rosemary focaccia + felicia in the kitchen? {hmm…}

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Today I spent the day with two markedly different women who are creators and builders. Both are strong, outspoken, passionate, and live a life of their own design. These are women who’ve walked away from the confines of a cubicle and the overhead glare of lights in search of something extraordinary. Strange hours and weekend work are the norm, but this doesn’t faze them because they design their days. They are the people who walk the park during the day and write their way into the gloaming. I admire them this, their propensity for the hustle and their desire for a career with purpose.

I talk a lot about what I’ve left behind but little of where I’m going. Today, I prattled on about indecision. I’ve never been in a place where this is so much choice, but at the same time there has never been a less clear and definitive path. And while there is a real and pragmatic need to be met (rent, student loans, credit cards, cat, etc), there is also something seemingly innocuous. A figure just beyond the periphery, and I’m trying to be the sort of person who rolls with it, who crosses all applicable body parts in the hope that this path will reveal itself. So I went on about this, spoke mostly about the industry of food and my passion for it, specifically pastry, and my friend shook her head, smiled, and said, From an outsider your path is clear. You’re on to something big. I can see it, and I’m not even an outsider. So when I talk about all these different things, these choices, maybe the path is within these things I’m pursuing, it’s just a matter of organization.

I can’t help but think of this quote by Doris Lessing, which came to me at precisely the moment it needed to:

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

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I’ve never wanted to own a pastry shop. I never wanted to be a recipe developer. I never wanted to pipe or create insane feats of gastronomy. After reading Provence, 1970, I felt an odd kinship with the great M.F.K. Fisher. Not that I would even dare compare myself to this great light, but the idea that my food writing could be deeply informed by education of technique gives me pause. I have so many ideas in my head right now — my burgeoning magazine, books, all that sort of thing — but I’ve always wanted to have an innate understand of pastry. Deeper than the practiced home baker, but a grasp of the basic alchemy.

I think I want to apprentice in a pastry shop or a bakery. I don’t know how I’ll get this to happen. I don’t have a plan just yet, but I know that this is something I want to try on for size.

So this is me, inching closer to the impossible. Trying to figure it all out.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe courtesy of Sarabeth’s Bakery: From My Hands to Yours
2 cups cold water
2 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
3 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
4 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour, as needed
1 3/4 tsp fine sea salt
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus additional for the bowl

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DIRECTIONS
Sprinkle the yeast over 1/4 cup warm water (105-115F) in a small bowl. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve. Pour into a mixer bowl. Add 1 3/4 cups cold water and the rosemary and whisk to combine.

Attached the bowl to the mixer and fit with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add half of the flour, then the salt. Add enough of the remaining flour to make a soft dough. Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook. Knead on medium-low speed just until the dough is smooth and it cleans the bowl, about 3 minutes. Do not over-knead. Gather up the dough and shape into a ball.

Coat the inside of a medium bowl generously with olive oil. Place the ball of dough in the bow, and turn to coat with oil. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let stand in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.

Pour 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a half-sheet pan, and spread evenly with your fingers. Punch down the dough and transfer to the oiled pan. Using your hands, coax and stretch the dough to fill the pan. If the dough is too elastic, cover the dough in the pan with plastic wrap and let rest for 5 minutes, then try again.

Choose a warm place in the kitchen for proofing. Slip the pan into a tall “kitchen-sized” plastic bag and place two tall glasses of very hot water in the bag at opposite ends of the pan to keep the plastic from touching the dough. Tightly close the bag, trapping air in the bag to partially inflate it. Let stand in a warm place until the dough looks puffy, about 45 minutes.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees F. Fill a spray bottle with water. Remove the glasses from the bag, then the pan. Using your fingers, gently dimple the top of the dough. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons oil over the top of the dough. Using the palms of your hands, taking special care not to deflate the dough, very lightly spread the oil over the focaccia.

Place the focaccia in the oven. Aiming for the walls of the oven (and not the top of the focaccia), spray water into the oven. The water will create steam to help crisp the focaccia. Bake until the focaccia is golden brown, about 20 minutes. Cool in the pan for 20 minutes before serving. Cut into rectangles and serve warm or at room temperature.

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the gathering kind: getting surgical {part 3}

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She didn’t finish her sentence because Isabel was running through the cypress trees so fast and with such force the trees were shaking for minutes afterwards. Laura watched the momentary chaos of the trees. It was as if they had been pushed off balance and did not quite know how to find their former shape. — Swimming Home, Deborah Levy

This year we will be surgical. I tell you there’s no other way. Our greatest tool is the scalpel and we’ll need to it excise the unnecessary appendages because we live in a world of barnacles. People who will cleave to you in shallow waters, wrap themselves around you so tight that it becomes difficult to breathe. And by the time you open your eyes and do the maths, they’ve multiplied; they’ve got you boxed in and there’s no way out. The barnacles are tricky, sessile, set on feeding on anything in motion. Determined to drain every bit of you out of you. So there’s you trying to make a life for yourself and there’s them, trying to leech it away. Survival is now predicated on discipline — how we notice the drift, the cleave, the attachment and how we’re able to cut it off and push it away. Because if you don’t you will become lost in the forest that is them, and you’ll never find your former shape.

You may think this bit is about coming apart — antithetical to gathering! — but I promise you there’s more in play. Make no mistake, we live in a kingdom of animals and it’s Darwinian.

Lately I’ve been preaching this conceit of the barnacle and the scalpel to everyone who will listen. Especially those who, like myself, fall prey to unnecessary attachments. People consider us the court jester, prone to performances the peanut-crunching crowd always love (we’re such a sight to see!), or perhaps we’re the kind, compassionate creative who has something — a life, a mind, a heart — of which the barnacles secretly covet. And we book our calendars full of lunches and dinners. We participate in their endless interrogations, listen intently to their latest drama (which is always on the level of the Greek), and dole out advice like dolls. They come away in a fever while we lean against buildings for support. How is it so possible to feel so weak after a single meal? How is it possible that all you now want to do is curl under your covers and sleep?

If your friendships are such that you are consistently and relentlessly carving out pieces of yourself to give to others, then break out the scalpel because this barnacle|host relationship will end up killing you. Imagine yourself weighted down by attachments, unable to flee through the trees, unable to recognize the shape that is yourself because you’re always seeing the others. This clutter, this noise, this feverish motley lot prevent you from gathering with the ones who truly deserve your affection. {Haven’t you found yourself canceling plans with the ones you love because you’re exhausted from so many unnecessary engagements?}

I’m not a “popular” person; I’ve never been part of the “in crowd” {do we even use these terms anymore?}, and I never want to be. I used to be invited to dozens of parties and my calendar was always booked out for weeks, but now I have longer meals with the ones I love and the invitations are more about quality than quantity. From a mean girl where my every exhale was akin to walking on proverbial eggshells, to the married friend for whom my single status was her constant project, to the friend who was always telling the great story that was her life, a life where no one could get a word in edgewise in the midst of a two-hour dinner, to the other friend who grew frightened whenever I was quiet and measured, and only seemed to calm when I was my most boisterous “on” self — these are but a few of the extremities I excised.

As the years press on I find myself endlessly excising. Whittling down to my beloveds — those whose relationships are reciprocal in energy, where both of us leave inspired, refreshed and focused. Granted, this isn’t a call to cut the cord when friendships get difficult by any means — this is more of an examination of how much you’re bloodletting and how much you’re giving of yourself at the expense of yourself. Examining all that is superfluous to refine and carve and hone to all who are essential.

I thought of all this, actually composed this post in my head as I was taking a much-needed respite at Bottega Falai. Yesterday it was cold in the city and I was entirely too early for a date, which is another sort of gathering, I suppose, and I slipped into this small cafe cum retail concept and watched Italian men with their sons, teaching them manners. I watched tourists slip in and fawn over the crepe cakes and pastries and I listened intently to two friends engaging in that barnacle|host exchange. The host’s eyes glazed over and part of me wanted to lean in and tell her about scalpels, but it wasn’t the time and it wasn’t my place so I just listened and composed and thought about sharing this with the ones I love.

Prosciutto sandwich
Crepe cakes
Crepe cakes
bomboloni (donut)
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brunch here now: morandi, new york city

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There was a time when I wouldn’t set foot in Morandi on principle. I had a spat with a hostess, who I found incredibly rude, and I stormed out vowing never to return. However, months later I saw an episode of Unique Sweets that put my heart on pause. Bruschetta with homemade ricotta, honey and nuts. Brioche slathered in chocolate dotted with rich hazelnuts. And the bomboloni! Miniature pillows of puffed, sugary perfection. Since I sometimes tend to hold irrational grudges I decided to return on principle that there should be NO BOMBOLONI IGNORED.

And it was an utter delight. Dining al fresco in the west village is a pure, unadulterated privilege of living in New York. You have prime viewing of passersby while savoring a hot coffee and a flaky pastry. After spin class, I settled with a book and a menu that made it difficult to order just one item. So I proceeded to order four, much to the consternation of the polite waiter.

From the charred homemade focaccia — a bed for roasted black kale, squash, apples and salty cheese — to the tender eggs and raisin bruschetta, you won’t miss at Morandi. Brunch is a true standout, replete with expedient service, fresh ingredients and a thoughtful combination of flavors. Inspired by my focaccia, I went home and fixed a kale salad that was out of bounds, people. OUT OF BOUNDS.

So if you’re aching for a perfect brunch spot in the heart of the West Village, I wholly recommend Morandi.

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quick eats: il cantuccio, new york + an evolving blog direction…

Admittedly, the sandwich below might not look like much, but I assure you that there’s real delirium in every bite. So much so that I found myself ordering this sandwich (a symphony of perfect focaccia, prosciutto d’parma and mozzarella) an hour before my spin class without even considering the consequences of this my feckless act. [Note to self: sandwich before spin = BAD IDEA]

When people learn that I’ve cultivated a lifelong commitment to finding and inhaling the best eats I can find, they start rattling off names of newfangled eateries where one pays for the plate rather than what’s actually on said plate. I don’t care for scenery; I turn up my nose on haute reservations or secret numbers because delicious, simple food should be savored by all. So if you crave the swank eateries, you won’t find them on this space. Rather, you’ll find the gems I’ve taken so long to research, sample and evangelize.

Before I rhapsodize over the almond delights at Il Cantuccio, you may have noticed that I’ve been going through a chrysalis of sorts. Over the past few months I’ve worked incredibly hard to create a space that brings you the very best of what I eat, find, bake and cook — all through the point of view of someone who believes that love, that life, is inexplicably bound to food. As the months press on, you’ll start to see food itineraries and recommendations from my travels (the spots that are rarely in guidebooks coupled with some of the usual suspects) and a deeper focus of bringing my passion for baking to the fore.

What you won’t ever find: advertising, sponsorships or anything that deviates from the core of my virtual home.

I have an idea of where this journey will lead me, and I’ll make a bold pronouncement and say that you’re part of it. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am for your comments, your thoughtful and heartfelt emails filled with encouragement, and your help in pointing me to new recipes to make, new foodies to meet and new places to explore. I hope you’ll be part of this journey and give me feedback along the way.

But back to Il Cantuccio! I’ve been quietly hitting (translation: pacing in front of the storefront, waiting for it to open) this spot for simple, choice sandwiches made from the finest of ingredients — all breads and baked goods made by hand and imbued with a Tuscan sensibility. From the aforementioned focaccia to the biscotti of Prato, also known as cantucci or cantuccini, to the warm croissants and morning pastries, you’ll enjoy a quick, delicious bite without breaking the bank.

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