People who have a gift for music and lyrics are known to express their feelings in song, be it love, anger, sadness or joy. There are songwriters who famously immortalize the love of their life in song, like John Legend’s homage to Christy Teigen, “All of Me.” And then there’s Taylor Swift who uses her God-given talent to burn each and every single one of her exes in chart-topping hit after hit. A good ballad—one that has a story arc that includes a beginning, middle and end—are among my favorites. Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” comes to mind (no eye rolls, please).
As a cook, the only emotions you want to infuse your creations with are positive, happy ones—no one wants to eat a dish or meal created out of spite. Think back to your childhood. Chances are your mother had that special dish or dessert that she would make just for you for when you needed to be cheered up or to celebrate your latest achievement at school or on the field. Walk into nearly any deli in the U.S. and I guarantee there’s a sandwich on the menu named after a hometown hero.
I have signature dishes and desserts that have become synonymous with some of my favorite people and loved ones. For my son Keller, it’s Goya canned black beans and basmati rice prepared like my father once did. My mom enjoys my salad with blue cheese crumbles, walnuts, cranberries and raspberry vinaigrette (sometimes I make the vinaigrette from scratch). For my father, I would make almond-brickle cookies that he would gush over. For a good friend, I make peanut butter cookies with the fork impressions that always bring a smile to his face. And for my ex, the tradition of roasting a goose for Christmas was a nod to his English heritage.
On occasion, I’ve actually created a recipe from scratch to honor a loved one or a friend. These creations are in fact a ballad of sorts, an edible tribute that is served with a story. My guava swirl cheesecake was conceptualized in memory of my father and his love of the classic Cuban delicacy, guava paste and cream cheese. The story that goes with the cheesecake is how to this day, I have no appreciation for guava paste and cream cheese, but I can still picture my father eating his special treat as a dessert.
Recently I’ve been working on a recipe for chai (as in chai latte) biscuits. My inspiration? Something that I misheard my friend and former colleague Kristin mentioned at lunch one day. Kristin, whose cubicle was next to mine, got up and announced that she was going to the Panera across the street to get a chive biscuit, except that I thought I heard her say chai biscuit. This is only one small (and may I add family-friendly) example of the things we would on occasion mishear from one another.
Curious about what I thought I had heard, I followed Kristin to Panera because I had to see what a chai biscuit looked like and possibly sample a taste. Alas, I was disappointed to learn that Kristin was only getting a chive biscuit, and that I probably needed my hearing checked. Still, an idea took place that day. I could create a chai biscuit to commemorate a friendship and recall a funny incident.
It took me seven tries before I got the guava cheesecake just right. As for the chai biscuits, well if I am lucky I will have perfected the recipe in time for strawberry season and I can use the biscuits to make strawberry shortcake. But I think it will take more than seven attempts. I just finished the second version the other night with middling results.
For version 1.0, I decided to use a recipe that called for cold butter cut into the flour and buttermilk, to which I added some spices that would approximate the taste of chai. The results? A dozen honey-colored biscuits that were unremarkable in taste.
For version 2.0, I did some research into what spices goes into a chai latte. Of all the spices in a traditional chai—cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, green cardamom and ginger—I only used two in version 1.0, cinnamon and cloves. Lesson learned; always do your research upfront before experimenting.
For version 2.0, I went with a similar recipe for the biscuit base except instead of butter, I used shortening that had been refrigerated. For the chai flavoring, I decided to use the technique of boiling all the spices and tea together, but in the buttermilk instead of in water or milk as some online recipes recommended for the latte. To make sure I had an intense flavor, I doubled the spice and tea amounts suggested for the latte in hopes of achieving the chai flavor in the biscuit. While version 2.0 was headed in the right direction, the flavor was not entirely present. If I focused, I could taste a trace of the black tea, but it is still far from being a chai biscuit.
For version 3.0, I will probably boil the tea into the buttermilk, or possibly cream, but sift the dry spices with the flour, baking powder and salt instead of adding it to the liquid. And then once I’ve completed version 3.0, I will move on to version 4.0 and so on and so forth.
I thought I once heard La Brea Bakery founder Nancy Silverton say it took her a year to perfect her bread-making technique. While that shows intense dedication to the craft of baking, I hope I don’t spend a year perfecting my chai biscuits. But then again that would make quite a ballad.
If you like to revisit the process for my guava swirl cheesecake, check out the following posts: