Lemon Poppyseed Cake


When I was little, I used to spend my summers with my grandparents in New York getting spoiled rotten and loving every second of it. My grandmother and I would build our day around chores, cooking and watching soap operas. Our favorite was As the World Turns; we were hooked and made no apologies for it.  Over the summer they brought in teen plot lines, and even though I was nowhere near being a teen, I knew a good tale when I saw it. I never watched during the school year, but when I’d return to New York the following June, there my TV friends would be, almost exactly where I left them, with perhaps a day or two—a week, at best—having passed in their fairy tale lives. Within a day, I would be fully caught up and I’d settle in as though I hadn’t been gone for 9 months. Hopefully you see where this is going (I really hope you do, because my train of thought has gotten derailed a bit as I’ve travelled down memory lane…). I know I haven’t been around and that you’ve all gone on with your lives, but I hope you’ll play a little soap opera time warp game with me and pretend that only a day or two has passed since we last talked food and fun.

So. Where were we? Yes! I was traipsing around the globe, feeling very adventurous and worldly. My last trip before summer was to Ireland for a wedding. Now let’s pause here to say that there is a backstory to me flying to Ireland for 72 hours to go to the wedding of a man I met once (on St. Patrick’s Day!) located in a town that was 7 miles from the edge of nowhere. While that story, in retrospect, is somewhat as fraught with drama and tension as a plot line on The Young and the Restless, to tell it would take us on the kind of detour that we’d need a bottle of Maker’s Mark to navigate, so let’s just get to the food. I found myself in County Westmeath on a misty Friday afternoon at a lovely old mansion overlooking mile after mile of greenery (I was slightly disappointed that there was nary a field of heather, nor could anyone tell me where I could see one, but there you have it). At any rate, the first best surprise of the event was that after the ceremony we were all ushered into a beautiful atrium where they were serving tea and scones! Like in actual tea cups and with bowls of clotted cream and everything. I found this to be the most charming thing I’d ever seen, especially at a wedding, to the point that I made a fool of myself taking pictures of teacups and plates (the good thing about being the only American somewhere is that you always have an excuse for borderline behavior. “Oh, that random girl that none of us know who’s taking pictures of cups? She’s AMERICAN… [wink wink].”).

The second best surprise was the wedding cake. I have come to expect disappointment when it comes to wedding cakes, because they tend to be all looks and no taste.  This seems unfair to all involved since most likely we, as guests, have gone through every minutiae of wedding details with the couple, including the tasting, and then we don’t get anything remotely resembling the deliciousness we were promised (not that I go to weddings for the food. Ahem). Much to my happiness, though, there was a lemon poppyseed cake which, again, upped the charm factor of this wedding. It was a bold move; poppyseeds are not the fan favorite anywhere (I don’t think…?) and with a pound cake consistency, it had the potential to be dense. But, as one of my dinner companions said, the cake was “gorgeous.” I’d never in my life heard someone describe the taste of food as gorgeous before and that–along with the jet lag and Jameson’s–just about knocked me off my chair.

I wanted to recreate that cake long before I even finished eating it, but it took another two months before I got it together to make one for a friend’s birthday. She’d requested a fruit filling, so I found a recipe for a berry compote that I decided I’d put in between the layers of cake and on top. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Yeah, that’s just about where the gorgeousness ends,unfortunately. While the berries were tasty (it’d never occurred to me to use thyme with fruit), the cake was dry and had so little flavor it was almost a crime against lemon cakes everywhere. I was disappointed, not only because I’d baked it for a friend, but because I’d really wanted to bring that bit of Ireland back with me.  The trip, like the cake, was so unexpected and lovely and just right, that to be able to return to the magic of that time just by whipping up a dessert would have been glorious.  But, the cake didn’t work, literally or figuratively (and I realize that was a lot of pressure on a little baked good (and a hefty dash of wishful thinking), but have you ever found me to not take things to levels previously unknown?).

I recently decided to try again, this time using a recipe I had long before the disastrous one, but completely forgot about.  I added poppyseeds and gambled on using lemon extract, because have you seen the price of lemons lately?  The result was–dare I say it–gorgeous.  It was moist and light and I love the texture that the poppyseeds added.  As a bonus, the lemon extract made it taste fresh with a slight tartness and lemon growers everywhere are going to have to survive without me from now on (and I’ve used bottled lemon juice as a replacement in other recipes and didn’t like the results. You purists out there can send me cash for real lemons, if you want).  I didn’t add the berries this time, since they were out of season, but I’ve included the recipe below because it’s worth trying.

As I put this cake together, I couldn’t be farther from where I was when I bit into that wedding cake in Ireland. I was a little lost then, a little disconnected from myself–nothing was quite working no matter how hard I tried and how true my intentions were. My failed attempt at my friend’s cake was how I’d been feeling for several months presented on a platter.  It’d be unfair to stress out this new lemon poppyseed cake with the pressure I placed on the other one, but I won’t lie, the success of this cake makes me feel like maybe-just-possibly-let’s-keep-our-fingers-crossed I’m back.  The fact that it was a recipe I had tucked away waiting for the right moment makes me think I was never really gone in the first place.  Either way, it’s good to be home….

Lemon Poppyseed Cake (adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties, by Ina Garten. I used her lemon cake recipe as the base; my notes in red)

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Chilaquiles


So the good thing about all of the gallivanting and country hopping and general revelry that’s been going on in my world is that I’ve gotten to spend a fair amount of time laughing and eating and drinking with some of my favorite people.  The not-so-good part is that–even though I’m reluctant to admit it–I can’t recover from all the festivities as quickly as I did at the height of my gallivanting days.  I mean, there was a time when four gin and tonics (FOUR, people!) was the baseline for a happy evening and I could roll into bed a mere 3 hours before I had to be up and at work with nary a thought of a hangover.  Not so much, anymore… As my granny always said, youth is wasted on the young.

These days, there’s talk of “pacing” ourselves or “should we really be doing this on a school night?” or “I have an 8am conference call; I gotta get some sleep.”  I think the worst is “this is going to hurt in the morning.”   Nothing quite kills the second (third?) round excitement like the idea that you’re going to suffer for having fun.  I’ve always believed that coating your stomach (i.e., loading up on greasy foods) after a night of libations is definitely the way to combat feeling like death warmed over the next day.  Hey, some people believe in aspirin and gatorade; I believe in bacon and eggs and maybe some hashbrowns.  The problem is that the only diner within walking distance from me is closed on Sundays, which seems silly at best, heartless and cruel at worst.  This means that after a Saturday night of living it up, I’m faced with a bowl of oatmeal from my own kitchen or a schlep to a fancy place near me when the last thing I want to do is get dolled up and pay upwards of $15 for overcooked bacon and undercooked eggs.  Seriously a first world problem, I know, but I also know you’ve had the same debate, so let’s not judge, ok?

Lucky for me, while I was in Mexico and was [surprisingly] in need of comfort food one morning, I was presented with a plate of chilaquiles, which–roughly translated–is heaven and goodness on a plate.  I think I may have heard angels sing as I tucked into a spicy mix of eggs, cheese, tortilla chips and salsa verde.  The ill-advised shot of Agavero Tequila was a distant memory as my stomach settled and the world righted itself.  The great thing about this dish is that it’s full of ingredients that you usually have on hand (mind you, the original recipe calls for making your own salsa verde and tortilla chips, but who are we kidding here?  After a night of fun you’ll be lucky to make your way to the kitchen, let alone reinvent the salsa wheel…).  I whipped this up in under 10 minutes and within 30 I was feeling as though I may live to see another day.  I think you could easily dress it up with some chorizo or Italian sausage, a bit of avocado or corn salsa, and I’ve even seen a version with chicken. Go wild!  It’ll remind you of your youth. Without the embarrassing walk of shame part…

Chilaquiles Verde (if you want the labor intensive version, go here: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chilaquiles-Verdes-354951)

  • 3/4 cup salsa verde (green salsa)
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup shredded Monterrey Jack cheese
  • 2 tablespoons crumbled mild feta
  • tortilla chips
  • hot sauce, to taste

Pour the salsa verde in a medium frying pan.  Just when it starts to bubble, stir in the beaten eggs. Cook and stir for about 5 seconds, until the egg feathers into the sauce, thickening and binding it. Immediately add the chips (enough to cover the bottom of the pan), tossing gently until they have absorbed enough sauce to become soft. Take care not to break the chips. Sprinkle the Jack cheese on top and let it melt.

Divide the chilaquiles among 4 plates (or just eat it all yourself). Sprinkle with the feta and hot sauce, if desired. Serve immediately.

Note: original recipe calls for chopped onion, cilantro and sour cream, which I’m sure all kick this up a bit, but (1) I forgot the onion and sour cream when I made this and (2) not a cilantro fan. But try it and let me know!

Mint Tea


Hi! Remember me?  The last time I posted, I so did not think it would be this long until I came back with some sort of goodness for you. Will you forgive me if I tell you that part of the reason for the long absence is because I was in Morocco riding camels and visiting centuries old buildings and shopping in souks and eating in places more beautiful than I’ve ever seen and visiting caves where people actually lived (with satellite dishes nonetheless) and did I mention riding camels? Y’all for real, I was in Morocco!!!! I still can’t believe it, but luckily I have 800+ pictures to prove it.

So I’m back and settling into real life has been a lot harder than I thought it would be. I mean, after you’ve stayed in the same hotel as the Moroccan men’s soccer team (oy…!) and sat in the Sahara watching the sun set, it’s kind of hard to focus on the day to day of everyday life. But, I’ve missed being here and I’m hoping there are still a few of you out there….

Anyhoo.  Luckily this trip was full of food finds (tagines anyone?) and I have a decadent dessert in store for you as soon as I can find some gum Arabic (if you happen to have a hook up to that, let me know).  What I loved most about the trip is that there was a story behind just about everything we saw or did (or ate) and it made me realize how very young the U.S. is.  That’s not to say that each family doesn’t have its own history and its own tales, but on the whole, it’s pretty hard to have a stellar story behind your morning venti-no foam-double shot-vanilla-soy-latte, you know?  Most of our days are spent moving forward with just a passing glance to the past, whereas I felt in Morocco that the past was essential to shaping the future.  It felt as though that without a strong acknowledgment of what had come before, there’d be little reason (or way) to move ahead.  If one generation wasn’t passing on a story or a tradition to another, what would be left? And how could you learn from the triumphs and failures?  Of course, the world is changing faster than it ever has before and the Morocco I learned about in February is completely different from the Morocco today, politics-wise.  We all know that this has the ability to change society in drastic ways, for better or worse.  But for now, it is a country and culture very much tied to traditions, and I’m beyond words grateful to have gotten to experience it.

We arrived in Casablanca and headed straight to Rabat, the capital.  On the way, we stopped at what was basically a truck stop for tea.  Now, I did not grow up taking road trips, but I’ve stopped at a few Midwestern oases and these are not the types of places that you expect to get anything with a sell-by date that begins with 20__, let alone tea made with fresh sprigs of mint.  But we did!  I don’t know if it was the novelty of it or the cold or the lack of sleep, but that glass of tea was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted in life.  It was super sweet and so hot that I stayed warm long after we were back on the road.  Later that night, we went to dinner in Rabat, and our meal ended (as did all of our other meals) with mint tea.  This time rather than being at a truck stop, we were in a stunning restaurant with 20 foot ceilings and low sofas covered in red and gold.  And rather than a server coming to pour us tea, a man came out carrying a tray of 10 glasses and poured tea from at least 4 feet above them (I dare you to try that next time you have guests!).

It wasn’t until a few days later when we went to a village in the Mid Atlas mountains that we got the full tea ceremony story.  We visited a village where the women were doing their laundry in a stream while the kids hung out at the internet cafe.  There was the official town guide who welcomed tours into his cave dwelling that he proudly announced had housed all of his many children and some of their families and it was only recently that they’d put in the upstairs (although the satellite dish had come years earlier).  We were told that inviting people to tea is a way of not only showing hospitality, but of showing how much you care for the person.  So if you’re invited to tea and it’s already made, it means that the host doesn’t really want you to stay that long (which really means they aren’t that excited about you). On the other hand, if the entire tea process is done while you’re there–and if done right, it can take awhile–then they are happy to have you and want you to stay.  I have no idea, but I imagine that there’s no rushing off from a tea invite, either.

Needless to say, our host started the tea process after we were all seated and he had told us a few stories about his village.  His wife didn’t even put water in the pot until we had been there a bit.  After it boiled, he told us the process step by step: first you wash out the pot with boiling water.  Black tea is then added to the pot, hot water is poured over it to wash it off and then that water is cast aside.  The mint and sugar (about 6 tablespoons for a pot) are added to the tea and more hot water is poured in.  You let that steep for a bit while the glasses are set up.  Finally, each cup is poured to the same level in the glass (so as not to offend anyone).  Can you think of anything you’ve done with that much care lately?

I admit that somewhere during the two weeks I started to take the mint tea at the end of the meal for granted and to be perfectly honest, I would have paid a hefty price for an espresso at one point.  And then, as fast as it had happened that I got to go on this trip, it was over and I was standing in the duty free at the airport in Casablanca spending my last Dirhams.  Of course, after such an amazing trip, I feel changed for the better and have grand ideas about how I’ll spend my time and live my life in a more conscious, slower way.  My hope is that I’ll have people over and start my tea process after they’ve settled in and we’ve chatted and caught up and have nothing but time and stories ahead of us.  But, I bought as many boxes of packaged mint tea as I could fit into my carry-on, just in case….

Mint Tea

  • 1 tablespoon loose black or green tea
  • 1 large handful fresh int leaves, washed
  • 1/2 liter (about 2 cups) boiling water
  • 1/4 cup sugar (about 6 tablespoons per pot)

Preparation:

Boil at least a liter of water. Rinse a small tea pot with about 1/4 cup of the water.  Add the tea leaves and another 1/4 cup boiling water.  Swirl the pot to wash and rinse the leaves, and pour out the water.

Add the mint leaves and the sugar, and fill the pot with 1/2 liter (about 2 cups) boiling water.  Leave the tea to steep for five minutes or longer, or set the tea pot over medium-low heat and bring the tea to a simmer. Remove from the heat, and allow to steep several minutes more.

Gently stir the tea, pour into small tea glasses and serve.

Kalua Pork


Aloha! Even though it’s hard to believe–especially considering I have to wear 12 layers of clothing in order to leave the house–last week this time I was in Hawai’i, learning to surf, sipping mai tais, flirting with pilots and generally enjoying being warm and toasty (not necessarily at the same time or in that order).  It was a glorious vacation full of snorkeling, paddle surfing, good friends, lots of sun, even more laughs and delicious fresh food.  I will spare you all of the typical vacation stories, except for the one that involves me attempting to ride down the side of a volcano in Maui.  As we’ve discussed before, I am not an adventurous person by any stretch of the imagination.  Most of my beach vacations have involved a lounge chair, magazines, naps and sidling up to the bar the minute it opens.  This time around, I travelled with people who like to do things on vacation, which is a completely novel and foreign concept to me.  I gamely went along with all of their plans, mainly because I’m a people pleaser, but there was a part of me that thought it all sounded like fun.  And! I like to believe that I’m one of those people who will try anything [within reason] once.

You should note those brackets in the sentence above, because in no world is riding a bike down the side of a volcano within reason. It’s crazy, stupid and mind-numbingly frightening.  In theory it sounded like fun and a story that I could tell well into my golden years, but in practice it was terrifying.  It started with a 1:30 AM wake up call so we could drive to the van that would take us to the top of the volcano to watch the sunrise (which was great, except it was about 30 degrees outside.  I will say feeling as though I could touch the Big Dipper was worth having to put on a fleece and jeans in Hawai’i).  After the sunrise, we were taken by van down to a “reasonable” spot on the volcano where the bike ride would start.  They lined us up shortest to tallest, which meant I was third in line.  Then they handed us motorcycle helmets.  It’s at this point that I should have thought, “Heather, what the $#(^&$* are you doing?” Instead, I thought that my helmet matched my nail polish nicely.  I only started to get nervous when they pulled the bikes out of the trailer.  They looked like fold up bikes, the chains were rusted and the seats were a little loose.  My hands started to shake when the guide told us to just ride the brakes down the winding, twisting curves of the volcano.  I’m sorry, what now?  But, because I am generally a follower, I got on the bike and started pedaling (or really, just keeping my feet on the pedals and hanging on for dear life).  I don’t think I had gone 50 yards before I started screaming in my head.  Another 100 yards and I was screaming out loud.  On my right was a sheer drop off.  On my left was traffic.  I couldn’t look behind me and I was riding the brakes so hard that the people in front of me were 2 curves ahead, so I couldn’t see them.  Finally, we pulled over and I jumped off the bike, handed my helmet to the guide and went to the van following us where it took me a good 10 minutes to start breathing normally.  I’d like to tell you that I wish I’d finished the bike ride, but there’s no part of me that feels that way. NONE.  Good on the people who did (including my friends)–you’ll have much more interesting stories at the nursing home.

After the ride [in the van], we stopped in the lovely Oceanside town of Pai’a where we were able to relax on the beach and thank the powers that be that we were still alive.  We found a cute storefront restaurant that served homemade kalua pork (so homemade that the woman behind the counter pulled a tupperware container of pork out of the refrigerator and mentioned that it had come out of her oven that morning). 

Over the course of the week, kalua pork had become a fave of mine (along with spam musubi–next recipe!).  Kalua means to cook in an underground oven, but lucky for those of us who live in highrises, you can do it in a crockpot.  It’s basically a slow roasted pork shoulder, which is then shredded and served over rice.  I’m all for keeping the integrity of local dishes, but I see a lot of possibilities with this one–the addition of ginger, hot peppers, other vegetables… It couldn’t be easier, especially with a crockpot, but can be done in the oven as well. The use of liquid smoke–a first for me–gives it the taste of an outdoor barbecue, which is great since it’ll be a long while before there are any outdoor activities in the Chi.  Riding down a volcano doesn’t seem so bad if it gets me outside… Right?

Kalua Pork

  • 3 lb pork shoulder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons liquid smoke
  • 2-1/4 teaspoons Hawaiian salt, or sea salt, or kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350-400 degrees F. Pierce pork all over with carving fork or score with a knife. Rub salt and liquid smoke into meat. Place pork fat side up in a roasting pan or deep casserole dish. Cover and roast in oven for 2 1/2-3 hours. Remove the pork from pan and shred with two forks. Makes six servings. (I used my crockpot on low for 5 hours.  In the last 1/2 hour, I added about a cup of shredded cabbage, which I’d had at one restaurant.  Drain off excess liquid before serving over rice).

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