Lemon Ricotta Fig Tart

ONE OF MY FAVORITE kitchen aromas is the warm, affirming smell that arises during the last ten minutes that a butter crust is in the oven.  It smells like home and it feels like joy, and the entire house becomes bright with promise and the expectation of a flaky, enlivening treat. And when you’ve struggled to get your crust not to crumble, and not to become stiff, and especially not to roll out too thin or too short — well, the scent then is particularly rewarding and  satisfying.

Surprises have been on my mind a lot lately, courtesy of my writing course.  I expected to spend the 10-day bootcamp writing poem after frantic poem, finding after a particularly exhausting writing jaunt that I had written nothing but rubbish and poorly punctuated lines and scrapping all with a scowl — but I’ve found myself delving into fiction instead, for the first time since high school.  It’s awkward, terrifying, and so much fun.  It’s sort of like slipping into a winter coat you’d forgotten you owned and finding the sleeves a little stiff and the hem a bit frayed.  But there’s a crumpled $5 note in the inside pocket and you suddenly have visions of yourself using that $5 for all sorts of wonderful (and cheap) pursuits.  Such promise!  Such wonder!

It’s always nice to surprise yourself sometimes, too, I think.

When a friend of my mother’s invited me to pick her fig tree clean of its fruit, I took to the project with some sort of freakishly wild abandon; I whooped and hollered under that tree, and scared some figs down and into a bag.  The rest, I plucked from the tree — she, you see, is not a fan of figs and is doing everything she can to get rid of the “nasty things.”  Well, here I am.

And since I’ve been playing around with crust, and since I have developed a sudden affection for baking with ricotta, and since I am now the proud (so proud!) owner of a hand mixer — well, nothing would do but a fig tart.  I took the crust recipe from Simply Recipes and, though you can easily use it for a galette, I lined my pie plate and filled it up with a grainy, lemony tart filling and topped it off with the halved figs.  The lemon zest is the surprise here, and the fact that the figs lose some of their sweetness in the baking.  And the crust: heavens, it smells good.

I expect I’ll find myself writing about tarts and pies in my bootcamp story — if not tonight then maybe tomorrow.

And because I’m feeling particularly generous and dance-y today, here: have a little joy for the afternoon.

Lemon Ricotta Fig Tart

Again, the butter crust recipe is from Simply Recipes, and though it’s a time consuming endeavor — freeze the butter? refrigerate the dough? — it’s a ridiculously easy dough recipe, and I’ve already used it for three different free-form galettes. The only thing I’d add is that keeping the dough cold really does help in working with it.  I even refrigerated my rolling pin.

Before rolling out the dough, I made the filling.  That way, I could refrigerate the filling while I was wrestling with the dough, bringing it out just when I was ready to fill the pastry shell.  Efficiency!

The Filling

  • 2 oz cream cheese
  • 3/4 c ricotta
  • 1/4 c sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • dash salt
  • zest of a small lemon, or 1/2 a large lemon
  • 1 lb figs, tips cut off and discarded, halved

Preheat oven to 375F.

In a medium sized bowl, use a hand mixer (or elbow grease!) to beat together the cream cheese and ricotta.  Beat in the sugar, then the vanilla and salt.  Beat in the lemon zest last — I actually zested it right over the mixing bowl — and set aside in the fridge.

Separately, halve all the figs and set aside.

When the dough is rolled out, place it in your pie plate and firmly press to the edges.  Fill with the ricotta cheese filling, and top with the halved figs.  Bake at 375F for 45-50 minutes, til the edges of the crust are golden and the figs have darkened somewhat.

Now, this is a pie that I think is better cold, so when you remove it from the oven, let it cool by itself — but then tuck it back into the fridge for a few hours.  It’ll hold its shape better that way, and oh! The lemon zest comes through crisp and clear, and what a difference that makes.




Lemon Curd Ricotta Scones

TEATIME is a magical time, as far as I’m concerned.  When I was a child, I’d race home from school at 3pm and my mother would be there, with something small to eat and a game to play; later, in high school, the tradition changed to a cup of tea, a chat — something beyond the milk and cookies of elementary and middle school, and something that felt like it was approaching Adulthood.  Now, I suppose firmly entrenched in adulthood, I enjoy taking my tea as a time to recoup.  A time to gather myself together.  To sift through flavors and memories, to-do lists and small errands, planned projects and expected adventures.  Teatime is the chance to dream; and what are to-do lists but the preparation for larger endeavors?  Get the errands out of the way, and then — ah, then, explore.

And sometimes the to-do list is the adventure, especially when it reads “write 1000 words today, and 1000 words tomorrow, and learn to bake a flaky, satisfying pie crust sometime in between.”

I’ve been seeking magic in small moments lately.  In the cloudburst sunset over the neighbor’s house; the smell of mint crushed into my fingertips after plucking a few leaves from the garden; the butterflies that trail by the kitchen window in the early afternoon.  As the father in Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know says, “I am prepared for amazing things to happen.  I can handle it.”

I’ve signed up for a writing bootcamp, to start July 1st and last for 10 days.  I may get very little from it but a greater perspective on the discipline it takes to sit and write for hours — and maybe I’ll surprise myself and have something I’m actually proud of at the end of the 10 days.  We shall see.

In the meantime, I’ve been populating my teatimes with scones.  I stumbled across Smitten Kitchen’s raspberry ricotta scone recipe, which is an absolutely wonderful and earthy scone that finally (finally!) introduced me to a pastry blender and Changed. My. Life.  (Don’t believe me? Seriously; try one out after years of the old two-knives-and-a-fork method of cutting butter).  Pastry blenders are things of major, major magical properties.  This is not exaggeration.

But I ran out of raspberries, and my mother had this lovely bottle of lemon curd from World Market just sitting there in her pantry, begging for use.  So I used it.  And I know: it’s sort of a cheat, not to have made my own lemon curd.  But these scones, I don’t think they mind the affront.  These aren’t snooty scones, not be a long shot.  These are earth mother scones, and they’re just happy to have your hands all over them.  They’ve a magic all their own, quiet and unassuming as it is.  And beyond that, this is a really great scone base for any modifications you may want to make — blueberry lemon scones, peach scones, blackberry scones … Go ahead, take that pastry blender and scone your heart out!

Lemon Curd Ricotta Scones

  • 1 c whole wheat flour
  • 1 c all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1/4 c sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 6 Tbsp unsalted butter (cold)
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 3/4 c lemon curd
  • 3/4 c ricotta cheese
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • flour for dusting

Preheat oven to 425F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Scones are remarkably fickle and will burn if their bottoms get too hot.  Lining your baking sheet with foil will overheat them, and not lining the sheet will also be detrimental, which leaves you with parchment paper as your best friend where scones are concerned.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the dry ingredients together.  With a pastry blender (or with a combination of knives and forks, whichever works best for you), cut the butter into the flour until the biggest chunks of butter are about the size of peas.

Add in the lemon zest and lemon curd, as well as the ricotta and heavy cream.  Mix with a flexible spatula until a dough forms.  Then, using your hands — and you may want to flour them, just a bit — knead the dough in the bottom of the bowl itself.  It’ll be a wet dough, which seems a bit odd for scones, but it’s what you want.

Gently transfer the dough from the bowl to a well-floured surface (a large cutting board will do, or a clean countertop).  Dust with flour and pat the dough into a roughly 7-inch square, about 1-inch in height.  With a knife, cut the dough into 9 even pieces (or 12 uneven ones, if you’re like me and have problems evenly dividing things).

Move the scones to your baking sheet.  Bake the scones at 425F for about 15 minutes, until golden at the edges.  Let cool completely, and serve with a pat of butter.  They’re more moist than traditional English scones, but they’re light and earthy and delightful.




Cherry Peach Muffins

I’VE BEEN THINKING lately about fairy tales and the stories I loved as a child.  Though this isn’t the house I grew up in — far from it, in fact, since I grew up primarily in apartments, and not in the US — most of my beloved childhood and young adult books are here with my mother.  From the Bobbsey Twins books that my grandmother insisted I read to the later discoveries of Robin McKinley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Orson Scott Card, and Patricia McKillip, they’re all here.  I’ve the chance now to dig back into those books and characters, reliving the wonder I used to feel every time I cracked a paperback’s spine.

Perhaps this was brought on by seeing Snow White and the Huntsman last week, which one reviewer criticised (rightly, I think) for reinforcing and propagating totalising ideas of goodness and purity.  In any case, I called K a few days ago and ended up on a tangent in which I was really, really distraught about how boring Snow White is as a character and how there is never going to be a good version of the tale because the story is about this incredibly underwritten and nerveless character.  All the good stuff actually happens with the wicked queen, and we all know how that goes for her.  It’s like the fairy tale is saying “don’t be interesting.  Don’t have a good back story.  Don’t be powerful, or frightened, or in control, or vengeful, or anything compelling at all.  All compelling does for you is get you killed off by someone horribly uninteresting and vapid.”  Certainly a tale to inspire.

So I’ve been thinking about the kinds of stories I remember loving as a child, and the kinds of stories I used to say I was going to write.  I wrote my first fairy tale in 3rd grade, and it was hideous.  My sense of geography was laughable (the princess, ailing from a mysterious disease, moved to England from London).  My sense of drama was questionable (she’s cured by sleeping it off).  My illustrations featured creatures with extremely long limbs and button heads.  But I loved writing it, and as I grew up I wrote more stories and more fairy tales; and eventually I ended up doing my high school senior project on Cinderella, and my undergraduate thesis was at least partly rooted in the Grimms’ tales.

Which is all to say: I love a happy ending.

But it’s not a happy ending if it isn’t interesting.  Or, at least, I want my happy endings to be tale-worthy.  The best friendships are like that — there’s the story of how you met (we were neighbors in college and I startled her on the dorm stairs and she nearly heart-attacked right there, at my feet, clutching her eyedrops and wearing really ugly PJs; we met at a screening of a lamentably awful movie on Partition, and cemented our friendship by tearing it to shreds and then going out and getting slightly drunk with strangers; she was the new kid in 8th grade, and I liked that she wasn’t too cool to wear culottes), the story of how the friendship was cemented, and then the after parts which are not always smooth going but are full of artless delight.

Yesterday, I noticed the peaches were starting to look a bit testy.  And the untouched bowl of cherries — purchased for my aunt, but now lingering forlornly in the refrigerator — seemed too tragic for words.  Feeling a little lost myself, I peeled the peaches and pitted the cherries, staining my hands a terrific shade of red.  Peeling and pitting is great centering work; while your hands work routine tasks, the mind is free to be amazed at the dexterity of thumbs or to make up new stories from bits of older ones.

I wasn’t sure about the combination of peaches and cherries, and I further tempered them with a sour cream muffin base.  But they came together delightfully, as if meant to be.  In the spirit of neighborliness and friendliness, I took a trayful of them up my mother’s street, knocking on doors and passing out teatime treats.  Not that these are necessarily friendships I’ll be converting into fantastic tales, but there’s a certain satisfaction in feeding people who’ve been in your house and know the way your space is arranged.  There’s a symmetry to it, I think, a sense of possibilities earned and returned.  And that, perhaps, is the start of a story that can go in many directions — and that’s the kind of story I’m interested in living.

Cherry Peach Muffins

  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 2  1/4 c flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 c fresh peaches, peeled, pitted, and roughly chopped
  • 1 c fresh cherries, pitted and roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 350F.  While I usually don’t use paper liners for muffins, I did for these ones.  So either lightly grease your muffin tin, or line the cups.  This recipe will make 24 muffins, so plan accordingly!

To peel peaches, cut an X in the bottom of each one and drop them in boiling water for about 30 seconds.  Rinse them in cold water and peel gently.  Cut them willy-nilly and set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar.  Beat in the eggs and sour cream.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.  Add the peaches and cherries to the dry ingredients and mix to coat the fruit.  Slowly add the fruit mixture to the egg mixture, and mix together.

Fill muffin cups 2/3 full and bake at 350F for 25-30 minutes, until golden and a toothpick inserted near the center of the muffins comes out clean.

Let cool and enjoy!



Lemon Blueberry Bread

THERE’S SOMETHING about summertime in Texas that just screams “lemons!”  Maybe it’s the quality of light or the fact that sunset isn’t until well past 8pm these days, leaving the days bright and crisp far beyond what they ought to have rights to.  The wash of light that comes into our kitchen nook at 6pm is so beautiful, so joyful that I keep thinking about lemons, and lemonade, and lemon zest, and lemon bars, and and and.

I’ve been inspired by the blueberry supply at HEB — the blueberries are small and rich, and they look so wholesome arranged next to a lemon or two.  So, after getting my library card from the local public library (which involved, somehow, getting dragged into a conversation with a 50-something-year-old patron about how I look just like his dead sister Esther), I came home with no plans beyond tea, a game of Scrabble, and a spot of baking.  And nothing, of course, would do but to use the blueberries at the back of the fridge (they’re hidden behind strawberries and raspberries) and see if I couldn’t pair them with something suitably lemony.

After making The Homesick Texan’s grapefruit and pecan sheet cake with D last month, I’ve been dying to use more citrus zest.  So there’s a splash of lemon peel in this.  I’d say feel free to bump it up if you choose, or even add nuts — but this simple bread is pretty prime all by itself, and it tastes just like the light looks right now: golden and spry and full of promise.

Lemon Blueberry Bread

  • 1/3 c butter, melted
  • 1 c sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 c flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c milk
  • 2 tbsp grated lemon peel
  • 1 cup fresh blueberries

For the glaze:

  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 350F; grease a loaf pan.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in the eggs and lemon juice.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Stir into the egg mixture alternately with the milk.  Beat well after each addition to ensure a good mix.  Fold in the lemon peel and blueberries.

Pour into the loaf pan and bake for 60-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.  Cool for 10 minutes before transferring out of the pan.

Combine the glaze ingredients and drizzle over the warm bread.  Let the bread cool completely (which also allows the glaze to soak in a little) before serving.




Sassy Savory Broccoli Muffins

MY FRIEND A tells me that age 28 is a turning point in one’s life — a chance to make new decisions, find new directions, and explore new territories (both emotional and physical).  Astrologically, this is known as Saturn Return, a dimensional shift “when Saturn returns by transit to the place in the zodiac he occupied when you were born.”  This isn’t to say it’s a return to infancy, but instead is a chance to reevaluate, reconsider, and move forwards in new and potentially unexpected ways.

Certainly, I’m finding this year to be exactly that.  2012 has, in many ways, been a return to a very basic and humane part of myself, a part of me that has felt buried beneath the demands and expectations of graduate school.  This spring, the 6th graders I taught in Morocco graduated high school, the undergraduates I worked to admit to my alma mater graduated with their BA’s (some with their BS’s), and I earned my MA.  Not only have I seen two classes through these important milestones on their educational journeys, but I saw myself through something I wasn’t sure was going to finish — or was going to finish the way I wanted it to.  Indeed, this is the year I decided to stop halfway through a journey — something that is uncharacteristic for me, but feels completely right.  Graduate school, or at least the program I was in, wasn’t right for me. And instead of suffering through another four to five years of disillusionment and disappointment, I stepped back and am reevaluating what my next steps will be.

It’s very Whitney, I hope, this refusal to settle for anything less than the best: the best for me and the best of me.

So now, tucked into my parents’ Texas house while my mother prepares for minor surgery, I’ve taken over the kitchen.  And one of the first things I wanted to make was a sassy muffin with a surprising secret: a broccoli center.  This muffin makes you rethink muffins.  You’ll give it the fish-eye at first, but then you’ll sit back and just enjoy.  Because the surprise of it is that, despite first glance, this muffin is a miracle.

The original recipe is here, but I’ve tweaked it to be a bit healthier and a bit coarser.  Instead of a butter base, here’s a cornmeal base that provides an interesting contrast to the smoothness of the broccoli heads while giving the cayenne some interesting pockets in which to hide.  It’ll surprise you, delight you, and demand your focus.  And, while you’re at it, these are great muffins to talk major life decisions over.  Just saying.


Sassy Savory Broccoli Muffins

  • 1 cup cornmeal (I used white cornmeal, so the turmeric would have more of a visual effect)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 cup milk
  • 12 broccoli florets, trimmed to fit in a muffin cup with room to spare

Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease your muffin tin (this recipe makes 12 regular-sized muffins, so plan accordingly).

Bring a pot of water to boil and blanch the broccoli for about 3 minutes.  Rinse in cold water, pat dry with paper towels, and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, mix your dry ingredients.  Add the eggs, canola oil, and milk; mix well to form a dough.

Place one heaping spoonful of batter in each muffin cup; press down with your fingers to fill the base of the cup.  In each, stand a single broccoli floret.  Top with the remaining batter, dividing it evenly between the muffin cups (or else be ready for one HUGE muffin and a series of flat ones).  It doesn’t need to look perfect, but each muffin needs to have a base as well as a top.

Bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown and a little stiff to the touch.  Allow them to cool before eating — it’ll be hard, trust me! — but give yourself leave to eat them all in one day.



Blueberry-Peach Crumble

WELL, this is embarrassing. Not only have I fallen off the blog-wagon, but I’ve sustained a year-long tumble. Whoops?

I’ve been thinking about gardens a lot lately, and vast cloud-filled skies. I spent last summer in Texas, writing about partnerships, community, raspas, and the small laughs people share in tense moments. A lot of this writing was done in the sunniest part of a kitchen, someone else clattering around the island to make peanut stew, or cookies, or carrot cake. On my days to cook, there’d be beer bread, chili, sweet lentil soup, flat biscuits. My mornings were spent watching women work together, my afternoons contemplating the skies and the flat farmlands, the evenings filled with laughter and talk and writing. It was wholesome, and filling; it was a food of a different kind, a sustenance I hadn’t known to miss. Now back in New York, I’ve craved that: the ease of people learning each other, teaching each other, watching their work grow together. New York, in many ways, is like the chorus of Ray LaMontagne’s Jolene, which is one of the loveliest songs I know; but it’s a lonely, mournful song. It remembers, it yearns, but it isn’t sure it can ever reach back far enough to find peace.

Anyway. D sent me a food blog this morning and, somewhere in the middle of a horrible anthro reading and a nausea-inducing statistics problem set, I decided that what I needed tonight was something lush and warm and sweet and filled with blueberries.

The thing about crumbles is that they’re meant to feed the soul, not the eyes. They don’t care about their appearance. They don’t care that they’re messy, that they’re a bit runny, that last night’s mascara is still clinging to their lashes or that they have flour dappled across their wrists. They don’t care, because they’re comfortable just as they are. They’ve got nobody to impress, nobody to answer to. They’re completely uncomplicated & completely sure of themselves & completely charming. I think, if I were a dessert, I’d aspire to be a crumble.

So, from this I got to this.  I made very few changes, and ended up with a plateful of something that was very, very close to what I’ve been needing. This was almost, almost a taste of home.

Blueberry-Peach Crumble

The topping

  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 4 Tbsp cold butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream

For the filling

  • 6 large peaches
  • 1 cup blueberries
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp applesauce
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375F. Grease your baking dish.

Peel the peaches by cutting an X at both ends and then dropping them into a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds. Scoop them out, rinse with cold water, gently peel off the skin. Slice them, pit them, set them aside.

For the topping, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar, salt, and cinnamon. Blend in the cold butter (I used my hands, but knives or a pastry blender would be fine) until the dough gets crumbly. Add in the heavy cream; stir to mix everything into a dough. It’s supposed to be sticky.

In a separate bowl, mix all the ingredients for the filling.  Pour into the baking dish. Spoon the topping over the fruit mixture; it should look a little rustic and half-dressed, but you can try to spread out the dough a little bit if you like your crumbles more fully covered.

Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes or until brown and bubbling.




Jam-Filled Baked Pears

SO IT’S BEEN a while.  I admit: grad school threw my schedule for a semester-long loop and I fell off the brunching bandwagon.  Like, bruised-my-tailbone, wrenched-my-knee, scraped-my-wrist kind of falling off the bandwagon. Which doesn’t mean that I’ve been starving: it just means that I haven’t been brunching.

However, the sudden sunny days of February (I know: the weather is whack this winter) sent me in a dither over the pear offerings in my local supermarket.  I’ve made numerous soups with them, but the other day I wanted something sweet and something that preserved the actual shape of the pears.

Et voila: the baked pear.  And because I have a ton of jam in the fridge–I seem to collect jams, as much for the varied flavors as for their jars–I decided to toss  some of that into the mix as well.  Not a bad way to start the day, or end a long evening.

Jam-Filled Baked Pears

  • 2 medium-sized pears; peeled, halved and seeded
  • 4 tsp butter
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 4 tsp jam (I used a peach-apricot medley)

Preheat oven to 350F.  Combine brown sugar and cinnamon; set aside.

Please pear halves, cut side up, in a shallow baking dish.  Place 1tsp butter in the center of each. Drizzle with lemon juice.  Sprinkle cinnamon/sugar mixture over pears.  Top with a tsp-full of jam for each pear.

Bake for about 15-25 minutes, til heated through.  (15-25 minutes can be a long range of time for pears, but people have different preferences for tenderness.  After 15 minutes the pears will be sufficiently baked, and after that it’s a matter of your personal taste in softness.  Me, I prefer not to have to employ a knife when cutting my dessert fruits. 25 minutes for me!)

Serve warm, perhaps with a vanilla bean ice cream.  Enjoy!