Friday, February 22, 2008

Homeland Craving: Irish Currant Scone Cake

I miss Ireland.

It must be something about my Scotts-Irish genealogy that that made me feel so strangely familiar in that place. I never thought I could feel at ease in a treeless landscape, but those undulating green hills – and, strangely, even more so the limestone crags of Aran – gave me a profound sense of home, a deep singing in my bones for heartland.

On sleeting New York days in February, when the morning’s snow melts into gray lumps and children are walking home looking sullen, when the building creaks strangely and black-eyed shadows shiver and scratch in the walls, days like today, my body aches for that green, wide-open place and for the smell of the sea.

So I make tea. I put milk in it. I fill the house with baking smells.

This tender, not-too-sweet tea cake, with its crumbly biscuit texture and juicy currant speckles, is a slice homesick-for-Ireland sympathy. The sweet glaze, infused with Irish whisky, tastes like the melancholy moan of Uilleann pipes rounding out a late-night pub seisiún. Best paired with tea, a journal and good pen.

Irish Currant Scone Cake
Adapted from Nick Malgieri’s cookbook
, Perfect Cakes, 2002


2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
¾ cup buttermilk
¾ cup dried currants
1 tablespoon Irish whiskey, such as Jameson
Hot water
1 cup confectioner’s sugar

2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 teaspoons Irish whiskey
One 2-inch-deep 8-inch round cake pan, buttered and bottom lined with parchment or wax paper


1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350°. Butter an 8-inch round cake pan, and line the bottom with parchment or wax paper.

2. Measure currants into a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon whiskey and just enough hot water to cover the currants, and allow to soak while combining other ingredients.

3. Stir together the 2 1/4 cups flour, the baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl.

4. In a larger bowl, beat the butter until creamy; add sugar and beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the egg, beating until smooth.

5. Decrease the mixer speed to low and beat in half the flour mixture. Scrape down the sides of the bowl; beat in the buttermilk, then the remaining flour mixture.

6. Give the batter a final mix with the rubber spatula, making sure everything is well incorporated.

7. Strain excess liquid out of the currants and toss them with 1 tablespoon flour. Fold them into the batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan; dough should be firm, like biscuit batter. Press down into sides of pan and smooth the top.

8. Bake for about 35-45 minutes, or until the cake is well risen and deep gold and a broomstraw inserted in the center emerges clean.

9. While the cake is baking, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar, cream, and remaining whiskey, stirring until smooth.

9. Cool in the pan on a rack for about 10 minutes, then invert the cake onto a plate (I just use my hand, but be very careful not to burn yourself!) and remove the pan and paper. Flip the cake over so it’s right-side up. Spoon the glaze onto the center of the cake and spread evenly over the top, allowing it to drip down the sides. Serve warm or cold, but always with tea.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Durian: King of Fruits

I first discovered durian as the result of research into its tropical cousin, the mangosteen. I had purchased that little purple fist of a fruit and was investigating its origins when I learned of its yin relationship to durian’s yang: in Southeast Asian tradition, the two are eaten together, since the mangosteen’s “cooling” attributes counteract durian’s warming properties and prevent such symptoms as excessive sweating and “irrepressible libido.”

Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. I found pictures of a greenish, basketball-sized mace, covered in spikes; I read accounts of harvesters suffering concussions and bloody head wounds from falling fruit. But what compelled me most was the smell.

The fact is that nothing has brought out disagreeable descriptions in culinary writing quite the way the durian has. Its scent has been compared to turpentine, gym socks, civet, and sewage; it is banned from many Thai and Indonesian hotels, despite its local culinary popularity. That’s right, people eat it – and love to! In fact, Thailand holds an annual durian festival, celebrating the fragrant fruit.

Its taste is described with intense variety, comparisons ranging from onion sauce to almonds to vanilla ice cream. These gulfs of opinion are widened by the differences in durian varieties; indeed, culinary use does nothing to illuminate the true nature of this fruit, for while it is prepared in savory sauces in Sumatra, in the Philippines it is used exclusively for desserts such as cakes and candy.

Of course, I was absolutely besotted with the idea of experiencing a food compared to eating "blancmange in a lavatory.” But where would I find one? Wikipedia assured me that durians had made their way to Western markets – mellow breeds whose scent could be contained by careful packaging – and that I could find them in “specialty markets” for five dollars a pound, or about $25-35 each. I skipped the specialty markets and headed straight for that den of strange fruits, Chinatown.

I found litchis, dragonfruits, more mangosteens, and a dozen other things I didn’t recognize – but no durians.

A year went by, and the durian lingered in my subconscious like a banana kicked under the fridge. I even forgot what it looked like, but preserved the desire to experience this powerful, evocative food. Which must be why yesterday, I found myself standing outside a bodega on Canal street, staring down into a box of football-shaped plastic bags, and having a sudden thought: could there be durians in there?

(It could have been the rotting apple smell that did it.)

The shopkeeper didn’t know the English word for what was in the bag, but my nose confirmed that this must be it – my elusive durian. I paid her six dollars for the five-pound fruit, which she carefully double-bagged after wrapping it in several layers of newspaper.

I was relieved, if a little disappointed, that mine was your American-market-variety durian; nobody looked at me funny or changed seats on the train. I could smell it in my lap, through the layers of paper and plastic, but it wasn’t an unpleasant smell, really – sort of like an aging jack-o-lantern filled with bananas, with maybe a slight hint of morning-breath. No civet, though, and definitely no sewage.

An hour later, the barbed obscurity lay prone on my cutting board, and, poised to slice, I realized I didn’t really know what to expect. Would it be like a pineapple inside? Like a kiwi, or a coconut? Would juice spill out? Would there be a constellation of little seeds, or a giant pit like an avocado or a peach?

I sawed cautiously through the spiny armor and pulled back a wedge of the inch-thick hide. It made a sucking sound, revealing…what?

I’m going to be candid. Durian flesh looks like organs. Like a pancreas, actually, or a liver, if a liver were a buttery yellow color. I slid my hand under the “pod” of durian meat, and as I lifted it out of the husk, I had the distinct sensation of dissecting a body. Mesmerized, I laid the slick, yellow mass on the counter and split open its thin membrane.

A creamy custard oozed out, pudding-like, vanilla-colored. This wasn’t like any fruit I had ever seen before – not even an avocado or a mashed banana comes close to this pure, decadent texture. The scent became more complicated, sweeter, but still carrying undertones of that strange musk. I dipped a finger in and spread the yellow cream on my tongue.

Crème brûlée without the brûlée, was my first reaction. My second reaction was something like, Holy crap! I’m comparing something that smells like compost to my favorite dessert!. Vanilla ice cream, banana milkshake…I could not have been more astonished – durian tastes good! Really good! It makes me overuse italics! I sampled another dollop of the sweet custard. This time I experienced more of the odor, and the flavor, though still predominantly vanilla-banana with maybe just a touch of onion, was less satisfying. In fact, with each subsequent nibble – though still charmed by this strange fruit – I became less certain that I had discovered the new Eden.

In the center of each buttery node I found a soft, pliable pit, ostensibly edible when cooked (or so claims Wikipedia). I wrung the flesh into a bowl, discarding pits and pulp; I gently strained the resulting mass through a fine sieve, and marveled at the velvety, sunshine-yellow pudding – some two cups or more – that remained.

And then I had no idea what to do with it. The idea of eating more of it was unappetizing. I put it in the freezer.

My retrospective analysis of durian is inconclusive. Was it good? I’m not sure. But it was completely, entirely new – and I find that the more of a foodie one becomes, the rarer those experiences are. Like the first time you try cardamom or bleu cheese ice cream or truffles, that strange, wonderful newness sates your palate, changes you a little. Unlike cardamom and truffles, however (say what you like about the ice cream), durian’s reputation is a site for struggle that’s full-out theatrical – not allowed indoors by some, celebrated in festivals by others, the durian has long stood as a symbol of the subjectivity of beauty and ugliness. An Indonesian saying, translated as “getting a fallen durian,” means receiving unforeseen good fortune; nevertheless, standing under a tree full of ripe durians remains inadvisable.

So, I have plans to make ice cream with it later, maybe, or durian crème brûlée…or…does anybody need any fresh-squeezed durian?

P.S. This is my 100th post! I am so grateful, everybody, for your readership, love, and support over the past two years. Pie in the Sky has been a life-changing creative space for me, and has given me access to a whole world of online friendships that I am continually blessed by. You all mean so much to me. Thank you!!!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Clementines and Rarity (Orange-Anise Scallops)

At Christmastime, my mom likes to tell stories about her penny-saving childhood in rural Tennessee in the 1950s. Each year, her stocking contained treasures like a dollar bill (“That’s four trips to the movies!” she emphasizes), a bag of black walnuts, and a sweet, juicy clementine, bright as a ball of sunshine.

I think it’s important for people to start eating local, sustainable food, but I think it’s just as important that we return to a mindframe that values rarity. We oughtn’t to have everything we want, all the time – artichokes in March, strawberries in December. Fiddleheads and wild onions are coveted because they are rare, uncultivated and therefore uncertain. Asparagus, that herald of spring, is delicious because its season is so brief, and its crisp sweetness so ephemeral. Clementines are Christmas treasures because they are rare, exotic imports. If we had them every day, they wouldn’t taste nearly so good.

“I’m not very scientific,” Tony Kushner says in his play, Bright Room Called Day. “I really believed once that oranges prevented colds because they stored up hot sunlight in the tropical places they grow and the heat gets released when you eat one.” That pretty much sums up how I feel about those gleaming clementine crates when I’m battling winter blues.

Most people who’ve eaten a meal with me know that I’m a sucker for wacky, sweet-savory flavor combinations – whether it’s fruit in sushi, lavender pesto, or rhubarb over pork chops, I’m always craving crazy combos. Now, the Greenmarket never ceases to amaze me with its impressive variety of December produce. Hardy apples, squashes and onions aside – with greenhouse technology offering chard and bok choi and even the occasional lettuce, local winter eating has lost its cellar stigma. That said, this time of year, when fruit is scarce and I’ve eaten about as much kale and potatoes as I think I can handle, my local-only ambitions usually cave and I buy one of those decadent Christmas crates of clementines. Merry, tart, irresistible clementine, how I adore thee!

This light, zesty dish offsets typically heavy winter fare, and creates complex flavors from a simple preparation. You can use local sea scallops, available year round from Blue Moon Fish at various NYC Greenmarket locations, as well as local leeks, an oniony winter staple. Berkshire berries even offers honey cultivated on NYC rooftops!

Orange-Anise Scallops and Melted Leeks
(Adapted from Bon Appétit, January 1999)


1 cup fresh-squeezed clementine juice
4 whole star anise
3 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon plus 4 teaspoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon 1/2 x 1/8-inch clementine zest strips
4 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), rinsed, halved, and cut crosswise into 1/3-inch pieces
16 sea scallops


Pat scallops dry and lightly salt.

Simmer clementine juice and star anise in saucepan for seven minutes or until juice is reduced by one-third. Remove star anise and reserve; whisk honey and cornstarch into juice and simmer one minute. Remove from heat.

Pat scallops dry and lightly salt. Heat two teaspoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add scallops; sauté until opaque in center, turning once, 2 ½ -3 minutes.

Heat 1 tablespoon plus two teaspoons oil in a separate skillet over medium-high heat. Add orange peel strips to skillet and sauté 1 minute. Add leeks; sauté until tender, about 6 minutes. Add juice mixture; boil until sauce thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange 4 scallops on each plate; spoon leeks around scallops and drizzle sauce over. Garnish with reserved star anise. Enjoy!

Serves 4 appetizer portions.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

True Grits and Tall Tales

Cookbooks have powerful personalities. Some are coy and beguiling, ornamented with dozens of glossy photographs; others are exotic foreigners with stilted language skills, each complex recipe packed with unfamiliar ingredients and italicized terms. Many are sensible, no-nonsense paperbacks - unillustrated, reliable friends who rarely invite guests for dinner. Others are pretentious, conceited volumes, putting on airs with trussed-up recipes anybody with a keen eye would recognize as regular, homespun fare. Some cookbooks are even obsessive collectors, geeky experts with fixations on lemons or bacon or olive oil, and all of their unlikely uses.

True Grits is a funny old lady, and in the beginning, I wasn't sure we were going to get along. You see, at first, I took her for a regular southern belle – well-bound, handsome fonts, the occasional full-color photo of a pound cake or a tea service. He cover purports her content to be “Tall Tales and Recipes from the New South,” and if the pictures are ill-lit and not particularly appealing, well, at least it’s a large, solid book, pleasant to hold, whose inside cover is engraved with the Atlanta skyline. Just don’t anticipate much more than a respectable peach cobbler recipe and some gussied-up instructions for fried chicken.

Oh! I spoke too soon!

True Grits may dress like a prim square, but on the inside, she’s worldly, sensual, dangerous. Sometimes she puts on her dancing shoes and takes you out for Seared Duck Breast with Port and Grapefruit; other times, she lets down her hair in a casual cascade of Fettuccine with Scallops. There’s Espresso and Black Bean Chili, Crawfish Lasagna, Salmon with Basil Champagne Cream…and if the occasional cornbread or Georgia peach salsa recipe makes its way in, it’s with corporeal, sexy nostalgia and a wink.

But flighty, she isn’t. This dame is reliable. From Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes to Bourbon Pound Cake to Lemon Ginger Shrimp, her alluring promises inevitably lead to blissful repast. This seductive recipe is packed with unusual ingredients like coffee and cinnamon, and turned a pound of shimp into a pound of pure pleasure. Oh, True Grits, how could I have judged you so? You’ll always be the prize of my cookbook shelf!

Lemon Ginger Shrimp
(adapted from True Grits by the Junior League of Atlanta)


1/4 cup butter
4 shallots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated fine
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
1/2 cup brewed dark roast coffee
1/3 cup lemon juice (about 1 1/2 lemons)
2 pounds shrimp, peeled, deveined
2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 cup fresh sugar snap peas (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste


Melt butter in wok or large saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir in the shallots, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook for 5 minutes, or until the shallots are translucent and tender, stirring constantly.
Add garlic, lemon zest, coffee, and lemon juice; bring to a simmer. Add shrimp and sauté until just barely cooked, 1 1/2 - 2 minutes. Remove shrimp to a platter with a slotted spoon; continue cooking liquid until reduced to 2 -3 tablespoons.
Return shrimp to the pan. Add brown sugar (and peas, if using) and toss to coat. Cook until sugar melts to glaze the shrimp, about 1 minute. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and serve immediately over white rice.

I bet you're dying for the actual "Heavenly Grits" recipe...

Buy True Grits: Tall Tales and Recipes from the New South, presented by the Junior League of Atlanta, on Amazon (the used copies are a good deal!).

Weekly Random Roundup - Rock the VOTE

Heidi from 101 Cookbooks brings us her best-ever curried egg salad. With apples, pecans, yogurt, curry and chives - and Heidi's careful instructions on how to cook up the perfect hard-boiled egg - I was compelled to whip up this recipe moments after reading. Delicious!

Chocolate & Zucchini's Clotilde snaps shots of her gorgeous homemade Guimauve a la Rose et au Chocolat (Rose and Chocolate marshmallows).

My idol and dopplerganger Jamie (a New-Yorker turned Georgia farmer) gets a big goose-egg over at 10 Signs Like This.

Sam at Becks & Posh discovers an unlikely favorite Super Bowl party snack...wiener sputnik?

Everyone's favorite Chubby Hubby, Aun, laments in-flight dining.

And finally, Jen Lemen ponders hope and compassion today - Super Tuesday! Get out and VOTE!