Cooking, Art and Magic: Summer Squash and Corn Pasta

There is a link, methinks, between cooking, art and magic. The best evidence I can give to support this theory is from Act 4.1 of Macbeth. Enter the witches.

First Witch: Round about the cauldron go,

In the poisoned entrails throw

Toad that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

sweltered venom sleeping got

boil thou first i’th’ charmed pot.

A “charmed pot.” That’s what cooking’s all about, is it not? Transformation. A mish-mosh of random ingredients and bang wham pow something new. Which is what I experienced tonight with Alice Waters. I did her recipe for “Summer Squash and Corn Pasta” from her Vegetables book, which a reader so kindly bought me. You need summer squash and corn, to start:

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You cut the squash into tiny pieces (“small dice,” says Alice) and you saute it in 1.5 Tbs of olive oil until tender and a bit brown.

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Season with salt and pepper. Then you add corn from 3 ears (I halved the recipe, by the way), 2 cloves of garlic cut up and 1/2 a jalapeno cut up too.

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You cook that for a bit. It’s all very casual here in Alice-land.

Then add 2 Tbs of butter, a handful of chopped cilantro and 3 or 4 Tbs of water. That’s it! Your sauce! Taste and season accordingly. (Alice says to add lemon juice if the corn is too sweet. I wonder if lime would be good too?)

In the meantime, you’ve prepared some fettucine. Half a pound. Add to the corn and squash mixture, toss about with tongs, and there’s your dinner: [add more cilantro to garnish]

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Those noodles all get coated with the browned, sweetened squash; the corn adds texture and more sweetness and then there’s the heat of the jalapeno, the old Jewish grandma-ness of the garlic, and the brightness of the cilantro. It’s the sort of thing that you read and say: “Hmm, but I really wonder what that tastes like?”

Exactly! Back to the beginning: cooking, art and magic. The cooking is the manual labor; the art is what gets added (the recipe) and the magic is what it becomes. Transformation: a charmed pot. And I think the child in me who watched witches on TV throw random things into large cauldrons only to have doves or children or Oprah emerge finds himself in love with cooking most when the resulting product is something that could never have existed but for the enchanted spell (ie: the recipe). Try this recipe and experience some late summer magic before it’s too late! Corn and summer squash don’t last forever.

A Pine Nut Coffee Cake, If You’re So Inclined

This is a pine nut coffee cake:

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It comes from the Babbo cookbook. It’s the cake I tried to make a few weeks ago, only to fail, leading to the hit film Failure. This time the cake came out a-ok (last time I forgot to add the butter) and the finished product looks pretty and tastes…well, interesting. Subtle. Not bad, but not fantastic. I like the unusual components that go into it, but much like the time I made Nancy Silverton’s banana bread all those components don’t really add up to much. With that said, I left out the two suggested accompaniments: figs and sweet black peper ricotta. Maybe that makes it better.

But for those that are so inclined (as the title suggests) here’s the recipe for the cake. It’s worth reading through because it’s kind of interesting. You’ll need the following ingredients for the struesel that goes on top.

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 Tbs light brown sugar, packed

1/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup unbleached, all purpose flour

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

So, to make the struessel: combine the pine nuts, sugars and flour in a food processor and pulse to combine. Here it is before pulsing:

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After pulsing, add the melted butter and pulse until the mixture is combined and forms pea-size crumbs. Set aside.

Now for the cake itself. Here’s what you’ll need:

3/4 cup pine nuts

1 cup plus 2 Tbs all-purpose flour

1 tsp kosher salt

1 cup semolina flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup plus 2 Tbs granulated sugar

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into cubes

3 eggs

3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

1 1/2 tsps pure vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 325 F. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Spread the 3/4 cup of pine nuts evenly onto a baking sheet and toast in the oven untnil light golden brown, approximately 10 minutes. When the pine nuts have cooled, place them in the bowl of a food processor along with the flour, salt, semolina, baking powder, light brown sugar, and 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar and pulse to combine.

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Add the cold butter cubes

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and pulse until the butter has dispersed and the mixture is finely textured.

3. In a small bowl, combine the eggs, olive oil, lemon zest, and vanilla.

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Add this mixture to the pine nut mixture and pulse to combine, then process for about 30 seconds to completely emulsify the batter. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan and sprinkle evenly with the streusel.

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4. Bake the cake for 30 to 35 minutes or until it is golden brown and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan and allow the cake to cool completely.

That’s it! I have to say, either the oven temp is too low or the cooking time is too short because even though the cake did get brown and a cake tester did come out clean the cake was a bit underdone when I bit into it. Not terribly so, though. And maybe this cake will grow on me when I come back to it tomorrow. If you ever make it, let me know, I’m interested to know what you think!

When life throws you risotto, make Arancini!

There’s nothing I like less than day-old risotto. When it’s hot off the stove, all the textures and flavors meld together to create a soothing, heavenly mixture. But after a day in the fridge, it turns a bit gummy and then heating it up inevitably makes it gummier. What to do with day old risotto?!

Thank the Lord for this website. Because a while back, when I last made risotto, I said I threw out the leftovers because they were kind of nasty. A commenter wrote: “Don’t do that next time! Make Arancini!” Which is exactly what I did last night.

Arancini is a fried risotto ball. Putting it together is a cinch. The only thing I had to go out and buy was breadcrumbs (and salad ingredients to serve with it) but that’s it. That and cheese—but I had goat cheese on hand. So set up three bowls: (1) 1/2 cup of flour; (2) 2 eggs beaten; (3) 1/2 cup of bread crumbs.

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I seasoned the flour a bit but that’s your choice. Some of the recipes I read didn’t have you do that, but I’m a rebel. I opened a package of Coach Farm goat cheese that I bought at the farmer’s market, and unlike the last one this one was creamy and tangy just the way I like it:

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So the next part’s kind of gross, but just work fast. You open up your day-old refrigerated risotto, and stick your hand in and make a 1 to 2 inch ball. Flatten it and break off a piece of goat cheese, insert it in the middle, and reform the ball. (My risotto was really wet and it made all this really difficult, but I still managed.) Then dip that ball into the flour, coat, shake off; then into the egg; and finally the breadcrumbs. Here’s what you’ll end up with:

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I rested them on wax paper as I heated up the oil. It took an entire bottle of Canola oil to fill 2-inches of my heavy pot, but that happens when you fry. You heat up the oil to 360 (make sure you have a thermometer) and once there, drop your balls in. (I wanna dip my balls in it!) (<--anyone remember that?) IMG_4.JPG

They only took a little more than 2 minutes before they were golden brown. I took them out with a slotted spoon and drained them on paper towels:

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Don’t they look great? Just so I didn’t feel too unhealthy, I served them with a salad (basically a bag of exotic lettuce with grape tomatoes in a homemade vinaigrette—I’m a pro!):

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Biting into the Arancini was awesome: crunchy on the outside, and creamy/risotto-ey on the inside. Plus that goat cheese is a nice surprise:

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It’s almost worth making risotto so you can make this the next day. Two meals out of one dish: that’s my kind of food.

The Almond Cake That Will Save Your Soul

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The ingredients are simple: butter, sour cream, baking soda, flour, sea salt, sugar, almond paste, 4 egg yolks, almond extract and confectioner’s sugar for dusting. But assembled as they are and baked as they were, this cake is sheer perfection. On pg. 70 of Hesser’s book (referenced also in the previous post), this cake was first prepared by Amanda’s now mother-in-law. I’d like to break into that family somehow just so I’d have an excuse to genuflect at mom-in-law’s feet on a regular basis to thank her for this brilliant creation. “Thank you thank you thank you,” I’d say.

Am I overdoing it? Maybe. Just maybe. But look at this cake again and call me a liar:

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Look at this slice:

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Do you have any idea how good this tastes? Do you? DO YOU PUNK?

Ok, I’ll break my own rule established in the post below and share the recipe. I think recipes are in the public domain, anyway–it’s somewhere in the Federal Code 3.825 regarding Delicious Almond Cake Recipes and the Rule Against Perpetuities. I do have a law degree, you know.

The ingredients are mentioned above but not the amounts. So here we go again:

2 sticks butter, softened, more for buttering pan

1 cup sour cream, at room temperature

1 tsp baking soda

2 cups sifted all-purpose flour (measured after sifting)

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 1/2 cups sugar

7-oz tube almond paste, cut into small pieces

(Lisa cut the almond paste using a juvenile method that I found offensive:

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“Those aren’t small pieces,” I pleaded.

“Shut up, crackwhore,” she retorted.)

4 egg yolks, at room temperature

(Ok, can I just mention that I’m usually great at separating egg yolks, and how these eggs I bought were deformed? I’d pour the egg into my hand, as I usuall do, spreading my fingers for the white to fall through–except the yellow bled into the white and I had to dump it all. Then I did the shell method–break the shell in half and pour back and forth until it’s all separated; but again the yolk bled. It took a big mess to finally get the four I needed. Don’t ask why I was using coffee mugs:

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Ok, I used the coffee mugs because you’re supposed to add the yolks one at a time so I put two yolks per mug then poured half the mug for each addition. Genius? I dare say it is!)

1 tsp almond extract

Confectioners’ sugar, for sifting over cake

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter sides and bottoms of one 9-inch springform pan; line sides and bottoms with parchment paper. Butter the paper. (You may forego the parchment paper as long as you are generous with the butter on the pan itself.) Mix together the sour cream and baking soda in a small bowl. Sift the flour and salt into another bowl.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the almond paste, a little at a time, at medium speed, and beat for 8 minutes.

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Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, and mix until incorporated. It will look curdled; don’t worry. Blend in the almond extract and sour cream mixture. Reduce mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, just until blended.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly.

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Bake about 1 hour. It is done when you press the top and it returns to its shape, and also shrinks from the sides of the pan. Remove from the oven and place on a baking rack to cool in the pan. When ready to serve, sift confectioners’ sugar on top and slice like a pie.

Behold the celestial magesty of this cake:

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Simple.

Elegant.

Robust.

Erotic.

Dyslexic.

Make it today and thank yourself tomorrow.

PUMPKIN CAKE: A Multimedia Extravaganza featuring the Music Video “Corner of the Pie”

Wow. It is 3:24 am and I am still exhilerated. What an evening! Pumpkin, spices, songs and magic and a beautiful cake to show for it. Where do I begin?

I know where. Epicurious.com. That’s where I found this recipe for “Stunning Spiced Pumpkin Cake” which Lisa and I decided to bake together tonight in honor of Halloween. (We decided not to do the chocolate leaves on top. Thank God. Or it would be 5:24 am and my eyes would be bleeding). Ricky came over and joined us too.

Let me tell you about our hijinks:

– We accidentally used an entire CAN of pumpkin instead of a cup of pumpkin and had to throw away the entire first batch of batter. A travesty!

– While the cakes were cooling, we went costume shopping. I bought bunny ears. I came home and tried them on and Lolita (the cat) had a NERVOUS BREAKDOWN. Seriously. She began hissing and growling this horrible low grumble like something from a Stephen King novel. I think she scared me more than I scared her.

Anyway, back to the cake. The frosting is wild—butter, molasses, brown sugar, orange peel:

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Add two packets of cream cheese and it looks like this:

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I have to give Lisa a TON of credit for being a good judge of cake-doneness. After the recipe-suggested 25 minutes I thought the cakes were done. She didn’t. She was right. They were still wet inside. We let them cook 5 minutes longer and they came out PERFECT:

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Then there was the cooling. That’s when we went costume shopping. Ricky ate a calzone.

We came back and frosted the cake.

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Lisa applied her expert touch:

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The finished product:

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Beautiful, no?

But I’m not done with you people yet!

Lisa, Ricky and I have made for you a MUSIC VIDEO that defies all your wildest expectations and dreams. It fuses music, cooking, pumpkin and humor for one of the greatest cinematic experiences of your internet life. (I only hope you like show tunes.) There’s costumes, singing, egg-cracking and more MUCH more. You must must must watch this movie. I beg of you. It’s my Halloween gift to you. Happy Halloween! And enjoy…

Vanilla Bean Loaves (via Amanda Hesser)

When I read “Cooking For Mr. Latte” there were many recipes that I carved into my brain with the label: “To be cooked one day.” One such carving was a recipe for “Vanilla Bean Loaves” adapted from Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Everything about the recipe seemed wonderful, except the potential expense. 4 vanilla beans would be required. Unless you live in Madagascar, vanilla beans are mighty pricey. This vanilla bean loaf would have to go on the back burner.

But then I was having company over on Saturday–more playwrights to watch movies for class. And I was in Whole Foods anyway, and there were the vanilla beans. These were a bit cheaper–sold in bottles of two instead of one. How could I resist?

Should you ever feel a similar impulse, here’s how to proceed. [Quoted directly from Ms. Hesser without persmission—don’t sue!]

“You will need:

3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature.

2 1/2 cups vanilla sugar (1 split vanilla bean stirred into 1 pound of sugar; let sit for a few days)

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(I let it sit for a few hours and that sufficed, I think.)

1 vanilla bean.

1 Tbs vanilla extract.

8 large eggs at room temperature.

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour.

1 1/2 tsps baking powder.

1/2 tsp salt.

For the syrup:

1 3/4 cups sugar

2 vanilla beans, split and seeds scraped.

1. Heavily butter two 8X4X3-inch (or similarly sized) loaf pans and preheat your oven to 325 degrees F. Using a paddle attachment in your mixer, cream the butter and vanilla sugar until the mixture is pale and fluffy.

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Scrape the vanilla bean and flick its seeds into the mixer, along with the vanilla extract and eggs. Beat to mix.

2. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Add this to the batter and mix just until smooth–a few turns of the paddle should do it. Take the bowl off the mixer and use a spatula to scrape the bottom and fold the mixture a few times, to make sure everything is blended. Divide the batter between the buttered pans:

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Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the pans around, and bake until a cake tester or skewer comes out almost clean, another 25 to 40 minutes.

3. While the loaves bake, prepare the syrup: in a small pan, dissolve the sugar in 1 cup of water over medium heat. Add the vanilla beans and stir a little so their seeds and fragrance disperse. Take the pan off the heat:

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4. When the loaves are done, cool for 10 minutes on baking racks, then turn them out of their pans and set back on the racks. Place the racks over parchment paper or a baking sheet and brush generously all over–bottoms, tops, and sides–with the syrup.

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Brush a couple of more times as they cool. These cakes store well. They may be wrapped and frozen, although I can’t imagine not eating one of them right away.”

Honestly these cakes are awesome:

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I popped one in the freezer and served the other to my guests. The air filled with a loving vanilla smell. Sure, it was Yom Kippur and I was supposed to be fasting, but this is a recipe that’s worth going to Jewish Hell for…don’t you think? L’chaim!

Let It Be Fall: Butternut Squash and Wild Mushroom Risotto

Walking around New York yesterday was a rather surreal experience. There were cops on every single street corner–sometimes in clusters of threes and fours. Near 8th Ave., barricades upon barricades lined the way to Madison Square Garden, between which protesters stood–in the hot sun–holding signs decrying the horrors of George W. Bush. Red “No Smoking” stickers replaced the cigarette with a “W,” and stores appealed to the political climate with cutesy signs that read, for example: “Feeling Bushed? Kerry yourself inside.”

In many ways this is a good and exciting time to be in New York. In most other ways, though, it’s not. I find myself growing more and more weary of the political scene. Also, I’ll confess, it’s a little bit scary: helicopters flying overhead and sirens wailing past every few minutes. I really want this convention to be over.

Therefore, I decided to do the equivalent of a culinary rain dance: I decided to make a dish more appropriate for fall than summer. Call me a rebel, I can take it. I whipped out my newest Strand cookbook purchase—Tom Valenti’s One-Pot Meals.

I like the concept of this book because you basically end up with a big pot of food that will last you through the week. That’s one of my newest goals in this expensive city: to make food that will last a long while.

Risotto is no such food. It turns gloppy and pasty once it sits in the pot after being taken off the heat. Yet it’s in my fridge right now and I plan to eat it anyway. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

To start, you must buy many things to make this risotto. Among those many things is sage:

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Sage is an herb I haven’t worked with much. I am told it complements butternut squash incredibly well. This is appropriate, then, because here’s a butternut squash:

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Ladies and gentlemen, this is my first butternut squash. Scary, no?

Now I watched a Sarah Moulton once where she talked about safely peeling and cutting up a butternut squash. Unfortunately, I forgot everything she taught me. So I began by peeling the squash straight down with a vegetable peeler:

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This worked fairly well, though the outsides were still tough and bricky. I eventually cut off the outsides with a knife. But before that, I cut the squash in half and scooped away the seeds:

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Now Tom has you cut up the squash into half inch squares. This part, I’ll concede, was quite difficult. I almost sliced my thumb off twice. But somehow I made it work:

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Then into a pot with 2 Tbs of butter:

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Season with salt and pepper and cook “until brown and slightly softened but still holding their shape, about 12 minutes.”

Sadly, it began losing its shape 8 minutes in–begining to resemble mashed sweet potatoes, so I took it off the heat.

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Poured it into a bowl with the chopped sage and stirred it around. This won’t get used until later.

Tom has you wipe the pot clean and then put it back on the heat. This leaves glorious brown bits on the bottom that white wine will eventually pick up, giving a huge flavor boost to your risotto:

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But first mushrooms. Now I cheated here and I regret it. Tom wants you to separate all your wild mushrooms and cook them separately with 2 Tbs of butter each. But it was getting late, Lisa was coming over, and I wanted to have dinner ready. So I threw all the mushrooms in: (Also, I’d done all the mushrooms at once before when I made the Chez Panisse Wild Mushroom risotto, so I figured I’d be ok):

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Unfortunately, I only used 2 Tbs of butter to start and then, halfway through, as the mushrooms got dryer and dryer I realized it was 2 Tbs for each type of mushroom so I quickly added 6 more Tbs of butter. This made the mushrooms way too buttery:

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Then I thought about Julia Child and wondered if one could really have too much butter. I yanked a mushroom out and tasted it and it tasted wonderful. Very good, then. I poured the mushrooms into a bowl and tossed with freshly cut thyme. Mushrooms and thyme is a killer combination.

Now, we wipe the pot clean again and add 1 large spanish onion diced. That cooks for four minutes (in olive oil and butter) and then we add 2 cups of Arborio rice:

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This is a ton of rice for risotto. Since it plumps up with the liquid, this is way more than two people can heathily eat. No matter. Remember our goal: to eat through the week. And to skip past the Republican National Convention. I peered out my window: still Republicans.

Lisa arrived just as the vegetable broth on the back of the stove began to simmer. I had added wine to the rice and onions and it was now absorbed. The challenge was now to begin: the 18 minutes of frantic stirring and ladeling simmering broth into the risotto. This was a job for a virile, well-endowed kitchen god. This was a job for Lisa:

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After 18 minutes (the requisite time), there was still broth left but the risotto looked well brothed. I tasted a spoonful and felt the texture was right. The flavor was off, but we hadn’t added the mushrooms or squash yet.

And that, indeed, is the last step. You add 2 more Tbs of butter, the mushrooms and the squash and you end up with this:

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Suddenly, I looked out my window and saw a flurry of white men in suits spinning in a tornadoed mass back to middle America. The helicopters fled the skies, the police left the streets and the only noise was the noise of New York applauding. Lisa and I sat down and ate risotto. And it was good.

Impulsive Late Night Biscuit Ecstasy

Say what you will about me—call me bitter, call me mean, call me sometime, won’t you?—there’s one thing you can’t say: that I’m not impulsive.

Take these biscuits for example.

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I had absolutely no reason to make them. I have bran muffins from the other night, remember? And I’m studying for the bar, remember? But I got bit by the biscuit bug and after reading a simple-enough sounding recipe in Cook’s Illustrated I vowed to whip up a batch at 11 and have them ready by 12.

Well my expectations were wildly surpassed: the biscuits were done at 11:40 and, more importantly, they were the best I’ve ever had. BETTER than the Silver Skillet’s which refused to share their recipe. Now I don’t need it.

Very quickly then I will share the recipe with you since I think you should make them too. The only strange ingredient you’ll need is buttermilk. I say strange because you’re not likely to have it in your fridge, but not strange in that you can’t run out and get it anywhere. And it adds a lot to the finished product.

Here is our ingredients list:

Dough:

2 cups (10 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 Tbs double-acting baking powder

1 Tbs sugar

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp baking soda

4 Tbs cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

1.5 cups cold buttermilk, preferably low fat

To form and finish biscuits:

1 cup (5 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour, distributed in rimmed baking sheet

2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted

Now for the recipe. I’ll interspirce the steps with pictures from the process:

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 500 degrees. Spray 9-inch round cake pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Generously spray inside and outside of 1/4 cup dry measure with nonstick cooking spray.

2. FOR THE DOUGH: In food processor, pulse flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and baking soda to combine, about six 1-second pulses. Scatter butter cubes evenly over dry ingredients;

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pulse until mixture resembles pebbly, coarse cornmeal, eight to ten 1-second pulses. Transfer mixture to medium bowl. Add buttermilk to dry ingredients

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and stir with rubber spatula until just incorporated (dough will be very wet and slightly lumpy).

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3. TO FORM AND BAKE BISCUITS: Using 1/4 cup dry measure and working quickly, scoop level amount of dough; drop dough from measuring cup into flour on baking sheet (if dough sticks to cup, use small spoon to pull it free). Repeat with remaining dough, forming 12 evenly sized mounds.

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Dust tops of each piece of dough with flour from baking sheet. With floured hands, gently pick up piece of dough and coat with flour; gently shape dough into rough ball, shake off excess flour, and place in prepared cake pan. Repeat with remaining dough, arranging 9 rounds around perimeter of cake pan and 3 in center. Brush rounds with hot melted butter, taking care not to flatten them.

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Bake 5 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 450 degrees; continue to bake until biscuits are deep golden brown, about 15 minutes longer.

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Cool in pan 2 minutes, then invert biscuits from pan onto clean kitchen towl;

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Turn biscuits right side up and break apart. Cool 5 minutes longer and serve.

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It’s times like these where those who insist on using prepared dough from a tube baffle me. This took me NO TIME and the results were, to quote Will Farrell as James Lipton: “Strumtrulescent.”

Seriously, these biscuits were light as a feather and tasty and buttery and perfect. As a bonus, I opened up my Nectarine-Apricot-Ginger jam and dammmmmmn girlfriend it tasted great. What a great combo. All on a whim. And what a whim it was.