One of many things I love about the Asian celebration of Lunar New Year is that the fun and festivities need not be crammed into one day and one night. It’s a luxurious and leisurely holiday season, lasting two full weeks and observed in countless ways for the duration. Beginning on the night of the new moon and ending on the arrival of the full moon, it can include parades, family gatherings, feasts, snacks, firecrackers, visiting, travel, and infinite expressions of good fortune in all areas of life.
Red and gold colors abound, since these two symbolize and invite good luck to show up and stick around. Here in North Carolina, the huge Asian supermarket where I shop year-round overflows with auspicious decorations for homes and businesses, along with favorite edible New Year treats including persimmons, tangerines and pomelos, all of which are in season, golden in color and round in shape, which symbolizes harmony and unity. Early-blooming branches of puffy pussy willow and plum and peach blossoms are on sale as symbols of new beginnings, a reminder that the festival’s origin is to welcome the spring season.
Dumplings are a great favorite traditional Lunar New Year food, and dumpling-making parties bring families and friends together to share the tasks of filling, shaping, cooking, and feasting on dumplings. The simplest Chinese dumpling, jiaozi, begins with a seasoned minced pork mixture which is wrapped up in a chewy flour dough wrapper and boiled, pan fried, or steamed, if not all three methods at the same gathering.
While a traditional gathering includes mixing up the simple wheat flour-water dough, kneading it well, rolling out circles and filling them on the spot, you can make a simple, delightful version using won ton wrappers from the supermarket. While a midnight dumpling-making party on Lunar New Year’s Eve isn’t possible this year (that was this past Wednesday, February 18th), you can still invite good luck and good times into your home kitchen over the next 10 days, because Lunar New Year takes its time coming in.
My friend Dean brought me this pile of pears from a roadside stand in Ashe County, North Carolina. Ashe County is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on the NC-Virginia border northwest of Winston-Salem, NC. They were hard and sturdy, not the best for eating out of hand, but full of flavor, which I took in two directions: one sweet and one savory.
First move was to put a pear pie in the oven. Peeled, cored and chopped in large chunks, these pears baked up beautifully, filling the kitchen with a spice-kissed perfume and giving juice aplenty. I added chopped pecans and currants since those were on hand. Next pear pie I will give raisins and walnuts a whirl. My sister Linda reminded me that we had a gigantic pear tree growing on the vacant lot next to our home in Burlington NC when we were little, and that our mother made pear pies each autumn.
In researching my cookbook, Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan, I came across many recipes for pear pie in which the pears are cooked first on top of the stove to make a chunky preserves. This pear preserves (and potential pie filling, and dessert on its own, in small bowls, with cream or not) kept well through the winter and served as a dessert on its own, as well as providing a ready-to-bake pie filling for cooks when the fresh fruit was long gone. Pear preserves on the pantry shelf: That would be a feeling of contentment and pride.
For this simple pie, I didn’t really pay too much mind to amounts. Fruit pies need just a big pile of fruit, peeled and chopped in nice chunks, big bite-sized is my favorite. About 3/4 cup sugar + 2 tablespoons of flour or cornstarch + a pinch of salt + spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger — about 2 teaspoons total, any combination, or none; not everybody likes spices and some people think it covers up the pear’s own flavor, but I like them myself), and generous pinch or 2 of salt. Stir those together, toss with the fruit, tumble into a pie crust unbaked. Dot with butter: i love that phrase from my early baking days in cookbooks. 2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into nice bits, and scattered and placed all over the fruit. Pile it up in the center as it sinks down. Cover, pinch, press, cut slits or holes for steam and juice, and bake at 400 degrees for 10 – 12 minutes; then at 350 degrees until the crust is golden brown, the pie is bubbling and juicy, and the pears are tender, 40 to 55 minutes. Vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, or cream on the side is a lovely addition, but not a necessity, not at all.
My friend Elizabeth Young suggested pear chutney, which she makes using pears in an apple chutney recipe from The Original Moosewood Cookbook. I found a version of it and followed it using what I had in the house, which to my surprise did not include fresh ginger. This extraordinary ingredient is one I mean to keep on hand in the basket above the sink, where a permanent supply of onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, lemons, and limes keep company with occasional avocados, plum tomatoes, and butternut squash. I had all the spices, which give this relish a substantial fragrance and pleasing kick, and I added currants because I love them in fall dishes in general and savory ones in particular. The pears stayed firm and the garlic took the lead. My expectation when seeing ‘chutney’ is of a softer, smoother, sweeter dish, so I would describe this as a relish, and I will make it again to keep company with pork chops, roast chicken, or rice and curry. Click here for the recipe I used for this Pear Chutney, substituting pears for the apples.
I love Lottie + Doof, a blog by a Chicago-based food writer and photographer named Tim Mazurek. It’s always gorgeous and interesting and the tone is gentle and inviting. Until an early September post, entitled The Torte, which began with an outright command: “Make this cake.” Now, I don’t go letting just any food writer up and be the boss of me, but Lottie + Doof has my trust, and, entranced by the handsome image and confident in his intentions, I read on.
By the end of paragraph #3, I was completely on board. When I quickly got to the actual recipe, I did a little happy dance because I had EVERY SINGLE INGREDIENT ON HAND IN MY HOUSE. Right then and THERE! I really like not having to go to the store or the market or the south forty when I am all fired up to make a certain dish which has caught my fancy. It was a sign, and a good sign indeed. One centerpiece ingredient, plums, were in short supply in my kitchen, and what I had was on the last day of being lusciously-ripe as opposed to around-the-bend ripe.
But I had a handful of blackberries with which to fill in, and I figured super-ripe extra-juicy plums could be a plus and not a minus. (I was right about that.) In fact, my 8-inch spring form pan only allowed me room for most-but-not-all of the plums, and no blackberries, so I was truly on this recipe’s path.
Into the oven went my plum torte in my 8-inch spring-form pan, at 350 degrees F for around 50 minutes…
I left off the optional dusting of cinnamon and sugar over the top before baking, and tossed the lemon juice with the plums because I got so eager to have the cake ready that I presumed that was the plan. All this was absolutely fine. While the torte (which I believe to mean “thick lovely single-layer Euro-cake which needs no icing and creates joy) baked, I finished reading and checked out Lottie + Doof’s inspiration, a recipe featured often in the New York Times since Marion Burros first published it there in 1981. Turns out it was featured in the Elegant but Easy Cookbook, written by Ms. Burros and Lois Levine in 1960 and revised in the 1990’s. Ms. Burros credits her friend and co-author Lois Levine with the recipe, in this feature on the cake from The Splendid Table.
“Ding!” and it was done, and then out it came, lovely and irresistible, though resist I did, until it cooled down. More fruit in bigger pieces would have been pleasing, but I was thrilled with how it looked. After it cooled I easily liberated it from the spring form pan, even though you neither grease the pan nor line it with parchment/waxed paper for this gem of a recipe.
I cut into it as soon as it cooled down, and I liked it very much. He was absolutely right about it all. I also concur with Mr. Marzurek’s assessment that this is a recipe you will be able to remember without even looking back at the recipe, once you have made it about three times. He said two, but I’m working with me, and I think third time’s the charm.
Then I started wondering if the spring form pan was a deal-breaker, since I know that not everyone who enjoys baking(or might if they tried it), has this fine piece of kitchen equipment. I got some raspberries to stretch the blackberries (worth trip to store), and went in for round #2.
It baked up beautifully, and could have handled even more berries than I put on it. I love the peekaboo quality, but I also love seeing lots of fruit beckoning when it’s serving time.
Ungreased and unsprung, this dense and friendly cake plopped right out and survived being turned back over, so if you were worried about the spring form pan issue, don’t be. A cake pan works fine. I’m fond of the 8-inch pans which make for a somewhat thicker torte. But Mr. Mazurek used a larger spring form and his more svelte slice of plum torte looks quite marvelous. This is one user-friendly, have-at-it, go-for-it, you-can-do-it Everything Cake.
So you know what I’m going to say, right? Make This Cake! You won’t be the first, fiftieth, or fifty-leventh times tenth, but that’s all right. Good things should be shared, like deviled eggs, lemonade, tomato sandwiches, and apple pie. Join the Torte Club along with me and a dazzling array of my favorite food people who exult about it and offer variations and tips (freezes beautifully; goes well with ice cream; even better the second day, etc.) in posts all along the information superhighway. Read all about it: but first, stir this up and pop it in the oven.
So here is Lottie + Doof’s Recipe for The Torte.
And here is Marion Burros’s recipe for Plum Torte, published on Epicurious in 2003.
I’m always in the kitchen, where I cook for pleasure, of necessity, and as part of my food-centered work. I also spend time in The Kitchn, the online one where recipes, advice, essays, and ideas are always bubbling up and catching my eye. Early in the summer, I saw their tempting and appealing recipe for Spicy Ginger Lemonade, posted by Sarah Crowder, and with our air conditioner on the blink, I wanted it right at that very moment.
Trouble was, I had plenty of lemons and limes, but only a tiny bit of fresh ginger on hand, and it was an “I don’t WANNA go to the store!!!” moment, so I decided to try the same idea using fresh lemongrass and frozen galanga, which I did have on hand that day.
While the sugar, water, and Asian herbs simmered away, I juiced a few lemons and limes, and cracked ice cubes out of the ice cube tray. When I combined the sweet-and-hot simple syrup with the citrus juices and water, the result was fantastic! Now I love it with fresh ginger, as well as with the Southeast Asian culinary notes of lemongrass and galanga I tried that first time.
If one were looking for ways to make late summer cocktails, this might be a good place to begin the pondering. Me, I’m content with this feisty, satisfying spin on lovely lemonade, and I won’t let the coming of fall slow me down. Even with the air conditioning restored to full function long ago, and the signs of autumn tip-toeing in to my consciousness, I keep making and sipping and sharing this wonderful beverage.
HERE’S THE RECIPE FOR SPICY GINGER LEMONADE ON THE KITCHN
I should be telling you about how to make the most of late summer’s plums, peaches, nectarines, and blueberries. I ought be telling you about the marvelous, small, dark green watermelon WITH seeds: SEEDS!!!! which I snagged at the farmers’ market last Saturday, and which we are munching on right now. That will come, but for today, the truth is that I got distracted by a post on the fantastic, inspiring and delightful blog, Smitten Kitchen, from a good while back, because of four words: Double Chocolate Banana Bread. Once I’d seen them, I couldn’t think past them. And once I just went to check and peek and remind myself to come back to it come winter, I was lost. Or rather, home.
I love banana bread, and knew that people put in chocolate chips which never really appealed to me; but I had never ever considered that banana bread could BE chocolate, and not just that, but double. I was all in, and I have made this three times in the last month. Which was called August. I’m not proud, I’m just saying this is where I am. So before I return to the blackberries and the peaches and the watermelon, cantaloupe, and newly arriving scuppernong grapes, I’m confessing that this kind of baked treasure is always in season for me. It comes together quickly, it bakes up handsomely, it was good with and without nuts, and it tastes even more wonderful the second day.
Here is the link to Smitten Kitchen‘s recipe for Double Chocolate Banana Bread. Like me, you may want to make it now, or soon, or as soon as the right bananas reach their luscious, fragrant, nearly over the hill-perfection for banana bread heaven. Or you may wish to save this for cooler weather, when you are seeking reasons to crank up the stove and heat up the kitchen for comfort and cozy-ness. For those days when you no longer have access to peaches, plums, nectarines, and blueberries, when watermelons are but a memory, and apples and pears the new rulers of the seasonal produce world.
Then, I’m betting that Smitten Kitchen‘s Double Chocolate Banana Bread will be just the ticket, and it will occur to you that it might go perfectly with a mug of hot chocolate, whipped cream/marshmallows optional. For now, do what works for you; but remember, this goes wonderfully with a scoop of vanilla or whipped cream and a pile of late-summer berries, peaches, and plums. If you get yourself a copy of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, you’ll find a year round abundance of kitchen pleasures, SK-style.
Smitten Kitchen‘s Double Chocolate Banana Bread RECIPE: