Winter trifles & egg creams

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One of my happiest, most vivid holiday moments was sitting at the counter of Peter Pan Donuts this past Christmas. I stop in often enough to call myself a regular and had a sudden hankering for an old-fashioned Brooklyn egg cream. Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas was playing on the radio. My husband and I stayed for about an hour without saying much, just watching people come and go.

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Just me & my egg cream at Brooklyn Farmacy, January 2016.

Good old seltzer has obsessed me for a while now–I’m fascinated by its history as a tonic for all imaginable ailments from indigestion to melancholy and pure nerves. (Hence, Ella Fitzgerald’s claim: “with no Bromo-seltzer handy, I don’t even shake.”) Not to mention its heyday as the drink of choice back in the days of the Main Street drugstore and soda fountain. (For more on that, do take a peek at this terrific book from Brooklyn Farmacy, which packs decades of social history into a slim confectionary bible, along with tips for how to make a real egg cream.)

This past December, I also signed up for an account with the Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, one of the only remaining delivery services left in New York. It’s hard for me to imagine not wanting soda water delivery after hearing about these guys. (I won’t even touch the heartstopping charm of the Seltzer Sisters out on the West Coast.) But for all the skeptics out there who may wonder about the practicality of a hefty crate of seltzer in this day and age: can this lady really imbibe all that fizzy stuff each month? Let me assure you–not only is the taste utterly worth it: clean, sparkly and refined, beyond any bottled seltzer I know. There are also endless ways to enjoy this age-old wonder drink, from medicinal tonics with all manner of bitters, to easy at-home egg creams, tea sodas and even cocktails.

sundae

My Cherie Amour sundae at Brooklyn Farmacy, with Charlotte Russe soaked in maraschino cherry juice & Adirondack Cream chocolate ice cream. Nostalgic Dream. January 2016.

I love egg creams (it may go back to many summers waitressing at Richard’s Deli on the Jersey Shore) and naturally look to any experts I can find here in Brooklyn. I didn’t stop at Brooklyn Farmacy’s maple egg cream on a dreamy date there earlier this week. The effervescent soda jerk, Jackson, offered a series of insights about using different textures and flavors to create mind-blowing sundaes, like using broken pretzel bits and bottom-of-the-barrel pretzel salt to top off their much-lauded Sundae of Broken Dreams. How could I not try one? I went for the My Cherie Amour–a mound of rich, dense and very chocolate-y ice cream built on a foundation of Charlotte Russe-like shortcake drenched in maraschino cherry juice. My husband was rendered speechless, slipping into a childhood reverie and bursting out with other memory fragments like the joy of Seinfeld’s “old cake” episode when Elaine accidentally eats King Edward VIII’s old wedding cake.

trifle

Victorian-era trifle, inspired by Mrs. Beeton’s iconic Book of Household Management, with ladyfingers soaked in Leopold Brothers tart cherry liqueur. January 2016.

Much as I’ve been weaning myself off months of excessive butter and sugar consumption (with daily doses of seltzer, aromatic bitters and tea sodas,) why stop at that Proustian sundae? A few days later, I found myself making a cherry trifle, using some clutch ingredients on hand at home. Note that the last time I made a trifle was roughly a quarter-century ago for a grade-school project: historical recipes intrigued me from a young age and I somehow felt compelled to instruct my class how to make a British trifle at show-and-tell. For the adult version, I dipped ladyfinger cookies from the local Polish bodega in a beautiful cherry liqueur given to me by friends in Denver some time ago; its flavors seem to have ripened nicely with age.

Trifles strike me as an elegant, comforting dessert for winter, and are easy to make with just a few odds-and-ends, in case you find it hard to venture out into the cold. Of course, I also like to keep a few Peter Pan doughnuts around to surprise my son after school, along with the occasional egg cream or homemade soda. Want to hear more about nostalgic tea sodas, like The Owl’s Brew all-natural Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew made from ingredients like cherry and green tea or chamomile and pineapple? Stay tuned for the next issue of These Foolish Things for the scoop on fizzy tea and bitters.

 

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World tour: holiday bake-a-thon

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Nineteenth-century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin said that “the discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of a man than the discovery of a star.” It’s also the epigraph from this gem of a book: Maria Lo Pinto’s The Art of Making Italian Desserts, with recipes for chestnut souffles to rose-petal conserve from Aunt Gioia’s kitchen. We quickly learn that Aunt Gioia had fallen in love with a sailor who brought her recipes, jars of spices and other delicacies from his travels whenever he came home on leave. Sadly, he was lost at sea. She turned her kitchen into a ship, with enough space in the “stern extension” to comfortably seat eight people for alfresco dining. The chapter on fillings starts like this: “Have you ever had the good fortune to lie flat on your back under a spreading almond tree in blossom in the midst of springtime?”

Syltkaka

Jam thumbprint cookies from Unna Bakery’s traditional Swedish cookies.

Now might be a good time to mention that almond paste and marzipan are some of my favorite things on earth. I ate it by the pound when I was pregnant (not cheap), and my four-year-old ended up with a hankering for it. I buy it from one place in the city–an old Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn where I lived for many years, and also recently scored a few bottles of Fabbri’s extraordinary cherries. I use them for everything–garnishing daisy-shaped matcha cakes to tossing into a Shirley Temple, with a bit of extra juice.

Marzipan, fruitcake & Swedish princess cake

The last few weeks have also given me the chance to learn about Swedish baking traditions from experts like Johanna Kindvall (co-author of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break), Ulrika Pettersson of Unna Bakery and Robert Tell, head baker of New York’s Fika, for an article I’m writing about taking time for coffee (or tea) and a nice sweet. (Robert shares my passion for marzipan so we naturally spent a good bit of time talking about the beauty of Swedish princess cake.)

princess cake

Princess cake at Fika with SerendipiTea English breakfast, sparking my interest in the tradition of Swedish fika. November 2015.

What a delight and privilege to visit with each of them, being offered fresh-made rye bread right in Johanna’s kitchen, or Ulrika’s divine chocolate-caramel cookies, sitting at her table over stories about family recipes. Her elegant cookies are based on the 19th century tradition of kaffereps, where women were required to make seven sorts of cookies for social gatherings–a source of beauty as well as anxiety under the pressure of having to do everything right. All of these cookies were meant to be served with coffee, she told me. Indeed, the chocolate snits were utterly perfect with it. Still, I couldn’t help but start dreaming about tea pairings that might bring out some of the delicate flavors of her airy dream cookies (like a white Bai Mu Dan or elderflower infusion.) Tea fika, anyone? Plans are underway for winter.

fruitcake prep

Fruitcake preparations with Christmas figs from my local Italian store, whole citron, blackcurrant tea extract, and Atelier Perfume cognac & blood orange oils. December 2015.

Early mornings are my favorite time of day: I love sitting down for a quiet breakfast with my son, and indulging him in whatever little treats we have on hand. Lately, I’ve been having homemade Ukrainian biscotti from Olia Hercules’ marvelous Mamushka cookbook, alongside Bellocq’s Christmas tea (a lucky discovery from last year.) We talk a little bit about our advent calendar themes for the day like “candy canes” or “mistletoe.” Most amazingly, I stopped by the Christmas tree seller on our street yesterday to see if he had mistletoe. (He’s been coming to our corner for years, and I always want to pop into the trailer to play checkers and have doughnuts.) As it turns out, he made a film called Christmas, Again that’s showing at the Museum of Modern Art right now. (Please do read more in this Wall Street Journal piece.) He told me he didn’t have mistletoe because no one ever asks for it these days; the WSJ photographer was there snapping shots while we spoke. I think I’ll make some Swedish gingersnaps for the crew next week.

ukrainian biscotti

Ukrainian biscotti from Olia Hercules’ Mamushka & some made-up-as-I-went-along matcha cakes with Fabbri cherries. My table, December 2015.

This morning, I’m going to infuse some rum with Assam tea for a milk punch cocktail to serve friends coming for the first night of Hanukkah this weekend. (We celebrate quite a few traditions in my house.) I came across it in a most excellent book–the Art and Craft of Tea by Joseph Wesley Uhl, whose teas are also terrific. The fruitcake I made on the first day of December is currently soaking in bourbon, but I’m thinking I’ll just sneak a few slices to go with the milk punch. Both are great to have on hand for an afternoon decorating the tree.

I used to get pretty overwhelmed by the buzz of the holidays, and everything there is to do. Chopping ingredients, in truth, has long been one of my worst enemies. I’ve often thought to myself: “if I can just get through the chopping, everything will be okay.” What about just doing things for the sake of it? I’m starting to find more joy, even in chopping. Nor will stars fall from the sky if I burn the bottoms of the gingersnaps a bit or the milk punch doesn’t turn out as I hoped. I’ll just add the rum to egg nog, give out a few of Unna’s jam thumbprint cookies, and drop a hibiscus flower or two into glasses of Prosecco. We can just sit and watch the beautiful petals unfurl. You can even eat the flowers.

Death by tea & chocolate

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Chocolate malt cake with charred marshmallows, made by me at Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, October 2015.

Chocolate malt cake with charred marshmallows, made by me at Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, October 2015.

Think of all the things you love about chocolate. (Rich, earthy and sweet all come to my mind.) Then put that into a layer cake with chocolate frosting, fudge sauce, white chocolate malt crumbs and charred marshmallows. I knew I had to take the chocolate baking class at Momofuku Milk Bar the moment I saw the ad: I’d had their chocolate pretzel milkshake and birthday cake truffles on one occasion and found myself floating on what I can only describe as a psychedelic dream cloud on roller skates.

The class exceeded my expectations by starting off with a Good Fellas-like walk through the industrial Williamsburg kitchen, filled with vats of cookie dough, cornflakes and rainbow sprinkles. (I might add here that Milk Bar is known for its cereal milk ice cream dusted with cornflakes.) We were asked to wear hair nets for about thirty seconds, then given Rosie the Riveter-style head scarves that made me feel like we’d stepped into an I Love Lucy episode, only adding to the magic. The neon lights helped set a 1940s galactic diner mood, as did a sign which read: “It gets wild in here when we turn on the mixers.”momofuku me

We were frankly saved from the work of making the actual cake, but taught instead how to build layers. Much as I enjoy getting into the bones of doing things myself, I liked how this freed me up to experiment. (The fact that I now know how to make a foot-high layer cake could be dangerous.) I unveiled the final masterpiece on a Monday morning in my house, to the astonishment of my 4-year-old son and husband. Is there a better way to start the week? The cake truffles we made in class were eaten before I had the chance to photograph them.

Chocolate drinks, chocolate everything
I like to immerse myself in things, so the last few weeks have very much been about chocolate for me. (I found myself flashing back to a science and engineering summer camp I went to in high school up at Penn State. One of my best friends applied, so I did. A far more serious scientist, she was assigned to the course in polymers. I think they knew I wouldn’t cut it in polymers, so I miraculously ended up in a month-long course on the chemistry of chocolate, wrapping up with a bonus class on ice cream.) Sadly, I was pining for one of the boys there who already had a girlfriend, so took great comfort from my chocolate lessons. As it turns out, I’m knee deep back in the business of food chemistry via one of my World Tea Academy sommelier courses about the organoleptic experience and how we process taste, smell and flavors. I did quite a few deep tastings of chocolate for one of the experiments (thanks to my Cocoa Runners subscription and nearby Cacao Market) and discovered some new things beyond the more classic Assam and milk chocolate combo.

wtachcocolatesWhite chocolate isn’t usually my thing, but it’s fantastic with many green teas, which give the very sweet white chocolate grassier depths. I especially like it with Rishi’s Kukicha; the creamy, buttery notes in both the tea and chocolate complement each other well. I suspect it might also pair well with some of the greener, more floral oolongs. One wouldn’t necessarily think of trying a puerh with a pure white chocolate. But I did find a glorious match between Art of Tea’s coconut cacao puerh and a white pistachio bark from Cacao Market, the new sister location of New York’s MarieBelle, known for its chocolate and teas. (They also serve hot chocolates like a matcha white, with boozier blends to come such as dark chocolate with cognac.) The bark and puerh blend proved to be a complex match that worked on a lot of levels, culminating in the marriage of sweet and salty, light and dark: the coconut and white chocolate on one hand, the puerh and pistachio on another. More traditionally, earthy puerhs can pair beautifully with darker chocolates. One of my favorites was a dark and smoky 70% Java bar from Manufaktura Czecholady, Poland’s first and only single origin chocolate maker and introduced to me via Cocoa Runners alongside a classic Imperial Puerh from Palais des Thes. It’s a dark, rich and velvety combination, with a little bit of sweetness in the chocolate rounding out some of the animal notes in the earthy tea. Gorgeous for late fall and winter nights.

Manufaktura Czecholady Polish single origin dark chocolate with Palais des Thes Imperial Puerh in my Brooklyn garden, October 2015.

Manufaktura Czecholady Polish single origin dark chocolate with Palais des Thes Imperial Puerh in my Brooklyn garden, October 2015.

Sometimes I need a break from eating chocolate and cake; I simply move onto chocolate teas or cocktails. Chocolate and rose is a famously romantic combination for a reason: it’s voluptuous and sexy. If the thought of chocolate tea has never crossed your mind for a night cap, consider MarieBelle’s Dark Obsession Chocolate Rose, a Ceylon tea scented with chocolate extract and blended with roses. The smell alone takes me right to the dreamy, intoxicating shop. (I’m a regular.) MEM Tea Imports offers Rose Cascarilla, a spicier and more robust take on the genre, with actual roasted cacao shells. I’ve been given a few other gorgeous chocolate teas in what I regard as the French perfumed tradition: a Mariage Freres Wedding Imperial with the added richness of caramel, and bestowed upon me by the gracious mother of one of my son’s classmates. The other is a Lupica The au Chocolate from Chado Tea Room in downtown Los Angeles, with cacao nibs and cocoa powder. I hold it especially dear because it was given to me by fellow writers and friends when I left my job in finance late this summer to take up freelance and be with my son as he starts preschool. My former company’s headquarters are based in downtown LA; I regret that I somehow never made it to Chado, despite my many visits to the area over the course of ten years. But was given this bittersweet gem as a token of friendship and well wishes. I hope to make it back there for tea someday.

chocolate nightcap

Tea Punch Drunk

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The After Party: Leftover punch & cake for an impromptu afternoon tea. With Smith Teamaker Bai Hao oolong No. 20. September 2015.

The After Party: Leftover punch & cake for an impromptu afternoon tea. With Smith Teamaker Bai Hao oolong No. 20. September 2015.

One thing I love about visiting friends is skimming whatever’s on their coffee tables and bookshelves during visits. I recently found myself flipping through a copy of The Apple Lover’s Cookbook at my friend Tom’s place (I’d also just scored a handy pocketguide to apples from the Vermont Institute of Natural Science where we’d just seen an exhibit on raptors, and I was entranced by the sad, soulful glance of a great grey owl. This fall seemed like the ideal time to better acquaint myself with apples.) One of the book’s recipes on Kentucky stack cake caught my attention: a traditional potluck wedding cake popularized in mid-century Appalachia, it’s made up of pancake-like rounds contributed by different people (so the baking burden doesn’t fall to one person) and held together by layers of applesauce (or apple butter.)

I love the ethos of potlucks and try to host open-house parties and teas whenever possible, inviting any friends and neighbors who happen to be free (I’m particularly smitten with this increasingly old-fashioned idea of Sunday as a day of rest and of easy gatherings when anyone can just drop in without committing–it somehow seems more natural to me than the highly scheduled approach that’s more or less become de rigueur in modern life.) This past weekend just before equinox seemed like a nice time to usher in fall with some friends. My son also just started pre-school across the street so it gave me the chance to round up a few of his new classmates and welcome them into our place.)equinox party

And what better way to celebrate fall than with a small crowd and bowl of Civil War-era U.S.S. Richmond Tea Punch? I’ve been intrigued by tea punches for a while after coming across cocktail historian David Wondrich’s marvelous Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl. I’m not much of a drinker these days, but enlisted the help of my whiskey-loving husband for tips, and to mine his arsenal of spirits. I love how the U.S.S. Richmond Punch is an old sailor’s brew (named after the longest-serving ship in Naval history) and traditionally calls for strong tea.

I took a few liberties with Wondrich’s recipe based on what I had in house, using armagnac for the cognac and a smoky but smooth Lapsang Souchong from Joseph Wesley Black Tea. I already knew the tea well and had a hunch it might sparkle here but asked my husband to try it when I was mixing up the punch stock; he’s hardly a tea fan, but gave it two thumbs up. We’ve had a largely untouched absinthe fountain on our shelf for a while (following some absinthe-fueled trips to Paris and Barcelona a few years ago). It seemed like as good a time as any to break out the fountain for tea punch. Why not? It’s a party, after all. Please do read more about the recipe here and try it out for any fall gatherings or throughout the holidays: http://liquor.com/articles/what-would-a-pilgrim-drink/#gs.Ge884WY It was a real hit with partygoers and a lively conversation piece. I had a tad bit left over, which I used for an impromptu afternoon tea party a few days later. The little ones weren’t forgotten either: for them, I made a virgin punch using an herbal infusion of dried apple, orange and mango bits from Palais des Thes’ new garden line, adding some agave and raspberry sorbet. http://us.palaisdesthes.com/en_us/hanging-garden.html

Tea & whiskey cake adapted from Martha Goldman & NPR Food. Marvelous. September 2015.

Tea & whiskey cake adapted from Marcy Goldman & NPR Food. Marvelous. September 2015.

September’s been a pretty festive month around our house, and I’ve been baking up a small tornado. This tea and whiskey cake from NPR Food–a twist on more traditional honey cake–sparked my interest one morning during Rosh Hashanah. I was able to pull it together in no time before heading to my in-laws to ring in a sweet new year. Personally, I have a somewhat uncommon taste for drier, old-fashioned fruitcake-like baked goods, but recognize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (my husband will not go for dry cakes.) I didn’t have orange juice on hand so just added more whiskey. I told my four-year-old-son that this cake had whiskey in it and he kept referring to it as “the bad cake.” Rave reviews all around. My in-laws loved it. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/09/13/439573786/the-jewish-fruitcake-honey-cake-is-a-sweet-and-stodgy-tradition

Not every tea cake needs whiskey, so I had some fun with a Ceylon tea apple cake recipe from Cynthia’s Gold’s wonderful Culinary Tea (I used a SerendipiTea Ceylon Black.) I served this one with punch at our equinox shindig–also much adored! One secret ingredient in both cakes is a magical and very real Sri Lankan cinnamon from my go-to stockpile of Aftelier Perfumes cooking essences. Always well worth a drop or two. http://www.aftelier.com/Cinnamon-Chef-s-Essence-Organic-p/chefs-cinnamon.htm

A sample of cinnamon Ceylon from the relatively new Colorado-based Senkada Tea, which has longstanding family ties to one of Sri Lanka’s oldest tea estates, served as a lovely complement. I love that you can actually taste the real cinnamon in it (native to Sri Lanka going way back to the olden days of spice routes.) http://senkadatea.com/product/cinnamon-black-tea/

Another fine companion to tea cake (or utterly delicious on its own) is MEM Tea Imports’ Dian Jin (Golden Needles), with notes of ripe dates, molasses and chocolate. I came across this tea at the most charming and dreamlike French-Norwegian Maurice Luncheonette in Portland last month (my cousin regularly sends me texts of their daily menu items and had been dying to take me for a while.) I had the velvety Golden Needles with a black pepper fig cheesecake and can only describe the whole experience as a Proustian tea and madeleine-worthy reverie. Maurice is a marvelous spot for fika–the Swedish tradition of stopping for tea or coffee and cake. Not a shred of Swedish in me that I know of, but I’m so fond of the fika break and do it every day in my own way. http://memteaimports.com/tea/black/goldenneedlesdianjin.html

From my dreamlike Proustian reverie at Portland's Maurice. Photo courtesy of my cousin. August 2015.

From my dreamlike Proustian reverie at Portland’s Maurice. Photo courtesy of my Maurice-loving cousin. August 2015.

Lavender & ferns

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Plum & Summer Berry Lavender Crisp from Adventures in Cooking, a photography and recipe blog by Eva Kosmas Flores, Portland, Oregon.

Plum & Summer Berry Lavender Crisp from Adventures in Cooking, a photography and recipe blog by Eva Kosmas Flores, Portland, Oregon.

I’ve had lavender on my mind for a while, and souffles. I recently snagged a copy of the very traditional Fannie Farmer cookbook from the early 1950s and thought I’d sprinkle a little lavender water in a souffle (perfume maker and herbalist Julianne Zaleta of Alchemologie has a beautiful one.) My husband’s dislike of lavender is hardly a deterrent for me, nor is the somewhat soapy lavender ice cream I made when we were first married (lavender can notoriously go a bit awry if used to excess.) Strangely, these little hiccups have only made me want to experiment and learn how to draw out lavender’s earthly charms with more subtlety.

An essential summer dessert
As it turns out, an email from Adventures in Cooking showed up in my inbox without missing a beat, suggesting plum lavender crisp. So I picked up a few plums and berries at the farmer’s market one Sunday and whipped one up in no time. Portland-based Eva Kosmas Flores’ blog is one of those gorgeously photographed sites that make you wonder–is this remotely possible in real life? But the recipe was truly simple (and delicious)–my husband gobbled it up with relish. It’s a luxurious dessert–so elemental and very much the essence of late summer for me, nearing the cusp of fall. I made it just before we left for Oregon’s lush forests, berries, and towering pines. http://www.adventures-in-cooking.com/2015/07/plum-summer-berry-lavender-crisp-falk.html

My version of lavender plum crisp (served with a Taiwanese milk oolong for Sunday breakfast.)

My version of lavender plum crisp (served with a Taiwanese milk oolong for a Sunday breakfast.)

We spent part of the week in Salem, and on the Oregon coast for a memorial held in honor of my husband’s grandfather, who died earlier this year. He was 95–a navy man stationed in Hawaii during World War II and a well-loved electrician in the years that followed. The drive to Lincoln City brought back a lot of memories: the first time I met him, he ripped open his shirt and showed me the butterfly tattoo he got right after his wife died–because she loved Monarchs. Sam would regale us with stories about his adventures as a sailor, took me to my first and only fish fry, and once, a roadside casino where I won a small jackpot and bought us fresh crab from Barnacle Bill’s–one of his favorites. I learned from his nurse, Jeanie, at the memorial that he built a shelf in his early nineties to house plants and food for birds and squirrels by his nursing home window.

Fernlike fragrances
We went with him to Silver Falls State Park about ten years ago but didn’t do the whole loop for some reason–I promised I’d go back someday. On the drive there last week, I found a perfume sample in my bag (I often carry a dozen or so.) It was the recent reissue of a traditional fougere–a fernlike fragrance–made by the Parisian perfume house Houbigant with notes of lavender, oak moss and tonka bean. Some critics say it pales in comparison to the 1882 version–I haven’t smelled the original but hope I’ll make it to the Osmosthesque–the world’s perfume archive in Versailles–one of these days. In the meantime, Houbigant’s latest fougere royale struck me as bright green, woodsy and pleasing–a fitting companion for venturing into Oregonian forests. http://www.luckyscent.com/product/53400/fougere-royale-by-houbigant Perhaps more unusual and intriguing is Julianne Zaleta’s Flora–a departure from the fougere but nonetheless woodsy blend with lavender, agarwood and clove–green and forest-y with warm, rich spices and depth. https://www.etsy.com/listing/182532302/flora-natural-botanical-perfume-sample?ref=shop_home_active_3

Lavender teas–from dark to light
One of my favorite all-time, go-to Earl Greys is from Rishi–a robust bergamot-driven brew with notes of lavender. A bold wake-up call, especially for chillier fall mornings! http://www.rishi-tea.com/product/earl-grey-lavender-organic-black-tea-blend/black-tea At the other end of the spectrum, I also love American Tea Room’s utterly light and refreshing American Beauty–a white tea with lavender, rose, jasmine and mint. http://www.americantearoom.com/products/american-beauty-organic-tea#0 A proper garden, indeed. I paired it with these amazing lavender sea salt caramels made in Oregon, but purchased from salt, chocolate and flower shop Meadow with an outpost in New York. http://www.lilliebellefarms.com/lavender-sea-salt-caramels/ Sublimely pretty–among my best ever tea and chocolate snacks in recent memory. Maybe next time, I’ll try it with a French lavender souffle.

Lavender in my garden, early August, Brooklyn, New York.

Lavender in my garden, early August, Brooklyn, New York.

The summer wind

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Mary-Pickford-Tea-Party-held-in-September-1928-300x256

I love a proper afternoon tea service much as the next Victorian lady, sometimes even with a modern twist. I’d hardly decline an invitation to tea at the Pierre (especially for the new menu inspired by the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden.)  But I also enjoy a modest tea at home, by myself or with a friend or neighbor, sharing a pot of gorgeous brew and some light and easy snacks. My garden is a real inspiration-a great luxury in Brooklyn. The first thing I do each morning is head out there with a strong cup of black tea and see what’s blooming before I get ready for rush hour. Lots of ideas spring up from those little sojourns (the white peonies just came today! I love peonies so put some fuschia ones in an old yellow teapot on our counter.) I often add these little embellishments to the tea table, like fresh violet ice cubes for water or iced tea or pansies baked into shortbread.  Even my four-year-old monster-loving boy has come to appreciate a little heart-shaped rose or geranium cake in the afternoon, sometimes even demands it.

Here are a few fun things you might try for a relaxing and oh-so-lovely afternoon pick-me-up as the weather gets hot and summer languor kicks in:

Little summer geranium cakes with rose petal jam: I enjoy digging into time-tested recipes and making a true old-fashioned Victoria sponge, just like in the old days. I also love the surprise and delight of new variations, like these lovely mini Victoria sponge cakes from Jee of Oh How Civilized. http://www.ohhowcivilized.com/blog/2012/10/30/how-to-make-mini-victoria-sponge-cake-step-by-step-recipe.html I must say they are much easier to eat and naturally allow for a bit more grace at the table (being able to serve finger foods rather than anything requiring utensils is another plus for simple summer teas.) I tweaked these even further with a little inspiration from the rose and geraniums coming up in my garden. Voila! Sponge cakes with geranium essential oil from Mandy Aftel and Harvest Song rose petal jam, which I picked up from Murray’s Cheese a few months ago and knew it’d come in handy someday, some way. I highly recommend investing in the Aftelier Perfume Chef’s Essence Exotic Oils kit, by the way (or putting it on the top of your dreamlist) if you enjoy experimenting–well worth it.

I eliminated the cream to lighten these up even more for the 80-degree-summer days we’ve been having in New York. Truly delicious and lovely with a geranium garnish. Note that in my first experiment with these I flaked out for a moment and forgot to add eggs before baking so I called it a crumble and served it with vanilla ice cream. Husband loved it! One lesson I’ve learned from the great ballerinas like Ananiashvili–in dancing, baking, parenting or pretty much anything-keep going if you make a mistake and try to make it fun. I made a version of these cakes earlier this spring (with violets) for the guys in my office and got some enthusiastic comments there too.

White teas & ricotta: I find white peony teas so refreshing in hot weather–they’re just so light and delicate, fresh as, well, a peony. I most enjoyed a Silk Road White Peony http://www.silkroadteas.com/white-peony-bai-mu-dan/ with a ricotta cheese and honey I tried at a pairing they did with Murray’s a few weeks ago (read more here about oolong and food pairings http://sensibilitea.co/2015/05/19/once-more-with-feeling-oolongs-food/)  Smith Teamaker’s No. 72 White Petal with chamomile and osmanthus flowers is so very nice too. Fresh and floral. http://www.smithtea.com/products/white-petal

Cold-brewed Bellocq Charleston iced tea with violet ice cubes. Courtesy of my garden table.

Cold-brewed Bellocq Charleston iced tea with violet ice cubes. Courtesy of my garden table.

Cold brew flowers: I’m not usually much of an iced tea drinker but was inspired by some  ideas at the World Tea Expo in Long Beach and have lots of thoughts now for possible experiments this summer. I started with this handy guide from Bellocq on cold brewing–honestly there couldn’t be anything easier. It’s perfect for summer–a lazy lady’s tea! I tried it with their Charleston–a Ceylon with chamomile and blue cornflowers that has always called up languorous but dainty Southern afternoons on the porch for me. It is gorgeous cold and frankly, just beyond, with fresh made violet ice cubes. http://www.bellocq.com/products/no-40-charleston Be sure to check out Bellocq’s guide below and their recipe for rhubarb-jasmine iced tea.

Rhubarb teaser: Don’t even get me started on rhubarb. I went late to the Saturday market and missed out (everyone in Brooklyn loves rhubarb.) But for now am more than satisfied with this black tea with rhubarb and berries from the lovely Palais des Thes. They paired it with canneles at their in-store events earlier this spring-delightful. Montagne Bleue works well with plenty of little baked treats and would be another simple yet sophisticated choice any tea gatherings you might want to host this summer. http://us.palaisdesthes.com/en_us/montagne-bleue-1712.html

Four o'clock tea. Palais des Thes Montagne Bleue with rhubarb & Jacques Torres canele. Courtesy of my dining room table.

Four o’clock tea. Palais des Thes Montagne Bleue with rhubarb & Jacques Torres canele. Courtesy of my dining room table.

Tea House Times and TeaTime Magazine are also marvelous resources for inspired afternoon teas (I’m toying with the idea of whipping up some blueberry tarts with fresh basil before too long.) On those days when you find yourself pressed for time, befriend your local bakery (I’m never sorry to pick up lavender shortbread or Earl Grey tea cookies from the marvelous Bakeri in my neighborhood–they are always obliging, too, with seasonal treats like rhubarb crumble.) If all else fails, you can hardly go wrong ringing a neighbor and throwing together a plate of Social Tea biscuits and a nice glass of iced Assam tea. I suspect it’s what my grandmother might have done.

 

Quiet riot: ode to violets

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Much as I love the bold, all-consuming power of rose or jasmine and how their smell can take over whole gardens or streets, I’m pretty enraptured by shyer violets right now. For one thing, you have to lean in real close to appreciate their unique scent–almost sickly sweet and a bit powdery or buttoned up but somehow so fresh and alluring. My crush on violets has been going on for a while now-from Kusmi’s violet-infused Ceylon tea to mid-nineteenth century Italian candy maker Leone’s traditional violet candies “for spring lovers” and found at the bottom of many great grandmothers’ purses. (Read more, too, below about Serge Lutens’  lovely and mysterious Bois de Violette from a Scents & Sensibilitea post earlier this year. )

Violets strike me as very well suited to the end of winter and early spring with their dark purple royal color and cool, somewhat, aloof beauty. I recently came across this saying “whisper to get people’s attention” (in an excellent article about pairing tea and chocolate from SerendipiTea’s Linda Villano.) The thought that natural perfumes require us to get closer to the wearer and really listen also appeals to me greatly. I was lucky to find some violets in our local farmer’s market Sunday so snapped up a few and planted them in our garden (I’m hoping they’ll proliferate so I can make lots of candied violets for cakes this spring or toss them into salads.). Even after wearing Chanel’s new violet note scent Misia for several weeks and feeling like “I knew violet,” I still had to crouch in to smell them when I was planting them! Note here that violet essential oil is pretty much impossible to extract (hence the phrase “shrinking violet”) and most violet smells we know are chemically produced or from violet leaf. Get to know the real violet through some of these favorites:

Chanel’s Misia: Like many other perfume lovers, I’ve been admiring  Olivier Polge from afar and was intrigued by his first perfume for Chanel, inspired by Misia Sert–nineteenth century muse to Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, Sergei Diaghilev and Edouard Vuillard as well as close friend to Coco Chanel. I don’t often wear Chanel but do stop in the 57th Street store in New York on occasion to try to get to know the classics better. I was graced with a generous sample of this new showstopper and have been truly taken by Misia–a blend of rose, violet and iris–and exquisitely written about by Steve Johnson at CaFleureBon. I particularly love this quote: “Olivier Polge has found their secret, inner voice, akin to the murmured tones of a priest or a confidante.” http://www.chanel.com/en_US/fragrance-beauty/Fragrance-LES-EXCLUSIFS-DE-CHANEL-139176

Aftelier Perfumes Violet Spray: I’ve been doing a lot of old-fashioned cooking lately and having lots of fun with Victorian-inspired cakes. So naturally, I’m pretty keen on baking with violet and was delighted to discover that essential oil and scent master Mandy Aftelier offers this violet spray. Stay tuned–I’m hoping to make a Victoria sponge cake with rose and violet for a small spring gathering this weekend to celebrate my husband’s birthday. I might also try to score a little mimosa cake from Lady M in the Plaza Hotel in case it all goes horribly wrong. But oh, what fun. http://www.aftelier.com/product-p/chef-spray-violet.htm

Herbal Alchemy Violet Leaf Tincture: Word on the street is that violet leaf is packed with nutrients and all kinds of magic to cure ailments. (I can’t swear to the health benefits but have been adding lots of violet leaf tincture to my water every day and feel like it somehow balances out all the chocolate, cheese and baked goods I eat.) I may have snagged the last of the stuff from Julianne Zaleta’s marvelous perfume and natural remedies shop. But be sure to look for it next year and do browse Herbal Alchemy’s lovely collection of flower waters and hydrosols for inspired spring cocktails. https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/herbalalchemy?page=1

Raaka Chocolate with Candied Rose Hips: No, it’s not violet, but I can’t say goodbye without a nod to this most charming selection from Raaka with candied rose hips. Consider signing up for their monthly subscription program for surprising delicacies like this. http://www.raakachocolate.com/blogs/news/17110521-februarys-first-nibs

 

Into the Past

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I was recently inspired by a piece from Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour about her attempt to make a perfumed cake with vintage baking expert Jessica Reed. In a nutshell, they discovered it’s best not to bake with actual perfume (extract is a nice alternative) but what a delightful trip. Read more about their adventures below–in the meantime, here’s where it led me.

Dream about Victorian cakes (and trifles)

I quickly ordered a copy of Caroline B. King’s classic Victorian Cakes referenced in the article and decided to make a tea cake for my son’s fourth birthday (local pastry genius Michael from my much-loved Charlotte Patisserie in Greenpoint also made him a glorious strawberry-mango layer cake topped with marzipan figurines of a stegosaurus, triceratops & pterodactyl.) I love that he suggested strawberry-mango as a seasonal flavor for early March since most New Yorkers need something fun and surprising after such a long winter. I thought it’d be sweet to make it a low-key sort of dinosaur tea party (not sure anyone noticed this but me) and went about making a bundt cake with magnolia essential oil and blackcurrant tea extract. More on that in a bit.

Victorian Cakes is charming romp about growing up in 1880s Chicago, filled with anecdotes about family life and food (the author wrote for many of the leading magazines of her day such as Ladies Home Journal, Country Gentleman and The Saturday Evening Post. Next on my list is Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management–well known and often consulted by Victorian housewives. Mrs. Beeton reminded me that  as a little girl in suburban New Jersey I actually made a traditional British trifle–with ladyfingers, custard and raspberry jam–for a school presentation about different cultures. I think trifle-making may also be in my near future…

The great cake experiment: It must first be noted that the smell of Herbal Alchemy’s blackcurrant tea extract is as intoxicating as any drug. I took a perfume-blending class with the lovely Julianne Zaleta earlier this year and am still mooning over so many little gems she shared with us from samples of French fougeres to the mysteries of hydrosols and a sparkling soda made with flower water. High on my list is her violet leaf tincture, which I must acquire as soon as possible to keep in my pocket during New York City subway rushhour. But back to the extract–a must for tea lovers and bakers of all ages.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/210302786/blackcurrant-tea-extract-artisanal-small?ref=shop_home_active_16

Sprinkle in Mandy Aftel’s magnolia flower oil and the results are sublime (yes, I mixed them for a dreamlike near-spring concoction.) I have a small tin of Aftelier cooking essences, which add a bit of magic to pretty much any dish. (I like using lime oil in simple black bean and peppers and even added a dash of cepes (mushrooms) to a very modern and entirely made-up-by-me take on St. Patrick’s Day Irish stew with red cabbage, carrots, potatoes and vegan sausage.)  In yesterday’s mail arrived her much-longed-for and cherished violet spray (more from me on all things violet in the next issue of http://www.sensibilitea.co) For now, be seduced by magnolia flower essence in anticipation of the blossoms hitting New York’s streets in a few weeks.

http://www.aftelier.com/Magnolia-Flower-Chef-s-Essence-Wild-Harvest-p/chefs-magnolia.htm

Did I mention that I added rose petals to the cake? My mother-in-law didn’t quite know what to make of them. My husband appreciated the roses and most graciously said the cake was “subtle, but intense.” I quite enjoyed it–the cake itself was a bit dry (not enough butter, I think) but the flavor was lovely and tasted just perfect to me with Shan Lin Xi winter harvest oolong from Camellia Sinensis. It’s hard to go wrong with oolongs and cake.

http://camellia-sinensis.com/en/tea/wulong/shan-lin-xi

I feel compelled to offer one more domestic tip in honor of Mrs. Beeton. I bought this bottle of Kristin Omdhal’s Jasmine Wrapture detergent from Green Mountain Spinnery on a knitting binge in Putney, Vermont a few years ago and recently found it in my linen closet. What a discovery. Made with essential oil of night bloom jasmine, it calls up Eden for me. I find it refreshing in a world where most detergents smell like chemicals, rather than real flowers. Oddly, it makes me look forward to doing laundry…

http://styledbykristin.com/wrapture-delicate-wash/

Adventures in perfumed cake

https://blog.etsy.com/en/2015/smells-good-enough-to-eat-the-perfume-cake/

Mrs. Beeton and the trifle

http://www.coquinaria.nl/english/recipes/13.6histrecipe.html

As One Listens to the Rain…

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I had the luxury of attending a garden wedding this past weekend in Mexico City (among many other dreamlike events arranged by my dear friends and hosts over the course of four days there.) Not only was the ceremony held in a mystical private garden complete with bamboo trees and a stairway to the beyond, but all of the guests were asked to sit in a circle and share a story, poem, song, joke, anything to honor and celebrate the bride and groom. One of my favorites was the reading of an excerpt from Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz: “Listen to me as one listens to the rain…asleep, with all five senses awake.”

The next morning, I sat outside a favorite juice shop near the magical Red Tree House in Condesa where we were staying and watched the changing sunlight at 8 o’clock as cars went round and round the traffic circle. I stayed for about an hour and did little else but smell the coffee my neighbors were drinking and let their conversation in French wash over me (rare are the moments when I feel such a profound sense of focus and peace. ) It reminded me of an experience I had at the marvelous T-Shop the night before leaving New York, run by the elegant and deeply present Theresa Wong. I stopped in while she was having a tasting with an old friend and was able to spend more than two hours drinking steeping after steeping of a high mountain black tea and roasted oolong. Theresa herself says that she opened the spot to help New Yorkers slow down and that anyone will quickly realize upon entering that this little hideaway on Soho’s Elizabeth Street is not the place to grab a to-go cup.

TShop NYC’s High Mountain Black Tea: I cannot recommend this shop more highly to tea lovers or anyone who could use some slowing down and quietness in their life. Make it a point to come if you live in New York or are visiting. If not, you can also buy teas online via the website. I was able to taste an earthy, but bright and warming high mountain black tea on one of this winter’s coldest nights in New York, with temperatures plunging to near-zero.  Theresa has an almost monk-like quality of stating her thoughts and memories as she drinks with you, like “when I visited the place where this tea is grown, I already knew it from the smell and feeling of the tea.” A real treasure–worth visiting and revisiting.

http://www.tshopny.com/

Tiny Pinecone’s Drum Mountain White Cloud: I’ve also been  fortunate to stop in this charming West Village pop-up where you can listen to the low hum of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra while sipping a well-brewed monkey-picked oolong with delicacies like matcha chiffon cake from French-trained pastry chef Lisa Chan. I had a most lovely and delicate high mountain oolong that resembled a milky oolong and was nicely complemented by sesame wafers. Do pop in before they close on February 21 and see if you can get your hands on some loose leaf Drum Mountain White Cloud–a meditative and ethereal white that tastes like a cross  between a White Peony and green Dragonwell with floral and grassy notes. Read more, too, about my passion for high mountain oolongs in the next issue of Scents & Sensibilitea at http://www.sensibilitea.co

http://www.tinypineconenyc.com/tea-menu/

Teatulia’s oolong with notes of lemon, sake and pie crust: I don’t often use tea bags but fell in love with this unusually bright oolong on the plane ride to Mexico and during my stay there (I haven’t reached the point yet where I bring tea paraphernalia on flights.) This award-winning tea is true to its description (though I get less pie crust than lemon and sake.) Like all of Teatulia’s organic teas, it comes from a sustainable single-estate garden in Bangladesh which helps promote social programs in the country and arrives in environmentally friendly packaging. Winning on every level–my ideal for karmic luxury.

http://www.teatulia.com/oolong-tea/

Atelier Cologne’s Sud Magnolia with bitter orange, magnolia and cedarwood. I scored this festive blend  the night I visited TShop (it’s right next door and available only at Atelier shops and via Sephora.) I love how fun and floral it is while still being grounded by the darker, complex bitter orange and cedarwood. I can attest that the drydown is “reminiscent of antebellum elegance and nights of warm abandon” (also brought this one down Mexico way) and love how Atelier uses natural essential oils and raw materials.  Bitter orange is also a marvelous winter scent for those of us braving colder climes!

http://www.sephora.com/sud-magnolia-P394145?skuId=1684927

Raaka’s Pine Needle Tea Chocolate: One of my favorite winter chocolates with a subtle kick (which came in my January subscription.) So far, it doesn’t seem to be sold individually, but look out for it and consider signing up for Raaka’s monthly shipment for other delightful surprises to come.

http://www.raakachocolate.com/collections/bars

Arabian days (and nights)

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I’ve been inspired by The Thief of Baghdad lately-a 1924 cinematic masterpiece given to me by a dear friend at Christmas and loosely based on A Thousand and One Nights.  Like the book, the film is a transformative, meditative spectacle–it blends dance, music and stunning costumes sets into a dreamy, pitch-perfect cocktail. It’s got everything: love, adventure, and fantasy–serpents, enchanted trees and magic carpets–with the underlying theme that “happiness must be earned.”

The new year starts off with lots of energy for many of us, with a renewed enthusiasm to do more and better. We also want to take care of ourselves: be calm, healthy, more present with loved ones. This seems like an almost impossible task at times in the face of modern, urban life. The manic (if well-intentioned) energy of January 1 can start to fizzle in the weeks that follow, leaving us feeling a little disillusioned. In moments like this, I try to ask myself how I can conserve energy and better take care of myself. I like to think of it as building my own little Shangri-La.

Perhaps you’ll also find some beauty in these everyday luxuries to help keep that magical spark alive as the winter days roll on.

Tauer L’air du desert marocain (with coriander, cumin, cedarwood, rose, jasmine, cedar and vetiver.) You can probably tell just by reading the list of ingredients that this scent unfolds like a gorgeous adventure. Note the description from this Swiss-based natural perfumer: “powerful, sensual and pure. Like laying on the bed, watching the moon raising over the sandy hills of the Saharan desert, he dreamt the fragrance of a Moroccan night.” I also love this quote from the founder, Andy Tauer: “You need absolute freedom to create beautiful fragrances. And you need time. And the best ingredients you can get. That is the true mystery how to create thrilling fragrances.” To me, this is also a reminder to carve out a bit of time every day to experience this kind of beauty. https://www.tauerperfumes.com/air-du-desert-marocain.html

Vosges Matcha Super Dark Chocolate. Matcha seems to be all the rage this month in tea and food circles–not only does it add flavor and intensity to everything–it’s packed with antioxidants and ridiculously good for you. Even my local Polish grocery in Greenpoint is selling this haut-chocolate brand now. I love everything about this rich and delicious bar. A little bit goes a long way! http://www.vosgeschocolate.com/product/vosges-super-dark-chocolate-candy-bar-matcha-green-tea-spirulina/vosges-super-dark-chocolate-candy-bars

American Tea Room Earl Grey Lavender. Winter strikes me as the ideal time to sink into earl greys–they’re such a lovely marriage of dark black tea and bright, citrusy bergamot (expect to hear more from me about earl greys in next month’s Scents and Sensibilitea http://www.sensibilitea.co) This blend from the highly creative L.A.-based American Tea Room takes classic earl grey to the next level with the addition of high-quality lavender. One could dream up a fantastic Victorian tea party fit for Queen Victoria herself by drinking this tea alone. http://www.americantearoom.com/earl-grey-lavender-organic-tea.html

Fawn Lily Botanica Mustard Ginger Bath Salts. Years and years of being obsessed with health and beauty products have made me pretty sparing about what I buy, how it makes me feel and how it’s made. I’ve become very fond of the Oregon-based Fawn Lily Botanica, which makes natural products inspired by ancient medicine and offers packages of hand-selected seasonal luxuries (some of their products are also sold via the terrific Mountainrose Herbs.) Mustard and ginger are both time-honored cures for all manner of ailments; these salts combine their mysterious powers beautifully. Also look out for Fawn Lily’s surprisingly delicious fiery tonic–with raw honey, apple cider vinegar and horesradish–to help ward off colds. http://www.fawnlilybotanica.com/store/p49/Mustard_%26_Ginger_Root_Warming_Bath_Salts.html