Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hacking other people's recipes

Yesterday just had that vibe, you know? That overwhelming combination of fatigue and distraction, an inability to concentrate that makes you useless for much more than making lists and doing stupid data entry.

So I took myself out for lunch. At the next table, a woman stopped chewing just long enough to pull out her phone and call another restaurant to order nachos to go. "No sour cream, double cheese, please."

I wanted to say, "You too, huh?"

While waiting for my Vegetable Delight to arrive, I pulled out my phone and did the rounds in my bookmarks. Between my daily horoscope and Jane Brocket sits Smitten Kitchen.

I've been a bit off the food blogs lately. They all seem so packed with noise, with heaps of implausibly esoteric ingredients, vamped-up "Look at me!" shots of meals in the making, high-resolution close-ups of the stack of cookies on a dark wooden board, crumbs so artfully intermingled with, what's that I see, vintage tea towels and sprigs of lavender. It all feels much more contrived than actually lived and enjoyed.

But this time, I spotted a recipe for dark chocolate coconut macaroons. Ahoy. I've got coconut, I said to myself. I have eggs, I have cocoa powder, I have sugar, and boy oh boy do I have chocolate. (Having Somerville Chocolate for a brother has its perks.) It became clear that what this day needed was the smell of chocolate and coconut baking in the oven.

Here is the original recipe in its entirety. (Here's a question for you: Why is it ok for food bloggers to swap one tiny ingredient in a recipe and then reprint the whole thing on their blogs, with the words "adapted from," when if you even thought of doing this with a knitting pattern you'd be - and rightfully so - shut down immediately? I'm still not clear on this, which is why I'm not sharing the original recipe here. It just doesn't seem right.)

Note: This recipe works beautifully exactly as written as long as you have 400g of sweetened, flaked coconut - the kind that comes in squishy bags in the baked goods aisle. But I don't like that stuff. I prefer to get unsweetened shredded coconut from my favorite Asian grocer. You get easily twice as much coconut per ounce, with none of the sugar crap, and for half the price.

But because this coconut is dry, it weighs far less than the sweetened stuff. Which means 400g of this would be enough to stuff a pillow, and that would basically mess up the whole recipe.

I took to the Interwebs. Lo, a few clicks later I found another macaroon recipe that was nearly identical to this one, minus the chocolate. It called for approximately 5 cups of coconut. There was my number.

To compensate for the dryness of my coconut, I replaced the 2/3 cups sugar with 1/3 cup sugar and 1/3 cup Lyle's Golden Syrup. I figured the Golden Syrup would add an element of moisture along with a smoky hint of caramel (and Golden Syrup is 100% cane sugar, so you're still avoiding corn syrup).

The only other thing I tweaked was the chocolate. She has you heat half of it in a saucepan, then add the other half and let it melt. Heating chocolate directly on a stove always makes me cringe, but I didn't feel like pulling out the double boiler. I did the next best thing: I put it in a Pyrex bowl and popped it in the microwave for about a minute, until the bottom was starting to melt. Then I stirred until the top pieces were melted. This is really a minor detail, but if we're reporting tweaks to the recipe, that was mine.

They only bake for 15 minutes, and after about 10 minutes your house will already begin to smell VERY VERY GOOD. The kind of good that makes neighbors knock on your door and ask what you're making.

Finished, these aren't the prettiest things in the world. The 12-year-old boy in me would call them raccoon poop. (Not that I even know what raccoon poop looks like, and no, I'm not going to Google it.) But looks aren't the issue here. Once cooled, sink your teeth into one of these babies and you'll be transported to that magical, timeless place where everything is perfectly a-ok.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Utterly delicious maple nut granola

During my brief but illustrious career as a baker, I was tasked with building the breakfast menu. Someone else provided the toast, bagels, sweet rolls, and croissants, but everything else was up for grabs. After weeks of churning through all sorts of biscuits and muffins and scones, it suddenly hit me… woah. We haven't even thought about granola. And not your average crumbled-suet-in-a-bowl kind of granola, but a really good one.

I perused the Interwebs to figure out the basic ratios for fat/sweet/grain. Some recipes called for (gasp) corn syrup and buckets of sugary dried fruit, while others looked like a food fight erupted in the bulk foods aisle of your local co-op. Enough already.

What I came up with was a mishmash of both, a really lovely blend that honors your craving for candy and your body's need for a bit of, well, roughage.

While what you see here is my own personal definition of "perfect," it's a wonderfully flexible recipe. Not fond of peanut butter? Try almond butter or maybe even cashew butter. Want more nuts? Go for it! Sprinkle some flax seed on there while you're at it. Prefer dried cherries? Mix away.

After a brutal winter that sucked most of my mojo for just about everything, I awoke last Saturday with a clear vision of how the day needed to progress -- and it involved two trays of this granola slowly roasting in my oven. It's the perfect sweet and nutty counterpart to these brisk April mornings.

Without further ado, may I present...

Utterly Delicious Maple Nut Granola

Preheat oven to 250 degrees


7 cups whole oats (use good old-fashioned ones, not quick-cooking - they won't hold up)
1 cup shredded coconut (can be sweetened or unsweetened or grated, your call)
1 cup chopped walnuts (or any other nut you like)
1 cup sliced almonds (ditto - go wild!)
dash of cinnamon
dash of salt

Combine all dry ingredients in a nice big mixing bowl.

1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup peanut butter (chunky or smooth, your call)
3/4 cups real true maple syrup (oh yeah, you heard me right)
slosh of vanilla (about 2 teaspoons, your call)

Slowly combine all the wet ingredients with a whisk. It will become a tantalizing slurry that, despite all that oil you just saw go in there, you will want to drink. Resist the urge.

Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and mix thoroughly. I like to roll up my sleeves and dig in with my hands. The goal here is to coat every single oat, nut, and bit of coconut with some of the slurry.

Spread this mixture evenly onto two sheet trays and place in a 250-degree oven.

Now, there are two ways you can do this. You can be sloppy and just let it bake for two hours. Or, you can do the right thing and check in on your baby every 15 minutes. Pull out the trays and shuffle the granola around. Flip the clumps, give everything a good stir. You want a slow, even roast.

In about two hours, you'll be ready to stop checking on your granola - and it should have achieved a lovely golden hue and satisfying crunch.

But wait! One more step: FRUIT. You don't add these at the beginning because they'll heat too much and caramelize into little tooth-breaking bullets. Instead, you wait until now to add as many fistfuls of raisins and dried cranberries as you desire. Give it a good stir, then put everything back into the (now off) oven and forget about it. The residual heat will cause just enough caramelization for a satisfying chew without going any further.

Once the granola has completely cooled, pour it into a Mason jar and enjoy.

I can't tell you how long it keeps because mine is always gone within a week. It really is that good.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Back on the Ground

Wow. When we last left off, it was early October and I was on the cusp of hitting the road for my first-ever capital B, capital T Book Tour.

All that optimism. All those nerves. What a poignant place it turned out to be. I don't really know how to bridge the gap between then and now. So much happened that even months later I'm still putting myself back together again.

Probably the biggest surprise was how much my sense of "enough" got distorted. Having waited a lifetime for this opportunity, I scolded myself for not savoring each moment enough, not remembering enough, not being grateful and humble enough.

Each day I'd get emails from my publisher asking about the event, the number of books sold, the number of people who came, all of which prompted a whole other self-doubt about whether or not I was attracting enough people, selling enough books, making enough money for my publisher and for the bookstores that were hosting me. From here, it's a slippery slope toward re-evaluating one's entire self-worth.

I didn't give enough respect to the power of sleep deprivation and the compounded exhaustion of daily airport security checkpoints, take-offs and landings, cabs and shuttles, and empty hotel rooms, of entering a new bookstore each day, introducing myself, and hoping beyond hope that anyone would come.

I struggled with the dichotomy between what the tour looked like to the outside world and what it felt like inside, and with the feeling that even at the hardest moments, well, who was I to complain? I was lucky. Very, very lucky. Even at 4am, wheeling my carry-on down an empty hotel corridor toward the elevators.

I learned to be prepared for things to fall apart the minute I thought they were together. I learned to scan for the word "problem" in email headers. Like when, in Minneapolis, the bookstore had mistakenly cancelled its order and had no books. None. 

On the very last day of my tour, frayed at the edges and having almost missed my flight home, I made the mistake of glancing at my phone one last time to see how my book was doing on Amazon. (Yes, we do this.) That's when I discovered that someone had just given it one star. How Freudian, I thought.

BUT, and this is a very big but, alongside those low points were people. Kind knitters, readers, angels in human form, who appeared at each stop and made it all better.

Never have I realized how important friendship is, whether it was the friend who called in sick to play with me, or the one who drove out to the airport before having coffee, to meet my early flight.

At each stop, more appeared. There was Felicia, whose whole family contributed to the Yarn Whisperer good-luck tour map shown above. Lorilee, who brought me cake and almonds on my first night. Jan, whose oatmeal cookies served as that night's dinner and breakfast the following morning. Shelley, who let me scrawl "boobs are good!" on her arm in red ink. Stephanie, who understood why I needed to walk around the block one more time before going into the bookstore. And Eunny, who knew exactly where to take me when I told her I needed "a bowl of something hot."

The people are what I remember, which is as it should be. They are what humbled me the most, what kept it real. I remember their faces, their kindness, and I carry those memories with me as I contemplate throwing my hat in the ring, yet again, for another round.

I've been thinking about all of this since I saw Molly's tour announcement for her much-awaited Delancey. I could feel a clench in my chest. I wanted to yell at the screen, "Look out! Behind you! He has a chainsaw!" I wanted to sit her down with a cup of tea and give her comforting words. Be early for everything, I'd tell her. Tip often and well, drink plenty of water, get to bed early, and always, always pee first.

And for those of you with author friends? If your friend comes to town for an event, no matter how crowded you think it'll be and how little your presence there might matter, please know that it does matter. I beg of you, for the sake of all authors past, present, and future, GO. Get a babysitter, rent a car, quit your job if you must, but please, go.

I promise, there'll be cashmere and chocolate waiting for you in heaven if you do.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tour Time

I'm off! First stop, Seattle. Then San Francisco, then Portland, then Pasadena, then Denver, then Minneapolis, then Chicago, then Nashville, then Rhinebeck, then Portland, Maine, then Toronto, and then I'm going to hide under the bed for A WHOLE YEAR until I'm able to form complete sentences again.

I've blathered about the tour everywhere, and I assume people are sick and tired of hearing about it, and I certainly feel rather dull talking about it all the time. But then someone will email and say, "What? A tour? When?" so I feel compelled to list the dates one more time, just in case. 

On my flight to Seattle, a most amazing thing happened. I was waiting with everyone for our gate-checked luggage when a lovely woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked, "Are you Clara Parkes?" This usually sends me into a panic. What did I do? How am I in trouble? Where will they interrogate me? Will I miss my connection?

I nervously nodded and said yes, and she reached into her purse and pulled out a copy of my book. She'd been reading it on the airplane. Probably at the exact moment I was snoring and drooling in my seat. That, my friends, is a moment I won't soon forget. 

On the next leg of my flight, I sat next to a charming man from Nashville who works for Service Corporation International. He told me all about it, all the places he's lived and worked during his 25-year career there. It's the nation's largest funeral company if you didn't know. (I didn't.) Lovely man, pulled my suitcase from the overhead for me, likes his beer cold, and recommended I go to the bubble gum wall when I'm in Nashville. Apparently it's a wall where famous people stick their bubble gum. Yup.

In the meantime, tomorrow I formally launch myself into orbit at Third Place Books. Butterflies! Excitement! Two weeks of getting to hang out with knitters every day, talk with them, make them laugh, and hear their stories. Could anything be better?

Will I see you along the way?

* Correction! Apparently the wall is here in Seattle. But still...why?