Merry Christmas

Wishing you a joyful holiday season, even if things are quieter than you’d like and different than you’d hoped for. It’s a good time to celebrate those simple but incredibly important things: health, peace, and the family and friends who make our lives worth living. They may not be able to join us at the table this year, but they can be with us in spirit or perhaps virtually. It’s also a good time to indulge just a little. For those whose indulgence is chocolate, here’s my easy and go-to recipe for chocolate truffles. See you in January!

Chocolate Truffles

8 ounces/227 grams bittersweet chocolate (Bakers or a high quality bar)

3/4 cup/180 mL whipping cream

2 tablespoons/30 mL butter

2 – 3 tablespoons/30 – 45 mL orange or almond liqueur (or substitute your favorite)

Combine cream and butter, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat; add liqueur and chocolate. Stir until chocolate is entirely melted. Chill the mixture until it’s firm enough to handle, but not rock-solid, about 3 hours. Using a teaspoon, form and roll mixture into small balls. Roll each truffle in cocoa powder or ground nuts. Store in the fridge for several weeks or freeze for up to three months.

Beginner’s Mind

Like a lot of people these days, I’ve been teaching myself to make sourdough bread. A friend gave me a starter and I’ve had fun feeding it and trying out recipes.  The results have been mixed. Subtext: the results haven’t been what I expected or wanted.

I cook a lot and I enjoy it. I’m no professional but I know my way around a saucepan, I can turn out a decent meal, and I can bake. At thirteen I made my first batch of cream puffs; the choux pastry was so utterly perfect even I was surprised. I’ve made quick breads, flat breads, yeasted breads. Lots of bread, and almost always with delicious results. How hard could sourdough be?

Turns out, it’s harder than I thought.

The cinnamon buns disappeared quite quickly, and after a couple of tries, I eventually ended up with a passable loaf of bread. But it didn’t have the texture or lift I’ve come to expect from the sourdough breads I’ve devoured in the past.

Because of my previous experience with all things flour I figured I’d be able to do it well right out of the gate (those successful cream puffs spoiled me). But in reality, professional bakers can and often do spend years perfecting the perfect tangy, chewy sourdough loaf or crispy croissant. Working with just a few basic ingredients, they combine their scientific knowledge of the chemistry of baking with their life experience and personal philosophies to create an edible piece of art. Those same ingredients, in different hands, produce very different results.

It’s a bit like writing. Working with only 26 letters, authors combine their understanding of the craft of storytelling with their life experiences and personal philosophies to create readable works of art. Those same letters, in different hands, produce very different results.

My disappointing experience with sourdough reminded me of the people I’ve met who believe they can write a bestseller the first time they sit down at the keyboard. I believe they could write a book if they put in the effort. But they aren’t thinking of the learning curve or the effort involved. They believe that because they write articles for their club newsletter or a professional journal – because they are imminently capable of relaying information in written form – the first book they write will be a rousing success. And that’s unrealistic. It happens, just like perfect choux pastry can happen the first time you whip those eggs into the flour, but it’s not a given.  

Zen Buddhists have a concept known as shoshin. It means beginner’s mind. It’s about letting go of preconceptions, being willing to learn, and being open to whatever happens. It’s about focusing on possibilities and not judging outcomes.

Sourdough is a unique beast in the breadmaking world. There’s no question I’m a beginner at it. One Zen master calls beginner’s mind “a mind that is empty and ready for new things.”

I’m definitely ready for new sourdough baking adventures. I’m not sure about an empty mind, but I definitely have an empty stomach.

Merry Christmas!

I’m wishing you peace, love and joy this holiday season. I’ll be taking a few weeks to celebrate with family and friends, and I hope you’ll be relaxing and celebrating too. The blog will resume in January.

Before signing off, I’ll leave you with a quick, homemade goodie recipe. If you love butter tarts but you’re pressed for time, whip up a batch of butter tart squares in the microwave.  These freeze well too. Simply cool, cut into squares and pop them into the freezer until you need them. They’ll thaw while you brew the coffee!

Microwave Butter Tart Squares

Butter a 9 by 9 microwave safe pan and set aside.

For the base:

½ cup butter

2 tablespoons icing sugar

1 cup white all-purpose flour

Combine flour and icing sugar. Melt butter and mix into dry ingredients. Press into your greased pan. Microwave 3 mins at power level 8 for a high wattage microwave; 4 – 6 minutes at power level 8 for lower wattage machines. The base will be firm but not cracked when it’s done. Remove and set aside.

For the top:

¼ cup butter, melted

1 ½ cups brown sugar

2 – 3 large eggs (I use 3)

1 tablespoon white vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ cup raisins or walnuts (optional)

In a medium-sized bowl, combine butter, sugar, eggs, vinegar and vanilla. Beat with a hand mixer for 2 – 3 minutes, or until well combined. Fold in nuts or raisins if desired. Pour over base. Microwave 3 – 4 minutes at power level eight for a high wattage microwave; 4 – 6 minutes at power level eight for lower wattage machines. The filling should be set but have a slight jiggle when you shake the pan. It will also look a little frothy. You can chill and eat the squares at this point but they look more appealing if you slide the pan under a hot broiler for 1 – 2 minutes in order to brown. Watch closely; they turn brown very quickly!   

Sunshine in the Rain

They say this past January was the fourth wettest on record. I guess I wasn’t around for the first three because last month was the wettest January I can remember. We were hit with a series of back-to-back rainstorms and clouds so dark and persistently low that many days it was hard to believe it was day, and not night.

However, the sun was shining in my office. My next YA, Something About Julian, is set at the beach, and the action unfolds over the month of August. Heat, sunshine and ice cream all figure prominently. My next Laura Tobias title, Blushed With Fame, is set in Spain and also takes place in summer, and I’ve been working on that too.

While I was mentally in summer mode, I accepted an assignment to write an article on Greek food and develop a couple of recipes to go with it. Right away I thought of grilled souvlaki and juicy Greek salad, taramosalata dip with warm pita, all foods I yearn for in summer.

My muse knows no season.

However, given the pouring rain, barbecuing was out of the question; who wanted to go outside? I wanted something warming, something comforting. Luckily my research turned up fasolada, the humble and delicious bean soup, which happens to be Greek’s national dish. The editor gave me the green light.

So after chopping a few vegetables . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

And frying them up in a big pot . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

I added my cooked beans, a jar of pasada and got things simmering. A few hours later, I was rewarded with a bowl of deliciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The rain has stopped  and the clouds are starting  to lift . . . but even if the weather deteriorates again, I have soup in my fridge. And sunshine in my office.

A Matter of Taste

The first crop of spring asparagus has arrived. Field asparagus, I mean. There’s such a thing as sea asparagus too, and that’ll show up at the market in June, right around my wedding anniversary. Sea asparagus is delicious. The tiny stalks are thinner than a straw and their taste is subtle but unique: a little ocean and a little lettuce. There’s nothing fishy about sea asparagus, nothing even remotely close in taste to its earth-grown cousin.

I first had it at a fancy restaurant where we Dined – capital D dined – to mark a milestone anniversary. It was a magical night. So every year when I spot sea asparagus at the market I immediately think of my love, a delicious dinner with sablefish or maybe scallops, a crisp glass of Prosecco,  a table overlooking the ocean, and candlelight.

Taste can conjure memories and stir emotions as much as the sight of a child’s first photo with Santa . . . the smell of steak barbecuing on a summer night . . . the sound of rain on the roof while you’re in bed . . . or the touch of a puppy licking your hand.

My job as a writer is to mine the senses, including the sense of taste. But it can be easy to slip into taste clichés: soothing hot chocolate on a cold night; refreshing ice cream at the lake; salty corn dogs at the fair. Those tastes are relatable because most of us have had hot chocolate on a cold night or a corn dog at the fair. But taste, like so many other things, is subjective.

Take corn dogs, for instance. I had a corn dog just once and once was enough. I was nine; it was my birthday; the corn dog made reappearance during a ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl. I haven’t had a corn dog since and the very sight of them is enough to make my stomach flip.

Grilled cheese sandwiches, a comfort food for some, remind me of a friend who died. So does cherry pound cake and licorice candy. Depending on my frame of mind, any one of those foods can make me feel nostalgic.

Other tastes have more positive connotations for me.

Braised short ribs take me right back to the comfort of Sunday dinner when I was a kid.

Coconut-covered marshmallows remind me of my grandfather and make me happy.

The taste of chives takes me back to my first garden and the sense of accomplishment I felt at planting it.

A sesame ball with red bean paste is guaranteed to make me feel sixteen again . . . thinking about friends . . . travel . . . and new horizons.

Earthy and old-fashioned date squares inspire gratitude because I’m reminded of a woman who gave me a place to live when I was a teen.

One sip of a margarita mentally transports me to a Mexican beach no matter where I happen to be.

And the taste of cherry cheesecake reminds me of the exhaustion, confusion and joy of being a new mother . . . and reminds me too of the friend who showed up with it and an offer to hold my infant so I could take a shower.

Taste can be a memory that lives again. Do you have any taste memories?