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Regan Daley's Sweet Potato Bundt Cake with Rum-Plumped Raisins and a Spiked Sugar Glaze


I'm not a fancy cook. But you knew that already, right? Baked beans make my heart sing, a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce (made right) can turn a bad day good again, a simple salad is - mostly - all I need for dinner. But despite this near-constant refrain of loving rustic, homespun food, some people still think that because I cook a lot and because I know my way around a kitchen, I must be the kind of food snob who is only content in the finest of restaurants and could never be happy with a simple, homemade meal.

Nothing is further from the truth.

It's not that I turn my nose up at a nice restaurant, on the contrary - a night out at a place where you're fed well and entertained can be a very special night, indeed. It's just that, in my soul, I am a home cook. In every sense of the word. I like to putter around my kitchen after work, when the sun's gone down and it's dark outside. Inside, it's warm and light from the lamps over the dinner table, the stove, the sink. There are my dirty dishes, the scent of something cooking hangs in the air, I've got a rhythm going with my knife and my cutting board and the pot of boiling water, while the clean plates clatter into place on the table. It all makes sense to me. This is the way I get good, simple food on my plate, and that's the stuff that makes me happy.

Further away from the kitchen, my collection of cookbooks reflects the kind of cook I am. While a few of them are the kind of high-gloss beauties everyone likes to page through and ogle, almost all of my books are the kind you want to pull out and get dirty with spatters of sauce and oil. They feature food I actually want to cook. I don't have room in my bookshelves for cookbooks featuring food that is usually served in a restaurant. I'd never have the patience or the appetite for an architectural, three-page cooking adventure like the ones featured in those tomes. And it's not that I turn my nose up at folks who like to cook like that at home - no way. It's just not what I want for dinner.

My point in all of this? (Yes! I haven't entirely lost my train of thought) is to say that, despite all of that stuff I just spouted to you, sometimes, every once in a while, this hunger for simplicity goes a little too far. I've noticed that I've become mostly allergic to food titles that are longer than five or six words: my eyes glaze over and I lose interest immediately. (Mostly, I think that's self-preservation.) But once in a while, that allergy keeps me from finding a recipe that might have a long title and a few extra steps, but is so absolutely fantastic that I was a total fool for not noticing it earlier.

Case in point? This bundt cake. In the NY Times two years ago, Alex Witchel wrote about the man behind the Bundt pan, excerpting a recipe from Regan Daley's amazing book on sweet baking that has been in my kitchen for many years now. (Strangely enough, however, despite it having served me well as a bed-time read, the only thing I'd ever actually made from its pages had nothing to do with baking at all: the tea-steeped pears and prunes. And by the way, that recipe? Worth the price of the book. Swear to God.) Witchel's choice - boiled, mashed sweet potatoes folded into a spice cake batter that was moistened by buttermilk and studded with soft, boozy raisins - sure, sounded alright, but was a little too fussy for my taste, too much of a hassle. And that title! Sweet Potato Bundt Cake wasn't enough, huh, there had to be Rum-Plumped Raisins and a Spiked Sugar Glaze, too. Oh no, it was all too complicated for me.

(Ridiculous, I know.)

Will you trust me, then, if I tell you that this recipe is not only hardly complicated, but very much WORTH the small trouble you will go to to make it? That it's staggeringly delicious and tender and moist and most certainly a crowd-pleaser, even a raisin-hating crowd? Please say yes.

Don't be put off by the raisins in rum or the fancy glaze - they aren't half as hard to make as it looks. In fact, it all comes together rather easily. You soak a handful of golden raisins in rum (raisin-haters, I used to be one of you and I tell you honestly that these raisins are perfection here. I know you might think I'm nuts, and after all, who am I, the cilantro-hater, to try and convince you that your hatred here is misplaced, but really! They are the least offensive raisins I ever did cross. In fact, I found them entirely delightful), boil up some sweet potatoes and mash them, add the orange puree to a delicately spiced cake batter, pour the whole thing into a Bundt pan and bake it until the cake tower triumphantly out of its tin.

While it cools, you boil together cream, butter and brown sugar into a caramel of sorts that gets pumped up with the residual rum from the raisins. This creamy concoction is spooned over the cooling cake (the glaze is far too thick to sink into the holes you're supposed to stab into the cake, but it hardly matters) and drips appealing down the sides. Appealing is the operative word here - I haven't made something this pretty in ages.

You're supposed to let the cake cool entirely, but I was far too impatient, so my first slice was still warm. The crumb was soft and tender, the booziness of the rum tripping very faintly along my tongue, while an intermittent raisin here and there popped open in a welcome burst of juicy flavor. The glaze was quite difficult not to eat entirely by the spoonful. In fact, if you were serving this as a dessert to guests, I'd suggest making a double recipe of the sauce and passing it in a pitcher so the people at your dinner table can pour a glossy little puddle of caramel sauce over their slices.

I will graciously share this cake with Ben and my roommates, but then it's getting swaddled in an airtight cocoon of aluminum foil and plastic wrap and Ziploc freezer bags and going straight into the freezer. I've got to make sure this thing lasts. Who knows when I'll have the patience and foresight to make something like this again?

Sweet Potato Bundt Cake with Rum-Plumped Raisins and a Spiked Sugar Glaze
Serves 12

¾ cup golden raisins
1/3 cup dark rum, plus more if needed
3 cups flour, plus more for the pan
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus extra for salting the water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
3 large sweet potatoes
4 large eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup buttermilk

½ cup packed dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons whipping cream
1 tablespoon reserved rum from cake recipe

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch fluted Bundt pan.

2. In a nonreactive bowl, soak raisins in the rum for at least 30 minutes. Sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, salt and spices.

3. Peel sweet potatoes, cut them into chunks, place in salted water, bring to a simmer and cook until tender when pierced with a knife. Drain and let dry for a few minutes, then mash coarsely. Measure 2 cups of sweet potatoes and reserve.

4. In a mixer fitted with a whisk, beat the eggs to break them up, then add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the vegetable oil and vanilla. Drain the raisins, reserving the liquid. Add ¤ cup of the rum to the batter. Add the sweet potatoes and mix until thoroughly combined.

5. Add the flour mixture to the batter in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk (start and finish with the flour). Fold in raisins. Pour the batter into the Bundt pan and bake for 80 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes and then invert onto a wire rack.

6. While the cake is cooling, make the glaze: Mix the sugar, butter and cream in a heavy saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Continue to boil until the mixture thickens somewhat, 3 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and add about 1 tablespoon of reserved rum (add fresh rum, if needed).

7. Set the cake and cooling rack over a baking sheet. With a toothpick, punch holes all over the cake. Pour 1/3 of the glaze over the cake. Wait 15 minutes, then pour the remaining glaze on top. You must glaze the cake while it's hot. Allow cake to cool completely.

Regina Schrambling's Pumpkin Tarte Tatin


I suppose I should explain. After all, I wouldn't entirely blame you if you took one look at that photograph and asked yourself just what exactly I was thinking when I took it. Well, that tarte you see up there may not be as beautiful as you'd expect, but you can blame that on my obstinate refusal to buy a nonstick pan. If you can get over the half-moons of caramelized kabocha squash flung willy-nilly over the peppered short crust, there's actually a pretty delicious recipe to be found.

I clipped the recipe for this savory version of the archetypically French tarte Tatin from the Los Angeles Times more than three years ago. I urge you not to wait that long before trying it yourselves. But before we continue, let me just make sure you aren't confusing it with this recipe. They're really quite similar, but different in some fundamental ways and while I haven't made the citrouillat myself, it doesn't entice me at all. Who knows why? (I think I need to stop writing posts on Saturday nights.)

Numbingly boring questions aside, this tart is lovely. The kabocha squash (it's the only squash I enjoy biting into) becomes creamy and incredibly sweet through both the pan-caramelization and the oven-roasting. The fudgy white goat cheese melts funkily in the background along with the herbed tangle of onions that have been cooked to a glossy brown tangle of flavor. The peppery short crust is tender and literally melts in your mouth (though if I make this again, it's going to be with a puff pastry crust to lighten things a bit).

So the squash layer stuck to my cast-iron skillet instead of unmolding in perfect half-moons. Who cares? All you have to do is barely blink an eye, gently scrape the caramelized topping out of the pan and rearrange it as best you can on the crust. Sometimes, I think, being a good cook is all about keeping your cool.

Pumpkin Tarte Tatin
Serves 6

1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
About 1/4 small (3 to 3 1/2 pounds) pumpkin
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced onions
Coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme, divided
1 tablespoon pumpkin seed oil (or olive oil)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 ounce soft goat cheese

1. For the crust, combine the flour, salt and pepper in a mixing bowl and toss with a fork to mix well. Cut the chilled unsalted butter into one-quarter-inch pieces and rub into the dry ingredients with fingertips until the mixture resembles very coarse meal. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons ice water and toss until the ingredients cling together, adding 1 tablespoon more water if necessary. Pull together into a ball and knead very lightly, then pat out into a thick round on wax paper. Wrap the dough in the wax paper and chill it while cooking the pumpkin.

2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel and seed the pumpkin and cut it into one-quarter-inch-thick slices.

3. Combine the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a 10-inch (measured across the top) nonstick, ovenproof skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion, salt to taste and half the thyme and sauté, stirring often, until very soft and caramelized, about 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

4. Wipe the skillet clean and add the remaining butter and the pumpkin seed oil; melt over medium heat. Arrange the pumpkin slices in the skillet in slightly overlapping layers, but with most of the pumpkin flat on the skillet so the surfaces will caramelize. The pumpkin should cover the bottom completely. Sprinkle with the remaining thyme and season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium-high heat until the bottom slices start to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting, cover the skillet and cook until the pumpkin is soft but not falling apart, about 10 minutes. Drizzle with the cream and remove from the heat. Crumble the goat cheese and scatter the onions evenly over the pumpkin.

5. Cut a sheet of wax paper into a 10-inch round. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough under the sheet to make a crust, using the sheet as a guide. Remove the wax paper and carefully fit the crust over the pumpkin, tucking and crimping the perimeter to seal it completely.

6. Bake in the top third of the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, until the crust is browned. Using a small spatula around the edges of the skillet to release the crust, immediately unmold the tarte onto a serving platter (place a platter over the skillet and invert it). Cut it into wedges and serve warm or hot.

Melissa Clark's Fake Baked Beans


It's no secret that I have a penchant for canned baked beans. On certain days, those squidgy beans oozing all over my dinner plate are the only thing that will do. Paired with steamed broccoli, they're a soothing time machine to my youth and something like soul medicine. I've done baked beans from scratch the James Beard way, and while the challenge was fun, I realized that that fancy version would never be able to live up to my beloved stuff in a can.

That might have been liberating knowledge, but something else nagged at me. After all, reading the ingredient label on those cans was never a good time. The amount of sugar sort of alarmed me. Besides, somewhere out there people were doctoring their cans of beans and that totally intrigued me. (Is this an official low point? Admitting that doctoring beans is intriguing to me? I have to hope I'm not alone.) Could there be a middle ground - somewhere between totally-from-scratch beans and the sugar-dredged canned ones?

There could be and there was.

Melissa Clark, in her new column at the New York Times, wrote about her version of homemade baked beans last week. But since I'd already gone the dried bean route, I decided to make the more streamlined version of her recipe. I dumped a few cans of pinto beans (I like them better than white beans) with their liquid (shudder) into a pot along with a pungent slurry of ketchup, vinegar, dried mustard, Tabasco sauce and pepper. And since I've always been used to vegetarian baked beans, I eschewed the bacon in Melissa's beans for a knife-tip of smoked pimenton de la vera. I brought the mixture to a simmer and let the whole thing cook gently until the liquid reduced.

I put a sticky ladleful of beans into a bowl and dug in. Somewhat skeptically, I might add. How could such a simple process result in anything as good as factory-produced baked beans? Just to be on the safe side, I also made a bowlful of Molly's escarole salad. Vitamins and a back-up dinner (awfully tasty, I might add), should the need arise.

Oh, I can be such a fool.

Because - spicy, smoky, sweet and complex - these were some seriously good canned beans. Fast, cheap, easy, wholesome and entirely homemade. So I didn't soak those pellet-y little beans for endless hours and then cook them into oblivion! Big deal. I can't believe I might never buy canned baked beans again.

Fake Baked Beans
Serves 4

3 15-ounce cans of pinto beans
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup molasses
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of smoked Spanish paprika

1. Put the beans, with their liquid, in a pot. In a small bowl, mix together ketchup, molasses, vinegar, mustard powder, Tabasco and pepper. Pour mixture into beans and stir well.

2. Bring everything to a simmer. Let simmer over low heat until beans are thickened, about 30 to 45 minutes. Season with salt if needed.

Chocolate Bouchon Pudding


Oh ho, this is thrilling, thrilling stuff. Quite possibly the best thing I've made all week, all month! Just you wait. You'll be so excited! I just know it.

Remember those chocolate bouchons from Thomas Keller that I made last month? The ones that turned out too salty, inedibly salty, really? Oh, you were all so sweetly sympathetic. And then remember the comments on those bouchons? Specifically, the one from David that told me to turn lemons into lemonade, or rather, salty chocolate bouchons into bread pudding?

Well, I heeded his instructions and I am so glad I did. Because out of those salty chocolate cakelets and a simple little custard came a dessert so delicious and fantastic that you will be compelled - compelled, I tell you! - to make it over and over and over again. I swear. I think you'll even find yourself making oversalted chocolate bouchons on purpose. Just so that you have a reason to make this. I know I will.

Oh, oh, it is so good. Hall-of-fame good. Laminate-this-recipe-I-beseech-you good.

So you've baked a batch of bouchons and have tried one or two just to make sure that I'm not entirely insane and that the bouchons are in fact unpleasantly salty. You should take six of them and cut them into chunks. Mine were frozen for a month and then defrosted the day before I made the bread pudding, so they were ever so faintly stale. This is a good thing! You put the chunks in a 2-quart souffle dish, along with a handful of pitted prunes that you've chopped as well.

If you're really cunning, you could soak the prunes in some rum before adding them, liquor and all, to the pudding dish, but my prunes were soft enough, and, in any case, I thought of this trick after it was too late. Instead, I added the splash of rum to the whole milk boiling up on the stove, along with a fillip of vanilla extract and a cinnamon stick. While this infuses, you whisk together sugar and eggs, then pour the hot milk into the eggs and whisk furiously so the eggs don't cook, before dumping the custard over the bouchon chunks and sliding the dish into a preheated oven.

This bakes for a while until the custard is set and the pudding has risen deliciously and the house is filled with the scent of baking chocolate and your salivary glands are feeling somewhat strained and put-upon. Can't you satiate them already?

Pull the souffle dish out of the oven, let it cool as long as possible, then scoop out portions onto small plates and - this is Important Stuff, mind you - serve the warm pudding with a small spoonful of vanilla ice cream so that it melts gently around each dark, quivery spoonful.

I tell you, you will be floored, simply floored, by how good this is. I could wax on for days about the perfection of combining prunes and chocolate, but you've got so many other lovely things going on here as well, texturally and flavor-wise. Silky custard, light-as-air cakelets, an air of sophistication and nuance from the rum, the prunes, the cinnamon, the dark chocolate, and then, the creamy cap of vanilla ice cream.

The whole thing? A dessert for the ages. Thank goodness for salty chocolate cakes and the ingenuity of a certain Parisian expat pastry chef. I'm thoroughly depressed that there aren't any leftovers.

Chocolate Bouchon Pudding
Serves 6 to 8

6 chocolate bouchons (see recipe here)
12 pitted prunes
2 cups whole milk
2-3 tablespoons rum
1 small cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut up the bouchons into chunks and put them in a 2-quart round souffle dish. Add the pitted prunes, cut into chunks. Mix well.

2. Put the milk, cinnamon stick, vanilla extract and rum into a saucepan. Heat the mixture over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Turn off the flame and let the milk infuse for 20 minutes. In the meantime, whisk together the eggs and sugar in a large bowl.

3. After the milk has infused, bring it back to a boil, discard the cinnamon stick, and then turn off the heat. Using a whisk, pour the hot milk in a thin, slow stream into the bowl of eggs and sugar, whisking all the while. Then pour the bowl of hot custard evenly over the souffle dish of bouchon chunks and prunes.

4. Put the dish into the oven and bake for an hour, or until the custard has set. Let it cool for a bit, then serve warm with good-quality vanilla ice cream.

James Oseland's Javanese Chicken Curry (Opor Ayam)


Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in recipes. I've got snippets of newspaper all over my desk, binders filled to bursting, and a computer littered with documents of copied-and-pasted recipes. I started this blog, in part (unromantically), as a way of cleaning up this mess, but every time I crumple up one more newspaper clipping after finishing a meal, there's another one to take its place. Maddening, I tell you.

Usually, I don't really mind - the more, the merrier! - but I'm feeling slightly overwhelmed this week. Too overwhelmed for resourceful cooking. Maybe it's the weather? The February doldrums? I don't know. But we have been eating pretty well anyway, so I'm not too fussed. Things will right themselves again. In the meantime: family recipes I know by heart and that Ben loves now, too, a delicious Mexican meal (in New York! I'm in heaven) with these lovely ladies, and an overdue birthday dinner that has me licking my chops in anticipation.

(And then there was Valentine's Day, where we celebrated that most awful of occasions - I refuse to call it a holiday - by eating popcorn at the movie theater where we watched what might possibly be the best German movie I've ever seen. Dessert was leftover pasta back at home. It was the perfect kind of night.)

But because I like to stay focused here and on message, I am here today to tell you about a meal I made over a week ago. Who knows why I've been dragging my feet. It's not like it was terrible - it was actually pretty good. But there were a few things wrong with the recipe and with each passing day I came to dread doing my write-up. Which is silly, really, because those things are so easily correctable. Besides, you'll get to cook with lovely things like kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass tied in a knot, which, if you're anything like me, will be part of the pleasure.

So, without further ado, last week I made Javanese Chicken Curry.

Remember when I made that shrimp in caramel that I really didn't like? Well, this recipe for Javanese Chicken Curry was from the same article - a review of three Asian cookbooks by Julia Moskin. The chicken curry came from the pages of James Oseland's new book, Cradle of Flavor, and sounded so completely alluring to me, what with those kaffir lime leaves and that ginger-shallot-chili paste and those chicken thighs (which are the best part of the chicken, I think).

It also seemed pretty easy. After all, you whirl together most of the ingredients in a food processor until a fragrant paste emerges, before you cook that for a bit and then add the chicken to brown and the coconut milk and aromatics to simmer. What could be less complicated than that?

There are just a few things to note. First of all, when you cook the spice paste in the pot, it absorbs all the oil. Then, when you go to lay down the chicken thighs for browning (which you should do in batches, lest you end up like me, with crowded thighs), the pot is almost dry. So, add more oil, otherwise you'll end up with blackened chicken skin and raw chicken meat.

Second of all, as far as I could tell, coconut and water mixed together and then simmered, even for close to an hour, doesn't really thicken. It reduces a bit and takes on the muddy color of the spice paste and the incredible fragrance of lime leaves and lemongrass and cinnamon, but it remains a thin liquid.

And third of all, since that lovely sauce doesn't really thicken, I didn't see the point in adding almost another cup of coconut milk to a dish that was already drowning in sauce (that sauce is good, for sure! Soak it up with rice, spoon it in for all I care. But you'll still have some leftover.). So I added just a spoonful or two to lighten the flavor and color a bit, and left it at that.

There, that was easy, wasn't it? Sometimes I think I'm a bit too excitable.

We ate our curry over plain white rice and it was lovely - warm and sweet with spices, the comforting coconut gravy lapping at the edges of the plate. If you're into that kind of thing, you could chop some cilantro to sprinkle on top and make your dinner look a little more attractive. But chances are that by the time you've made it to the dinner table, your home will be so entirely filled with the smells of good food, you won't even need to.

Javanese Chicken Curry
Serves 4 to 6

1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 fresh red Holland or Fresno chili, stemmed and cut into chunks
6 shallots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 piece galangal, about 1½ inches long, peeled and roughly sliced (optional)
1 piece ginger, 2 inches long, peeled and roughly sliced
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 thick stalk lemon grass, stem end and brittle top cut off
2 pieces cinnamon stick
5 kaffir lime leaves
2½ to 3 pounds skin-on chicken legs, thighs or both (if possible, have thighs cut in half and knuckle cut off legs), patted dry
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
¾ teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste

1. In a small food processor, whirl coriander seeds until finely ground. Add chili, shallots, garlic, galangal and ginger and process to a smooth paste, adding a tablespoon or so of water if needed. (Ingredients can also be chopped finely, then pounded together in mortar and pestle.)

2. Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. When oil is hot enough to gently sizzle a pinch of paste, add all the paste and cook, stirring often, until golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Reduce heat as needed to prevent browning.

3. Using a heavy object like a glass measuring cup, smash lemon grass stalk, crushing lightly just until bendable. Tie in a knot, pulling gently on both ends. Add to pot with cinnamon and lime leaves. Cook 1 minute more, until cinnamon is fragrant.

4. Scrape paste to one side and add chicken to pot. Raise heat and brown chicken lightly on both sides, about 10 minutes total. Add 1 cup coconut milk, 1¼ cups water and salt, stirring well and scraping up browned bits from bottom of pot. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered 40 to 50 minutes, until chicken is cooked through and sauce is thickened. Do not boil.

5. Add remaining coconut milk and heat through. Taste for salt. Let cool slightly and serve.

Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Orange Drizzle Cake


Goodness, it's been a while, hasn't it? I'm sorry I abandoned my posting duties, but it's been a momentous week. Oh yes, indeed, in more ways than one.

First of all? A baby was born!
Second of all? A wedding dress was bought!
Third of all? I finally got my friend Amy to teach me how to make dumplings and my life may never be the same again.

I should clarify: A. I did not give birth. But my dear friends and honorary family members welcomed their lyrically named daughter, Emma Tarsoly (you Hungarian speakers out there will know what that sounds like), into the world. And there was much rejoicing!

And B. People, I am not getting married. But Ben's sister is, and I have to tell you that there is nothing better in terms of wedding dress shopping than getting to wander through the shops of New York with the world's most relaxed bride who cares not a whit for traditional bridal salons and allowed me to squire her around to all my favorite shops so that I could fondle pretty frocks in a covetous stupor while she managed to find a dreamy dress and keep her wits about her (it was the very first one she tried!).

Okay, now that that's settled, we can focus on the (pressing) matter at hand. Dumplings, dumplings and, oh, the glorious dumplings.

I met my friend Amy in Paris years ago. One evening she had me over to her chambre de bonne (where the shower was in the kitchen, natch, right next to the stove, and the toilet was down the hall - um, the outside hall, where other people lived and shared that very same toilet, can you just imagine having to get up to go in the middle of the night only to find your next-door neighbor already occupying the loo, leaving you to wait, foot tapping, eyes obstinately glued shut in an attempt to block out the forces of light and cold that could very well wake you up entirely out of your hard-won slumber, until you could finally dash in, out, and back to bed in record time? I could not and still cannot) and, in the blink of an eye, whipped up the most delicious Chinese meal of sauteed spinach and shiitake mushrooms - with a dash of cornstarch here, a glug of something thick and dark and aromatic there, and an alchemy of ingredients that had me transfixed.

What I was thinking was, "You mean to tell me, universe, that this chic little woman, with a closet full of little black dresses, a penchant for Pineau de Charentes and late nights, and impeccable taste in tartes au citron, could also be the best Taiwanese cook since, well, anything?" (I grew up on Golden Temple, friends.)

The universe nodded.

Ever since then, after Amy and I both left Paris and came to New York, I have wheedled and begged and whined and bugged her to teach me her secrets.

"Where do you go shopping, Amy?" Flushing. "Flushing! Take me to Flushing! Do a Flushing field trip, Amy, please! I can't do it without you."


"Amy, what's that?" Plum wine. "And that?" Dried Chinese sausage. "And, oooo, that?!" Dumpling skins.  ("...!")

And then.

"How do you make dumplings, Amy?" Oh, I don't know, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. "But how much of this, and how much of that? And what are this and that, anyway? Tell me, Amy, tell me, please!"

It was enough to drive anyone batty.

But Amy is not only chic and beautiful and a glorious cook, she's also a kind and generous friend. Last week, she finally took pity on me and initiated me into the world of super-humans who can make Chinese dumplings at home (steamed and fried!). And we were triumphant, I would say.

Wouldn't you agree?


We prepped and filled and crimped and steamed and fried until dumplings - some translucent and delicate, others golden-brown and lusty - covered every available surface in the apartment. And then we ate. We ate ourselves completely silly. And yes, the dumplings were fantastically delicious. Worth all the incessant wheedling I'd subjected Amy to. Worth all the prep work she'd generously done for us. Worth all the crimping at the living room coffee table. But you know what the real tragedy is?

I forgot to write down the recipe. (My weak line of defense is that Amy is one of those cooks who does everything a l'occhio, but still, I know, it's no excuse to leave you so high and dry.)

After you're finished hating me, let me tell you that it's actually a blessing. Because making these without Amy there next to you just wouldn't be the same. Scout's honor.

Instead I offer you a paltry, paltry recipe, one that you should crush in your dumpling-less fists and throw back at the screen at me. In return for Amy's dumpling tutorial, I'd promised to make dessert, choosing Nigella Lawson's orange-chocolate cake from a New York Times column ages ago when she was obsessed with Seville oranges.

The cake, with two (whopping) tablespoons of cocoa barely tasted of chocolate. (And I snuck in a third, just for good measure. It didn't make a difference.) Sure, it was light and fluffy, and the orange syrup was lovely, but Nigella's recipe had it baking in a loaf pan and this batter barely even filled the 6x6 pan we have in our kitchen. I'm not entirely sure how her cake could have been anything else than something the height of a petit four. But whatever, let's not even waste another sentence on a silly little cake when there are dumplings to ogle and drool over and dreamily plan to recreate some time very, very, very soon.

With a recipe then, I promise.

Chocolate Orange Drizzle Cake

Yields 8 servings

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup light brown sugar
Finely grated zest and juice of two Seville oranges (about 1/2 cup); or 6 tablespoons orange juice and 3 tablespoons lime juice
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons cocoa powder, sifted
2 large eggs
1/4 cup whole milk
3/4 cup confectioner's sugar

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a small, square baking pan, and line it with parchment paper.

2. In a mixer, beat butter until soft. Add brown sugar, and beat again until soft and creamy. Mix in zest of 1 orange. In another bowl, stir together flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and cocoa.

3. Whisk eggs into butter-sugar mixture one at a time, alternating with a little flour mixture. Fold in remaining flour mixture. Add milk. Stir until smooth. Pour into pan.

4. Bake until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, 30 minutes. In a saucepan combine juice, remaining zest and confectioner's sugar. Place over low heat until sugar dissolves. Strain into a pitcher.

5. When the cake comes out of the oven, pierce it all over with the cake tester. Slowly drizzle warm syrup over the cake so that it sinks in. Allow cake to sit in the pan until it has cooled, then transfer to a serving plate.

Deborah Madison's Pan-Glazed Tofu with Thai Red Curry Sauce


There's nothing like going to see an Almodovar movie by yourself on a Sunday night. Resplendant actresses with perpetually tear-filled eyes and glorious bosoms, foul-mouthed declarations of love, music that makes your throat swell, gallows humor - it's all so beautiful that one can get downright melancholy.

I walked out of the movie theater late last night, my eyes still sort of wet, holding my little plastic shopping bag that contained one packet of tofu, one can of coconut milk, a sackful of green beans, and a lime. I'd done my grocery shopping before the movie, not remembering that after an Almodovar movie, the only thing you really feel like eating is a spicy bowl of gazpacho and a ham sandwich (Serrano, of course). Or, if someone else is cooking, a huge paella crammed with briny clams and tender octopus and savory chorizo and green flashes of peas, I suppose.

But a new-fangled, single-girl meal of Asian-inflected tofu? Dios mio. I can't see Raimunda eating that stuff for dinner.

Still, I couldn't very well go shopping all over again, and where was I going to find Serrano ham on a Sunday night, anyway? Tofu it'd have to be. But, oh, it felt awfully unromantic to be blotting tofu slices with paper towels when all I wanted to do was chop vegetables and weep into my cutting board (of course, it would have helped things if I'd been wearing a pencil skirt and Wonderbra, instead of my Sunday uniform of jeans and a lumpy sweater).

I'd had this recipe from the New York Times clipped for years, but since Ben refuses to knowingly eat anything with fish sauce in it, I'd had to save it for a night when I'd be eating alone. Brandishing my knife as sexily (and safely!) as possible, I sliced my block of extra-firm tofu into equal pieces and blotted them dry, before whisking together coconut milk, the fish sauce, lime juice, some sugar, a spoonful of Thai red curry paste and hot chicken broth.

I browned the tofu gently in the pan, then added the pale orange sauce (which bubbled up alarmingly) and reduced it to a syrupy glaze (this actually took more than 2 minutes, as Madison directs you, but no more than 4 minutes, because then you're left with very little sauce and as anyone who eats tofu knows, not enough sauce can be a Very Bad Thing Indeed).

With a small pile of patna rice and some steamed green beans drizzled with toasted sesame oil, it was a fine dinner and one I'll certainly make again. The tofu was appealingly creamy and tender on the inside, while the outside crust had a nice chew to it. The sauce was spicy and exotic, and nicely balanced with the whole sweet, sour, salty, hot thing. It wasn't the most authentic meal I'll ever cook, but for a Sunday night by myself (and as leftovers today), it was quite good.

Would I rather have been eating morcilla? Perhaps. But then again, I'd also like to look like Penelope Cruz. With the morcilla thing, I'll just have to be patient (we're going to Spain for a few days this summer). With the Penelope thing, I'll just have to be happy that Ben doesn't like Almodovar. Because who could compete with a woman like that?

Pan-Glazed Tofu with Thai Red Curry Sauce
Serves 2 to 4

1 one-pound package firm or extra-firm tofu
1/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon Thai red curry paste
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon peanut oil
Minced cilantro for garnish

1. Cut tofu widthwise into eight 1/2-inch-thick slices. Blot tofu dry between layers of paper towels.

2. Combine coconut milk, stock, fish sauce, lime juice, curry paste and sugar in small bowl, and set aside.

3. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet until shimmering. Add tofu, and cook over medium heat until golden brown, 6 to 7 minutes. Turn and cook about 5 minutes more.

4. Add coconut milk mixture to pan and simmer, turning tofu once, until liquid reduces to thick syrup and tofu is glazed, about 2 minutes. Transfer tofu to serving platter, and scrape the glaze left in pan over tofu. Garnish with minced cilantro and serve immediately.