Friday, August 31, 2012

A happy coincidence

Slice of Vollkornbrot
Berlin, at least as I experienced it, is a city with a complicated personality, one that I feel I can't really have begun to fathom having had only two weeks there. I think I'd need more time, a lot more time, to wander its streets and to piece together what I'd find, to really say anything definitive. Still, I'll say this much--Berlin is a city that resists easy definition, a city that's a lot of things. Parts of it have the look, the feel, the grandeur of another time. My first night there, I followed the cobbled streets from the hotel towards the Spree, the river that runs through the city. Reaching the river, I was taken aback by the view--the Bode Museum towered at a fork in the waters, its dark, gilded dome awash in the setting sun. It was magical. And the city kept doing this, kept leaving me breathless when I'd least expected it. I'd turn a corner and stumble into a beautiful shaded courtyard, or I'd lose my way in a neighbourhood and find myself at the gates of an old palace. And just walking through the halls of the Neues Museum, those light-filled, airy halls, was worth the price of admission. But for all that, Berlin never felt old or tired or stuck up. There was too much going on in its streets, in its myriad, hidden courtyards, for it to feel anything like that. People were gathered, wherever I was in Berlin--in lines waiting for kebap, in spirited protest in the streets, at market stalls overflowing with chanterelles, in leafy, light-strung courtyards, drinking the night away. Berlin to me felt young, alive, still in the midst of finding and defining itself.
Museum Insel Overlooking the Spree On the Spree
And the food, I think, reflected this, this complicatedness about Berlin. I ate plenty that was decidedly very German--leberk√§se with mustard, a sort of pinkish slab of finely ground pork, onions, and liver, the edges crisp and golden from baking, the best and simplest of potato salads, sharply dressed and slicked with olive oil (Cafe Sgaminegg), a meltingly tender pork knuckle, flaky pastries chock-full of poppy seeds (Brot und Butter), and Wienerschnitzel, of course. But I also ate lots that was decidedly and excitingly less traditional--a pizza with perfectly crisp, blistered crust scattered with edible blossoms (Prinzessinnengarten), a crunchy, hazelnut-crusted potato dumpling suspended over green gazpacho (Lucky Leek), gem-like squares of lokum whose flavour lingered hauntingly in the mouth (Confiserie Orientale), morsels of sesame-coated, sweet-miso fudge savoured between sips of matcha (Oukan). So Berlin's food scene, like the rest of the city, I would say, resisted definition, was a lot of things. 
Of the city's more traditional offerings, vollkornbrot was definitely a favourite of mine. Vollkornbrot is a dark, dense, seed-studded whole-grain rye bread. And, quite frankly, to those of us most familiar with the lofty, open-crumbed loaves of a more French provenance, it can look a little uninviting, a little intimidating, even--like you might break a tooth on your first bite. But let me assure you, vollkornbrot is wonderful stuff. There's an earnestness to its dense, coarse crumb, which, I think, is all the more appropriate to its dark, complex flavour. I braved a slice at one of my first breakfasts in Berlin, and after that, I always made sure to look for one of those tell-tale dark, squat loaves wherever I was.
I knew that I would miss vollkornbrot back at home. I was determined to find a way to make it myself. It didn't take much--as it happened, the last issue of Lucky Peach (my airplane/laundromat reading for the trip) included a recipe. A happy coincidence. I got started as soon as I could.
Levain and soaker Final dough mixed Final dough proofed
Making vollkornbrot doesn't take much, though you do need sourdough starter for the levain. (Making friends with a more intrepid baker than yourself can come in handy for this part.) The night before, you start the levain and soak sunflower and flax seeds in water. Soaking the seeds prevents them from pulling water from the bread and helps to keep the loaf moist. In the morning, you mix the levain and seeds with the remaining ingredients--coarse rye flour, hot water, and salt. Then, you transfer the dough directly to loaf pans to proof. There's no kneading, no shaping involved. After that, the loaves just need a thorough bake.
Sign Letters A Bull Chanterelles at the market
The resulting vollkornbrot is incredible. The long bake leaves the exterior of the loaves dark and toasty and brings out a nutty, almost coffee-like sweetness in the rye. I'm not sure that I've had bread crust more flavourful, more complex. This gives way to a moist, dense, seed-speckled crumb with the distinctive sourness of a long, wild-yeast-driven proof. I like starting my morning with some, thinly sliced and generously buttered, sometimes topped with a spoonful of preserves. But maybe one of these days, when I'm feeling really nostalgic for Berlin, I'll have to have my vollkornbrot like the Germans do and pile my buttered slices with some good cured meat.
Vollkornbrot With some cherry preserves

Rhonda Crosson's Vollkornbrot
Adapted, just a little, from Lucky Peach no. 4
Note: About the flour. I had trouble finding rye flour milled to an appropriate coarseness, so I used a combination of stone-ground medium-grind rye and rye meal. The latter is basically rye berries ground to the consistency of something more like steel-cut oats than flour. (You can find rye meal pretty easily through Amazon, if it isn't available at your local grocery store.) I decided on the ratio by feel. It ended up being about 40 percent rye meal and 60 percent medium-grind flour, which I liked quite a lot. About the loaf pans. I made my loaves in 4" by 8" loaf pans, letting the dough proof for about 4 hours, just until it crested over the lip of the pans. If you own a pain-de-mie loaf pan, this might be the time to use it. I saw a lot of loaves of vollkornbrot in Berlin with those perfectly rectangular sides. There's something aesthetically pleasing about that.
UPDATE, 2013-01-30. About its shelf-life. I haven't yet tested the recipe's claim that this bread will last for months in the fridge, but I have tried storing a loaf, very tightly wrapped, for three or so weeks. It does keep remarkably well in the fridge, though, unsurprisingly, it is a tad drier around the edges, more so than I would like. I've found that this is nothing a quick spell in the toaster and a good slathering of butter (or mashed avocado and salt) won't fix. Even so, I might stick to baking one loaf at a time in the future.

RYE LEVAIN:
53 g sourdough starter
538 g coarse rye flour (see note above)
457 g water

SOAKER:
92 g flax seeds
92 g sunflower seeds
182 g water

FINAL DOUGH:
350 g coarse rye flour
218 g hot tap water
20 g fine sea salt

Make the levain. In a large bowl, combine the levain ingredients and mix by hand. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to ferment at room temperature overnight, about 8 to 12 hours, until the mixture is gassy and doubled in size. Meanwhile, combine the soaker ingredients and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to soak at room temperature overnight, 8 to 12 hours.
The next day, combine the levain, soaker, and remaining ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment on slow speed, mix until very well incorporated and smooth--this could take up to 10 minutes. Slow speed is important to avoid breaking up the delicate pentosans, the gummy sugars responsible for the structure in rye breads. The resulting dough, though cohesive, should be rather wet and batter-like. Rye, unlike wheat, has very little gluten in it.
Portion the dough into two 9-1/2" by 5" loaf pans that have been greased and lightly coated with rye flour. Using wet hands, press down to level out the dough and smooth the surface. Proof in a warm place until the dough almost reaches the top of the pan. This will take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours.
Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bake the loaves for 40 minutes, then drop the temperature to 400 degrees F and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, until the top of the loaf is very brown. A thorough bake is important with a dense rye like vollkornbrot. If it isn't baked all the way through, it will be gummy and sticky.
After baking, let the bread cool completely--as long as a whole day--before slicing. Wrapped very tightly in the fridge, this bread will keep for three or four months.
Makes two 9-1/2" by 5" loaves.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Old rhythms, new friends

Apple Frangipane
Octavian and I recently returned from Berlin. He was there for an intensive ten-day philosophy seminar. I tagged along for the trip, unable to pass up the chance to spend some time in a beautiful, old city. We both, I think, had a marvellous time. The seminar, from what I gather, was one of those rare philosophical meetings in which the back-and-forth of argument, collaboration, and dissent was explosive, eye-opening, transformative of everyone's thinking in the room. (I'm pretty sure that this will bear out in no small part of the philosophical literature over the next ten years--I'm a little envious, anyway.) And my days in Berlin, though very different, were in their own right eye-opening, punctuated with moments of wonder. I wandered about the city, much of the time on foot, fumbling, trying, tasting wherever I could. But more on that soon, I promise.
For the moment, I'd like to talk about being back. It's been hard for both of us to get back into our usual rhythms--to be awake and attentive when we should, to sleep much longer past 5 am, to cook for ourselves, to sit down to the writing we both need to do. More than once this past week, we've found ourselves falling asleep in front of the TV at 6 or 7 in the evening and without much appetite for cooking or eating. Much of this, of course, is just jet lag, but readjusting has really been a process after this particular trip.
Tart dough, pressed into the pan Apple slices
Maybe it's just that we're getting old. But it struck me the other day that, maybe, the hardest part about returning hasn't been a matter of time zones but people. In Berlin, we were surrounded by people, wonderful people. Since most of the seminar's participants weren't from the city, most of us found ourselves put up at the same hotel. So we'd sit with one another at breakfast every morning and chat sleepily over bowls of bircher muesli and plates piled high with vollkornbrot, eggs, and cured meats. And after the seminar wrapped up for the day, we'd find one another again and venture out into the city in search of a spot, preferably on a patio, to while away the evening over good, cheap food and cold beers. I loved this. Philosophy, you see, can be a lonely sort of pursuit. Sure, there are classes and reading groups and all sorts of spontaneous, informal discussion, but much of the work, the tangible stuff, I find anyway, is solitary. You have to sit down by yourself, for hours, days, on end, and decide what to make of all those conversations. You have to commit to something on paper and do it convincingly and clearly. And for that, you're mostly on your own. So I was happy to break from all that for a while and just hang out, soak up wisdom and swap stories and share laughs with philosophers who have become friends (most of us met for the first time last summer, in Chapel Hill, NC). And that, I realised, is part of why it's been so hard getting the hang of old rhythms again. It's been like the days just after two riotously fun, utterly memorable weeks of summer camp, only for grown folks who do philosophy.
Arranging apple slices Apples, mounded
But luckily, one of the other seminar participants lives just down the street from us, and we'd already invited him and his partner over for dinner later in the week. So on Wednesday, we did our best to get back into the usual rhythms of chopping and stirring and slicing and baking. The dessert I put together that afternoon is one that comes from Pan Chancho, that venerable bakery from my old college town. Friends, let me introduce you to the apple frangipane tart. It remains to this day the dessert of theirs that I adore most of all. Its thin slices of tart apple, slicked with a bit of apricot jam after baking, are perfect  atop the velvety layer of frangipane, sweet and unmistakably redolent of almonds. And the short crust--I'm not sure that I've had better. When working your way through a slice, the best few bites are definitely the last, where apples and frangipane meet golden, crumbly crust just sturdy enough to hold it all together.
I can't quite say why I decided on this tart for this dinner. But the thought and care it would take to make it--to blanch and grind almonds, to ready the crust, to slice the apples and arrange them just so--appealed to me then. It would be a labour, I knew, but for these friends a welcome one.
The tart, just glazed Tart slice in profile

Apple Frangipane Tart
Adapted, ever so slightly, from the Pan Chancho Cookbook

FOR THE TART DOUGH
113 g / 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
50 g / 1/4 cup sugar
1 egg, separated, the white lightly beaten
2 tablespoons heavy cream
180 g / 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1/8 teaspoon salt

FOR THE FILLING
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
110 g / 1 cup finely ground almonds
100 g / 7 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
100 g / 1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 Granny Smith apples (or another tart apple of your choice)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

FOR THE GLAZE
1/2 cup apricot jam
2 tablespoons water

To make the tart shell, cream the butter and sugar together in a small bowl until light and fluffy. In a small glass, combine the egg yolk and cream, then add to the butter mixture in thirds, incorporating well after each addition. Add the flour and salt, mixing just until incorporated. At this point, the dough should be pale yellow and rather soft, like cookie dough. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least an hour (or overnight).
Place the dough on a floured sheet of parchment paper and roll it out into a 12-inch round, lifting the dough from the parchment occasionally to prevent sticking. Transfer to a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Trim the over hang to half an inch and fold inwards to double the thickness of the sides. Seal any cracks with remaining dough. (Alternatively, gently press the dough into an even layer across the bottom and up the sides of the tart pan.) Pierce dough all over with a fork. Return, covered, to the fridge for 20 minutes. 
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter the shiny side of a large square of aluminium foil and fit the foil tightly to the crust, buttered side down. Fill the tart shell with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until crust is light golden in colour. Remove pie weights and foil and allow to cool for a few minutes. Then, brush the bottom and sides with a little beaten egg white. Allow to cool completely before filling.
To prepare the tart for baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. For the frangipane, cream together the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add the flour and almonds to the mixture and incorporate. Spoon the filling into the tart shell in an even layer and smooth the top.
Peel and core the apples, then cut in half through the vertical axis. Cut slices, about 1/8 of an inch thick, from the halves. Reserve a few small, pretty slices to use at the centre of the tart--those are the ones that will be fully visible. Layer the remaining slices on top of the frangipane, working from the outside in. Finish with the reserved slices. Sprinkle with the cinnamon (it will look like an awful lot but not to worry). Bake the tart for 32-35 minutes or until the filling is firm but still moist--the tart will still wobble slightly in the centre. Allow to cool.
To make the glaze, heat the jam and water in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring until incorporated. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, then return to the pan and bring it to a boil. While the glaze is still hot, brush over the cooled tart.
Serves 8.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

But I am in the habit of daydreaming

Blackberry drizzle
In Lucky Peach no. 3, Karen Leibowitz reflects with fondness on the food at Dominique Crenn's Atelier Crenn and says that there dishes are offered up like tactile poems that register both emotionally and intellectually. That resonated with me--though I haven't been to Atelier Crenn, a lot of the food that I've been reading about lately, that I've eaten on occasion, has had a kindred sort of thoughtfulness to it. It hasn't just been about the magic of certain flavours and textures. It's been about capturing a moment, drawing deep from the well of common memory through flavour and texture and evoking just the right feeling. I'm thinking here of things like Grant Achatz' Beef, Elements of Root Beer or even Christina Tosi's from-scratch Funfetti Birthday Cake--food that is more than whatever you're met with on the plate.
Though the thinking that happens in my kitchen typically runs closer to the pragmatic than to the sublime, I am in the habit of daydreaming about food. Lately, I've had summer on the mind. I'm not sure quite why, but I've been wanting to put together something that just tastes of summer. Maybe it's just that it's the most exuberant of seasons, the one with the longest, brightest days, the one that is all blooms and fruit and song, even long after the sun goes down, the one whose intensities are only matched by their fleetingness (think, summer storms)--who wouldn't want to taste that on a spoon? So if Dominique Crenn composes tactile poems that recall the flavours of her upbringing, I guess I've been daydreaming of a paean to summer, one that you might eat from a chilled glass by the spoonful.
Ears of corn Kernels
A few days ago, I stopped daydreaming and set to work in the kitchen. I cooked down a few handfuls of blackberries to a sweet, jammy mess. I cut pearly corn kernels from their cobs. I steeped these in a milky bath. I whisked in some cream, some gelatin, poured it all into glasses, and held my breath.
This paean of mine, this paean turned panna cotta--it's still mostly just a daydream. There are a few lines to it for now--spoonfuls that recall unmistakably the melting sweetness of a good ear of corn, fingers and mouths stained purple from an afternoon of berry-picking, and, maybe, just faintly, poolside barbecues and full bellies. But it isn't there yet. It doesn't say quite nearly enough. Still, sweet corn and blackberries make for a good panna cotta in their own right, so I'm content for now to eat panna cotta and daydream a little more.
Blackberries cooked down Sweet Corn Panna Cotta A pair

Sweet Corn Panna Cotta
Bits and pieces rather liberally adapted from Epicurious, the Seattle Times, and the Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook

PANNA COTTA
2 ears of sweet corn
175 ml / 3/4 cup whole milk
310 ml + 155 ml  / 1 1/3 cup + 2/3 cup heavy cream
5-6 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 1/4 gelatin sheets or 1 1/4 teaspoons powdered gelatin

BLACKBERRY SAUCE
1 cup blackberries + more for garnishing
100 g / 1/2 cup granulated sugar

Shuck the corn and remove the kernels with a knife. Break one of the cobs into four pieces and reserve.
Combine the milk and 5 tablespoons of sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the corn kernels and simmer until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir as needed. Strain the milk into a medium saucepan. Reserve the corn kernels for another use.
Add 310 ml of cream, the salt, and the corn cob pieces to the milk. Return to a simmer, then cover, remove from heat, and let steep for 30 minutes. Remove the cob pieces and discard. Strain the mixture again and return it to a small saucepan.
Bloom the gelatin. If using sheets, soak them in a small bowl of cool water for about 2 minutes. If the gelatin still has hard bits in it, it needs more time. If it's so soft that it's falling apart, it's overbloomed. Discard and start again. Gently squeeze the bloomed gelatin to remove any excess water. If using powdered gelatin, sprinkle it evenly onto the surface of 2 tablespoons of cold water in a small bowl. Allow the granules to soften entirely in the cold for water for 3 to 5 minutes.
Bring the cream mixture to a simmer. Remove from heat and whisk in the gelatin to dissolve. Whisk in the remaining cream, being careful not to incorporate too much air. Taste the mixture and add sugar as needed--you want the corn's sweetness, and not its more vegetal notes, to come through. Divide the mixture among four 6-oz glasses. Transfer to the refrigerator to set for at least 3 hours or overnight.
Meanwhile, make the blackberry sauce. Bring the blackberries and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until reduced by about half, crushing the berries with the back of a wooden spoon occasionally. Press the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer to separate it from the seeds. Chill in the refrigerator.
To serve, drizzle each panna cotta with blackberry sauce and garnish with whole blackberries.
Serves 4.