A Wrinkle in Thyme

I work as a nanny for four French children between the ages of two and six, which can get a bit exhausting at times. The four and six-year-olds are inquisitive (to say the least), constantly asking me, “Where are you going? When are you coming back? Why are you reading that? Will you come play with me?” The two-year-old twins, just learning how to express themselves clearly, ask “Quoi? Quoi? Quoi” while pointing to various objects throughout the house.

The children’s questions are pretty easy to answer, but questions from elsewhere are more difficult. For example, a recent exam for my culinary science class asked about the properties of gelatin, and why in a panna cotta the structure could stay firm in its mold but also spread so well on a cracker.

I must admit, though: at times it gets tiresome, and every once in a while I wish the children (and my culinary science professor) would just stop asking questions. But two weeks ago, as I listened to the children’s mother on the phone with family in Paris, I realized the importance of being able to question. The journalists and cartoonists who worked at Charlie Hebdo were murdered because they questioned extremists through word and art. They were robbed of their expression, which robbed them of their lives.

Though there may be times when I don’t feel like answering the children’s questions, I realize it is important to encourage such curiosity, even if only in a small way, so that they may always feel the freedom to express themselves. In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, give the children hints and direction throughout their journey. Their names alone represent the importance of questioning as a way to illuminate darkness. An inquisitive mind and a childlike curiosity are great powers, and they make finding any answer an exciting adventure, as Meg discovers in L’Engle’s beloved novel. (Although even now, I just prefer to leave the properties of gelatin as a big question mark.) DSC_0254

Savory panna cotta:

350 ml heavy cream

150 ml whole milk

125 g goat cheese

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

~10 sprigs of thyme

1/2 teaspoon of salt

4 gelatin leaves

Instruction:

1. Soak gelatin leaves in cold water for several minutes.

2. In the meantime, on medium heat, whisk cream, milk, and goat cheese until cheese is melted. When simmering, add thyme, lemon zest and juice, and salt, and turn off heat. Let sit for five minutes, then strain into a bowl.

3. Squeeze excess moisture from gelatin leaves and whisk into hot, strained cream mixture until dissolved. Optionally transfer to pitcher to make pouring into mold easier.

4. Pour into any mold of your choosing, then chill in refrigerator until set. (Depending on size of mold, this could take anywhere from one hour to overnight.)

5. When set, use a paring knife to loosen the edges of the panna cotta from the mold. Turn out onto plate, and serve with crackers, an arugula salad, or any sort of chutney.

Enjoy thyme and goat cheese panna cotta with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Thyme, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

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One Flew Over the Couscous Nest

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 is to eat more vegetables. The trouble is, I hate eating most vegetables and would much rather tuck into a nice frozen pizza. I’ve realized that the only way to actually stick to this resolution is to find ways of making full, quick meals out the few vegetables I do like, instead of peeling a carrot, eating it raw, and subsequently rewarding myself with a deep-fried something or other.

This resolution is not unprovoked. Over the past fourteen months, I’ve been ill at least seven times. Despite being almost overly obsessed with hand washing, the germs seem to find me and make themselves a comfy home. After the most recent bout of fevers and aches made me miss some Christmas festivities, I realized I needed to make some changes to give my immune system a much-needed boost.

However, there is a danger to eliminating ‘junk food’ completely. As was the case when Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was banned in many schools due to its controversial nature, total lack of exposure simply made people more curious as to its subject matter. As is the case with crash diets, when people try to limit themselves to the pure things, they end up either miserably deprived or lapsing to the other extreme. It is important to read ‘controversial’ books like Kesey’s to be informed, aware, and balanced. So, in the spirit of a well-balanced resolution, after a healthy lunch of couscous stuffed peppers, I think I’ll treat myself to a chocolaty afternoon snack. Happy New Year, everyone!

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10 Minute Couscous-Stuffed Peppers

1/4 cup couscous

1/4 cup chicken broth (alternatively vegetable broth or water to keep the dish vegetarian)

1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp coriander

Salt to taste

2 bell peppers (color of your choice)

Simple Hummus Filling

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 tsp tahini

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 garlic clove

Generous pinch of salt

Up to 1/4 cup olive oil

Instruction:

1. Bring chicken broth, cumin, and coriander to boil. Add couscous, turn off heat, cover, and let sit until liquid has been absorbed, about ten minutes. Fluff with fork.

2. In the meantime, cut top off, remove seeds and pith from pepper. Depending on how big you want your ‘nest,’ slice rings from top of pepper and save for dipping garnish.

3. In food processor, pulse chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt. Gradually add olive oil. Combine to desired smoothness; I left the hummus chunky to give the salad texture, but the flavors combine nicely when blended until smooth.

4. Combine couscous and hummus. If mixture needs moisture, add a bit more olive oil. Spoon into pepper cup and serve with extra pepper slice, toasted bread, or on its own.

Enjoy couscous-stuffed peppers with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

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How the Blintz Stole Christmas

This past weekend I had one of those magical Christmassy Sundays, where the streets are bustling but not overcrowded, the weather’s cold but not bitterly so, and the time period left until Christmas still makes gift buying exciting, not stressful. To perfect the scene, a mulled wine stand right in the middle of Covent Garden was serving Big Gulp-sized portions. After several sips, I was certainly feeling the warmth of Christmas cheer (and the inspiration to write up a blog post!). And though I came to the end of the day having successfully purchased only one gift, I still felt a great sense of accomplishment.

I have found as I’ve grown older that it’s not the number of presents that make my loved ones and me happy during the holiday season. In Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the title character cannot understand why the Whos down in Whoville still have a joyful Christmas even when he has stolen their various whimsical toys and gifts. For them, and for me, it’s more about sitting down, holding hands, enjoying a nice meal (perhaps with wintry blintzes for dessert), singing carols, and simply being together.

And as Cindy Lou Who so famously said, “Christmas Day will always be, just as long as we have we.” (Though some mulled wine and holiday blintzes certainly wouldn’t hurt.)

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Use The Book Cook’s crepe recipe.

Filling:

1/2 cup ricotta cheese

1/2 cup mascarpone cheese

1/4 cup sultanas

1 cup mulled wine

1 tablespoon orange zest

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup orange juice

Instruction:

1. Make crepes using The Book Cook’s crepe recipe. Blintzes should be paper thin (even thinner than crepes!), so will need less time to cook in the pan.

2. Put sultanas and mulled wine in a saucepan. Bring to boil, then remove from heat. Allow sultanas to steep for 10 minutes, then drain (*but save the liquid!).

3. Mix ricotta cheese, sultanas, orange zest, sugar, and half of orange juice in a bowl. Transfer to piping bag. Pipe filling into each crepe and fold into a roll.

4. Sift a bit of icing sugar over each blintz. Add other half of orange juice to mulled wine liquid and reduce down to a syrupy consistency and drizzle as desired.

Enjoy winter blintzes with Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

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The Elegance of the Eggnog

Surrounding the holiday season, there are certain treats that each person definitively loves. These are usually the ones that are rooted in tradition, instilled early into our culinary repertoire from childhood December afternoons. As absurd as these treats may seem twenty years later (such as cornflake wreaths dyed bright green and studded with cinnamon candies), we cling to them because of the fresh stubbornness that children so often possess. The young protagonist in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Paloma, moves beyond Christmas cookies and into opinions about her family and all of humanity. She is steadfast and seemingly unchangeable, and clings to her beliefs the way I cling to cornflake wreaths.

There are also the treats that we definitively reject. I have always avoided eggnog because of its too-thick texture and extreme sweetness. However, as the little girl Paloma slackened the rigidity of her original outlook, I have decided to embrace eggnog, creating a way in which to change the texture completely and offset the sweetness, and ultimately converting the holiday drink into a wafer cookie (and potential ice cream garnish).

Many people are often hesitant about reading translated novels. Idioms and the flow of certain dialogues get lost when not in their original language. The reader puts great trust in the translator to achieve the same effect, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of the most gorgeous translations I have ever read. Successful conversions such as this one give me the confidence to know that the elegance of eggnog can be translated into delicious Christmas cookies.

eggnog cookies

Cognac Christmas cookie batter:

1 1/2 cups icing sugar

3/4 cup (about 14 tablespoons) unsalted butter

6 egg whites

1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup Cognac (or any brandy)

Chocolate ganache (optional):

200 g dark baking chocolate

Heavy cream to cover (about 3/4 cup)

Instruction:

1. Whisk softened butter, icing sugar, and Cognac in medium bowl until creamy. Add egg whites gradually, whisking until completely incorporated into the mixture. Mix in flour in three separate batches.

2. For wafer disk assembly: on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, spread several tablespoons of batter as thinly and evenly as possible. Place baking sheet in 350 degree oven and let cook for about five minutes, until edges just begin to brown. Remove and immediately cut out small disks in the dough (I used an espresso cup as a template, but a shot glass or ring cutter would also work). Lay individual disks back onto the baking sheet, and cook (crisp up) in the oven for another two minutes. Let cool at room temperature.

3. For shape outline assembly: transfer part of the batter into a piping bag, making the tiniest opening possible at the tip. The key to these cookies is their thinness, so pipe very thin lines onto parchment paper for the outline of your Christmas drawing. Simple designs can be candy cane, basic snowflake, snowman with top hat, or Christmas tree. Allow to cook in 350 degree oven for three minutes, until the outline is golden-blonde. When cooled, very delicately remove from parchment paper with spatula.

4. In small saucepan, heat double cream until just at a boil. Pour over baking chocolate in a bowl, let rest for 30 seconds, and then whisk until chocolate is completely melted. Dip cooled wafer disks into chocolate, then let dry on wire rack.

Enjoy Cognac Christmas cookies with Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

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Life of Pie

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If your family is anything like mine, the pie to human ratio on the Thanksgiving table is appallingly equal. In fact, there’s usually also at least one cake present as well to celebrate my Grammie’s late November birthday. Every year, by 6pm, everyone is ready to sink faster than the ship in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. We are all so stuffed that, like the title character in the novel, our reality and fantasy blend together, and we cannot think straight until well into Friday morning.

The real trouble is that we are spoiled for choice. If we commit ourselves to only one slice of pie, we miss out on the other glorious flavors. If we favor apple, we deprive ourselves of pecan, cherry, and pumpkin. Instead of sacrificing pie in the interest of saving our stomachs, perhaps the solution is to shrink the portions. Miniature pies allow for the same variety of flavors but prevent the heaping helpings that bend even the sturdiest of paper plates.

To get a sense of scale:

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Pumpkin Tartlets

Pastry measurements are pretty constant, so I just used Martha Stewart’s pie dough recipe plus an extra pinch of sea salt. Click on the link for ingredients and method!

Filling:

1 can pumpkin puree

1/2 pint evaporated milk

1 egg

1/2 tbsp cinnamon

1 tbsp vanilla extract

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

Instruction:

1. Roll out dough to about half centimeter thickness, then fit into tartlet dishes (I found mine at Whole Foods). Blind bake (using ceramic beads) in 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes, until edges start to turn golden. Remove beads and cook for an additional 7-10 minutes, until entire crust is golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool.

2. To make filling: whisk all ingredients together. When crusts have cooled, pipe in pumpkin filling to the top of each, leaving a few millimeters so the tartlets don’t overflow.

3. Bake in oven for 25 or so minutes – until a toothpick comes clean out of the middle of the filling.

Enjoy pumpkin tartlets with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

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All’s Well That Blends Well

In keeping with the Shakespeare theme on the blog this week, I turn to another tale of deception, confusion, and general mayhem. In All’s Well That Ends Well, hidden elements surprise and delight the audience at every turn.

The plot is reminiscent of the old TLC show “Trading Spaces,” in which two couples traded homes and work with a designer to makeover one room. Each episode could produce feuds and deceit, clashes between designer and couple, attempts to pump the carpenter for classified information. Ultimately, though, as in Shakespeare’s beloved play, everyone reconciled at the end of the drama.

Though I primarily watched “Trading Spaces” for Genevieve’s hippy coolness or Frank’s quirky baldness, I did pick up on several real points. For example, color can set the mood of a room, and perhaps even evoke a feeling. The same can be true of color in cuisine. I associate warm orange with Bryn Mawr in November, leaves crunching, a cinnamon scented candle lit, an extra warm blanket shared between snugglers (usually my dog and me). This autumnal puree’s hue makes it a bit easier for me to be abroad this autumn, because I can think about all of the things I love about home.

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Puree:

3 parsnips

5 carrots

1 onion

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup apple cider

Salt to taste (up to 1 teaspoon)

 Instruction:

1. Peel parsnips and carrots; chop them (and onion) roughly. Over medium-low heat, sauté with lid on until all vegetables are tender.

2. Pulse vegetables with cinnamon in blender, gradually adding in cider. Season with salt, if necessary. For a completely smooth texture, pass through a strainer, pushing the lumps through with the back of a ladle.

Enjoy this autumnal puree with William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, and check in at warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

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Much Ado About Stuffing

My actual boyfriend was the one who broke the news to me about my make-believe boyfriend’s engagement. When Benedict Cumberbatch made his grand announcement in the Times last week, Sherlock devotees all over the world took the news quite hard. But he’s not the only Benedict causing trouble. In William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Benedick toys with Beatrice in a variety of ways and surprises everyone (players and audience alike) with a sudden shift of his views on marriage.

All of Shakespeare’s comedies make for very pleasant reading (or viewing) material. Like a proper Thanksgiving stuffing, something that has gone stale (seemingly past the point of being salvaged) can indeed be the foundation for all of the other components. In this dish, different textures keep each bite interesting, and the playful combination of smooth honey and punchy ginger teases the consumer’s palate.

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Ginger Honey Stuffing

6 pork sausage links, casings removed

10 strips of bacon

3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced

1 onion, finely diced

2 loaves of stale bread, crusts removed

1 1/2 cups chicken stock

1 small egg (or half of a larger egg), beaten

1/4 cup honey

3 tbsps ground ginger

3 tbsps unsalted butter

1. Cube bread and lay out in baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with half of the ground ginger. Bake in 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes, then remove and let cool.

2. In the meantime, cook sausages (casings removed) over medium heat in olive oil, breaking up with a wooden spoon into small bits. Remove and let cool on paper towel (to soak up extra fat). Dice bacon and cook in same pan until crispy. Remove and let cool on paper towel (to soak up extra fat).

3. In excess bacon fat, cook diced onions until translucent and soft. Let cool, then combine with sausage, bacon, diced raw apples, and cooled bread cubes.

4. Beat egg with warm (but not hot) chicken stock. Toss dry ingredients in the liquid, then spread entire mixture evenly in baking dish. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle the rest of the ginger. Dot the stuffing all over with bits of cold, cubed butter.

5. Bake stuffing in a 350-degree oven until liquid is absorbed and top is golden brown.

Enjoy ginger honey stuffing with William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and check in at http://warandpeach.com for future recipes and book reviews!

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