We’ve escaped to Santa Barbara for a week with our friends Ryan and Jonathan, forming a mini quarantine community as Covid cases blow up all over the country. It’s making me think a lot about the idea of a “chosen family,” since my biological family is 3,000 miles away in Florida, at the epicenter of the virus (don’t worry: they’re doing okay).
Usually, when I go on vacation with friends, I take a break from cooking (causing much controversy since many friends are like: “Hey, I look at your Instagram, why aren’t you making me dinner?”). But here in our Santa Barbara bubble, I’ve happily become the resident chef: slicing fruit for yogurt and granola in the morning, toasting bread for sandwiches at lunch, and then whipping up random dinners. I may be annoying as a person, but as a quarantine roommate, I’m a star.
There’s only one plum cake worth making in this world and that’s The New York Times‘s most popular recipe of all time: Marion Burros’ Plum Torte. It’s one of those magical recipes where you think there’s so little going into it, it can’t possibly be that great — you basically make a pancake batter and drop some plums into it — but then the torte comes out of the oven and you feel like Escoffier himself.
The thing is: when I first made this plum torte, I made it with the wrong kinds of plums. The original recipe calls for prune plums, which are very narrow, and allow for maximum plum-age: the recipe calls for 10 to 12 of them halved lengthwise. When I first did it, I used normal purple plums and couldn’t fit all of the plums in. It wasn’t until my friend Cary came over last year with prune plums that I made the cake the right way.
There’s a certain math when it comes to frozen desserts. The math goes something like this: ice cream > sorbet. The logic for this has everything to do with decadence: ice cream has fat, sorbet traditionally doesn’t. You can blend a watermelon, add a little sugar syrup, and freeze that in an ice cream maker and that’s “sorbet.” It’s basically frozen, blended fruit. Ice cream involves warming cream, infusing egg yolks, adding lots of chopped naughty bits — chocolate, candied walnuts, cake crumbles — and churning that into something that feels like a real treat. Again, at the risk of repeating myself: ice cream > sorbet.
Imagine my shock and surprise, then, to make Melissa Clark’s Darkest Chocolate Sorbet from her new book, Dinner in French, only to discover that this frozen chocolate concoction of the sorbet variety was far to superior to any frozen chocolate dessert I’ve ever had. I’ll give you a moment to take that in.
When I look back on this period of our lives — and I do sincerely hope that we’ll be looking back on it someday and that quarantine isn’t just a new way of life — there are certain cultural artifacts that’ll remind of me this time: The Leftovers (which we marathoned at the start of the pandemic; it’s very on-the-nose and also very good), The Nilsson Sessions (my go-to cooking music these days), The Patrick Melrose novels (read them over the past few months), Parting Glances (an incredible movie that we watched in our Zoom movie club), and, most relevant to your interests: ricotta pancakes.
How did I arrive at these ricotta pancakes? I can trace it back to my friend Diana telling me about Farm Fresh To You (a great CSA) and the incredible ricotta that they carry from Bellwether Farms. I signed up and started getting the ricotta every week — it comes in a little basket, so the whey drains out and the ricotta is extra thick — and at some point I had a ricotta pile-up. Instead of just eating it with a spoon (a viable option, considering how good it was), I decided to treat ourselves to ricotta pancakes one morning for breakfast.
Here in quarantine, we can use all of the thrills we can get. You can run through sprinklers, for a start, or cull your coffee mug collection (Lord knows we have too many) but here’s one that you can actually eat: Adeena Sussman’s 24-Hour Salted Lemon Spread.
I’m a bit obsessed with Adeena Sussman’s cookbook, Sababa. Everything that I’ve made from it has been an enormous hit: the herb and garlic kebaburgers, the creamy green shakshuka, even just the white tahini sauce with garlic that you make in the food processor with ice water (it makes it fluffy). But this salted lemon spread is something else. It’s not for the faint of heart: it’s very salty, very lemony, a little bitter and a little hot from the chiles (I used habaneros). But oh how it enlivens an otherwise humdrum dinner.
Hello from quarantine, my long-lost blog readers. I know I’ve neglected you for a while — I’ve shifted all of my energies to Instagram and my podcast — but something has happened during this strange time that calls for me to dust off the ol’ food blog and tell you about it. And that something is that I’ve become one of those sourdough people.
I know, I know: there’s a lot of uproar about making sourdough right now. For starters (haha: sourdough humor), you need a LOT of flour to make it. Not just to make a loaf, but to feed the starter that’ll give your loaf rise. I bought some red fife whole wheat flour on Anson Mills website a few weeks ago that’s been sustaining me, along with their bread flour; but when that ran out, I went to Central Milling and bought three fifty pound bags of flour. At the time, I didn’t really visualize in my head what that looked like (it seemed like a good deal); now I have three enormous bags of flour in my kitchen that I can barely lift, let alone open. (If that sounds selfish to hoard all of this flour, don’t worry, I’m giving lots of it away; and baking loaves of sourdough for friends which I put in my trunk, so I can stay six feet away upon delivery.)
My podcast is having an effect on me. I had Jenni Konner on my second episode and she talked all about letting people into her kitchen during a dinner party, giving people tasks, sharing responsibilities. That’s the total opposite of what I normally do; normally, I get everything done hours ahead then just warm everything up when everyone gets there. It’s a control thing. It’s also an anxiety thing. Basically, it’s a me thing.
Not too long ago, my friend Cary asked if he could cook with me and, with Jenni’s podcast on my mind, I said: “Sure.” I didn’t know what to expect. I went to the market in the morning and bought a bunch of tomatoes, green peppers, and a melon. He texted that he was picking up prune plums from his farmer’s market.
I’m not the world’s biggest zucchini fan. It’s fine: I like it in bread, I guess I like it in a salad. Maybe on a pizza?
But there’s one recipe from my archives that really made zucchini come alive for me. That’s this side dish of Zucchini with Almonds from The Red Cat in New York. Here’s what you do: you sauté slivered almonds in olive oil and just as they start to get toasty you add a bunch of sliced zucchini. Add a big pinch of salt, toss all around, and serve right away with a squeeze of lemon.