SPICED NUTS

I’m learning.

I’m learning that being a perfectionist does not serve me well as a mother.  My child is a human being, not a machine, and I do him and myself a disservice when I forget that.  As it turns out, I am not a machine, either, and if I go along long enough pretending that I’m one, I might get the wind knocked out of me one Tuesday morning.

I’m learning that I can’t do everything, and it is exhausting to try.  Turns out I don’t actually want to have it all; I want to have a few things, fully.  I’m learning not to be so hard on myself, because I’m doing this mother job for the first time, and it’s okay that I haven’t figured out exactly how it works yet.

I’m learning that anxiety is not rational and that emotions can hit you like a truck.  And sometimes you just have to say “I am having a hard time today,” and let that be what it is.  Then maybe call the counselor you saw a while back and make an appointment, because taking care of yourself means giving up the silly notion that you shouldn’t need any help.

I’m learning, newly, how blessed I am to have an incredibly patient partner, a wonderful mother (who just bought a house that’s less than two miles from ours!), and rock-solid friends who stand at the ready with wisdom and love on the days I don’t quite measure up.

I’m learning just how much gratitude I can feel when the next day is better than the last.  I’m learning that there’s some merit to being completely disoriented, because it means I can’t get up to my usual tricks.  And I’m learning that there is nothing quite so good as coming home to this sweet face.

SPICED NUTS RECIPE

from Bon Appetit 

We’re getting close to that parade-of-holidays time of year, where visitors come and go and there are lots of festive occasions that warrant snacks.  Here’s one that will work nicely from Halloween through New Year’s, I think.

The original recipe calls for a full pound of pistachios, but since they can be kind of expensive to buy already shelled, I opted to go half-and-half with cashews.  I also think this treatment would work well with almonds!  The egg whites allow you to get a very crunchy finish on the nuts, as well as distribute the spice mix evenly.

Jill & I have found that the flavor of these nuts goes quite well with the round, deep, malty, pumpkin-y beers of fall; perfect for Sunday football watching, in fact.  They’ve kept extremely well in a sealed Mason jar for over two weeks.

ingredients:

1 lb. unsalted mixed nuts (I used a combination of shelled pistachios & cashews)

5 egg whites*

½ cup sugar

½ tsp. dried thyme

½ tsp. ground allspice

½ tsp. ground ginger

¼ tsp. cayenne

4 dashes Angostura bitters

salt

vegetable oil

 

oven: 350°

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg whites, sugar, spices, & bitters.  Fold in the nuts and stir to coat.

Brush a rimmed baking sheet with a thin layer of vegetable oil, then spread out the nuts on top; sprinkle with salt.  Bake, stirring to break up clumps every 10 minutes or so, until golden brown and beginning to crisp, about 30-35 minutes.

Cool the baking sheet on a wire rack before eating/transferring to an airtight container.  (The nuts will crisp up further as they cool.)

*If you’re wondering what to do with the resultant 5 egg yolks, you can use 4 of them to make these alfajores or 2 of them to make this almond pudding.   I also like adding yolks to a batch of scrambled eggs to make them extra rich!

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CHAI PISTACHIO CAKE

There’s nothing quite so great as watching a friend coming into his or her own.

For the first two years of Blue Jean Gourmet’s existence, Sonya Cuellar was this site’s exclusive photographer; I never could have gotten this blog off the ground without her.

Sonya is also an extremely talented painter.  Self-taught, her work betrays an innate talent for manipulating color and texture.  Jill and I are proud to hang several Cuellar originals in our home, and even prouder to call Sonya a friend.

Over the last year, Sonya’s artistic career has really taken off.  She started taking classes at Houston’s Glassell School of Art to hone her technique, and the resulting paintings have demonstrated an increased level of sophistication.  In January, she was selected for the John Palmer Escapist Mentorship Program, which has pushed and challenged and stretched her to take on new projects and promote herself and her work in new ways.  She’s taken to the whole thing like a duck to water, and I am so proud.

Recently, on our way home from an otherwise lovely trip to Memphis, Jill’s camera was stolen.  Thankfully, Sonya was willing to step in and become blog photographer again for the short term, until we can replace Jill’s camera.  Today’s cake image and others you’ll see in coming weeks were taken by Sonya.

To celebrate Sonya’s blossoming career and expose more folks to her beautiful work, we concocted a little giveaway!  To win a custom-painted messenger bag OR iPad cover like the ones pictured here, just follow these steps:

1. Head on over to Sonya’s website and take a look at her Paintings gallery.

2. While you’re there, like Sonya’s artist page on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

3. Post a comment here with the title of your favorite of Sonya’s pieces!

 

 The giveaway will be open until Friday, October 12th at NOON CST.  At that time, I’ll randomly select a comment number and inform the winner via email.  Due to shipping costs, this giveaway is open to residents of the United States and Canada only.

Many thanks to Sonya for letting me give away one of her awesome pieces–I have the bag pictured above and I love mine!  Go enter everyone!

 ***UPDATE***  We have a winner!  Congratulations to Sunny, with randomly selected comment #10.  I will contact you via email to get your mailing address!

 

PISTACHIO CHAI CAKE

Inspired by this article about baking with tea, and riffing off of this recipe, I give you this not-too-sweet and very moist cake.  I think it would work very well at brunch and, of course, it goes extremely well with a cup of tea!

I probably didn’t push the chai flavor as far as it could go—it wound up being more of a backdrop for the pistachios, which was fine by me.  If you want a more aggressively tea-flavored cake, go ahead and bump up the amounts for the spices.

 

ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup almond meal

1 cup sugar

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

pinch of salt

1 ¼ cup buttermilk

4 T browned butter

1 tsp. vanilla

2 eggs at room temperature

4 T good-quality loose-leaf black tea (or cheat and cut open some tea bags)

1 tsp. ginger

1 tsp. ground cardamom

½ tsp. cinnamon

¼ tsp. black pepper

for the glaze:

1 cup powdered sugar

approximately 2 T milk

½ tsp. vanilla

pinch ground cardamom—optional

 

for the topping:

½ cup raw unsalted pistachios, shelled & chopped

 

pan: I used an 8” spring form pan lined with a piece of buttered parchment, but an 8” square would work as well

oven: 375°

Combine the dry ingredients: flour, almond meal, sugar, baking powder, soda, & salt.  Whisk in the tea and spices.

Make a well in the center of the dry mixture and pour in the browned butter, eggs, vanilla, & buttermilk.  Stir the mixture until just combined.

Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cake has browned on top and cooked through (test with a toothpick).  Cool on a wire rack.

To assemble the glaze, whisk all ingredients together.  You may wish to adjust the consistency with more milk or powdered sugar, then drizzle over the top of the cooled cake.  Sprinkle the pistachios on top of the glaze and serve!

ROASTED EGGPLANT SALAD

Sometimes I am not easy to live with.


I can be incredibly bossy, defensive, and quick to judge.  I like to leave cabinets open and used teabags in the sink.  I get really attached to my idea of how I think things should be; I over-schedule; I make big messes in the kitchen when I cook.

Somehow, Jill is tolerant of all of these things, an incredibly loving and patient spouse who good-naturedly handles all that comes with me.  Recently, though, she got a little more insistent about one of my particularly frustrating habits: “Do you have to bake so much?”

This may not seem like the kind of thing a spouse would gripe about, but when you are trying to be healthy (as we are), my proclivity to bake/issue a dessert for any occasion can get in the way.  Jill & I are different in almost every way, but we share at least one trait; if baked goods are present, we will eat them.  So, in an attempt to support us both, I’m trying to make “good” stuff and only bake for special occasions.

Last night I even did something I did not think was possible—I made and thoroughly enjoyed a meal that contained no pasta, grain, bread, noodle, or potato.  I know, right?  I’m very proud of myself.  Along with a stir-fry of ground pork, celery, leeks, & snow peas (served on its own), we enjoyed this Asian-style eggplant so much that Jill gamely salvaged our leftovers into the lovely photographs you see here.  “I think this is my favorite way to eat eggplant ever,” she said.  That good AND good for us; we had to share.

ROASTED EGGPLANT SALAD
from Melissa Clark

I’m realizing that not everyone may still have access to the wonderfully sweet, late summer/early fall cherry tomatoes that we do.  If you can’t find any, I think this salad would still be delicious without them, or you might try some sweet peppers instead, tossed into the oven for the last few minutes to roast alongside the eggplant.

1 large eggplant, sliced into wedges
olive oil
salt
¼ cup peanut or canola oil
2 scallions, thinly sliced (or substitute a bit of minced white onion)
2 tsp. grated ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. rice wine or white wine vinegar
1 tsp. (or more) Sriracha—I used homemade
½ cup cherry tomatoes
¼ cup fresh basil leaves

oven: 400°F

On a baking sheet, toss the eggplant with generous amounts of olive oil, then sprinkle with salt.  Roast until tender, approximately 25-30 minutes.

While the eggplant is in the oven, whisk together the dressing: oils, scallions, ginger, garlic, Sriracha, & vinegar.

Using tongs, transfer the roasted eggplant to a platter; sprinkle tomatoes on top.  Pour the dressing on top, garnishing with torn basil leaves.

POPPY SEED CAKE

Anticipating the arrival of Rosh Hashanah, I sorted through the recipes I had bookmarked to try and asked Jill: “Apple cake, honey cake, or poppy seed cake?”  She voted poppy seed, and here we are.

As many of you know, I have the pleasure of teaching at a Jewish school, living inside of a culture that isn’t my own but is very close to my heart.  The rich food traditions associated with Jewish holidays are especially resonant for me, coming from another religious tradition (Hinduism) that buffets its celebrations and rituals with food.

Since Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, it’s traditional to eat sweet things to usher in a sweet new year, hence the apples and honey.  Some Sephardic families, as I understand it, even go so far as to eschew salt in the preparation of the entire Rosh Hashanah meal, and for a month thereafter.

Poppy seeds, though not sweet by themselves, are a traditional Eastern European ingredient and add beautiful flavor and texture to desserts.  They are said to symbolize the manna sent by God to the Israelites as they wandered in the desert, a reminder of God’s promise and goodness.  L’Shana Tovah!

POPPY SEED CAKE RECIPE
take from this fascinating New York Times article about the Strawbery Banke restoration, a living museum “set” in 1919

The original recipe calls for 2 cups of sugar; I cut the amount down by 1/3 cup in order to make this a good afternoon-with-tea cake, but by all means, go with the full two cups if you want something more dessert-y.  And instead of dusting with powdered sugar, you could make a glaze with, say, orange or lemon juice or even some melted chocolate.  The addition of almond extract is mine; I think it adds just a leetle something extra, but you can certainly omit it if you don’t have any on hand.

One last note: if the first step of boiling and soaking the poppy seeds seems fussy, don’t skip it.  This allows them to soften and crack just a little, making their flavor more prominent and enhances the texture of the cake as well.

ingredients:

1 cup poppy seeds
1 cup milk or soy milk
1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter or pareve margarine, plus more for greasing pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting pan
1 2/3 cups sugar
3 large eggs, separated
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. almond extract
½ tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. salt

powdered sugar, for dusting

Combine the poppy seeds and milk in a small saucepan and bring the mixture to a boil.  Immediately remove from heat and allow the mixture to cool, about 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Grease a large pan (I used a Bundt, but you could use a couple of large loaf pans or a tube pan) with butter/margarine and lightly flour the inside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter/margarine and sugar.  Add the egg yolks, vanilla & almond extracts, and poppy seed-milk mixture, then beat until smooth.  Slowly add the flour, baking powder, & salt.  Mix well, then scrape out into a large bowl.

Clean the bowl of your stand mixer, then fit it with the whisk attachment and whisk the egg whites until they are stiff.  Fold them into the reserved batter and turn into the pan.  Bake until a tester inserted into the cake comes out clean—about 1 hour for a large pan, 35 minutes for smaller shapes.  Cool, then dust with powdered sugar.

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INDIAN-STYLE TOMATO RICE

Things that are rocking my world these days:


1.    Late summer tomatoes.

2.    Being on maternity leave.

3.    This coconut chai.

4.    Tiny, Beautiful Things, a collection of advice columns written by the very wise, compassionate, authentic, and funny Cheryl Strayed (of Wild fame).  Less advice columns and more paeans to the human condition, in all of its weird, messy, thrilling, sacred glory.

5.    Minnesota Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe’s profane & awesome letter in support of gay marriage.

6.    Getting emails from my students (I miss them!), long letters from friends who live far away, & the small but oh-so-welcome drop in temperature we’ve had around here.  It’s been cool enough for outdoor runs & feeding the baby al fresco & writing in the morning next to open windows.

7.    And the fact that our little guy has taken to grinning.

This recipe for Indian tomato rice is perfect for the aforementioned late summer tomatoes we’re still getting down here; the heat from the chili pepper and earthiness of the sambar powder play nicely against their candy sweetness.  Best of all, this dish, like fried rice, makes perfect use of that leftover rice you never know what to do with.

Like so many of the best dishes on Blue Jean Gourmet, this one was cribbed from my mom, who generously shares her effortlessly good recipes.  This tomato rice was a staple of my middle school lunchbox; I have many fond memories of sharing it with friends who coveted the “exotic” contents of my lunches (a far cry from a bologna sandwich, this.)  True to form, my mom started packing extra on the days she packed tomato rice so that my friends could have their own servings.   She’s pretty swell like that.

INDIAN TOMATO RICE RECIPE


ingredients:

1 ½ cups cooked basmati rice
1 ½ cups large-dice tomatoes (halved if you’re using cherry/grape tomatoes)
1 small-to-medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
6 curry leaves, chopped
1 ½ T minced fresh ginger
1 tsp. sambar powder
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 dried red chili pepper of your choice
¼ tsp. asafetida
salt to taste
vegetable oil

optional: 1 cup of fresh or frozen vegetables such as peas, okra, butternut squash, carrots, bell pepper, etc.

garnish: toasted cashews & chopped cilantro

In a deep saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat.  After five minutes, add the mustard seeds—they should turn white and pop.  (If not, start again).  Add the asafetida, then turn the heat down to medium and toss in the ginger, chili pepper, & curry leaves.  Cook for a minute or two.  Add frozen mixed vegetables, and/or sliced onion, 1 tsp. sambar powder, and let cook.

Add tomatoes, smush while cooking to form gravy.  Toss in rice & turn off heat.  Add garnishes and serve!

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FIGS & BALSAMIC, TWO WAYS

From  a very young age, I have always known two things very distinctly to be true: that, someday, I wanted to parent a child, and that, someday, I wanted to write a book.

When you’re twelve, these life goals seem a lot simpler and fresher and cleaner in your mind; you imagine yourself breezing through your early twenties and into just the very things you’ve imagined for yourself because you haven’t learned yet that there will be a great deal more to your life than what you are capable of imagining at twelve, or at any given age, for that matter.

Because, you know, my life got messy–and it got awesome.  And pretty much none of it has gone the way I thought it would.  I did not get into Brown, which I was convinced for years was the college of my dreams; I did, however, get into Rice, where I was incredibly happy for four years, and which gave me a very fine education, some even finer friends, and Jill.  Oh, and speaking of Jill; I didn’t see her coming at ALL.  I thought I would have to wait a long, long time to meet someone to love–not that I would meet her my freshman year of college.  Goes to show how much I know.

This summer, when Jill & I got the best email ever–the one that told us about Shiv–I was a few solid days of work away from completing my long-nursed manuscript of essays.  What I had thought: that I would write a book first, and then have a baby, has turned out to be the complete and delightful opposite of every plan I had ever made.

Before Shiv, this would have certainly frustrated and discouraged me to no end–I would have seen the fact that I had not yet accomplished one of my major life goals as a failure, and I would have used that interpretation to berate myself such that no further writing was done (vicious cycle).  But now, as I sit here typing this with the cutest little frog-legged being in my lap, I feel that there could be no better time for me to finish my book than now.  I have a whole new set of perspectives to bring to some unfinished work, and know that the joy of the accomplishment will only be amplified by the fact that I did baby first, then book: reverse order of what I had imagined.

I’m on maternity leave for the month of September, and plan to finish my manuscript by the end of the month!  The book is a collection of essays, some of which have already been published here, but most of which are new.  I plan to self-publish The Pomegranate King and hope to have it up for sale by Thanksgiving.

My thanks to all of you out there who have taken the time to read an essay of mine or drop me a note of support and encouragement.  I can’t wait to share this book with all of you, and hope it will be of value to those of you who choose to read it.

FIGS PICKLED IN BALSAMIC VINEGAR & FIG BALSAMIC

We had a plethora of figs from a neighbor’s tree earlier in the summer–more than we could just eat straight–so I decided to try and capture their flavor in these two ways.

I pickled the firmer figs according to the recipe below and have kept them in jars in the fridge–they are excellent on grilled pork or as an addition to a cheese/nut plate, and I think they would also be great flavor-add-ins to braises or tagines this fall.

With the softer figs, I decided to make a more syrupy balsamic, which is excellent on almost anything: in salad dressings, on ice cream, with pizza or pasta, as a glaze or part of a marinade, drizzled on fresh fruit, etc.  They sell pricey infused vinegars at specialty stores, but why bother with that when you can make your own?  Figs will enjoy a second season through the end of this month, so go for it!

PICKLED FIGS RECIPE
adapted from Food & Wine

ingredients:

1 cup sugar
2 cups water
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 pound small firm-but-ripe Black Mission figs

optional: flavoring elements for the jars, such as bay leaves, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, etc.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, water and balsamic vinegar and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the figs and simmer over low heat, stirring a few times, until they are barely tender, about 10 minutes.

Pack the figs into clean canning jars, along with any other flavoring elements you like, then ladle the hot vinegar on top.   At this point, you can let the jars cool and then store in the fridge, or process the jars for shelf-stable pickles.

 

FIG-INFUSED BALSAMIC VINEGAR RECIPE
adapted from White on Rice Couple

I love the combination of figs and cherries, so I added the latter to the mix.  If you can’t find fresh, you could use dried cherries as well, or you could just leave them out.

If vanilla seems like a strange ingredient here, trust me–it adds a nice rounding note to the bite of the reduced vinegar.

ingredients:

1 cup fig pulp (from approximately 1 dozen ripe figs)
1 cup balsamic vinegar
handful of fresh cherries, pitted and halved
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Simmer the fig pulp, cherries (if using), and balsamic vinegar until reduced by the desired amount, up to half.  Keep in mind, more you reduce mixture, the stronger it will be.  (I reduced mine by about a third).

Allow the mixture to cool, then process in the blender.  Pour through a fine mesh strainer to remove seeds, then stir in the vanilla extract and enjoy!

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HUSH PUPPIES

Jill’s parents came into town to meet their grandson this week.  The results were pretty precious:

If you’ve been following this blog for a little while, you already know that when Jill’s parents are in town, things get fried.  It’s just sort of a natural truth, like gravity or the first law of thermodynamics—when Mamaw and Papaw (as they will be called by Shiv) are in town, we fry stuff.  Like fish.  And onion rings.  And hush puppies.

These babies are Jill’s domain, the recipe plucked from a gem of an book just one year my elder and crammed with the good-old-fashioned Southern staples that Jill’s parents love.  I swear they eat like elephants but are about to turn 90 and 80 respectively and have more energy than folks half their age—maybe it’s the several pots of coffee they tear through daily?

Next month, they’ll celebrate fifty-five years of marriage and you can see those years in the way they relate to each other, a lightning-fast, ribbing rapport that had me in tears the other night.  Then there are the stories they’ll tell, about growing up in the South during the Depression, about making sorghum the old-fashioned way and packing the family up into a Model T Ford with the dog chained to a platform of plywood on the side.  What they’ve seen and done and lived through—theirs is a body of knowledge that will disappear when they do.

So even though I certainly don’t need the hush puppies, I sat down to eat them with my in-laws anyway, and listened to their stories.


HUSH PUPPIES
from The Art of Southern Cooking by Mildred Evans Warren, 1981 edition

These hush puppies are in a category unto themselves—a far cry from the dense, gummy golf-ball-bombs that most restaurants serve.  Light, airy, and crisp, they come together quickly and are VERY addictive.

Jill emphatically notes that the essential characteristic of this hush puppies recipe is the fact that they turn themselves over in the hot oil when one side is done.  It’s like magic!  Tasty, tasty magic.

ingredients:

1 cup corn meal
½ cup flour
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 medium onion, chopped fine
Deep fat for frying (we use canola oil)

Mix and sift dry ingredients.  Add beaten egg, buttermilk, and onion.  Mix well.  Drop by spoonfuls into deep, hot fat.  Fry to golden brown.  Drain on paper towels.  Makes 10 to 12, depending on spoon size.

Serve with a squeeze of lemon and/or tartar sauce.

LEMON BLUEBERRY SCONES

What do you do when a complete stranger offers to donate wonderful, healthy breast milk for your son?  Apparently, what I do is bake scones.

I know this topic is going to freak some people out, but part of my commitment to this blog is to always tell the truth about whatever’s going on with me and in my life, and right now, breast milk is one of those things.  If you’re just here for scones, feel free to skip straight to the recipe.

You see—and most people don’t even know this is possible—I’m producing breast milk of my own.  It’s something we adoptive moms can sometimes do, with a little luck and a lot of work (Google “inducing lactation” if you’re curious about details), and I’ve been thrilled to have some success with it.  To be able to feed my son from my own body is an incredible feeling.

Still, like many moms, adoptive or not, I’m not making enough milk just yet, so we are supplementing with a little fancy organic formula and a LOT of donated breast milk.  Truly, it has been a dazzling wonder the way that women have offered up such a precious resource for our family.  In case you thought that such unconditional generosity didn’t exist anymore, I’m here to tell you that it does.

And since there’s no real repaying kindnesses like these, I just make scones instead, sneaking a few for myself because nursing makes a girl h-u-n-g-r-y!  Our little man will be a month old tomorrow, and it’s hard to imagine life before he came…not that I would want to.

LEMON BLUEBERRY SCONE RECIPE

(adapted from La Petite Brioche)

Blueberries are fat and delicious right now around these parts, and I hope you can get your hands on some luscious ones, too, and make this recipe, or just eat them out of hand.

Grating and the freezing the butter may seem weird, but it’s key—don’t skip that step.  If you don’t have a box grater, you can dice the butter instead.

ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour*
½ cup sugar
2 T lemon zest
1 T baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup fresh blueberries
½ cup unsalted butter, grated with a cheese grater and frozen for 10-15 minutes
¾ cup cold heavy cream or whole milk, plus a little extra for brushing the tops
turbinado/raw sugar for sprinkling the tops of the scones

oven: 400° F
pan: parchment-lined baking sheets

*I made my last batch with half white whole-wheat flour and half all-purpose flour, and really liked the “tooth” the white whole-wheat flour added.

Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder, & salt into a large mixing bowl.  Stir in the zest and the frozen butter, breaking up any butter clumps.  Pour in the milk/heavy cream and fold until just incorporated, then add the blueberries and mix gently.  The scone mixture should be sticky, so add more liquid if needed.

Turn the mixture out onto a well-floured surface and sprinkle a bit more flour on top of the mound of scone dough.  Using your hands, gently press until the dough is a somewhat uniform thickness of 1”.  Fold the scone mixture in on itself in thirds, like a letter, pressing back out again to a thickness of 1”.

Using a knife or bench scraper, cut the scones into rough triangle shapes and lay them out, several inches apart, on the baking sheets.  Brush their tops with milk or cream and then sprinkle with raw sugar.

Bake the scones for approximately 20 minutes, or until golden brown and firm to the touch.  Cool on racks before serving warm, with plenty of butter.

BIRTHDAY CAKE

When it comes to birthdays, I opt for chocolate, but Jill loves her vanilla.

She is calm and rational, always able to think a problem through, while I am crazy-emotional, always feeling things.  Her brain is analytical, layer upon layer for digging and cross-referencing, built like a outline, hierarchical, ordered; mine is more like a wild and barely discernable mind-map, colors and doodles and scribbles that somehow make sense.

When she cooks, she dirties the least amount of dishes, keeping her food simple, satisfying, elemental.  When I cook, I amass a giant pile in the kitchen sink, primping and adjusting, always looking for one more taste to add.

She is an impeccable sight-reader; I play only by ear.  She is a code that needs cracking; I am an open book.  She reads politics and philosophy while I love my cookbooks and historical British lit.  She is good at being still and I am good at being busy.  She is a woman of well-chosen words and I am a woman of, well, lots of words.

She is my opposites-attract, the peanut butter to my jelly, the love and now co-parent of my life.  She never ceases to amaze, surprise, and inspire me, like she did recently when publishing her first novel (on the same day we brought Shiv home from the hospital, no less).  I urge you check out the book, Quail Fried Rice, on Amazon, where you can purchase either a paperback or Kindle version…I’m super biased, but I think it’s a very fine piece of writing.

VANILLA BUTTERMILK CAKE
from my hands-down favorite cake book–Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

Jill’s birthday was this past Wednesday, July 25th, and we celebrated in new-parent style: at home, with a couple of good friends, some champagne, steaks on the grill, a (mostly) sleeping baby, and this cake.

ingredients:

1 ¼ cup plus 1/3 cup buttermilk
5 whole eggs
2 egg yolks (save the whites for the icing!)
2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 ¾ cups cake flour
2 ½ cups white sugar
4 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
2 ½ sticks (12 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature

oven: 325°F
pans: recipe calls for 9-inch, but I used 8-inch & was fine, they were just quite full!

Butter your cake pans, then line each with a round of parchment paper.  (Buying pre-cut rounds may seem extravagant, but I did it, and it’s kind of changed my life.)  Butter the parchment paper & sides of the pan, too.

Combine the dry ingredients (cake flour, sugar, baking powder, & salt) in the bowl of a large mixer; blend briefly.  Add the butter and 1 ¼ cup of the buttermilk, mixing on low speed at first.  Once somewhat combined, raise the speed and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

In a small bowl or glass measure, mix together the whole eggs, egg yolks, vanilla, and the remaining 1/3 cup buttermilk until well blended.  Remove the bowl from the mixture and add the wet mixture to the mixing bowl in thirds, folding and scraping down well with a spatula between each addition.

Divide the batter evenly between the three pans (approximately three cups of batter per pan; you can also use a kitchen scale to weigh, provided your pans are uniform).  Bake cakes for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center.

Turn the layers out onto wire racks, peel off the paper liners and let the cakes cool completely.  Once cool, wrap completely in plastic wrap to keep them from drying out, and refrigerate or freeze.

VANILLA BUTTERCREAM
from Smitten Kitchen

These are the best instructions for a Swiss-style buttercream I’ve come across: uncomplicated, undaunting.  You can totally make this!  And it will taste DELICIOUS.  Believe me—even Jill, who normally scrapes icing off of her cake (like a weirdo, I know), loves this buttercream.

Somehow I wound up with a large stash of egg whites in my freezer, which I thawed for this recipe.  Egg whites in the freezer are brilliant for things like this and meringue cookies and pavlovas.  But say you don’t have any egg whites in your freezer and you have to crack some eggs for this recipe, what should you do with your yolks? Add them to your next batch of scrambled eggs—they’ll be rich and creamy and dee-licious.

ingredients:

1 cup sugar (I like to use vanilla sugar here)
4 egg whites
3 sticks butter, softened
1 tsp. vanilla extract

In the bottom of your metal stand mixer bowl over a pot of simmering water, whisk the egg whites and sugar together.  Whisk occasionally until you can no longer feel grains of sugar when you rub the mixture between your fingers.

Move the bowl to the mixer and whip on medium-high until the mixture turns white and grows a bit in size.  Add the butter a little bit at a time and continue to whip, whip, whip until it becomes buttercream—this can take a while, so don’t panic!  Just keep the faith and eventually it will become incredibly delicious icing.

Remove your cake layers from the freezer or fridge and assemble on a cake stand or plate.  You can put a cardboard cake board underneath, or just use wax paper to protect from falling icing.  Using a serrated knife, “clean up” the cakes so that their tops are level and their sides match.

Now apply the crumb coat: place a generous amount of icing between each layer, using an icing spatula (also called a palette knife) to smooth it down.  When you reach the top layer, use about twice as much icing as you did for the other layers and work it over the top and down the sides of the cake.  Turn the cake stand or plate as you hold your palette knife against the edges, to smooth the icing.  For the crumb coat, you want a thin, even layer—it’s okay if a little cake is showing here or there, you can fix that layer!  Return the entire cake to the fridge to chill.

After about an hour, apply the rest of the frosting to the cake for the finished layer.  You can do all kinds of fancy decorative things, like pipe buttons or ribbons, or use warm water & your palette knife to make swirls along the sides of the cake, or even a clean comb to “stripe” the cake, but personally, I just made the icing as smooth as possible, then decorated the top simply, with some sugar pearls, fresh blackberries, & candles.  Festive but not fussy!

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INTRODUCING SHIV

I’ve been away longer than I like to be, but I have a really, really good reason.

Please allow me to introduce Shiv Carroll Mehra, born Tuesday, July 17th at 7:06 p.m., weighing in at 7 lb 6 oz (so symmetrical!), and measuring 19 inches in length.  Full head of curly, dark hair, home with us since Thursday, and the absolute love of our lives.

We are having so much fun learning our little man and figuring out this new, awesome version of our family.  We have been blessed by so much in the last few days: the generosity and courage of his birth mother, the love and support of so many friends and loved ones, and the fact that Shiv is healthy and is ours.

This day marks the sixth anniversary of my father’s death.  Though I wish with all of my heart that he were here to be a grandfather to Shiv, I am grateful for the symmetry of these milestone events.  As Jill so rightly quoted, “The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

SCRAMBLED EGGS WITH CURRY LEAVES & MUSTARD SEEDS

This is my new go-to breakfast: flavorful, protein packed, great with a tortilla or other bread vehicle of choice.  You can spice these up by adding some minced jalapeno or Serrano (or hotter pepper), or switch green onion in for the yellow, etc. etc.  Potential substitutions abound, just make sure you get the pan nice and hot to start, or the mustard seeds won’t “pop” and will taste bitter.  For this reason, use canola or peanut oil, clarified butter (ghee), or other fat with a high smoke point to start off, then slip in some regular butter later for flavor if you like!

Many of you will recognize the flavors here as being similar to the potato “stuffing” that comes inside a masala dosa.  Now that I think of it, when I’m feeling a bit more ambitious, these would go great with some Indian-spiced home fries…

ingredients:

2 eggs

2 T whole milk

¼ cup diced yellow onion

4-6 curry leaves, sliced into a chiffonade

3-4 cherry tomatoes, quartered

½ tsp. mustard seeds

canola oil

butter

salt

In a non-stick skillet, heat 2-3 tablespoons of oil over medium-high until it begins to shimmer.  Toss in the mustard seeds and immediately turn the heat down to medium-low.  The seeds will splutter and pop—this is a good sign!  Give them just a few seconds and then add the onion and curry leaves.  Shake the skillet to avoid browning.

Beat the eggs and milk together.  Add salt to taste.  Once the onion is translucent, turn the heat down to low and add the egg-milk mixture.  Using a spatula, begin to gently stir the eggs in a figure eight pattern, gently turning and folding until fully cooked.  Toward the end of the cooking time, add the tomatoes so they soften a bit.

Enjoy!

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