Key Lime Pie

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During my last trip back home, I was talking about something with my mom (I don’t recall exactly what), when she said to me “I remember that during your first year in America, you kept telling me that America isn’t that great and that you’d definitely prefer to return back home.”

I do remember saying something to that extent when I returned back home for my first Christmas break in college. I had been in the U.S. for four months. They were great months, full of experiences and discoveries, new and tenuous friendships, and an unfamiliar sense of freedom. But everything was still an “other” to me. Or, more likely, I was an “other” to them. I didn’t quite belong the way I still belonged back home.

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I probably said the same thing to her during my next visit back home, over my first summer break. But I was being, by then, only partly honest with her. I had been bitten by the bug, the American bug, the one of opportunity and might, of huge malls and amusement parks, of college parties and courses on post-modernism, of baby back ribs and key lime pie. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her. So, I probably repeated those same words, not wanting to hurt her feelings.

It wasn’t until the following summer, when “they” became “we,” that she knew she had lost me. I no longer referred to Americans in the third person. It wasn’t they who liked to hang out in malls all day, it was weThey didn’t debate the limits of free speech, we did. It took until my third summer break for my mom to directly confront me with it. “You’re never coming back, are you?” she asked me one day. “No,” I said guiltily “I’m not.” I had crossed over. The key lime pie had won.DSC03690Key Lime Pie – Adapted from Epicurious

Note: I know everyone says that no dessert is more American than apple pie, but I’m here to tell you that they are wrong. Key lime pie is the national dessert of this country. Or at least it should be. You’ll find a lot of recipes for it online, with all kinds of complex steps and weird variations. Ignore them. Key lime pie should be simple. It must use sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks. It must be made with freshly squeezed key lime or regular lime juice, never from a bottle. The crust must be made with graham crackers. And your should never, ever serve it with whipped cream on top.

Ingredients:

For crust:
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs from 9 (2 1/4-inch by 4 3/4-inch) crackers
2 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For filling:
2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
8 large egg yolks
1¼ cup key lime juice (or regular lime juice)

Directions:

Make crust: Preheat oven to 350°F.

Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter in a bowl with a fork until combined well, then press mixture evenly onto bottom and up side of a 9.5-inch glass pie plate.

Bake crust in middle of oven 10 minutes and cool in pie plate on a rack. Leave oven on.

Make filling and bake pie: Whisk together condensed milk and yolks in a bowl until combined well. Add juice and whisk until combined well (mixture will thicken slightly).

Pour filling into crust and bake in middle of oven 20 minutes. Cool pie completely on rack (filling will set as it cools), then chill, covered, at least 8 hours.

Cauliflower Parmesan

DSC03825 Damn you Melissa Clark and your beguiling ways in the kitchen! I mean, come on! How do you expect us to watch you making this cauliflower parmesan, with such ease and with your trademark witty humor and not expect us to rush out and buy the necessary ingredients to make it at home? Such seducing tactics in front of a camera and in a kitchen should be illegal.DSC03816 Seriously, though. I never thought that such a thing could even exist. I’ve had eggplant parmesan and chicken parmesan and I like both of them but they often tend to be too greasy and too heavy. One of those meals that you think you definitely want to eat but that you regret the moment you finish the last bite. But cauliflower? It’s perfect. It doesn’t absorb much oil, unlike eggplant that sucks up every last drop when you fry it, and it’s not chicken, that could end up rubbery or tough. Cauliflower retains its own crispy snap but it’s enveloped in crunchy breadcrumbs that provide that brilliant counterpoint to the cheese and tomato sauce that makes a parmesan dish so irresistible. And you, Melissa Clark? You’ve won. I’m already drooling over those lemon bars with olive oil and sea salt that you have once again bewitched me with.DSC03818Cauliflower Parmesan – Adapted from the New York Times

Note: If you don’t have time or the inclination to make your own tomato sauce, use your favorite brand. Avoid anything that has too many strong flavors, like olives or artichokes. Just a simple marinara sauce, with tomatoes and basil is perfect. You will need the equivalent of 5 cups, so about 40 oz.

Ingredients:

Sauce:
2 28oz cans of crushed or diced tomatoes
¼ cup olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and lightly smashed with side of knife
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
2 large sprigs of basil
2-3 large sprigs of fresh oregano (optional)
4 tablespoons butter

Cauliflower:
½ cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 cups panko or plain unseasoned bread crumbs
Kosher salt, as needed
Black pepper, as needed
1 medium head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into 2-inch florets
Olive oil, for frying
1 cup fresh, finely grated Parmesan, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano
½ pound fresh mozzarella, torn into bite-size pieces

Directions:

First make the sauce. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and stir occasionally until garlic is golden brown. Add the rest of the sauce ingredients, bring to a brisk simmer and cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Discard onion, garlic and herb sprigs. Taste the sauce and season it with salt to your liking. Make ahead: Sauce can be prepared up to three days ahead and kept in the fridge, covered.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place flour, eggs and panko into three wide, shallow bowls. Season each generously with salt and pepper. Be really generous with the salt and pepper. Only a tiny bit will end up on the cauliflower. Dip a cauliflower piece first in flour, then eggs, then coat with panko. Repeat with remaining cauliflower. Place each piece of breaded cauliflower on a large baking sheet.

Fill a large skillet with about 1/2-inch olive oil. Place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, fry cauliflower in batches, turning halfway through, until golden brown. Transfer fried cauliflower pieces to a paper towel-lined baking sheet. Spoon a thin layer of sauce over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle one-third of the grated Parmesan over sauce. Scatter half of the cauliflower over the Parmesan and top with half the mozzarella pieces. Top with half the remaining sauce, sprinkle with another third of the Parmesan and repeat layering, ending with a final layer of sauce and Parmesan.

Transfer pan to oven and bake uncovered until cheese is has melted and casserole is bubbling, about 40 minutes. Let cool a few minutes before serving.

Mocha Mousse with Szechuan Peppercorns

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Valentine’s day has got me thinking about the nature of love. I’ve always scoffed at the suggestion of love as a natural force like gravity (it was an eye-rolling moment for me in “Interstellar”). But then again, isn’t love the result of chemicals produced and exchanged between our brains’ neurons? Aren’t there hormones involved, and sweat and saliva (among other things)? These are very much real things that require the consumption (and creation) of energy, albeit in small quantities. So, who am I to say that love isn’t a natural force? It certainly is a force of nature.

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Or maybe love is a parasite, that infects humans in order to ensure its continued existence.

There is a fungus called ophiocordyceps unilateralis that propagates itself by infecting carpenter ants with its spores. The spores burrow their way into the ants’ brains and take over their behavior (which is why the fungus is also known as the “zombie fungus”). They force the ant to climb up a leaf and bite at the underside of the leaf, unable to unlock their jaw and therefore unable to move or walk away. The ants eventually die, still gripping the leaf. Soon, from the back of the ant’s head grows a long stalk that begins to release spores that land on the ants walking around below, thus ensuring the next cycle of zombie ants.

Creepy, you say? Nothing to do with beautiful love as we know it? To you I say: have you ever seen the irrational, crazy things love makes people do? I wouldn’t throw out the parasite theory just yet.

DSC03646But for you romantics out there (and I count myself amongst you), here is a third possibility. Maybe love is just a lovely mystery, something greater than the sum of its parts.I like this idea of love as a peculiar process that enriches and transforms us. A little like the way in which when air is introduced into slimy, pale egg whites, it turns them into dazzlingly white, ethereal clouds, ready to be baked into crispy meringues, transformed into angel food cake, or folded into melted chocolate to make a silky smooth chocolate mousse.

Mocha Mousse with Sichuan Peppercorns – Slightly adapted from Epicurious.com

Note: If you can’t find sichuan (or szechuan) peppercorns you can simply omit them. But they do add a nice, subtle zing to the mousse.

Makes 8 servings

Ingredients:

3/4 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons ground coffee beans
12 ounces 70%-cacao bittersweet chocolate, chopped
9 large egg whites
3 tablespoons sugar

Directions:

Coarsley grind peppercorns in mortar and pestle or using a bowl and back of a spoon.

Bring cream, coffee, and peppercorns to a simmer in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and let steep, covered, 30 minutes. Strain cream through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids.

Melt chocolate in a large bowl. Stir in cream and mix with spoon until completely combined. Cool slightly.

Beat egg whites with sugar using an electric mixer until they just hold stiff peaks. Fold egg whites into chocolate mixture gently but thoroughly (no white streaks remaining).

Spoon mousse into 4oz-5oz serving glasses (it will be runny; it will firm up once chilled). Cover and chill at least 3 hours before serving. Mousse can be prepared ahead and kept in the fridge covered for up to 2 days.

Sweet Potato, Kohlrabi, and Peanut Stew

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Over the last couple of years, our diet has slowly shifted away from meat. At first, our meals featured chicken a lot more than red meat. At some point, I found myself ordering fish from Fresh Direct and Good Eggs more and more often, until I cooked some kind of seafood at least three times a week. And in the last few months, I have found myself making a completely vegetarian meal for us at least once a week, sometimes twice. It helps that we have access to great vegetables from both local farmers (thank you Good Eggs and farmers’ markets) and far away ones (thank you Whole Foods and Fresh Direct).

Our go-to vegetarian meal has been my mom’s lentil recipe (sometimes with the addition of a little smoked fish, so…vegetarianish). But I have also cooked beans a few times, boiled in water with potatoes and carrots, that we ate with lots of olive oil and lemon juice (my favorite bean dish as a kid). So for Christmas, I gave Steve a 5lb box of five different kinds of dried beans from Rancho Gordo (isn’t it such a romantic gift? <insert fart joke here>). I’ve been cooking beans once a week since then, experimenting with different ways of preparing them.

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Today’s recipe does not have beens in it, but it’s vegetarian. In fact, it’s vegan. It’s the result of needing to use up a bunch of veggies I bought in preparation for the giant snowstorm that never came last week. I had leeks, kohlrabi, and sweet potatoes. Not an obvious combination of ingredients. For some reason, however, I remembered a stew I used to make many years ago, that was based on a West African dish made with peanuts. I no longer had that recipe but I figured I could make one up myself. And I did. The result was a thick, rich, vegetarian stew that was perfect for a cold winter night. And a nice addition to our list of vegetarian meals.

DSC03745Sweet Potato, Kohlrabi, and Peanut Stew

Makes 5-6 servings

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 leeks, dark green parts discarded, white parts sliced thinly crosswise
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 tablespoon paprika
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5 cups vegetable stock
2 medium sized kohlrabi, peeled and cut into 1″ cubes
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1″ cubes
1 14oz can of dice tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup natural-style (no sugar added) peanut butter (smooth or chunky)
1/2 cup basmati or jasmine rice
hot sauce (optional)

Directions:

Place peanut butter in a medium-sized heat-proof bowl and set aside.

In a large heavy pot, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add leeks and sauté stirring frequently until soft, about 5 minutes. Add cinnamon, paprika, and garlic. Continue to cook, stirring constantly for about 30-45 seconds. Add stock, kohlrabi, potato, tomatoes with their juices, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium-low, cover pot and cook for 10 minutes.

Uncover pot and add some of the hot liquid in the bowl with the peanut butter. Use a spoon or whisk to help the peanut butter dissolve. Pour dissolved peanut butter back into pot and add rice. Raise heat to medium-high and bring back to a low boil. Lower heat to medium-low and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, or until rice and potatoes are fully cooked (kohlrabi will still have a slight crunch). Adjust salt if necessary. Remove and discard bay leaves.

Serve immediately, topped with your favorite hot sauce.

Clementine and Almond Syrup Cake

DSC02324The warnings started early last weekend and escalated in severity with every few hours. “Snowstorm predicted for next week.” “Snow blizzard expected.” “Brace for three feet of snow!” “Snowmaggedon!” “Snowpocalypse!!” “It’s the end of the world!!!” Ok, I made that last one up. In all seriousness, it sounded like we were due for a whopper of a snowstorm, so on Sunday morning, I decided to go to the grocery store in our neighborhood and get some basics, like milk and fruit. I walked through the sliding doors of the store and I started laughing. You’d think that the world really was ending. People were piling up enough food in their carts to feed their family for a couple of weeks. I guess it’s better to be prepared than sorry.
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I bought just a few things for us (I have enough food in the house, at all times, to feed a small army), including some beautiful tangerines. They (and all their cousins, like mandarines, clementines, and tangelos) are probably my favorite citrus fruit. There is something beguiling about them, a seductive streak to their sweet tartness with that tinge of bitterness. And they are so easy to carry and peel, giving bananas a real run for the most convenient fruit snack.

This recipe comes from Jerusalem: A Cookbook, which remains one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. It’s a cake soaked in clementine syrup. I love syrup cakes. They are really common in Middle Eastern cuisines, so they are familiar to me from my childhood.

Oh, and that historic blizzard that would bury us in snow? As you probably already know, it never materialized here in New York city. We barely got eight inches of snow. There’s still time this winter, though, for the world to end in a blizzard of snow.DSC02328Clementine and Almond Syrup Cake – Slightly adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook

Ingredients:

14 tablespoons (200 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
scant 2 cups (380 g) sugar, separated
grated zest and juice of 4 clementines
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
2½ cups (280 g) ground almonds
5 large eggs, beaten
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon (100 g) all-purpose flour
pinch of salt

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Lightly grease a 9½-inch springform pan with butter and line the bottom with parchment paper (if you can, line the sides as well).

In a mixer, beat the butter, 1½ cups (300 g) of the sugar, and both zests on low speed just until everything is well combined. Don’t beat it too much or incorporate a lot of air in it. Add half the ground almonds and continue mixing until combined.

With the mixer running, add the eggs one at a time, stopping the scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the remaining ground almonds, the flour, and the salt and but until completely smooth.

Pour the batter into the pan and level it with an offset spatula. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out just a little bit moist.

When the cake is still in the oven and almost done, place the remaining sugar and the citrus juices in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. As soon as the syrup boils, remove it from the heat.

As soon as you take the cake out of the oven, brush it with the boiling syrup (use all the syrup), making sure that all the syrup is soaked in. L

Thai-style Squash Soup

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You know you married the right person when, on a Friday night, he turns to you and says “This weekend, we should go get beef bones to make stock.”

And you know you live in the right neighborhood, when on Saturday you can just walk 10 minutes to the local butcher shop, where there are two butchers breaking down whole cuts of beef and pork, and you ask one of them for beef bones, and she, young, probably in her late 20s, her blond hair tied in a pony tail, puts down her knife, wipes her hands on her blood smeared apron, disappears in the walk-in refrigerator and comes back carrying a big box filled with 3-foot long beef bones. “How much do you want? I can cut them up for you,” she says.

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Sure, our apartment smelled like roast beef for days afterwards but in the end we were left with a beautiful beef stock, with a delicate meaty flavor, surprising really, given the heady, almost overwhelming smell of cooked meat the bones gave off while they were roasting in the oven, before we simmered them away in a large pot filled with water, carrots, onions, celery, bay leaves, and peppercorns. The stock is now in the freezer, in one-cup portions, ready to be used for any recipe that calls for stock.

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Like today’s Thai-style soup. The squash season is almost at an end, but you can still find butternut squash in the stores. This is an easy recipe to make, similar to the roasted butternut and coconut soup that I’ve posted here before, but without the coconut and with a much stronger Thai character, thanks to the lime juice, fish sauce, rice vinegar, and thai chili pepper used in it. Use any stock you have in hand (chicken, beef, or vegetable). Or go find some bones and make your own. It’s worth it.

DSC03667Thai-style Squash Soup

Ingredients:

6 cups peeled, cubed butternut squash, cut into 1½”-2″ cubes (from about one 2½ lbs squash)
1½ tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups stock (chicken, beef, or vegetable)
1½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon water
½ tablespoon rice vinegar
½ tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 small garlic clove pressed in garlic press or grated on microplane zester
1 small Thai red chili (red bird’s eye chili), thinly sliced

Directions:

Preheat oven to 425° F. In a large bowl, toss together squash, oil, salt, and pepper. Spread on large baking sheet and roast in oven for about 45-50 minutes, until squash is cooked through and edges are dark brown. Let squash cool slightly.

In a blender, add roasted squash and all of the remaining ingredients. Blend until completely combined and smooth. Pour in a medium sized pot and warm over medium heat. Serve in bowls on its own, or topped with a dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream.

Apple Cider Salted Caramels

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Happy new year everyone. I took some time off from the blog during the holidays because I was traveling quite a lot and wasn’t really up to writing up stories and recipes while packing and unpacking my suitcase.

The last three weeks included six different flights, two continents, three countries, and a lot of eating. One of those flights was probably the scariest one I’ve had so far. We were flying from Athens to Paris when the captain came on to tell us there was some turbulence over the Alps, “nothing major,” he said. Five minutes later, the plane is swaying left and right, up and down, like a leaf caught in a windstorm. My hands sweated so much from my anxiety, that the iPad I had been gripping was crusted over with salt from dried sweat.

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But there were also fun times and good food. There were the Christmas coffee cakes that Steve’s sister (and their mom before her) always makes. They are variations on Kulich, a yeasted sweet bread, studded with raisins and topped with a sugar glaze and colorful decorative sugar. Sliced, toasted, and slathered with butter, they make the perfect holiday breakfast. There were also tons of chocolates from Puyricard that we ate with our friends in Pressac, France, where we spent 6 days living in a house in the middle of a small farm with nothing around it but fields and animals. We celebrated New Year’s eve there, during which we ate fresh oysters, foie gras, and roast veal and cauliflower. The following week, in Cyprus, I had kolokotes for breakfast, traditional pumpkin turnovers that are filled with sweet pumpkin, raisins, and bulgur wheat. And my mom made koupepia, stuffed grape leaves. They were so good, I had them for three meals in a row. And I got to eat loukoumades, traditional fried dough balls that are soaked in honey syrup.

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Now I’m back and getting ready for the next 2-3 months of cold weather and meager offerings at the market and the stores. This is the season for making things that have no season, using ingredients that are either available year-round or are preserved from the spring or summer. It’s also a good time to discover something new, that maybe you’ve never used before. Like this boiled cider that I bought from King Arthur Flour and which I’ve used in everything from oatmeal to quick breads to salad dressings, and these amazing caramels that I took with us on our trips over the holidays (Steve’s family loved them. Our French friends were not as thrilled with them, given their dislike for cinnamon in desserts). The boiled cider has the viscosity of maple syrup and is wonderfully sweet and tangy. The caramels I made with it are soft and slightly chewy, with a distinct apple flavor, sort of like a caramel apple, but smaller and less messy.

DSC03604Apple Cider Salted Caramels – Slightly adapted from King Arthur Flour

Ingredients:

2 cups (1 pint) heavy cream or whipping cream
1 cup light corn syrup
2 cups sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup boiled cider
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg or allspice
flaky sea salt (like Maldon) for top

Directions:

Lightly grease an 8″ x 8″ baking pan and line with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on opposite sides.

Combine the cream, corn syrup, sugar, butter, and boiled cider in a heavy-bottom, deep saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce to medium-high heat and cook, without stirring, until the mixture reaches 244°F-245°F on a candy thermometer, 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your particular stove. (If you prefer hard caramels, boil to 248°F.)

Remove the pan from the heat; stir in the salt and spices.

Pour the hot mixture into the prepared pan. Let it cool completely. If you’re making soft caramels, put pan in the fridge for 20-25 minutes before cutting into 1″ squares. If you are making hard caramels, you can cut them without refrigerating them first.

Wrap caramels in parchment paper or wax paper. Place one caramel in the center of each square; wrap the opposite edges of the paper around the caramel and twist the exposed edges to close.