I think happiness has a lot to do with the concept of “enough.”
Enough is, of course, relative. For me, it comes from a need to never be wanting, to take care of myself, and to be independent – and always in a place that I can walk away from a circumstance that makes me unhappy. Not to speak around the matter – I’m talking about material things – not my psychological or emotional wells (though the concepts are related). I’ve been this way for as long as I have understood money – that I never want it to be a limiting factor in how I live.
With this comes an odd sort of frugality I’ve cultivated over the years – one that, along with working hard, has ensured I have enough. Of course, this equation is my own circumstance and I do not want to generalize experience: hard work plus saving is just one way. But I’m grateful that it’s meant my well-being is not wound up in what I can and cannot have.
As with other parts of my life – how I mind my pennies is driven by tiny mantras:
Save the first paycheque. Spare no expense on groceries or the best restaurants. Experiences over things. Excepting underwear, old is usually better than new. Not everything is stuff, but most stuff is. Collect travel points, then pay off the full balance. Walking > subway > taxi. Borrow it from the library first. And a skilled cobbler can almost always fix worn soles.
These mantras are the context within which I buy Champagne and thrift store teacups and plane tickets without pause, and they limit me, too. I couldn’t tell you the last time I brought home a $20 top or tube of lipstick, or made dinner from the freezer section, or threw away a pair of shoes.
One thing is sure. My love of cooking has never been predicated on frugality. I love the theatre of restaurant dining and a pizza delivery straight from the box. But it is helpful that most days I’d rather grocery shop and cook and eat what I’ve made at my own table. Cooking is really the best hobby, no? I mean – we have to feed ourselves, anyway – usually three times a day. Three occasions to satisfy our needs exactly as we please. That’s pretty fantastic.
I’ve found it fitting that most of my favourite foods just happen to come from the humblest ingredients. Braised beans, whole roasted fish, stews, garden vegetables sprinkled with salt, warm craggy bread… and anything from a pâtisserie.
What the French do with butter and flour! One of my Saturday to-dos is a morning croissant and café crème from Pain Perdu – after I’ve returned the week’s library books, and checked the Salvation Army and Goodwill for pretty tablewares. Pain Perdu is my very favourite little bakery and makes Toronto’s very best croissant – delicate, shattering, deep brown, and full of sweet buttery layers – the very opposite of Starbucks’ enormous, flabby, wan specimen.
While croissant is not the easiest pastry to replicate at home (at least with my limited baking skills), chouquettes are.
Little cabbages in French – and so named for their shape – chouquettes (SHOO-ketts) are made from a cooked egg-based dough called pâte à choux that’s piped and sprinkled with coarse sugar, then baked. The savoury version are known as gougères, whose dough has a cheese such as comté or gruyère added. The little rounds puff up into golden morsels of eggy, buttery air. The proper French version of chouquette uses a crunchy large-grain sugar for topping – but I prefer a solid cinnamon-sugar crust that crisps into a sweet hat and shatters undertooth.
It’s just butter, flour, eggs, sugar and salt – but you can’t put a price on flung-open windows, the May breeze, and a cinnamon-scented afternoon.
1 cup room temperature water
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp granulated sugar, plus 1/4 c for dusting
6 Tbsp unsalted butter, in chunks
1 c all-purpose unbleached flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp cinnamon, for dusting (optional)
2 large baking sheets
small metal saucepan
large freezer bag or piping bag
Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Line both baking sheets with parchment paper.
In saucepan, combine water, salt, 2 tsp sugar and butter. Bring to a very rapid boil (it will almost overflow the sides of the saucepan). Remove immediately from heat and vigourously stir in flour. The dough will pull away from the pan and look a bit like a mound of marzipan. Let dough rest 5 minutes.
One by one, add the eggs, stirring after each is added to smoothly incorporate – the dough will get looser and looser. Don’t worry if it seems the eggs won’t combine – just keep stirring, and as if by magic, everything will come together. The final product will be a silky, shiny and smooth pale yellow paste.
Scoop dough into a piping bag or large freezer bag (if using a freezer bag, cut off 1/2 centimetre opening at one of the points). With both hands steadying the bag, pipe whole-walnut sized balls onto the parchment, well-spaced so they have room to poof – as in the above photo.
Cover each ball with a generous douse of sugar (about 1/2tsp each). If desired, gently sprinkle cinnamon over top.
Bake one tray at a time in your oven’s middle rack (no lower, or the bottoms may burn). Be cautious not to open the oven door as the chouquettes bake, so they poof properly. At 25 minutes, open the oven to let in a bit of cool air, then bake for another two minutes – the balls should be a nice caramel colour. You’ll know they are done if you tap the bottom of a ball and it sounds hollow. Popping one in your mouth is also a good test for doneness.
Eat immediately. Or store in an airtight container and freeze up to one month – slide into a 250 degree Fahrenheit oven for 10 minutes to reheat and crisp before serving.
Makes 36 puffs.
Before, my commute looked like this: exit front door, cross park on diagonal, walk two more blocks, cut through building courtyard, enter office, sit at desk. It was a 20-minute stroll, and one of the best parts of my morning.
Now, my commute involves a streetcar and subway train, and while it’s not all that bad – at least a week in – thirty minutes on public transit demands some light reading. (I say light reading, because I always scratch my head at someone poring over Ulysses or Derrida’s collected works on the subway. I hardly understand these things sitting still, let alone with a stranger’s armpit jostling my nose.)
This is how I found myself trolling the magazine section at Shoppers Drug Mart on Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., in search of something to match my new ride. Real Simple’s August 2010 issue ended up wedged against my fried-egg-and-arugula sandwich.
I’ll be honest, I’m at once fascinated and repulsed by the kind of effortless charmed world Real Simple presents as truth. Real Simple is like that friend whose perfectly edited life you’d love to hate, but can’t – because she really is just that fabulous. And don’t we all crop the messy bits from our photographs? Still, reading this magazine always leads to a loaded internal dialogue about how we frame our lives for one-another. Perhaps not what I was seeking for light subway reading.
To the task at hand – my praise to the editor who decided “Spectacular Three-Ingredient Recipes” should be this month’s lead cover story. As those who eat with me will attest, that I share recipes here at all is odd, because I never cook from recipes. I love to read cookbooks, and cobble together dishes from flavours I think make sense in my head. I’m fastidious about documenting combinations I’ve enjoyed at restaurants the moment I get home. But in matters of food, if not life, I’m pretty much an ambler – through markets and grocery stores – picking up what makes sense in that moment.
I loved these three ingredient recipes for many reasons. For me, it was a little idea map – how smart to create an icebox cake of pureed ricotta and melted chocolate, or douse balls of honeydew and torn basil with cava for a simple dessert. The feature would work just as well for someone who follows recipes to the letter. And because each is only three ingredients, there’s no fear of stray components left to die in the fridge.
A recipe for plum tart from this story has consumed me with thoughts of puff pastry for days. While puff pastry is relatively easy to make, here’s a secret: buying it pre-made is okay. It’s more than okay – it’s the right thing to do. The thing is, good store-bought pastry contains the same stuff - flour, butter, salt, water – as the homemade kind, but lends elegance in a snap! (And all without flour in your hair, a bonus ’round these parts.) I’ve resolved to keep a sleeve in the freezer at all times – who knows when inspiration (or dinner guests) will strike.
In the spirit of keeping this recipe-free, here’s what to do. Buy a sleeve of puff pastry and two or three ingredients that sing together. Try to avoid anything with a high water content (it’ll make the dough soggy), and you’ll want at least one ingredient to be assertive, as puff pastry is a neutral backbone.
- quince paste + prosciutto
- ricotta + olive oil + radicchio
- blueberry + orange zest
- mascarpone + prune + hazelnut
- sliced pear + dark chocolate
- sweet pea + pancetta
- roasted pepper + goat cheese
- asparagus + fried egg
- grapes + marzipan
- cherry tomato + anchovy + black olive
- caramelized onion + bacon
…the options are many – other suggestions?
Thaw the pastry and unfold onto buttered or parchment-lined baking sheet. Score the edges to make a one-inch border. Arrange toppings inside the border and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes, until things look puffy and golden and right. Tarts are good hot or cold, today or the next, with company or alone over the sink, warm or straight from the fridge.
The air is brisk. Pumpkins start to arrive on grocery shelves and in market stalls. I pull tweed and sweaters from storage, at last. Everything is to love about fall. It’s dismal and rainy, yes – and the hours of sunshine through chilled air are few at best. But maybe it’s the student in me that sees autumn as a fresh slate, purging summer heat to make way for snow and new memories.
I’ve been thinking about transition a lot lately. Seasons encapsulate transition, I think. As much as I get dreamy-eyed about year-long sunshine or living somewhere more temperate, I need the seasons, so reliably ephemeral: summers marked by icy watermelon, fall’s cider, cocoa and chestnuts with the snow, and spring’s first asparagus.
Each season with its new bounty, some small cause for joy.
Come fall, I’m smitten for squash. It’s such a comforting, warming food and I love its versatility. Sweet or savoury, in a soup, roasted, stirred into oatmeal – it’s comforting and tastes like the season. And there’s something pleasantly humble about squashes: knobbly and imperfect, economical, best prepared simply.
When we recently gathered to celebrate my dear friend and a soon-to-be bride, I knew I’d bring something squash-filled along. And with Thanksgiving next weekend, pumpkin is everywhere. Tiny roasting ones, even tinier ones to display, and whole shelves lined with the pureed kind in cans … some tucked into my cart to share.
A botched streetcar ride, torrential downpour, subway interchange and short walk later, my pumpkin spice pastries arrived to the party miraculously intact, if a few minutes late. Imagine pumpkin pie rolled into a neat bundle of phyllo pastry: slightly spiced, crinkly under tooth, just sweet from brown sugar.
A dessert, I’d say, fit for transition.
Pumpkin spice pastries
(makes 10 large pieces)
A note on phyllo
Phyllo is one of those falsely intimidating doughs. But it’s actually very simple to work with. A few tips for using it successfully:
1) Cover it well with a damp dish towel as you work. This keeps it pliant and prevents cracking.
2) It’s forgiving! My Yia-Yia taught me how easy it is to patch pieces together and just keep folding. Once it’s baked, no one is the wiser that dough surgery was performed.
3) Brush the pastry with enough fat, be it butter or a neutral oil. This keeps it supple and flaky as it bakes.
A note on canned pumpkin
Don’t feel you have to laboriously roast, peel and puree pumpkin for a good filling. Pumpkins are sometimes unreliable with bitter flesh. Canned is usually good quality (I like E.D. Smith or Whole Foods’ 365 house brand). Look for 100% pureed pumpkin, and not varieties that have been mixed with other squash, and don’t mistake pure pumpkin for pre-sweetened pie filling.
2c pureed pumpkin
3/4c brown sugar
<2tsp pumpkin pie spice (mine is a combination of ground clove, ginger cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice)
1/4tsp fine sea salt
2 eggs, beaten
10 pieces phyllo pastry
1/4c melted butter (salted is okay)
additional cinnamon and brown sugar to sprinkle
1 cookie sheet, parchment paper, pastry brush
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a bowl, combine pumpkin, brown sugar, spices and salt. Gently incorporate the eggs. Cover and chill in fridge while you prepare your workstation for folding.
Melt the butter over low heat. Ensure your work-surface is very clean. Remove the phyllo from its packaging and unfold, covering with a damp dish towel. In a line, set the butter, pastry brush, cinnamon and a small bowl of brown sugar.
Remove the pumpkin mixture from the fridge. It will seem runny, but not to worry – it will set up nicely to a custard-like consistency once baked.
Brush one sheet of phyllo with butter and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon and brown sugar. Fold the sheet in half lengthwise. Dollop about 2Tbsp of filling at the bottom centre. Fold in the sides lengthwise and loosely roll the package upward until you have a cylinder, as you would with a cabbage roll or stuffed grape leaf. Place the pastry on cookie sheet. Repeat for remaining sheets of phyllo.
Before baking, brush pastries with butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon. Bake in a preheated oven for approx. 20-25 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Try as I may to convince myself otherwise, I’ll never be much of a baker. I’m impatient. Can’t follow a recipe to save my life. Hate measuring cups. Never have flour in the cupboards. Or eggs in the fridge. I think box mixes are kind of scary, and don’t like fussy things – mixers and fondants and whipping buttercream until my arms turn to jell-o.
I’m a cook at heart, who stirs and braises and chops and substitutes and judges cookbooks by their photos and stories, ’cause I know I’ll never actually follow a recipe as I find it.
That said, I do have a sweet tooth – and despite my love of mangoes and apple slices with almond butter – sometimes only butter and sugar do the trick. This recipe was born of that necessity and ingredients I always have kicking around: oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, unsweetened coconut, salt and butter. They get tossed together, spread on a cookie sheet and baked in a medium oven – and the result is magical. 10 minutes later, I have crunchy and sweet and buttery little pieces of candy, which hint at salted caramel and apple crumble topping. They’re at once incredibly complex and completely unfussy.
A couple pieces with Earl Grey tea make the perfect snack on a rainy afternoon or after-dinner sweet.
(makes 10 small pieces)
The eight-minute bake is a very rough guide. Depending on your oven’s temperament, it could be slightly more or less. Just watch for edges that are slightly golden, and a toasty smell that pulls you toward the oven. If you have it, unsweetened coconut is a star ingredient in this candy. And don’t omit the salt!
1c quick-cooking rolled oats
1/2c brown sugar
3Tbsp unsalted butter, melted (or salted, just omit the pinch of salt)
heavy pinch of sea salt
cinnamon, to taste
coarse sea salt, to finish
optional: shredded unsweetened coconut, chopped nuts, chopped dried fruit
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In bowl, combine all ingredients. The butter should just barely coat the dry ingredients so they stick together. Spread mixture about 1/4 inch thick on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, pat firmly into place. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake for approx. 8 minutes, until just golden. Remove from oven and lift parchment off cookie sheet to a counter to cool. While still warm, score with a knife for even pieces. Alternatively, keep in one large piece and break off bites as needed.
Will keep, covered, for a few days in a cool cupboard.