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Arizmendi Scones N.1

Thursday, August 27, 2009
Arizmendi Scones with Cranberries and Cornmeal

I don't know if you got the idea, but I'm really in love with bakeries. And with scones too, to tell you the truth. I could even trace a map of the city based on bakeries and the type of products they sell. Do you like walnut bread with tons and tons of walnuts? Turn right. Do you want a ciabatta? Go straight for 200 meters and then left. Do you need an authentic French baguette, and furthermore baked fresh at 5 pm? Bus N. 22, last stop.

It's only since I moved in the U.S. that I got this obsession, in Italy I didn't pay much attention. The truth is that in Italy one gives bakeries for granted, just like churches: you already know that as soon as you go around the corner, you'll find either a loaf of bread or a crucifix. It's what happens here with Starbucks, a name you trust, it's so difficult not to bump into one. Artisan bakeries, instead, the ones with a real oven and a starter fermenting in the back, are a rarity. For the Average American bread is a sliced parallelepiped, chewy, wrapped in a transparent plastic bag and ready to be toasted. Crunchiness, fragrance, scent and scarpetta (Italian word for the act of dipping a piece of bread in the leftover pasta sauce) are not part of common vocabulary. This is why I'm almost moved to tears when I discover a new bakery or when I see that there are other crazy fans like me. It's because it gives me hope, and it makes me think that maybe we're still willing to reverse gear and give up for a second the commodity of ready-quick-easy-cheap in favour of something healthy and authentic. Forgive me, I'm digressing as usual...

Going back to my extremely personal map, among the milestones I'd put for sure
Arizmendi Bakery, in the Sunset district. Famous for sourdough pizza and baguettes, Arizmendi is part of a small network of cooperative businesses lead by the legendary Cheese Board in Berkeley. Reading the story of The Cheese Board is like being young and revolutionary all of a sudden, and falling in love with California again, with its ideals and its very own unconventional spirit.

The Cheese Board was born in 1967, and in the beginning it was a small specialty store that was able to sell for the very first time a variety of real imported cheeses, some cheeses cheeses, that were practically unknown at that time. Inspired by the egalitarian ideas of the Sixties and by the desire of redistributing wealth in a more equal way, few years later The Cheese Board became a cooperative where every worker is also a business partner, has equal voting rights and benefits from the same pay structure. And it kept surviving and growing throughout the years, equally supported by the faith in democracy and the passion for wholesome ingredients.

Following the same model, similar structures started spreading out in more recent years: independent bakeries, small and medium in size, operated and managed by the workers themselves, to which The Cheese Board offered the initial financing, along with the proper training and all the recipes. It's a network of cooperatives known as Association of Arizmendi Cooperatives. The name comes from Priest José Maria Arizmendiarrieta, founder of the Basque Mondragón Cooperatives, which is inspired by similar ideas of redistribution of means of productions.

Going back to our cup of tea and to the strict subject of this post, I marked Arizmendi on my map for its soft buttermilk brioches, its gold and crunchy sourdough rolls and ALL its scones, dozens of them, with different flavours depending on the season: lemon and blueberry, pumpkin, apple and walnut, chocolate, cheese. All things considered, I want to benefit the community myself, and therefore I decided to try them all, eventually. So I might as well start now. Keep a stock of buttermilk, please.

Arizmendi Scones n.1
Cornmeal and Cranberries

for approximately 6 scones

all-purpose flour 150 gr.
cornmeal 110 gr.
(I used 50 gr. cornmeal and 60 gr. fine-ground corn flour)
baking powder 1/2 tablespoon
baking soda 1/4 tablespoon
a pinch of salt
cold butter 115 gr.
sugar 65 gr. + a couple of tablespoons for dusting
dried cherries (or cranberries) 50 gr.
buttermilk 130 gr.
1 egg for brushing

In a large bowl sift together flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add salt, sugar and cornmeal and mix well. Add the cold butter, cut in small pieces and mix until it gets to the size of small peas. Add dried cranberries (or cherries) and mix again. make a well in the center and add the buttermilk. Mix the dough briefly, just until it comes together. Let it rest for 5 minutes.
You can easily make this dough by hand, it's actually better since the secret is precisely that you don't want to mix it too much.
Gently shape the dough into balls about 2 1/4 inches in diameter, without working them too long, but trying to keep a rough, rocky surface. Place the scones on a baking sheet cover with parchment paper, brush them with the slightly beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar.
Place the scones in the oven at 425, immediately lower the temperature to 375 and bake them for 20/25 minutes until they are golden. Let them cool on a rack before serving.

A Poor Man's Balsamic Vinegar

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Balsamic-Like Vinegar

Once upon a time there were Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Prada. And then came the fake bags. Which, in some cases, are so well made that they could deceive Coco herself.
Once upon a time there was the traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena. The one obtained from cooked grape must, the one that's left fermenting and aging for a very very long time in small wooden barrels. The one that you need only a drop to feel in Paradise. And then came the 3 dollars bottles. Which could never deceive anyone.

That said, it's obvious that if I could afford it, I'd buy tons of bottles of real balsamic vinegar, and I'd store them inside leather trunks made by Louis Vuitton. But as of now this doesn't seem like a realistic option, and it's better if I keep buying 3 dollar bottles, hoping in some good luck.
In the meantime, thanks to Sabrina from Les Madeleines di Proust, I discovered this way to give poor man's vinegar new life and I have to say I really like it. Well, it's not like the traditional one from Modena (...but what do I know? I've tried it by accident only once. Let's close the parenthesis here...), but it's better than the big bottles you get at the supermarket and most of all it's home made.
If Santa Claus not even this year will throw me a Chanel or few liters of real vinegar from Modena, please let him know that I'm willing to accept some of this. Thanks for your cooperation.

Balsamic-Like Vinegar

fake balsamic vinegar 1/2 liter
honey 3 full tablespoons

Pour the vinegar and the honey in a stainless steel pot and mix well. Let it simmer for about half hour, until it's reduced by half. To check if it's ready, pour a couple of drops onto a plate: they should thicken as they cool down.
Pour the vinegar in a glass bottle, let it cool completely, then cover with a cork.

Mussels Salad with Coconut-Lime Dressing

Saturday, August 22, 2009
Mussel Salad with Coconut-Lime Dressing

...or Give Mussels a Chance. Let's admit that you don't like them cooked in the simplest possible way, like these ones, and let's also admit that you're still in doubts regarding their sex appeal. Well, then try giving mussels a second chance and preparing them in a slightly different way: I guarantee that coconut, lime and chili peppers will be a pleasant surprise.

This recipe, with a definite Thai flavour, comes from Bitten, the NY Times food blog by Mark Bittman, aka The Minimalist, the man behind the famous No-Knead Bread, to get you the idea.
And as if the recipe wasn't enough fusion on its own, I tried making it with some alternative mussels that I happened to find at the market: some giant New Zealand mussels with a characteristic bright green shell, so beautiful that it's almost a shame to throw it away at the end of your lunch.

In general, I'm not a big fan of bean sprouts, even though they're widely used in health-conscious California. Best case scenario, I find them too bitter, but maybe it's me that haven't been able to decipher them yet. And yet, they go well here, at least because of the contrast between their oblong shape, like that of spaghetti, and the curves of cucumber and mussels ; )
The best thing of this salad, though, is the dressing (which I've officially adopted for future dishes). It doesn't matter that the coconut milk comes from a can and that the lime grew up not far away from here. All it takes is a little imagination and you find yourself swinging inside a hammock in the middle of an exotic beach. Now, tell me something, is it that strange that in August I long for the sea???

Mussel Salad
with Coconut-Lime Dressins

for 2 people

fresh mussels 1 lb.
coconut milk about 1/4 cup
lime 1
Thai fish sauce 2 or 3 tablespoons
fresh Thai chilies 2
(but, come on, any kind of chili works as well) 2
fresh cilantro to taste
red bell pepper 1
cucumber 1
bean sprouts not too many...

In a bowl, mix coconut milk, 2 tablespoons of lime juice, its grated zest, minced Thai chilies and fish sauce (just so you know, fish sauce is a very common ingredient in Thai cooking, it's sort of an anchovies extract and it is used instead of salt).
Cut bell pepper in cubes. Peel the cucumber and cut it into pieces. Add bean sprouts.
Clean the mussels, discard their beard and rinse them thoroughly under cold running water. Heat a large pan, put in the mussels with a couple of tablespoons of water, cover with a lid and cook for few minutes, shaking the pan now and then. Take out the mussels as soon as they open and discard those that stay closed. Take them out of their shell and add them to the vegetables.
Cooking it on high heat, reduce the juice they left behind, then add few tablespoons to the dressing. Pour dressing over the salad, mix well, add some freshly minced cilantro and serve.

Mussels with White Wine Sauce

Thursday, August 20, 2009
Mussels with White Wine Sauce

I raise here my protest in defense of mussels. Would someone please explain how it began the bad reputation that afflicts them? Ugly as a mussel. Excuse me, could you please repeat? (Ugly as a mussel is a common Italian expression, and it's used only for women, of course....)
Rumour has it that it's the freshly caught mussels that are ugly. Is that true? Who knows. Unfortunately I've never had the pleasure of seeing them. And I really wish that in this precise moment, instead of publishing useless bloggish lucubrations putting up with my monitor's blue radiations, again, I wish I could close my eyes and find myself sitting outdoors at the pier of a remote Mediterranean island, watching the fishermen coming back from the sea and exchanging opinions on their black haul.

And then, mussels may not be really beautiful right after being caught, but tell me the truth, who feels at their best in the morning right after waking up, before coffee, make-up, hair fixing and manicure?
Black-purplish shell, bright concentric veins and pearly inside. I bet you're already reconsidering them. Soft and seductive body. Perfect black-orange color pairing, to such an extent that one would think Domenico e Stefano (aka Dolce & Gabbana) didn't create anything new. And then mussels are too much fun: so easy and fast to cook, they always make an impression. Even as simple as these ones, that go only with their own juice and two slices of toasted bread.
You're ugly and mean as a mussel. I beg your pardon?

Mussels with White Wine Sauce
for 2 people

fresh mussels 1 lb.
white wine about 1/2 cup
olive oil, garlic, shallot, salt, pepper, parsley, butter

Clean the mussels, discard the beard and brush them very well. Transfer to a large bowl and mix them with one tablespoon olive oil, salt, pepper, minced parsley, one garlic clove, thinly sliced, and a little bit of minced shallot (optional).
Heat a large pan on the stove and when it's really hot pour the mussels with all their dressing in it. Shake the pan for few seconds, add the wine and cover immediately with a lid. Cook at high heat for 2 or 3 minutes, until mussels start to open. As soon as they open, take them out of the pan and transfer to a serving bowl. Discard the ones that didn't open. Add a tablespoon of butter to the leftover juice, reduce by cooking it for few minutes. Pour juice over the mussels and serve them with slices of toasted bread.

Light Carrot Almond Cake

Monday, August 3, 2009
Light Almond Carrot Cake

Like everyone's Grandma, mine also is the best cook ever, with her simple yet flavourful meals that had fed an always growing family for decades. And like everyone's Grandma, mine also cooks and bakes without scales, weights, measuring tools or gadgets of any kind. Nicht. Nada. All that counts are her instinct and experience, along with the availability of ingredients and the imagination of the moment. As a result, you can't find in her kitchen the classic Recipe Notebook, and the few ones she had written here and there on loose paper sheets are those she's never tried, so you might as well not bother...

Every time you try asking her Can you tell me how you make these?, you already know that it'll be useless, the recipe she tries to dictate goes all like this: Add a little flour..., Yes, but how much? I don't know, the right amount, as much as the dough can absorb; ...ehm....; Then add a handful of sugar... But more or less? Well, I don't know, just taste it...And then you fold in some eggs...; Eggs are easy, Grandma, how many? It all depends on how big they are... And the egg whites, do you need to whisk them stiff? I don't remember, it will occur to me once I make it...
So I usually give up, thinking that maybe it's better that way, some dishes wouldn't make sense outside of her kitchen where the dog is always seated at the head of the table acting as the official taster. Other times I can torture her to the end and I'm able to write out everything with the accuracy of a medieval monk, only to find out when time comes that the cookies turn out hard as stones, the tart crumbles under the filling's weight and the gnocchi don't come back to the surface anymore. It's like when those famous chefs go on TV, you already know that their recipes will be obscure, or, if you are lucky, they will omit one of the main ingredients. And all you get is a legendary, unforgettable disaster.

Yesterday, when I found this recipe in the middle of my old notes, I thought that maybe that day Grandma was hiding me the fat element. No oil, no butter, cream or yogurt. It sounded a bit odd, but I wanted to give it a try anyways, exactly how I had written it down. And for once the result was really satisfying: a super soft and light cake, perfect for breakfast. It's a sort of carrot sponge cake.
To make it richer, I filled it with some ricotta cream, but I think it'd go well also with some vanilla or lemon scented pastry cream. Or even simply paired with a huge latte : )

Carrot Almond Cake
Very Very Light

for a 9" diameter spring form

eggs 5
confectioners' sugar 150 gr.
carrots 250 gr.
almond 200 gr.
corn starch 100 gr.
baking powder 3/4 teaspoon
lemon 1
confectioners' sugar for dusting

Beat yolks with confectioners' sugar until light and fluffy. Add grated carrots, finely ground almonds, grated zest of lemon and a couple of spoons of its juice. Mix well, then add corn starch, sifted with baking powder. Whisk egg whites until firm, then gently fold them in.
Bake at 350 for about 40 or 50 minutes. Let it cool on a rack. Cut the cake in two layers, moist them by pouring over few teaspoons of milk and then spread over one of them the lemon scented ricotta cream (work about 250 gr. ricotta cheese with 2 tablespoons of confectioners' sugar and grated zest of 1/2 lemon until it gets smooth; whisk two egg whites until stiff and fold them gently into the cheese).
Reassemble the cake and dust generously with confectioners' sugar.