Fresh Basil Pesto Agnolotti (Ravioli)


A few months ago, I read a wonderful book called The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken. It's the story of a woman--a historian--who sets about tracking down the long-lost ravioli recipes her relatives once made in Italy. The story weaves food history with memoir and recipes as she bounces back and forth between Italy and New Jersey, past and present.

What stayed with me most is a wonderful scene where the author spends a long day pouring through ancient cookbooks in the library stacks. She's desperately trying to figure out why it is that the women in her family always stuffed the ravioli with raw meat instead of cooked, the way it is traditionally done in Italian homes. She searches and searches for a reason and in doing so realizes that every culture and tradition has its own version of ravioli and that each kind fed off of each other.

She learns, for example, that the varenyky and pelmeni of Eastern Europe originated in China and were brought West by the Mongols into Siberia from which they gradually spread throughout Russia and Eastern Europe. The kreplach served in Jewish homes during the High Holidays is said to have originated in the ravioli introduced to Germany by Ashkenazi Jews who arrived there after having been expelled from Venice in the 14th century. She realized the similarities between her traditional family dish and the manti that is popular in Turkey, the shishbarak eaten in Lebanon, empanadas in Latin America, and even (unexpectedly) sandwiches (meat and/or cheese layered within slices of dough!).


I thought about those connections again recently when I stood in my kitchen rolling little balls of chilled pesto genovese and tucking them into premade Gyoza wrappers. This method is an easy and increasingly popular way to make homemade ravioli without the laborious (albeit incredibly satisfying) work of rolling out pasta dough from scratch. It is also a pretty tangible example of the way that cultures meld seamlessly in the kitchen (sealed with a wet fingertip dipped in starch).

The recipe itself is a simple one that belies the history-laden centuries that precede it. Simply a basic pesto of basil crushed with olive oil, garlic, hard cheese, salt, and almonds (I was out of pine nuts) tossed into the food processor or blender or (as I suggested to an incredulous coworker this afternoon) even roughly chopped by hand with the rapid rock of a mezzaluna. Rolled into little balls in the palm of my hand and then placed carefully on one half of the packaged rounds (or squares; won ton wrappers work too). A little finger bowl of water is all the glue necessary to bind the halves together forming neat half-moon shapes.


I should note that this technique actually produces a pasta shape called Agnolotti, which means "priest caps" because of the way the folded over half-moon shape mirrors the little curved hats priests once wore. It's now come to refer to any kind of stuffed pasta that is folded over from one piece of pasta, instead of two pieces layered on top of each other.

After a quick boil in salted water, the Agnolotti come out whispery light and translucent. A drizzle of olive oil or a quick shave of Pecorino and the dish is complete (the sauce, after all, is inside).


This pesto recipe can be easily modified and multiplied as necessary. Try adding roasted red peppers or anchovies. Swap in any variety of nut. And don't even feel restrained by the basil. I'm actually toying with a version made with a Thai-style version made with cilantro, ginger, and peanuts. But that will have to wait for another afternoon.



Fresh Basil Pesto Agnolotti (Ravioli)

For the Pesto:

1 large bunch of basil leaves, washed and patted dry with a towel
3-4 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup raw pine nuts (or almonds, walnuts, etc.)
3/4 hard cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Roman, coursely grated
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (plus more if necessary)
1 teaspoon of lemon juice (optional)

Combine all the ingredients except for the olive oil in your food processor with the chopping blade attached. Pulse while gently drizzling in the olive oil. You want to finely chop all the ingredients without pureeing them. Once it is ready, taste and add salt if necessary. Pour into an air-tight jar or container and store in the refrigerator or freezer.

Note: The lemon juice is optional, but it will help keep the pesto green if it is not all going to be used immediately.

For the agnolotti:

1 package (about 50) Gyoza wrappers
1 cup warm water


To make:

Spread the Gyoza wrappers on a dry and flat surface (make sure it is dry as any moisture will combine with the starch on the wrappers causing them to stick).

Use a teaspoon to measure out a generous rounded portion of pesto into your hand. Roll gently into a ball and place on one half of the wrapper. Work in batches and fill 5 at a time, then use your fingertip dipped in the warm water to brush the outside of each wrapper. Bring the empty side over the filling and pinch shut, making sure to push out from the filling towards the edge in order to remove all the air. This will keep the dumplings shut while boiling. Repeat with remaining wrappers and pesto.

To cook, bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil. Add the agnolotti in batches (cook no more than 15 at a time or they'll stick to each other) and let cook for 4-6 minutes or until they rise to the top and look translucent. Remove with a slotted spoon and serve immediately topped with olive oil and grated cheese.

Cook's Note: the agnolotti can be prepared and sealed then frozen to be cooked at a later date. No need to thaw before cooking, just leave them in a minute or two longer.


Chardonnay Cake with an Almond Sugar Crust


In our home, half-bottles of leftover wine tend to suffer an ignoble fate. All too often, the last glass or two is forgotten once the movie ends and the dinner dishes are cleared away. The wine is left to languish on the table, forgotten among the weekday jumble of keys and junk mail. On Wednesday or Thursday, when the sudden rush to clean hits, one of us will grab it and tilt it towards the light to count a half-dozen or so fruit flies floating in a boozy grave. Useful, perhaps, but a bit sad considering the cost. Fly paper, after all, costs much less than a DOCG.

This week I decided to do something about it. I toyed around with the idea of homemade vinegar, but what I really wanted was something a little sweet and just a touch more indulgent. I was thinking about those lovely looking individual Vin Santo cakes I'd seen in Gourmet earlier this year. Suddenly I became obsessed with the idea of wine cake. I did a quick search online for other wine cake recipes, but all I found were several "semi-homemade" versions of doctored-up cake mix that were definitely not what I was looking for.




So I just went for it, using the Gourmet recipe as a rough guide, I increased the sugar to make up for the missing syrupy sweetness of Vin Santo (incredible, by the way, if you haven't tried it. It was a staple at every dinner table when I lived in Florence.) I also added a touch of orange flower water, scraped in a vanilla bean, and covered the top with a generous sprinkle of turbinado sugar and sliced almonds. In the oven, the topping toasted and caramelized into a crisp shell that gave way to a delicate wine-scented inside. Leftover wine, in case you're wondering, makes for an incredibly moist cake. It's sophisticated and adult, without tasting boozy. And I guarantee that you'll be able to throw it together and get it on the table in just a little over an hour and a half. (You don't even need to tell your guests that you've served them leftover wine!)




Oh and about that wine, the rule of thumb when it comes to cooking with wine is "if it's good enough to drink, it's good enough to cook with." Except that I confess I liked this wine much better in my cake than in my glass. I actually think this cake lends itself well to those wines that are maybe just a little too cloying to enjoy as a beverage.

**By the way (and this has nothing to do with the recipe), I just finished typing up a Recipe Index that collects and categorizes all the recipes available on this blog in one handy-dandy page. I hope you'll find it useful if you're looking for any specific recipes (or just want to explore ones that you may have missed!).

Chardonnay Cake with an Almond Sugar Crust
Inspired by a recipe in Gourmet Magazine, January 2009

You can use any leftover white wine to make this cake, although ones with slightly sweet or fruity notes will likely work best. If your wine is very sweet, be sure to adjust the sugar accordingly.


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 stick of unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated white sugar
2 large eggs, room temperature
2 tablespoons grated orange zest
1 teaspoon orange flower water (optional)
1 vanilla bean split in half or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup Chardonnay
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar ("Sugar in the Raw")
1/3 cup sliced almonds

Equipment: One 9" springform pan

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour your springform pan and set aside.

Sift together your flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In the base of your electric mixer, beat the softened butter with the 3/4 cup of granulated white sugar until light and really fluffy (about 2 minutes). Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating each well until incorporated. Whisk in the orange zest, orange flower water, and scrape in the vanilla seeds from the inside of the vanilla bean (or add your extract).

Add the flour mixture in two steps, alternating with the wine, and mixing only until both are incorporated

Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan and use a spatula to smooth out the top. Sprinkle the top with the turbinado sugar, making sure to cover the whole cake. Then sprinkle the sliced almonds over the sugar crystals making sure they cover it completely and evenly.

Bake in the oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the top turns golden and puffs slightly. A cake tester inserted in the center should come out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool in the springform pan for 10 minutes before removing the sides and sliding the cake onto a dish. Let cool completely before serving.

Sautéed Soft-Shell Crabs in White Wine Lemon Sauce


Have you ever held a raw soft-shell crab in your hand? There is something lovely and delicate about the way it sits there, cool and squooshy on your palm. The claws drape over the sides and the thin papery shell seems to barely cover the soft meat inside.

I ask my fishmonger to clean them for me. Clean really means kill, but we keep it nice and polite as I point out the ones I want so that he can take them to the back. I avert my eyes as he snips off their faces and wraps them in crisp sheets of white parchment. Into the basket they go, along with a couple ripe avocados and an overflowing bunch of arugula. Near the register I grab a crusty sourdough boule. I stop myself from adding a loaf of chocolate pound cake.

At home I rinse them and I pat them dry, resisting the urge to pinch a claw with each hand and spin around the room like Wendy Darling and her little brothers. I wisk buttermilk with salt and pepper and a shake of Old Bay, then drop them into the milk white bath for a long soak.


In the meantime, I wash the arugula and pull the husks off a few stalks of corn. If I lived in a house with a door that opened out to the backyard, I'd grill them with the husks still on. But I live in an apartment and it's 400 degrees in NY and I can't open my kitchen window without climbing onto the counter to reach behind the refrigerator. So I sort-of steam them in a skillet with a half-inch of salted water.

When I decide the crabs are ready, I pull them out of the bowl and give them a quick shake. They dance a little, and I can't resist giving their soft bellies a little squeeze before I dredge them in flour that I've seasoned with salt and pepper and Old Bay (we're keeping this simple). (And don't you love the word dredge?)


I forgot to tell you about the pot! My big, red Dutch oven has been sitting on the stove this whole time, getting nice and hot. I've dropped a couple big pats of butter and it's now bubbling and ready. The crabs go in two at a time with a big sizzle and crackle as they hit the hot butter. I leave them about 4 minutes on each side until they are crisp and golden and the tips of the claws are just a little bit of red poking through. The other two go in next, and then it's time for the sauce.

Into the big, hot pot (minus the crabs, who were already sitting on plate like crispy ladies in waiting) I pour about a cup of white wine. You're supposed to use something good enough to drink, but I use crappy leftover Chardonnay and it won't make a difference. I add the juice of one lemon and use scissors to snip in about 2 inches of those big, giant, farmer's market scallions. And a little bit more butter, of course. Some salt, some pepper, bubble, and reduce.

Each plate gets a little pile of arugula, a healthy drizzle of sauce, and two crabs leaning against each other like a pair of roommates walking home from a bar.

They were better, he says after we eat, than the ones we ate at the restaurant the other night. I admit that I agree.



Sautéed Soft-Shell Crabs in White Wine Lemon Sauce
Ingredients
1 cup whole buttermilk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
4 soft-shell crabs, cleaned
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons butter + 2 tablespoons butter cut into pieces
1 cup white wine
Juice of 1 whole lemon
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
3 cups of washed and chopped arugula


Directions

1. Wisk together the buttermilk, salt, pepper, and Old bay in a large bowl. Soak the crabs for at least 15 minutes and no more than 1 hour (in the refrigerator).

2. Remove one crab from the buttermilk mixture and shake off excess. Drop into plate of flour and dredge completely. Shake off excess flour and transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining crabs.

3. In a heavy Dutch oven or skillet, heat two tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat until melted and sizzling. Saute the crabs, upside down first, two minutes then turn over and saute for an addtional 3 minutes until crisp and golden brown on each side. Remove to a plate, add the other 2 tablespoons of butter, and repeat with other two crabs.

4. Pour the wine into the pot to deglaze the pan, let simmer until the alcohol burns off, then add the lemon juice, scallions, and remaining butter. Lower the heat to medium and let reduce. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Serve the crabs over the arugula, 2 crabs per person and drizzle generously with the sauce.

Sour Cherry Almond Frozen Yogurt: A Story & A Recipe

The ice cream shop at the Bergen Mall was the only thing that made the mall trips bearable. My brother and I called it the "boring mall." Unlike the other malls (it was NJ, so there were several), which had playgrounds and toy stores, this one catered almost exclusively to adults and, well, old people. But the ice cream was good, and a few hours spent hiding inside a rack of dresses while my mother shopped was ultimately not that bad a price to pay for giant scoop in a sugar cone.

The shop was located at the far side of the building, down a long hallway that smelled of cinnamon pretzels and old lady perfume. Inside, an icy painter's palate of flavors awaited us. I raced in and paced up and down the display, reading the nameplates that distinguished each flavor before settling--like I always did--on a Pepto Bismal-pink blend of strawberry ice cream studded with real bubblegum pieces. It was a flavor that required careful, methodical eating, for the ice cream had to be consumed slowly to avoid swallowing the gum, which I spit out and collected into a small sticky mountain. When the ice cream was gone, I'd pack my mouth with the wad of gum, and chew and chew until my jaws could no longer take the exercise.

That Saturday (like all the other Saturdays), I was anxious to get my cone. Patience never coming easily to me, I wandered off the line leaving my mother and brother behind to keep my place. I strode over to the counter and leaned against the cool glass, systematically breathing and wiping off puffs of breath-fog. A few feet away, a man in a fudged-colored apron dipped his sinewy arm into the buckets pulling up scoop after scoop of frozen dessert. I watched him steadily, barely noticing the tall man that walked up behind me until the counter guy looked up from his scooping with a bright smile of recognition.

"Hey man," he said to the visitor. The newcomer was blond and wore his long hair pulled back into a low ponytail; his long, dark raincoat dusted the floor as he moved.

They engaged in a complicated handshake that had clearly been devised many years earlier, and I listened nosily as the tall one leaned towards his friend behind the counter.

"Did you get the drugs?" he asked quietly. The guy behind the counter nodded, "Yeah. It's cool."

I stiffened. Did he say drugs?!?

It was the height of the "D.A.R.E to keep kids off drugs" era, and the word jumped out at me like an angry lizard. I looked around nervously, wondering if anyone else had heard the exchange, but the other customers simply continued to move along the line without any concern. I was clearly in this alone.

The guy behind the counter slipped his friend a chocolate cone and sent him off with a casual half-wave.

"I'll see you later," he called as the other one walked outside, his odd coat fanning out behind him.

And that's when I figured out what they were doing. The man behind the counter must have been hiding "the drugs" in the ice cream!

I was terrified. My mother, my brother, everyone that ate the ice cream would be drugged, and there was no way for me to stop it. I tried to think of a way to tell my mother, but the word itself was too terrifying for me to pull out of my throat. I stayed quiet as she handed me my bubblegum cone and led us back into the mall. I followed nervously beside her, holding the cone an arms length away from my body. At the crosswalk, my mother looked down and saw the uneaten ice cream dripping and melting all over my hand. A trickle of pink drops trailed along on the ground behind me.

"Alejandra!" she cried, attacking me with a handful of napkins. "Why did you ask for ice cream if you weren't going to eat it?"

"I am eating it," I lied, poking my tongue out as closely as I could without actually touching it. "For the love of God," my mom sighed, exasperated, but too busy guiding us safely across the parking lot to do much more about it.

The ice cream continued to drip and melt as walked towards the car, and I knew that time was running out. A stream of scenarios ran through my head, all ending in death caused when "the drugs" seeped through my eight-year-old hands and into my bloodstream. (My news-centric father used to let me watch John Stossel on 20/20; this was exactly the kind of story he'd feature on the show.)

A few steps away I realized there was really only one thing left to do to save myself. Certain that neither my mother nor brother was looking, I flicked my hand over and tilted the remaining ball of ice cream right off my cone and watched as it fell onto the asphalt in big fuchsia splat. My mother turned around and I braced myself for the imminent lecture feeling strangely relieved; a time-out would not be fun, but it was definitely better than drugs.


This recipe for sour cherry almond frozen yogurt contains neither bubblegum nor drugs (both of which I lost the taste for many years ago). The color, though, is almost the exact same shade of that one I let drip all over my hands when I was eight. Unlike the bubblegum ice cream, this one contains no sketchy or artificial ingredients (except for that little splash of rum, of course).

The pink comes from the sour cherries, which are reduced with a bit of sugar and a pinch of salt (for that synergistic effect). I chose sour cherries because I made the frozen yogurt a few weeks ago when they were still in season and plentiful at the farm stands. Sweet cherries are lush right now so they might make more sense; just reduce the sugar by a few tablespoons to keep it from being too sweet. And be sure to select a good and tangy Greek-style yogurt.

Note: I pitted my cherries and then placed all the pits in a little pouch made out of cheesecloth. I steeped these along with the cherries so that they would get that extra hint of almond-like flavor. Not necessary, but adds a nice touch.



Sour Cherry Almond Frozen Yogurt

Ingredients
3 cups sour cherries, pitted with stones reserved
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 cup water
1 (generous) cup of plain Greek yogurt (such as Fage, I use the full fat kind)
1 tbsp rum (I used a homemade vanilla-infused rum, but plain will suffice)
1 tbsp pure almond extract


Combine the pitted cherries, sugar, salt, and water in a small saucepan. If desired, wrap the reserved pits in a length of cheesecloth and add to the mixture (this will impart a little extra natural flavor). Head the cherries over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and the cherries release their juices. Stir occasionally.

Remove the cherry mixture from the flame and discard the pits. Let the cherries cool to room temperature before pouring into a food processor and processing until smooth. Add the Greek yogurt, rum, and extract and process for another minute until completely smooth and combined. There will still be little pieces of cherry skin in the mix, but that's OK.

Pour the mix into a bowl and cover with plastic. Place in the fridge and let cool for at least one hour.

When you are ready to make your ice cream, pour the mix into the base of your ice cream maker and churn according to manufacturer's directions.

Store in an air-tight container in the freezer for up to one week.

I'm Just Mad About Peach-and-Plum Saffron Almond Cake

Hey there, Monday. Back so soon?

I've got so many stories I'm dying to tell you. Like about this hysterically good dinner I had at the Fatty Crab on the UWS on Friday night. A dinner so good that I could not stop smiling the entire time. There was also a mini road trip down to a little Victorian-era village on the Jersey Shore where we met up with my parents and Eugene's parents and had a great time at a concert put on by a Bee Gees tribute band. I also tasted the most incredible cocktail that somehow managed to combine coconut water and rum with cilantro and chiles and (I suspect) a dash of magic. There were several walks up and down the boardwalk, a delicious hour spent rifling through a little vintage store where I discovered the most wonderful 1940s hat and a gorgeous little etched bowl in a perfect shade of strawberry milk glass.

Awesome weekend, for sure, but I am SO tired. This was more action than I've had in quite a while, and it's all I can do to dash out a few words before I dive into my bed. But I'd feel guilty if I left you with nothing, so I'm going to quickly tell you about the cake I made this week. It's a good one. So good, I'm actually now referring to as "THE cake."

You start with peaches and sugar plums. The kind of ripe that buckles to the touch, and all but explodes when pierced with the very tip of your knife making. Juicy, messy, stone fruit that's been sitting out on the counter maybe just a day or two longer than you meant.

These you'll grab and slice thickly (no baby slices allowed), and arrange all haphazardly into an absolutely heavenly batter.

Picture a moist cake with ground almonds, a big shower of lemon zest, and (this is where it gets good)...saffron. (See why I'm calling it "THE cake"?)

Don't forget to wake up the saffron by simmering it in a little saucer of milk first. You want the color to spill out and your kitchen to start to smell a little something like what I imagine all the rooms in that book A Thousand and One Nights smelled like.

It will come out of the oven all sunshine yellow with fruit studding the cake like circle of stained glass. You might be tempted to hang this up on the wall, were it not for the husky waves of saffron that will quickly fill up your home.

I was so in love with this cake by the time it came out of my oven that I practically kept it in my lap while it cooled, leaning down every few minutes just to inhale.


I can't wait until you try this. You won't believe what just a little pinch of those threads can do... And since there are no stories today, it gives that much time to get right down to baking this. I'm pretty sure you'll be OK with this deal once you taste it.




*****
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Peach-and-Plum Saffron Almond Cake
Makes one 9" cake

Directions
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup almond meal (finely ground almonds)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of kosher salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar ("Sugar in the Raw")
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon saffron threads (or 1/8th teaspoon ground saffron)
1/4 cup whole milk
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon pure almond extract
2 VERY ripe plums, pitted and cut into thick slices (about 1")
3 VERY ripe peaches, pitted and cut into thick slices (about 1")

Directions
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan and set aside. Sift together flour, almond meal, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.

In the base of an electric mixer, beat the softened butter and one cup of sugar for about 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, waiting until each is incorporated before adding the next.
In a small saucepan, combine the milk and saffron threads and heat until it boils then immediately turn off. Let steep for a minute or two, until the milk takes on a rich yellow hue. Let cool slightly and then pour into your batter along with the lemon zest and almond extract. Incorporate well. (Note: if the batter curdles a bit, don't worry. It will fix itself once you add the flour and won't affect the final taste or texture.)

With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the flour mixture and mix until well blended. Spread the prepared batter into the springform pan and smooth out the top.

Arrange the fruit in concentric circles, alternating the peaches and plums. Use all the fruit, even if you have to layer some on top of each other to fit (the fruit will sink during baking).

Sprinkle the fruit and top of cake with the 2 tablespoons of turbinado sugar. Bake in oven for 1 hour, or until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Let cool completely before serving.

Julie & Julia: An Edible Movie Review



I wasn't sure what to expect from Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron's lively film based on the book of the same name. The book chronicles a year in the life of Julie Powell, a bored temp who decides to cook and blog her way through all 534 recipes in Julia Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking...in just one year. The movie version took the book further by paring Powell's story with Julia Child's in a bit of a flip-flop parallel structure that I originally expected to hate, but didn't.

On paper it seemed perfect: a Nora Ephron movie about food set in Paris and New York with a clearly (even from just the previews) brilliant portrayal of Julia Child?! How could that possibly go wrong? I love Nora Ephron and I love movies that have to do with food and cooking, and though I knew very little about Julia, I figured it's hard to mess up a story about learning to cook in Paris.

The part I was a little iffy about--the part everyone seemed a little iffy about--was the Julie Powell side of the story. I read the book about a year ago and I enjoyed it, but it definitely wasn't one of my favorites. I found myself skipping over parts and bristling over the harshness of her language. Nothing about the book ever made me want to run to the kitchen to cook, the way other food memoirs have. In fact, I remember finishing the book feeling exhausted and sweaty and, more than anything, just glad that it was over.

What it came down to is that I never felt a passion for the food itself in Julie's words. It seems ironic given the subject, but really what she had was an obsession and a determination. It was as if she made a choice and decided to stick with it come hell, but had no true love for it. She battled her recipes. She tackled them the way people tackle packing up books for a big move or tiling the bathroom floor. As incredible as her feat was, it failed to seduce me. And when it comes to food, I want to be seduced.

The movie was a different beast entirely. It opens in post World War II Paris, where Julia Child (played by the ever-brilliant Meryl Streep) is trying to figure out what to do with herself while her husband Paul is stationed at the US Embassy. Talking it over with Paul (Stanley Tucci) she determines that the only thing she really loves to do (and the only thing she is really any good at) is eat. Julia signs up for a tough French culinary course where she warbles and charms and fearlessly cooks her way to the top of the class (and beyond).



The Queens side of the story is somewhat less fanciful. Accordion music doesn't waft through the air in Long Island City, where Julie Powell and her husband live in a cramped studio over a pizza parlor. This isn't the charming New York City of Ephron's You've Got Mail or When Harry Met Sally. In fact, the city barely exists here at all, save for a few sweaty subway rides and the shots of Ground Zero outside Julie's office window.

The New York story takes place almost entirely in Julie's tiny kitchen where she diligently attacks lobsters and melts copious sticks of butter with the determination of a soldier, interspersed with her regular tantrums over poorly-trussed chickens and slippery aspic.

The eating is less pretty than at the Parisian dinner parties, but this part I actually liked. I relished watching Eric Messina, who plays Julie's ever-supportive husband, shove large spoonfuls of cake and entire slices of bruschetta in his mouth. It was that kind of real, honest, big-mouth eating that happens in home kitchens and tiny dining tables where the plates might be chipped and the trucks roll by all throughout dinner, but it’s no matter because the food is really, really good.

Other critics have said they thought the Julie story wrested time from Julia’s, but I enjoyed the modern contrast. Had the two stories been turned into individual films, I doubt that I would have been so drawn to either of them. What I found most intriguing, was the way that Ephron rewrote Julie as a much softer and likable person (all the whining and weird, bushy hair aside). While I actually liked the movie-Julie much better than the book version, I question whether someone with the temperament of the girl in the film could have actually accomplished such a task. I think one would need the fiery harshness of the real-life version to actually get through it.

I also thought it odd that neither of the characters gained any weight throughout the course of the story, even though that was a constant theme in the book—and one with which the real Julie Powell still admits to struggling. At one point, upon seeing Eric Messina shove another handful of cake in his mouth, my own boyfriend, who is very aware of the reality of living with a food blogger who constantly cooks and serves him delicious things, leaned over to me and asked “well why doesn’t he gain any weight?” Even though there were points where movie-Julie complained that she was “getting fat,” she could have just as well been complaining about being a giant green elephant, since either claim would have been equally absurd. I couldn't help think about those wonderful scenes in the Bridget Jones movies where her mood and the events in her life are actually mirrored in the pounds that come on and off her bottom. It would have been fun to see a bit of that realism injected into this movie, too.

As a food blogger with dreams of bigger things, I couldn't help being absolutely enchanted with the scene where a profile by the New York Times' Amanda Hesser causes Julie's phone to explode with calls from reporters, publishing companies, and literary agents. It was several years ago, when the food blog market was much less saturated, but I couldn't help but stare wide-eyed and think "Damn! I want that!"

Aside from the "book deal porn," one of the most lust-inducing scenes in the movie was the one where Julia walks around a cookery shop with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, casually picking up and dropping breathtakingly gorgeous copper pots into her shopping basket the same way one might randomly grab an apple at the supermarket. I was drooling over her gorgeous collection of shiny copper cookware and those perfectly outlined peg boards that Paul lovingly assembled for their Cambridge kitchen. “Can you make me one of those?” I whispered to Eugene when I saw them.

Despite all the warnings, we made the mistake of not having dinner before the movie. When it ended (two hours and change later) we rushed out of the theater and walked straight up Broadway to the nearest French bistro, where we quickly ordered warm goat cheese over frissee, duck pate, hanger steak in a red wine shallot sauce, garlic frites, and lots and lots of French bread and butter. At the table we talked about the film, and I was surprised that my boyfriend actually liked it; we never agree on movies so this was quite the event. Like me, he loved Meryl Streep's portrayal of Julia the best. Once the bread was gone, the waitress came back to ask if we’d like to see the dessert menu. I nearly laughed as I dove for the menu. We chose the chocolate fondue, which is not technically French, but I can’t imagine Julia ever objecting to a dessert that requires you dip delicious things in hot, melted chocolate. Can you?

Blueberry Almond Buttermilk Cake


Until I tried it a few weeks ago, I didn't realize that I've probably been eating buttermilk cake my whole life. One bite, and I was sitting at the kitchen table at 345 Cleveland Avenue with my mom out front battling the overgrown azaleas and my little brother tearing around the living room in his Superman feety pajamas.

It's ironic, since when I first read the recipe in Gourmet a few months ago, it seemed completely new and unfamiliar. As hard as I tried, I just couldn't place the flavor in my head the way I can with pound cake or red velvet or any of those other cakes I've eaten a million times. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from buttermilk cake--would it be tangy? sour? would it smell funny?


Truth is that it was neither tangy nor sour, and it smelled absolutely incredible. The crumb was light and the cake took on a gorgeous golden hue--like the color of real butter and egg yolks. And though the taste felt like something I'd been eating for ages, I can't quite figure out where it is that I first tried it. My mom was never much of a baker, and buttermilk rarely (if ever) made an appearance in our refrigerator. I can only assume that it must have been from a Betty Crocker box. (Perhaps one of you might have an idea? Is there (or was there) even a Betty Crocker buttermilk cake available?)


I baked this cake (and the few that came before it) using a half-gallon of buttermilk that I bought from an Amish man at a flea/farmer's market in Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania.

Eugene and I drove down there to spend the night at his family's weekend home in the Poconos, and stopped off at the market on the way to the house. Near the back of the huge lot there was a farm stand run by an Amish family with an impressive ability for totaling up long lists of prices in their heads. I bought a huge basket of pickling cucumbers (stay tuned for what I did with those), fresh peaches, sour cherries, and was just about to walk away when I noticed the sign for raw (!!!) milk hanging against the wall. It said "Raw Milk: Half Gallon, Full Gallon, Buttermilk also."

I got all excited and told Eugene I wanted to get a half gallon of buttermilk before we left. He asked the Amish man if they had any raw buttermilk and I noticed that the man gave us a bit of a suspicious look before nodding and sending his son, an adorable little boy in overalls, to pull it out of the cooler for us. I briefly wondered why he looked at us suspiciously and thought perhaps his farm didn't have a permit to sell the raw milk. The little boy came back with the milk and went to hand it to me, but his father took it from him and placed it in a bag first. We paid and thanked him, and brought it back to the house. Since everyone was out and about, we tucked the buttermilk in the fridge and didn't look at it until we got home the next day. That evening, I pulled it out to take a closer look and was surprised to discover that the label on the bottle said it was "Pasteurized Buttermilk"


"What the heck?!" I shouted in disbelief. "How can this be raw milk if it's pasteurized?"

Eugene came over to see what all my ruckus was about, and checked the label for himself. Sure enough, it clearly said that it was "pasteurized" buttermilk. I felt completely deceived.

"That sneaky Amish man!" I shouted while shaking the buttermilk bottle in the air. "He totally scammed me!"


The (non-raw, probably non-Amish) buttermilk was actually fantastic. It was thick and rich, with a creamy coating around the neck of the bottle...but I still couldn't help feeling a bit betrayed. After a while of stewing about it, I wondered if perhaps it was all a matter of punctuation. The sign, after all, had said: "Raw Milk: Half Gallon, Full Gallon, Buttermilk also." Should that comma after the "Full Gallon" really have been a period? Perhaps that's why the Amish man regarded me so oddly when I asked him for Raw Buttermilk? But if that was the case, why didn't he correct me? Is that why he didn't let me see the milk before I paid for it?

You can rest assured that Amish man will get an earful from me the next time we're in that market. Mark my words, readers. Mark my words...



Recipe Notes: Regardless of what buttermilk you use, this cake will turn out fabulous. This recipe has been floating around the Internet the past couple months in a number of iterations. It originated, as I noted earlier, in Gourmet Magazine as a thinner version with raspberries. I gave the original recipe a shot, but felt like it needed a few adjustments. I didn't like how thin the cake was, so I double the recipe and replaced raspberries with blueberries since I can't stand those little seeds in my cake. A generous dose of almond extract, some lemon zest, and a sprinkle of sliced almonds elevate this into a much more substantial dessert, while staying true to the original rustic style.

I also used a springform pan instead of the regular kind that Gourmet advised, and added a round of parchment paper; the berries have a tendency to sink and stick to the bottom so this makes cleanup a breeze and helps keep the cake intact. As one of the pretty parts about this cake is the sugary crust that develops on the top, using a springform pan also makes sense aesthetically since you won't have to invert it onto the cooling rack.


Blueberry-Almond Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine, June 2009

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 and 1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons lemon zest, finely grated
1 tablespoon pure almond extract
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups fresh blueberries
2 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons turbinado sugar (such as sugar in the raw) or other coarse-crystal sugar
3 tablespoons sliced almonds


Preheat oven to 400°F and place the rack in the middle. Butter and flour a 9" round springform pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper.

Sift together your flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In the base of your electric mixer (or by hand) cream together the butter and 1 and 1/3 cup granulated sugar until pale yellow and fluffy. Add the zest, almond extract, and eggs, and beat well for an additional 2-3 minutes.

Lower the speed of your mixer to 'stir,' and mix in the flour in 3 batches, alternating with the buttermilk until all is combined.

Pour your batter into the baking pan and use a spatula to smooth.

In a bowl, toss your berries with the 2 tablespoons of flour until lightly coated. Sprinkle the berries over the batter. They should completely cover the cake. (Note that during baking these will sink in, so don't worry if the layer of berries seems thick.)

Sprinkle the course sugar and the sliced almonds all over the top of the berries and place in the oven. Bake for approximately 30 - 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean and the top is golden brown.

Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 10-15 minutes, before releasing the sides of the spring form and sliding off bottom to transfer to a cooling rack (with the berry/sugar side up). Let cool completely before serving.

Picnic Recipes: Roasted Asparagus


This is a quickie recipe for roasted asparagus that's really more of a technique. This works with both skinny asparagus and the thicker kinds. I prefer the former because I love how tender they get, but you might have your own preference.

An easy toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, plus ten minutes in the oven, and you'll be set with an easy side dish that's just as delicious cold as it is hot from the oven. Make these the night before, pop in a Tupperware container, and leave in the fridge overnight. When you get to your picnic site, shave a bit of Pecorino Romano cheese over it and let people help themselves. Also great when chopped up and tossed with pasta or even in a sandwich!

I'll continue posting picnic recipes this week, but in the meantime, let me know what your favorite picnic dishes are in the comments section.


Roasted Asparagus


Ingredients
1 pound asparagus (I like the skinny kind, but pick whichever you prefer)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees

Trim the ends of your stalks (about 1-2"). Save these tips in a freezer bag; they're great for soup. Toss the spears in a bowl with the olive oil and make sure that all the stalks are coated evenly.

Spread the spears out in a single layer on a large baking sheet. To make clean-up easier, line with parchment paper. Sprinkle with the kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Place in oven and roast for 10-12 minutes, or until the spears are lightly browned but still have a hint of crispness.

Remove from the oven and either serve immediately or serve at room temperature. Can also be refrigerated and served up to 24 hours later (either cold or room temperature)

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