Sunday, December 9, 2012

Making Whole Grain Sourdough Bread

I always wanted to try sourdough bread...someday...but was put off by the all the complex instructions out there for getting started. This summer, I got lucky when a friend gifted me a starter from his own sourdough baking, with the instructions to follow the recipe for sourdough in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. 

the starter

Bittman's recipe is a good place to start because it's almost like sourdough-lite. You still add commercial yeast to make sure the bread will rise, and the starter is really there just for flavor. The day before baking, I spoon out half the starter into a bowl to combine it with yeast, flour, water, salt and my own mix of whole grains to up the nutritional value. Since his recipe involves making dough the day before, it means I can take a no-knead approach and just do a quick knead until it forms a supple ball. After letting the dough sit overnight, I bake it sometime the next day. 

using half the starter to bake a loaf

Each time I bake, I feed the starter by adding more flour and water. I then let it wait in the fridge for a week until I'm ready to bake again. Sometimes more than a week goes by, and the starter accumulates a grayish liquid on top - which is apparently alcohol called hooch that forms when the yeast runs out of sugar and starch to feed on. I pour off the hooch and scrape off the top grayish layer of starter to discard. Then I feed the starter and then wait another day or up to a week until I bake again. 

feeding the starter with new flour and water

Sometimes my sourdough bread rises well, and sometimes it doesn't. I am not really sure why - I think it has to do with how the starter has been fared since the last time I fed it. It's also possible that the rye flour I like to include is suppressing yeast bacteria. There are all sorts of forums for diagnosing soudough issues that you can get lost in, but I choose to ignore them and stick with my same approach. I don't let perfection worry me too much, and just hope it turns out better next time. My friend said he's since moved on to a new method that doesn't use commercial yeast, which I'll have to try next...

Whole Grain Sourdough Bread 
(adapted from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything)

To make the starter:
At least two days ahead of baking, combine 1 1/2 cup flour, 1/8 tsp yeast and 1 cup warm water. Cover with a damp towel and leave out on your counter. Stir every 8 to 12 hours. Within 1-3 days, the starter should be bubbly and develop a sour smell. After that you can store it in the fridge until you're ready to bake.

To maintain the starter:
Each time you use half the starter for baking, feed it by adding 3/4 cup all purpose flour and 1/2 cup water. Whisk to combine. Cover with a damp cloth and leave out overnight. The next day, cover the container and store in the fridge for up to a week before baking and/or feeding again.

To make the dough:
1/2 of the starter
1/4 tsp yeast
1 1/2 - 2 cups of water
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup rye flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup oats
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1 tsp salt

The day before baking: 
In a large bowl, stir the yeast and 1/2 cup warm water until the yeast is mostly dissolved in the water. Let it sit for about five minutes until you can smell the yeasty aroma that indicates the yeast is working. Dump the flour, grains and salt on top, along with 1/2 cup of water. Stir to combine and add more water as needed in 1/4 cup increments. With experience, you will learn the consistency you are looking for - wet and pliable but still able to knead and handle without it being too sticky. I knead right in the bowl, rather than on a cutting board to save on cleanup efforts, for about five minutes. I dust my hands and the dough with flour a few times during kneading as needed. Form the dough into a ball, place seam side down in the bowl, and cover the bowl with a damp towel. Let it rest overnight.

12-24 hours later:
Preheat the oven to 450 about 30 minutes prior to baking. Lightly grease a loaf pan. Gently press down the risen dough and shape into a loaf. Bake at 450 for 30 minutes and then turn down the heat to 350 and bake another 15-30 minutes, until loaf is golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped.

If you're not ready to try making sourdough yet
See here for my versatile adaptations of no-knead dough
and see here for my regular whole grain bread recipe

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Making Sense of Outdoor Space in the City

I'm over at the Green Phone Booth today reflecting on my conflicting desire to have my own outdoor space so I can do seemingly green urban homesteading activities like vegetable gardening and composting, even though it's not sustainable for everyone to have their own piece of land to do so. Moreover, my yard turned out not to be a dream come true. Read on to find out why...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Spicy Pumpkin Soup with Bacon Croutons

I have been fortunate that the lives of most of my friends and family were not upset by Hurricane Sandy. Even my parents' beach house on a New Jersey barrier island somehow pulled through okay, sitting an extra 20 inches off the ground past the top of the flood water. I do have some friends who went without power for more than a week, like the couple who run a food truck business out of their building in Red Hook. Luckily their commercial kitchen space and apartment above were fine, well as their food truck parked in Gowanus. But their basement flooded to the ceiling, and Evan spent an afternoon helping them clean while they decided what of their belongings could be salvaged and what had to be tossed.

Knowing we had a lamb roast in our freezer, we invited them over for a home cooked meal. There have been so many post-Sandy volunteer opportunities that I haven't taken part in. It's been heartening to see how New Yorkers have stepped up to take care of each other, but honestly, I am not personally a manual labor or talk to strangers kind of person. Cooking a meal for friends, however, I could do.

But this is not about the lamb - this is about the pumpkin soup we served. It feels homey and warming, perfect for this time of year when we are easing into winter, with some hardships along the way. It's a riff off a similar soup from Simply Recipes, scaled back in serving size. I originally left out the sugar, but realized it was a little too bland at the first taste. After adding maple syrup and more salt, it went straight to amazing, especially with a sprinkling of bacon bits and croutons. The hint of sweetness in the soup balances the heat of all the spices. Don't worry about sticking to the spices listed in the ingredients - throw in whatever spices you have in your cabinet that you think might be fun.

My croutons were made from stale multigrain flatbread that resulted from a failed attempt on my part to make a decent loaf of bread. My guests enjoyed their hearty and grainy crunch, but you could use any day old or stale bread. While we were eating, I imagined that fried sage would really put it over the top, and included that as a suggestion below. 

The entirety of the steps below may look daunting, but it actually feels like a piece of cake if you make the bacon and roast pumpkin the day before like I did. Then all you have to do is pull things out of the fridge to combine them in a pot, and prepare the croutons while the soup is simmering.
This time of year, Evolutionary Organics Farm has a wealth of beautifully funny looking squashes and pumpkins at their stand at the Grand Army Greenmarket. This variety is Musquee de Provence, also known as Fairytale, an heirloom pumpkin from France that  packs a lot of flesh and is well flavored for soups and pies. I got six cups of roasted puree out of this beauty, as I work on roasting and hoarding a stash of pureed pumpkin in my freezer to last me through a winter of baking. Really, though, any pumpkin or squash will work in this recipe.
Spicy Pumpkin Soup with Bacon Croutons
1 tbsp bacon fat or olive oil
1 small onion
4 cups vegetable stock 
4 cups pureed roasted pumpkin or squash
1/2 tsp curry
1/2 tsp tumeric 
1/2 tsp cumin 
1/2 tsp coriander 
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper 
1/8 tsp cayenne 
1 tsp salt 
1 cup milk 
1/4 cup maple syrup 
6 strips of bacon (1 strip per serving)
few slices of slightly stale bread
handful of fresh sage (optional)

To roast the pumpkin: 
Preheat the oven to 450. Leaving the skin on the pumpkin, slice it in half. Scoop out the seeds and set them aside (you can roast them into a snack while the pumpkin is cooking). Place each half of pumpkin flesh side down in a large baking dish. Fill the dish with about a half inch of water. Stick it in the oven for about 40-60 minutes, depending on the size. It's done when the skin has softened and the flesh can be easily mashed all the way through with a fork. Remove it from the oven. Once it has cooled off, use a fork to scoop out the roasted pumpkin flesh. If you like, use an immersion blender to puree the somewhat stringy flesh into creamy puree. Freeze extra puree in half or full cup portions for baking.

To prepare the soup:
Warm a medium size pot and coat the bottom with bacon fat (or olive oil). Dice one small onion and sautee until softened. Add the stock, pumpkin, and spices and stir to thoroughly combine. Turn the heat to high and cover until it comes to a boil. Uncover, reduce heat and let it simmer for about 15 minutes.  Turn off the heat and use an immersion blender to puree the soup until smooth (or wait for it too cool and transfer to a food processor or blender). Stir in milk and maple syrup. Add more salt to taste.

To prepare bacon croutons :
Using fresh bacon: Slice slightly stale bread into half inch cubes. Rinse sage leaves and slice roughly in half or thirds. Fry one strip of bacon per serving. Add bread cubes to the pan, and toward the end, add the sage as well, making sure both bread and sage are coated in bacon fat and cooked until slightly crispy. Let it all drain and cool on paper towels before dicing the bacon into bits. 

Using leftover bacon: Chop cold bacon into small bits. On a small tray, toss the bread cubes with a little olive oil and salt and then scatter bacon bits and fresh sage around the cubes. Toast in the toaster oven for about ten minutes.

Ladle soup into a bowl and top with a sprinkling of the bacon-sage crouton mix. Makes about 6 servings.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Guest Post: Hunting My Own Meat

While New York gets back on its feet and prepares to return to the normalcy of going back to work, my sister Lisa is here to share a guest post from Oregon about fulfilling her lifelong dream to learn to hunt (which I never knew she had).

A long, long time ago, when I was a child on a goat farm, I became a vegetarian. My reasons: it was environmentally irresponsible, wasteful, and often cruel to animals. My parents weren’t into it, but they stopped trying to feed me meat after a month or so. I never thought it was wrong to kill animals -- I knew as a human that it was a natural activity. Hunting was a controversial and extremely cultural issue in southern New York. Deer are overpopulated because they no longer have any natural predators besides humans. And I only knew of one person in the whole town (of 30,000 people) who hunted. Hunting was portrayed as something that hillbillies do, it was uncivilized and gross. I never prescribed to that shitty bias. I remember taking a poll in high school once where I asked people two questions: 1) Do you think hunting is wrong or cruel? and 2) Are you a vegetarian. 0% of my 40 person study group were vegetarians but about 50% said they were against hunting. Interesting results!

So, basically, I could not wait until the day that I actually was able to learn to hunt my food, to kill it and prepare it myself, to have the most cruelty-free and sustainable meat.

After graduate school in New York City, I moved to the high desert of Eastern Oregon, and have slowly begun to ease my way into the activities that are so common and normal here: hunting and fishing.

Last June I caught my first trout. I went on my first deer hunt a few weeks ago, with my boyfriend and his family who are very experienced and intelligent hunters. I learned gun safety, hunting strategy, and the excitement and beauty of a hunting trip. We hunted in the northeastern corner of Oregon where the red sunrises and sunsets flowed through the geometry of 400 foot deep canyons. And I shot a deer through the heart with one shot (I guess the hand-eye coordination from softball pitching lessons really paid off, mom!). No suffering, instant predation. Gutting the deer felt felt much more natural than I thought it would. It was like dissecting an animal in biology class, except with the proud knowledge that we were all going to share several great meals afterward.

Duck hunting is trickier than I thought. I hunted for ducks in a wildlife area in a basin lake from 7-11am, and then again from 1-4pm, my whole body covered with varying layers of camouflage except for my eyes (ducks can see color and understand what a face is). It was very cold, then it was very hot, and we only saw about two ducks flying the whole day.

My boyfriend's family and I are going duck hunting Thanksgiving morning, to bring home some fresh duck, and maybe geese, to cook as our Thanksgiving meal. I'm glad that I get to participate in such a thankful and sustainable tradition.

The only thing left is to get Julia to hunt with me when she comes out to Oregon at some point (which is totally going to happen).

Hmmm, I don't know about that. While I support the act of hunting your own meat for the same reasons that Lisa does, I'm personally not interested in taking part in it, at least for now. Although, I do think it would be a useful survival skill if we see apocalyptic environmental and economic changes during our lifetime. What about you - would you ever go hunting?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Day in My Life

I'm over at the Green Phone Booth today, where I'll now be blogging every so often. To introduce myself to the booth, I've shared a typical day in my life, so go check it out if you've ever wondered how I spend my days.

Although, this week has been anything but typical. Hurricane Sandy hit New York hard. I personally felt thankful to be unaffected and thankful for all of our modern infrastructure and conveniences, which meant I was snug in my apartment on high ground without even losing power, able to monitor the news via internet throughout the storm. For me, the hurricane has meant days of getting to just relax, cook good food and do some work remotely at home, while we wait for power to be restored to lower Manhattan where my office is located, and for the subway stations connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan to be pumped clear of flooding. Selfishly, the forced relaxation that comes with severe weather is a welcome relief from my busy life. I am grateful for this, knowing that for others, it has meant days of darkness without power. Given that subway service has already been partially restored and that Manhattan's power will likely be restored by Saturday, I think we can be optimistic about our city's path to recovery.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lavender Gin Fizz

It might not seem like the right season for this refreshing cocktail, but I want to take advantage of the fresh herbs growing my backyard before they succumb to the cold. After transplanting my lavender plant into the ground to help it weather the winter, I picked a handful of green leaves to simmer into a sweet and lightly aromatic syrup.

Evan asked for advice from his friend who he considers to be a cocktail expert, and within minutes had a text back recommending a lavender gin fizz. This is my kind of drink - light, sweet and a little bubbly. It tastes just fine until you add the the soda water at the end, which really jazzes it up. Make sure not to add too much lemon juice, which can overpower the lavender.

I was happy to have a use for a new gin that I picked up on a trip earlier this fall to the Tuthilltown Spirits* distillery upstate. Being a fan of their bourbon, I was excited to learn they are expanding their offerings to include this gin, which is made of apples and wheat and is much more affordable than their whiskey.

We shook up several glasses of this drink for a party I threw a couple weeks ago. It was intended to be an outdoor party, but fickle October kept us mostly indoors, where a cool drink in hand was welcome. Evan was nice enough to man the grill and build the first fire in our chiminea, so guests could wander outside as they pleased and enjoy the smoky smell that signals the change in seasons.

Lavender Gin Fizz
2 oz gin
1/2 oz lavender simple syrup (see below)
juice of a quarter of a lemon
splash of soda water or seltzer
optional lemon twist garnish

In a shaker, combine several ice cubes with the gin, syrup and lemon juice. (You can combine up to about three servings in the shaker at once). Shake and strain into glasses that have been prepared with two ice cubes. Add a splash of soda water, or a little bit more if you want it even more fizzy and a little less strong. Add a lemon twist for extra class.

Lavender Simple Syrup
handful of fresh lavender leaves
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

Combine in a saucepan over low heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Let cool and strain into a glass jar. Store in the fridge for about a week or two, mixing into drinks as needed.

*I am not receiving anything in return for mentioning them - I just happen to like Tuthilltown.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Scenes from a Music Video Shoot

Last weekend my band Sexy Neighbors had a video shoot for our song "Breaking Walls." When I originally heard the concept was for us to play at a house party, I thought we would just shoot random shots of a party. But when I showed up I was extremely impressed at all the work that went into it -- from our guitarist who planned out all the shots, to our videographer who was on top of this game, and especially the generosity of the people at the Texas Firehouse, a live work space in Long Island City overlooking Roosevelt Island bridge, the Con Ed power plant, and a laundry factory. They helped our guitarist turn their art gallery into a fake living room, complete with hand-drawn electric outlets and windows and a fake wall to break by throwing a TV through it. They even cooked us all a healthy curry stew for dinner with hot peppers from their roof garden, before we drank a fridge full of forties. When I thanked them, they just said, "that's what the space is for." I can't wait to see the video and will be sure to share it here when it's ready.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why You Should Follow the Frog

People want to know what they can do to help protect the environment. They fear that their personal actions are not making enough of a difference. But, all of our small actions do add up and we can only make change by starting at home.

The organization I work for, Rainforest Alliance put together this (very amusing) video to explain that you don't need to go to the ends of the earth to protect the planet - you can start by "following the frog." By purchasing goods like coffee, tea, chocolate, and juice with the Rainforest Alliance frog seal, you can rest assured that your dollars are supporting farmers who are earning a good wage and growing responsibly in a way that protects the environment and wildlife.

And you can know that your purchasing decisions are contributing to a transformative impact. For example, in just a few years, the Rainforest Alliance has trained over half a million small holder tea farmers to adopt sustainable practices and has certified nearly 10% of the world's tea. So you see, the decisions we make every day about what to buy - whether you look for organic or local or Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade or FSC or some other sustainable label - can make a difference around the world.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Living Small

Upon moving out of the apartment with the bed bug issue where I lived with my best friend, my next move was in with my boyfriend. He had been living in a smallish one bedroom, but we thought it was just a little too small for the two of us, so we spent all of March and April hunting for a bigger apartment, to no avail. Because his current rent would be so cheap split two ways and we knew we could make it work, we didn't want to move unless we found something worthwhile, which we didn't. So we decided not to be pressured by the rental market and to stay put until we felt like looking again.

What we learned was that his apartment was not too small, like he had feared. We actually fit together just fine in 400 feet. I'm a minimalist, so I didn't add much more to his space, and I enjoy puzzling out small living spaces. Evan has plenty of stuff like a normal person, including a bazillion musical instruments and cables, but he knows how to hide things away under his bed or shoved in the closet. If we had stayed there longer, we could have invested in more vertical storage like tall, narrow bookshelves or dressers or floating shelves, to use the space even more efficiently.

There are certain elements that make a tiny home more usable, and that apartment boasted many of them: An open kitching/living plan, which made cooking social rather than isolating and made entertaining possible. No narrow hallways to eat up space. Multiple closets to fit all our stuff, with enough vertical room for two shelves above the hangers. More kitchen cabinets and counter space than most NYC apartments I've lived in. To that end, they were deep kitchen cabinets with room for storage above them. Window boxes and ample windowsills for growing herbs and cheery flowers and sleeping cats.

We did rent a storage unit, which I always considered excessively yuppie, but now I realize it's worth paying another $85 a month to hide winter clothes or boxes of your boyfriend's random stuff, rather than paying many more hundreds in rent. (And we held onto some extra furniture in case we moved.)

Now that we're in a bigger apartment, I still miss that one sometimes. I miss lounging on the couch and chatting with Evan five feet away at the kitchen counter. I miss laying in bed and hearing him play guitar right next to me. Mostly, it felt cozy and homey and lived in. I'm glad we had that experience -- it's good to know that we know we could downsize and fit in small space again if need be. I would have been happy to stay there a while longer, but instead, we ended up moving only a few months later into an apartment almost twice the size.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Watermelon Lime Mint Punch

Although the weather is easing into fall, watermelon is still making appearances at farmers markets and end-of-the-season outdoor parties. Now, have you ever noticed that it's nearly impossible to eat a whole watermelon, or even for that matter, a half-size one? It's fun to eat, but hard to finish off all that volume. Even after dinners with friends, there are leftover pieces that languish in my fridge.
So this watermelon punch is a great solution to the watermelon problem. It's light and refreshing and a little sweet, and depending on how much seltzer you add, a little bubbly. I served it straight up in a pitcher at the double birthday party, so our pregnant friend and anyone else who desired could have some non-alcoholic fun to drink. For the rest of us, a shot of gin or vodka was the perfect accompaniment in our punch glass.
The ingredients below are rough guidelines -- you can take liberties as long as it tastes good. At a party last weekend, the host served a variation that also involved infused cucumber and St. Germain. I do recommend fresh lime juice (even though I admit to using bottled juice because that was also sitting in the fridge needing to be used up). Note that it freezes just fine, so you could freeze half to take a little bit of summer with you into the fall.
Watermelon Lime Mint Punch
half a large watermelon
1 handful of fresh mint
3 tbsp lime juice (about 3 or 4 limes)
vodka or gin (optional)

Chop the watermelon into large chunks, removing the rind and any large seeds. Blend it with the mint and lime juice until smooth. You could strain it if you want to be extra classy, but it's not necessary. At this point, you can choose to store it in the fridge for a few days or the freezer for a few weeks. When you're ready to serve, mix the punch with seltzer, which thins it out and brightens it up. You want about 1 part seltzer to 1-2 parts watermelon. Add a shot of vodka or gin to each glass for a nice cocktail.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bed Bugs Part 2: How it affected my life

The unpleasant thing about bed bugs is not the itching. That is much worse if you have say, a mosquito problem, which I've experienced indoors and outdoors in Brooklyn. It's the way you have to live carefully, so that you won't spread bugs anywhere or to anyone else. It's the work involved in keeping your things meticulously clean and sealed up in bags. And doing it all over again when you realize you left a bag open after a late night of drinking or the cat tore it open. It's the paranoia that made me wonder if every itchy spot was a bite, at some point losing perspective on what was normal everyday itching and what were true bites. So looking back, I probably had fewer bites than I feared I did. It was also the indignity of negotiating solutions with a landlord who just. didn't. get. it.*

So from October 2011 to April 2012, I lived out of bags like this. I paid $1,000 a month to live in a ~70 square foot, windowless room in a railroad apartment that meant my roommate and her cat traversed through my room like a hallway.** We couldn't have guests over. Only my boyfriend, who somehow had the patience to deal with the system of coming over, immediately changing into the pajamas he kept there and putting all his stuff in a plastic bag. I did the same thing in reverse when going to his place, to prevent possibly carrying bugs there, which luckily worked.

Obviously during this time, the apartment wasn't a particularly enjoyable place to be, and it didn't feel like a home - more like a crash pad where I would return after work, rifle through plastic bags, to pack up my things to leave again in the morning and spend a night or weekend at my boyfriend's. You don't realize how important home is - as a solid ground where you can retreat and restore - until it's gone.

I'm also angry that it stole from me this time that was supposed to be a year of enjoying single living with my best friend, because I wasn't around as much as I otherwise might have been, and we didn't have parties or friends over the way we had hoped. The apartment that my roommate had decorated so cutely turned out to just be a headache.

The experience was particularly trying because after previous negative living experiences, I had told myself I would never let myself get stuck again. Yet, there I was, unable to move on.

The thing that got me through it was the belief that I would be living in a normal home again by summertime. A place where I could come home and just lounge on a couch or hang my clothes up in a closet. And, it came true, since I now live in a real home with my boyfriend.

* why don't landlords ever get it? why are they all clueless?
** but that's its own story about how the NYC rental market sucks.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bed Bugs Part 1: The Story

I was waiting for the bed bug ordeal to be over and my apartment security deposit to be returned before talking about it here. So now that it is safely past me (at least this time...because there is no guarantee that I won't get bed bugs again when they are so prevalent in New York) ...

There are two kinds of bed bug infestations. In the first one, you notice a couple bugs and bites and get sprayed right away, a few times over the course of a month and a half. You don't experience any bug evidence after the first spraying, so after the last one you can feel secure that the problem is gone and go back to normal living. This is how it seems to go for most people. It didn't go that way for me.

In the second scenario, the landlord ignores bed bug complaints for too long and doesn't handle the situation properly, which allows them to infest the whole building. I only know of a few other cases like this. 

Our building supposedly had bugs a year or so prior, and then they popped up in one apartment again, but the landlord ignored it for months before bringing in an exterminator. For some reason, those particular tenants didn't care enough to do much of anything about it, so their infestation spread to other apartments and continued to persist. Neither the landlord nor my downstairs neighbors understood the value of a preemptive, comprehensive approach. The landlord refused to spray the whole building on the same day. He hired an exterminator who would only come to our place on his days off from his regular job. Then he had his handyman "trained" as a secondary exterminator, who did a terrible job. Also, it was weird being in a text-friendly relationship with the exterminator that got so friendly he asked my roommate out on a date.

Our landlord also pressured me into not reporting him to the city, insinuating he would withhold our deposit. And since all I ultimately wanted was to be able to move out and get my security deposit back without spending time or money in the court system, we didn't report him. So now that I'm no longer fiscally or legally tied to him, I can say that Marek Kaczor is a bad landlord. It wasn't just the bugs. There were constantly things going wrong, like no hot water for a week, no heat over Christmas, no working oven for a month. Our neighbors downstairs said they had taken out two lawsuits against him. Unfortunately for renters, he owns several buildings in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, mostly rented by Bedford Prime Realty.

I would have liked to just move out of the building, like many of the other tenants did within a couple months. However, my roommate refused to move - and I couldn't very well sublet a room with bed bug risk, I didn't want to pay double rent to live somewhere else, and since my roommate was my best friend, I couldn't just leave her to deal with figuring out how to cover my rent. 

Instead, after three months, the landlord realized it was probably because bugs could hide in our cracked floors. So we moved across the hall into a fully sealed apartment while he redid our old apartment. Things got better there, but knowing that the apartment below us still had bugs meant I could not, nor would I ever in that building, trust it was safe to take my stuff out of bags.

We finally moved out in May, two months short of our lease. Ultimately, it turned out for the best that we waited until the spring to move. By then, we hadn't had any definite bites in a couple months, so we felt relatively confident that the bugs were gone and we wouldn't be taking them with us. Which meant I didn't have to throw out or store away my stuff, or spend a month's worth of rent to fumigate all of my belongings, all ideas I had previously, angrily considered.

You can be sure that when I went hunting for a new apartment, I was thorough about checking into the landlord. Most people by now know about the bed bug registry. But in New York City, you can also search an address in the city's public database of building registrations and violations to look for past and current complaints, violations, and lawsuits, and to find out the landlord's name so you can google for any dirt to be found on them. I always ask the broker/landlord/current tenant if there has been any history of bugs or other problems. There is also a disclosure of bed bug history form the landlord is required to complete if you ask for it. See the city website for more on the laws related to tenants' rights and landlord obligations regarding bed bugs

This experience also taught me the value in trusting your gut when looking for a new apartment. My gut didn't feel good about choosing this apartment in the first place, but we took it anyway because we felt like options and time were running out. In Part 2 tomorrow, I talk a bit more about how this experience tested my patience and my sanity.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Double Birthday Party

When we found out we were moving into an apartment with a yard, we instantly started to get excited about hosting Evan's upcoming birthday party at home. Originally we hoped to have an afternoon outdoor affair, but our bizarre daytime mosquitos dashed that dream (more on that later) so it turned into a nighttime inside-outside party. It was good motivation to get all unpacked and settled both inside and out within the month of moving, even if it did mean I was throwing up a few posters just before the first guests arrived.

Because we expected a large attendance, we went with a handful of appetizers rather than serving a full dinner. I made my white bean herb dip, which is versatile enough to use whatever herbs you have on hand. In the past I've mostly used rosemary, sage and thyme, but this time it was heavy on the parsley and marjoram because that's what's flourishing in my yard. The dip went out with a bowl of bruschetta topping (diced tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil) alongside vegetable crudite, sliced baguette, crackers and a cheese plate. The other birthday boy's wife made lemon ricotta sage butternut squash crostini and delicious mini tarts with feta, tomato, and cucumber (I think).

Like our party back in February, I like to put up a sign next to the bar suggesting cocktail options to make it readily apparent what's available. At this party, in addition to standard bar fare, we had a couple punches that could be enjoyed with or without the addition of alcohol - a cucumber limeade that a friend brought, and a watermelon-lime-mint punch (will share that recipe soon).

For dessert, I made mini flourless chocolate cupcakes - as expected, the miniature size is perfect because they are so rich that even the regular cupcake size is a bit much. I also made peach oatmeal crumble squares (pictured above) by adapting a Smitten Kitchen recipe for blueberry crumb bars. Since I don't have the requisite 9x13 inch pan, I did some math to determine that my 12 inch cast iron pan covers about the same area. I didn't believe that Deb was able to cut hers into 36 squares, until I started cutting mine and realized a little square will go a long way because they are tall and dense, especially so with my addition of a cup of oatmeal to the dough. And then, of course, there was the ice cream cake...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How to Make a (Vanilla Blueberry) Ice Cream Cake

First, find a good reason to make one. I knew for months that I wanted to make an ice cream cake for Evan's birthday party. He tried to steer me away, saying it would be too messy, too hard to serve, etc. Indeed, I usually avoid making cakes for parties, preferring to bake simpler handheld apportioned desserts like cupcakes. But I felt a special occasion such as a double 30th birthday party (he shared his party with his best friend who was born only 10 days away) merited an extra special baking adventure, especially for someone who loves ice cream as much as Evan.

Second, decide on your preferred style of ice cream cake. It turns out it's hard to find basic instructions for ice cream cake. There are lots of variations out there, often involving elaborate cookie studded ice cream or unusual flavors. Some aren't real cake, just cookies crumbled into a layer topped with ice cream. I scoff at those. Some are made of ice cream spread between two whole layers of cake. But Evan doesn't like regular cake that much, so I didn't want to make the cake primary and the ice cream secondary. Some versions involve a layer of ice cream molded in a cake pan to perfectly match a layer of cake in size. However, those recipes call for a lot of ice cream (two quarts), which would consume too much money and time to make. Many suggest whipped cream as frosting. But I don't like whipped cream.

Decide on a cake of your own design: In my case, it was a Vanilla Ice Cream Cake with Blueberry Filling: half a layer of vanilla cake, topped with blueberry filling, then a layer of vanilla ice cream, then half a layer of vanilla cake, and then frosted with vanilla ice cream. After it's all spent time in the freezer together, the slightly-ice-cream-soaked-half-cake-layers are just the right size to provide a chilled sturdiness, while the pure vanilla ice cream shines and the blueberries jazz it up.

Two or three days ahead, bake the cake. I used Smitten Kitchen's Best Birthday Yellow Layer Cake. Like Evan, I think regular cake is kind of boring, but Deb did not let me down and this cake was surprisingly tasty, so I kept sneaking bites of the bits that stuck to the pan. I have just one cake pan that is a rectangle around 7x11 inches, so I diminished her recipe by a quarter and left out the buttermilk and salt because no one misses that. Cream 1 1/2 sticks of butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar, whisk in 3 eggs, 1 cup milk and 2 tsp vanilla. Dump in 3 cups flour, 1 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1 1/4 tsp baking soda and beat to combine until smooth. Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes. I had trouble getting the cake out of the pan even after it had cooled for an hour, so I employed a trick of placing a wet washcloth around the bottom of the pan for a few minutes before trying again, and it actually worked. Wrap the cake in plastic wrap and store it in the freezer.

Sometime between making the cake and the ice cream, make the blueberry filling. It is essentially a blueberry jam, and you want to make sure you leave enough time for it to chill before assembling the cake. In a saucepan, combine 1 pint of blueberries, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water, 2 tbsp cornstarch and the juice of half a lemon. Let the mixture simmer on low for about a half hour, until the juice has evaporated off and it's thick enough to spread. Let it cool completely.

One day ahead, make the ice cream and assemble the cake. Homemade ice cream is soft enough to spread easily after it first comes out of the ice cream machine, so you want to have everything ready to assemble as soon as it is done churning. I followed the trusty recipe for basic vanilla ice cream that is found in the little pamphlet that accompanied my ice cream machine. Whisk 3/4 cup sugar and one cup milk until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Whisk in 2 cups cream and 2 tsp vanilla. Turn on your ice cream machine, pour it in, and let it churn for 15 minutes.

While it churns, begin to assemble the cake. Remove the cake from the freezer and carefully carefully slice it in half. You probably want to use a long serrated knife. Spread the blueberry preserves over the bottom layer and stick it back in the freezer to let the blueberry layer firm up a bit.

When the ice cream is done churning, spread about half of it on top of the blueberry filling. Lay the second layer of cake on top and then spread the remaining half of the ice cream across the top. Leave the sides for last and do it quickly. As I learned, ice cream does not work that well as "frosting" since it melts and drips rather than adhering to the sides. Nevertheless, do your best and ignore the mess. You can cleanly scrape away the melted puddle around the cake after it has spent its time in the freezer.

Store the ice cream cake in the freezer until just before serving. Luckily, it fit quite well inside of my cupcake carrier, which fit just barely into my freezer. Otherwise I probably would have tried to wrangle plastic wrap around it.

When it comes to time to serve, make sure all accompanying items are at hand, since time is of the essence when it comes to serving ice cream cake. We ushered everyone outside to wait with champagne and sparklers, while I scrambled last minute to find a lighter for the candles. Then I was glad to have a real candlelit cake to present for the happy birthday chorus moment. This was followed by shouting "quick come and eat the cake before it melts!" while the other birthday boy was presented with his present, a bow-adorned bicycle. We got about 20 small squares out of this ice cream cake, which turned out to be enough, because as anyone who's been to a wedding knows, not everyone wants cake at a party.