Monday, April 25, 2011

Bake It Forward: A Few of My Favorite Things

Last fall, Lucy Mercer initiated a project to bring Open Salon food writers – and the products of our kitchens – together in meatspace. As part of Imperial Sugar Company’s Bake It Forward program, we’d each have a turn to receive a box of home-baked treats from the kitchen of another Open Salon writer, who would then blog about the goodies she made. (“She” is the right pronoun here; unfortunately, no boys have chosen to play with us yet.) Next it would be the recipient’s turn to fill the box, send it to another writer, and blog about it. Would I be interested in joining in? Lucy asked.

At the time, Thanksgiving and Christmas were looming and I was overwhelmed with work-related matters, so I declined. Then the first few Bake It Forward posts appeared and I felt like a shmuck. (Linda’s cookies look amazing! And I could be eating them right now, if I weren’t such a lazy-ass slacker!)

But a few months later, I had my shot at redemption. Gabby Abby sent me an e-mail: would I be interested in taking her sour-cream pound cake and stewardship of that box? This time, I couldn’t say no.

Inside that box was not only some extraordinary pound cake, but a delightfully unexpected treat: a packet with about six envelopes inside, each containing a handwritten card from one of the bakers to the recipient of her treats. I was the last link in the chain:

I could never relate to people who consider online communities their lifelines and fellow bloggers or forum members their only friends. Don’t they realize most online personas are the same dude posting under multiple pseudonyms and most online groups, even the most potentially useful, are peopled with spammers and frauds? But opening and reading all these cards made me realize that there are real, warm, and decent people behind those avatars – people I’d love to meet in person, should the occasion arise.

If they are all the same dude posting under multiple pseudonyms, he makes a mean pound cake. And has a real talent for feminine penmanship.

Scarfing down Abby’s pound cake was easy. Now I had two things to figure out: who should get the box next and what to put in it.

The first question had an easy answer: the box would go to Christine Geery, who blogs prolifically about food and everything else and would no doubt enjoy thinking of a fun way to refill that box. But first, I had to think of something to send Christine.

I have no shortage of recipes for baked treats. But I’m always a bit self-conscious about cooking for people I don’t know well. I’m aware that I cook with roughly three times as many chiles and twice as much garlic as most normal people—when I give out recipes, I always dial down the quantities of these for decency’s sake. I love things that a lot of people hate, like fish sauce and coconut. And now I was baking for someone I’ve never met in real life. It’s always easier to please unfamiliar palates with sweets than savories, but still.

Then there was the issue of portability. Whatever I made had to be something that could endure whatever abuse the postal service dished out and something that could travel halfway across the country though goodness-knows what kind of temperature fluctuations and come out unscathed. So, alas, nothing with chocolate glaze or cream filling or anything that could melt or get soggy.

I decided on two of my favorite things. The first is my favorite scone recipe, Hollyce’s Oatmeal Scones from the Stars Desserts cookbook. (Stars being a now-defunct restaurant in San Francisco.) The name of the recipe really doesn’t do it justice. Yes, there are oats in there—lots of them, contributing a wonderful toasty, nutty flavor. But there is also a serious hit of orange zest, lots of butter, and chewiness and sweetness from raisins. (The recipe officially calls for currants, which would be smaller and prettier by far, but I couldn’t find any in my local supermarket.) The scones travel and freeze well, and are among the few scones I’ve had that taste good cold as well as warm.

The second recipe is a sentimental favorite of mine: a lemon-square recipe from a 1970s charity cookbook. I’ve re-christened the recipe Led Zeppelin Lemon Squares for reasons soon to be made clear, and I’ve been making them since I was about ten. This recipe has never let me down. It has gotten me invited to sleepovers (so I could teach my friends how to make it), helped me kiss up to my teachers in high school, kept several boyfriends (temporarily) loyal, and even placated the dysfunctional French family for whom I worked as an au pair.

And in one of the most awkward stages of my life, these lemon squares made me feel powerful. Back in high school, I was nerdy and shy and spent almost all my Friday and Saturday nights at home. I couldn’t be the party animal I wanted to be, but I could stay up dangerously late, listening to KMET (then Los Angeles’ premier heavy-metal station) while baking up batches of cookies, getting a serious sugar buzz, and wondering how long it took Jimmy Page to learn to play like that. I may have been a social wipeout, but even the popular kids loved my cookies. No matter what, I knew I could rock that cookie jar. On most Saturday nights, that was good enough for me.


(adapted from The Three Rivers Cookbook)

For the base:

1 cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup powdered sugar

½ cup (1 stick) butter

For the top layer:

2 eggs

1 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine the base ingredients; they will form a crumbly dough. Press the dough evenly over the bottom of an 8-inch square baking pan.

3. Bake the base for about 15 minutes, until it starts to brown at the edges.

4. While the base is baking, thoroughly combine the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. If you leave the mixture alone, the flour and baking powder will separate and form a layer on top of the lemon goop. Do not be concerned; this is part of the plan.

5. When the base is done, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool slightly. Then pour the remaining ingredients over the base and return the pan to the oven.

6. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the surface of the lemon squares is evenly golden brown. (The flour and baking powder will have risen to form a thin, flaky crust over a creamy lemon filling.)

7. Allow the confection to cool completely before you cut it into 16 squares. Top with sifted powdered sugar if desired.


(adapted from Stars Desserts, by Emily Luchetti)

3 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

11/4 teaspoons salt

11/4 teaspoons baking soda

21/4 teaspoons baking powder

10 ounces (2 ½ sticks) cold, unsalted butter

2 cups rolled oats

1 cup currants or raisins

2 tablespoons finely chopped orange zest

¾ cup buttermilk

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment, mix at low speed until the butter is the size of small peas.

3. Add the oats, currants or raisins, and orange zest. Continue to mix, slowly pouring in the buttermilk, just until the dough comes together. It may be a bit sticky.

4. Put the dough on a lightly floured board and roll it out into a ¾ -inch-thick circle. Cut the dough into 10 circles, each 3½ inches in diameter. (If you have extra dough fragments after cutting the circles, gently press them together, roll to ¾-inch thickness, and try to cut out extra scones if you can.)

5. Put the scones on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

You Really Shouldn't Be Eating This

In my family, cholesterol is the source of all the world’s trouble. Boatloads of the fatty stuff course through our collective veins with varying speeds of efficiency. My parents regularly interrogate my sisters and me about our cholesterol levels and warn of the horrors that will befall us if we don’t keep them under control. Everything from acne to anxiety attacks has been attributed by my parents, at some point or another, to dietary fat. I’m sure they’ve considered bacon as a possible root cause of terrorism and the ascendancy of the Tea Party.

None of this, however, stops us from sitting around the table at lunch talking about what we’re going to eat for dinner. My brothers-in-law make mean homemade sausage and barbeque marinades, and both my parents boast professional cooks among their parents or grandparents.

Cholesterol in the Lee clan has always been – as Homer Simpson famously said of alcohol – the cause of, and the solution to, all of life’s problems.

“You really shouldn’t eat so much fat,” Mom lectured one morning when I was visiting over Christmas. “That’s why your blood pressure so high.”

She was telling me this as I was pouring myself a bowl of granola and she was preparing breakfast for Dad: fried eggs and Spam.

We all know, of course, that food doesn’t have to be fattening to be wonderful. We love the custardy, string-free mangos that sometime pop up, for a mere 50 cents apiece, in Chinatown. We always look forward to the peppery salads made with the greens Mom grows in big pots on the back patio.

Still, some of the things nearest and dearest to our hearts and stomachs are not to be spoken of in the presence of respectable people – and the element of danger only increases their appeal. You’ll have to pry our pork belly sliders from our cold, dead (no doubt from congestive heart failure) hands.

Even Mom, the most vocal worrywart in the family, is not immune to the allure of fatty treats. Every so often over the years, she’d wax rhapsodic about the baroque, egg-laden Portuguese sweets she grew up with in Macau, which was at that time a Portuguese protectorate. I was intrigued by her descriptions of them and by the fact that none of these treats seemed to have a name, at least not that she could remember. One of these, she said, consisted of “tiny strands of egg yolk cooked in sugar, like a little birds’ nest”; another was “a ball of egg yolk that has crunchy sugar on the outside but is creamy when you bite into it”). How could these mysterious wonders not have names?

Later, my intrigue grew with the realization that I’d never seen anything resembling those confections anywhere – and I’ve been fortunate enough to live in places where one can track down just about any ethnic cuisine imaginable. Another reason for my fascination with those treats is that they are made almost entirely of egg yolks. Eggs in themselves, Mom liked to warn, should be eaten only in moderation. But the mystery sweets of her youth not only contained eggs, but only the bad, dangerous, cholesterol-bearing part of the egg, in lethal concentrations. And yet Mom liked to reminisce about those eggy sweets, and would no doubt eat one in a heartbeat if we somehow managed to conjure them up.

Then, last week she called me, excited by a recent discovery. While browsing an online store featuring Spanish imports, she came across something that looked strikingly familiar – tiny, round convent sweets made of egg yolks, an artisanal specialty made for hundreds of years by an order of Spanish nuns in the walled medieval town of Avila. The description said they were crunchy with sugar on the outside with insides that dissolved on the tongue “without any pressure.”

Bingo. Or as close to “bingo” as we could hope to get: Spain and Portugal are neighboring countries with many shared food traditions, including an obsession with cramming as many egg yolks as possible into the dessert course. (There is a practical historical reason for this: wine-makers in both countries required large quantities of egg whites to clarify wine, and the nuns used egg whites to starch their habits – hence, a steady supply of egg yolks was ready and waiting to be made into convent sweets.) The resulting cholesterol bombs became so beloved they spread around the world with the Spanish and Portuguese diaspora, evolving as they traveled. Local variants of Iberian egg sweets can be found in locales as far flung as the Philippines, Brazil – and Macau.

And Mom swore those pricey Spanish sweets from that online catalogue looked and sounded exactly like the ones she remembered from Macau. But no way was she going to pay to have those things airlifted in an insulated box from Spain to Los Angeles.

But, she said hopefully, there were recipes for it online, and they sounded pretty simple. Hmm.

I had myself a project. Fate nudged me along in the form of a promotional coupon from Target for a free carton of a dozen eggs. I normally keep only Egg Beaters in the house in deference to my arteries, but hey, the eggs were free! This was almost as good as getting a bucket of free, fresh yolks from the local wine-maker. Now I really had no excuse not to go through with this.

The recipes I found for this confection, officially called yemas de Santa Teresa (literally “Saint Teresa’s egg yolks,” a.k.a. “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”) all take the same basic form: make a sugar syrup, mix it with an appalling number of egg yolks, cool the resulting mixture, form it into little balls, then roll the balls in sugar. Some recipes boast only three ingredients: egg yolks, sugar, and water. Others enhance the syrup with lemon zest and/or cinnamon. I like the idea of a hit of spice and citrus to offset all that sweetness and richness; it adds to the mysterious medieval vibe of the confections and makes them feel both more and less pointlessly decadent.

I’ve always hated the term “sinful” when applied to food. It seems to reflect the worst aspects of Puritanism (free will and the Puritan work ethic I can get behind; the idea that life must be miserable to be virtuous, not so much). Besides, how could these little treats be sinful? They were invented by NUNS. And sold by nuns to support their work. Ergo, those who eat them are doing God’s work.

Given these truths, how could they possibly be bad for you?


The following recipe is a combination of several nearly identical recipes I found online from different sources. Almost all of the credible-looking recipes came from web sites based in Spain, which made me glad to have functional Spanish reading skills and a digital scale that allows metric measurements. I’ve converted the measurements to standard American measures.


8 egg yolks

½ cup sugar

1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons water

½ stick cinnamon

zest of 2/3 lemon

Additional sugar for coating

1. Beat the egg yolks, then pass them through a fine-meshed strainer into a heatproof bowl.

2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a small, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook until the syrup reaches the soft-ball stage (There are two easy ways to tell: If you use a candy thermometer, this stage is between 235 and 240 degrees F. The low-tech way to test for readiness is to drop a small amount of the syrup into a bowl of ice water. If the syrup is ready, it will form a soft little ball that you can easily pick up and press flat between your fingers; if it's not ready yet, it will dissolve in the water).

3. Remove the cinnamon stick and lemon zest from the syrup, then gradually whisk the syrup into the egg yolks.

4. Return the syrup and egg mixture to the saucepan. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan.

5. Put the mixture in a clean container and refrigerate until firm.

6. Roll the cooled mixture into walnut-sized balls and roll the balls in sugar.

7. If you want to be fancy, put the balls in frilly little paper cups for serving.