23 August 2011

This is good

“This double chocolate praline is so good. It tastes as if somebody who was eating only chocolate their whole life released their bowels, and what came out was made into the chocolate filling. So good. Are you guys travelling in Amsterdam for the first time?”

A burly, bold, bespectacled guy and his four female companions are seated in the furthest corner of the room, but I can hear his every American-accented word.

I am in a café. Its roomy interior comprised by dark wood panels and light brown watercolors on the walls, smooth and polished dark wooden floors, sturdy dark wooden furniture, sizeable windows and mirrors, and high ceilings are conducive to sitting still. This place has a feel of a railway station café, the kind one would find, I imagine, in a big city back in the dawn of the twentieth century, travelers poring over their newspapers, still crisp from the press and odorous of ink, and sipping on drinks in their wait for a train bound for the new and unknown, or, contrary, back to the familiar and predictable.

Given the early afternoon hour it’s still non-crowded inside. I’m here to write. Usually I write in the privacy of my home. There is no definite reason why. Maybe because the prime time to write for me is in the morning when my mind has not yet exhausted me with dubious worries and fears about the nascent day, so instead of going elsewhere in the early hours I choose to stay put and write in quiet. To write home is also convenient, because in case self-deprecating thoughts start bulldozing over me, I’m within an arm’s reach from a jar of Nutella, and, let me tell you, there is no such thought that a spoonful of the sweet, silky hazelnut spread cannot cover up for me, if only temporarily. But somehow today is different; I haven’t practiced writing in days and I wanted to venture out to start to again.

“How about some coffee before we go, guys?”, the man across the room addresses his acquaintances as a waiter dressed in black and white has come up to take their new order.

This person is annoying me. I suppress an urge to stand up and ask him out loud why on earth he is talking so raucously. Doesn’t he see I can’t focus because of him? Yeah, go and blame that guy; it’s his fault you can’t write, that’s right.

I’m thinking about what Molly Wizenberg said recently about her writing process (such a great post!). She compared it to entering the dark cave, “the cave where the story is”. To get there is a scary, even painful undertaking. Yet, tiptoeing around that cave will only make us lynch ourselves all along for avoiding it. There is no other way but in. Unlike Molly, I am not writing a book. Not yet. For me it’s not the story that is in the cave, it’s the writing practice itself. I’m terrified by it. I’m terrified by how vulnerable, almost naked writing makes me feel. I’m afraid to fail at it, to seem inadequate and worthless. Through turning my vitals inside out, it's teaching me to believe -- in myself and in the process.

Ironically, though, non-writing is even worse. Last fall I used to work in my bakery five days a week, from Wednesday to Sunday, non-stop, Monday and Tuesday being recuperation days. Pledging to myself everyday that I would write after grueling working hours, I would go home only to find myself able to do one thing: to sleep. That undid me. I reached for Nutella more often than if I did when writing. That undid me too.

“One Irish coffee and four cappuccinos, please.”

Growing up I didn’t think I would want to write. Until the age of twenty four when I started this blog, I hadn’t touched writing. Turning to the ilk of Tolstoy, or Chekhov, or Shakespeare (in translation) as a teenager, I stood in awe of those mighty writers: Their works are great, they are Cyclopean. Feeling belittled by their genius, page after page, I was rock-solid sure one can’t be a writer unless one is like them. I am not a Tolstoy, or a Chekhov, or a Shakespeare. Nobody would ever give me permission to write. My good school friend used to dabble in writing, more for fun than anything, and secretly I felt jealous that she had the courage and audacity to reach for a pen. She could also bake some mean sponge cake since she was ten or something. I felt jealous of that as well.

If writing makes such an impact on you, this is where you belong then, said Anthony after I’d confided my fears to him. He also added that he feels the same about his graphic designs. But he also conceded that if a blank page on the computer screen wouldn’t scare him, he wouldn’t get excited about the creative process in the first place.

A new customer has come in. He is seated a few tables away to the left from me. Waiting for his order, he plunged deep into a newspaper, his hand perched upon his grey hair.

Why do I want to write? I like words. I like (telling) stories. Why do I write in English if it’s not my mother tongue? It’s an intellectual challenge. I like challenges. English doesn’t ground me in its strict grid. This is good. I like it too. Besides, maybe deep down I’m not quite content with being Russian and all that comes with it -- except my family, the brilliant short-story writer Anton Chekhov, and some food -- and I am just escaping. Perhaps that, too.

A waitress uploaded a tall glass of white wine and a platter of charcuterie, some cured meat rolled in a cigarette shape, some cut into rounds and fanned out, from her black tray onto the man’s table. Not turning his gaze from the newspaper, he is reaching for the glass first, and then for a thin medallion of sausage.

He doesn’t notice how the light pours into his wine the color of hay, making it sparkle like a crystal. He is not looking at his food. I am. And I am writing about it. I am writing because as Dayna Macy said in Ravenous: “sometimes there are promises you make to yourself that you have to keep, because if you didn’t, life would be too dispiriting”.

1 August 2011

I hope you don't mind

I hope you don’t mind to fall into sin now and eat a cookie, which is not just a cookie but the essence of butter. And I also hope you are not squeamish at all about butter, because if you are, it will be difficult for me to reel you in, but I’ll try anyway, because I think you’d like this cookie. It goes by the name of graham cracker, and although I’m very tempted to dub it whole wheat butter cookie, I’ll stick with its original name in the interest of clarity. I am ready to hawk this lovely graham cracker to you.

A foreword: graham cracker is an intellectual product of one Sylvester Graham (hence the name), a 19th-century public health-concerned Presbyterian minister from New Jersey who believed that eating bland foods encourages abstinence, and abstinence, in turn, perks up man’s health. The graham cracker as Reverend Graham conceived it was to be made with a coarsely ground type of whole wheat flour named after himself (graham flour), and it had to be bland, which, I suspect, would mean no butter. I feel that that pioneer graham cracker (named a cracker for its crispiness, not for savory qualities) was a sad thing to munch, which, probably, made it challenging to practice cheerfulness during mealtimes, as Reverend Graham advised.

My first sentient experience with graham cracker occurred only a year and a half ago. I recall it was an early morning and I was in a hurry for work. I was hungry, too. The idea of scavenging Anthony’s kitchen cupboard (that was before we moved in together) for breakfast food I could eat on the run quickly came to mind, and in a moment I was holding an open box of HoneyMaid grahams that took residence in the back of the cupboard. There were only two crackers left, so I happily snatched them and went about my business. Biting into the crispy rectangular every dozen hurried steps, I recognized a hefty, toasty taste of whole wheat and floral notes of honey. My taste buds picked up on some fat too. On my tongue those crackers felt like a thinly buttered cookie, a treat I used to make for myself as a kid slathering butter on plain store-bought tea cookies. I liked HoneyMaid grahams. I was looking forward to having more of them. In vain, though, for I later found out that those two I’d gobbled up were the last crumbs of a special-occasion care package Anthony had received from a friend who was visiting earlier back then. The pack contained foodstuff that is difficult to come by in the Netherlands and that Anthony misses the most. No more HoneyMaid grahams -- or any grahams, at that -- until God-knows-when?

Such was the bad news that I had to plan to make grahams myself. Unfortunately, or maybe not, a project for home-made graham crackers was never ventured -- until now. The canon of the graham recipes that came my way called for graham flour, and that is an obstacle I couldn’t handle. Graham flour is unheard of where I am, and I wasn’t ready to pay fortunes for across-the-pond shipments (wouldn’t that be costly?). I was deterred and back to ground zero. While seeking that one recipe that would warrant me a batch of crispy grahams despite my pantry limitations, I overlooked all along the fact that graham flour is whole-wheat flour. The former is coarser than the latter, and so what? Whole wheat is whole wheat, no matter the grinding. Some people did take that into account, and here I am picking up the fruits of their labor, gleeful and adamant to catch up with the endless months of involuntary restraint.

In her new cookbook Miette (a beautiful tome of scallop-edged, crisp pages carrying delicious recipes from elegant festive cakes to everyday cake-y concoctions to cookies to candy, among much else), Meg Ray, the chef and owner of the eponymous pastry shop in San Francisco, shares a recipe for grahams that foregoes graham in favor of regular whole-wheat flour. And that is not arbitrary. Ms Ray reveals that regular whole-wheat flour provides “a smooth, crisp, buttery cookie”, contrary to the uneven texture that graham flour yields. The recipe promised me a smooth, crisp, butter-rich, honey-flavored and cinnamon-laced graham cracker without graham flour! That’s the one. I scanned through the list of ingredients, and having determined I had them all, I immediately zipped into the kitchen ready for action. All what was required was cream butter, a big hunk of it, together with brown sugar and honey, and then turn the lot into a ball of dough by adding a mix of flours, all-purpose and whole-wheat, ground cinnamon, and salt to it.

I have felt free to double the amount of whole wheat flour, because I like the dense, nutty flavor it brings, and I feel that’s what a graham cracker needs to be about. One time I questioned the large quantity of butter, and having made the grahams with less of it, I found out that their flavor and crispiness were compromised. Skipping the butter is a poor taste, don’t do that. This graham cracker has the heart of a butter cookie, and that’s what makes it exceptional.

After mixing, the dough would be chilled briefly, rolled out, cut into scallop-edged rounds (give a break to regular squares and rectangles), and baked for about ten minutes. And as the crackers sweated in the oven, every corner of the apartment was getting filled with warm scents of freshly cut hay, spice, and dairy. Crisp, redolent of butter, with lingering notes of cinnamon and honey, good-looking, these grahams are moreish. To me, they are the ultimate graham crackers. Anthony dubbed them the “star cookies” (“They are more buttery than normal, way better than HoneyMaid!”), and between the two of us, the yield of twenty grahams lasts no longer than twenty four hours. Surely, Reverend Graham wouldn’t approve of such indulgence – until he tried one, perhaps.

Graham crackers, anyone?

[Ultimate] Graham Crackers

Adapted from Miette: Recipes from San Francisco’s Most Charming Pastry Shop by Meg Ray

Yield: about twenty 8-cm (3 ¼-inch) crackers

Since butter is the major flavor-maker in this recipe, go for the best one available. I use Lurpak®, justly famous Danish butter “made from cream and nothing else”. The type of honey you opt for will also determine the crackers’ final taste, so feel free to play with different varieties of honey -- from eucalyptus to rosemary to acacia, what have you – to see what sings for you.

I love these grahams with coffee as much as with fresh raspberries or blueberries – now that the season permits -- on top of each bite, the bright juiciness of the fruit cutting through the richness of the crackers just so.

150 gr (1 cup; 5 oz) all-purpose flour
100 gr (3/4 cup; 3 ½ oz) whole-wheat flour
¼ tsp table salt
heaped ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
180 gr (2/3 cup; 6 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
120 gr (firmly packed ½ cup; 4 oz) light brown sugar
35 gr (2 Tbsp) honey

1. In a medium bowl, sift together the flours, salt, and ground cinnamon. Set aside.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter together with the brown sugar and honey, and beat until fluffy. (While bringing the butter to room temperature, make sure not to let it become too warm – otherwise the cookies will spread and flatten during baking.)

3. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture in three additions, beating just until combined after each addition. Divide the dough in half. Wrap each half tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 mins before rolling, or up to 2 days.

4. Preheat the oven to 175 C (350 F). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

5. Remove one half of the dough from the fridge. Unwrap and place between two sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper. Roll out to a thickness of about 5-mm (1/4- inch). Using an 8-cm (3 ¼ -inch) round cookie cutter with a scalloped edge, cut out the graham crackers. Keep the dough scraps. Arrange the crackers about 1 cm (½-inch) apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until golden brown, 10 to 12 mins. Let cool on the baking sheet for about 5 mins (the crackers will be soft to the touch, but they’ll solidify when completely cooled). Transfer to a wire rack. The crackers should give a crisp snap once cooled.

6. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Bake more crackers on the cooled and freshly line baking sheet.

7. Gather up all the dough scraps (freeze briefly if they are too soft to work with), re-roll once, and bake as directed.

8. Store in an air-tight container for up to two weeks. I learnt that placing a clean piece of kitchen paper towel in a container with the cookies will absorb any moisture emanating from them, helping to keep the cookies crisp.