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Archive for October, 2008

I’m not exactly sure when my love affair with ricotta cheese began, but I’m pretty sure it dates back to my infancy. Occasionally for breakfast, my mother would whip up a mixture of ricotta cheese and powdered sugar, and by all accounts, I used to wolf the confection down like an eating machine. Can you blame me? She was basically serving me a baby-proof cannoli for breakfast.

As I grew older, I somehow shifted my affections from sweet ricotta recipes to savory ones, most of which involved pasta and red sauce: ravioli, manicotti, my Aunt Robin’s stuffed shells. Make no mistake: My family is not Italian. We are, apparently, a bunch of ricotta loving Jews. But ethnicity aside, I loved the taste of the soft, mellow cheese up against the tangy tomato sauce.

Many years later, I’ve returned to my sweet-ricotta-for-breakfast roots. But seeing as I now have teeth, I’ve updated the recipe. It couldn’t be simpler, really: fresh, crusty bread topped with ricotta and drizzled with honey. I like to use bread that’s chock full of goodies, something like a cranberry walnut loaf (if you’re in DC, get thee to the Penn Quarter farmer’s market) or this homemade granola bread.

The recipe for this bread is of the no-knead variety, which makes it a snap to throw together. Yes, the no-knead concept has become a little gimmicky, and I will never jettison old school kneaded bread, but just because something is gimmicky doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Studded with granola and perfumed with honey and cinnamon, this bread smells divine as it bakes. Throw some fresh ricotta and honey into the mix and Installment #2 of the “Breakfast Series” might be one of my favorite weekday breakfasts ever.

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Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t eat breakfast” or “Breakfast isn’t really my thing,” I think a small part of me dies inside. You see, I love breakfast. It is, without a doubt, my favorite meal of the day. I could eat breakfast foods at every meal and, save the occasional craving for sushi, I would be perfectly content.

This probably comes under the category of Too Much Information, but I often start thinking about breakfast before I even go to bed. Permission granted to think that I am super weird. But I can’t help myself. Oatmeal, yogurt, granola, toast: knowing I will consume some of my favorite foods in just a few hours is enough to make me giddy.

But it isn’t just the food that I love; it’s the ritual of breakfast and what that ritual represents. Breakfast heralds the start of a new day, with endless possibilities before you. The world is yours for the taking — at least in theory.

And these days, a ray of light first thing in the morning is most welcome. I basically spend my entire work day talking and writing and thinking about the financial crisis. Uplifting? Not so much. These days, when I wake up I’m greeted with news that (a) some major financial institution has failed, (b) Asian and European markets took a nosedive overnight, (c) the government is committing another XX billion dollars to get us out of this mess, or (d) all of the above. But at least with my breakfast bowl and a warm cup of coffee in front of me, there is something comforting and reassuring at the beginning of my day.

So in the spirit of all that breakfast represents, I am beginning what henceforth shall be call the “Breakfast Series.” Consider it my way of adding a little variety to your breakfast routine.

First up: a kickass muesli recipe. Saveur published a heavenly version of muesli in their recent “Breakfast Issue” (which I snapped up as soon as it came out, bien sur). But their recipe was a little rich, even for me. I’ve tweaked it a bit and posted that version here, but you can find the original on the Saveur web site.

Toothsome, filling and bursting with flavor, this muesli will keep you going until lunch time and will wrap its arm around your shoulder like an old friend as you scan through the day’s news. These days we need to take comfort where we can get it.

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I was, by all accounts, a precocious child. Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, a woman my mother knew ran into the two of us at a local restaurant. I had ordered a creme brulée for dessert and the waitress had just brought it to our table when the woman approached to say hello.

“Well hello! Isn’t this nice, two ladies having lunch!” She winked. “And what are you having, little lady? Oooh, some yummy vanilla pudding! How nice!”

I looked up at her, annoyed that she’d interrupted my consumption of this delicious dessert, my spoon hovering impatiently over the shattered surface. “It’s called creme brulée,” I informed her. “It’s a French vanilla custard with a burnt sugar crust.”

“Well!” She paused. “Isn’t she something!” Oh, I was something alright. Exactly what…well, I’ll leave that to my mother to say.

But just because I was correcting my elders’ culinary lexicon at eight doesn’t mean I was a food snob. Far from it. I liked my McDonald’s and Roy Rogers as much as the next second grader — possibly more, since I was willing to try almost anything on the menu.

For a long time, I was partial to chicken nuggets. For me, it wasn’t so much the chicken (or McDonald’s case, “chicken”); it was the intoxicating honey/chicken nugget duo. See, when it comes to choosing a nugget dipping sauce, some folks fall into the BBQ sauce camp, others prefer sweet and sour sauce, but me, I always went for the honey.

I loved dipping the crunchy chicken into the gooey, sticky honey, and most of all I loved eating something savory with something sweet. Admittedly, I always preferred Roy Rogers nuggets. For starters, the chicken tasted more like real chicken (as opposed to the gristly, multi-colored stuff I found inside McDonald’s nuggets). But what set Roy’s nuggets apart was the coating: it was lightly spiced, which made them killer partners for some thick, sweet honey.

Fast forward about 20 years, and I can’t even remember the last time I saw a Roy Rogers. But I still crave that heavenly combination of crunchy chicken and honey. So when I found this recipe from an old issue of Food & Wine, I knew I had to make it.

Think of it as a sophisticated, worldly version of chicken nuggets and honey: Chicken braised with spices and saffron, then coated with a paste of chopped almonds, honey and rose flower water and baked until golden. The result is tender, aromatic chicken with the crunch of almonds and sweetness of honey. This isn’t finger food — you’ll need a knife and fork — but if you’re anything like me, you’ll suddenly realize you’re using your fingers to get every last, sticky morsel. It’s that good.

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