Bite Me

In times of extreme stress or trauma, regression is a real concern. Young children run for cover under previously discarded blankies, while dogs can forget their training when nature calls indoors. Training wheels snap back onto bikes, lessons once mastered must be retaught. After so many steps forward, it’s time to take a few back. That very same impulse drives otherwise reasonable adults to abandon all pretense of balance and seek solace in the comforting foods embedded into happy childhood memories. Attracted to the nostalgia as much as the taste, there’s no way of knowing just what will bubble up from bygone days.

Here’s an unexpected flashback from elementary school. Miniature chocolate chip muffins, you know the ones, beckoned in neat little plastic packages at the end of the hot lunch line. Truly unfrosted cupcakes, each sweet, squishy morsel seemed to melt away effortlessly, dissolving into a sticky morass of artificial buttery crumbs and waxy chocolate. My parents would have never condoned such nutritionally void treats, but when I could trade for such treasures, there was no stopping me.

Comforting in their simplicity, reassuringly easy to both make and eat, it’s the kind of junk food I might normally rail against. Just eat a slice of cake, or have yourself a proper bran muffin! This wishy-washy excuse for some rational middle ground is just a way to feel better about eating dessert for breakfast. Relative to the austere bowl of oatmeal in the morning, they’re loaded with sugar and white flour, and you know what? That’s exactly what we all need sometimes.

Regression is not permanent. Like so many other things in life, the urge to crawl inward, revert to the safety of nostalgia, is outside of our control. We’re all doing the best we can to survive; be kind to your inner child, plan to grow up another day. A little bite of indulgence certainly wouldn’t hurt right about now.

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Bar None

As the antiquated adage goes, when it rains, it pours. When in drought-stricken California however, what falls from the sky is not a deluge of precipitation, but of citrus. Yes, you heard me right: Fruit is showering the city streets at this very moment, heavy with juice and blown asunder by the most gentle gusts of wind. Every variety you can imagine, from the average lemon and lime to more exotic mandarins, yuzu, pomelo, even Buddha’s hand litter the pavement. Dash out for a quick walk around the neighborhood, eyes to the ground, and you can take care of your vitamin C needs without spending a dime.

Urban foraging has kept my fruit bin full of these tart, tangy, sour, and sometimes sweet gems. Oranges are real treasures, eaten straight out of hand, sometimes before even returning home, but the most plunder is the venerated Meyer lemon. Popularized by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, it’s no surprise that this particular specimen that’s come to represent so much of California cuisine now thrives up and down the coast, and is especially concentrated so close to home.

Thus, lemons have been on the menu at every turn lately, when alternative acids and groceries in general are scarce. Large pitchers of lemonade sit chilled, at the ready as the days grow warmer, threatening to skip right over spring and straight into the summer season. Fine flecks of zest sparkle in simple vinaigrettes, lavished over everything from greens to grains. Jars of marmalade use up every scrap of peel, preserving the harvest for countless slabs of toast to come.

For dessert, of course, you can do no better than homemade lemon bars.

Luscious, silken curd dazzles like a semi-sold bite of sunshine atop a buttery, pleasantly sandy shortbread crust. Tender and yielding, each square trembles gently in the hand, melting the instant it hits the tongue. Avowed lemon-lovers and fair weather friends alike can agree that a properly baked lemon bar can even surpass the appeal of a beguiling chocolate cake.

Finished with a flurry of powdered sugar, this classic, unassailable treat suits every occasion, every season, every craving, as far as I’m concerned. Even if lemons aren’t literally falling into your lap, do yourself the kindness of splurging on a generous surplus. Trust me, you’ll find a way to use them up without any difficulty, especially with this sweet serving suggestion on deck.

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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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Smart Sweets

March is National Nutritional Month, which focuses not on good or bad foods, but emphasizes the importance of making informed food choices. This is an approach I can fully support. As a vegan with a huge sweet tooth, alimentary harmony is all about balance, which isn’t black and white. No single diet is best for everyone, but society at large would no doubt be happier and healthier with greater awareness of exactly what they’re eating. That all starts with simply reading the label!

Plant-based eaters are already seasoned pros at packaging interrogations, but it’s a skill that everyone can benefit from. Knowing which nasties to avoid goes a long way. Questionable ingredients like artificial colors and flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, and trans-fats should be on the permanent no-fly list for every conscious consumer. It might surprise you which brands do and don’t fit the bill. Voortman has been baking treats tirelessly since before superfoods were trendy or keto was a thing, but their consistent commitment to quality makes their cookies an ideal example of healthy indulgence.

Speaking of trends, charcuterie boards are all the rage these days, capitalizing on human nature to snack, graze, and nibble through the day. It’s a simple approach to hosting friends without putting out a full dinner menu, while still satisfying with a wide range of delights. Of course, there’s the stunning visual impact made by so many shapes, colors, and textures. Composed of simple staples that may not wow by themselves, the collection of complementary bites add up to far more than you would expect.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be all about meat and cheese. Dessert boards are where it’s at!

Dessert charcuterie is the new fun way to serve dessert. You don’t need to be a baker, spend a ton of money, or squander your precious time to assemble your own. In fact, you probably have everything you need already on hand!

Balance is the key, like anything else in life. Truly anything goes, and having a wide array of options ensures there’s something for everyone. Crisp wafer cookies are the most important feature for me, which guides the selections that follow. Voortman has so many bold flavors, I like to use one or two to get the party started. From there, I’ll match corresponding fresh fruits, pair dips that both contrast and heighten those flavors, and fill in the gaps with some additional treats. Your only limit is the size of your board!

In truth, you don’t need to spend a minute in the kitchen for this show-stopping composition. Just remember, it’s all about balance! Wholesome fresh ingredients, decadent chocolates, and healthy treats create a harmonious, natural union.

There’s a lot to be said for chocolate hummus if you wanted to go all-in on desserts with benefits, but I’m a fan of darker cacao endowment here, given the other lighter components. You can whip up this dip in one minute flat, and it’s great on ice cream, too.

Another crowd-pleaser is cheesecake, which graciously accommodates any flavors you can throw at it, while still retaining a tart, tangy vigor. More than just vanilla, it provides the light and lemony contrast to the darker, earthier additions.

Rounding it all out with something nutty, peanut sauce is often seen as a spicy topper for Thai food, but makes a rich addition to the final course, too. A touch of maple syrup and a pinch of salt is all it takes to flip the script over to the sweeter side.

A lot is said about the path towards health and wellness, but for me, it’s one that must still lead to dessert. At the end of the day, I’ll always crave something sweet, so I’m careful to stock only smarter choices. It’s all about creating a happy balance that starts on the plate, or in this case, charcuterie board!

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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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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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