2012: The year of the macaroon?

I’ve never really been one to indulge in year-end reflections.  Nor have I been one to establish New Year resolutions.  Perhaps it’s because my life for the past eight years has been timed with the school year and therefore the future was always to some degree pre-established.  2011 changed all that.  But 2012 will bring me back.

At the end of June I finished my Master’s degree, stopped thinking about a PhD and walked away from academia and into the professional bakery.  I spent three months working the night shift baking bread, and three months working the early morning shift preparing basic pastries, fillings and quickbreads.  The motivation was my passion for baking; the objective was to learn.  The learning experience has been both memorable and invaluable. But as it turns out, it’s my passion for learning that I’ll be pursuing into the New Year.

2012 will bring me back into the realm of higher education, this time as staff rather than a student.  I’m stepping out of the bakery and back into the university.  But the baking will continue and piecurious will remain relevant.  The underlying premise of piecurious is the exploration of life through baking—the documentation of life events through the manipulation of ingredients to create baked goods that are indulgent or rejuvenating, comforting or celebratory, simple or complex.  Because life is all of these things and what we eat—what we consume and allow to become a part of us—often both reflects and highlights life.

Take the macaroon, for instance.

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Aligning Atoms: The Daring Bakers’ December Sourdough Challenge

There have been many moments in my life where I have felt defeated.  Where the goals I set for myself seemed unattainable, extending far beyond my reach.  If I was feeling exceptionally self-absorbed, I sometimes felt like I was being punished, like all the atoms that make up the universe were aligning to prevent me from doing or being what I wanted. Other times I wondered if perhaps I was being ungrateful—that I wanted or expected too much.

And then there have been moments where the exact opposite has been true.  Where I have felt that everything I have wanted has been handed to me as if on a silver platter.  During these moments my chest tightens over my inability to fully express my gratitude to the universe.  I marvel at how everything—timing, people, places, events—have come together in such a way to make my goals attainable. I suddenly forget all of my hard work and dedication—those moments of defeat and the sacrifices made—instead perceiving myself as being unduly privileged and fortunate.

I find myself now in one of these latter moments.

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Your life in a pie: Where Women Cook’s Pieography Contest

Where Women Cook, one of my sources of food writing inspiration, has launched a contest asking you to tell the story of your life through an original pie recipe accompanied by a short 300 word essay.  I knew immediately what my ‘pie’ would be–a winter soup inspired curried carrot tart that I’ve made often but never really developed sufficiently into a recipe.  Needless to say, I immediately took to the kitchen, musing at how this tart, in more ways than I could explain in 300 words, reflects my search for stability in spite of my ever-fluctuating interests.  You’ll notice it’s a bit of a variation of my original introductory post, but hey, while life is always changing, the past remains the same.  So here’s what I cooked up for my entry in the Where Women Cook Pieography Contest:

Some people start out knowing exactly what they want from life.  Others start out as a blank slate, slowly discovering their niche in the world.  Then there are people like me, who start out thinking they know what they want only to undergo numerous, often unpredictable transformations, each one taking them right back to the beginning again.  As a headstrong music-loving teenager, I was convinced music production was my life’s calling.  But upon finishing college, my introspective and philosophical side carried me off to university instead. An undergraduate degree later and I was certain research and teaching was my raison d’être.  Fast-forward through a Master’s Degree and I’m now ready to pursue my true passion—one that developed inconspicuously during my time in school as a destressing activity—a passion for baking.  Now, I spend the early hours of the morning working in a professional bakery and my afternoons spent experimenting at home, all while trying to dodge the alluring call of culinary school.

For those of us seemingly caught in a perpetual identity crisis, change is the only constant; instability is a norm.  The good news is we’re continuous learners and often boast a diverse skill set, making us adaptable and flexible, not unlike this curried carrot tart, which suffers its own identity crisis.

Indian-inspired in flavor but French-inspired in presentation, this sweet but savory curried carrot tart is boldly unique, breaking from tradition but finding stability in a fragrant toasted cashew crust.  The spongy filling, warmly spiced and enriched with coconut milk and honey, offers up comfort, while the buttery nut-infused crust gives it a decadent edge.  Serve it in small wedges as an appetizer, with a side of greens as a main, or with a dollop of Greek yogurt as a savory dessert.  It’s flexible—ready for any occasion.

Curried Carrot Tart
(makes one 9″ tart or pie)

For the crust:
5 oz (approx. 1 cup) all-purpose flour
5 oz (1 cup) cashews
6.5 oz (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1.5 oz (1/4 cup) water, chilled

For the filling:
15 oz (2 cups) carrot purée (*see directions below)
4 oz (1/2 cup) coconut milk
3 large eggs
1 tbsp honey
2 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cumin
1 tsp sea salt

*To make the carrot purée:
In a lightly oiled roasting pan, add one small diced onion, two cloves of unpeeled garlic, and 5-6 medium carrots.  Drizzle with vegetable oil and roast at 375F for 45 minutes or until the carrots are soft.  Squeeze the roasted garlic from their peels and place in the bowl of a food processor along with the roasted carrots and onion.  Purée until smooth.  Measure out 15 oz (or 2 cups) of purée for the pie filling.  Any remaining purée makes a delicious snack!

To make the filling:
In the bowl of a food processor, mix together the carrot purée, eggs, coconut milk, honey, salt and spices.  Refrigerate until ready to be poured into the tart pan.

To make the crust:
First, measure out the butter and cut into 1″ cubes.  Place in a bowl and chill in the freezer or fridge until ready to use. Measure out the water and chill in the freezer or fridge as well (depending on when you plan to use the ingredients–don’t freeze the water!)  Preheat the oven to 375F and place 5 oz (or 1 cup) of cashews on a baking sheet.  Toast until fragrant, 5-10 minutes.  Remove from oven and grind in a food processor until fine.  In a bowl, mix together the ground cashews and flour.   Chill the bowl in the freezer for 15 minutes, or until the flour is no longer warm from the cashews.  When ready to make the crust, process the butter and flour in a food processor until a mealy dough forms–the flour should come together when you squeeze it, but otherwise remain grainy.  Add the water until the flour comes together into a dough.  Press into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap.  Chill in the fridge for 10-15 minutes if the butter is melting or the dough feels sticky.  Lightly oil a 9″ tart or pie pan.  Roll the chilled dough out between two pieces of plastic wrap until it is about 1/8″ thick.  Place into the pan and press down with your fingers.  This dough is highly forgiving and makes more than enough for the pan.  If you tear the dough, just press it together or use the extra pieces to fix the tear.  Save the extra dough if you’d like by freezing it.  Refrigerate the lined tart pan until ready to use.

To bake the tart:

Pre-heat the oven to 400F.  Place the tart on a baking tray to catch run-off from the crust.  If using a pie pan this is unnecessary.  Bake for 10 minutes at 400F, turning down the oven to 325F and baking for another 45-55 minutes until the filling is set.  It should feel springy to the touch and not jiggly when you shake the pan.

Serve hot, warm, or cold.  Or all three, depending on the day, time or year.

The gift of giving… cookies

One of the ways working in a professional bakery differs from baking at home is that you do not get to choose what it is you bake.  If you’re a lowly prep baker, like myself, you simply prepare the recipes you’re given.  You’re not eating the product, so you don’t have to like it.  And this is neither the time nor the place for experimentation.  The benefit of such a seemingly restrictive environment is it forces you to learn techniques you might otherwise miss.  I can guarantee I never would’ve learned as much as I have about lemon meringue if I hadn’t worked in a bakery.  The thought of lemon meringue sets my teeth on edge.

But even the owner of the bakery is restricted in the types of goods that they bake.  Ultimately, the customer base is going to determine what is made and how.  If you cringe at the amount of icing on your cinnamon rolls, but your customers complain and stop buying them when it is reduced, you’re probably going to have to start drenching those rolls in icing again.

The benefit here comes in the form of the sense of satisfaction you get from knowing you have brought enjoyment to others.  The marvelous thing about baked goods is they are often a treat, a reward—an eagerly anticipated indulgence or a consolation.  A flaky croissant can be that moment of stillness on a Sunday morning.  A slice of pie can be the satisfaction of a recent triumph.  A warm brownie can be the comfort you need during a stressful or dark time.

And then there is the community.  Food builds friendship.  It starts conversations; it builds bridges.  It’s an immediate commonality—a shared experience.  A sweet treat can bring people together like conspirators, as if they share a secret, a secret between strangers.

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Learning By Doing Lesson #287

Speaking to my Father on the phone the other day the conversation turned to a question I think everyone considers at least once in their life, and perhaps if you’re like me, with some trepidation due to the kind of muted disappointment that only the deep contemplation of unrealistic life plans can generate: what would you do if you won the lottery?

I’ve never purchased a lottery ticket and my Father is not a frequent or enthusiastic lottery hound either.  But last week, for whatever reason, he picked one up.  “I may be a millionaire right now and not even know it,” he remarked.  To which I responded, “So what would you do?  Would you quit your job?”

He told me he wouldn’t make any grandiose life changes.  He’d give a million to each of his siblings and myself, pay off the mortgage on his house, and continue to work the same job with the same company.  “I like working there, why would I leave?”

I’ve never been after the big bucks, myself.  That’s pretty obvious from the student debt I’ve amassed studying subjects that are unlikely to generate much income.  Money has only ever been important to me as means of acquiring knowledge and being prepared for emergencies.  So it wasn’t surprising that a brief reflection revealed that if I won the lottery, I’d probably just become a lifelong learner in one way or another.

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Thy enemy is meringue: The November Daring Baker’s Challenge

Meringue.  It fills me with dread.  It riddles me with anxiety.  It deflates my confidence.

Egg whites and sugar.  A dash of cream of tartar to act as a stabilizer.  Three simple ingredients, heart palpitations and a lump in my throat.

Beat the whites with the cream of tartar.  Pour in the sugar, slowly.  Wait for them—those glossy peaks that almost but not fully hold their shape.  They should be flexible, not stiff.  With only a slight curve in their peaks, they shouldn’t flop over.  The texture, feathery and cloud-like, but not like the clouds that seem to protrude out of the sky, singular and distinct, like images from a children’s pop-up book.  But rather those that mingle with each other, awash with the blue of the sky, visibly defined yet without a clear beginning or end.

This is the meringue of lemon meringue pies.  And it would seem that there is just one single moment—a flash of a millisecond perceived only by the talented and trained eye—at which point the three simple ingredients come together to form this desirable union.

Three months and numerous pies later this moment continues to elude me.  Did I look away, distracted, precisely at that moment?  Or was I mesmerized by the whir of the mixer and the blur of the whisk?  It’s always too late when I finally realize the peaks are too soft or too rigid—the meringue is either on the pie or I’ve simply gone past the point of no return. Determination turns to dejection.  Trounced again by meringue.

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A warm (fresh out of the oven) welcome

Despite the fact that the me of my imagination is a graceful, not to mention stylish, hostess who organizes dazzling, yet intimate get-togethers, offering delectable hors d’oeuvres, light but satisfying meals, and to die for desserts, the truth is I rarely entertain guests in my home. I also tend to put on my pajamas the instant I walk in the door, and no, they aren’t even remotely stylish.

For whatever reason (although I might blame nature and nurture for this one, thanks Mom), I have become absurdly neurotic about the level of cleanliness required of my living quarters for playing hostess. I’ve even purchased a gimmicky, yet surprisingly effective, vacuum cleaner designed specifically for managing pet filth (it’s called the PowerGroom Pet and it’s pink and purple), yet the moment I catch a stray tuft of cat hair playing tumbleweed across the floor I become mortified over the prospect of having people over.

Occasionally, however, the desire to see and talk to family or friends for longer than it takes to drink an espresso at a café compels me to set my nerves aside and welcome them into my home. And what better way to draw their attention away from cat hair tumbleweeds than with freshly baked goods?

Curried Pumpkin Loaf

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Celebrating life’s little triumphs: BBA Challenge #2 Artos Greek Celebration Bread

Sometimes I fear that I am a perpetually ungrateful human being.  At any given time in my life there seems to be something—some goal, some physical object, some skill—that I believe I need to acquire or develop in order to secure stability, contentedness and satisfaction in life. If only I had… could… or did… then I would be free from the stresses, fatigue, and general discontented moments that sometimes seem to define life at a given moment.

When I was about ten years old I whined to my Mother that if she bought me a puppy surprise for Christmas, I would never be bored again.  Well, I got my puppy surprise (the black and white one with FIVE puppies in case you’re wondering) and I can honestly say that I have not only been bored numerous times since, but my demands have increased substantially from disturbing plastic-faced, plush-bodied birthing dogs, to going to a private audio recording school, leaving London, finishing my Master’s degree, getting a car, working in a bakery… the list goes on.

And with each accomplishment (or perhaps failure and resignation) a new desire—a new something to acquire or strive toward—develops to ensure that the sense of all encompassing urgent need to acquire and achieve persists.  The sense of relief or contentedness that the previous accomplishment or acquisition was to provide dissipates, the accomplishment/acquisition becoming merely a fixture or inconsequential feature of le quotidien.

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The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap

I’m happy to announce that I will be participating in this year’s Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap, hosted by Lindsay and Taylor of Love & Olive Oil and Julie of The Little Kitchen. I can’t tell you how deliciously excited I am to become a participant of this cookie-swapping community. Not only can I not wait to bake up and ship out some delectable treats to three other bloggers, but who doesn’t love receiving surprise packages that smell sweetly of butter and sugar?  I think this may be the definition of a win-win situation.

The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap 2011

If you’re interested in participating, you have until November 15th to sign up. Visit the link above for more details. Love & Olive Oil also offers some great tips on how to package and ship your cookies, regardless of whether you’re participating in the swap or not.

Povitica: The October Daring Baker’s Challenge

Autumn.  Early sunsets and the sound of crisp leaves crunching beneath rubber boots.  Scarves and sweaters.  Pumpkin patches brimming with bundled tots and red-nosed mothers and fathers.  White, dewy breath trailing from moist lips.  Cauliflower.  Winter squash.  And apples, apples, apples!

Autumn is settling in and with it a sort of romantic wistfulness washes over us, causing us to reflect back on the recent passing of summer, and to look forward, although perhaps reluctantly, to the coming winter, not yet entirely convinced the lustre of the first snowfall is worth the short days and dreary months.

Autumn is an enchanting season and therefore warrants the attention the food blogging community has bestowed upon it.  Recipes featuring pumpkins, squash and apples abound.  And so I sought not to add to the already overwhelming collection of autumnal entries.  I haven’t even baked a single pumpkin anything.

Hallowe’en has also crept its way into all of my favourite food sites, with recipes for all the scary sweets and spooky treats I could ever hope to want.  So I’ll skip the worms in dirt and brain cupcakes.  Instead, let’s leap ahead two months with the Daring Bakers.  For the month of October the Daring Bakers dared to join the ranks of Walmart, and other bigbox retailers I have heard tale of already displaying their Christmas wares, and took for their next challenge an Eastern European holiday treat.

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