Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake

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When we fly to Paris from New York, always on an overnight flight, we have a routine. We pack lightly so that we don’t have to check in our luggage. After we get through security at the airport, we buy a bottle of water to share on the plane. Once we are on the plane and we take off, I watch all the episodes of Friends that are available (they are still so funny and so much fun to watch). We eat our dinner (always the Hindu Vegetarian meal option – it’s by far the best airplane food on United Economy), drink some wine, take something to help my nerves (I am a very nervous flyer), put on ear plugs and eye masks and try to sleep.DSC05282

After a few hours of fitful sleep, the cabin lights come on and we are all awakened for “breakfast.” We used to dread the soggy, microwaved sorry excuse for a croissant that filled the cabin with a smell of fake butter and warm plastic. So a long time ago, we added something to our routine: at the New York airport, we visit Starbucks and buy two slices of their lemon pound cake. As everyone grudgingly wakes up and the flight attendants pass out those god forsaken croissants, we politely decline and sink our teeth into the delicate crumb of the lemon pound cake, savoring its lemony glaze.

This recipe for a lemon poppy seed cake is an even better, homemade version of that Starbucks lemon cake. It’s made with olive oil so it’s less rich (and better for you), and the glaze is thinner and more subtle. The poppy seeds add a crunch and a tiny bit of a nutty flavor. It makes a wonderful breakfast treat no matter where in the world you are or traveling to.DSC05046

Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake – Slightly adapted from the New York Times

Ingredients:

1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour
zest of 2 lemons
1 cup sugar
½ cup buttermilk
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 large eggs
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
⅔ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
4 teaspoons lemon juice

Directions:

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch loaf pan and line with parchment paper, leaving extra paper on both sides to help you lift cake out of the pan.

In a bowl, combine lemon zest and sugar and rub with your fingers until it looks like wet sand. Whisk in buttermilk, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, eggs, and olive oil. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and poppy seeds. Add dry ingredients into the batter and mix until combined, being careful not to overmix.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean, about 1 hour. Let cool in pan until warm to the touch, then lift out of the pan onto a baking rack set over a rimmed baking sheet.

Whisk together 4 teaspoons lemon and the confectioners’ sugar. Use a pastry brush to spread glaze evenly over top and sides of cake. Cool completely before slicing.

Frozen Lemon Squares with Olive Oil and Sea Salt

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The first dessert I ever made from scratch were lemon squares. The recipe came from my very first cookbook, The Absolute Beginner’s Cookbook, Revised 3rd Edition: Or How Long Do I Cook a 3 Minute Egg?. I had never really had lemon squares (or lemon bars) before. It’s not a dessert I grew up with. But I was instantly hooked. I loved the shortbread crust and the intensely tart and sweet filling. Over the years I made that recipe a lot but as my tastes became a little more sophisticated, I started to find the lemon squares too rich and cloying for me. So I stopped making them.dsc05308

Then, about a year and a half ago, the amazing Melissa Clark of the New York Times posted a recipe and a video where she made lemon squares (or bars, as she called them), using both butter and olive oil and topping them with a touch of flaky sea salt. Steve was instantly smitten and he has been asking for them ever since. We finally got around to making them a couple of weeks ago. They are, of course, fantastic. The olive oil adds some adult notes to the curd filling and the salt kicks everything up a few notches. The only problem was that these had to be eaten fairly soon, and even for us, that would have been too much dessert. So, we though we’d try and freeze them, thinking that it wouldn’t work because the filling with ooze once it thawed.

We were so, so wrong. One day later, I reached into the freezer drawer and gently pressed on the top of one of the lemon squares. The filling wasn’t frozen at all. It was still soft. All that sugar and fat prevented it from freezing. So, I pulled two lemon squares out of the freezer and we both took a bite. That was a seminal moment in our lives…as far as lemon squares are concerned. The (not so) frozen treats were so much better than their merely refrigerated versions that I doubt we will ever eat them any other way. The cold temperature tempers the sweetness and the filling has a little more structure to it. The shortbread crust is not too hard to bite into. The whole thing is irresistible.dsc05305

Frozen Lemon Squares with Olive Oil and Sea Salt – Very slightly adapted from the New York Times

Ingredients:

FOR THE CRUST:
1 ¼ cups/155 grams all-purpose flour
¼ cup/50 grams granulated sugar
3 tablespoons/25 grams confectioners’ sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
10 tablespoons/142 grams cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

FOR THE CURD FILLING:
4 to 6 lemons
1 ½ cups/300 grams sugar
2 large eggs plus 3 yolks
1 ½ teaspoons/5 grams cornstarch
Pinch of fine sea salt
4 tablespoons/57 grams butter
¼ cup/60 milliliters fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Confectioners’ sugar
Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling

Directions:

Heat oven to 325 degrees and line a 9-by-9-inch baking pan with enough parchment to hang over two of the sides (to be used as handles later to lift the bars out of the pan).

To make the shortbread base, pulse together the flour, granulated sugar, confectioners’ sugar, lemon zest and salt in a food processor, or whisk together in a large bowl. Add butter and pulse (or use two knives or your fingers) to cut the butter into the flour until a crumbly dough forms. Press dough into prepared pan and bake until shortbread is pale golden all over, 30 to 35 minutes.

While the shortbread is baking, prepare the lemon curd: Grate 1/2 tablespoon zest from lemons and set aside. Squeeze lemons to yield 3/4 cup juice.

In a small saucepan, whisk together lemon juice, sugar, eggs and yolks, cornstarch and fine sea salt over medium heat until boiling and thickened, 2 to 5 minutes. Make sure mixture comes to a boil or the cornstarch won’t activate. But once it boils do not cook for longer than 1 minute or you risk the curd thinning out again. Remove from heat and strain into a bowl. Whisk in butter, olive oil and lemon zest.

When the shortbread is ready, take it out of the oven and carefully pour the lemon curd onto the shortbread base; return the pan to the oven. Bake until topping is just set, 10 to 15 minutes more. Allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until cold before cutting into bars.

At this point they are ready to eat. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and flaky sea salt right before serving. However, do yourself a favor and put them all in the freezer in one layer (before sprinkling confenctioner’s sugar and salt and them) and leave them there for 24 hours. At that point, you can serve them straight from the freezer. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar and flaky sea salt and enjoy.

Charlie Bird’s Farro Salad

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There is a time of day when Provincetown becomes magical. As the sun sets behind the town’s houses and gradually changes colors, it illuminates the harbor. The water, dotted with little boats, becomes a palate of teal blue and tangerine orange, while the sky goes from bubblegum pink to ruby red before letting darkness take over. When you are standing on the deck of a restaurant or a bar, or walking along the cool sand, and watching this live painting take shape in front of your eyes, you understand why so many painters and other artists have flocked to this little enclave for decades. Resting at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown has beckoned to everyone from Eugene O’Neill to Jackson Pollock to Michael Cunningham and they have found inspiration here to produce some of the best work.DSC05240

For decades, Provincetown has been called an “artist colony”, which for a long time also served as a veiled euphemism for what Ptown (as it’s also know) really is: a gay town. This is a place where gay men and women have felt safe and welcome even before they did so anywhere else in the country. It’s a town where couples of same sex (as well as couples of opposite sex) can display affection publicly without any reproach or fear of being attacked. Where drag queens are a constant sight on the main street that runs along the town and families with children will be eating lunch next to a group of leather-clad bears like it’s an everyday occurrence.

Provincetown is one of my favorite places on earth. That’s where we spent a week this August, as our last summer vacation before the beginning of the fall and work taking over. It was, as always, a wonderfully relaxing, yet exciting six days, doing nothing but walking around, eating and drinking, and enjoying the beauty of the town (as well as dancing for two hours to nothing by Madonna music at the famous Boat Slip tea dance on a Wednesday afternoon).
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It’s never easy to say goodbye to summer. It makes me understand why people pack up and move to Los Angeles or Florida. But I try to remind myself that even after Labor Day is gone, we’ll have weeks of beautiful weather that’s even better than some of the unbearably hot days in August. And to stay in a summer mood, we’ll eat “summery” foods, like this farro salad that I first tasted when our friend Greg made it while we were on Fire Island (another “artist colony”) for a weekend earlier this summer. I loved it so much, that we’ve already had it at least four more times in the last couple of months. It’s incredibly flavorful and the chewy farro and crunchy pistachios give it a substance that makes it sufficient as a dinner main dish. Take advantage of the late season basil and make this today. I plan to make it year round, substituting what’s out of season with something that is. And when I eat it, I will think of next summer when I’ll be back at Provincetown, watching the sunset.DSC05258

Charlie Bird’s Farro Salad – Slightly adapted from the New York Times

Note: For a vegan version, omit the parmesan cheese or substitute it with vegan cheese or some nutritional yeast.

Ingredients:

1 cup farro
1 cup apple cider or apple juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
2 bay leaves
8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
70 grams Parmesan cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler (about 1/2 cup)
70 grams chopped pistachio nuts (about 1/2 cup)
2 cups arugula leaves
1 cup basil leaves, torn
1 cup mint leaves
¾ cup halved cherry or grape tomatoes
⅓ cup thinly sliced radish
Maldon or other flaky sea salt, for finishing

Directions:

In a medium saucepan, bring farro, apple cider, salt, bay leaves and 2 cups water to a simmer. Simmer until farro is tender, about 30 minutes. If all the liquid evaporates before the farro is done, add more water. Let farro cool, then discard bay leaves.

In a salad bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Add arugula, herbs, tomatoes, and radish and toss well. Add cheese and pistachio nuts and toss lightly. Sprinkle flaky salt to taste and serve immediately.

Beer-Baked White Beans with Bacon and Rosemary

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White beans are one of my favorite things to eat. Whether they are Cannellini or Navy or Great Northern, I love them all. Up to now, I’ve always made them the simple way my mom always has. I soak them overnight and then boil them gently in water, adding carrot and potato chunks during the last 20 minutes of cooking. Steve and I have always loved eating big bowlfuls of them, generously drizzled with olive oil and with ample amounts of freshly squeezed lemon juice. We both love the broth that the beans make when they cook, as it mixes with the olive oil, lemon juice and salt in our bowls. We always drink it all up after finishing our beans. When I told my mom, who always serves the cooked beans drained from their broth, that we love to drink it she was surprised. “But it smells like farts!” she said with a disgust in her voice. DSC05293

But now I have a new favorite way to cook beans: baking them in beer. I’ve had this recipe for beer-baked beans bookmarked for a long time but I didn’t get around to trying it out until a couple of weeks ago. The beans cook in the oven in a covered pot, along with onions and garlic that have been sautéed in bacon fat, some rosemary, mustard, and honey. The result is a pot of beans that are cooked beautifully and with amazing complexity in flavor. There’s the bacon fat of course, which adds saltiness and plenty of umami, but also the mustard and honey that counterbalance each other (much like in honey mustard), and the rosemary to give it an herbal kick. Topping the bowl of beans with the crisp pieces of bacon that were used to render the bacon fat for the onions and garlic is the final touch that rounds everything out in both flavor and texture. And this bean broth is irresistible (it definitely smells nothing like farts mom!), the result of beer, chicken stock, and bacon coming together. DSC05299

Beer-Baked White Beans with Bacon and Rosemary – Slightly adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes 4-6 servings

Ingredients:

6 slices bacon, cut crosswise into 1-inch pieces
1 yellow onion, diced small
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1-2 sprigs rosemary
1 pound dried white beans, such as Great Northern or cannellini, picked over, soaked overnight, and drained
2 bottles Belgian-style white ale (12 ounces each), such as Blue Moon or Hoegaarden
1 3/4 cups chicken broth
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350º F. In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid, cook bacon over medium heat until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp and browned, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Increase heat to medium-high; add onion and garlic to pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is translucent, about 4 minutes. Add mustard and honey; stir and cook 1 minute. Add rosemary, beans, beer, and broth; season with salt and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil; cover and transfer to oven.

Bake until beans are tender and most of liquid is absorbed, about 1½-2 hours. Season to taste with vinegar, salt, and pepper. To serve, stir in reserved cooked bacon.

 

Corpse Reviver No. 2

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At the New York Botanical Garden this week, a corpse flower that is ten years in the making has finally begun to bloom. Scientifically known as amorphophallus titanum (translated as “giant shapeless phallus” – stop giggling!), the corpse flower is fascinating. It can reach over 3 meters in height and when it blooms it looks magnificent, with a single, giant spathe (petal) that is green on the outside and deep burgundy red on the inside, wrapped around a core (spadix) that looks like an enormous loaf of french bread or a huge, misshapen penis. The flower takes 7-10 years before it blooms for the first time and when it does, it remains open for only 24-48 hours. Even more amazingly, the blooming flower smells like rotting animal flesh (hence its name), in order to attract carrion beetles and flies that help it pollinate.

So, in celebration of the New York Botanical Garden’s corpse flower blooming as I write this, pull out the cocktail shaker and make yourself a Corpse Reviver No. 2. I don’t know what happened to No. 1 (did it ironically die?) but this drink is everything I love in a cocktail. Bracingly sour, not too strong but strong enough to give you a pleasant buzz after just one, and very refreshing. Cheers!

Corpse Reviver No. 2

Makes one drink

Ingredients:

1 oz. gin
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. Cocchi Americano or Lillet Blanc
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 dash absinthe or ouzo or Piccard

Directions:

Put all ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake until outside of shaker is frosty 15-20 seconds. Strain in chilled martini or coupe glass and garnish with sprig of thyme.

Blueberry Lemon Muffins

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One of the most common questions people ask me when I tell them that I love to cook is “what type of food do you like to cook the most?” I am always flummoxed by the question. There were times in the past when I would have been easily able to answer it, like the time in my life when I was obsessed with Chinese food or the period when I explored French cooking. But the truth is, I no longer have a favorite type of food or cuisine that I enjoy the most. I usually choose what to make based on a few simple guidelines. Sometimes, I try a new recipe because I am intrigued by its ingredients or because it uses a method I’ve not used before. Other times, I cook or bake something that I am craving, like passion fruit ice cream because I really want its mysterious tropical flavor, or my mom’s pastitsio because I miss the flavors of my childhood.DSC05179

But most often, I really like to cook with what’s in season. After all, there’s no better time for squash soup than the fall and no better time for peach pie braided bread than late summer. When it comes to berries, fortunately the season lasts a long time. Though it’s supposed to be over by early summer, we still have delicious blueberries and raspberries for sale. And nothing goes better with blueberries than lemon. These muffins are perfect for breakfast. They are mildly sweet and a little tart. The addition of cornmeal makes them hearty and less cake-like. And of course, there are the blueberries. You could make these muffins with frozen blueberries any time of year, but take advantage of the fresh ones out now. They make the muffins so much better.DSC05187

Blueberry Lemon Muffins

Makes 12 muffins

Ingredients:

1½ cups all purpose flour
½ cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
1 lemon
1 cup milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon vanilla
turbinado sugar, optional; for topping

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 425°F. Lightly grease the cups of a standard 12-cup muffin pan. Or line the cups with muffin papers.

Whisk together the flours, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add the blueberries and gently mix with a spoon. This will prevent the blueberries from sinking to the bottom of the muffins.

Place the sugar in a large bowl and using a microplane, zest the lemon over the sugar. Use your fingers to rub the zest into the sugar until combined. Add milk, oil, eggs, lemon juice, and vanilla and whisk together until thoroughly combined.

Dump the dry ingredients over the wet ingredients. Gently fold together with a spatula. Careful not to overmix. The batter will be lumpy with a few streaks of flour left.

Fill the cups of the muffin pan three-quarters full. Sprinkle tops with turbinado sugar, if desired.

Bake the muffins for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of one of the center muffins comes out clean. Remove them from the oven, and as soon as you can handle them turn them out of the pan onto a rack to cool.

Spaghetti with Tuna and Capers

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When I was in college, my friend Todd and I both played the guitar and sang a little (not very well, but we were young and didn’t care). So we decided to try and take our act public. We booked a night at the student-run coffeeshop in the basement of one of the dorms and started practicing. This was the early 90s so our repertoire included songs by Pearl Jam, Lenny Kravitz, and Sting, among others. About a week before our debut, I got a phone call from the coffeeshop. They were going to print flyers to advertise the night around campus and needed to know the name of our band.

We didn’t have one.

In a panic, I told them I’d call them right back. Since this was way before the age of cell phones, I couldn’t reach Todd so I realized I had to take matters into my own hands. I picked up my pocket dictionary, opened it at a random page and pointed to a random word. Then I did it again. I decided that those two words would be our band name.

We were going to be called Mystic Rain. DSC05152

A few hours later I saw Todd at the cafeteria and I told him about the phone call. When I got to the point where I announced our new band name, Todd’s face collapsed. Here was my grunge-loving, REM-worshiping, Nirvana-fanatic friend Todd being told he was now part of a band called Mystic Rain. When I saw his reaction I realized what I’d done. We ran out of there and called the coffeeshop and thankfully, they hadn’t printed the flyers yet. When they finally did, we were billed simply as Todd and Marios.

Randomness isn’t always kind. But for every Mystic Rain disaster there’s a spaghetti with tuna and capers success. I made this dish for the first time many years ago when I was living alone and had to eat something quickly. I picked the random ingredients I could find in my kitchen and came up with this dish. I’ve made it countless times since then, for many friends, all of whom have loved it. It’s simple, but the combination of mustard, tuna, capers, and onions is a real hit. Much to the horror of my Italian friend Simona, for whom I made this once, I like to grate Parmesan cheese on top before eating it. Apparently, Italians never put cheese on seafood pasta, but call me a rebel, I love it.DSC05173

Spaghetti with Tuna and Capers

Makes 2 servings

Ingredients:

1/2 lb (250g) spaghetti
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small onion or three large shallots, chopped
2 5oz (142g) cans of tuna (preferably solid white albacore), drained
2 tablespoons wholegrain dijon mustard
2 tablespoons capers in brine, drained
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Cook spaghetti in a large pot in well-salted water until al dente. Before draining the pasta, reserve 1/4 cup of the pasta water.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, cook the onions or shallots in the 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium high heat until just starting to turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the mustard and stir to combine. Add the tuna (breaking up any big pieces with a spatula), capers, and reserved pasta water and stir to combine. Bring to a low simmer and keep warm.

Drain spaghetti and return to pot. Scrape the tuna and caper mixture over the spaghetti and using kitchen tongs, toss well.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.