Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bagel Bust

These days, it's not so often that I find myself home alone. Last summer I had a whole lot of home-alone "me" time, what with the not-having-a-job thing and Jonathan constantly shuttling back and forth between Boston and Cambridge. I filled leisurely mornings with jaunts in the sunshine, yoga, and hours-long breakfasts of fresh fruit and blog-reading. Afternoons usually brought more sun-seeking, cooking, reading, writing, recipe-dreaming, and other fun things that are best accomplished when home alone.

Now though, at-home time is scarce, not to mention home-alone time. And it's not that I prefer being home alone to coming home to a certain somebody who is willing to keep me company and do the dishes, but there are certain things that I miss about my lazy mornings and quiet, sunny afternoons.

And of course, when I do get my alone time, it arrives in bulk: a whole week alone while Jonathan heads to California, for instance. Although a whole week of apartment silence may be a bit excessive, I try to make the most of it, taking the opportunity to bake bread and read and do all those other things that for me, at least, are inspired by solitude.

When Jonathan was camping in California a few weeks ago, I did my share (and more!) of baking and reading, enjoying those aspects of aloneness while simultaneously enjoying the anticipation of his return home. He came home via the red eye early on Sunday morning, so Saturday night seemed exciting, and bedtime couldn't come soon enough.

I couldn't go to bed, though, without making something special for him to have upon arrival. Besides, there is something wonderful about being alone and making something that you know will soon be shared. I spent a bit of time thinking about Sunday breakfast possibilities, wanting something that wasn't too decadent, yet still indicative of a good, solid culinary effort. Scrambled eggs and pancakes make a fine breakfast indeed, but that's the fare of any Sunday morning, and this one seemed special.

Luckily, the perfect idea came to mind just in time to start making it: bagels. As anybody who knows a real bagel can attest, there are no good (store-bought) bagels in Boston. At least none that I know of. Brueggers is the standard "good" bagel around here, and the closest outpost is in Brookline. Besides, I had been meaning to try my hand at a homemade version for quite some time, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Jonathan loves anything with yeast (beverages included), and it would make the perfect simple meal for those post-red eye mornings (during which you never quite feel like yourself).

And speaking of those yeasty beverages, we happened to have a good amount (think pounds' worth) of barley malt syrup lying around, which, so I'm told, is the secret ingredient to authentic bagels. I didn't quite have time to do an overnight proof, so I settled for an old Daring Bakers recipe that could be completed in one evening.

I mixed, I kneaded, I set aside. I deflated, I shaped, I waited. And finally, I boiled, topped, and baked. The bagels came out of the oven with a lacquered and seed-y appeal. I used a mix of toppings I had in the pantry - poppy seeds, caraway, sesame - and despite some slight shaping imperfections, they looked lovely. Like real bagels, in fact.

I had high hopes for them, of course, but looks can be deceiving. Although Jonathan seemed to enjoy them, they lacked the texture of a good bagel. Instead of providing the chewy outer jacket that they're known for, the crusts of these bagels were timid and soft. I'm not sure what caused this, exactly, although it may have something to do with the boiling time or the boiling liquid. I saw some recipes that called for adding baking soda to the boiling water and some that didn't, and went without it. Maybe this was the culprit? I did add a hearty dose of malt to the water (which explains why it appears that I deep-fried the bagels in the photo above) for flavor, but it seemed not to have done my crusts any favors.

In any case, I think this warrants another bagel attempt. I can't say I wasn't disappointed with my bagel bust, but at least Jonathan was home to commiserate.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Just a Bit of Fluff

Has it really been this long since I've last posted on Red Ramekin? I swear it feels like it's only been a few days. Maybe a week...or two.

The irony of it all is that I've done an inordinate amount of cooking lately, even despite work and all of the other things that stand between me and the kitchen. I always wonder what readers think about the relationship between blogged and non-blogged foods of authors. When I read baking-centric blogs, for instance, I can't help but wonder whether their authors are eating panna cotta and ganache tartelettes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And while I'm quite sure they're not, I want to assure you all that, if you had similar worries you shouldn't be concerned: even when I'm not blogging, I'm surely cooking, and most definitely eating, as well.

[on an unrelated note, spring?]

But what of all this behind-the-screens cooking? Well, for starters, Jonathan and I had a small catering gig last weekend. For the second year in a row, we auctioned off a "dinner for four, served at the winner's house" at the Economics department Christmas charity auction. The dinner was held last weekend, and was a great success. A few broken tart shells (victims of the bumpy trip from apartment to car) were the only casualties. We served a fancier-than-normal meal of spring salad with asparagus, eggs, and chive dressing; homemade whole-wheat pasta with garlic and basil infused olive oil and kalamata olive puree; cornish game hens with a muscat grape and apricot compote; and, for dessert, strawberry-balsamic tartelettes with homemade fennel ice cream and a drizzle of balsamic caramel.

I wish I could share some photos, but I was in full-on catering mode all weekend, and used my free moments to soak up some almost-spring sunshine. Since I didn't have time to do any prep during the week, Saturday was a sprint to the finish (think Top Chef, minus the abundance of Glad food-storage containers). My favorite part of the meal was the fennel ice cream. To make it, I more or less followed David Lebovitz's recipe for anise ice cream, substituting fennel seeds for the anise seeds, decreasing the sugar by a bit, and increasing the honey just a smidge. I made two whole quarts of this stuff (one was a test batch, I swear!), and I'm still not sick of it.

[no ice cream, but how about some tulips?]
In addition to the main components of the big meal, I also made some rather whimsical cookies to nibble on after dinner. I love the idea of mignardise - a sweet bite after the meal to draw it out just a little bit longer. I also love the flavor combination of s'mores, and try to reinvent it any chance I get. This time around, it was s'mores sandwich cookies, made with two wafery, homemade graham crackers, a silky slick of homemade marshmallow creme, and a hearty dunk in some bittersweet ganache. It's no fennel ice cream, but I've never heard anybody complain about marshmallow and chocolate.

So, today's post, in case you were starting to wonder, isn't about compotes or kalamata purees, but about marshmallow fluff (I can call it marshmallow creme, but who am I kidding?).

Like many New England natives, I have a soft spot for Fluff (it's indigenous to Massachusetts, after all). Sure, it's antithetical to almost all food principles by which I cook and eat, but how can you not appreciate something called Fluff? When I was growing up, there was always a plastic tub of it stowed away in the back of the pantry, ready to serve in the event of a s'more emergency (graham cracker, fluff, chocolate chips, microwave for 10 seconds, STAT).

And in the winter, when Fluff migrated to the front of the pantry, we'd use hot chocolate spoons to scoop a snowy dollop and plop the whole thing into our mugs. We'd wait to start slurping until the heat of the cocoa made the Fluff pop up from the spoon, then slowly melt into a gooey blanket of marshmallow. Life seems pretty good when you're drinking hot cocoa with Fluff.

Unfortunately, when life handed me 5 cups of homemade fluff last weekend, it was no longer hot cocoa season. And although ritualistic Fluff consumption in my house never extended to the Fluffernutter (peanut butter and fluff sandwich, which was deemed an unsuitable lunch option by my parents), this seemed like a pretty good way to use up some last weekend's excess.

Of course, I'm not sure that almond butter and homemade fluff on whole-grain bread really counts as a "fluffernutter." A "yuppernutter", perhaps? But it sounds like something that grown-ups could eat. And in fact, it is. Wispy vanilla sweetness and nutty richness make a pretty good team, whether homemade or from a plastic tub; tucked into the plastic lunchboxes of yore or eaten counter-side as a reward for finishing the dishes before bed.

I don't think Fluff - homemade or not - will likely earn a permanent spot in my overcrowded pantry, but for a once-every-so-often treat, it's not so bad. And when made at home, with shiny clouds of meringue and syrup puffing up and out of the stand-mixer, it creates quite the spectacle. I used this recipe from Martha Stewart, so I won't bother to copy it out here. But I do encourage you, whether to satisfy your nostalgia or your curiosity, to give it a try.