31 July 2016

The right thing

I'm going to fucking need the ambulance – I want to pick up the phone and shout into the receiver. I'm having a crushing, no – squeezing, no – stabbing, no – burning sensation somewhere there, an inch deep under the ribcage, on the left of the sternum. I take a breath and it gets worse, a sharp pain shoots up my neck and into my shoulders, so I try not to breathe that much. As I wipe my cheeks dry there is a black residue on my fingertips, the mascara. I can't see, but I'm sure I must look like shit right now. Please fucking help me, I want to say.

That's stupid, so stupid to have wound up like this. I was going to unlock my bike, but I need a moment. I pull my bag off the shoulder, put it down on the pavement and place myself next to it. I pick my phone from the bottom of the bag and look at the black screen like it's a mirror. I do look like shit: the eyelids thicker than usual, especially the lower ones, puffy cheeks under the eyes, the mascara leaks. I search my bag for a napkin—the keys, wallet, lipstick, yes, a bruised ripe peach, a crumpled post-it with a grocery list (three exclamation marks next to 'cherries'), but there is no damn napkin today. I swipe the phone screen and dial Anthony. I tell him I'm sitting on the pavement, tell him about the chest pains. Take a deep breath, he says—but it feels there is a sharp fish bone stuck in my throat, I say back.
You are changing jobs, he says, with a very calm voice, and it's a lot of emotions, coping, accepting, and releasing, but you did the right thing. But did I? I ask.  

It's been a long while, Anya, seven whole years. Of course you did, of course. You needed to leave, to go and learn a new thing, you know it.

I baked and shaped my last breads there today, you know, I say and pull out of my bag an oval loaf of sourdough bread -- a batard -- I took from work. It smells sour and creamy, the time-old and visceral smell of good bread, and that's so very reassuring at the moment. The smell of these breads has always reminded me of my grandmother's well-used wooden salt-box (designed as Baba Yaga, the forest-dwelling deformed witch from Slavic folklore; this one was with a mortar, that's where the salt went). It had often been a centerpiece on my grandmother's dining table. I've got a baguette for you as well, your all-time favorite, I say with a stress on 'your'.

That's nice, thank you. But do something nice for yourself too today.

Something nice. I've been meaning to make a cherry clafoutis for a while now, maybe I should do that, I only need to pick up fresh cherries for it, yes, I'll do that. I'll get a kilo of fresh fat near-black staining cherries for a clafoutis. Only I won't make it. I'll eat the full kilo, berry by berry. Because fresh cherries are great like that. They make me very happy.

OK, I guess I'll get going, I say, wipe my cheeks dry again and get off the phone. I peel myself off the pavement, bump into a tourist with a camera a few steps away from my bike. Pardon me. Deep in my skull a headache is unfolding, the dull type. I take a deeper breath, still no better, it only pushes more salt out of my eyes. I put my sunglasses on, so no one sees the tears, unlock the bike to ride off.
Quick Flapjack Cherry Granola  
Adapted from Stirring Slowly, by Georgina Hayden
Serves 4

Since I don't trust myself around fresh cherries, I don't bother anymore to try and cook with them, at least for this summer. Dried cherries, however, are no problem, I can manage that. 

Why are you making a pancake granola? Anthony raised his eyebrows on a recent morning. Before I also didn't know that there is such a thing as a British flapjack and that it's not a thick pancake. The British understand flapjack as a chewy oatmeal cookie bar, and that's what the recipe in question refers to – good, chewy, toasty, crispy oats.

I tinkered a little bit with the recipe and came up with a formula (not that much different from the original) I'm particularly fond of. No cinnamon, but lemon zest; no vanilla extract but fresh vanilla bean seeds; runny honey with a neutral taste -- acacia honey works best here. The result is a pure, mild, well-rounded oatmeal flavour, a little savory, not undone by sweet dried fruit, with a few fresh and singing flavours (lemon zest and cherries) in between. 
1 Tablespoon flavourless oil
¼ teaspoon fresh vanilla bean seeds (from about half a vanilla bean)
125 grams rolled oats
grated zest of a small lemon (about ½ teaspoon)
50 grams dried cherries
50 grams dried figs
2 Tablespoons mixed seeds (pumpkin, sesame, poppy, sunflower) 
¼ teaspoon coarse sea salt, such as fleur de sel
3 Tablespoon light neutral runny honey, such as acacia honey

Combine the oil, vanilla seends and lemon zest together in a medium-size non-stick pan with a good splash of water (4-5 Tablespoons) and place it on a medium heat. Scatter in the oats and stir it all together. Put the matching lid on and leave the oats to cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. While the oats are cooking, roughly chop the dried cherries and cut the figs into similar-size pieces.

When the oats have softened, remove the lid and add the seeds to the pan. Turn the heat up a little and toasts the oats and seeds for 2 minutes. Sprinkle in the salt and add the chopped dried fruit. Toss everything together and drizzle over the honey. Mix well and cook for 2-3 minutes until you have a golden chewy granola.

Leave in the pan for a few minutes to cool, then spoon over fresh berries and yogurt or leave to cool completely, and store in an airtight container until needed. It will surely keep well for up to 3 days, this much I can tell, maybe even longer, but it never lasts with me that long.


For a much brighter, sharper taste, use 1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses to 2 Tablespoons runny honey instead of lemon zest. I must say I can't quite decide which version I like better. Depends on the day, I guess.

30 June 2016

That is a must

“Wait, wait, I still can't believe it – and the phone hasn't rung before that in years?” I shout, incredulous, over the jet engines, stressing and drawing out 'e' in 'years'.

We are close to a runway, planes are taking off. I squint then raise my eyebrows and repeat what I just said, but my pitch is no rival to the taxying jumbo jet, so I wait before Anthony can hear me again. On the far side of the runway a plane lifts itself off ground, the jumbo jet is next.

“My father said it hasn't, no. Not a single phone call, not a single text message for the last eight years, since his retirement from the police force in fact – it used to be his work phone.” We are cycling side by side, towards a course of tall trees down the narrow road. The plan is to drop the bikes somewhere there, Anthony stretches out his arm to point, and watch the planes sprawled out on the grass in the cooling shadow. In the event of peckish-ness we've got a bag each of tortilla and ridged potato chips.

We had lunch at home before the ride: thick unapologetic sourdough toasts with bean confit, impossibly good and addictive. I placed the beans on top of the toast and smashed them gently with a fork. The best part is never the soft plump fragrant beans but the richly flavoured (garlic and herbs) olive oil that has to be mopped up off the plate, and then from the bottom of the pot, that is a must, it's non-negotiable. When we reach for the pot with the remaining beans, more bread is required, more hunks of moist and yielding sourdough crumb. We killed that sourdough loaf (a boule), the kitchen table surface is covered with the oily fingerprints and the floor with the crust shards, these prick the skin under my feet as I walk towards the sink to wash my hands and mouth.

There is a cold six-pack of Heineken with us in the rucksack, in the event of thirst.

I press my hands to my ears and the jumbo jet's roaring softens and sounds like seashells. A magic trick – physics. Airborne, it starts to look like a white ink dot.

“But when did you hear about this?”

A tractor chugs by, turns down a farmer's field across the road.

“We talked last night when you were asleep.”

We have recently gotten back from a two-week trip to Southern Russia. Where my mother filled our plates with the tenderest of cutlets and the tastiest of stuffed bell peppers, my father poured us birch sap vodka, my uncle took us well past midnight to a roadside cafe where they caught and grilled for us a whole carp, my grandmother made for us her signature Don Cossacks fish stew and fluffiest piroshki with stewed cabbage or chicken mince. There, from my old room, Anthony skyped with his parents in the States. And then his father's unused phone rang.

He couldn't tell if the woman on the phone was Russian, but she did sound Eastern European, he said.”

And what did she say?” I ask and follow the jumbo jet with my right eye, then with the left.

She wanted to know if he worked for an American company or the government. Hu aar u, she said. I'm Ron, said my dad.”

Bean Confit
Source: “The Temporary Vegetarian” series, from The New York Times
Yield: 2–4 servings

As far as which fresh herbs to use, it's completely to taste and adaptable. Originally, these are rosemary and oregano, but I like to sub rosemary for thyme, for instance, and when I had neither thyme nor oregano but only basil in my fridge, I used basil then and it was great.

But what beans to use, it's strict. Not as in what sort of white bean matters (that's also adaptable and a subject of taste), but how old they are. Old dried beans will take forever to cook, salt or no salt. If possible, use Rancho Gordo dried beans, those are the best (but sadly, not available in Europe, which is why I sometimes ask Ron for a shipment.)

100 g (½ cup) dried cranberry beans, Italian white beans, or other white beans
1 sprig thyme
1 sprig oregano
2 cloves garlic
375 ml (1 ½ cups) extra virgin olive oil

Soak the beans overnight in plenty of cold water.

In a heavy ovenproof pot, combine the beans and 1 liter (4 cups) fresh cold water. Put over high heat and bring to a boil, then scale the heat down to low. Simmer gently, uncovered, until moderately tender, 30-45 minutes, or longer if needed (beans can take from one to three hours to cook). Do not boil or stir to prevent the beans from breaking into pieces or the bean skins to separate from the beans. As the beans cook, check periodically for water, adding hot water as necessary to keep the beans covered with liquid by at least a fingertip.

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius (300 degrees Fahrenheit). Drain the beans, then return them to the pot and add the fresh herbs and garlic. Cover with the oil. Place in the oven, and cook uncovered until the beans are completely tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool and season to taste with salt. For best flavour, allow to cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight or up to seven days.

To serve, gently reheat the beans and serve with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pot (reuse the flavoured oil for various dressings or a vinaigrette, OR mop it up with good bread!). Serve warm, and crushed, on top of toast, or mixed in with rice or farro.

30 April 2016

You'd have thought

“You mean you've never had rhubarb?” I say, incredulous, and pick up at the greengrocer's shop a bunch of rhubarb stalks, crimson and lanky, the leaves tightly furled. I stress 'never' in such a way you'd have thought my friend has just admitted never having had water. “And you are twenty-seven!” I don't know why I had to bring up age. As if one's placement on a time scale has anything to do with it. How old was I to try rhubarb for the first time? Twenty-five, I remember that. It was a simple rhubarb compote, I remember that too. I made it in my brand-new round Le Creuset (the colour of kiwi). I've had it for eights years now. It was the smallest in stock at the kitchenware store and it was on sale, and that's how I could afford it on my then student budget. I had just moved to Amsterdam. The shop assistant, a stocky young guy, described to me the merits and advantages of a bigger cast-iron pot, also a Le Creuset, but I recall saying I was going to use it to cook for myself only, so the smallest one would do fine, solo meals, you see. I instantly wondered if I didn't sound flirty for saying that, because I really didn't mean to sound that way. In the rhubarb compote I threw in some dried lavender flowers, I remember that too. I must have enjoyed the thing, but I assume that now, because, strangely, I don't remember if I did. I have to bend the rhubarb stalks to fit them in my shopping bag, one of which snaps and dislodges a fibrous deep purple thread. It hangs off the stem like a broken violin string. 

The crimson liquid, thick, almost viscose, is dripping through the sieve, separates from the rhubarb flesh, soft and slithery. I love the smell of roasted rhubarb. It smells fresh and clean, sharp even. The crimson flow slows down now, goes at a steady pace, like an IV drip. Arms crossed, I lean with my hips against the sink and wait until the rhubarb is fully drained. I'm putting together a rhubarb polenta cake. I have already rubbed the butter into the polenta with my fingertips. I almost got the wrong polenta meal at the supermarket – I needed the coarse polenta but distractedly pulled the fine off the shelf. Excuse me, I said to the cashier and to the ten people behind me in line at the check-out, then ran back to the grains aisle to exchange the bag. I wasn't leaving with the wrong polenta, I'm sorry. The whole point of this cake is the contrast of the gritty sugary buttery crust and the soft tart refreshing rhubarb.

What a wonderful thing! – I'd written in the margin next to the recipe after the first try, three years ago – I like how the coarse polenta requests a little extra work from the mouth, that it is a perfect foil to the fleshy rhubarb. I went on: Instead of cinnamon, which I believe would be lovely here, I used a vanilla bean, and will continue to do so, and in lieu of an orange, a lemon. But refrain adding either to the fruit itself, its clean taste is another nice contrast to the vanilla- and lemon-scented crust. And why is there no salt amongst the dry ingredients? A little of it should only zoom in on the flavours. And on: By the way, the soft, moist pink of this rhubarb looks like pure sex...

I love this cake, how it made its way into my memory and lodged itself there, solidly, despite the fact that until today I haven't made it as much as twice. That said, believe it or not, but I never stopped thinking about it. And I stress 'never' in such a way you'd have thought I've just admitted never having had a meal.

I set the kettle on for coffee and ask Anthony if he would like a slice with his cup. Yes, he'd give it a try, he says.

“I hate rhubarb. I was six when I tried it first. It used to grow in my backyard. My friends would eat it, they would eat it like a candy, can you imagine this, but I can't stand it. The only thing I hate more in my desserts than rhubarb is lemon. But this is not bad, it's actually nice, I quite like it. I won't finish my slice, though. Because I can't stand it.”

I get out for a moment to take the trash down. The slice is gone when I'm back. I know it's not in the trash bin, it can't be – I haven't yet placed a new bag in it.

I really love this cake.
Rhubarb Polenta Cake
Adapted from Ripe, by Nigel Slater

For the filling
500 g (1 pound) rhubarb
50 g (heaped 1/4 cup) unrefined cane sugar
4 tablespoons water

For the crust
125 g (¾ cup) coarse polenta
200 g (1 ½ cups plus 1 tablespoon) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
150 g (heaped 3/4 cup) unrefined cane sugar, plus 1 tablespoon more for sprinkling
1 plump vanilla pod, seeds only
grated zest of a small lemon
150 g (10 tablespoons) butter, cut in small pieces
1 large egg
3 tablespoons milk

Lightly oil or butter a 20cm (8-inch) springform cake pan. Heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 F) and put a baking sheet in the middle of it to get hot. Trim the rhubarb, cut each stem into short lengths, and put them in a baking dish. Scatter over the sugar and water and bake for twenty minutes, until the rhubarb is soft but still holds its shape. Remove the rhubarb pieces from the dish and put them in a colander or large sieve to drain. (Reserve the rhubarb juices to serve with the cake.) You can prepare the rhubarb filling up to one day in advance.

Combine the polenta, flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Add the vanilla seeds, lemon zest and butter. Rub the butter into the polenta with your fingertips until the mixture looks like coarse rubble. Alternatively, blitz the mixture in a food processor. But really, do it manually. Not only it's a cinch to do, saves on washing up, is a peaceful thing to do, yes yes yes, but rubbing the butter into the polenta mixture with your fingers will also help to release the essential oils in the lemon zest and distribute the vanilla beans more evenly. Break the egg into a small bowl and mix with the milk, then blend into the crumble mix. Take care not to overmix; it's done when the dry and wet ingredients have come together to form a soft, slightly sticky dough. If it isn't a little sticky, add a touch more milk

Slightly wet your hands and press about two-thirds of the mixture into the prepared cake pan, pushing it 2cm up the sides. Make sure there are no large cracks or holes. Place the drained rhubarb on top, leaving a small rim around the edge. Crumble lumps of the remaining polenta mixture over the fruit with your fingertips, but don't worry if the rhubarb isn't all covered. Scatter over 1 tablespoon of unrefined cane sugar.

Put on the hot baking sheet and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the edges and the crust turn deep golden brown. Mine was done after about 35 minutes, so I'd suggest to start checking from then on. Cool before removing from the pan. Serve in slices, with coffee.

31 March 2016

Than any other

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what's the first thing you say to yourself?” “What's for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?” “I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet. Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It's the same thing,” he said.

                                                    – A.A.Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
I haven't eaten since early afternoon. I had huevos rancheros around 11:00, and it was a wonderful feast. It felt particularly good to wolf it down on a Monday morning – and out in town. I don't normally go out for breakfast, but we happened to be in a neighborhood close to Bakers and Roasters and they do really good breakfast. It's always busy in there, even on a Monday there can be a waiting list. But we got lucky – a table for two just opened up. At first I can't decide what I want. There is a granola on the menu, and I'm a big one for granola. I like discovering different granolas. The problem is, I realized sometime ago, they are rather similar in a lot of places, and often not that interesting. It's an issue, it makes me wary of ordering granola in a restaurant or a café. Besides, I finally finished tweaking a recipe for pistachio and dried cherry granola and I'm pretty sure I like this granola better than I'll like any other for now. So I go back and forth between the eggs and the salads. I haven't had a good breakfast egg dish in a really long while, and huevos rancheros speak to me right now: crispy tortilla, Brazilian black beans, slightly melted cheese, two fried eggs, avocado, fresh tomato salsa and sour cream. So I chose that and asked for extra chorizo. Every bit was delicious.

Actually it was my second breakfast. I had toasted sourdough bread soon after I woke up at 8:00. I love sourdough toast. Today I had it with peanut and pistachio butter, and creamy honey. After I finished the last bits I thought of a new spread combination for next time I have toast for breakfast: white almond butter and the Italian apricot preserve I'd picked up at Casa del Gusto. Albicocche di Valleggia, it says on the jar. I picture the southern European sun and squint involuntarily. I can already taste this next toast in my mind's mouth: soft, crunchy, creamy, a little sweet, a little sour. I've never been to Italy and I really want to go. I take a post-it to write the idea down: almond butter + apricots. I'm religious about my toast. The crumb must remain chewy, but only deep down. On the surface and a little below it must be crisp and lightly golden, for the pleasure of the eyes, ears and teeth. I have found a perfect way to achieve that: I toast it once then turn it and toast it again, both times at a low setting. Seems to do the trick. 

It's almost 17:00. I'm starting to think more intensely about food, which means I'm hungry. It's not an unpleasant feeling. I like thinking about what I'll be eating next, or what I ate earlier. I won't be home till later tonight, so to cook a meal will by that point feel like waiting an eternity. I make do with two pillows of chewing gum for now – I don't like eating on the go; chewing is O.K.

Decided: I'm going to have the aforementioned granola for dinner, technically a third breakfast but at dinnertime. I'll only have to stop by a grocer for some yogurt. It has to be full-fat. I don't like low- or zero-fat anything.

Vanilla Bean Pistachio and Dried Cherries Granola

I found the original recipe in The New York Times Cooking recipes collection, and it comes from Daniel Humm, the chef of the Eleven Madison Park restaurant in Manhattan. Judging by the ingredients list it clearly was a recipe for a special cereal, a luxury granola. That said, it lacked to me I didn't know what, and I didn't just want to let it go, so I kept tweaking. I eschewed the sugar, upped the quantity of maple syrup as well as oats, added poppy seeds, fine-tuned the amount of salt, and finally, I added vanilla seeds, real, fragrant, wonderful vanilla seeds (not a vanilla extract or paste), and suddenly I had on my hands a granola that I'd like better than any other. Each bite offers a full exciting ride: savory, sweet, deep, lip-smacking, refreshing, soft, crunchy, nutty, and rich. It took me about twelve batches to get it right, but victory is mine. 

300 g rolled oats 
150 g shelled pistachio nuts
70 g unsweetened coconut flakes
50 g raw pumpkin seeds 
20 g poppy seeds 
7 g (1 teaspoon) fine sea salt
2 large vanilla pods (to give
about ½ packed teaspoon of
vanilla seeds) 
160 ml maple syrup
 80 ml extra virgin olive oil 
100 g dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 150 degrees Celsius. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with baking paper.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the oats, pistachio nuts, coconut flakes, pumpkin and poppy seeds, and salt.

Cut the vanilla pods in half and scrape out the seeds. In a small bowl, stir the vanilla seeds into the olive oil. This will help to disperse the vanilla seeds evenly throughout the oats mixture.

Using your hands, mix the wet and dry ingredients together. Tip the granola out onto the prepared baking sheet and spread in an even layer. Bake until fragrant and golden brown, between 35 and 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes to ensure the granola bakes evenly. If it doesn't look entirely dry as you'd expect, it will firm up as it cools.

Remove the granola from the oven and stir in the dried cherries. Allow to cool to room temperature before transferring to an airtight container where it will keep for up to 3 to 4 weeks.

Yield: about 6 ½ cups

29 February 2016

Let's have breakfast already

Eventually I'll wake up.

Hands ice-cold – You forgot your gloves on the kitchen table – head emptied – That shows! – an unsure yawn. A turn to the left, over a particularly arched bridge, legs woolen, strained. What's this? A police car blocks the road, but it doesn't look intentional. Someone is shouting, a female voice. A guy, on his knees, shouting back, swears it won't happen again. A night gone bad, and the police happened to be passing. Now they are standing and watching the scene, themselves a man and a woman. I float by, leave them behind, descend the bridge with ease.

I hear the heels, on the empty street they sound sharp but brittle. Tram tracks are brought to sheen by a light frost, and these too sound alive, two metal nerve endings through which electric currents charge. A turn to the right – a man relieves himself onto a corner of somebody's home. He's got my face, has on the same shoes. What is all this? On the window next door, a butcher's, hangs a picture of glossy meat balls. Looks good. An empty bottle lays on the dampened sidewalk. I step on a glass shard, it crunches like the heel of a burnt bread loaf.

I look at myself walking down the street, and with a tug on my stomach. Toss and turn, and again. I almost disappeared around the corner when I turn around and over the sound of next-door neighbors' drilling walls in their bedroom, assertively say:

Let's have breakfast already.

Irish Oatmeal Muffins

From The Breakfast Book, by Marion Cunningham
Yield: 12 muffins

I'm into oats for my breakfast. For a long time I've been into this very best oatmeal, and although I don't intend to forsake that, not for long anyway, I'm also into variation. These muffins are an ideal breakfast material: fluffy, with a pleasant nubby texture, not too sweet, if barely at all, with a right ratio of chewiness to softness, plenty of fiber, and a genuine flavor of oats. They are plain-looking muffins, there is no denying that. That's fine, though, because muffins are not cakes, they shouldn't be fancily decorated or overly sweet, plus, let me say it explicitly now, in their simplicity they are delicious, delectable, etc.

The Irish cook their oatmeal all night long for a rich and creamy effect, writes Marion Cunningham. Therefore, these muffins need to be soaked overnight in buttermilk to obtain that signature creamy oatmeal flavor. If you can, toast the oats first (180 C, about ten minutes?) to bring forth – even more! – their sweet nutty taste.

Lastly, I'm into Marion Cunningham's brilliance and wits. Expect more here from her The Breakfast Book. xo

500 ml (2 cups) buttermilk
100 g (1 cup) rolled oats
2 large eggs
135 g (¾ cup) cane sugar
210 g (1 2/3 cups) whole wheat flour
4 g (1 teaspoon) baking soda
7 g (1 teaspoon) fine sea salt
30 ml (2 tablespoons) vegetable oil

Combine the buttermilk and the oats at least 6 hours (ideally overnight) ahead of mixing and baking the muffins. Stir well, cover, and let rest in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 200 C (400 F). Grease a muffin tin.

Crack the eggs into a large mixing bowl and beat until yolk and white are blended. Add the sugar and beat to mix well. Add the buttermilk-oatmeal mixture. Add the flour, baking soda, salt, and oil. Beat until the batter is well mixed.

Fill the muffin tins three-quarters full of batter. They bake about 20 minutes, but start checking for doneness after 15 minutes. The tops should look nice and golden brown. Remove the muffins from the tin and cool on a wire rack, or serve warm from the pan. In an airtight container, they'll keep well for up to three days. But will they last that long?

31 January 2016

Where it's closest to sunrise

4:00 pm, Friday. 

I can't move and I'm in the middle of a busy intersection. The traffic light's changed already. I press my shoes into the asphalt, my toes, as if claws, curl down into the smooth leather soles, my hands meld into the handlebars of my bike that I had to dismount and is now hanging onto me, and for some reason I shut my eyes closed and clench my teeth. I don't see how in a distance an elderly woman falls over on the sidewalk, but I do see two men run up to lift her up.

7.30 am, Friday.

– I know you are sleeping, but you need to see this, it's Venus, Anthony nudges me on my shoulder, bends over the bed and points towards the window.

I'm looking at a pinhole in a sheet of black paper held up against a lamp – light is blazing through it. My eyes are hurting because I tore them open from sleep, but it's completely mystical and I sit up and look southeast where it's closest to sunrise and Venus shines bright. It doesn't twinkle and I don't blink.

4:01 pm, Friday.

I bend forward as if someone punched me in the stomach.

Car horns are bawling at me.

– Yes, it's reeeeeeed, I knooooooow, I shout back, to nobody in particular, the heart pumped up.

5:00 am, Thursday, one day before the storm.

– Good evening, someone says. I look around, there is a man. He is with another man, a friend, talks fast, holds a can of beer in his hand, but “good evening” is meant for me, and the smile. I wonder if he watches me ride off, and then, if my bicycle's rear light is on.

4:02 pm, Friday.

Canvas bill boards on either side of the road are flapping like trapped swans, as are my skirt and a coat. Beeeeeep in front of me, beeeeeeeep behind me. I'll run when it's green again, just another second to get out of this.

I dial Anthony.

– I got caught in a spectacular gush of wind, it almost knocked me off my feet in front of oncoming traffic. But I'm almost home, stopping for groceries now.

The heart's still pounding, the hands sweaty. I wonder what the weather is like on Venus.

Curried Lentil Soup 

Adapted very slightly from Molly Wizenberg, via Bon Appétit
Yield: 4 servings

This is a very soothing, very heartening soup. It is informed by dal maharani, a heady mix of black and brown lentils and beans, but with fewer spices, milder. Soft, silky and highly aromatic, it tastes and feels very creamy. For the most part it's because of the French lentils, they plump up and get fuzzy, sort of, in the broth. But should you not know there is is a puree of chickpeas to give the soup its richness, you would credit a stick of butter for it, or cream. It's quite ingenious, that.

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely diced
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped, divided 
2 tablespoons curry powder (or a good-quality garam masala blend)
170 g French green lentils (de Puy) 
4 ¼ cups water, divided
1 * 400 g can chickpeas, drained, rinsed 
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
fresh cilantro or spring onions, for serving

Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and carrot; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until the onion is translucent, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add half of the chopped garlic; cook for about 4 minutes longer until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Add the curry powder, stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the lentils and 4 cups water. Sprinkle with more salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Bring the heat to low and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, puree the chickpeas, lemon juice, ¼ cup water, the remaining garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil in a processor.

Add the chickpea puree to the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and additional curry powder, if needed. Add more water by ¼ cupfuls to thin the soup to a desired consistency. To serve, sprinkle with finely chopped fresh cilantro or thinly sliced green onions.

31 December 2015

A day beyond price

It's 9:45 am, December 31. In about nine hours from now I'll be sharing the evening out with my people. We'll have delicious pizzas made by my husband. He'll take five balls of well-proofed dough, flatten each a little and pat it slightly on both sides in semolina. Then, leaning over a marbled worktop, he'll press it by hand into a symmetrical circle, he'll make it look very easy and effortless, as if it's nothing to manually press and stretch a ball of dough into a thin, smooth, promising round. In less than a quarter of an hour from then, our lips will be covered in oven-hot paprika-red juices from salami picante, which we will wipe off with the heels of our hands, which will stain our clothes, which we won't notice until tomorrow. Greasy fingerprints will cover our glasses. 

After Anthony is done with his shift, the kitchen light out, we'll head outside to light a box of fireworks from last year. The night will be brilliant, I hope it will be rainless too. Closer to midnight the two of us will race home, we'll probably make it with only a few minutes to spare before more fireworks erupt with glee, rip through the dark sky, replace oxygen with sulphur. We'll open a bottle of Benoît Lahaye Brut, pop, and cut into a fine, rich, soft panettone, the knife will only sigh through it and clink against the plate. The champagne will taste like freshly baked puff pastry and vanilla cream, the panettone, redolent with candied citrus peel and yeast, will give on the tongue. We'll watch the fireworks from our balcony.

11.45 am. I measure out butter for Yotam Ottolenghi's spice cookies. This is a fourth batch this month.

Some time before Christmas I give one of these spice cookies to Olivia the Cat Lady. She asks what's in it. "Oh, there is liqueur in it?" She sounds surprised, emphasizes 'liqueur', lifts it and stretches it like an accordion. "I shall wait till evening to have it. I don't like liqueur in the morning", she says. "But thank you very much, very nice of you!" She wraps it in a napkin, puts it in her heavy-duty bag, next to a can of cat food and a roll of wrapping paper with reindeer on it. She'll tell me in a day she loved the cookie very much.

Sounds already crackle through the air like a child playing with bubble wrap.

A day beyond price. 

Spice Cookies

Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Yield: 16 cookies

Complex, laden with winter spices, chocolate, citrus zest, and currants soaked in liqueur, with the crumb that is like velvet, and with the top thinly coated with sharp lemon glazing, they are wonderful, mysterious, perfect winter cookies. I bet they'll remind you of Terry's Chocolate Orange. Only these are better!

Notes: You can use brandy to soak the currants as in the original recipe. I myself don't like brandy, find it abrasive, pervasive. Honey liqueur on the other hand, Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey for example, does well by these. Next, I cut down on sugar in the glazing by one-fourth but there still was enough of it to provide for that ever so delicate snap. In the cookie dough, I replaced superfine sugar with dark brown sugar. And last, I grated zest both from a whole orange and a whole lemon for the lot, because for these cookies you don't stop grating either at half a teaspoon.

125 g currants 
2 tablespoons honey liqueur (see notes above)
240 g plain flour
7 g best-quality cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon each ground cinnamon, allspice, ginger and nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
150 g good-quality dark chocolate, finely ground
125 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
125 g dark brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
grated zest of a medium orange
grated zest of a medium lemon
½ medium free-range egg
1 tablespoon finely diced candied citrus peel

3 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
120 g icing sugar

Soak the currants in the honey liqueur for 10 minutes. Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, then add the spices, salt and dark chocolate. Mix well with a whisk.

In a medium bowl, beat the butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon and orange zest to combine but not aerate too much, about a minute. Add the egg and beat for another minute. Add the dry ingredients, followed by the currants and honey liqueur. Mix until everything just comes together.

Gently knead the dough in the bowl with your hands until it is uniform. Divide the dough into 50g chunks and shape them into round balls. Place on one or two baking sheets lined with baking paper, about 2cm apart, and rest in the fridge for at least an hour.

Heat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Bake the cookies for 15 minutes, until the top firms up but the centre is still slightly soft. Remove from the oven. Once the cookies are out of the oven, allow to cool for 5 minutes only, and then transfer to a wire rack.

While the cookies are still warm, whisk together the glaze ingredients until a thin and smooth icing is formed. Pour a generous teaspoon of the glaze over each cookie, leaving it to drip and coat the cookie with a very thin, almost transparent film. Repeat this step for a thicker glaze. Finish each with three pieces of candied peel placed at the centre. Leave to set and serve, or store in an airtight container for up to a week.