28 February 2013

A peculiar month

Advisory note: this post contains verbal images of a spitfire cat lady and a butt-naked roller-skater (of an unidentifiable age). If you have an impressionable and sensitive mind, read on anyway -- there will be dark chocolate almond butter cups as well.

February has been a peculiar month. First, I angered a cat lady. I'll call her Olivia here, since I don't want to anger her some more by disclosing her real name without a permission, not that I think she reads my blog or something. Technically Olivia is a bag lady, with a noticeable preference for pink garments, winter headwear year round, and sweat pants tucked into the knee-length socks that from a distance look like a pair of galife breeches. I know her from my work where she is a fixture, in that she comes in every morning at a quarter past eight, puts down her two neatly-packed standard-size suparmarket bags next to the cupboard, and depending on the day, goes back out or sits down for a cup of coffee and a knitting session. She's been doing so for more than four years, although earlier she used to say she would go to the countryside after the baby's been born. She never explained whose baby it was or when it was due, and she doesn't mention her plans to move anymore. French, English, and Dutch are in her full command (really), and if you ask her she will tell you a lot about cats. It is is why we call her Olivia the Cat Lady. That and because of a lasting bond she formed with our bakery cat, Marie, who is sadly no longer there on the grounds of being outlawed, which hasn't detered Olivia from bringing her gifts of wrapped Kleenex and canned cat food up to this day. Miaow.

For the most part, I think Olivia is angelic. Except a rare moment earlier this month when she asked me if I knew the meaning of my name. I should have lied and said yes, because I never want to see, never again, Olivia angry. Not bacause I think anger is a cell-killer, but because she looks evil when angry. And evil Olivia the Cat Lady looks like this: she turns around to face the subject, porches her arms on her sides, tilts her face downwards, and looking up from under the gray eyebrows, pierces you with the eyes that a minute ago were blue and now steely. As her eyebrows raise into two carets, her chin moves forward to expose a couple stray teeth, and her tongue, finding no dental objection, slithers out mid-word while she says, in high tones: "You should know what your name means. It's not making me happy now." For a second her face looked like it was pulling itself apart, upwards and down-, and I got worried that a hand might thrust out of her throat to strangle me. I like Olivia non-angry better. (She later told me it's a flower, but I'm not sure about that.  Anyway, we are good now.)

Next, I got smacked in my face. By a drunkard. With a rose.  Things like this ordinarily happen on a Saturday morning, around 5 a.m. That's when the party goers take to the streets and fill up the roads, sidewalks and bike lanes in their search of the right way, mingling thereby with those driven outwards at such an hour by the call of their professional duties. I myself stopped on a few occassions to tell the appreciative lost how to get to the Central Station, for example. Turns out I was testing my luck all those times by breaking the unspoken rule of the sober: ignore the heavily drunk. But, one lives to learn -- or in my case, one gets smacked to learn. When this scrawny teenager, balancing precariously on the sidewalk ledge, waved at me to inquire if he could ask me something  I had no misgivings to stop and hear him out. He had a rose-holding friend with him, equally drunk, but the opposite of scrawny. It transpired that they simply needed a cigarette. I simply had none. Which simply explains the smack. But still...

One more: a butt-naked roller-skater. I was on my bike carving my way to work (again!) through a dark, early weekday morning when my path converged with his. Oy! Because I wasn't expecting to see anybody's rear end exposed in the middle of a road in the city centre, despite it being Amsterdam, and because he was still a block away from me, I gave the roller-skater the benefit of the doubt and attributed his well-outlined tooshes to, you know, a pair of Spandex. Closer, and the truth was revealing. Besides the roller skates, his whole getup was compounded of a swimming cap, a pair of goggles (in the dark!), and a pair of sunburnt-red thongs. When I caught up with him, he slowed down to give me the right of way, and not looking back off I went. I later heard the man is sort of a local celebrity, roller-skating the streets butt-naked for years. From what I saw he is probably in his upper fifties or lower sixties, but what do I know? The fact that I saw him only now makes me think that Amsterdam is finally opening up its true gems for me. And if so, who knows what I can see next...

And one more: dark chocolate almond butter cups. This is from the department of good finds. Taking no longer than ten minutes to make and a bit more to set, they help February to go off with a bang. Themselves they are here to stay. The confection is purely what it is: dark chocolate that crisps up to enwrap in a frilly cup a blob of good almond butter. The latter is only slightly reinforced by honey and powdered sugar to hold its shape, but I also crushed up an amaretti cookie (a surplus from last Christmas) and grated half a tonka bean (I got a few from a friend, years ago now) to go in the lot, for good measure. A minute pinch of sea salt on top, and one tiny cup cinches you good and thorough. The best part for me? The way the thin layer of chilled chocolate cracks under my teeth and gives way to the filling inside, which in itself is a mini playground for the tongue, what with the cookie nibs and pieces and an occasional shard of almond, all in one knob. Try to resist. I should constantly have one handy to appease Olivia the Cat Lady if she loses her cool on me again, but these cups are best eaten cold, so I probably won't.

Dark Chocolate Almond Butter Cups

Adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen
Yield: 12 mini-cups

First few times I made these, I invariably had a good bit of chocolate left over (a perfect thing to spread a hunk of fresh baguette with, by the way). Could be the paper forms I use are smaller, but forcing more chocolate into the cups to use it all up only made the top thicker than the bottom, which I didn't like. I reduced the amount of chocolate altogether.

An amaretti cookie (store-bought) is not a must here, but I highly recommend it for the crunch. Give it a couple good bashings, but be careful to not pulverize it. Tonka bean is completely optional, although it imparts such an interesting flavor, a cross between vanilla and almonds and cinnamon...

If you have a mini-muffin tin, use it to help the cups hold their shape. But without the tin everything works out just as well. I use baking cups 35-mm (1.4-inch) in diameter.
And, these little things are really at their best cold. Their chocolate encasing cracks just so when chilled, such a joy!

150 g (5 oz) dark chocolate (70 % cocoa solids)
150 g (5 oz) organic almond butter
2 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp table salt
1 amaretti cookie, crushed (optional)
Tonka bean, a few generous gratings (optional)
Fleur de sel, for topping

Break the chocolate into small pieces and let melt in a small bowl set over a pot of simmering water (the bottom of the bowl shouldn't touch the water). Stir to make sure it's completely melted and smooth.

In a small bowl, mix the almond butter together with the honey, powdered sugar, vanilla extract, salt, and amaretti cookie and tonka bean (if using). The filling should be firm enough to roll into a ball. Depending how smooth or runny your almond butter is, you might want to add a bit more honey and powdered sugar to seize the filling up.

Place the liners on a large and flat (!) plate or in a mini-muffin tin. Working with one liner at a time, poor in a teaspoon of chocolate on the bottom. Tilt and twist around so that the chocolate coats at least one-third of the sides of the liner. Repeat with the remaining cups. Scoop out a teaspoon of the filling, roll it gently between your palms into a ball, give it a slight press-down and put in the middle of the cup. Repeat. Poor another teaspoon of the chocolate over the almond butter ball, and tilt and twist around so the chocolate covers the filling completely. Repeat with the remaining cups. Sprinkle a tiny pinch of fleur de sel on top of each one and send off in the fridge to set.

Keep in a container, covered and chilled. The cups will stay good for up to a week.