Recipe for Disaster

April 26, 2009

La Vrai Creme BruleeShame on me. I haven’t kept up with my weekly posts this month. It’s not because the world has righted itself and there’s nothing to rail against or fight for. There’s still plenty of that: just read on.

For one mute week I’ve been in Katrina country, part of the Culinary Corps. After taking part in rebuilding efforts immediately following the hurricane in 2005, Christine Carroll, a chef by training if not employment, decided that culinary professionals could be put to use helping rebuild New Orleans. In exchange, they would meet wonderful people and help keep fragile culinary traditions alive.

Nowhere else in America than in New Orleans is the cuisine as exquisitely local and lovingly maintained by a variety of closely connected, but historically and ethnically different, groups. From the Cajuns who left Nova Scotia, to the French-related Creoles, from the descendants of slaves, to the fairly recent Sicilians, each has cherished, nurtured and treasured food traditions that have intermingled, like the people themselves, over centuries. If New York is a melting pot, and Toronto a mosaic, New Orleans is  a gumbo:  rich in flavor, diverse in ingredients, and capable of surprise.

This is what has always made New Orleans unique and special. It is the one place where you could go and not feel that you were Anywhere, USA. From its architecture to its food, from its pace to its music, from its politics to its insects, nowhere else in America has a culture or life-style remotely similar in its distinctiveness. It has survived wars and hurricanes, cherishing and cherished by the laid-back, appreciative audience of the city’s denizens as well as its visitors.

Until Katrina. As entrenched as food ways are when immigrants come to a country, they are equally as fragile when a population is wrenched, or in this case, blown and washed away. People and restaurants, repositories of heirloom recipes and unique techniques, oral traditions and family practices, simply disappeared in the storm’s aftermath.

Many elderly died; entire families moved out and never returned; restaurants long on history but short on cash didn’t have the wherewithal to reopen. Like an oyster plucked from its sea bed, the storm snatched people, places and things, depositing them far away.

Over the last four years, the Culinary Corps has been working hard with local groups to maintain, restore, and build new food traditions. Once a year, a small volunteer and fund raising group of chefs come to the Crescent City where it has helped schools, community groups, and other volunteer groups by providing chefs to create meals, provide labor, and generally fill in wherever needed to assist in any form of rebuilding activity.

Yes, despite the fact that you never hear about what’s going on down in NOLA, the fact is that thousands of people never returned, and thousands are still unable to return. While there is a great deal of publicity regarding the Brad Pitt and Habitat for Humanity initiatives to rebuild the Lower 9th ward, the total number of new houses amounts to less than 1000 of over thousands  destroyed or simply washed away.

Vacant lots of tall grass give testimony to owners who haven’t returned, either for lack of money or will to fight the endless bureaucracy necessary to prove ownership.

While any progress towards restoration is good, it is hard to believe that four years later in the great US of A, the Lower 9th is still as wind-swept and eerily quiet despite the optimistic sounds of hammers.

And if the slow progress isn’t depressing enough, there’s lots more to raise one’s ire. Like the food fed to the volunteers at Camp Hope. Yes, the name is inspiring and surely makes the thousands of volunteers who come to work with Habitat for Humanity feel good about what they are doing.

But is it too much to ask the (still) richest country in the world to produce food that is basically if not healthy, at least not harmful?

Housed in a former school that is soon to be torn down in an area that was inundated by waters rising over 20 feet high after the storm surge, the camp bunks and feeds hundreds of people weekly, serving them meals made from donated food. Kids from Americorps help in the kitchen, using items donated by manufacturers and distributors in a fit of social conscience.

But how can you in good conscience feed people this food? Especially to people who are donating their time and spending their money in an effort to help others?

The stock rooms of the old but sturdy kitchen bulged with 100 oz cans of  pudding with “real and artificial” flavors; canned apple slices and artichokes preserved for eternity by chemicals; frozen sauce bases rivaled only by the Gulf in salinity; peanut butter fattened with sugar and shortening; “vanilla”cake and “chocolate” brownie mixes; pasta and rice.

Yes, there were some frozen vegetables and proteins like eggs, frozen chicken and catfish, some shrimp and soy burgers but they were the exception in a sea of sugared cereals, white bread and margarine. And yes, there were chickpeas and black beans, marinated artichokes, and a lone can of plums along with some fresh lettuce.

I know it is bad form to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this isn’t a gift horse. This is food that people will eat.

The Culinary Corps  swooped in like Navy Seals to make Friday night dinner. One hundred volunteers were expected, over 200 showed up perhaps knowing that this meal was going to be different.  And what a meal it was.

From the camp’s larder, we whipped up an Italian-ish menu: pasta with (canned) olives, (canned) artichokes, and (processed) mozzarella cheese; (fresh) huevos rancheros frittata; panzanella (white) bread salad with fresh greens and (precooked) bacon; (frozen) catfish parmesan with (canned) tomato sauce; (frozen) chicken and sausage etouffee; (canned) chickpea salad with a (fresh) orange vinaigrette;(canned) “banana” and peanut butter “crème brulee” with a crackly graham cracker topping and (canned) plums stuffed with sliced almond crumble.

Every item was lovingly created as if the ingredients were the freshest, most local available. They were sautéed, steamed and fried; simmered, slathered and baked in a record 2 hours time. They emerged stunning in their creativity and colors, execution and variety. The kitchen thrummed with excitement as the chefs pumped out food with luscious aromas and even more tantalizing textures and appearance.

The volunteers lined up in a queue that extended from one end of the ballroom-sized dining hall to the other and kept on coming. They heaped pasta on top of catfish, etouffee on top of bread salad, pudding on top of plums.

They came back for seconds; we ran out of chickpea salad and had to throw in black beans to extend it; we ran out of peanut butter banana crème brulee and created a quick marbling of vanilla and chocolate puddings (“real and artificial” flavours) dusted with crushed graham crackers and brown sugar, dubbing it Devil’s Dirt to make ourselves feel better; and still they kept coming back for more, telling us the food was delicious, the best they’ve had yet. They even gave us a standing ovation when we finally came out to greet them, exhausted and elated that we had fed everyone, even the few stragglers, in record time.

So why did we have to make ourselves feel better? As good as the food looked, as much as it was appreciated, it was the opposite of everything we have been trained to produce. Almost nothing was fresh, virtually every item that came in a can or bag was so salty or sweet as to be, to our (or certainly to mine) palates, inedible. My own creation the banana peanut butter “creme brulee” was an abomination, if I do say so myself.

Nevertheless, we were heroes. What does that say about the degraded level of the average American’s palate?

I am not complaining because I am a snob. I am complaining because it is not difficult or expensive to create do-no-harm foods. It’s just a lot cheaper to hike up “flavor” through hooking kids and adults on salt and sugar. The former is cheap and abundant, the other abundantly supported by lobbyists who fine dine in Washington restaurants oblivious to, or worse, knowing full well, the dross that they pedal in the halls of congress in the name of jobs, and which lands in front of children under the name of school lunch programs.

The great US of A should be ashamed of itself.  Bad enough it failed the people of New Orleans during and after, years after, Katrina; worse still, in a city known for its distinct and delicious food culture, the very people helping to restore it to its former glory are fed food usually reserved for prisons.

The Real, and Not Expensive, Banana Peanut Butter Creme Brulee

1 cup milk

1 egg

2 egg yolks

2 Tbsp sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 small, ripe banana

1 Tbsp peanut butter

granulated sugar

  1. Preheat oven to 300F. Boil 2 quarts of water and have simmering.
  2. Place 4 4oz ramekins in an 8″x8″ brownie pan near the oven.
  3. Place all the ingredients in a food processor and buzz until completely smooth, about 1 minute.
  4. Strain the contents into a 2 cup liquid measuring cup.
  5. Place the cups in the brownie pan and place the pan on the lower shelf of the oven. Pour in the boiling water to half way up the ramekins.
  6. Bake for about 15-17 minutes or until the custards have set around the edges but are still wiggly in the center.
  7. Remove from the oven and let sit in the water another 5 minutes.
  8. Place in the fridge to cool completely.
  9. Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon of sugar evenly on top of each ramekin. Use either a kitchen torch or your broiler to caramelize the tops. Let set until firm.
  10. Chill.
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Thinking Big

April 3, 2009

If seventy-five percent of Americans do not have passports, it is not surprising that George Bush was  popular when he defended America’s right to global supremacy at the expense of other countries. Before he became president, Bush hadn’t even traveled to Europe let alone Canada. And one doubts he would have dipped his toe into Mexico had it not been so culturally, financially, and historically linked to Texas.

Travel is said to broaden people’s perspectives, so I say give every American a passport without them having to sign up for it: if you’ve paid taxes, the passport is in the mail.

Imagine a world where Americans actually understand the problems of others and learn to empathize with them. Maureen Dowd, the journalist I hate to love, recently dropped some of her mordant commentary to wonder at the perversity of American’s love for everything big. “How big do we need to be to still feel American?…How big can our cars be? And how big is our clout abroad these days? …How do we come to terms with the gluttony that exploded our economy…how do we  make the pursuit of the American dream a satisfying quest rather than a selfish one?”

That world imagined above might just be dawning. It is as if president Obama read Dowd’s questions and answered it at the G20 summit yesterday, in response to a question from a foreign, er, Chinese, reporter. He said, “Look, I’m the president of the United States. I’m not the president of China. It is also my responsibility,” he added “to lead America into  recognizing that its interest, its fate, is tied up with the larger world…Unless we are concerned about the education of all children and not just our children, not only may we be depriving ourselves of the next great scientist who’s going to find the next new energy source that saves the planet, but we also may make people around the world much more vulnerable to anti-American propaganda.”

And that is exactly what Bush accomplished, if he accomplished anything: a world full of anti-American propaganda. The worst thing the press can do is discuss the “American way of life” or the maintenance of our life-style as if it were either deserved, God-given, or the be all and end all of a person’s, let along the world’s happiness.

Americans are capable of thinking big. And this economic crisis may be the best thing to have happened to America in generations. It provides the greatest opportunity we’ve ever had to show just how big we can think: by having a not-exactly humble, (perhaps reasonable is a better word) and brilliant president who acknowledges that our strengths are also our weaknesses: Michelle’s taboo breaking but instinctive and natural arm around Queen Elizabeth showed that genuine affection trumps protocol; Obama’s acknowledged  fumble regarding “foreign” journalists corrected immediately,  humorously, and unselfconsciously  by saying “well, foreign to me ” shows that we all make the same mistakes and are all capable of learning and moving on.

So before we call for a chicken in every pot, let’s rally ’round a passport in every pocket. In that way, foreigners can be turned into friends, “foreign” countries “familiar”, and “US interests”, “universal interests.”

Big, Bold and Delicious Oatmeal Raisin Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 cups walnut pieces

1 cup oatmeal (not instant), divided in two

2 Tbsp butter

1/2 tsp coarse salt + 1/2 tsp sugar mixed together

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Place nuts on one baking sheet and the oats on another.
  3. Bake 12 minutes or until lightly brown and fragrant. Watch the oats carefully. They should get lightly browned
  4. Remove both pans from the oven.
  5. Toss the butter into the nuts to coat, then sprinkle with the salt and sugar. Cool.
  6. When cool, chop the nuts into slightly smaller than pea-sized pieces.

Meanwhile:

1/2  cup jumbo raisins

3 Tbsp Jack Daniels bourbon whisky

  1. Mix together in a heatproof bowl and microwave for 45 seconds. Stir and set aside.
  2. Grind the remaining unbaked 1/2 cup of oatmeal in a food processor until finely ground.

3/4 cup butter

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg

1 large egg

1 Tbsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 cup chocolate chips

  1. Place both in mixer and beat on medium speed until fluffy.
  2. Add the cinnamon, salt and nutmeg and mix well.
  3. Add the egg and vanilla and mix. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl and mix again.
  4. Mix the  ground oats, flour and baking soda together.
  5. Add the dry ingredients to the mixture in the bowl.
  6. Mix on low speed for one minute.
  7. Add the toasted nuts and oatmeal, raisins and chocolate chips.
  8. Mix only until the chunky ingredients are incorporated.
  9. Scoop the dough onto a piece of parchment paper into a log about 18″ long.
  10. Roll into an even log and cover both ends.
  11. Refrigerate for 24 hours.
  12. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350F.
  13. Using a sharp chef’s knife slice into 1/2″ rounds.
  14. Place on baking sheets and bake for about 9 minutes or until browned around the edges.
  15. Cool and enjoy!

Winter Garden

March 25, 2009

dscf1088The best thing about Watergate was reading new revelations daily. Like a soap opera, it never ended and the venom one felt towards Nixon could only be expressed in then unthinkable expletives.

The best thing about the current financial crisis is that just when you think things have reached rock bottom, and a new source of venom is brewing,  something happens to make you feel like things may be on the upswing. The worst thing about it is that unless you are a professional blogger, trying to keep up is almost impossible.

Take, for example, what I wrote two days ago:

“Today’s Sunday New York Times is rich with advice and commentary. In the business section  Kelly Holland writes that good leaders tell their troops the truth about a situation. In this way, people can assess their status,  understand why certain actions are being taken, and make informed decisions.  She also says that being fair doesn’t mean necessarily treating people equally, especially when it comes to layoffs.

Thomas Friedman’s op-ed says Obama “should have gone on national TV and had the fireside chat..a talk where he lays out exactly how deep the crisis we are in is, exactly how much sacrifice were all going to have to make to get out of it…and then [ask the AIG executives] to return their bonuses “for the sake of the country…Inspiring conduct has so much more of an impact than coercing it.” Mind you, this comes two weeks after the press was calling for Obama to stop with the doom and gloom pronouncements and be more upbeat. Friendman suggests Obama follows  Holland’s advice.

Yes, Obama said during the election that everyone would have to sacrifice, but that implies a voluntary renunciation toward a shared goal. When there is no fairness when big banks get bailed and home owners with mortgages don’t; when rich executives get bonuses while workers get laid off; does it surprise you that anger is expressed by people  calling for the tumbrel’s rumble down Wall Street’s narrow alleys towards the people at AIG who engineered this mess?”

That was yesterday’s thinking.Today the curtain is raised on the toxic asset plan. The market soars, and three quarters of the AIG executives return their bonuses. Ok, scratch one for sacrifice. Obama didn’t even have to appeal to the executives directly. They did their civic duty while AIG supplied their homes with body guards.

Everyone is so eager for good news that even my SO talks about things getting better. Overnight? When there are banks still on the brink? When we don’t know if the toxic assets can be tamed?

Enter Michelle Obama and her new broom-or rather shovel- approach to being the First (Green) Lady.

Maureen Dowd, the one journalist who can turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear, wonders if “the wrong Obama is in the Oval” based on Michelle’s no nonsense expectation that even the president would be out pulling weeds “whether [he] likes it or not.”

Those muscles she likes to display in her favourite sleeveless attire are symbolic of who she is: not just brain but brawn too. Finally a woman in the White House who is feminine and forceful, secure in who she is and more importantly what she stands for.

Out in the cold, those scuplted pecs covered  in a dark cardigan, she was doing more than just digging an organic garden last week. She was showing all of us how we will  have to rely on ourselves (and our kids) to dig  out of this mess.

Mark my words, it won’t be president Obama who sows the seeds of a new age, it will be Michelle who already has planted the future in the White House lawn.

Green and Root Vegetable Stir-Fry

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 onion, sliced

1 shallot, sliced

1″ fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1 turnip, sliced in 1/2″ rounds, then into 1/4″ strips

1/4 celeriac, peeled, and cut into 1/4″ dice

12 French green beans, cut in half

1/2 cup vegetable or chicken stock

1 Tbsp chili garlic sauce, or any spicy condiment, such as a curry paste

1/2 cup cooked rice

1 Tbsp finely chopped cilantro

  1. Heat the oil in a saute pan until hot.
  2. Add the sliced onions, shallots, and ginger and cook over medium heat until slightly caramelized.
  3. Add the turnip and celeriac and raise the heat until the edges are browned.
  4. Add the broccoli florets and the stock.
  5. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for about 3 minutes.
  6. Remove the lid and allow the broth to cook down to almost nothing.
  7. Add the green beans and the rice, toss to mix.
  8. Add the chili garlic or other condiment paste and heat through.
  9. Sprinkle with optional cilantro and feel virtuous with your virtually green meal.

Outrageous!

March 20, 2009

Chocolate Nut BarsI will never associate the word outrageous with a recipe again. Meaning  “gross injury or wrong” or “grossly offensive to the sense of right or decency”, “passing reasonable bounds; intolerable or shocking,” a  recipe that bad, won’t see the light of day but rather the dark of the trash bin.

Outrage is the mot de jour describing the AIG executives who passively, and without protest or  public acceptance of responsibility for the current financial crisis, accepted millions of dollars of bonus money transferred into their accounts last Friday.

At last something has happened to make the American people, including President Obama, more outraged than calling for the head of Bernie Madoff, who, as immoral as he was, still harmed only a small fraction of mostly very rich (and very vocal) people.

The outrage aimed at him always surprised me given the fact that the banks and AIG have behaved not too differently from Madoff: both suggested for years that they had assets they didn’t; the growth and success of both relied on the willing suspension of disbelieft of experts;  both rested on business models no one understood.

The venom spewed at Madoff came from his victims and from people who saw him as the epitome of greed during a time of unbridled excess, which of course he was.  We could see him, his houses, yachts, family and jewelry. The Madoff story-from rags to riches to prison duds- was picked up on the celebrity channels whose usual fodder is Hollwood’s excess.We sucked it all up because he was a living, breathing example of someone who got caught. This was legitimate and guiltless scheudenfreude.

How  the press misled us all, including President Obama. Madoff was the fake bunnie all the press dogs were chasing while out in the real world the wolves were decimating our life savings. The “bankers” and  AIG “executives”  to this day remain faceless even as the news of their “outrageous” bonuses surfaced on Monday. Executives who have left the company even after receiving-somewhat cynically one would hope-“retention bonuses”, still are at large without bearing any sense of responsibility, not just to return the money but to let the world know who they are.

Suing them, asking them to do the right thing and return their bonuses while remaining anonymous are small penalties.  Making them come forward and identify themselves to their families, friends and neighbors, and then the general public, just as Madoff was forced to do, associates flesh and blood people with their actions and allows us to hold them accountable.

Only then can the level of outrage be directed where it belongs: to the people who have lost any sense of civic responsibility and connectedness. Let them suffer the isolation, scorn, and revilement that public humiliation brings. It is a higher cost than losing their bonuses and might actually make them think twice before finding a safe haven for all those dollars abroad.

President Obama used outrage first. Pre-election people worried that his inexperience would impede effective handling of foreign affairs. We marveled at his coolness under pressure. It didn’t occur to us that a global financial meltdown would be, as one New York Times letter writer puts it today “his Katrina”.  Now is the time  we need to see youthful heat and passion, genuine anger and actions that deal with outrage in its true sense of the term. Without any of these from the administration (forget Congress, they’re so tied up in this mess you can’t believe anything they say), we are forced to relie on words when in fact words will no longer do.

Outrageous…Outstanding Gluten-free Chocolate Nut Bars

1 cup  250g      all-natural nut butter, drained of any excess oil

1 cup 220g       dark brown sugar

2 heaping Tbsp cocoa

1/2  tsp            kosher salt

1/2 tsp             cinnamon

1                        egg

2 tsp                vanilla

5 oz             chopped chocolate or chocolate chips

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Line a 8″x 12″ pan with parchment paper.
  3. Place all the ingredients except the chocolate into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle.
  4. Beat on low speed until a smooth mass is formed.
  5. Add the egg, vanilla, salt and cinnamon and beat until incorporated. It   will look crumbly, but don’t worry.
  6. Add the chopped chocolate and mix until incorporated.
  7. Pour the crumbs into the pan and press evenly into the corners.
  8. Bake for about 15 minutes but no more than 20 or else they will be too firm.
  9. As soon as they come out of the oven, slice them into squares and let cool.

Magic Mushroom Stew

March 8, 2009

dscf1081Ben Stein was wearing his economist’s hat  on CBS Sunday Morning today. It’s a nice hat, as hats go, a grey, white and black Irish tweed with a crease down the center. It made him look a bit less nebbishy than usual, but still I was confused as to why it was there at all. Turns out, I missed his introduction and only started paying attention when he accused President Obama and his advisors “the big gumbahs”, of continued fear mongering about the economy.

In Stein’s view “If Mr. Obama and Mr. Geithner, his Treasury Secretary, and Mr. Volcker, his well-respected advisor, and some real superstars like Warren Buffett and Jack Welch all came out and said, “The recession will end within 12 months. We are sure of it,” the recession WOULD end within 12 months.”

In other words, all this bad news stuff about sub-prime loans, General Motors, Citibank, AIG, people losing their jobs and homes would all just go away if someone we believed in, like the president of the United States, would reassure us that we’re having a bad dream, that we will wake up (a year from now) and everything will be just fine…especially if we start shopping again.

What mushrooms has he been inhaling? Or maybe, being an actor when he’s not wearing his economist’s hat, he’s watching Finding Neverland. Maybe he believes that if we all clap loud enough, not only will Tinkerbell revive, but the economy will too.

For the last eight years, and who knows, probably further back than that, the public has been told what it wants to hear: that everything will be fine; just keep on spending.

Didn’t we just learn that the Bush administration didn’t include the Iraq war, emergency relief and Medicaire reimbursements in its deficit accounting? Didn’t the banks loan money to people who had no visible means of ever paying back excessive mortgages? Didn’t this attitude of ignoring reality and just hoping things would turn out okay actually put us where we find ourselves? We’re not just in hot water, we’re stewing in our own juices.

Stein feels that rather than focus on the 8% unemployed, we should focus on the 92% of the population who are employed (many of whom are terrified of losing their jobs). That’s like saying that the Great Depression wasn’t so bad because 75% of the population remained employed. Or that the deaths in Iraq weren’t so bad considering how many troops there were (unless of course, one of the casualties was your daughter or son.)

This is more than wishful thinking; it is hallucinogenic. Stein is encouraging everyone to continue as if nothing is wrong, as if our thriftless ways are okay and that further reduction of what little savings we may have will put everyone back to work and revive confidence in the market. If you believe that, surely you’ve been inhaling more than the comforting aromas of the stew below.

I’d rather  Obama tell the truth than get us high on falsehoods. We’ve smoked that weed, and now we’re in the weeds, big time.

Magic Mushroom Stew

1 onion, cut into 1″ pieces

2 Tbsp olive oil

2 lbs boneless, skinless turkey or chicken thighs, cut into 1″ cubes

2-3 cups chicken stock

1/4 cup port

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

10 fingerling potatoes, cut into 1″ pieces

4 whole cloves garlic, peeled

2 chili de arbol, crumbled

4 cups assorted mushrooms

2 Tbsp each, finely chopped: fresh dill, parsley, basil

fresh lemon juice, to taste

  1. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium heat.
  2. Add the onions and saute gently until translucent.
  3. Add the turkey pieces and cook, not browning until no longer pink.
  4. Add the chicken stock to just cover the meat, then the port and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, and add half the mushrooms,  all the potatoes, chilis, garlic, thyme, rosemary and nutmeg.
  6. Cover and cook over a very low heat for about 40 minutes.
  7. Remove the lid and reduce the sauce until it coats the meat with a generous sauce, about 20 minutes.
  8. In the meantime, heat the remaining 1 Tbsp oil in a small saute pan until smokey.
  9. Add the remaining mushrooms and brown on all sides, releasing their juices and cooking them down until they’re almost gone.
  10. Add to the simmering stew. Taste for seasoning and adjust for salt and pepper.
  11. Add the fresh herbs, a squeeze of lemon juice and serve.

Eat one of these and call me in the morning….

March 3, 2009

Chocoate Crinkle CookiesDo you feel better when your doctor wears a white lab coat or street clothes? Do you read books recommended by The New York Times book review or by a friend? Do you believe in magic?

I ask these questions because as President Obama has assembled the most impressive brain trust, dream team, intellectual powerhouse cabinet, call it what you will, there’s still no sign that any of them have “the answer”.

Things are so bad that most of us are relieved that the White House is at least throwing solutions at the economy even if we don’t know why they’re supposed to work and they don’t know if they will work.

We want badly to  believe that the experts know something we don’t, know far more than we do, and will therefore somehow save us from this terrible mess. But fund manager Eric Sprott  recently pointed out  that the experts are trying to revive an economy based on behaviors that got us into this miasma in the first place; they’re not creating a new paradigm; they’re saving something dysfunctional and asking us to continue being enablers when it’s the last thing we should be doing.  He does not, however, supply any answers himself. Another expert with expert experience and opinions, but without a recipe for renewal.

And that’s why I asked the questions above: we want to take the advice of people who society says are experts: doctors in crisp, white lab coats bear the symbol of their knowledge and experience even though they are frequently baffled by the body; book reviews in the Times have the imprimatur of wisdom and intellectual range, even when the books are duds; and while there are many  things we can’t explain, like Bernie Madoff’s amazing investment returns, we still want to believe in those experts even if we don’t believe in magic.

It’s chilling to think that all those geniuses in Washington throwing money at every institution that’s too big to fail cannot predict the outcome of their actions.

And so it is with baking. Experts abound and none with more scientific credentials than Shirley Corriher who in two books-Cookwise and Bakewise- provides the scientific background for how and why ingredients behave the way they do.

Despite the fact that a much-touted cake recipe which heralded her book in that expert of expert venues, the Wednesday New York Times food section, was disappointing, tasting more tore-bought cake than homemade,  I bought Bakewise in the hopes that the cake recipe was more a matter of personal taste than of philosophy.

And so I baked expert Corriher’s Chocolate Crinkle Cookies which she describes as “slightly crunchy on the surface and gooey chocolate inside…oh yum!” What she fails to mention, although she does elsewhere in her book, is that she loves sugar, not only how it performs in baking, but how it tastes.

The cookies look great but they released hardly any chocolate aroma while baking, a sure sign that something was amiss. And while the look and texture are as she describes them, to my palate, they are a disappointment: all that expertise and a lackluster cookie. That said, my SO thinks they’re tasty.

I have bolstered the recipe by calling for bittersweet chocolate and adding cocoa nibs for additional crunch and  chocolate flavor.

Shirley Corriher’s Adapted Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

3 dozen

1 3/4 cups plus 2 Tbsp all purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

8 oz finely choppped bittersweet chocolate, melted

2 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup canola oil

2 Tbsp corn syrup

2 large eggs

1 egg yolk

2 tsp vanilla

1/3 cup cocoa nibs

1 cup icing sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

  1. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Mix the dry ingredients together and set aside.
  3. Blend in the bowl of an electric mixer the sugar and oil.
  4. Add the eggs, corn syrup and vanilla. Mix until blended.
  5. Add the chocolate and mix well, scraping the sides and bottom.
  6. Add the flour and mix only until the dough comes together. It will be stiff.
  7. Chill for an hour covered.
  8. Preheat the oven to 325F.
  9. Roll the dough into golf ball sized rounds.
  10. Roll each ball in granulated sugar and then icing sugar, coating completely.
  11. Place 12 to a tray and bake about 12-14 minutes or until puffed and crackled on top. They will deflate.
  12. Remove from the baking tray after 1 minute and cool on a rack.

Naan Sense

February 26, 2009

NaanMaybe it’s the weather; maybe the economic climate; but despite harbingers of spring (sightings of grass beneath dirty snow), I am feeling pretty low. Usually as energetic as  lively bread dough, today I feel as deflated as pizza dough without yeast.

It didn’t help when stopping by a funky cafe for a moccacino and deciding to use the loo, a sign above it said: Warning! Do not give up hope. Was that with regard to concerns alimentary, economic or  general?

The Man from Hope told  President Obama the same thing the sign told me. Hearing bad news from the President is a real downer so it’s important to show hope and optimism even if, like a cold yeast dough, it’s hard to see signs of life in the economy.

Isn’t that what Mission Accomplished was all about? That kind of wishful thinking along with “the economy is fundamentally sound” led us to a staggering $1.2 trillion in debt (and growing faster than I can edit this blog).

Frankly, I’d rather know just how bad things really are, so that I won’t worry that they will get any worse. The problem is, no one, really knows how bad things are or when they will improve.

After President Obama’s forceful opening in his speech two night’s ago,  “The United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” he proceeded to outline the areas that needed help, and that no doubt will receive help, starting with the banks because “helping banks is helping people”.

Listening to the litany of jobs, auto industry, health care, education, energy and the environment that require assistance was breathtaking and nerve wracking.  (Is there any part of America that doesn’t need help? Yes, apparently McDonald’s is doing quite well, after all fries are feel good food! )

And how quickly we’ve come to this. Imagine a year ago.

There were murmurs of recession, but from doomsayers. The notorious fluttering butterfly wing twitched  in some far-off bank office, disturbing the universe. A tsunami of debt now threatens to wash away the economic landscape we once knew. What will be left and where will we be a year from now?

And that’s what bothers me the most about Obama’s speech. There is a helluva lot of bad news couched in a typically American can-do framework. Kind of like the old westerns with a lot of the sherrif’s deputies fanning out of town in hot pursuit of the bad guys, hoping that one of them will find them…and they always do, only not before some blood has been shed, some lives lost.

But hope springs eternal and there actually is another certainty beyond death and taxes and more bubbles: even with global warming, winter will eventually give way to spring.

Sure, we will rise out of this economic disaster eventually. Like a sulky dough which rises briskly when exposed to sunshine, the economy too will one day revive. Only let’s hope that when it does, we’ve taken some pointers from bread bakers: the right balance of ingredients, respect for environmental conditions,  judicious handling of our product, and patience.  Only in this way can the hope of raw materials turn into the certainty of reality.

Quick & Easy Naan Flat Bread

Makes 4 flat breads

Most yeast doughs are like an economy in crisis: you never know exactly how much stimulus in the form of water you will need. Whole wheat flour  and atmospheric humidity can affect how much liquid is needed to achieve the right consistency. Flour takes its time absorbing  the water so you may find that even after the dough is kneaded, it’s still a bit stiff. Add water tablespoon by tablespoon, kneading it in until the dough is lightly tacky.

250g all-purpose flour

250g whole wheat flour, preferably stone ground

2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp instant yeast

1 1/3 cups  yogurt

4-5 TBsp water

melted butter

  1. Mix all the ingredients into a smooth dough.
  2. Knead for about 5-8 minutes. The dough will be tacky but shouldn’t be sticky.
  3. Place in an oiled bowl, cover and let rise for 1 hour. Fold the dough in on itself from the outside to the center giving it a few turns.
  4. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
  5. 1 hour before using, remove from fridge and divide into 4 rounds. Cover with plastic.
  6. Lightly flour your work surface. Press the rounds into flat breads about 9″ in diameter. It’s okay for them to show finger marks. They won’t be smooth. This will give you great bubbles.
  7. Heat a ridged grill pan or cast iron frying pan (at least 9″ in diameter) and brush with a little oil.
  8. Gently lift one round and using the palm of your hand to center it, lay it on the hot griddle.
  9. Grill for about 3 minutes on one side or until the top side is pocked with bubbles and the underside has dark grill marks.
  10. Flip the dough and cook an additional minute or two.
  11. Remove and place in a warm (250F) oven covered with a lightly dampened towel as you make the last three.
  12. Brush lightly with melted butter, sprinkle with a topping: cheese, sesame seeds, smoked salt.