It’s Complicated

Or, Why I’m Not In Napa Right Now.

I graduated one year ago from Converse College with a BA in English and a plan to enroll in the Baking & Pastry degree program at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California.

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That’s the one.

After a major health crisis the fall of my junior year and a semester abroad in Florence, Italy the following spring, I got fed up with not listening to what I really wanted instead of what I thought I should do and embraced my inner food nerd. I took some classes, I read a lot of books, and allowed myself to proclaim my love for baking loud and proud. I visited the CIA’s NY campus, then their Greystone campus in Napa, and I was hooked.

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There are a lot of reasons why culinary school/baking felt right for me. First of all, I was dying to be surrounded by people who love food as much as I do. I was absolutely desperate to learn more about classical baking techniques – especially yeast breads. One of my many dream jobs is to own a bakery – preferably somewhere in Italy, in a little shop with an apartment over it that I can live in (think Chocolat.). The craft itself fits my personality – it’s all about measuring and numbers and getting everything exactly right. The hours were very attractive; I’d much prefer to have a work day that goes from 2 AM to 10 and have the whole day to take naps in the sun. [I’m dead serious. I love working in the middle of the night. Most of my best writing happens then.] Even the way the class schedules worked was right; the CIA has a block schedule where you take one class at a time for an intensive 4-6 weeks every day. That is precisely how I prefer to learn; I can multitask, but I absolutely hate it, and the thought of being able to focus all my attention on one subject was quite relieving. [<—Introverts. ‘S how we roll.]

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And to top it all off, it was in St. Helena, where my idol M.F.K. Fisher spent many years of her life. [Wrote my senior thesis on her book How to Cook a Wolf, memorized her entire life story, generally worship her every word.]

If all had gone to plan, I would be standing in a school kitchen with my whites and non-slip shoes, hanging on every word out of my chef-professor’s mouth right this very second.

Obviously, something changed.

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First there was my  restaurant, ahem, experience, otherwise known as Gillian Learns How to Quit a Job. Then there was another food prep internship – I pretty much hated that one, too. What I realized was that for all that I love spending hours in the kitchen trying new recipes and learning new things, that was only a part of who I am. A very wise boss/friend who had a similar experience said it best: my relationship with food is so much more complex than just its preparation. My real passion for food comes from my awe of its “basic-ness;” that something so essential to our lives can have so much embedded meaning and history is, I think, incredibly exciting.

And it is for that reason why I fell so happily into place in the sustainable food movement. It is about so much more than just “eating local.” It’s about knowing the person who pulled your carrots out of the ground, who fed the cow that produced your milk, who collected the eggs that go into your quiche. It’s about respecting your self, and respecting the food that gives your health and energy every day. It’s about discovering the narrative running under every meal and every bite. With food comes stories, and there’s always a new one to tell. That is what I love. And that’s why working towards a safe, fair and sustainable food system makes me so happy.

Yes, there are graduate programs where I can study the subject in the traditional way, but I’m not ready to go back to that life. Not yet. It is not out of the question, but in all honesty, just the thought of returning to those days of essay writing and endless readings  and exam-cramming exhausts me. Sure, I’m good at the academic stuff, but if this – I’m sorry, I have to say it – journey has taught me nothing else, it’s the importance of focusing on what I want, not what I “should” do. At some point, I may decide that a graduate program will get me where I want to go. But right now, I think I’ve found myself where I want to be.

And with that said, I think I’ll go search for a new cookie recipe to try this weekend. Because some things never change.

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A Cookie to Rely On

One of the [many] things I love about baking is how wonderfully reliable it is.

Now matter how gray the sky is, or how tired I feel, or how many times I dropped my pen in a 10-minute period, I know that I can mix butter, sugar and flour together in a very specific combination and it will make something wonderful. I love that.

It is that passion, in fact, that is what got me interested in vegan baking. Just because someone exercises their personal right to not consume animal products do NOT mean they shouldn’t experience that same reliable joy that a cookie or cupcake can bring. It just shouldn’t.

And so as I tiptoed into the realm of vegan baking, I came across Dreena Burton, author of three quite successful vegan cookbooks and a fantastic blog. I made her chocolate cake and fell in love. But what drew me to her first were these.

Super-Charge Me! Cookies.

Sick and tired of the hydrogenated-oil filled, high fructose corn syrup-ridden, over-processed cookies that are all the rage on grocery store shelves, she got down to the business she knows so well and created a cookie as delicious as it is healthy.

For me, it was love at first bake. The recipe involves OATS, one of my favorite foods, and yet was still adaptable in terms of flavor combinations and add-in variety. Most importantly, they taste.so.good. I kept a constant stash in the freezer and looked forward to whipping up a new batch when the last one disappeared. They made a perfect pre-gym snack, early morning my-stomach-is-not-awake-yet bite, accompaniment to tea. And I can’t remember how many times I would finish a batch and have to make another after the plate of fresh cookies “mysteriously” disappeared when a wanderer happened by the kitchen.

I played around with the recipe a lot, but here is my basic go-to mix when my stash starts to get low. I always play around with the spice combination, add-ins, and nut/seed butter, and every batch turns out just a little differently. You can make them wheat-free (with spelt flour) if you’d like – this recipe actually introduced me to spelt flour and I’ve kept some around ever since!

Ingredients:

1 c. rolled oats

2/3 c. spelt flour OR scant 2/3 c. whole wheat flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. sea salt

1/2 – 1 tsp. cinnamon (I always use more like 1 tsp because I’m a cinnamon addict)

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp cardamom

3-4 Tbs chocolate chips (I use vegan chips because they taste the exact same and are cheaper at Whole Foods)

1/4 – 1/3 c. dried fruit (cranberries are my fave, but anything will work – you don’t have to add any at all, if you’d prefer!)

1/3 c. ground flax

1/2 c. maple syrup (or any kind of liquid sweetener; maple seems to have the best texture)

3 Tbs. nut/seed butter

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (can also do combinations of vanilla + almond, vanilla + rum, etc)

2 Tbs oil (olive, canola, sunflower…walnut oil makes one amazing cookie!)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. I always forget that part, and then I have to use all of my will power to not eat all of the dough…don’t do that to yourself.

 

Mix the oats, flour, baking powder, salt, and spices in a medium-large bowl.

Then add the chocolate chips (or butterscotch, or peanut butter…) and the dried fruit and mix it in.

Next in a smaller bowl, mix your wet ingredients: flax meal (yes, I know, not really ‘wet’, but it has just enough moisture that it works better mixed in here), maple syrup, extracts (vanilla and whatever else – I’m a fan of rum extract myself ;), nut butter, and oil. Not gonna lie – I’ve used half oil/half applesauce before for various reasons (walnut oil is, um, a tad pricey), and it works [almost] just as well.

I highly recommend experimenting with different nut butters – even the brand makes a difference in flavor. I’ve used different peanut butters, almond butters, and most recently sunflower seed butter (one of my roommates is deathly allergic to nuts). Nutella is next on my list…

Looks weird, tastes great. Go with it.

You probably know where I’m going with this: wet —> dry!

Mix it all together, put it on a silpat mat/parchment papaer/aluminum foiled/greased baking sheet and bake for about 12 minutes – check it then. They can dry out, but in my experience they need more time in the oven rather than less.

And while you’re waiting….lick the spoon.

These freeze really well, and I’ve found they last longer if I freeze them after letting them cool for about an hour.

And by “last longer,” I mean it becomes slightly more difficult for me to eat 4 in one sitting.

Do let me know if you make these and come up with a particularly amazing combination – I’ll do the same.

Catching Up

Buon giorno!

Well, it’s taken a while, but I’m finally starting to get into the groove of this semester. Senioritis is definitely looming its tragically ugly head, but I am doing my best to get it all done.

To-do lists on post-it notes are my best friend.

I’ve been doing some blog maintenance, and am working on expanding the pages – see those tabs up there on your right? Click, baby, click! I have a photography page from my semester in Florence, and I am working on a restaurant page and more from my Italian adventures – especially my eating adventures.

You can also now subscribe to this blog – on the right is a button, and if you enter your email address you will be notified when I’ve updated! If nothing else, my parents will certainly appreciate it 😉

It’s still a bit of a struggle to maintain two blogs (I also write for my school here), 3 other jobs and continue to be hold up my GPA as a full time student, but I’ve accepted that. I also don’t have class on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays…so really, no excuses, Gillian.

Coming up I have some recipes for you – some deliciously moist and not-too-sweet banana bread, my favorite cookies that I keep a constant stash of in the freezer, and a buttermilk-saturated surprise later this week! Any guesses?

I’m also going to bring back the Wednesday Over-the-HumpDay Challenges, because they are fun and I want to. Anddd maybe even a countdown is in order…I never did get closure from last year, anyway.

Preview time:

 

Gosh, I love baking.

Marbled Velvet Cupcakes

One of my roommates was just in Missouri, auditioning for a post-graduation internship. When my roommates and I heard that she was offered the internship on the spot, we knew what we had to do.

Cupcakes.

After one or two rather sketchy text messages, we confirmed her favorite cakes were red velvet and marble. I dutifully began researching to find the best recipe I could – aka, what recipe had the most ingredients I already had on hand – and lo and behold, what did I find but red velvet marble cupcakes. Done and done.

I made a quick trip to the store for the necessary buttermilk and red food coloring, but alas, the dye was not to be found. Hence, they became simply “Marbled Velvet Cupcakes.” Feel free to add in the color if you make these!

Marbled Velvet Cupcakes

adapted from this recipe from Baking Bites

1 1/3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, room temperature
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 12 cup muffin tin with paper liners, or just throw your shiny brand new silicone cupcakes liners on a cookie tray.

You will need 3 bowls: a small-medium bowl for dry ingredients, a larger one for creaming, and a small one for the marbling.

In the small-medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the egg and the tsp. of vanilla extract.
Either using a hand mixer on low speed or just with a spoon and your yoga muscles, gradually incorporate one third of the flour mixture followed by half of the buttermilk.
Add another third of the flour mixture, followed by the remaining buttermilk and the last of the flour.
Stir just until mixed. Be careful not to overmix!! I fail at this (although not having a hand mixer might not have helped either?), but it can really make the cupcake tough and not as fluffy and delicate.
Take about a cup of the batter and put it into your small bowl. Add the tablespoon of cocoa powder and mix (gently). [If you’d like to add the coloring, here is where you would mix it in.]
Spoon the batter evenly into the cupcake liners and then spoon the chocolate batter on top.
Now take a knife and swirl, baby swirl. Go easy – you don’t want it too well-mixed or the marbling effect will be lost. Just a couple seconds of swirling should do.
Bake for 20-25 minutes. While you’re waiting, may I recommend playing with your camera’s self-timer?
Be sure to check them after 20, sticking a toothpick into the center. When it comes out clean and batter-free, they’re ready!
Let them cool, and frost as desired. Be sure they are completely cool – you don’t want your frosting melting all over the cupcake!
To frost, I went with Betty – girlfriend knows her frosting. That, and because of said lack of hand mixer, I was unable to make buttercream from scratch.
I used the classic Ziploc method – cut the tip off of a corner and use that as a makeshift pastry bag. It works pretty well, but like everything else, it takes practice. I guess I’ll just have to make more cupcakes…
Don’t forget to lick the spoon.