previous monthly muffins
It is, as of last Monday, officially summer, and berries are in abundance.
I’ll admit, I used to hate summer with a burning passion (#pun.) The humidity that makes it feel as if you’re swimming every time you step outside your door, the mosquitoes throwing parties more lavish than the Great Gatsby’s (and always booking their events on my ankles without calling ahead), and the heat. The oppressive heat.
That’s all changed gradually over the past few years. For the first two years out of college, I lived in a country where houses were not insulated (it’s an earthquake country, so the lighter the building material, the safer the home), and in a city where bikes were the norm. In fact, I was not even allowed to own a motor vehicle. ‘Twas explicitly forbidden*. As a result, I experienced the seasons as I had never experienced them before: exposed and vulnerable on my city bike for at least half an hour a day, for over 800 days, and in a place where the difference between extremes was moderate (from below freezing in December, to nearly 100 F in July.) Home was no sanctuary, either. In winter, I had to wait an hour for my space heater to make my kitchen warm enough that I could get naked and take a shower (the door to the shower was in the kitchen), and in the summer I was never not blasting my air conditioning (the reason I had hardly any money when I moved back to the U.S., my air conditioner.)
*Most apartment complexes didn’t have a lot of parking, and because we lived in a small city, all but two of the people on my program were not allowed to own cars.
All of this led to me hating the winters and growing accustomed to the summers, or at least learning how to deal with them.
Now that I am back in a country where 1) I am allowed to own a car, and 2) houses are insulated and centrally-conditioned, I can enjoy the best of the seasons and forget about the worst of them, usually.
So now I love summer. I love being able to let my legs breathe, picking out a pair of shorts for every occasion (swimsuits that double as casual daytime shorts, athletic shorts that look nice enough to be worn as casual daytime shorts, shorts that are specifically meant to be casual daytime shorts, and evening khaki shorts), and not having to hide inside a poofy, gray parka every day.
But most of all, I love the fruit. Don’t get me wrong, I am so here for peppermint mochas and gingerbread lattes, but last winter, I was running out of ideas for monthly muffins and pastries, because North Carolina is not known for winter fruits. Now that berries are in season, though, I can get lost in blueberry buttermilk muffins, summer fruit pies, raspberry macarons, and dark, ooze-y cobblers.
And let’s not forget: berries are fruit and fruit is healthy and absolutely nobody can tell you otherwise when your face is smeared with almond and dark cherry compote.
While I was at the restaurant job, there was never enough time, or I never had the energy, for baking for myself. Most of the previous season went into that kitchen’s Thermodor oven, but as of Memorial Day, I’m free, and I can get back to what I do best: muffins.
I may have missed out on the spring, but summer has only just begun. I don’t start school until late August, and summer doesn’t end until mid-September, so we’ve got the whole hot season ahead of us, and it’s crumbles, crostatas, and cupcakes as far as the tongue can taste, y’all.
By far my favorite flavor in the world of sweets is almond, and I’ll find any excuse I can to throw some almond extract into my pastries. I even make chocolate chip cookies with almond extract instead of vanilla. Now, when I choose a flavor, I don’t take that flavor lightly. Tastebuds are not a trifle matter. These aren’t just blueberry muffins with blackberries and almond extract: I’ve added toasted almonds, almond milk, and a portion of almond flour.
That’s a lotta almonds, y’all.
blackberry almond muffins
makes 1 dozen muffins, based on Mom’s Big Book of Baking
200 g all-purpose flour
100 g almond flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 c (113 g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
150 g granulated sugar
2 large eggs (100 g total)
200 g almond milk, unsweetened
1 tsp almond extract
1 c fresh or frozen blackberries
1/2 c sliced almonds
Preheat the oven to 350 F/ C and line a muffin pan with paper cups.
In a dry skillet or on a cookie sheet in the oven, toast the sliced almonds until just starting to brown a little bit. Remove and let cool.
In a medium bowl, combine all-purpose flour, almond flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
In a larger bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, almond milk, and almond extract. Whisk in butter.
Mix dry ingredients into the wet until just combined, and fold in blackberries. You can chop the blackberries in half if you want them distributed more evenly.
Fill the muffin cups about 2/3 of the way and sprinkle toasted, sliced almonds on top.
Bake for 30 – 45 minutes until they spring back when lightly pressed with a finger and are just starting to brown a little bit.
Remove and let cool for a few minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and finish cooling.
I’ll be blackberry,
Onion is among my favorite flavors, right after almond, cardamom, and garlic. Fortunately, it’s also one of the basic components of savory recipes, especially soups, and when making a sauté, braise, or poach, one must always keep onions in mind, even if they make you cry (tears of joy because they are so delicious.)
The best thing about onion soup, aside from the sumptuous beef stock, is the simplicity. I am all about simplicity. Give me a recipe with ten ingredients and I’ll try to make it just as well with five. Emphasis on the word “try,” of course. You could easily make this recipe more complicated, and you can even make it simpler than I do (though you may regret it if you do.) Unlike with those ingredient-heavy poached salmons and technique-intensive braised chickens, though, french onion soup is really a two-step deal: cook the onions on low, simmer the stock on low. The low-and-slow technique really draws out the flavors from the onions, shallots, garlic, and herbs, and simmering helps intensify the wine and stock flavors.
Skipping past all of that mumbo-whatsit, onion soup, while it can take a while (1-2 hours at least for a really good dish), is really just a long period of doing nothing. Normally when I plan a meal, I can only manage 1-2 things from scratch, because by the time those two things are prepped, I’m too tired to prep anything else but salad from a box. Moreover, some dishes require delicate timing so they’re still warm when it’s time to dig in, or precise timing so they don’t burn or explode before they’re ready. The balancing act of getting dishes started and finished is exhausting, and some evenings I give up and only serve one thing, with a side of kale. Onion soup, though, is mostly waiting, with the occasional checking and tasting.
Let’s say you wanted to serve homemade bread with your soup. Prepare the dough either in the morning or the day before and leave it in the fridge. Start by heating the oil and slicing the onions. While the onions are caramelizing, shape your dough (stacked rolls for brioche, loaf pan for focaccia, misshapen slabs for ciabatta, etc.) The dough can proof a second time while the onions are cooking, and now you can prep the rest of your soup ingredients. Maybe you want some protein, too. Pull your (thawed/not frozen) steak, fish, chicken, whatever out of the fridge at any point while the onions are still cooking (or even before), and get that ready (rinse, dry, whatever needs to be done.) Now you have soup base going on the stove, meat drying and coming to room temperature, and bread proofing, and you don’t even need to have the oven preheating yet!
Most recently, I made brioche dough the day before the soup, and while the onions and shallot cooked, I prepped the dough in fluted brioche cups, then put them in the oven (at 80 degrees F/ C) to rise. While the dough was rising and the onions were caramelizing, I was getting all the rest of the soup ingredients ready and washing the dishes. I also had fillets of fish drying off and warming up at the same time. After adding the garlic, flour, wine, and beef stock for the soup, I took the dough out of the oven and set the oven to preheat, assembled a salad, and even assembled dessert, which I put into the freezer until it was ready to bake. I seasoned the fish, and after the oven was fully preheated and the soup had been simmering for ~20 minutes, I heated up the oil in my cast iron skillet for searing the fillets, set out plates, bowls, and utensils, and cleaned up my mess. Everything was able to come out at the same time without all the running around and hair-tearing and inside-crying that usually happens when I cook.
You can prepare not just one entire meal, but more than one, while you make french onion soup and that, in addition to the taste, is why I love it so much.
I have on and off problems with lactose intolerance. Some days, dairy is deadly, while others, I frolic around the dairy fields, carefree and crap-free. Pills help, depending on how far I am towards the “dairy bad” side of the spectrum (some days, the pills do jack squat to keep me from the Irish sport of stomach hurling.) I try to be pretty strict about dairy (and I usually fail), and because the last time I made this soup, I had already prepared lemon oregano brioche buns, I decided just to do the soup without the cheese and toast. It’s still just as delectable.
Not only can you make the soup sans cheese, but you can also make it vegetarian or vegan by swapping out other soup stocks (mushroom, for example) and replacing the butter with other oils. Beware, though, that a lot of grocery-store mushroom stock has beef in it. I would recommend making your own mushroom or onion stock (or a combination!) Vegetable stock works, as well, but the flavor is very bright and tart compared to the beef stock and caramelized onions.
french onion soup
1 T light olive oil, or any other refined oil
1 T unsalted butter
2 yellow onions
3 – 5 cloves garlic, plus one extra for toast if using
1 T all-purpose flour
1 c dry white wine (eg., Pinot Grigio)
4 c (1 quart) unsalted beef stock
1 – 2 rosemary sprigs (with or without leaves)
coarse sea salt
Heat oil and butter in a stock pot on low-medium heat.
Thinly slice onions and shallot and add to the pot. Stir occasionally (every ~10 minutes.) Let the onions and shallot cook until sufficiently brown and soft, 30 – 45 minutes.
Mince garlic and sauté with the onions and shallot for a few minutes. When you can start to smell the garlic, add flour and whisk well. Let everything cook for a minute or two. The flour and butter form a roux and help thicken the soup.
Pour in the wine, bring to a simmer, and reduce slightly, then add the stock and bring to a boil. When boiling, throw in the rosemary sprigs. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 – 45 minutes, tasting occasionally and adding salt for flavor.
If doing gratinée
4 – 8 slices of baguette
2 – 4 cups of shredded cheese (parmesan, mozzarella, gruyere, etc.)
1 T unsalted butter, melted, or 1 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, or 1 T garlic salt
Once the soup is simmering, preheat the oven to 375 F/ C.
Arrange the baguette slices on a baking sheet and brush with melted butter or oil.
Crush the garlic clove, if using, and rub onto the baguette slices, or sprinkle the slices with garlic salt. Toast for 5 – 10 minutes until just starting to turn golden.
Remove the bread and turn the oven up to 450 – 500 F/ C, or preheat the broiler.
Divide the soup into oven-safe bowls (ceramic or stoneware), top with 1 – 2 slices of baguette each, and sprinkle cheese liberally on top to cover the whole surface of the soup.
Toast/broil the soup in the oven or broiler until cheese is melted, bubbling, and a little golden brown. Serve garnished with rosemary leaves, black pepper, parsley, or any other desired herb.
Bon appetit, mes chers!
This is a story about dreams, and realizing them.
And then realizing that they’re not for you, and deciding to turn around and run away as fast as possible.
It starts in the late 90s, when I was in elementary school. Had you asked me at age 10 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said either “a boardwalk portrait painter,” or “a chef.” The first was something I legitimately wanted to be (and anyone who has seen me draw anything since then knows that dream will forever remain unrealized.) The latter was something I pulled out of my ass. I couldn’t tell you now why I thought I wanted to be a chef when I was 10.
Perhaps it was the mushroom hats I wanted.
If you’ve skimmed through the about the klutz page, you’ll already know the story of why I bake now, so we’ll skip over that.
A year ago, had I told you that first small segment of memoir, you would have gasped, “Serendipity! Fate! It was meant to be!” with your hands on your cheeks (put your hands on my cheeks and you may not be using them for much anymore.) Funny how things change in just a few months.
Young me thought that becoming a chef or a pastry chef would be glamorous, and naturally the best thing (getting paid to make sweets? Why not?), but Now Me sees that there’s so much more to it than just really enjoying food, making sweets, and getting paid.
You have to be obsessed with it, and for all of my talk about food and passion, I don’t think I’m passionate in quite the same way a chef should be.
I had my first taste of coffee in middle school, and as soon as I set foot in the coffee shop, I thought, “this is where I want to be. I want to work here.”
I once did a short stint at a coffee shop, but that didn’t last very long.
It had been the job of my dreams, and I couldn’t hold onto it. Cue shame, questioning of my self-worth, and “how will I ever build a career now” tears.
A month later, I landed the next perfect job, and because I know someone from that job will be reading this, I realize now, many months later, that this new job is actually the best one for me. But because this job has been a success, and this is a story about non-success, this story will not be about this job.
I still needed one more job. Two months of applying, networking, interviewing in sketchy parking lots, and once even (seemingly) receiving a job offer, only to have it mysteriously revoked the next afternoon, and nothing to show for it, but exhaustion, fear, and shame.
Then someone suggested that I offer to intern in a restaurant kitchen, as a pastry assistant, for free. First, it would help me see if food service was really my destiny before I committed to spending two arms and legs, and all of my beautiful fingers, on culinary school. Second, I could get my foot in the door, work my way up, and become a real pastry chef, even without culinary school.
So I did. It fell through, understandably, but when that door closed, another one flew wide open:
In March, I was offered a full-time job doing pastry in a restaurant, with a training period to help me master the menu.
I decided after my second shift that this dream would have to end this month, or this season.
I miraculously networked my way into a pastry job at a restaurant, a 5-7 days a week job that entailed prepping three desserts, with garnishes. Cakes, tarts, compotes, even ice cream, all from scratch with local produce. I, with the occasional help of a pastry chef, would go in for one day of prep each week, and five evenings of service. During the week, service was slow and sometimes I couldn’t think of anything productive to do so I would just stare at the wall. Some nights, mostly Fridays and Saturdays, were non-stop, from open until an hour after close, and a shift could be anywhere from five to nine hours.
I couldn’t manage six days a week with the freelance writing and the other job, not to mention the grad school application (I got in! I’m going back to school!), so I elected to show up a few hours before service during the week and do whatever production had yet to be done (spinning ice cream bases, baking off tarts, making order lists for ingredients.)
Some of the desserts I enjoyed making, while some became the bane of my existence (pâte sucrée, never again), and regardless of how I felt about chopping up streusel, reducing compote, or prepping a malted milk vanilla bean ice cream base, I certainly learned a few things.
In the end, and from the beginning, I learned that a stainless steel commercial kitchen was not the kitchen I wanted to be in, and whatever difficulties lay waiting for me in culinary school would have to wait for someone else.
Speaking of difficulty, I once read an article that said, instead of focusing on what jobs we want to do and what we want to be successful at, or what kinds of fun we’d like to experience in our careers, it’s more productive to focus on what we want to suffer, and what difficulties we’re not only willing to face, but also want to face.
I don’t give a damn about whether I can dice a carrot into perfectly-sized cubes.
I don’t want to learn how to julienne a scallion with my eyes closed.
I don’t really need to learn about kitchen sanitation.
And I have no desire to join the army just so I can learn how to make something that’ll literally turn to crap within half an hour.
I had an epiphany when I realized that my one big passion was Food, and I naturally assumed that Making Food would be my calling, and as my calling, also my Career, even if all the Anthony Bourdain bios tried to scare me away from it.
Kitchen Confidential couldn’t convince me that I didn’t want to make pastries for a living, but spending two days on production could.
Before you assume anything: the restaurant staff were some of the greatest, nicest, and most encouraging people I know and I fully realize that for someone who really does want a career in pastry, this is The Ideal Opportunity. Few people get the keys to the oven, no job application, no interview, no resume, for a full-time job and an authentic experience. The restaurant itself is chic and the food delectable, whether it’s the grilled pork belly burgers with local cheese, herbed French fries, or the delicately seared scallops. And not to toot my own horn, but the desserts aren’t half bad.
None of that changes the fact, though, that my personality and the nature of the job get along like water and butter: not at all. I’m not a fast person: it takes me at least a month to prepare one recipe for this blog, and I’m thrilled when I can manage as many as three posts in four weeks.
I’m not a high-energy person: you tell me to run and I just want to lie down and take a nap.
I can’t multitask: I’m still not even sure how a person manages to prepare bases, fillings, and garnishes for three elaborate desserts within one day, when I can barely manage two dozen muffins in the same amount of time.
I hate decoration and frill. I don’t like it when they drizzle a little bit of syrup on my dessert when I go out to eat: it’s not enough for me to eat and I just feel like it’s going to waste being smeared all over the porcelain.
I’m not a perfectionist: I cringe whenever the somewhat less consistent of the pastries were tossed.
I’m not a loud, outspoken person, I don’t like yelling, I don’t like being surrounded by people, and I get overwhelmed in loud places.
It’s not at all that I think I’m above the job. It’s that I think the whole career and industry are better off without me.
It’s like trying to break down a wall with a paring knife, when there’s a wrecking ball right behind you and someone who knows how to use it already sitting in the driver’s seat.
Last year, when I lost the coffee job, I blamed myself, I was ashamed, and I worried that achieving my dreams may be impossible. Now, I still blame myself, but not because I messed up: it’s because I know who I am now, I have some idea of what’s expected in this industry, and I know that those two don’t line up. I’m not ashamed: I’m empowered. I can close this door permanently and say, “Veni. Vidi. Not for Me.” I can confidently say, “Never again, but thank you and best of luck to everyone else.”
Now I don’t worry, because my dreams are becoming more manageable by the day. I still have some. I have fewer now than I used to, of course, but by process of elimination, I can find the one that fits me like a glove, the one in which I’ll thrive the most.
My favorite movie when I was a child was Cinderella (ask my parents all about it.) The Prince had to find the woman who best fit the glass slipper, and one of these days, I’ll find the dream (the glass slipper) that best fits me.
I used to worry that it would be too difficult to get my foot in the door, but now I can close, lock, and walk away from the door*.
Stars are effervescent from afar, but up close, they’re deadly floating balls of gas.
*Of course I still love eating and making and learning about food, and this blog will never not be My Thing. Someday I may get paid to something with food, but it won’t be by working in a commercial kitchen.
Categories: about me