Spring Thaw

Drinking in the sunshine with a bottomless thirst, tiny shoots burst forth with renewed vigor after a long winter’s slumber. Awakened by the warmth, heads still full of dreams, they blossom with intoxicating brilliance. Splashing color like splattered pant across cracked sidewalks, breaking through the earth’s crust in empty alleyways, everything is fresh and new again. Anything is possible.

Spring is the season of renewal, a shift toward forward motion that I can feel acutely in my bones. At last, I can throw off heavy knit blankets and rise with the sun again. At last, I can take deep, restorative breaths, not sharp and shallow gasps, to fill my lungs with the scents of freesia, jasmine, and lilac.

Inspiration abounds; from farmers markets to urban foraging, there’s no shortage of new, novel, inspiring ingredients. One unconventional source has haunted me for years, though, like a promise unfulfilled. Back when I aspired to a career in fine pastry, crafting fancy plated desserts in Michelin-starred kitchens, El Bulli positively captivated me. Creating dishes based upon nature but crafted with startlingly sophisticated, scientific methods, it was like nothing I had seen before. I spent all my allowance money on obscure, out of print cookbooks, trying to decode their magic. That’s where I first came across the concept of “Deshielo,” also known as “Thaw”

Deshielo was inspired by the ice melting in spring with the first shoots sprouting out of the frozen blanket. The description of the dessert itself is as daunting as it is confounding. “Coffee and licorice sponge and yogurt gelatin with concentrated lemon sorbet, rose sugar, and frozen water powder. Different herbs and flowers blooming in matcha tea sugar.”

Many years later, modified, simplified, my rendition has finally blossomed into a reality. Cake is now the feature, infused with robust coffee flavor and the licorice-y perfume of fennel. Crisp cacao nibs contrast sharply to the soft, moist crumb beneath, but that’s only the beginning. Lemon granita lends a unique chilling effect which draws out the citrus elements of the brew. Matcha sugar, a study in balance between the bitter tea leaves and pure crystalline sweetness, peeks out from this frigid topper, crowned with a glorious shoot of fresh mint, a few fallen candied rose petals at its side. Yes, it’s quite a lot of flavors all in one bite, many that would seem to conflict on paper, but they coalesce into a stunning springtime celebration on the plate.

It’s not quite molecular gastronomy, far more humble than fine patisserie, but a genuine, passionate ode to the spirit of the season.

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An Educated Palate

Math has never been my favorite subject. If there was one black mark on my quarterly report card, it would be filed under algebra, or calculus. Quite frankly, it’s a small miracle that anyone let me graduate with such a flimsy understanding of numbers in general. One limited concept that I can comfortably wrap my mind, and my lips around, is pi.

Okay, you got me. Not actual pi, but pie. Flaky pastry and comforting fillings both sweet and savory always make perfect logical sense. Pi Day, March 14th (3.14) is the only day of the year I’m happy to bridge the gap between baking and calculating.

This year, I’d like to present to you an appropriately educated provision. Inspired by daigaku imo, imagine a chunky sweet potato pie with a touch of Asian flare. Directly translated, daigaku imo means “university potatoes.” Though still murky in origin, the name can be traced back to two plausible explanations.

Tokyo University, sometime in the early 1900’s, saw the rise of this cultural sensation. Some say a snack shop began offering lightly fried sweet potatoes drenched in sugar syrup and tossed with sesame seeds, while others are adamant that it was a student selling these sweet and savory delights to raise funds for tuition. Either way, we have Japan to thank for yet another viral food hit.

Rather than pulling out a vat of bubbling oil, my adaptation uses only a touch of toasted sesame oil to roast the tubers to fork-tender perfection. Creamy yet still toothsome, the pale white flesh takes on greater dimension with the umami notes of soy sauce rather than plain salt, plus the acidic edge of vinegar for balance. These subtle, delicate nuances will keep tasters guessing, but this is a culinary equation that’s easy to solve.

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The Trouble with Truffles

When it comes to truffles, how much is too much? Is there even such a thing as “too much” when we’re talking about the most savory, hyper-palatable substance found in nature? Sure, it’s easy to go overboard with a few seemingly harmless extra drops of truffle oil, turning a previously balanced dish into an acrid chemistry experiment gone wrong, but that’s another story entirely. Most commercial options rely on entirely lab-created chemicals for their aroma, without a single fleck of fungus in sight. Carried by cheap filler oils, these knock-offs lack the subtle nuances, earthy richness, and depth of pure umami intensity distilled within real truffles. Dirty diamonds locked within nubby black exteriors that could just as easily be mistaken as rocks are the key to this taste of luxury that no scientist can replicate.

When you go all-in on the real deal, you’ll know the difference when you taste it. Immediately it hits you, sweeping you off your feet before that first bite even hits your taste buds. The aroma alone can stop a conversation in its tracks and turn heads, like a dazzling supermodel making a grand entrance at a party. This bombshell doesn’t need any makeup or designer clothing to captivate, though. All that brilliance and more is found within; inherent, implicit, obvious to see beyond shallow outward aesthetics.

The real trouble with truffles is that their delicate nuances begin to fade almost as soon as they’re unearthed. Part of their scarcity is due to this ephemeral quality. Even if you can get the real deal, fresh isn’t always best. Personally, my top pick is always preserved, since there’s no gambling with lack of access, nor variable quality. At least that’s the case with Truffle Hunter. There’s nowhere to hide on these short labels fronting meaty shavings of black summer truffles, lightly brined and kept pristine in extra virgin olive oil. In that two-for-one punch, you get the full-bodied fungus, AND true infused truffle oil.

Genuine luxury is sinking your teeth into one of those substantial sheets of pure umami power. Frequently recommended as a topper for crostini, that suggestion made me think of toast, which naturally leads to avocado toast, and the inspiration to embellish was unstoppable from there.

Avocado toast elevated to the status of fine fare, this breakfast staple is now fit for a crowd. Taking basic staples to the next level, a tiny dose of white truffle balsamic vinegar is blended into creamy, luscious cashew ricotta, harmonizing with the beautifully marbled slabs of black truffle sparkling on top.

Resting atop a lightly seasoned crust of crisp breadcrumbs, each layer is more decadent than the last. Buttery, bright green avocados take on a greater degree of decadence, heightened by the intense, earthy, almost nutty notes of truffles. You could always gild the lily with a finishing kiss of truffle salt… But that might just test the theory that too much is never enough.

Simply sublime, sublimely simple. It may be tough to go back to plain old avocados on bread after just one bite.

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Emergency Rations

Warranted or not, panic wrought by the coronavirus has spread to pandemic levels, faster than the illness itself. Food scarcity is a concern that most city dwellers have the luxury of ignoring, but suddenly doomsday preppers are wiping grocery shelves clear of dry beans, grains, and spices. It’s the end of days for the avid baker caught off guard. Surely it’s a temporary state of affairs, but when dire cravings strike, what’s one to do without easy access to ingredients previously taken for granted?

Lucky for you, I’m terrible at planning on a good day, so I have years of experience working with a limited pantry. Skipping past all the fancy flourishes and contemporary conveniences, you can still make superlative sweets, comparable to the most indulgent high-end baked goods.

Just plain flour, oil, sugar, and cocoa are at the heart of these treats. Embellish with nuts and chips if available, but it’s far from necessary. These basic staples hit high marks for every category; soft and tender, crisp around the edges, sweet with a touch of salt to accentuate deep chocolate flavors, they’re ready for you at the dawning of the apocalypse. The world at large may turn into a hellish land populated by zombies and shut-ins, but at least there will be dessert at the end of the day.

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Warmest Wishes

Winter weather advisories are in effect, sounding the alarm about snow, sleet, freezing rain, black ice, and pretty much any other blizzard conditions that might strike terror in the heart of any warm blooded mammal. Accumulation could range from bad to worse with no end in sight.

Scrolling through these dire reports, squinting at the sun-drenched screen, I squirm uncomfortably in my t-shirt and shorts. It’s February, historically known as the coldest, harshest month of the year, and yet I’m still too hot. Sub-zero winds may be howling through the Midwest and East Coast, but here in California, it feels like we’ve skipped right into late spring. The golden state, the place that winter forgot, is erupting with early flowers, perfuming the air with delicate scents of jasmine and lavender. Kids frolic home with a carefree easy typically reserved for vacations, peeling out of over-protective jackets the minute the school bell rings.

But no, it is winter. Firmly, definitely, still winter. Sorry for the remaining 49 states, to say nothing of the rest of the world.

My heart goes out to all of you out there in the brutal frozen tundra. You’re made of stronger stuff than me, so averse to the barest chill that 60 degrees sounds like sweater weather. While I can’t say I know how you feel, toughing it out in the elements like that, I can offer a bit of solace- Or perhaps more accurately, a bite of solace.

Nothing warms the heart and the house quite like lighting up the oven. Stay inside, get cozy in thick thermal underwear and floppy slipper socks; you’ve got everything you need right here.

Classic cinnamon rolls are hard to beat, slowly rising as the yeast comes alive, becoming lighter, more tender and softer by the minute. Buttery pockets of gentle spice and brown sugar spiral hypnotically in the pan, all shades of golden brown and delicious. Well, let’s take that same concept and simply apply a touch of chocolate instead, shall we?

Digging into the pantry for inspiration, an open bag of Rodelle Organic Hot Cocoa Mix seemed to be purposefully poised, ready to infuse this classic comfort food with an extra dose of warmth. With pure vanilla, dark Dutch-processed cocoa, and sugar all in one, the only thing you need to add are the marshmallows. Easy to drink, bake, and simply fall in love with.

As if it wasn’t enough to wrap springy cylinders of mini mallows right inside that swirling dough, sticky melted marshmallow glaze seals the deal with a sweet, juicy kiss.

For those of you facing single digit temperatures or worse, just stay inside. Keep warm from the inside out. You aren’t missing anything when a fresh batch of hot cocoa rolls rises to the occasion.

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Doodling in the Margins

When you’re ready to jazz up your sweets this holiday season, there’s more than just cinnamon in the spice rack. Snickerdoodles epitomize the power of this humble seasoning, bringing the full bouquet of warm, woodsy, piquant notes out to the surface, quite literally, by varnishing chewy sugar cookies with a crackled cinnamon coating. Though it’s hard to argue with that elegant simplicity, that tried-and-true method that children of all ages, including children at heart, adore, there’s a lot to be said for embracing the saltier side of the pantry.

No longer a crazy concept, adding just a pinch of salt to sweets is now the norm, embraced by wise bakers seeking to amplify the layers of flavors already in place. By emphasizing those saline crystals, even the most basic tastes take on greater dimension. Case in point: The pretzel. Without their darkly varnished exteriors sparkling with coarse salt, they would merely be dry bread sticks. Take the next step forward, adding crushed pretzels to the tender cookies we all know and love, and an equally startling, yet wholly satisfying transformation can take place.

In stark contrast to the supple cookie dough beneath, crunchy layers of everyone’s favorite bar snack turn this treat up to eleven. It’s the kind of cookie that has real staying power, after the other guests have gone home and the decorations are carefully packed away, after Christmas, New Year’s Day, and beyond.

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