A #tbt in tribute to quite possibly the best birthday ice cream cake that I have ever made, fittingly for one of the coolest kids on the block.
A #tbt in tribute to quite possibly the best birthday ice cream cake that I have ever made, fittingly for one of the coolest kids on the block.
For my fondness for farro, I have Harvard University Dining Services, of all entities, to thank. HUDS is also the reason the words “Scheherazade casserole” send shivers down my spine and into my stomach, but that is a story for another post.
Toasted and tossed with roasted root vegetables, farro made a meal divine by HUDS standards. I felt like a cruel joke was being played on me whenever it would appear on the weekly menu, only to be absent from the actual offerings, replaced by some subpar substitute. Beef fajita fettucine, anyone?
Since leaving the world of HUDS behind, I have let my love of farro run wild. I have tried it drowned it in garden vegetable soup, cooked in coconut water and topped with toasted coconut, and stirred into salads. All so simple, all incredibly satisfying.
My favourite farro preparation has been this farro marinara bowl. Fat pearls of farro simmered in silky tomato broth remain toothsome enough to give girth to the bowl. Their velvety mouthfeel and nutty undertones meld with the verdancy of the basil and spinach into a hearty bowl that I tuck (myself) into without hesitation.
And, to intersperse your farro bowl-feeding spree with something cooler, here is a smoothie bowl that incorporates cashew milk and spinach, but that smacks of strawberry alone. I grew up on skim milk, sousing bran flakes with it, and swigging it by the cupful at breakfast. Cashew milk, however, lends a luscious creaminess to the smoothie that skim milk cannot, making each spoonful feel luxurious.
Like many second-generation Chinese immigrants, I developed an appreciation for resourcefulness in the kitchen from an early age. For as long as I can remember, my parents have preserved used oil in a cool corner of the pantry, which they reused once, twice, several times over. Bread bought in bulk supplied weeks of school-lunch sandwiches. Cheap cuts of meat, once sauced, spiced, and stir-fried with fresh vegetables, produced dishes rich in flavour that kept our family well-fed. Following family dinners, my parents scooped any leftovers into Tupperware containers, ready to be nuked back to life for lunch the next day, unless, in the case of the choicest dishes, deviant fingers got to them first. Flavour, more than frugality, drove these habits. I never understood why so many North Americans limit themselves to chalky chicken breasts, plain pork chops, and flaccid fish fillets when, for a fraction of the price, they could play around with and savour hearty hog maw, crunchy pig ears, and fine-boned whole fish, eyes and all. To this day, I save vegetable scraps – carrot tops, onion peels, celery leaves, cauliflower nubbins – to make stock, and my freezer houses enough leftovers to feed a family of five for a week.
Another major benefit of an economical approach to food is that it invites inventiveness. Before blitzing canned chickpeas into a batch of hummus, I always add some of the reserved bean brine to help thin the mixture. Given the utility of the bean brine, it now seems silly to me that I never thought to reserve and to repurpose the rest of the brine. Never, that is, until a post-pavlova craving for more meringue and a lack of eggs in the fridge set me on a quest for an eggless meringue recipe and directed me to an article on aquafaba. “Bean water,” it turned out, could function as the foaming agent in a meringue. Intrigued, I saved canned chickpea liquid the next time I made hummus. Sure enough, armed with a hand mixer, a bag of sugar, and a vial of vinegar, I beat the bean brine into a fluffy cloud of meringue.
The rest unfolded organically. Half of a can of coconut cream, initially purchased to make curry, went into making a chai-spiced ice cream. Black bean brownies, leftover from a recent movie night, served as the bases for the Baked Alaska bites, ensconced in a snowfall of ice cream and freshly whipped meringue. I left the Baked Alaskas under the broiler just long enough to gild the tips. The result was serendipitously vegan and gluten-free, making this recipe safe for the growing number of people who fall somewhere on the spectrum of real to imagined food sensitivities. More importantly, it was delicious. And now I am spilling the beans on how to make these Baked Alaska brownie bites that wildly taste nothing like beans, just wildly good.
I was the oddball kid who grew to favour pseudo-healthy food for breakfast. I began with an oversized appetite for Eggo toaster waffles drenched in melted margarine, Nesquik cereal nuggets that doubled as chocolate milk-makers, and my mom’s doctored up Betty Crocker butter pecan cakes. But gradually, I developed an affinity for fibre-filled flax and bran flakes, steel cut oats simmered in cinnamon-infused milk, Greek yogurt with a rotation of seedy and nutty accoutrements, and, above all, carrot cake.
Sure, carrot cake hardly comes close to health food status. And it rarely makes an appearance at the breakfast table. But in my sugar-spun fantasy world, I would eat carrot cake for breakfast at least once weekly, if not more, without fear of turning orange. Moist (I have no qualms about using the word), gently spiced, springy slices of carrot cake, frosted white and ribboned with coconut, and studded with walnuts and fleshy fruit gems.
I became reacquainted with the charm of carrot cake three years ago while visiting New York. One August morning, I rose before the sun, loosened my belt and donned my Toms, and began a pilgrimage through the foodie Mecca aptly nicknamed “The Big Apple.” My hundred-some-block journey by foot took me down thoroughfares less touched by tourists, exposing me to the kaleidoscope of a city that New York is: ever-moving, ever-evolving, ever-multicoloured. For every surly man skulking in the alleyway, lighting up a cigar (or was it a joint?), there is an ebullient woman with unabashedly ruby lips swaying her hips and singing aloud to her music. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.
Much the same could be said of Billy’s Bakery, where, in a city often condemned for being cold and impersonal, warm pastries and equally warm conversation awaited me. The cashier, who introduced himself as “Vlad,” poured me cup of milk (soon to be followed by a second with the “neighbourhood discount”) and sliced me a slab of carrot cake that one crossword, two Sudoku puzzles, and two cups of milk could not even help me to finish. The cake was enough to make me really mean it when I told Vlad to have a nice day. And it was enough to leave me perpetually dreaming about carrot cake for three years, inspiring cake and smoothie recipes all the while.
Fresh produce connected the dots of my culinary journey through Europe. Punnets of strawberries packed for a picnic by the Seine and in palatial parks. Sprightly bell peppers cut into matchsticks and nibbled with Comté aboard the train. Plastic cups overflowing with nuggets of pineapple and melon hawked by Mercat de La Boqueria vendors to unwitting tourists for four times the price of the same amount of produce just a few feet farther (A-, N-, R-, and I ventured past, before opting for bargain juices four times cheaper than what we would find at farmer’s markets back home). Pan con tomate and tortilla española, perfumed from floral olive oils and paired with glasses of feathery, effervescent Cava.
This celebration of the seasonal has followed me back to America. My windowsill now hosts pots of chives and basil, ready to be folded into omelettes and layered in caprese salads. I have mixed mango into muesli, squeezed lemons into muffin top batter, and slathered strawberry sauce on panna cotta. Yet, still, I find myself dreaming in flavours that I once took for granted. A bag of cherries as precious as polished rubies, their worth weighed in the palm of my hand. Creamy avocados sliced over salads or scrambled with eggs the way my sister does, fluffier than cumulus clouds – my kryptonite. Peaches bursting out of their velvety skins and dribbling juice down your chin – my nectar and ambrosia.
I remember the first peach that I had in college. One night, a basket of peaches appeared in the dining hall. I pounced on them. They bore signs of jetlag, but I did not care. The peach bruised at my fingertips as I built up to that first bite, a moment of great anticipation; the seconds following, of bitter disappointment. It was an experience comparable to, I imagine, eating a hairball. I finished the peach on principle, before retreating to fantasies of peach jam and peach cobbler and peaches in their purest form, plucked straight from the tree on an Okanagan family vacation.
As an Americanadian, I have the privilege of celebrating the birth of nations on both sides of the 49th parallel. I grew up among Canadians who, come July 1st, would fire up their grills in the day, watch fireworks displays at night, and, for the avid bakers, seize the opportunity to cater a dessert buffet coloured red and white.
In comparison, the 4th of July boasts a more boisterous brand of patriotism. From infancy, Americans learn to brandish their heritage, enrobing themselves in stars and stripes, a sartorial statement that they are red, white, and blue, through and through. Gaggles of college guys, buzzed from beer and sunshine, chant about freedom and “‘Murica,” met with mild disapproval or, equally as often, mild amusement. And whereas the Canadian anthem sings smoothly and slowly, the American anthem rides like a roller coaster that hurtles up to high notes when you least expect them, prone to producing off-key cadences either belted out with gusto or, for those with less vocal aptitude and lung capacity like yours truly, finished in a winded, wheezing flourish.
Yet, what threatens to become a day of star-spangled sensory overload somehow does not. Instead, it is a symphony of sounds, smells, and sights – watermelon split open with the thwack of a knife and perfuming the air, children and canine companions splashing in swimming pools and lakes, fireworks blasting and blooming across the sky – harmonizing into one loud and proud commemoration of independence and celebration of America’s birthday.
This Patriotic Pavlova operates in much the same way. Sundry flavors, aromas, and textures coalesce into a confection that somehow works. The gentle heat of the oven coaxes the marshmallowy cloud into a meringue. A crisp crust forms and, promptly thereafter, cracks, folding and fissuring under its own weight. Yogurt whipped into cream, once dolloped onto the meringue, simultaneously creeps into the crevices and crests in soft, snowy peaks. A halo of blueberries and cherries soon joins the cream in crowning the confection. Tart fruit juices burst like sunbeams with every bite, counterbalancing the tang of yogurt and the delicate sweetness of the meringue. In the sticky summer heat, scoops of vanilla ice cream plopped onto plates pool around the slices of pavlova, ready to catch any crumb or shard that breaks off when spoon carves into crust. It is as airy-fairy as ballet performances by its eponym and sugar-spun fantasies of Bomb Pops and flag cakes realized on this special day.
We thought that it would be our last shared meal for a long time. In fact, that “long time” turned out to be six-and-a-half sleepy hours, before he joined me in eating corn flakes bathed in cold milk, mine slightly soggy and peppered with peanuts, his still crisp enough to create crunching noises in rhythm with the steady striking of rain. Bowls rinsed, bags gathered, bodies embraced and released all too soon, I set out beneath a canopy of steel-grey clouds that flapped like slashed curtains.
See you laters can be just as hard as goodbyes, especially when the point at which “later” will become “now” remains undefined. After finishing my final college exam on the final day of Finals Period, I went through Senior Week and Commencement Week much like many of my peers, seeing and saying see you later to the people whose presence had enriched and defined the last four years of my life, whose absence would at first feel alien. In a flurry of duct-taped boxes, UPS receipts, and flights, I was off romping through Europe with A-, N-, and R-, spending more time applying knowledge gained in my senior spring architecture course and expanding my stomach for gelato after every meal than I was dwelling on having to part ways with my travel companions eventually, for a long time, or at least for some time.
Despite what this post may suggest, super-sentimentality is far from my natural frame of mind. I could, and will now attempt to, keep this post crossing the line to nostalgia by noting all of the recent developments that have kept me engaged, excited, looking forward to the future while reveling in the present: moving into my first apartment (small but cozy, with fluffy carpet, at least twice as much counter space than my cramped dorm kitchens ever had, and a price that’s right for D.C.), assembling my small set of furniture (received piece by piece in the mail), getting reacquainted with the Metro (that is, paying steep fares, Kindle-ing it up, and being sandwiched between sweaty strangers), getting to know the locals (almost jarringly genuinely friendly, opening doors, holding elevators, and beaming smiles without fail), and starting my first full-time salaried job (I have already learned a lot from colleagues generous with their knowledge and their time). I have loved the past few weeks and cannot wait to see what the next, and yet more after, will bring.
But when the inevitable desire to reminisce about college, Europe, and the time spent in those places with people whom I love dearly arrives, I’ll gather some Gorgonzola, greens, and grains, and recreate my last supper with A-, itself inspired by one of our last meals in Venice. We made a few modifications, in part to use up pantry ingredients, in part on a whim. We threw in several handfuls of baby spinach, substituted pepitas for pistachios, and added a good glug of heavy cream nearing expiration. What we did make sure to include was Gorgonzola, rich and robust, our tried-and-true cheese that we had bought in blue-marbled blocks and smeared over crusty €1 baguettes wherever we picnicked in Europe and, most memorably, that we had devoured in that tagliatelle dish. One of my mottos for the trip (and in my life, really) was “the dairier, the merrier,” as a healthy appetite for adventure and cheese – nutty Comté, buttery Brie, and milky mozzarella still warm in its pillowy and pliant bundle – sustained us through scaling seemingly endless stairways, navigating labyrinths of alleyways, and crossing borders via overnight bus. Anointed with velvety and pleasantly pungent sauce, streaked with spinach, and freckled with pepitas and black pepper, this dish is the epitome of comfort food, reminding me of good times that were had and manifold good times to come, much sooner than later.