Out With the Old

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Hey, month of January: I’m just not that into you.

When January starts I always feel as though I’ve been kicked out of a great party because the hosts want to go to sleep. Out into the hall I am booted, my coat and scarf tossed out the door after me. Every shred of holiday glitz has been stripped away or ripped down faster than you can say, “Jingle Bells.” The Rockettes have gone home to soak their poor, tired, feet, and discarded Christmas trees line Manhattan’s sidewalks, lying on their sides as if they are sleeping off a long bender.

Worst of all, the kitchen has been shuttered: I can no longer use the holidays as an excuse for one more cookie.

It’s really a matter of outlook. I need to stop concentrating on January as the end of something, and start concentrating on January as the start of something; the frosty mug into which a happy, exciting, foamy, root beer will soon flow.

(Poetic? Hardly. You’ll notice there’s still something sugary on my mind.)

I should really be grateful to January for being the “tough love Mom” of the year. “Time to get back to the gym. Time to start eating properly again. You’ll look and feel better.” Yes, Mom. Okay, Mom. I will, Mom.

Oh, I was full of good intentions, one of which was to start the New Year writing about food that was less “sugar-centric.” With practically everyone now on a diet I confess that it wasn’t altruism that drove this editorial direction; I was afraid I might drive folks away if I kept up a steady stream of cakes, pies, cookies, and milk chocolate.

My personal belief is that cooking well for yourself is the keystone of a great diet. However, the trick for me is to get the ball rolling, which I have been gradually psyching myself up to do (I’m moving a little slowly these days due to all that holiday bloat.)

Then I got an invitation to a New Year’s Weekend Brunch. My mother trained me that you should never go to someone’s house empty-handed, so what was I going to bring: a bunch of celery? Heck, as I write this it’s still the holidays, so I’m having one last blast of sugar. Wheee!

(As you read this, I will have gone on the wagon. I swear.)

Breakfast is my favorite meal, so I am naturally drawn to the breakfast-y aspect rather than the lunch-y aspect of brunch. My hostess is well known as a skilled and discerning cook, so I really needed to be on my game. (She was certainly on hers!)

I don’t know why my head went directly to crumb cake. If this was the food equivalent of psychologists’ ink blots what would this say about my psyche? I wanted to make one of those old fashioned coffee cakes where the cake part merely serves as support to masses of cinnamon-infused crunchy crumbs. I’ve made things like this once or twice in the past, but noted that the recipes floating around out there always seemed to shortchange the streusel or crumb topping. Why be chintzy with the part that is always everyone’s favorite? So right out of the gate I knew that I would double the usual amount of crumbs usually called for.

The cake portion of our program was fairly straightforward: a touch of vanilla here, a hint of cinnamon there (to echo the streusel). My only twist was to replace half of the sugar with brown sugar, which would give the cake a mild glint of caramel. The thought of bringing a big tube pan-shaped cake seemed a little heavy duty for a small home brunch, so I pulled out the trusty loaf pan.

I would rate the cake a true first draft effort. The first problem was that there was too much batter for the pan. In a wink toward impending New Year diets, the recipe was designed to not be as rich, so I replaced the butter with oil. I also used regular plain non fat yogurt which left the batter a touch too runny to support the hefty middle layer of streusel crumbs. Next time I’ll experiment with either sour cream or Greek yogurt; both are thicker and should help produce a batter more up to the task of supporting the crumbs. I may even dial back on the brown sugar to restore a stark contrast between the toasted spicy crumbs and the downy cake. We’ll see.

Really though, what’s the point of all this fuss? Most folks will just eat the crumbs and push the cake aside. Well, I like the cake, so this is a personal errand.

Worst of all was that the top layer of crumbs over browned a bit in my oven. Using less batter or a different pan will reduce the baking time and reduce the chance that the crumbs may over-brown. I’m posting the recipe, so feel free to take a look and send me your suggestions. It’ll be our little collaborative project for the year.

Meanwhile a more earthbound question would be what to do with the big bunch of celery I bought to photograph. When I was a little kid my mother used to fill the hollow with peanut butter. I’m not averse to a dab of peanut butter every now and then—even on a diet—but I really thought I could be a little more imaginative. Yes, I could chop it and use it as part of the aromatic base for some hearty winter soup, and likely will use some of it for that. But I need a snack to replace the cookies which have been rotated off the menu.

If you’ve never heard of Bagna Càuda, it’s not an academic achievement, it’s a dip served hot, fondue style – Bagna Càuda translates as “warm bath.” The best part (right now) is that unlike fondue it is very light and its few ingredients shoehorn it comfortably into the Mediterranean diet. While this simple Piedmontese recipe usually starts with just olive oil, anchovy, and garlic, you can play around with the ingredients to suit your whim. I’ll be using it to dip that big bunch of celery and other veggies, but you can also drizzle it over cooked meat, or even use it as a side for antipasti.

All right! Now I’m hungry. Luckily there’s something good waiting!

Happy New Year!

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Saveur CoverThe kind folks at Saveur Magazine found my August 31st, 2009 posting about Ines Rosales Sweet Olive Oil Tortas and asked me to distill it for inclusion in their readers’ 2010 Top 100 list. You’ll find it in the Jan / Feb 2010 issue of the magazine, now on newsstands everywhere. Take a look and let me know what you think!

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Click here for the recipe for Crumb Cake and click here for the recipe for Bagna Càuda.

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