sticky.

I've never seen this tree because it's in Pennsylvania. But I have eaten its fruit, coincidentally, almost exactly five years ago now. It was the weekend of the wedding where Dana became Kitty's daughter-in-law. And Andrew's wife, of course. You know how I said weddings demand cake? That's not completely true. This wedding was an all-pie affair, which made it a thrill dessert-wise. It was thrilling in lots of other teary and moving ways, too, but one thing I loved about the reception was that instead of one tall vanilla tower of cake, a whole table was dedicated to all kinds of fruit pies. Really: pie after pie after pie.

And get this: the pies were on tiers Dana's dad built. Picture one of those wire cupcake trees but with nooks large enough to hold pie plates. And because he's a dad who loves nothing more than functionality, the welded stand was set on caster wheels. Mobile pies! Which makes me think of the pie trailer down the street... whoa. Did Cedric foresee Austin's food trailer boom??

The rehearsal dinner the night before was topped off with pie, too. Cobbler, actually, but lattice-topped, which to me is just about enough work to earn the title of pie. The cobblers were made with cherries from Kitty's own back yard, brought all the way to New Mexico. (Dana, remind me: Did she bring the cherries in and do the baking in Ruidoso, or did she bring the pies already baked? Also, how? Either way, I'm amazed.) Not only was it delicious, but entirely personal and memorable.

The other thought I had at my kitchen table was that people who have cherry trees probably also own cherry pitters. I don't. And let me tell you, it's slow going without one. Especially with the method I chose: a paperclip and a trick I learned on Youtube. I ended up with cherry juice running from my hands all the way down my arms and dripping — cascading — off my elbows and onto the apron I was soon thankful I had tied on.

So all this to say that when I sat down in my now juice-stained apron with a bag of cherries, I wasn't planning for my mind to wander to that wedding weekend in the mountains. But I'm pretty sure I can't eat a cherry now without thinking of lovely friends and all the fun we had. Dana and Andrew, happy anniversary. And thanks for getting married at the height of cherry season!

Friday, May 14, 2010


I had a little thought today. Part of what I love about baking is that it's so often tied to a Big Occasion. Weddings, birthdays, graduations, Mothers Day — they require cakes. The moment demands it.

I am not a great froster. But congratulazioni anyway!

My thought was this: Whipping up lemon cupcakes and an owl-themed cake for a graduation party is fun — it beats the heck out of washing the dishes to come — but it's also kitchen time that's like active anticipation. Cracking eggs and zesting lemons become ways of proclaiming, my friend is smart and accomplished and we're going to celebrate her with all this sugar! Also: moms are terrific!

The other magical part of dessert-making happens when there is no big to-do in sight. When it's a weekday and we want something sweet.

So this one time, Melissa and I were making broccoli slaw with buttermilk dressing and something else I can't remember now for dinner, and she said this thing. She said, "Hey, you have leftover buttermilk. And sugar and butter. Why don't we make a cake for dessert?"

And then, get this: we did!

Now, I know there's plenty of time after work for cakes to be baked and enjoyed soon after. But even so, I always plan out my baking. I know in the morning what I'll be doing later and look forward to it all day. I never simply have the thought of making a cake, then have ingredients combined in the next five minutes. Doing so was a revelation. This is just one more part of Melissa's diploma-worthy genius.

Chocolate Bouchons

A Thomas Keller recipe from the packaging of my bouchon mold

As delicious as the weekend's lemon desserts were, these chocolate bouchons — which means "corks" in French — are up there with the most amazing brownies I've had the joy of putting in my mouth. I have this special doodad for baking them, but I'm sure a small muffin tin would work just as well.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 sticks unsalted butter, melted and just slightly warm
6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
Powdered sugar for sprinkling or frosting for writing

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter your tin and set aside.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder and salt into a bowl; set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together the eggs and sugar on medium speed for about three minutes or until very pale in color. Mix in the vanilla. On low speed, add about one-third of the dry ingredients then one-third of the butter and continue alternating with the remaining flour and butter. Add the chocolate chips and mix to combine.

If using a bouchon mold, put it on a baking sheet. Fill each well nearly full — within an eighth of an inch from the top. Place in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, turning midway. When the tops look shiny and set like a brownie, test one cake with a toothpick. It should come out clean but not dry (there might be some melted chocolate from the chips).

Transfer the bouchons to a cooling rack. After a couple of minutes, invert the mold or tin and let the bouchons release, then turn them right side up to cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Around town: In the garden

This weekend was yet another that's made me happy to live in such an active city. Austin felt lively with an arts fair on Sixth Street, a May Day rally at the capitol, an accordion competition and the opening of Yellowbike's new and totally impressive headquarters.

Another instance of this: a few Saturdays back, the calendar was filled with one of many spring 10Ks, a crawfish jamboree, a psychedelic music festival and a tough choice between Yeasayer or Vampire Weekend — this place is great! Mind you, I'm not a runner and I don't listen to much psych rock, but I wholeheartedly appreciate the scope of interesting things happening around here seemingly at all times.

Part of this past weekend's fun was dropping by the Blackshear Neighborhood Garden, which was one of 11 stops on a citywide community garden tour. It's on a lot across the street from Nathan and Caitlin's house. Along with some other friends who live nearby, they got the garden going by securing a grant from the city so folks in the neighborhood have a place to pitch in and grow vegetables together.

The space has really come along thanks to their hard work; neat rows of broccoli plants sit right at the entrance and narrow pathways meander through the beds of garlic, kale, artichokes and tomatoes. Not only that, but they've got the community-building part of this project covered, too. While other folks weeded and shoveled dirt, I helped squeeze lemons for lemonade and chatted with a neighbor named Fay, who I'd guess is in her 70s. She pointed out the corner house as her own, saying it's also where she was born. She told me about the gravel roads the neighborhood had until East Austin's streets were paved in the 1960s. She said her grandfather once owned this lot that's now a garden and that Zavala Elementary, just a few blocks down, became an integrated school once her children enrolled.

I loved talking to someone who knew this city before it was an epicenter for fests. I kept thinking, I need a neighbor like this, someone to tell me the backstory of my own street's small houses and the people who have made homes there. Our street could use a grandmotherly figure whose conversation flows easily from Austin's civil rights history to a secret she learned for keeping her couch cushions clean.

Fennel: awkward to photograph

Just before we left, my friend Willard plucked some broccoli — the greenest I've ever seen! — and a few of the plant's leaves, which he said could be cooked like collards or any other sturdy greens. He also dug up a fennel bulb for me to take home. Here's where we take this garden's community cultivation online: help me figure out how to prepare this thing! I don't think I've eaten fennel before, and I certainly haven't cooked any myself. Anybody out there have a suggestion? As it stands, I'm choosing between these...

• Ina Garten's tomato fennel salad

• Pizzeria Bianco's fennel and apple salad with cider vinaigrette

• Molly Wizenberg's celery root and apple salad with hazelnut vinaigrette Although A) this sounds too wintry and B) hazelnut oil would be absent in my version. As my barista buddy likes to say, I'm not what you'd call a powerful consumer.

• Another Molly Wizenberg recipe, this one shaved fennel salad with mushrooms and Parmesan. Pluses for this one: I have all the ingredients except mushrooms, and it comes with one heck of a Julia/Alice pedigree.

What to do?

P.S. More bounty: bonus Yellowbike photos just because I was so dazzled by the place!

card catalogue of parts

wall of forks