My roommates are generous girls. Not only do they not seem to mind my near-constant presence in the kitchen, but on days like today, when I transform the apartment into a near-facsimile (at least, olfactorily speaking) of a Jewish bakehouse, there's nary a peep of protest to be heard. I am grateful, to say the least. While I realize that baking leavened bread on Passover is about as blasphemous as it gets (well, okay, I exaggerate, I know), I just couldn't help myself. I wanted to bake something and pletzlach it would be.
Pletzlach are flattened rolls of bread strewn with poppy seeds and chopped onion and kosher salt. The recipe came from a lovely article about a Polish Holocaust survivor in the New York Times two years ago who made them for Hannukah. Pletzlach is the plural for one pletzel, which sounds adorable to my ears (a pretzel? a pletzel!). The dough is simple and barely sweetened, and provides a gentle background for the more straightforward topping. I thought about eating my pletzlach with a cup of lentil soup for lunch, but settled for a simple salad instead. You know spring is springing when the tomatoes in your store-bought salad actually taste like something found in nature. It's enough to make me sprout wings with joy.
The instructions for the pletzlach left a bit to be desired (was I supposed to make a well in the flour and let the yeast and water dissolve for half an hour without stirring in the flour? or was I supposed to stir it all together into an awkwardly stiff and shaggy dough?), but for someone not afraid of yeast doughs it wasn't too difficult to figure out. I slapped the dough around a bit until it came together as I thought it should. I let mine proof overnight because I'd started on the dough too late last night, but it's a quick dough to make and could easily be done straight after work in time for dinner, too.
When the dough was fully risen (and punched down, kneaded, and risen again), I divided it into equal balls and flattened each slightly before topping them with the raw onion mixture. Using the rolling pin and a careful hand, I rolled out each ball, squashing the onions and poppyseeds into the surface of the rolls. Plopped on an ungreased sheet, pricked and sprinkled with salt, the pletzlach baked in the oven until golden brown and fragrant. I don't like savory breakfasts, but it was all I could do to not eat one as a snack this morning.
I was hoping for a slightly chewier bread - something more akin to a bagel or pizza crust. This dough was crisper, more snappy. But the flavor was homey and delicious - savory onions, barely sweet bread, and black poppyseeds providing crunch and sparkle. It was an Old World treat that made me think of my Jewish grandmother, long gone now. She would have never baked these pletzlach, but she would have eaten them with relish.
When I first started this blog, I never imagined I'd be cooking any of the recipes from the more grating personalities on the car wreck that is the Food Network. From Rachael Ray to Paula Deen to Sandra Lee to Giada de Laurentiis, it's a veritable horror show of lip-smacking, thigh-slapping excess. I confess that Alton Brown's show, with its cameo appearances from the grande dame of food science herself, keeps me entertained at times, and that Ina Garten's cooking holds a certain appeal (though her increasing girth has me perpetually worried she'll die of a heart attack on my television screen one day). But Emeril? George? And the rest of the girls? Not my cup of tea.
And yet. When the LA Times reviewed Giada de Laurentiis's new book last week, I couldn't help myself. The description of a pasta dish slicked with spinach sauce didn't sound half bad. Some raw spinach and garlic whirled into a pesto of sorts with goat cheese to punch up the flavor and Parmigiano to smooth out the edges couldn't be terrible. When the article quoted Giada's foreward explaining how the food in her new book is "unpretentious, authentic, down-home Italian cooking", I had to hold back a bit of a snort (aren't I a snob). I know Italian down-home cooking and it has nothing to do with raw spinach or goat cheese or low-fat cream cheese (in the original recipe) or even whole wheat pasta. But this wasn't the time for splitting hairs. It was a time to get over myself and try the food of a best-selling cookbook author.
So, I chopped and I whirled and I boiled and I stirred and before too long I had a plate of pasta looking much like it was coated with pesto, but tasting nothing of that springy, herbal sauce. The spinach sauce was harsh with raw garlic, and the raw leafy greens had a flat, disappointing taste. Just thinking of it makes my stomach turn a bit. Ah, and here's the problem. A few hours after I ate my dinner, I became violently ill. For two days. It's taken me four days to even be able to look at the photograph without throwing up a little in my mouth. So, I'd say I should have just listened to my gut. Just because those slick little people in the television box are pretty to look at (an arguable point, I know), it doesn't mean they aren't out to reduce you to a sweating pile of misery lying on your tiled bathroom floor at 2 am in the morning, begging for someone to please just let you die.
Just who, exactly, was I kidding when I thought it was a good idea to go easy on the sugar in the waning days of winter and a most stressful time at work? I have seen the light, my friends, and it comes in the form of individual chocolate brownies that when eaten for breakfast or a midnight snack can easily be substituted for illicit drugs or alcohol as self-medication in dire times.
Not only do the chocolate and butterfat and sugar do wonders in perking up the most depressed of souls, but distributing them at will helps, too. It must have something to do with karma, but if you bake up a batch of these and throw a few at your boyfriend and his mother and your doctor's receptionist and the doorman of your office building and your poor starving coworkers (while saving a couple for yourself, for crying out loud), I guarantee any foul mood will slink wretchedly out the window.
Described as "brownies" by both Le Pain Quotidien and the Los Angeles Times, these little chocolate cakes are soft and creamy on the inside with a thin top crust that shatters under pressure. As far as I'm concerned, "brownies" is a misnomer. These are airy (practically flourless) delights that aren't fudgy or cakey or any of the other characteristics that have people's emotions running high when the virtues of a good brownie come up in conversation. They're rich but still delicate (Ben complained about the structure of them while eating a few hunched over the sink last night) and would be best unmolded on a plate with a huge melting scoop of ice cream creating little vanilla rivulets all around.
I prepared these cakelets while watching Oprah cry as Sidney Poitier walked out on her stage unexpectedly - a deep chocolate aroma filled the air, I snuggled deeper into my couch, and another person's happiness proved to be the best distraction from an overwhelming world.
Makes 14 brownies
9 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60 - 64% cacao)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
5 eggs, beaten lightly with a fork
1 1/3 cups superfine sugar
3 tablespoons pastry flour
1. Roughly chop the chocolate into pieces. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl and add the butter. Place the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, until the two ingredients have melted. Mix well and transfer to a large bowl; set aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Sift the sugar and flour together, then stir into the chocolate. Add the eggs and mix well. Cover and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. The batter will thicken as it stands.
3. Line a muffin tin with cupcake papers. Spoon one-fourth cup batter into each paper-lined cup. Bake 30 to 35 minutes. The brownies will still be moist when done; they will puff up and fall slightly as they cool.
It's been a rough couple of days. I've been helping Ben move out of his apartment, while battling a resurgence of the nasty insomnia I had last year. When I do sleep, I'm beset by freaky dreams, and being felled by a migraine on Saturday didn't help the situation much. I was too busy to even step into my kitchen for five days (though I did make a nice little pot of pasta al pomodoro for sustenance while we packed up all of Ben's worldly possessions at his apartment) and then when matters undiscussable on this website cropped up yesterday, it was all I could do to keep myself collected and calm enough to make it to the grocery store and home in one piece.
Somehow I did. The reemergence of cold rain after a weekend that brought warmth and joy to so many sun-starved New Yorkers was sort of a smack in the face. Do I sound a bit melodramatic? I'm feeling that way. You know there's a problem when tears well up in your eyes and you choke on your cinnamon Puffins while watching an television spot for Eliot Spitzer at 8:46 in the morning. I mean, I like the guy and all, but that was even a bit much for me. If you live in New York, maybe you know which ad I mean? Forgive me, I'm feeling pathetic.
Like I was saying, though, I made it to the store and home with only marginally drenched feet and a sack full of dinner. It would be something well-balanced and nutritious - to feed my mind and spirit. I had a recipe clutched in one hand that I'd printed out from The New York Times - courtesy of Anya von Bremzen's new book on Spanish cooking. It sounded delicious: a bed of boiled, sliced potatoes covered with spicy, garlicky oil and fat pieces of halibut, roasted together in the oven at a high temperature. But once I'd put it all together and we sat on the couch eating it, I kept thinking that something about the meal wasn't right.
The fish was terrific - the high temperature and short time in the oven produced a perfectly cooked filet. I'll definitely keep that truc in mind. But the half-cup of olive oil? It was really a bit much. Even if most of it was cooked with sherry vinegar (which filled the house with a pungent fragrance, but didn't do much to flavor the dish), it didn't keep the potatoes from swimming in the oil. Drizzled on some steamed broccoletti, the oil was nice, but who can stomach a half-cup of it, even if divided among four people? Incidentally, I made the full amount of potatoes but only half the amount of fish. There were no leftovers. A pound of sliced potatoes is definitely not enough for four people, unless they're very small people.
In truth, I felt like von Bremzen's recipe was a bit lazy. Couldn't she have figured out a less-greasy but still tasty way to cook the potatoes and fish? I know it's possible: I made a version of this dish from Martha Stewart several years ago, but with raw, sliced potatoes and tilefish and kalamata olives and melted butter. The sharp olive flavor cut through the buttery potatoes nicely and the thin, light fish was the perfect counterpoint. Chopped parsley on top actually gave it a nice herbal note (instead of disappearing entirely into the oil bath). I'd made it for friends who couldn't stop raving about it, and would make it again and again in a heartbeat. But I think I'll let this halibut dish fall by the wayside. Although it did do a nice job of reseasoning my pan.