Never let me be said that I am too proud to ask for help when I need it. Because all of this law-school-applying and late-Christmas-gift-buying have rendered my writing muscles soft and spongy, and because I’ve been somewhat moany and tedious about it, two of my dear friends have rode to the rescue and tickled my brain with a pair of memes. (I know, I know, some of you think that memes are the last refuge of scoundrels, but I promise, these will be fun.) It might take me a little time to get back up to speed, but back up to speed I will get.
In the meantime, while I work on getting those muscles nice and muscly again, I do remember the promises I’d made to share the spiced beef and vanilla bread recipes. That said, it feels like the deepest form of cognitive dissonance to think about the foods I associate with deep-winter warmth while the mercury tops out at 65 degrees in my neighborhood. All of the dishes on which I fall back at this time of year—chicken and rice, beef and carrots, chicken thighs braised in cider with potatoes and sweet potatoes, giambotta, oatmeal, a never-ending parade of bread from sandwich loaves to sweet tea breads to sturdy ryes—all feel like a heavy wool cape worn on the first warm day at the beach. But we are still a good five months away from new lettuces and pea shoots and ramps and new potatoes, so until they are ready to show their green springy faces, I will keep the roasting and braising pans out, and hope that the cold snap comes soon, so that I might turn on the oven with a clear conscience.
At any rate, it would be a shame to let unreasonably warm weather keep me from sharing the recipes for these spicy, fragrant beauties. The spiced beef is the same one that Louise remembers from a long-ago issue of Gourmet magazine, from the column Laurie Colwin contributed to them until her untimely death in 1992. She, in turn, found the recipe in Elizabeth David’s beautiful book Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen. Whenever I describe the methodology of this beef to friends, coworkers or acquaintances, they ask a lot of polite questions, the subtext of which is, essentially, “are you insane, Jen?” I promise that I am not. I promise that you can marinate a roast in your fridge for two weeks with no ill effect, and that the hardest part of the whole enterprise is a) having the roast take up space in your fridge for two weeks and b) shlepping it to your relative’s house—unless, of course, your relatives are coming to you, which eliminates the whole shlepping issue. Wherever you end up eating it, at the end of two weeks you will have a roast that slices to paper thinness and tastes rich, peppery, sweet, salty and complex, and makes you feel thrillingly clever for pulling the whole thing off.
Spiced Beef (from More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin and Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen by Elizabeth David)
serves, well, a lot, really
6 pounds bottom round roast, as lean as possible (I usually leave the rim of fat on the bottom, and then slice it off after roasting but before chilling)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup kosher salt or coarse sea salt
1/3 cup each black pepper, allspice and juniper berries
1 cup water
Rub the bottom round roast with the brown sugar, place it in a storage container (like a Rubbermaid or Tupperware) and refrigerate. Rub and chill the roast for two days. On the third day, crush together the salt, pepper, allspice and juniper berries. Rub this mixture all over the roast, turn it over and return it to the fridge. Continue rubbing, turning and chilling for 10 days.
The day before you plan to serve the roast, preheat the oven to 290 degrees F (Gas Mark 2). Remove the roast from the fridge, wipe off the spice rub (some of it will still cling, which is okay) and place it into a covered roasting dish into which it just fits. Pour the water into the roasting pan, place a piece of waxed paper between the roaster and the lid, cover the pan, place in the oven and roast for five hours. At the end of the roasting time, take the pan out and let the beef cool in its juices. When cool, take the roast out of the pan, wrap it in waxed paper, place it between two wooden boards, weight it down with about five pounds (I have used tomato cans, cast-iron skillets and even a five-pound dumbbell) and chill overnight. Slice to paper thinness with a carving knife or a sharp chef’s knife. If the beef crumbles too much for you to get a clean slice, let it sit for five minutes and then try again; it should be much easier to slice. Horseradish cream sauce goes very nicely with this beef, but I think I like it best as is, with maybe some scallopped potatoes and a salad of bitter greens like chicory or endive.
Unlike the spiced beef, the vanilla bread is a simple pleasure, soft and redolent of vanilla. It is sweet, but not too sweet; it is more like a plain sandwich loaf, richly perfumed. It comes from a gorgeous, inspiring book, The Ballymaloe Bread Book by Tim Allen, who, along with his wife Darina, runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, Ireland. Every time I bake from this book, whether it be the vanilla bread, the brown buns, the cream-and-jam-filled beauties called Barrack Buns, the dense and toothsome walnut bread or my personal favorite, the coffee-and-walnut scones, it is all I can do to not hop on the next flight to Shannon Airport, find my way to Ballymaloe and beg the Allens to give me a job. But I digress. Chef Allen recommends serving this bread with either homemade raspberry jam or with chocolate butter, made by combining a stick of butter, an ounce of unsweetened chocolate, 5 ounces of confectioners sugar, 2 teaspoons of vanilla and a pinch of salt. I can vouch that both of these options are great, but I also love this bread with plain old Nutella, with a thin layer of creme fraiche and a thick layer of rhubarb-strawberry jam, and in a rum-soaked bread pudding. I have not yet tried it as the base for a lobster roll, but considering that I’ve had lobster salad with a hint of vanilla in the mayonnaise and found it brilliant, I’m betting that this bread and the right lobster salad will be brilliant as well.
Vanilla Bread (from The Ballymaloe Bread Book by Tim Allen)
makes one large or two small loaves (Chef Allen makes two loaves, but I like the look and texture of the big loaf a little better)
12 fl. oz. whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 oz. fresh yeast, 1/2 oz. (about 4 1/2 tsp.) active dry yeast or 1 tbsp. instant yeast
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 - 2 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 lb., 3 oz. (4 3/4 cups, flour sifted into cup) all-purpose flour
Pour the milk into a 2-quart or larger saucepan, add the vanilla bean (both the seeds and the scraped-out hull) and heat until the milk is scalded. Remove the bean hull and pour the milk into a large mixing bowl. Let cool to tepid and remove the skin that forms on the surface of the milk. (This scalding and skimming of the milk is my own adaptation to Chef Allen’s recipe. The skin is casein protein, which can coarsen the crumb; heating the milk denatures the casein and coagulates it into an easily-removable skin.) Add the yeast and let dissolve for 5 minutes. Add the sugar, salt, vanilla extract and four tablespoons of the flour. Beat briskly for 2 minutes. Add the rest of the flour (or enough flour to make a soft, manageable dough), turn out onto a lightly-floured board and knead for about three minutes. Cover the dough and let it rest for 10 minutes, then resume kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic. Form the dough into a round, place it into an oiled or buttered bowl, cover and leave to rise until doubled, about 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (Gas Mark 8) and place an oven rack to the center position. Turn the risen dough out of the bowl, knock it down and form it into either two small torpedoes or one large one. Place the loaves on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with oiled plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about one hour. Brush the loaves with an egg wash (I like a whole egg with a little cream beaten into it, but you can use any wash you like—an egg yolk with a little water and a pinch of salt makes a beautiful crust), slash the tops of the loaves lengthwise, place the loaves in the oven and turn the heat down to 375 degrees. Bake for about 45-50 minutes; this should be more than sufficient for the small loaves, but you may need an additional 5 minutes for the large loaf. At either size, when the loaves are golden brown all over and sound hollow when thumped on the bottom, they are done.