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June 2009
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August 2009

Moving House

I am in that seventh circle of Hell known as MOVING HOUSE, up to my eyeballs in half-filled boxes, too many books to count, dust bunnies, bubble wrap, tchotchkes, and the remaining assorted detritus of a life. Good grief, moving is just gutting, isn't it? All your earthly possessions reduced to a motley collection of cardboard boxes, crumpled newspaper, blanket-swaddled furniture?

Anyway, all of this is to say that I haven't dropped off the face of the earth, or been swallowed alive by some flesh-eating giant, or even fainted away in the sudden summer heat. It's just that while packing I've just been eating cereal or completely mediocre takeout for dinner instead of cooking lovely things (and finally the newspapers are full of good stuff again, too) to tell you about.

The good news is twofold: first of all, the move is this weekend. Second of all, while my new apartment may be smaller than the old one, my new kitchen is glorious and I cannot wait to get cooking in there. Maybe even Sunday night? That may be ambitious, but I promise you it will be soon. Ooh, ooh, there's a third thing, too! My camera is apparently on its way back to me, too, released from the dungeons of the Nikon repair service offices. Glory be, I can't even stand the suspense. Stay tuned, lovely readers.


Nicole Stich's Marillenknödel (Apricot Dumplings)

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Oh, the glorious dumpling. Is there any other culinary marvel as delicious, as adorable, as appropriately named, as internationally recognized, and as beloved as the dumpling? Such a humble little thing, and yet so fervently adored, from Italy to China, from Germany to Japan.

I think I've mentioned before that tomatoes are my desert island food, the one thing I'd happily eat every day from here to eternity, but if a questionnaire would ever allow for a second item on that list, it'd have to be the dumpling. Pork-stuffed, tomato-sauced, chicken-stew-topped, and finally - and most stunningly - fruit-filled.

Most people think of dumplings as savory bites, pan-fried like gyoza, or tossed in a butter sauce, like gnocchi, bursting with soup like the Chinese soup dumpling or even scraped off a board into a pot of boiling water, like Spätzle (not actually a noodle! yes, a dumpling). But from the marvelous culinary archives of the Austro-Hungarian Empire comes forth what I believe to be the crown jewel of dumplings: the sweet one stuffed with fruit, rolled in toasted, buttered breadcrumbs and served, dusted with a fine shower of confectioner's sugar, to a table of hungry eaters who will adore you, in one fell swoop, after dining like such royalty.

The Austrian fruit dumpling is encased in delicate quark-enriched dough flavored with fresh lemon peel and vanilla. Would you like to know what my personal idea of heaven smells like? Make this dough and take a long, deep breath before you stir in the flour. Quark is a German fresh cheese that looks a little like ricotta, but tastes really nothing like it: it's far more sour. The Vermont Butter & Cheese Company makes quark and you can poke around your cheese stores or specialty grocers to find other brands. Otherwise, here's a guide to making your own (I haven't tried this myself).

The dough is rather soft and delicate - handle it as little as possible. As long as you keep your counters and hands well-floured, you should be fine. After you form the gorgeous dough into a log and cut it into equal pieces, you flatten those pieces until they're large enough to encase a sugar-stuffed apricot and gently press and poke until you've closed up the dough all around the apricot. Then you plop these little balls into a pot of boiling water where they'll bob and float until they're done. You roll the drained dumplings in butter-toasted breadcrumbs and then shower them liberally with confectioner's sugar.

And then, oh then, to eat them. What you'll find is a delicious outer cover of tender, tasty dumpling and a perfectly cooked apricot, sweet and tart at the same time, fairly bursting with juice, on the inside. The buttery, crispy breadcrumb coating and the soft fillip of powdered sugar finesse each bite.

In Austria, these are served as part of a light meal, not as dessert, so we ate the dumplings (two per person is just fine) for dinner, then followed up with salad. (We used to have rice pudding with sour cherries for lunch at school in Berlin, too, so who knows.) But I don't think it really matters when you eat these gems. Just make sure you do.

I know. You have to search for an odd German cheese. You have to strain it and then make a dough. You have to be all careful with it. And then you have to not only boil the dumplings, but make a further coating for them. There's a reason it took me 31 years to make my own. But you know what? I'm a lazy git. And I've learned my lesson. Don't wait as long as I did. This is the king of dumplings, the leader of them all!

(And the recipe, from Nicky's gorgeous blog, delicious days, really is a cinch. It worked perfectly and doubles very easily. I translated from the metric for American readers below.)

More photos here.

Marillenknödel (Apricot Dumplings)

Makes 6

1/2 pound fresh quark cheese
1 teaspoon of fresh lemon zest
6 small apricots
6 sugar cubes or 3 teaspoons of Demerara sugar
4 tablespoons soft unsalted butter
1 large egg yolk
3/4 cup semolina flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
A pinch of salt
Scant 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for forming
1/3 cup plain, unseasoned breadcrumbs
Powdered sugar

1. Place the quark in a fine mesh sieve and let drain for an hour into the sink. If you don't have an hour, 15 to 30 minutes are fine. Wash the apricots and dry them, then cut them open along their seams (only halfway!) and remove their pits. Fill with either a sugar cube or half a teaspoon of Demerara sugar.

2. Bring a large pot of water to boil, add a generous pinch of salt, and reduce the temperature until the water bubbles just very lightly.

3. In a big bowl cream together the strained quark, lemon zest, 2 tablespoons of soft butter, egg yolk, semolina, sugar, vanilla, and salt using a wooden spoon. When it's well-combined and fluffy,  fold in the flour. Don't over-mix. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and with well-floured hands, form the dough gently into a thick log.

4. Cut the log into into 6 equally sized pieces. With floured hands, gently pat each piece into a small disc, then place a sugar-filled apricot in the middle of the dough and gently wrap the dough around the apricot. Form a neat little dumpling (re-flour your hands as necessary) and double check that the apricots are completely covered by the dough. There will be seams, but try to make sure they are as closed as possible.

5. Carefully slip the dumplings into the water and watch to make sure none got stuck to the bottom of the pot, stirring, if needed. Let them simmer at low heat for 12 to 14 minutes.

6. Meanwhile, melt the remaining butter in a pan over medium heat and toast the breadcrumbs in the butter for a few minutes. Remove the dumplings with a skimmer, then roll them in the pan with the buttered breadcrumbs until evenly covered. Pile the dumplings on a serving plate and dust generously with powdered sugar. Serve hot.


Aglaia Kremezi's Fried Potatoes with Yogurt Sauce

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(A disclaimer: my camera is in the shop, after an unfortunate collision with a Berlin sidewalk. So I'm taking pictures with my iPhone. Patience.)

Cooking for one can be, as we all know, a chore. But cooking for one can also be, under different circumstances, a bit of a thrill. No one there to press their culinary preferences on you, no dietary restrictions to observe, no hatred of bacon to dance around. You can let your inner freak flag fly: after all, if no one's there to see that you secretly like pan-fried banana peanut butter sandwiches for dinner or poached eggs with hot sauce over pasta, you can indulge in your strangest cravings with absolute alacrity and that, truly, might be the best part of dining alone.

The LA Times reviewed Deborah Madison's new book this week, about what people eat when they eat alone. It's a subject of much fascination, of course, because we've all been there, standing in the kitchen after work, backs pressed against the counter, drinking a beer and eating slivers of Cheddar and cold cornichons by the handful, or fried rice with bits and bobs from the fridge, or any number of other strange combinations borne out of convenience, speed, and a particular combination of flavors.

(I, for example, like baked beans and broccoli. Triscuits and pickled herring. Sauteed cherry tomatoes and a can of tuna over spaghetti. A big green salad dressed with too much vinegar, enough to make my nose wrinkle.)

I love hearing about what other people eat when they're eating alone. Not just for the voyeuristic angle (though it's sort of like looking like other people's shopping carts when standing in line at the grocery store: fascinating), but because I'm always looking for inspiration, too. And luckily for me, and for you, too, the review included one recipe that I'm filing into my permanent repertoire straight away, so good it was, so perfect in terms of its oddness and timing and - in the end, straightforward deliciousness.

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It comes from Aglaia Kremezi, the Greek food writer, and is such a simple thing: potatoes sliced thinly and fried up in a matter of minutes in hot oil, then forked through a tangy, spicy  sauce of yogurt, feta, mustard and Aleppo pepper. After dragging my finger through the sauce to taste, I added a splash of vinegar because no meal alone - for me, apparently - seems to be complete without that extra zing.

The hot, crispy potatoes and the cool, sour sauce are a match made in heaven. Crunchy, yielding, creamy, chewy - it's a textural marvel at the same time as it is just plain tasty. (Do you secretly or not so secretly like dipping your French fries in mayonnaise? This is the better version of that - the far better version, actually - in more ways than one.) In fact, you might find yourself regretting the fact that you used only three potatoes - they'll be gone in a flash. Luckily, it only takes a few minutes to fry up some more. What I'm trying to figure out now is what to do with that leftover sauce - it's rather addictively swipeable.

So, tell me, lovelies: what do you eat when you're eating alone? Not eating alone due to heartbreak - because that's medicinal eating, really, another thing entirely - but because you have a glorious evening by yourself stretching out in front of you, with no one to please but yourself. Give me your strangest, your plainest, your most beloved dishes! I can't wait to read them.

Fried Potatoes with Yogurt Sauce
Serves 1

3 Yukon Gold potatoes, or as many as you want to eat in a sitting
3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil or sunflower seed oil
1/2 cup plain yogurt (I used 2% Liberté, though the author says full-fat is better, just don't use use the thick, strained kind)
2 tablespoons crumbled Greek feta cheese
2 to 3 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Plenty of Aleppo pepper (I used close to a tablespoon)
1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar

1. Halve the potatoes lengthwise, then slice them slightly thinner than 1/8-inch. Fry them in the hot oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until golden brown in places. Drain them on three layers of paper towels.

2. Combine the yogurt, feta, mustard and pepper. Add the vinegar and stir well, until creamy. Put the potates on a plate with some of the sauce on the side and dip the forked potatoes into the sauce as you go. You might have sauce left over - a good excuse to fry up a few more potatoes tomorrow.