about bliss

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

apple weekend

Eating warm slices of fresh banana bread, one after the next, and sipping a mug of honey-scented assam black tea, I make my peace with the cool temps and rainy skies at the close of this autumnal day. I officially bid summer adieu on a breezy Sunday afternoon at Lake Michigan, where the warm temps were tempered with a stiff wind, blowing the water into rolling waves...

I watch the green beans begin to take on rust spots, the zucchini finally beginning to fade, and the corn on the cob giving up the last of its sweetness. I start introducing fall foods like apples and cauliflower, though there must be another peach pie and jar of sun-lit raspberry jam before the month is out...

Last weekend I ventured west to enjoy a lazy-busy weekend with my parents and my best friends. Saturday morning S and I joined a small crowd in running the Mt. Baldhead Challenge, a race known for the brutal 15K, featuring climbing rickety stairs up a sand dune. We opted for the tamer 5K, and both ran well. S achieved a PR, and I actually placed 3rd in my age group, only 4 seconds slower than my PR.

L and H joined us, and we filled the car with laughter as we drove to Fennville for apple splendor. Before we hit the orchards, we dined at the Journeyman Cafe. This lovely spot embodies all that is best about the slow food movement--emphasis on sustainable, seasonal foods. I enjoyed an omelet of herbs, pickled red onions, and chevré, as well as cups of Intelligentsia coffee with cream and raw sugar. The space is simple, with an urban rustic appeal of iron benches, white paper covered tables, and water glasses that resemble the classic terra cotta pot shape. The walls are lined with artwork from local artists, including oil paintings of Lake Michigan scenes, as well as drawings of cakes (my favorites!).

We then ventured into the madness that is Crane’s Orchards on Honey Crisp weekend. These new hybrids are sweeping the nation, and we received a mini-lecture about not tossing out perfectly good though slightly cosmetically blemished fruit, from one of the farmers. We strutted down the well-manicured rows and gathered the weighty fruit.

Next we headed deeper into the country to find Ever Green Lane farms, a small organic orchard that’s everything Crane’s isn’t: unmanicured, wild, experiential, and as close to non-commercial as a farm could get. I forgot to double check the address and so we drove up and down roads until we asked for directions and pointed ourselves in the right direction. The farmers remembered us from last year! We strolled past the free range chickens and headed to the small, unruly orchard. The farmer urged us to taste fruit, to drop any apples that didn’t meet our expectations, and to take our time gathering the best fruit. He told us to watch for poison ivy, and left us to traverse the orchard on our own. Battling our fears of poison ivy, we gathered sacks of apples and headed back up to the barn to buy cider and end our apple picking portion of the weekend.

Our day concluded where it began, in the quaint town of Saugatuck, where we enjoyed tasty treats and salty snacks at Uncommon Grounds, and pizza perfection at Marro’s. I splurged on a glass of Pinot Noir with my pizza, which necessitated giving up the keys to my car to S, who ferried us safely to my parents’ home. My friends all took off, and I spent a quiet evening with Mom and Dad.

Sunday was a day of rest, despite a long walk in the woods at a park near my parents’ home. I enjoyed the sunshine and 80 degree temps, certain that this was the last such day for awhile. I savored the summery breezes and tried to keep my tears at bay. Summer will come again, though never this particular summer...next summer will bring new challenges as my career plans may shift dramatically...H and P will be the proud parents of baby S...and who knows what changes we’ll all witness before the next season of halcyon, seemingly endless days, and star-filled warm nights.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

bake me a cake!

Friday night, I slide into bed an hour earlier than I normally would. I lay in bed and will sleep to come--the week has been long, my sleep patterns disrupted--but excitement for the next day drive ssleep an hour or so away. I would’ve been better off staying up and finishing *My Life in France,* the delightful Julia Child and Paul Prud’homme memoir.

My alarm beeps me awake at 5:45 and for once I don’t linger beneath the soft sheets. I take a quick shower, eat a simple but hearty breakfast of old-fashioned oats and fruit, grab my hair scarf and water bottle, and drive out of my parking lot at 6:30 am.

The sky remains immutably dark as I begin my drive. I think how early mornings are de rigeuer for bakers...and how 6:30 isn’t really early to the dedicated souls who begin baking morning pastries at 4:00 am. Slowly, the sun begins to rise, filling the sky with bursts of orange and pink. By the time I angle my car down I-94 towards Ann Arbor, a magnificent burning orange sun fills a sky streaked with clouds. At 7:50am, I slide my car into the parking lot and head indoors.

I wash up in the bathroom, tie my scarf securely over my head, covering my bangs and the top of my long braid. I walk into the brightly lit teaching bakery, where I’m greeted by my three teachers and helpers: Frank, Amy, and Alejandro. My fellow classmates slowly trickle in, while the instructors sip their coffee. We tie on aprons, stick on nametags, and begin class:

Bake Me a Cake, a four hour session on cake techniques at Bake, Zingerman’s latest venture.

The class begins with an overview of objectives and goals, quick introductions to one another and the all-important kitchen etiquette, and then we begin our journey of learning and baking three delicious cakes: chocolate truffle cake, pineapple upside-down butter cake, and vanilla angel food cake.

The class aims to teach students how to make three simple, basic cakes at home in lieu of relying on cake mixes (something I simply wouldn’t do). We learn a brief history of cake--from its dense beginnings to high-tech formulations in the age of industrialization and food technology. We’ll be reclaiming simple, quality ingredients and time honored techniques.

Alejandro demonstrates each of the three cakes in turn, and after each demonstration, we create the cakes in pairs, following the recipe and his example.

I experiment with egg cracking and separating: cracking eggs with one hand (I still have a tendency to crush the shell this way) and separating them in my hand (on my first attempt, the yolk slides out of my tipped palm onto the table, followed by the pool of whites; my second attempt is a successful separation of yolk and white into their respective containers).

While much of what we do in class I have done many times before, the small tricks and the attention to detail at every stage of the cake baking teach me the importance of patience and dedication. Sifting the dry ingredients together makes for an even mixture, sans lumps. Adding eggs one at a time when creaming together a cake makes a smoother, richer emulsion. Banging cake pans noisely on countertops helps settle the excess flour, and, later, evens out the top of the batter.

I take notes, ever the student, to remember bits of trivia and cooking science--the double action of the baking soda coming from the mixture of ingredients and, later, the heat.

As the morning progresses, the cakes bake, and we begin to wind down towards the tasting portion of class. We compare box and homemade versions of angel food and pineapple upside down cakes. Of course, the box mixes provide a variety of fake, industrial sensations, especially pronounced when held up to their all-natural slow baked counterparts, redolent with double portions of vanilla and fresh pineapple.

The chocolate truffle cake, a flourless concoction, needs no industrial version to highlight its wonderfulness. This cake tastes like Christmas fudge, only purer. Smooth, dense, rich. The first bite brings tears to my eyes at the visceral pull on all my senses. Mostly, I’m satieted with a pleasure of happiness, of connection, of tasting the embodiment of my food ideology.

The class draws to a close as our cakes cool from the oven and are packed into signature Zingerman’s boxes. I reluctantly leave the gleaming professional teaching bakery and arrange my cakes safely in the back seat of my car. I visit the bakehouse and creamery for other culinary delights of coffee, bread, and cheese, remove my head scarf, and begin the drive away from Ann Arbor with a smile on my face and renewed passion in my heart.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

brownie bliss

My Mom recently gave me a recipe for Zingerman's Magic Brownies that she found in a *Midwest Living* magazine. Those of you who've been reading my blog all along know my penchant for all things Zingy, so it was only a matter of time before I passed over my trusty "Best Brownies" recipe from the Hershey's cookbook and gave these a try.

Now, one of the best aspects of the Best Brownies recipe is the ease and speed of preparation. I can mix and bake those babies faster than you can drive to the store and buy a mix. And they're ooey, gooey, scrumptious.

The Zingy's brownies, in contrast, are a bit more high maintenance. But I'm a bit high maintenance myself, and so the brownies aren't that much of a stretch. The recipe involves melting unsweetened baking chocolate and copious amounts of butter, whilst creaming eggs and sugar into a foamy whirl. These steps take a bit of time, but once I've done the recipe a few times I don't think it will take that much longer. And the brownies bake beautifully, with a texture that's both cakey and fudgy and phenomenally rich. I'm smitten.

I splurged on Scharrfen Berger chocolate, a grand decision.

I've eaten two and my tummy feels a little sad, but my head and soul are all glad:)

And, having run 8 miles this morning (hoorah!) and a total of 21.5 this week (my record thus far), I felt the need for a little chocolate celebration. I was talking to some fellow runners after today's outing and they were off in search of their rewards...panera bagels, I believe. I knew I had a better treat coming if I could just wait until later in the day to bake and indulge!