Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sharing Secrets

I've worked in retail for more years than I care to admit to.   One of the skills you need to work in retail is the ability to talk to people, all kinds of people; to be able to talk about what you're selling, to make your goods or your products appealing to the customers that walk in your store.  Like a carnival hawker.  Bring them over the threshold, hook them in, and make them spend money.   I like to think I can start a conversation with anyone.  In that environment, I'm not too bad.   But on a day to day basis, more times than not, (the self-perceived) socially awkward me makes her appearance.  

When I go out, I put my blinders on.  I do a lot of things on my own, whether it's grocery shopping, running errands, or going to events in and around Los Angeles.  It's me and the thoughts in my head.  I'm surprised (and a little freaked out) when someone talks to me (other than say, a clerk).  I was at Sprouts the other night to pick up a few things, including some apricots.  I had visions of apricot jam in my head after finishing up a jar a couple of weeks ago.  I headed over to the large bin in the center of the produce department, bag in hand, when I see an older woman, maybe in her late 60's, slowly approaching the same bin.  I thought about holding back until she was finished, but I was in one of those moods where I just wanted to get what I needed and head back home.  It was a big enough space to share, so I grabbed a bag, staked a spot to the right of her, and went apricot hunting.  She turned to me and in a kind, heavily accented voice said, 'Look for this colour, they're better,' as she's holding a fruit with that beautiful deep blush on one side.  I smiled and nodded.  (The uncomfortable feeling beginning, my mind screaming, 'She's talking to you!')  She told me that she was going to make jam because her daughter-in-law liked it so much, she all the jam the woman had made.  I told her I was going to make jam too.  She said, 'What do you use?  I put in lemon juice.'  I said, 'I use orange juice.'  And there it was:  we had bonded, even if only for a few seconds, over kitchen secrets.  

Having picked the fruit I needed, I smiled and went off to finish my shopping.  No more than 3-4 minutes had passed;  I headed to the check-out, swinging back through the produce section, and she was still there picking apricots.  The bag she had was close to bursting with the amount of fruit she had in it.  I could have kept on walking since she hadn't seen me, but I rolled my cart close to hers and said, 'That's going to make a lot of jam.'  She said she needed enough apricots to make 3 batches.  And she smiled at me.  I smiled back and it didn't feel that awkward anymore.

Apricot-Blood Orange Jam
Adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen's 'Quick Apricot Jam'
(Makes about 2 cups)

8-10 apricots, quartered and pitted
1/2 cup blood orange juice
3/4 cup turbinado sugar

Combine ingredients into a medium sized saucepan over medium high heat.  Stir frequently to mix everything together.  Cook over medium high heat for about 10 minutes.  The fruit will begin to break down.  I like to mash the fruit further while it's cooking with the back of a fork.  Take the heat down to a simmer and let cook further, about 15-20 minutes.  

Take off heat, mix well and allow to cool.  Transfer to jar or bowl, cover and refrigerate.  Should last at least a week, if not a little longer.  

Note:  Turbinado sugar is my latest fascination.  Feel free to use regular sugar or pure cane sugar, and adjust to your taste.  This probably turned out more like the consistency of a very chunky, more on the syrupy side jam, but I have no complaints.  I can (and do) eat it with a spoon, it's also temporarily replaced my daily morning avocado toast. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Cake by Any Other Name

Mix flour, eggs, sugar, and vanilla with a few other things, pour the batter into a pan, bake it, and you'll have a cake.   There are so many options:   chocolate, vanilla, lemon, coconut...I can change the taste with different flours, I can change the texture by adding nuts or bits of fruit.  All these mixes will come out of the oven and they will still be cake.  But sometimes the final result seems so special, so different, that I feel a need to call it by the French word: un g√Ęteau. It helps when the recipe comes from the book, 'On Rue Tatin:  Living and Cooking in a French Town' by Susan Loomis.

It also helps you use an ingredient that might turn people off by the mere mention of its name, but call it by the new incarnation (thank you, marketing and PR), soak it in a little brandy and amaretto and the cake becomes worldly and continental.  Prunes...or as they're called now, dried plums.  I know, I know...prunes remind you of your grandparents, say, about 20 years ago.  It was old people having a bowl of bran every morning.  But these same prunes, sorry, dried plums, make a spectacular cake.  This is the kind of cake that makes me want to bring out the nice china and have tea and cake, sitting at a table in a gazebo, surrounded by blossoming magnolia and jacaranda trees.

At the same time, I don't see it as a fussy cake.   The fussiest thing you have to do is melt butter and let it cool before adding it to your batter.  There's no buttercream to whip up, no layers to build...just bake in a loaf pan and dust it with confectioners' sugar.  Less time fussing with a cake and more time to sip tea under the trees.

Brandy Soaked Prunes and Almond Yogurt Cake
(Adapted from the Gateau Au Yaourt recipe by Susan Herrmann Loomis 'On Rue Tatin')

1 cup pitted prunes, chopped
1/2 cup roasted almonds, chopped
2 tbsp brandy
1 tbsp amaretto liqueur
1 ½  cups all purpose flour
¾ tsp baking powder
Pinch of sea salt
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
½ cup plain yogurt 
1 tsp almond extract
6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Confectioners’ sugar, optional

In a small bowl, add the prunes, almonds, brandy, and amaretto.  Mix well and let sit for 30 minutes to an hour to let the flavours mingle.

Line a loaf pan with parchment, allowing a couple of inches to hang over the edges and butter lightly.  Pre-heat over to 375 degrees.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl or on a piece of parchment.  

In a small pan, melt the butter and let cool.  Whisk together the eggs and sugar in a large bowl until light and pale yellow.  Gradually add the flour, whisking thoroughly to incorporate into the eggs and sugar.  Fold in the yogurt, almond extract, and the cooled butter.  

Add the prunes and almonds (with the liquor) and mix until well-combined.  Pour batter into loaf pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 50-60 minutes.  Allow to cool for 15 minutes on cooling rack in pan before removing from pan.  Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar. 

Notes:  I used non-fat Greek yogurt and think you'll be fine using whatever yogurt you have on hand.  The loaf pan I used measures 9.5 x 3 inches.  Watch your baking time with a smaller loaf pan, as you'll probably need less time.  You can also bake this cake in a round 9-inch cake pan, in which case your baking time will be around 35-40 minutes.