Sweet on Sweet Potatoes: A Muffin for All Seasons

27 Dec

Sweet potatoes, with their sunset-hue and irresistible buttery sweetness, were a Sunday dinner staple during my childhood. Dad was in charge of the cooking that day of the week, and while he stuffed us to the gills with mini-Thanksgivings of turkey, cranberry sauce, and green beans with ham hock, my mom’s contribution of either baked-until-silky or expertly candied sweet potatoes (with brown sugar, maple syrup and orange juice) was easily the most beloved (and first eaten).

Baked Sweet Potatoes (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

In light of my early fondness for this root vegetable, I was looking to create a muffin that wasn’t merely a  Thanksgiving pumpkin bread retread (with its tired ground spice quartet of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger). I was in search of a moist, tender and tending-toward cakey muffin that would satisfy my sweet tooth without landing me in cupcake territory.  I also wanted a muffin that didn’t scream “Holiday!” like the Material Girl.

What follows is the recipe that I tested and developed.

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Food in Films: El Bulli

24 Dec

What would it be like to be a fly on the wall of the now-shuttered El Bulli, previously renowned as the World’s Greatest Restaurant? The trailer for the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, offers an enticing glimpse into this world of privilege.

As culinary maestro Ferran Adria explains, an avant-garde dining experience should be more than just about delicious food–he strives for a deep emotional response. The reaction he wants from patrons after eating one of his highly conceptualized works of food art? He wants them to think, “Killer!”

Unfortunately, attending a screening of Cooking in Progress was as far from “killer” as one gets.

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Experiencing the Meaning of Sofra: A Turkish Table in the Heart of Boston

16 Dec

Tuesday was precisely the kind of day that reaffirmed my decision to redirect my career course and cater to my culinary instincts (as if I ever had any serious doubts). I had registered for “The Flavors of Anatolia,” my second tasting/demonstration event at Boston University’s School of Gastronomy.

I came alone with only the vaguest ideas of what would transpire as part of the night’s event. I knew only that Turkish food and wine, as well as two luminaries in the Cambridge-Boston food scene, were involved, both of which were sufficient incentives to sign up. Whereas the Judith Jones event I previously attended was predominantly a speaking engagement, with a casual smattering of food and wine, Tuesday’s event was a feast. We arrived to white tablecloths with introductory mezes and wine on the table, with more to follow as the evening progressed. (I have to admit that I felt a little under-dressed!)

Shepherd’s Salad (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

“The Flavors of Anatolia” was part of Boston’s month-and-a-half long celebration of Turkish culture. The annual Turkish festival, now in its sixteenth year, encompassed art exhibits, concerts, lectures, and of course, gastronomic presentations. This year’s theme was “Colors of Anatolia,” a tribute to the “diversity and richness of Turkish culture.” It was clear in catching snippets of conversation that the evening attendees included first timers like me, as well as both perennial attendees, those who have traveled to Turkey for either business or pleasure as well as Turkish-Americans.

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Food in Films: Toast

2 Dec

A little boy peers longingly through market display cases at some larger-than-life Technicolor cheese and meat pies. He begs for fresh food to brighten a colorless landscape of mealtime horrors that his culinarily-challenged mother serves up.  This is the opening scene of the movie Toast, based on the memoir of the same name by British chef and food writer Nigel Slater.

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Sweet Winter Reading: On My Bookshelf

29 Nov

I’m not letting Monday’s 66-degree weather fool me, Massachusetts. You may be all smiles now, but December is almost upon us. The colder it gets, the more likely you will be to find me indoors, snuggling with a book, a DVD, a hot chocolate or a glass red wine (maybe even all four at a time). To that end, here is my round-up of sweet reads for the coming cold weeks:

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Diary of a New England Thanksgiving

28 Nov RoastingCarrots, Sweet Potatoes and Apples

2011 was the first year that I cooked an entire Thanksgiving, soup to tart. For the last couple of years, I had been preparing side dishes and desserts, and my mother would contribute the protein (a.k.a. the main event), along with candied sweet potatoes and some other enticing accompaniment like corn bread stuffing with turkey sausage and dried cherries.

This Thanksgiving, I wasn’t traveling, but I was cooking in my new apartment in a new/old city. What was I going to do to make the holiday memorable? I decided I was going to try mostly new recipes, with a few old standbys thrown in. I also knew that I wasn’t going to cook turkey.

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Judith & Julia: Jones Talks Child at Boston University

28 Nov

I don’t know about you, but for me, November has flown by like Hermes, with winged sandals. My kitchen internship with ATK wrapped up last Tuesday, just in time for my holiday cooking preparations. The second half of my 12 weeks I spent on the Cook’s Illustrated team, which really taught me an enormous amount about the two P’s (patience and perseverance) of recipe development (especially when said testing involves grilling on not so warm days!). Suddenly, I understand that phrase, “It’s character building.”  I even got to test and develop my own recipe (on a much shorter time frame of two weeks) and write a Cook’s Illustrated-style article. After this experience, it is safe to say that, although I’ll always love them, I think I might need a break from sweet potatoes!

Sweet Potatoes! (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

November was also an eventful month for me in terms of culinary literature. If you hadn’t figured out from my blog posts by now, I’ve been drawn more and more to writing about both “food writing” and food in writing (i.e., my previous post on AGG). I recently attended a lecture at Boston University by the famed Judith Jones, author of the wonderful memoir, The Tenth Muse, and of course, the Knopf editor that is most responsible for introducing the world to the twin gifts of Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The lecture presented the perfect opportunity for me to quietly celebrate  the contributions of this brilliant fellow Leo (Julia’s birthday is the day before mine) and mid-life career changer.

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Anne of Green Gables: The Culinary Triumphs and Trials of a Titian-Haired Spitfire

30 Oct

Out of nostalgia, I started re-reading one of my favorite childhood books with one of my favorite heroines: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I had lucked upon the reruns of the PBS miniseries earlier in the year while I was in culinary school. After watching Anne of Green Gables again, I was instantly smitten and had to Netflix Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel.  To this day, I can’t hear the words “Anne of Green Gables” without picturing the stunning, spirited and poised Canadian actress Megan Follows who played the series’ namesake. She truly embodied that role and somehow made “that Anne girl’s” maudlin speeches equal parts heartfelt and humorous. And when she broke that slate over the ever-dashing Jonathan Crombie’s (Gilbert Blythe’s) head, it was magic. I’ll show you CARROTS!!!

Of course, I can never forget the genius supporting performances of Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnswsorth. I’m 34 years old, and it still brings a tear to my eye when Matthew succumbs to a bad heart in the middle of a cow pasture and, gasping his last breath,  tells  Anne that he “is so proud of his little girl.” (Matthew’s demise in the novel is much less (melo)dramatic, but nevertheless deeply touching given its roots in financial woes.)

While reading AGG this time around, it occurred to me that a large part of Anne’s education and “civilization” in Prince Edward Island (the P.E.I.) revolved around learning the domestic arts of entertaining and cooking.

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Boston Book Festival: Eat Your Words

23 Oct

Blue skies were smiling at me on Saturday as I made  my way toward Copley Square for the Boston Book Festival. The festival was extremely well-attended, which has to be a good sign: a city that reads together, stays together, at least in my book.

Boston is a city that loves its books (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

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Food in Films: The Trip

15 Oct

For my second installment of Food in Films, I have chosen to review Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip. This was a movie that I had wanted to see in the theater; having missed the opportunity, I patiently bided my time until it was available on Netflix.

The titular trip is a tour of fine dining in Northern England. Steve Coogan, originally aiming to impress his foodie American girlfriend Mischa, has planned a romantic week as a celebrity restaurant reviewer for The Observer. Determined to keep the gig despite Mischa’s premature return to America (the two are taking a relationship break), he enlists Rob Brydon, “a short Welsh man who does impressions,” as his new companion-in-arms. Rob is known particularly for his Man in the Box routine.

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