Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Simplicity is something I both appreciate and pursue. I envy the minimalist life, and am a light packer. If you've seen the way I dress, you know I will rarely be swayed from my basic uniform of jeans, beater tank, gray zip-up hoodie, and flip flops by anything other than weather or dress code. I'm not good with trends or fussy new styles; rather, they're not so good with me. I like my simple routines, and their familiarity keeps my life feeling orderly in a disorderly world.
In the kitchen, I get a bit bolder. I actually play a bit, although I still keep things relatively simple to let good food be treated with little flash and lots of love. I'm comfortable enough with flavors and ingredients' personalities that I will tweak and nudge and twist recipes, or not use one at all. Cooking is a merciful art in which mistakes are seldom, but if I make one, seldom does it hurt anything besides the chances that I'll go back for seconds.
Baking, on the other hand, is less forgiving and puts me right back in my orderly place. Recipes are followed to the letter as if I'm expecting a gold star from the teacher. I'll try new things, sure, but knowing I'm at the mercy of chemistry, I tend to bake with tradition over tricks. I always read the directions like a good girl, and I know what tastes good and go with it. And oh, the things that taste good. So good that when whatever I've baked is out of the oven, I hope someone is there to shame me out of stuffing the entire batch in my mouth like a squirrel on uppers.
With Irish Soda Bread, I'm about as purist as they come. Real, traditional soda bread has only four humble ingredients, and none of that silliness of sugar or caraway seeds. It's just flour, baking soda, buttermilk, and salt - that's it. I'll happily eat other versions because they can be incredibly yummy, but those are just gussied-up step-sisters to the soda bread Cinderella. Sure, she looked nice at the ball, but we all know she didn't need the fancy-schmance. She was just as lovely at home by the fire, and soda bread is no different.
Last week, I was feeling impulsive and daring and itched to do something a little crazy. I knew better than to dash out to chop off my hair or get another tattoo while my sanity took a holiday, so I holed myself up in the kitchen to gather my thoughts. When one of those thoughts found its way to the top of the heap, I felt a little mischief curl my grin. Even I wouldn't have imagined what happened.
I bastardized the hell out of soda bread.
I wanted something that would last longer than the usual loaf - unless it's eaten in a day, it dries out quickly once it's been sliced. I know! I thought. I'll make mini soda breads! Everything's cuter when tinier! Just look at tiny owls!
I wanted something a little more like a treat than everyday soda bread, maybe a little sweeter, a little meltier on the tongue. I'll add sugar! And BUTTER! Like a baby scone! I WILL HOLD BAKED AWESOME IN MY HAND AND IT WILL TASTE LIKE MAGIC!
Oh, my ancestors must have been rolling under the peat.
In less than 48 hours, I made 4 batches with little variation of what I came to call Irish Soda Bread Scuffins. They're sweeter like muffins and shaped like them (as I made them in a muffin pan, although I'm sure they'd be just as nice drop-biscuit style), but their texture isn't quite dense or muffinish enough to call them muffins proper. Smooshing cold butter into the flour - technically the technique is "rubbing in," but rubbing butter into anything just sounds dirty - made the texture closer to that of scones, but these definitely aren't your typical scone. And so, behold, the liger of baked goods, the tasty bee in my bonnet: the simple scuffin.
Baking can make some of us feel like we should swap our aprons for lab coats, but I promise that's not the case here. The recipe is quite flexible, so feel free to play around with the amounts of butter and sugar. You can even leave out the sugar all together if you want a more biscuit-y scuffin (a scuffit?). Maybe add cheese and herbs instead. But, sweet or savory, these are addictive little guys. I burned my tongue because I was too impatient to let them cool properly, practically using the muffin tin as a plate. Anyway, you might want to share these so you don't eat half the batch yourself... in 20 minutes. Not that I did that (twice).
Irish Soda Bread Scuffins
Your first batch might take about 10 minutes to come together if you're not too familiar with the rubbing process, but the more comfortable you are, the more quickly this recipe comes together.
3 cups all-purpose flour*
1/3 cup sugar**
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes***
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 425°F and prepare a standard muffin tin by buttering the cups or using non-stick spray. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Rub the butter pieces into the flour mixture with clean fingers until the mixture looks coarse like breadcrumbs and any lumps are no bigger than a pea, as Molly says. (If you're adding anything special to the scuffins like spices or cheese or anything, go ahead and add them to the mixture now.)
Make a well in the center of the flour and pour the buttermilk into the well. Gently stir the flour into the buttermilk until all the buttermilk is absorbed and the flour is moist. Be careful not to over-mix so the scuffins don't turn out tough or too chewy. Form the mixture into a loose, slightly sticky ball with your hands like you're forming a loaf - if it's too sticky to work with, sprinkle a bit of flour onto your hands.
Pull off 12 equal pieces of the dough and place them into the cups of the muffin tin. If you want, you can cut a cross-shape into the tops with a knife like traditional loaves of soda bread, but if that's more work than you want to do, you can just not give a crap like I did after 2 batches and they'll taste just as lovely. You can also brush the tops with buttermilk to give them a bit of tanginess, with melted butter to make them extra melty (and make your eyes roll to the back of your head while you moan out loud alone in your apartment while leaning on the oven for support), or with egg whites to give them a glossy shine.
Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool in the tin for a few minutes before removing the scuffins to cool on a rack for a few minutes more. Eat with butter or jam, or coffee or beer. Or eat them straight from the tin, plain and compulsively, like I did.
Yield: 12 scuffins
*I used King Arthur white whole wheat flour 3 times out of 4 (I like a slightly heftier taste) so whole wheat flour works just fine.
**I used as little as 1/4 and as much as 1/2 a cup in different batches - it just depends on how sweet you'd like your scuffins.
***Again, you don't need to use all the butter - these taste just as good with half as much, just not as rich. Okay, just kidding, of course they taste better with full butter, but they're still yummy enough for me with less when I'm feeling a little diet guilt.
Friday, December 16, 2011
It's a gray afternoon.
I suppose it's been a gray afternoon for days, but that's winter in Seattle - a few months full of sleepy sighs as clouds blur into skyline, and bleary eyes whenever the sun pokes its head out from under the covers for a few hazy minutes before burrowing away again.
I'm feeling pretty gray myself today, a little fuzzy around the edges. It's Christmas time, and while I always tend to get a little sad around the holidays - blame nostalgia, the slowness of limbs and thinking in the cold, the seeming hourlessness of the days as the year ends and plenty of time to reflect on life and the ending of things - I usually get with the spirit of things. But I'm just not feeling it this year, and that saddens me even more. Normally, I dig under the bed for the box of lights and ornaments within the first few days of December, giddy to sprinkle a bit of Christmas around the windows and bring home the smallest fir tree I can find to fill the apartment with it's wintry perfume. This year, it took me until yesterday to dig and sprinkle, and I had to drag my butt to do it.
Maybe some switch went off with turning 25. That sense of innocence is so pervasive during the holidays - I know its there because I've felt it before - but what I feel more acutely right now is its absence, like a tangible loss. I'm not a child anymore by anyone's standards (the exception being if they see my behavior when at Disneyland), and that stings a bit. But really, this is nothing new, not to me or to pretty much anyone old enough to notice such things. Maybe reading some Salinger would be soothing if only to commiserate, but maybe I should just suck it up. Maybe I should take down one of the stockings hung with care on the bookshelf (I don't have a chimney, and besides, the bookshelf fits us better if we're using symbols here), place it on my foot, and give myself a Christmas kick in the butt. (Side note: I've said "butt" twice, three if you count just now, and it makes me giggle - maybe I'm still a child after all. Butt butt butt.)
I have my health, my friends, my family. My boyfriend is made of magic and my cat loves my lap. My apartment, finally dressed in its Christmas best, is mad cute. I'm writing again. And drawing! (Get ready for some hilarious canvas-based presents, buddies.) If I get sad sometimes, that's okay, because it leaves my silliness and my love for all of these things intact. And when I stand in the kitchen doorway framed by Christmas lights, I can't help but feel a little glow.
So if today's a bit gray - well, gray is my favorite color, anyway.
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
The world provides many idols: religious, false, American, Billy. I have a touch of superstitiousness and am fascinated by the symbolism, ceremony, and cultural significance of idols - I'm pretty positive growing up with one foot in the door of Catholicism had a hand in this - but I don't really subscribe to any such object-worship in particular. I do have a ceramic lucky kitty on a bookshelf because something about those little guys just delights me, but I could hardly say I idolize the thing when I high-five its raised paw. When it comes to people, a person as an idol tends to become objectified, and that person becomes the object of hero-worship, but when it comes to me, the person I worship - well, I just dream of being like her, and fantasize about being her friend and meeting her for brunch. Here's the weird thing, though: it just so happens that this idolatry is manifested in my face.
Since the last years of college, there have been several occasions on which a friend or acquaintance, or even a practical stranger, would comment that I reminded him or her of Amy Poehler. Usually it was based on a physical likeness, that I looked like her, but if the person knew me beyond what I looked like, they would also make a comparison of personalities. I didn't quite agree at first. Despite a few endearing comparisons made by my boyfriend to Jenny Lewis in certain photos when I sang and had reddish hair, I'd never really thought I looked like anyone but just plain ol' me, although I like to imagine that because my father looks a bit like a younger Jon Voight, I could have looked like Angelina Jolie had my mother been Marcheline Bertrand instead of a blonde occupational therapist.*
I was honestly taken aback by this comparison, because frankly, I've adored Poehler for years and wouldn't ever flatter myself to conceive of such a connection - plus, I think she's pretty darn cute. Often, upon someone noting the similarity, others would undoubtedly stare blankly at my face for a few moments before declaring, "Hm, I don't see it." But as more and more unsolicited analogies were made, I started to think that maybe all these people weren't actually in on a really boring conspiracy. There are some resemblances, sure - we're both on the short side, with comparable blonde hair with bangs, and a sarcastic wit. We share a love of tall, sardonically funny men, Tina Fey, and silliness. We're obviously both hilarious (at least, that's what I like to think when I make people laugh - fingers crossed). And after some very studious, self-indulgent observation sessions in the mirror and being presented with some photographic evidence of a few ridiculous faces I tend to make, I suppose I can admit that our crooked smirks, and the way those smirks sneakily crease up from our jawlines to our cheeks like wry parentheses, can indeed be quite alike.
Amy Poehler happens to have played a character on Saturday Night Live named Kaitlin (correct spelling even! Uncanny!), described by the ever-wise Wikipedia as an "excitable preteen." If you've seen her as Kaitlin, and you also know the Kaitlin whose blog you happen to be reading, then you know that she and I share the ability to be awkward people very well - it is an unfortunate fact that hyperactive awkwardly-fast-talker Kait shows up to embarrass cool-collected-awesome Kait from time to time. Further parallels can be made between me and socially-inept over-acheiver Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, so let's all breathe a collective sigh of relief that I never got involved in government works. Poehler's impersonation of Sharon Osbourne clutching a visibly confused Pomeranian is one I do myself if I'm moved to annoy, my cat Eliot as the casualty.
Really, all of this is self-serving, because when I'm feeling smug, I fancy myself as pretty funny. Likewise, when I'm feeling insecure, I fancy myself as pretty funny, but... I hear laughter after I make some remark or joke and think Uh oh. Maybe they're just patronizing me, like patting a child on the head when she makes an asshat of herself in front of the adults. I hope they don't think I'm an asshat. Wait, maybe there's something on my face. Do I have cheese on my face? I did eat a lot of cheese earlier. Please don't let them be laughing at a gouda smudge. (Turns out, my internal monologue isn't backed by a soundtrack of awesome 1970's TV show theme music with a swagger-pumped bass line; rather it tends to just be frequently punctuated by a cartoon trombone whining a sad womp womp womp wooooommmmp.) And so I think of the comparisons that have been made between me and Amy Poehler as validation of my sense of humor as well as my expression of it, and if someone's opinion links us... well, there's no higher compliment you could give me, and I will want to be your friend forever (consider that a warning).
When the swelling of flagrant vanity subsides, I float back down to reality, where maybe I could pass as Poehler's younger, funny-enough sister - I know I'm no doppelganger. But I will happily settle for a passing observation of "Hey, you remind me of that blonde chick from Baby Mama..." and I will blithely thank them and hope they meant it in a nice way. Tina Fey beat me to it by writing her own love letters to Amy Poehler, but let this be my overture - Amy Poehler is brilliant and I idolize her, but more than my idol, she's my inspiration. She's unapologetically funny and she won't be pigeonholed, and she doesn't give a crap what you think or who you think she is (her quote at the top of this post says it all). My lucky kitty would high-five her in a heartbeat. While she may not be curing cancer, she's making people laugh by doing things her way, and with her as my role model, I hope I can say I've always dreamed of growing up to be Kait... but that it doesn't hurt to be Amy Poehler.
*Don't worry, mom - I think you're pretty cool.