Desiring Decaf (Or, WTF, Coffee Snobs?)

balanced breakfast
                                                                                  balanced breakfast

Today I started my morning with part of a Cupcake Royale raspberry pavlova cupcake (vanilla cake, raspberry sauce, lemon buttercream, meringue, delicious) that I’d saved from the night before, and a cup of hot black coffee. In bed. It felt so right.

The coffee, incidentally, was decaffeinated: not because I’m 36 week pregnant (it’s generally accepted that moderate caffeine consumption is just fine during pregnancy), but because I’m extremely sensitive to the effects of caffeine. Anything more than a single cup of black tea makes my heart pound unpleasantly and turns me into a jittery, anxious mess.

It’s a cliché for mainstream coffee drinkers to sniff “what’s the point?” when reminded of decaf’s existence. My partner once mistook this for acceptable banter when I ordered a decaf Americano, resulting in a fight during which I called him a dick in front of the mortified barista (we laughed about it later). Recently, I remarked to a veteran barista friend that I liked a certain coffee shop because I didn’t feel like they were judging me for ordering decaf. “Oh,” she assured me, “they’re judging you.”

But why? Caffeine is a drug, the effects of which don’t agree with some people. I’ve been a caffeine drinker in the past, but after I quit cold-turkey in an effort to address my night bruxism (aka tooth grinding/jaw clenching; it helped, somewhat), my tolerance plummeted. To this day, I reserve anything more than the relatively tiny amounts found in tea, chocolate, or decaf coffee for emergency situations (solo road trips, deadlines that require all-nighters – of which there are mercifully few these days). There are simply those of us who want to enjoy the taste of coffee without corresponding ill-effects.

I’ve heard it said on many occasions that people like me should just avoid coffee, because, you see, no one could possibly enjoy the taste of decaf. That’s news to me: I happen to like it. Admittedly, my taste in coffee is not very sophisticated. I’ve worked as a barista and received training that enabled me to understand the nuances of coffee roasted with restraint. I can appreciate the floral, citrusy, or herbaceous complexity of a single-origin shade-grown light-roast pour-over. But I still prefer the robust, earthy, pedestrian (okay, haters, burnt) flavor of a good dark roast. And, let’s face it – when you’re roasting coffee beans to a charred crisp anyway, the flavor differences between regular and decaf are negligible. There are even some roasters who do a pretty good job with their decaf beans.

Why should anyone care whether I have shit taste in coffee? Does that make me less of a person? I like what I like – why is that a problem for you? The only conclusion that makes sense is insecurity. Why else would anyone be in the business of policing someone else’s preferences?

As a server, I always liked it when someone had the chutzpah to ask for ice cubes with their wine. And if someone wants their steak cooked well-done, or wants to put ketchup on said steak, what business of it is mine?

An apparent lack of sophistication in others stirs up anxieties about the parts of ourselves that may be underdeveloped, unformed, or simply out of step with what the culture considers “cool.” A truly secure person (I’m not necessarily claiming this designation for myself!) has no need to pass judgment on the aesthetic preferences of others. A truly secure person doesn’t waste time scrutinizing someone else’s taste. A truly secure person says (and means) “right on: you do you.”

So, even when I’m no longer pregnant, I’ll still enjoy my decaf, listen to corny 90’s country music, wear brown and black together, and dip my fries in my milkshake. Snobs be damned.

Sunday Morning Danish in the Park

There’s something very fine about getting up early in the morning. But although I love to, I haven’t been in the habit of doing so. My nocturnal work schedule, and the desire to draw out my sleep by staying in bed for as long as possible, meant that, for quite a while now, I’ve been rising late.

This past Sunday, I was up at 7:00. Of course, 7am isn’t all that early for many people. But it’s the crack of dawn for me, and I was excited to revel in the solitary pleasures afforded by being (I was sure) one of the only people up before 9 on a Sunday.

Heading to Café Besalu (pastry Mecca, makers of Seattle’s best croissant) after dropping my partner off at work, I looked forward to buying a perfect pastry without waiting in line. At a little after 8am, there was already a line out the door. Still, it wasn’t snaking down the block, as Sunday Besalu lines tend to do.

besalu

After a modest wait of less than ten minutes, I held in my hand a glowing nectarine danish, its seductively twisted edge and glistening innards beckoning me to take a bite, even though I planned to save it until I got to the park. It was fragrant and flaky and gooey and still a little warm: ecstasy.

my flip-phone capture could not do this beautiful thing justice
                                                  my flip-phone capture could not do it justice.

On to Discovery park, I imagined that my favorite dog-walking zone would be pretty much people-free. As it turned out, though, lots and lots of people are up and about early on Sunday. Apparently, many of them go jogging in Discovery park.

Walking along the south bluff, it was a little disorienting to see so many people running, all in different directions, as if fleeing invisible foes. In my still-sleepy state, their vigor and energy made me a little dizzy.

I sat on a bench overlooking the sound, facing Mt. Ranier in its mist-cloaked glory, and finally ate my danish. Shards of pastry showered my protruding belly, and I was grateful.

Summer Bread Baking: Part 2

The loaves weren’t ready to go into the oven until about 11pm last night… which meant hastily pulling them out once they were done and letting them cool on the counter overnight.

In addition to three large loaves, I got four rolls and a mini-pretzel-shaped bread out of the dough. I used two of the rolls for dinner, filled with veggie sausage, sauteed onions, mustard and homemade sauerkraut. The bread ended up being too hearty and dense for this application – but it will make great sandwiches and toast!

This morning, in my addled, just-awakened state, I hustled two of the three loaves into the freezer before I remembered to photograph them. Hence, I got pics of only one post-oven.

I’m looking forward to having homemade bread to eat, at least for a couple of weeks!IMG_3619

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Summer Bread Baking: Part 1

Summer is my favorite season. Tomatoes, berries, stone-fruit, salad, cold wine, days that stretch from 5am to 10pm (at least in the Pacific Northwest), bare skin, swimming, barbecues, sunshine. I’d rather be hot than cold; I’ll take sweaty and sluggish over frost-nipped and shivering any day.

me ayla ice cream

And yet, this year, it’s a little more challenging: As of today, June 12th, 2015, I’m 30 weeks pregnant (that’s 7-and-a-half months for you non-preggos). I’m bigger than I have ever been in my life, my blood-volume has almost doubled, everything is hard. And I am hot.

Opening the three windows that actually open in my apartment doesn’t accomplish much beyond letting in the aromas of vehicle exhaust and my neighbor’s overflowing ashtray, baking in the sun. At night, I’m down to just a sheet, promptly kicked off.

The upshot of this is that I really, really don’t want to turn on the oven. This is problematic, since my summer diet is fairly sandwich-centric, and I’m getting really sick of mediocre store-bought bread. Don’t get me wrong: Seattle is replete with good bakeries. But nice bread is expensive, I’m more squeamish about dumpster-diving in my present condition, and the artisanal hearth-loaves that make such exquisite toast often fall short when it comes to sandwich-making.

When I looked at the weather forecast (which I do obsessively) and discovered that today was only supposed to hit 68 degrees, I jumped at the chance to make bread.

sponge

Bread baking, unlike many other kinds of baking, is not an exact science. I relish the opportunity to add a little of this, a little of that, and to vary my rise times. Today, I decided to make a large batch, fermented in several stages. I started with a wet sponge: a couple quarts of lukewarm water, a mix of all purpose and whole wheat flours, and about 1 ½ teaspoons of yeast. I let that sit for a couple of hours until it was bubbly, then added more flour, ground flax seeds, and salt. I kneaded the resulting dough to smooth elasticity while listening to an archived episode of This American Life.

i love flax seeds

dough

kneading

Lacking a bowl large enough to let the dough rise, I resorted to a stock pot; miraculously, it fit in the fridge. (I wanted to keep the dough cold to allow for a long, slow rise in order to develop more flavor—and so I could hold off on baking until nightfall!)

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I’m going to proof and bake my loaves later this evening. Heck, as long as the oven’s on, maybe I’ll even make a pie…

Szechuan Tofu

When I was in college, I lived with several housemates right off of Aurora Avenue North, a strip of highway notorious for seedy motels, drugs, and prostitution. Around the corner was a video store called The Voyeur, a pizza joint staffed entirely by Russian guys, a dingy pet store that sold puppy mill puppies, and a Chinese restaurant called the Szechuan Bean Flower.

The restaurant was nondescript. Housed in a strip mall, with the confrontational fluorescent lighting, torn leatherette booths, and smudged linoleum typical of the genre, there was nothing in its appearance that hinted at greatness. I’d never been particularly inclined to eat there. I’ve always been an avid home cook, and with access to the incomparable HT Market (for a glorious time, my neighborhood grocery store) and a top-notch kitchen (the area’s undesirability meant that we got to live in a really nice house with a gas stove) there was little reason to take a chance on a dodgy looking strip-mall restaurant.

At some point, I ended up there anyway. My roommates had developed a mania for hot pot and I quickly caught on. Submerging tender napa cabbage, toothsome rice noodles, and cold slabs of tofu (I skipped the pork and the “beef honeycomb”) into a seething oily broth, then dipping the morsels in a spicy peanut sauce, represented an acme of enjoyment for us broke, food-driven college kids who weren’t yet old enough to drink in bars.

The hot pot was really, really good. But the true revelation came when I finally ordered from the regular menu.

I can’t remember if I was a vegetarian at the time. It’s possible. But even during the meatiest periods of my culinary life, I’ve been a tofu lover. It’s always what I order at Asian restaurants. Plus, I love spice. So I gravitated to the Szechuan tofu. Once I tasted the first bite – crispy fried tofu, alive with the beguiling heat of Szechuan peppercorns, strewn with verdant stalks of cilantro – I was addicted.

This Szechuan tofu was the perfect dish. Texturally, visually, aromatically. It had never before occurred to me to use cilantro as a vegetable; I was an uninspired simpleton. I craved this tofu weekly (or more) and ate it as frequently as I could. Until, one day, I visited the Szechuan Bean Flower with some family who were visiting from Germany. They were true appreciators of food, and vegetarians who adored spicy tofu dishes. I couldn’t wait to turn them on to my life-changing discovery. It’s hard to overstate the confusion and disappointment I felt when my “Szechuan tofu” arrived at the table. Instead of an assertively fragrant red and green pile of fiery tofu and tender cilantro, it was just another tofu dish: spongy yellow cubes languished in an insipid gravy, flanked by carrots and celery and bell peppers. I was crushed.

It turned out that the restaurant had changed owners; although the kept the menu intact, the recipes had changed.

Over the years, I’ve attempted on a few occasions to fill the Szechuan tofu-shaped void in my heart/stomach by making my own. The first couple times, I ended up with a pleasing, spicy tofu dish with lots of cilantro. Idiotically, I failed to include Szechuan peppercorns in these renditions. More recently, I bought extra-firm tofu, which I pressed overnight, and proceeded to fry into leathery dry chunks: the tofu was too dry, and too small. The flavor was good enough, though, so that the friend I’d made it for surprised me a few weeks later by requesting that I make it again. This time, I wasn’t going to mess it up.

We made a trip to the venerable HT Market, where we bought tofu from the excellent Thanh Son, plus a whole lot of cilantro and an assortment of weird gelatinous and sweet and salty and artificially colored and entirely unnecessary snack foods (my pantry was already stocked with Szechuan peppercorns from World Spice Merchants).

This time, I didn’t press the tofu; it was late, and we were ravenous. As it turned out, this was a good choice (Thanh Son’s tofu is firm and meaty, and, being really fresh, not packed in water). I also cut it into decidedly bigger chunks. I fried the tofu in a couple of inches of canola oil; it came out crisp and golden, while retaining its internal heft and moisture. Next, I stir-fried it in a big aluminum stock-pot (I don’t have a wok anymore – it probably got lost in one of my many moves) with plenty of Szechuan peppercorns (lovingly hand-ground in my trusty suribachi), a few japones chilies, a splash of soy sauce, and some Sriracha. Then I tossed in two bunches of coarsely chopped cilantro. My friend stir-fried choy sum with ginger to add green-leafy virtue to the meal.

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The result? Really, really good. I’m intensely self-critical when it comes to food (okay, to everything). But I thought my rendition of Szechuan tofu was pretty great. The tofu could have been crispier; maybe I should have dredged it in corn starch or something?

Admittedly, it’s been years since I’ve experienced the real thing. I don’t know if my version was actually that close. But a google search told me there’s a Szechuan Bean Flower in Issaquah – quite likely the very same one?! – and a pilgrimage is in the works.

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Occupational Hazards

I love Ayla in a way that transcends reason, but sometimes I resent her for taking over the only comfortable chair in the apartment, rendering it unsittable with her copious hair and doggy smell. When I wake early and want to drink tea with no heed to my posture, needing a transition point between fully asleep and fully awake, a wobbly wooden chair is a poor compromise. Especially since I sleep on the floor.

a beast enthroned
beast enthroned

Yesterday I went to the coffee shop and forgot to bring the goat cheese and onion biscuit I’d planned on taking with me as an emergency snack. By two thirty I was ravenous. The walk home brought me dumpster chocolate, tiny grapes. More sugar.

foraged bounty
foraged bounty

Every day, I tell myself it will be different. That somehow, in the midst of stress and huger and distracted inchoate longing, I’ll find the ability to deny myself the small nibbles that add up to a really unhealthy amount of sugar. Kourambiedes, little buttery crescents of shortbread dense with Marcona almonds. Oatmeal cookies with apricots or currants and a judicious sprinkle of nutmeg. The streusel I keep on hand, pre-baked, for topping  fruit crisps – “cookie pearls,” as my coworker dubbed them yesterday. The preternaturally irresistible chocolate chip cookies of which I’m rather proud. All of these end up in my mouth, en route to becoming part of my constitution.

I made macarons the other day – my first attempt. To my surprise and delight, they turned out. They’re a bit “rustic” – the food processor wouldn’t get the pistachios fine enough. But their nut-flecked chew is a pleasing counterpoint to the filling of rose buttercream that I colored pale pink with beet juice. Something about turning out a sheet of little cookie circles, piping on pastel-colored filling, making them into dainty sandwiches, satisfied my soul and made me feel like a real baker. Overall, a delightful enterprise: they’re going to enter my repertoire for sure.

 

kourambiedes
kourambiedes, aka my downfall

Last-Minute Cherry Trifle

I have to end my meals with something sweet. Even if it’s just a piece of chocolate or a sip of liqueur, sugar represents a kind of closure, a signal that the meal is ended.

When I have dinner guests, though, I feel compelled to actually make dessert: It’s important to me to feel as if I’ve provided a complete culinary experience. A couple of nights ago, I had a friend over for dinner. I had beautiful cherries from the farmer’s market, but not much time; I thought about making a fruit tart and filling it with sweetened strained yogurt, but didn’t have time to let the yogurt transform into a thicker, mor luscious version of itself. Ice cream would have required a trip to the store.

I had duck eggs, though, and pistachio biscotti, so I figured I’d make a trifle (this, despite the fact that the aforementioned friend had in the past expressed distaste for such desserts. His objections are completely aesthetic, though: he finds their air of thrown-togetherness offensively lazy. I, on the other hand, love the simple, breezy whimsicality of fresh fruit, custard, cream, and cake or cookies layered together). I made a simple crème anglaise with a duck egg, a little sugar, and some half and half, added a drop of vanilla, and let it cool. Finally, I folded in about a cup of plain Brown Cow yogurt (cream top, of course). I layered it in glasses with cherries and crushed biscotti.

It was pretty good: creamy and crunchy and fruity, simultaneously light and rich. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about the yogurty crème anglaise: It was pleasingly tangy, and had a smooth, velvety texture… I’m just not sure I preferred it to regular old sweetened yogurt.

In the event, my friend did like it, so I counted it a success.

it wasn't that pretty, but it did the job.
not that pretty, but it did the job.