Friday, September 23, 2011

Molasses Cookie

Molasses Cookie

Penland Coffee House, $1.50

In the many years that I've been visiting the Penland School of Crafts, the Coffee House has had at a least a couple of locations, various menus, and an ever-evolving schedule--but I've always sought it out, especially on days when the regular meal service didn't stretch to dessert.

It says something about how busy I was during this most recent visit that I didn't manage to set foot in the Coffee House until my bags were packed and the Airport Shuttle was about to leave without me. The Coffee House is all grown up now, with a custom-built space in the corner of the dining hall, dedicated staff, and an extensive menu. But the bus was waiting so I grabbed something quick and sure-fire: a big, soft molasses cookie from a glass jar next to the register.

It didn't say so on the label, but these cookies have remarkable therapeutic properties. With my mouth full of tender crumbs and crunchy sugar crystals and my nose busily drinking in the molasses perfume, I managed for the first time to leave Penland without bursting into tears. I suspect the cookie also helped to settle my stomach during the sinuous descent from the campus to the base of the mountain.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Smoky Mountain Flan

Penland School of Crafts, free with tuition

I'm currently at Penland, a craft school tucked into the mountains of eastern North Carolina, attending a week-long educators' retreat. There's 100 of us here to teach and learn and we're free to drift from one well-equipped studio to another whenever we feel the urge, 24 hours a day.

Have you ever seen one of those competitions where someone gets two minutes to dash around a grocery store throwing whatever they can into a cart? That's me at craft camp. I start the day by attending a few demos, then do a little woodturning or waxwork or soldering, then there's a debate or discussion about teaching, and finally I wind down for the night by blowing glass or flameworking until 2 or 3am. Then I'm up at 7 to start over.

Each day it gets a little harder to wake up, but I have one alarm clock I can't fling across the room or smother with a pillow: my growling stomach.

Luckily, the kitchen has my back, churning out huge quantities of yummy fuel. Sometimes there's a meal theme, and sometimes there's even a theme dessert. I'd already piled my plate high with beans and guacamole when I became giddy at the sight of a huge flan at the end of the buffet, plump and glistening like a beached seal in a puddle of caramel sauce. It was as good as any I ever had in Mexico and I slurped it down at a picnic bench, watching dusk fall over the foggy nooks and crannies of the neighboring mountains.

And then I went back to work.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Keo Me Xung

Keo Me Xung

Coconut Tree Brand, $0.79

Another discovery from Seattle's pan-Asian Rising Produce grocery, keo me xung is a Vietnamese treat with no easy translation. The label suggests either "sesame cookies" as an English equivalent, or the French for "sesame confection" (confiserie aux sesames). Neither quite fits the bill.

The size and thickness of a large tortilla, keo me xung is a floppy sweet crepe made of whole toasted sesame, ground peanuts, and sugar. Tearing it into bite-sized strips reinforces a fleeting resemblance to sesame-studded gum, but the initial chewy resistance quickly disintegrates into a mouthful of barely-sweet glaze and pleasingly pebbly seeds.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tamarind Candy Sweet

Tamarind Candy Sweet

Rising Produce, $0.69

"Whenever I hear the word chua, Vietnamese for "sour," I think of tamarind, the sticky brown fruit that grew in abundance on shading trees in my old schoolyard back in Saigon, and its intense sour-sweet memories inevitably cause my molars to vibrate and my mouth to water. I hear "sour" in English and I don't feel a thing."
--Andrew Lam
East Eats West

Even without the amplification of childhood memories, the mention of tamarind provokes in me an identical Pavlovian response. Indigenous to Africa, the tamarind tree has spread to just about every hospitably tropical climate, and the flavorful pulp cushioning the seeds inside its long, leathery pods makes star turns in a number of ethnic cuisines. Although its bipolar flavor is not dissimilar to dried apricot, tamarind pulp has a funky, fetid edge that adds exotic depth to everything from to pad thai to paletas to Worcestershire sauce.

A simple showcase for tamarind's charms, these Thai sweets are made from pulp, sugar, rice flour, and a bare pinch of salt. They're doughy-soft and crystal-crunchy--except when concealing a scrap of shell, which will cut you like a shank if you're not careful. Exotic and dangerous.