Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Brown-Butter Polenta

My friend Ali and I met when we were three. Then we were in kindergarten together, and then first grade, and then she switched schools and we only lived five blocks apart, but never got to be in the same class again. Until junior year of college, when we conspired to spend the same semester in Florence. And it was heavenly. Better, even, than Mrs. Houk’s first-grade class! Better than pretty much anything.

Mostly what we did, of course, was eat. We ate enormous, oily tuna and artichoke sandwiches at the Antico Noe hole under a bridge shop. We ate risotto ai fruiti di mare, filled with fat clams and chewy calamari, at the cheap and wonderful trattoria where we ended up dating the chef and waiter (long story short: a mistake—the boys, not the risotto). We ate dishes of ribolitta, dark with something called black cabbage that we would, years later, come to know at home as kale. We ate gelato every single day. We ate ravioli so freshly formed that we could still see the old woman’s thumbprints in the dough. We ate blood oranges and gorgonzola and gnocchi, and we gained twenty pounds each. We drank a lot of wine.

You have to look at cornmeal because I do not seem to have the emotional fortitude to get out my Italy photo album. Sigh.
Also, we ate polenta in a tiny cavelike trattoria run from the same kitchen as the city’s famous and expensive Cibrèo restaurant. You could not eat there and not feel like you were getting away with something, because while the chic Italian silk-and-suede crowd paid a small fortune get fussed over with white linen and crystal water glasses, we ate the same food out back, on long wooden benches at long wooden tables, and the dishes we ordered cost $5 each. One was a heap of clams the size of your fingernail that arrived in a garlicky, tomato-y broth with a hunk of charred bread. The other was the polenta, and this polenta no longer exists anywhere but in my memory.

The polenta associated online with Cibrèo seems to involve masses of herbs, and I’m sure it’s delicious. But the one we ordered (over and over again) in 1989 was simpler: a mound of tender cornmeal, a moat of melted butter, a shower of parmesan and—Ali, I need you—green peppercorns? Maybe it was just black pepper, but I think it might have been green. It was as perfect a dish of food as I’ve ever eaten anywhere, and Ali was the perfect person to eat it with. To spend my life being friends with. To shepherd out of life, even, because lying around with her was so great, even at the end. But she’s the worst person to be left by, because there’s nobody else who remembers the same thing as me, and everything I forgot to ask her I will now never know. And I kind of can’t get over how much that sucks.
Ali and Ben. 
 But at least this polenta is pretty fucking close. Ali would love it. Try making your polenta this way—in the oven—even if you’re using it for something else, because it is basically foolproof and incredibly easy and hands-off. But do use some milk in it, which makes it all the more fabulous, and do consider serving it with the brown butter, because you will swoon. Birdy eats hers with a poached egg, and although that is much more Instagram-worthy, as a dish of food, I am being a purist here.

Brown-Butter Polenta

2 cups whole milk (use at least a cup of milk to 3 of water, but half milk is even better)
2 cups water
1 cup coarse cornmeal
2 teaspoons Diamond kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
4 tablespoons butter, divided use
1 cup freshly grated parmesan
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 350. Pour the milk and water into a deep, lidded oven-proof casserole (not a huge one), and whisk in the cornmeal and salt. Put the pot in the oven and bake for 50 minutes.

Remove the polenta from the oven and whisk it. If the cornmeal isn’t tender or there’s still liquid in the pot, put it back in the oven for ten minutes, but otherwise, whisk in half the butter and half the cheese, then cover the polenta and let it sit while you brown the butter.

Melt the rest of the butter in a very small pan over medium heat, then continue cooking it, swirling the pan constantly, until the butter gets golden-brown and smells nutty and insane, another 3 or 4 minutes. Remember that it will cook for a bit longer after you turn the heat off, so maybe err on the side of cooking it to short.

Divide the polenta into “4” (ahem, really only three) bowls and top each with a spoonful of brown butter, a flurry of parmesan, and a good grinding of black pepper.

A poached egg can be added!

Friday, March 17, 2017

One Mixed-Up Night

You guys! The middle-grade novel I wrote is available for pre-order on Amazon! Jakers! I'm crazily excited about this book. It's a book about friendship--about two best friends whose own favorite book is From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, so they end up plotting to spend the night at. . . well, IKEA. The friends are based on Ben and his lifelong Ava, and their big, big love of IKEA. In a pie chart of the way those two have spent the past fourteen years, I would have to say that lying on the couch / in a hammock / on the carpet with the IKEA catalogue is no small slice.

I don't want to give any spoilers, so I will just say that the book is also about a lot of other things. Like cats and recipe-testing and death and doorknobs, and oh, you know, some of my other fave topics.

My friend and neighbor Bestselling author Cammie McGovern says, "The mystery that propels these two wonderful characters onto their escapades is both heart-wrenching and (when we finally learn the whole truth) profoundly moving. A dazzling debut."

And my friend bestselling author Suzy Becker calls the book, "A hilarious, hair-raising page-turner, and an iconic portrayal of best friendship."

It comes out in September, in hardcover and on audio. Please pre-order it, if it sounds like the kind of book someone at your house would like! And/or tell all your (parent / kid / book reviewer / editor / teacher / librarian) friends about it! They're saying grades 3-7, but I think it could go a little older, personally. 

Anyhoo, in other news, I made these cookies after we ate them at the King Arthur cafe in New Hampshire, and they were nothing short of perfection. (I did not have poisonous almond resin or whatever that crazy ingredient is called, so I doubled the extract.) If you like a deeply almondy cookie with a crisp outside and a tooth-sticking center, like an Italian macaroon, this is your recipe.

Have a wonderful weekend. xo

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Double-Chocolate Meringue Fudgies

I feel like every recipe I post should be preceded by a colon and the word menopause. "Menopause: Homemade Chocolate Pudding." "Menopause: Double-Chocolate Meringue Fudgies." The turning and turning again towards chocolate feels a little suspect, no? I suppose there's also Trump, as far as explanatory words go. Sigh. But I'm telling you: eat one of these tender, velvety, black cookies still-warm from the oven, and you will forget that your vagina sweats all night in a really unusual way you've never heard about. At least for a moment.

Double-Chocolate Meringue Fudgies
Makes 2 dozen
Total time: 35 minutes

If you've been searching for a rich, chewy, dark, decadent chocolate cookie that's like a cross between a brownie and a black hole, look no further. These are really profoundly chocolatey, and you can even stir in an extra 1/2 cup of chocolate chips if you like, and if you want to call them Triple-Chocolate Meringue Fudgies! I like the smoothness of them without, though.

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
3 large egg whites, room temperature
2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, divided use
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Heat the oven to 375, and spray 2 large baking sheets with cooking spray, or line them with parchment. Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave, stirring occasionally, until they are mostly melted, about 2 minutes. Stir until fully melted, then leave them to cool.

Using electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the whites on high speed until they just form soft peaks. Gradually beat in 1 cup of the sugar, and continue beating until the mixture gets thick and glossy. Whisk together 1 cup of sugar, the cocoa, cornstarch, and salt in medium bowl to blend. On low speed, beat the dry ingredients into the meringue with the vanilla. Now, with a wooden spoon, stir in the lukewarm chocolate. The dough will be batter-like at first and then, as you stir, it will get very stiff.

Place the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar in a bowl. Roll 1 rounded tablespoon of dough into a ball, then roll it in the sugar to coat it thickly. (The dough can be sticky and awkward to work with, but it's not too bad. I use my cookie scoop to dump lumps into the bowl of sugar, then kind of roll and coat them at the same time, if I were to be completely honest.) Place on prepared sheet, and repeat with the remaining dough, spacing the balls 2 inches apart. Bake until the cookies are puffed and the tops crack, about 10 minutes. Cool on the sheets on a rack 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies to a rack to cool completely.