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.
Blame my premature Christmas spirit, but I have become this season’s tireless Champion of Unloved Foods. Anchovies, for one. Cabbages, too, which I have been eating slawed and braised and stewed and sautéed and pickled and sliced like an apple. Plus fruit cakes, a genetic inheritance from my mom that only recently surfaced (and I’m so glad it did).
And now? Prunes.
Max winced on Sunday night as a 1.36 kilogram bag of California pitted prunes landed in our grocery cart. I believe his verbal reaction was something like you are disgusting. And then he asked: how would I possibly eat them all? A better question: how would I possibly not eat them all?
I don’t hold a grudge against my otherwise liberal-minded housemate. He, like many of us, was conditioned from early days to dislike prunes. I mean, strained prunes – what an unfortunate name for anything, let alone a sticky brownish puree fed to toddlers. And they are not much prettier pre-blending. Plus, no one wants to admit she likes a fruit that’s celebrated by grandmas everywhere for its laxative properties. My digestion-happy naturopath aside, we just don’t talk about poop.
(Too much information? I’m sorry.)
But eat a “dried plum” and try not to melt into a puddle of prune-induced happiness. Don’t waste your time on a dusty chew-toy prune dug in a clump from the bulk bin – eat a proper, silky, moist prune. A good prune is complex. Open a fresh bag, stick your nose in deep and you’re met with a range of heady scents – mulling spice, jam, cedar, leather, port. It’s the closest thing I know to a beautiful red wine in food form.
If it’s still too much to enjoy the goods straight up, then make these truffles. You read that right. Hardly a traditional truffle, but I’m not getting fussed over technicalities. They’re made with a versatile base of prunes, rolled oats and nut butter. For those familiar with Larabars, prune truffles are their moodier, smarter, rounder cousin. Swapping in prunes for a standard date base makes the truffles more assertive, and rolled oats lend a smooth, dense texture. I like them best bare, but dipped in dark chocolate and wrapped with a pretty bow, they’re a holiday present for your naturopath, your large intestine, and everyone else.
Makes 12 truffles, 20g each
A note on add-ins: the basic formula for the base is oats + prunes + nut butter, but so many additions are possible. Think of these as actual truffles and combine: chia seeds, ground nuts, coconut, chopped chocolate, cocoa nibs, coffee, dried cherries, cinnamon, cardamom, citrus zest, mint extract, etc. Use about a tablespoon dried add-ins and no more than a tablespoon wet so as not to affect the texture. Spices and zests should be used to taste.
For the holidays, these are delicious a little boozy, which pairs well with the prune’s natural wine notes. Add a tablespoon of whiskey, bourbon or a liqueur like Kahlua or Frangelico.
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup soft dried prunes – they should be pliable, black and shiny
3 Tbsp crunchy nut butter - e.g. peanut, almond, cashew
1/4 tsp fine sea/kosher salt – if nut butter is already salted, omit
In a food processor, gently pulse rolled oats and prunes until the batter sticks together in a big clump. Transfer to a mixing bowl and incorporate nut butter by pressing in with a spatula until evenly combined. The batter will be slightly glossy and firm. Form into balls about one-inch in diameter and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Freeze until set, about 2 hours, then transfer to a container for freezer storage. Enjoy straight from the freezer, or bring up to room temperature for serving.
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.