Recent posts with visuals

February 22, 2015

Earl Grey tea cake

      -Tea, Earl Grey, hot.
                                      ~ Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Commanding officer USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-E)

      There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.
                                      ~ Henry James

A cup of strong, hot tea works wonders. It will relax if you are wired and perk you up when you are tired. It is a charming companion for a solitary afternoon, and an equally welcome addition to a lively conversation among friends. A cup of tea alone will warm and soothe, but oh! how much more satisfying to have a little something sweet to keep it company.

This Earl Grey tea cake makes an excellent accompaniment. It is sweet, but not too sweet, fragrant with the scent of Earl Grey (boosted1 by the addition of lemon zest) and studded with plump, juicy raisins.

The cake is remarkable for three things. Firstly, the main liquid is provided by a cup of strong Earl Grey tea. Brew it stronger than you would drink it, as the flavor will mellow. Secondly, the recipe contains no dairy, and the only fat comes from the eggs. Finally, the batter produces a wonder of wonders - muffins that remain moist and delicious for longer than a day.

Earl Grey tea cake
Adapted from The Sweet Life
While the preparation is simplicity itself, a little forethought is necessary - it is best to let the raisins soak overnight.

Combine and refrigerate, covered, for at least 8 hours (I have left the raisins to soak for up to 4 days):
  • 3½ to 4½ Cups / 500 to 700 grams raisins, different varieties
  • 1 Cup / 250 grams strong Earl Grey tea, cooled
  • 1 Cup / 200 grams light brown or demerara sugar
Once the raisins have finished plumping up and you are ready to proceed, preheat the oven to 160° C / 320° F.

Butter, oil (with a neutral oil - grape seed, canola, etc.) or spray (baking or cooking spray) the cake pan. Form is not relevant here, volume-wise the recipe will fill a standard loaf pan.

Whisk together in a large bowl:
  • 1¾ Cups + 1 Tablespoon / 225 grams regular flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated2 nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • zest2 of 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder (sift if lumpy)
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt (⅛ if using regular table salt)

Add raisin mixture to the flour mix, stir to combine.

  • 2 eggs, room temperature, lightly beaten (save washing a dish and use the now-empty raisin bowl to beat the eggs)

Stir well to combine (the batter will be fairly thin). Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 60-80 minutes, until the cake is dense and springy. A toothpick inserted in the middle should come out clean.

The cake will keep, wrapped and at room temperature, for several days. The recipe is flexible, and invites experimentation. Try orange zest instead of lemon; add vanilla; mix in a handful of dried sour cherries or cranberries together with the eggs.

Halving the recipe will produce 6 large muffins; reduce the baking time and start checking after 35 minutes.

1 Earl Grey tea achieves its distinctive aroma with the help of bergamot orange, a member of the citrus family. The essential oils extracted from the skin of the fruit are added to black tea.
2 A Microplane zester is an incredible tool. Delicate chocolate shavings, Parmigiano Reggiano, lemon zest, freshly grated nutmeg or dried ginger, finely minced garlic - all easily achieved with the Microplane.

February 11, 2015

Old Dutch masters & affordable art

Whence comes the sense of wonder we perceive when we encounter certain works of art? Admiration is born with our first gaze and if subsequently we should discover, in the patient obstinacy we apply in flushing out the causes thereof, that all this beauty is the fruit of a virtuosity that can only be detected through close scrutiny of a brush that has been able to tame shadow and light and restore shape and texture, by magnifying them - the transparent jewel of the glass, the tumultuous texture of the shells, the clear velvet of the lemon - this neither dissipates nor explains the mystery of one’s initial dazzled gaze.
            ~Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Jan van Huysum, Fruit Still Life
When I first saw Jan van Huysum's Fruit Still Life at the museum, I was absolutely mesmerized. The translucence of the grape and red currant skins, showing the pips nestled in the jewel-toned flesh; the water droplets beading on the dusky plum, seemingly ready to cascade down a the slightest tremble; the brushwork skill necessary to render the miniscule ant in glorious detail - the painting, a mere 20 centimeters of canvas, has made me a woman obsessed. I haunted the large museums of Europe, seeking out other transcendent nature morts.

While many different schools produced still lifes, it is the paintings of the Dutch and Flemish Old Masters that I see in my mind's eye. Their compositions are varied, from austere, very modern-feeling showcases of just one or two objects to exuberant floral displays featuring combinations of flowers that could never have been seen together at the time. However, all have in common a dedication to realism and detail, and a mastery of light, particularly in treatment of translucent and transparent materials.

Cornelis Lelienbergh, Still Life with Black Rooster and two Rabbits, c.1659
Europe's time of wide geographic exploration and the scientific progress of the Age of Enlightenment nourished a new approach to observing and recording the natural world. The artists produced realistic, accurate and minutely detailed images of flora and fauna. They also rendered glass, water, the glistening oyster and the juicy flesh of citrus fruit with such exquisite thoroughness as to induce an involuntary mouthwatering reaction in the viewer.

Willem Kalf, Still Life with a Roemer, c.1659

Many generations of viewers, including other artists, have been moved and inspired by these works. Taste is subjective, and I find one in particular captures the essence of the Old Masters in a way that moves me much like the original. Paulette Tavormina stages incredible photographs, with both austere and flamboyant compositions, paying incredible attention to the light. She sites Adriaen Coorte (Dutch), Giovanna Garzoni (Italian) and Francesco de Zurbaran (Spanish) as her inspiration; for me, the textural quality of photography puts her work's essence closest to Adriaen Coorte and his Dutch and Flemish contemporaries.

Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Wild Strawberries, c.1705

©Paulette Tavormina, Strawberries, 2009

Cornelis de Heem, Fruit Still Life, c.1670    ©Paulette Tavormina, Persimmons, After A.C., 2008

©Paulette Tavormina,Cornucopia, 2014

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, c.1615

©Paulette Tavormina, Still Life with Jamón Ibérico, 2008-2014

Floris Claesz. van Dijck, Still Life with Cheese, c.1615

©Paulette Tavormina, Bread & Dragonfly IV, After J.V.H, 2011

Martinus Nellius, Still Life with Quinces, Medlars and a Glass, c.1669 - 1719 ©Paulette Tavormina, Still Life with Quince and Jug, After L.M., 2008-2014

Attributed to Osias Beert, Still Life, detail, c.1600 - 1624

©Paulette Tavormina, Yellow Cherries & Crab Apples, After G.G., 2010

Adriaen Coorte, till life with Asparagus, c.1697   Adriaen Coorte, A Sprig of Gooseberries on a Stone Plinth, c.1699
©Paulette Tavormina, Cardoon & Radishes, After J.S.C., 2010   ©Paulette Tavormina, Cauliflower & Peaches, After J.S.C., 2010

©Paulette Tavormina, Grapes & Melon, After J.C.S., 2010

Juan Sánchez Cotán, Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber,c.1602
© San Diego Museum of Art
  ©Paulette Tavormina, Cabbage & Melon, After J.S.C., 2010

Pieter de Ring, Still Life with Golden Goblet, c.1640

©Paulette Tavormina, Crab & Lemon, After P.C., 2009

Willem Kalf, Still life with Fruit and Wineglasses on a Silver Plate, c.1659 - 1660 ©Paulette Tavormina, Oysters, After P.C., 2008

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Vase of Flowers in a Window, c.1618 ©Paulette Tavormina, Flowers & Buttefly, 2012

©Paulette Tavormina, Flowers & Fish II, After G.V.S., 2012

Paulette Tavormina's portfolio features additional pieces inspired by the Old Masters, as well as more modern work. The pieces are all gorgeous, and start around US$2,000; this is expensive, but not outrageous for an established artist offering limited edition work that captures so well the essence of its subject matter.1

And now, the really great news - both Mauritshuis Museum and Rijksmuseum offer, for free, extremely high-resolution images of the art in their collections. Search the library by artist or keyword, find what you love and print for framing! The quality is great - even large-sized images will not pixelate.
©Paulette Tavormina, Figs, After G.F., 2009

1I am not compensated to promote Paulette Tavormina's work, nor do I know her personally. I thought her photographs were beautiful, and researched prices.

February 2, 2015

Lazy lentils

Not photogenic,
But easy and delicious.

Give lentils a try.
~ The hedgehog

Sadly, cooked lentils do not make for the most attractive-looking dish. This is a shame, since lentils are easy to prepare, versatile and truly delicious. The preparation can be simple or elaborate and is flexible enough to be used for soups, stews, salads and side dishes.

The recipe uses a 1:3 lentils to water ratio, resulting in fairly moist lentils will some flavorful liquid in the bottom of the pot. Increasing the water ratio to 1:4 will produce a stew, and 1:5 will result in an excellent soup base. Reducing water to by half a cup will result in drier lentils perfect for salads 1.

A few peppercorns and a bay leaf lay the aromatics foundation; from here add what you wish. Parsley stems, a small bunch of thyme or a rosemary sprig will all result in a more complex flavor.

Lazy lentils
Serves 4 as a main dish or 6 as a side
  • 3 Cups cold water
  • 1 Cup green or brown lentils, picked over for rocks
  • 1-2 pieces of bacon, rashers, speck, pancetta or speck 2
  • 1 onion
  • 1 carrot
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 5 peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt to taste
Fast and tasty
Rinse the lentils in cool water. Peel the onion, carrot and garlic, cut each one in half. Combine with the remaining ingredients in a pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat to a simmer and cook until lentils are tender (start checking 20 minutes after boil is reached). Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

10 minutes longer, much more delicious
Finely chopping the vegetables, briefly cooking the bacon to render out the fat and using it to sauté the onions has a dramatic impact on flavor, well worth the few additional minutes of work.

Rinse the lentils in cool water, add water to cover and leave to soak while prepping the rest. Peel the onion, carrot and garlic.
Heat a splash of oil in the pot over medium heat. Add the bacon, and brown slightly on both sides.
While bacon is cooking, cut the onions. Slicing the onion in half pole-to-pole, then cutting each half into semicircles and finally chopping each one allows for easy control over size of the dice without struggling with a wobbling onion. The thinner the half-disk and smaller the cut, the finer the dice.

Grate the carrots.

Add the chopped onion, bay leaf, peppercorns (and any other aromatics) and a pinch of salt to the browned bacon. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened and translucent, about 5 minutes.
Slice the garlic into large slivers. Add to the pot, stir, and cook until fragrant, another minute or 2.
Add the grated carrots, drained lentils and water, stir. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat to a simmer and cook until lentils are tender (start checking 20 minutes after boil is reached). Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.
Lentils love acidity, so stir a splash of balsamic vinegar into each bowl before serving, or add 2 or 3 Tablespoons to the entire pot once it's off the heat.

For an even more substantial meal, grate Parmigiano Reggiano 3 over the lentils before serving.

Quick soup
Increase the water to 5 cups, and follow the more complex recipe. Once the lentils are cooked, stir in a handful or two of washed spinach or arugula leaves. The residual heat will wilt the leaves and preserve the green color.

All variations of this recipe can easily be made with most other pulses - chickpeas, pinto beans, black eye peas, etc. If using dried legumes other than lentils, soak them overnight first, and increase the cooking time. Start checking the beans after 40 minutes. Simply squeeze a bean between thumb and forefinger. If it smashes with little pressure, it's done.

1For this preparation, slice the onion and carrot in half and keep the garlic cloves whole for easy extraction after cooking.
2Continental Europe, the UK and US have confusing differences in cured pork product nomenclature. The photos show Dutch bacon, or what would be referred to in the UK as rashers, and does not exist in the US. The closest American equivalent is Canadian bacon, sadly lacking all-important flavor component of fat. American bacon, on the other hand, is known as streaky rashers in the UK, and speck in Netherlands and the rest of Continental Europe. Pancetta, which can be rolled or flat, is never smoked, American bacon almost always is. UK rashers come in both smoked and non-smoked varieties. A visual guide to this all-important food will be coming soon.
3Never throw out leftover Parmegiano Reggiano rind. Freeze it in a Ziplock bag, and add it to soups and stews (including this recipe) for a major umami boost.