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Apricots!

This time of year, we literally get to enjoy the fruits of my husband’s labor. He is an apricot breeder, which means that throughout the short and intense season in May and June, quickly ripening apricots overtake our kitchen counters and refrigerator shelves and drawers. We eat them fresh, of course, but there are so many that we also make tarts and jams and share bag-loads of apricots with anyone willing to take them. If you lived nearby, I would share apricots with you, too. I hate to throw them away.

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If you are not an apricot fan, it may be because you have never had a great one. Even in Mediterranean climates, where apricots thrive, good ones can be hard to come by. They do not tend to travel well, and if they don’t turn mushy in the trunk of your car on the way home, one day in a warm kitchen will do the trick.

But if you can get your hands on a great apricot, and you are not already an apricot fan, one bite may convert you as it did me. A great apricot threatens to overpower the senses—the charming red blush on the skin, the sunny orange flesh, the floral and sweet yet enticingly tart aroma and flavor. I discovered this fact relatively late in life, after moving to Spain. In fact, I cannot remember any apricot before this time that left any impression on me at all besides the “Apricot” doll from the Strawberry Shortcake collection. Even though I have accumulated far more delicious apricot memories in the nine years I’ve lived in Spain, I nevertheless think of Apricot every time I step into my kitchen this time of year. What did they ever put in her hair to make such an indelible scent?

For my son, it will be a different story. Apricot was one of his first fruits, and his papá’s apricots will be one of his earliest food memories. Perhaps someday he’ll long for this taste of his youth.

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I hope you can sink your teeth into some great apricots this season. And if they ripen a bit too much, do not fret, make a tart! The tart pictured below, Verlet’s Apricot Tart from Patricia Wells, is one of my favorite ways to enjoy and share the season’s bounty. This is of course a French tart—in Spain, the most traditional way to eat apricots is the way you see my son eating his in the photo above. But since I began making it eight years ago, Verlet’s tart has become a perennial crowd favorite among my Spanish family and friends.

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Baking intensifies the tartness of the apricots, which complements the sweetness of the buttery crust. With a dash of almond extract and a sprinkling of ground almonds, this pastry also takes brilliant advantage of the affinity between apricots and almonds, two stone fruits in the same genus (Prunus).

With so many new memories, the scent of apricots in my kitchen grows richer every year, evoking so much more than a fragrant childhood doll.

Verlet’s Apricot Tart from The Food Lovers’ Guide to Paris by Patricia Wells

Since I follow the online recipe more or less to a tee, I have provided a link rather than writing up the recipe here. The only modification I make is that I do not add almond extract to the filling, because I find the bitter almond taste stands out too much. But I do love the subtle flavor that the ground almonds add to the cream. If you cannot get good fresh apricots, this tart is also delicious with peaches.

What are your favorite apricot recipes? I’m always looking for more ways to use them ;).

Sustenance – Orange olive oil cake with whole wheat flour

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This cake has become a lifeline for me in the long stretches of time between breakfast and lunch and lunch and dinner in Spain. With 50% whole-wheat flour and no refined sugar, it is a slightly healthier take on the classic Spanish bizcocho, or teacake, made with olive oil, yogurt, orange juice and orange zest. The cake is luxuriously moist and packed with bright citrus flavor. With a cup of coffee and a square or two of dark chocolate, it has gotten me through many mornings and afternoons.

On the surface, I have adapted to the late lunch and dinner times in Spain. Unless we want to eat alone, we must adapt to the local rhythm, wherever we are. But I realize that I still see the Spanish mealtime hours with foreign eyes, particularly now that I have a child. Trying to feed my fussy two year old his “early” dinner at 8 pm, for instance, I daydreamed about my friends in the States who had their children in bed by this time, cutting the witching hour short.

Now that my son is four—and more Spaniard than American—the hours have gotten easier. He no longer melts down during our (early) 8:30 pm weeknight dinners. In his perspective, this is dinnertime on school nights—any earlier would mean less playground time. And 2 pm, when he gets out of school, is, for him, a normal time for lunch. In his second year of the infantil cycle—for children aged three to six—his school day starts at 9 am and ends at 2 pm, without a lunch break! (My need to add an exclamation point here betrays my lingering outsider perspective…)

With such late meal times, snacks are vital, especially for children. The mid-morning almuerzo and the mid-afternoon merienda have to be substantial enough to sustain energy and keep melt downs (my son’s and my own) at bay.

Rather than a lunch, I pack a snack for my son in his school bag, following guidelines from his teacher (see the chart below) that encourage variety and discourage too many convenience foods. (As in many industrialized countries, childhood obesity is on the rise in Spain, which is a whole other topic.) So it’s a sandwich on Monday, cookies or homemade bizcocho (quick bread or teacake) on Tuesdays, fruit on Wednesdays, cereals and grains on Thursdays and dairy on Fridays.

This orange olive oil cake, which I pack along with nuts and dried fruit, has become one of my staples for my son’s Tuesday snack. It has also become one of my own snack-time staples.

With an olive oil cake on the counter, the Spanish mealtime hours do not feel so foreign. I am at home.

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Orange olive oil cake with whole wheat flour

I make this cake in my Thermomix, the do-it-all kitchen appliance from German engineers, although you could, of course, also use a stand mixer, another type of food processor or mix the batter by hand. The recipe is adapted from a Spanish Thermomix recipe and calls for grinding the sugar into superfine crystals, which in theory makes the cake more tender. I haven’t yet tried making the cake without the grinding step, so can’t vouch for the results.

I love the crisp edges the day the cake is made, but think the flavor is even better after a day, covered, on the counter.

  • 1 ¼ loosely packed cups (180 g) unrefined brown sugar
  • The zest of 1 orange
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup (120 g) plain or Greek-style yogurt
  • 100 g mild-flavored extra virgin olive oil (*see notes)
  • ¼ cup fresh-squeezed orange juice (from about ½ orange)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder (*see notes)
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ cup (100 g) all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup (100 g) whole wheat flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • Confectioners’ sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350ºF and butter and flour a 9-inch round cake or springform pan.

Grind the brown sugar into very fine crystals in a food processor. Add the orange zest and pulse several times to grind the zest and evenly distribute it throughout the sugar.

Add the eggs to the sugar and mix on low speed until pale and frothy.

Add the olive oil, yogurt and orange juice and mix until blended.

Sift in the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt and mix on low speed until just blended.

Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake until the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then remove it to a cooling rack. Serve once the cake is completely cool. If you like, you can dust it with confectioners’ sugar for decoration.

This cake keeps beautifully on the counter, covered, for several days.

* Olive oil: Be sure to choose an olive oil whose flavor you enjoy, because you will taste it in the cake. If you cannot find a mild extra virgin olive oil, try “light” olive oil US, which has been refined and is not as pungent.

* Baking powder: If you have access to Royal baking powder, you can use one 16-gram packet in place of the baking powder and baking soda.

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Kitchen Tool Showdown: KitchenAid vs. Thermomix

Photo by Renata Polli, my sister-in-law

The KitchenAid mixer has long been the kitchen tool of my dreams. My parents received this particular avocado-colored model as a wedding gift in 1969, and it has been a loyal servant in my mother’s kitchen ever since.

This mixer was the sturdy workhorse of my youth, a trusty companion in early baking endeavors – the high-speed beater made churning out my favorite cookies and quick breads a breeze. I can still feel the heft of the KitchenAid as I pull it out of the cabinet in my memory, and can still hear the motor purring and the beater clinking against the sides of the cavernous stainless steel bowl.

I honestly thought I would have my own KitchenAid sooner, but living abroad has temporarily postponed my dream. Not that it’s impossible to have a KitchenAid mixer in Spain, but it’s more expensive and harder to come by than at home in the States. Nonetheless, I clearly envision this iconic American kitchen tool on my Spanish countertop in the future, ideally in a bright, sunny color.

Enter the Thermomix (pronounced ter-mo-MEEKS’), the German-made, do-it-all kitchen machine, which appears to be the wedding gift equivalent of the KitchenAid here in Spain.

Thermomix sales function sort of like Mary Kay – individual representatives, typically women and often quite fervent, give demonstrations for groups in private homes and spread the word among family and friends. The number of converts continues to grow, in spite of the €800-or-so price tag.

This is my kitchen, but it is not my Thermomix. It belongs to my friend Inma, who received it several years back as a housewarming gift from her mother-in-law, a common source for the machine. In the time I have been in Murcia, I have sampled many of Inma’s tasty Thermomix concoctions – rice pudding, gazpacho, salmorejo and lemon and strawberry sorbet, to name a few. She has been telling me for two years that I could borrow the Thermomix any time I wanted, and I finally took her up on the offer.

I felt as though I was entering a cult as I opened the accompanying cookbook, “THERMOMIX – A New Dawn.” This would be an initiation into the modern Spanish kitchen, and a journey into an alternate kitchen tool dream.

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I was a bit skeptical at first, given the place the KitchenAid occupies in my heart – was I being disloyal? But the Thermomix is really a different beast – not so much a mixer as a super food processor, called a “robot” in Spanish. The Thermomix weighs, heats and whizzes foods into impossibly silky purees; it can keep time and knead yeasted doughs and incubate them while they rise. On the cold side, the Thermomix makes ice cream and velvety sorbets, perfect for hot summer days. Am I sounding like a convert yet?

The truth is, the Thermomix makes cooking, particularly anything involving grinding, pureeing or whipping, effortless. Just roughly chop the ingredients, toss them all in and crank up the dial. One container to wash, no elbow grease involved, enticing results.

Now the question is, will I have enough room for both machines on my counter?

100 Spanish-Language Cinema Artists and the Films that Inspired Them

Epiphany has passed and the Three Kings and their camels have come and gone, leaving gifts for children throughout Spain. This means the holiday season is drawing to a close here, although “Hasta San Antón, Pascuas son,” many here say, meaning the season really goes until January 17th, the day of Saint Antón. According to a friend’s grandmother, this means we still have one more week to polish off the leftover holiday sweets. (I’m still happily plugging away at my bar of creamy turrón de Jijona.)

Since early December, I have been baking (see last two posts), eating and making merry, all in the company of family and friends, which has been wonderful. But after all of this sensory stimulation, I feel the need to slow down. I long for quiet afternoons curled up under a blanket with a hot cup of tea and a good movie (and a slice or two of said turrón).

A decadent movie snack

I am always looking for movie recommendations, so was pleased to come across this article in the Sunday supplement of  the Spanish newspaper El País: Cien artistas del cine hispanoamericano eligen las 100 películas que cambiaron su vida (One Hundred Spanish-Language Cinema Artists Choose the 100 Movies that Changed Their Lives). That is no small endorsement for the films that made it on the list.

The participating artists come from throughout Spain and Latin America and include internationally recognized film directors and screenwriters like Pedro Almódovar (All About My Mother, Talk to her,…); Alejandro Amenábar (Agora,…); and Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Babel,…). The list also includes well-known actors, like Mexico’s Gael García Bernal and Argentina’s Ricardo Darín. Yet the article is also a chance to discover Spanish-language cinema artists who are lesser-known on an international level.

And then there are the movies, of course. The online article has a link to a pdf file which lists each artist and his or her ten top films. There is also a condensed version, a tally of the 100 most influential movies according to the votes of all the artists combined.

Many American films figure on the list – in fact, four of the top five hail from the States, with The Godfather coming in at number one. It was because of this article that I recently saw Billy Wilder’s pitch-perfect comedy Some Like it Hot for the first time. (It just took a quick Google search to discover that this was the original English title for the number five film, listed in Spanish as Con faldas y a lo loco.)

The list of course includes many Spanish-language films, like the critically acclaimed Los Santos Inocentes, a searing look at village life in Spain in the 1960s. There is a good selection of other foreign films as well.

This should certainly get me through that bar of turrón. And perhaps change my life as well, or at least provide inspiring food for thought.