In the summer of 2007, I took my brand new orange backpack to the airport and boarded a plane to New York. I was beyond excited. Nervous, too, because this would be a trip of many firsts. My first time making such a long journey by myself, my first time traveling with a group of strangers, my first road trip through the US, my first time camping.
The three weeks I spent in that minibus with a bunch of, mostly, British girls, traveling from coast to coast, were transformative. They showed me a side of myself that I'd never known about - the adventurous, the fearless, the explorer - and one I thought I'd lost somewhere in the process of grief and disappointment - the quirky, the sociable, the confident. After a few dark years, it was a life-affirming experience, and one that deepened the love for America that books and TV-shows had instilled in me in the roughly 20 years before.
So, in the midst of all the election frenzy and the vindictive rhetoric that it seems to be laced with, I thought it'd be nice to write about some of the things I love about the United States. By no means does this offer a realistic view of what America is about - how would I know? - but it's how I've experienced it during multiple journeys and several months. The list is limited and incomplete, for sure, but aren't all experiences?
This is my America.
It's the open road. The vastness, the stunning vistas, the seemingly endless roads and the crazy roadside attractions. I've always felt happier being 'on the road' than arriving somewhere, and the American landscape lovingly invites me to embrace this feeling and linger in the sense of endless possibility.
It's Yellowstone, Yosemite, The Grand Tetons, Arches ... places that took my breath away and pushed me to the edge of my physical abilities in the best of ways. It's the fantastic view of the crop circles as you fly over Kansas and the magnificence of Hoover Dam.
It's upstate New York during winter and it's Chicago, always and forever. Home of Sufjan Stevens and Wilco, city of tremendous architecture and scene of some of the most fun bike rides I've ever had.
It's the Great American Novels, the art and the artists, source of so much inspiration and frustration in my life. I've spent over six years studying the work, studios and photographs of American artists from the 1960s and 1970s and can only conclude that I love them - even if that love has bordered on hate on more than one occasion.
It's the open and sociable character of people, always up for a conversation, and it's the possibility of being totally and utterly alone in a crowd. Nowhere have I ever felt more comfortable traveling by myself than in the United States. Not because it's familiar or 'safe', but because walking around by myself, going to the movies or a restaurant alone, has never felt weird there.
And it's the food. The Shake Shack, the food trucks on the DC Mall, the New York bagels, the grilled corn, the s'mores, the frozen yogurt, the donuts, the pie, the cranberries.
All of it, and more.
• Rather than using store-bought hazelnut meal for the crust, I grind raw hazelnuts (skins on) into a coarse meal. This is because I don't use hazelnut meal often enough to warrant the purchase and making your own is just incredibly easy. Both ways are fine, so use whatever you're most comfortable with. If you do make your own hazelnut meal, just be sure to stop pulsing before the nuts start to release their oils.
• As always, it's best to make the dough for the crust one or two days in advance and refrigerate it until ready to use.
• I've noticed that recipes starring cranberries in a leading role tend to give a range for the amount of sugar used, rather than an absolute amount. However, I believe that a cranberry tart should highlight the tartness of the berries rather than mask it with too much sugar, so I've given just one measurement. When mixing the berries, it will still seem like a lot, but trust me, it bakes up into a perfectly balanced tart, with both cranberries and pears shining through.
• To finish the tart, either sprinkle it with coarse sugar before baking, or, if you're like me and you forget, dust it with icing sugar once cooled.
pear cranberry hazelnut tart
hazelnut crust from Samantha Seneviratne
makes one 24 cm/9 inch tart
for the hazelnut crust
50 g raw hazelnuts, skins on (or 50 g hazelnut meal)
290 g all-purpose flour
50 g granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
170 g unsalted butter, cubed and cold
5 tbsp (75 ml) ice water
for the filling
200 g granulated sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp potato starch
340 g fresh cranberries
2 medium pears, ripe but still firm
30 g unsalted butter, cut into small slices
1 large egg, for the egg wash
pinch of salt, for the egg wash
coarse sugar, to finish
for the hazelnut crust
1. In a food processor, pulse raw hazelnuts into a coarse meal, making sure to stop before the nuts become oily. Add flour, sugar and salt and pulse a few times to combine.
2. Add butter and pulse until the mixture is clumpy, with butter pieces the size of small peas. With the food processor running on low, add the ice water and let run until the dough starts to form a loose ball.
3. On a lightly floured work surface, dump out the dough and divide into two equally sized disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, preferably overnight.
for the tart
1. Preheat oven to 180˚C. Spray a tart pan with removable bottom with cooking spray and prepare a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Take out one of the dough disks and allow to come to room temperature for 5 minutes. Give it a few kneads to soften the dough and shape back into a disk. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough into a 30 cm (12 inch) circle with a thickness of about 3 mm (1/8 inch). As you roll, lift and turn the dough repeatedly to prevent sticking. Flour the work surface as needed, but try not to add too much extra flour. Drape dough over your rolling pin and transfer it to the tart pan. Without stretching, press the dough into the corners of the pan. Run the rolling pin over the tart pan to remove excess dough. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
3. Take out the second disk and repeat the process to roll the dough into a second circle. Using a pastry cutter, cut strips of about 2,5 cm (1 inch) wide. Transfer strips to a lightly floured baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
4. While the crust cools and the oven preheats, prepare the filling. In a medium bowl, combine sugar, spices and lemon zest. In another bowl, combine cranberries and potato starch. Add all but 2 tablespoons of the sugar mixture, combine and set aside. Peel, core and thinly slice the pears.
5. To assemble the tart, sprinkle the bottom of the crust with the reserved 2 tablespoons of sugar. Arrange pear slices on top, then top with the cranberry mixture and dot with the butter slices.
6. Arrange lattice strips on top, remove excess dough and press the edges into the sides of the crust. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
7. Place tart on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 40-60 minutes, until the pastry is golden and the juices are bubbling throughout. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool completely before removing the tart from the tin.