Come Fall, Come Cook

Crisp nights and mornings and golden, perfect afternoons have overtaken Beijing…though today looks hazy.  Pollution still wins the occasional victory over fall.  A victory I never win against the crisp weather is fighting the urge to bake that comes with the chill.

I went months without making anything besides toast in my miniature oven, then suddenly October arrives and I’m whipping out an almond cake and rice pudding within the space of a few days.  Granted, the latter wasn’t made in the oven, but the kitchen was still warmed from the bubbling pot of creamy rice.

It takes the absence of suffocating humidity in my kitchen, and I’m there in a flash, stirring and whisking and sifting powdered sugar.  I actually sifted powdered sugar for a glaze for my cake!  This shouldn’t require an exclamation mark in its own right, so let me qualify: I’m a lazy baker.  Lazy, and perhaps a bit brash in my confidence: “Oh, I don’t need to measure this exactly!  I can eyeball it.”  OK, sure, maybe eyeballing a teaspoon of baking powder is acceptable…and sometimes everything turns out fine.  Sometimes.

Baking cookies, for example.  Most recipes have you “sift together the dry ingredients into a bowl, and set aside.”  Then, you cream the butter and sugar, beat in the eggs and extracts, and finally stir in your sifted dry ingredients.  I tend to breeze airily past the first step, thinking, “Pshaw!  {I don’t think I’ve ever actually thought the word ‘Pshaw,’ but the sentiment was there}  Who needs sifting?  I’ll just dump the dry ingredients on top of the wet mixture at the end, give it a little stir, then stir everything together!  It’s all stirred up in the end…and we’re not making French pastry here, we’re making cookies, for gosh sakes.”

And so sifting was always eschewed, until, while visualizing my glaze (yeah, sometimes I visualize things like glaze…some people visualize a better future or a dazzling career move, I visualize glaze), I felt worried about the lumps that no doubt would form in the powdered sugar.  Powdered sugar is notorious for clumping.  It lives to clump.  I knew, in this instance, when dealing with a glaze that will cloak the final product instead of being mixed in, I shouldn’t cut corners.

Also, and more importantly, I realized I had an apparatus with which to sift.  Of course I’ve never invested in such a tool, but I remembered my cute squat green teapot, with its   mesh strainer insert–I could force the powdered sugar through the strainer, creating a clump-free glaze!  Yessss.

I felt immense satisfaction watching the snowy sugar settle in a soft peak in the bowl, and even more satisfaction when, as I whisked in the milk, lemon juice, Disaronno liquor and browned butter, it was gloriously smooth.

I scattered slivered toasted almonds over the finished cake–a crumbly fragrant disk of almond flour, sugar, and lemon zest bound with olive oil, orange juice, and egg–and spooned the golden brown glaze over all.

After it cooled Brett and I cut a wedge each and dug in–moist, tender almondy cake fragrant with citrus and rich with the browned butter glaze.

Fast-forward to last night, and there I was mixing up a pot of rice pudding with the leftover rice and coconut milk from Sunday’s curry.  We hadn’t even finished the cake yet, so I stashed it in the freezer to prevent the delicious moistness from turning moldy.

The pudding was dead simple: dump old rice and coconut milk (and a good splash of regular milk) into a pot and bring it to a boil.  Reduce the heat, and simmer until creamy, adding whatever exotic mix-ins desired.  I desired dried cranberries, for a bit of tart chew amidst all that creamy rice.  I also tossed in half a split vanilla bean, some nutmeg, and a dash of Disaronno.  At the end, when some of the liquid had reduced, I added toasted slivered almonds.

MMM…warm, creamy, flecked with vanilla, chewy craisins, crunchy almonds.  Heaven!  I had some for breakfast this morning with toast.

The thing that’s so great about rice pudding is its versatility.  Even if you’re using uncooked rice, it still only takes an hour, which you can spend reading while it’s burbling away, wafting delicious steam.  You can use whatever milk you have.  Coconut milk does give a delicious creaminess and flavor, but regular milk is fine, and almond milk would be good too.  It’s a vegan’s dream dessert.  Then there’s all the mix-ins…dried fruit, liquors, nuts.  A friend suggested rose or orange blossom essence, which would go great with golden raisins and pistachios…a sort of Persian twist.  Or amp up the coconut with toasted coconut flakes.  Or throw a cinnamon stick in with the vanilla pod, with dark raisins for a classic version, maybe with a splash of rum.

There’s still a good bit left in the fridge, but I’m already plotting my next kitchen move.  Cookies?  Soup?  Cornbread?  Probably I should make all three…after I go running.

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About dumplingdaze

I moved to Beijing from Paris a year and a half ago. I'm originally from the green hills of Tennessee, and although I miss bluegrass and good biscuits like I miss croissants and a good piece of St. Felicien, I'm enjoying my new home in the Far East. Chinese food is delicious! Dumplings, or jiaozi, are some of my favorite things on earth to eat. As you might have surmised, I love food. I also love words, and this blog is a space for me to ramble about food and life and experiences in Asia and beyond.
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2 Responses to Come Fall, Come Cook

  1. Michael says:

    Your writing is wonderful.

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