Monday, October 20, 2014

Banana


bananas mashed

  When we were very young, our mother showed us how to eat a ripe banana. She carefully peeled the thick skin, yellow splotched with brown, and dropped it onto her empty dinner plate. She placed the banana lengthwise in the palm of her hand and wrapped her fingers around the fruit, clasping it in her fist. Seriously? We couldn't believe our eyes, knowing what was about to come yet doubting it, as it was so unlike our mother. But she calmly pushed on, pursued her little demonstration. As expected, she tightened her grasp on the fruit and closed her hand tighter and tighter, almost in slow motion, around that ripe banana until it squished into purée and oozed out from between her fingers. She then proceeded to eat the squished banana from off the backs of her fingers. Much to our astonishment and joy!

 She once also squished mashed potatoes through her teeth.

bananas plants

 We were pretty happy, well-behaved kids. Yes, we were. We didn't often get into mischief nor did we disobey. There was simply enough to keep us entertained and active without the caprice. And to tell you the truth, pranks weren't really our thing. But. We did find odd enjoyment in almost, not quite but almost, bringing our kid brother (the spoiled one) to tears. Or if not bringing him to tears, driving our mother crazy thinking that we would. Like dressing him up in our elder sister's dance costumes and telling him that, with his head full of curls, he looked like Shirley Temple. When he was a toddler and still eating his meals perched in the high chair, my brother and I set up the science kit that he had recently received for a birthday gift in the garage. And mixed together a concoction that looked like milk. We slipped into the kitchen as our mother slipped outside, phone tucked under her chin, to chat for a minute or two. We placed the glass on the tray in front of baby brother and urged him to drink. He, being totally oblivious, much to young to understand anything we were doing, picked up the glass and carried it to his lips. And as he was about to drink what we imagined was a deadly poison, we yanked the glass out of his hands and yelled "No! Don't drink it!" We felt oddly humored and pleased with ourselves.

 And another time in similar circumstances – kid brother in high chair, mom on the phone – we convinced him to wash his hair with ripe banana. And he did. The trouble we undoubtedly got into was well worth the laugh.

bananas

Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. - Groucho Marx

 I never really cared for the banana split. It could have been the strawberry ice cream which I never liked. But I think it was the bananas. Who would want to sully the pure pleasure of chocolate and vanilla ice cream (and whipped cream and chocolate sauce) with a banana. It makes no sense to me. 

 And I have a horror of those yellow candies shaped like bananas. What?

 I believe that I ate a chocolate-covered frozen banana at Disney World once. Eating a frozen banana is an impossible feat, even in the depth of a sweltering Florida August afternoon. The teeth do not sink easily into a frozen banana as they do ice cream or a popsicle, one must press into the icy rock as the pain shoots up and into one's roots, frozen teeth, brain freeze. And gnaw away, attempting to deflect the pain as one hacks through what seems to be a banana-flavored tree branch. Its saving grace is the thin coating of chocolate and really the only reason to make the effort.

bananas slices

 Why is slipping on a banana peel so funny? A universal funnyman joke.

"I 'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say - Bananas have to ripen in a certain way…" Although my father was the baker, my mother did make her famed Banana Cream Pie. Loads of vanilla pudding layered with perfect banana coins and the whole edged with crisp 'nilla wafer cookies. Topped with whipped cream. Classic. Heavenly. Diner fare.

 Carmen Miranda, her turban piled high with apples and oranges and always bananas. A tropical getup, an exotic dream, The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat. Josephine Baker and her flirty banana skirt. And not much more. Risqué.

you say havana and i say havana
you eat banana and i eat banana
havana, havana, banana, banana
let's call the whole thing off

bananas cake

 Some fruits come and go with the season, oranges and pears, peaches and grapes, but bananas can always be found in the fruit bowl on my kitchen counter year round. But once in a while, we just don't eat them fast enough and end up with two or three overripe bananas (although husband will eat a brown, ripe banana, sons and will not). That's when I whip up a banana bread or snack cake, chock full of mini chocolate chips and chopped pecans, or topped with slivered almonds. I think it must be my family's absolute favorite breakfast and snack cake. This recipe is so simple to make and so delicious, light and fluffy to eat.

JAMIE'S BANANA CHOCOLATE CHIP SNACK CAKE

1 ¼ cups (165 g) flour
½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
10 Tbs (150 g) unsalted butter
Scant 2/3 (120 g) packed brown sugar, I used half light + half dark
1 large egg
¼ tsp vanilla
About 1 ½ cups mashed bananas (about 3 smallish)
½ - ¾ cups each chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate) and chopped pecans or walnuts

 Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and butter a 9-inch (22-cm) square pan.

 Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and salt and set aside.

 Melt the butter over very low heat, removing from the heat before all of the butter is completely melted; allow the butter to finish melting off of the heat. Whisk the melted butter vigorously with the dark and light sugars until smooth and slightly thickened. Whisk in the egg and the vanilla well. Whisk in the mashed banana, the dry ingredients and the chocolate chips and chopped nuts. Spread in the buttered pan.

 Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes or until set in the center and just barely beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. Allow to cool in the pan on a rack.

bananas piece of cake

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Instant





In a Jiffy

 Instant foods, how I loved them as a child. Popcorn oiled, salted and buttered, heated on the stovetop in its own pot and bowl. Pop open the foil and peel it back to reveal instant treat. Poptarts of cherry and chocolate, frosted or unfrosted, slipped out of the foil pocket and eat! TV dinners already prepared just to be heated and eaten in front of instant, prepackaged entertainment. Mac & cheese or o's of pasta in red sauce straight from the can. Anything instant, anything that smacked of gimmick!

 Instant oatmeal, a childhood favorite, tiny pearl white packets, so light and ethereal revealing earthily fragrant flakes. Dried and powdery, desiccated, some would call it, reminding one of deserts and bones and coconut flakes, yet dried and powdery though it was, packets of instant oatmeal promised warm, creamy bowls of comfort. Plain or apples and cinnamon or maple and brown sugar, a bowl of instant oatmeal once brought to life with boiling water would be topped with a pat of salted butter, a drizzle of cold milk, a dusting of brown sugar and a sprinkling of moist raisins.

 Instant, quick-cooking convenience foods. Fulfilling, satisfying an instant need.

 Instant mashed potatoes, purée mousline, in its familiar red and yellow box. My husband swears by them. Shocked me, it did. Instant mashed potatoes. Flocons de pommes de terre like frites-scented snowflakes. "Quand je fais de la purée Mousline, je suis sûre que tout le monde en reprend." When I make Mousline mashed potatoes, sings the jingle, I'm sure that everyone will ask for seconds! Well, everyone but the American wife.

 Instant intimacy. In the blink of an eye. I did fall in love with him the instant I saw him.

 Oh, the prejudice against instant foods yet we all keep them cloistered away in the darkest corners of our cupboards like a dirty little secret. For emergencies only, we proclaim if caught in our smug, self-righteous lie scoffing of anything instant, anything pre-packaged. Or for our kids. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Packets of soups and mixes for muffins. Instant ready-made risotto or cans of sausages and beans (cassoulet for the francophile). Brownies and cookies with the addition of one egg and a cup of milk. Oh, the innocence of instant food when we were kids, the excitement with each discovery of each something new. Do I? Don't I? Tell. Make. Eat. A carton or envelope of something eaten in front of the cheesiest chick flick or most melodramatic cop show, bowl nestled between our knees. Instant nostalgia. Oh yeah.

 Now instant meals are pasta thrown into a pot and rapidly drained, vegetables local and seasonal chopped and minced and quickly sautéed in extra virgin, tossed together and strewn with a layer of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Or baguette picked up warm from the boulangerie, a platter of charcuterie and a bowl of fruit. À l'instant.


Instant Pick-Me-Up

 My father was the king of instant desserts. Box upon box of instant cake mix, classic vanilla and devil's food, lined up in the cupboard like well-behaved school children waiting their turn. Box upon box of instant pudding, vanilla and chocolate, pistachio and caramel, lined up in the cupboard not far behind. With the concentration of the engineer that he was, he would whip up batter, thick and voluptuous, one yellow, one dark. With attentive precision, he would pour each batter in alternating splotches of dark and light into great sheet pans and run a sharp blade through the two, back and forth, swirling one into the other. With deliberate, thoughtful care, he would pour steaming pudding in its still-liquid form over the baked marble cake, allowing it to soak into the sponge. Once cooled, he would pop open a can of ready-made instant frosting and spread across the top. Instant delight. 

 Pies in an instant, cherry, apple or pumpkin from a can piled into a ready-made pie crust kept handy in the freezer. Instant celebration.


Instant Gratification

Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still. - Dorothea Lange

 A pocket instamatic, a gift from my parents, accompanied me on weekends away, vacations and all. Slip in the roll of film, snap on the back, point and shoot. How many images of smiling friends and their teenage antics did I capture, how many single instances in times? Yet not so instant. Travel home, drop off the roll of film at the drugstore counter and. Wait. Count the days. Collect the packet of photographs excitedly and shuffle through the stack one by one, try and recapture each moment. Drop the blurried shots and the fleshy fingers that skipped in front of the lens and how many left? Rolls and rolls of film, piles of snapshots flipped through over and over again: camp and school parades, holidays and family vacations and one exciting trip to Israel now fill envelopes and the sticky, yellowed pages of albums in glorious Technicolor dimming to yellow.

 A black Polaroid camera, a gift from my parents, accompanied me to Europe where we pointed and shot images of newborn sons. Instant gratification, indeed. Snap – thunk – kkksssshhhhh and out popped a fuzzy gray square of silence. Patience and anticipation and an image like magic burnished onto paper slowly revealed itself like an exotic striptease, baring its soul.

 What used to be a telephone, dial and instant connections to friends far and wide, has become a camera, replacing the others. Point and shoot, snatch at a memory, appropriate the moment, share in an instant with friends and strangers around the world in a moment. An instant. Instagram.


Instant Illumination

 A lifetime of watching my parents prepare instant coffee; a tablespoon or two scooped from a jar and into a mug, boiling water and stir. Leaving that fine layer of mocha-hued foam atop the bitter, steaming liquid the black of bitter chocolate. Milk and sugar made it palatable. Nose turned up at the smell, I prepared myself instant chocolate milk, a tablespoon or three of powdery something the scent of Necco wafers scooped from a box, ice cold milk poured into the tall glass and stirred, leaving pimples and clumps of dark, wet chocolate floating on the surface.

 All grown up and acclimated to the taste of coffee – no instant liking – and a jar of instant stood on my shelf. Ah, the fine taste of freshly brewed coffee picked up on the way to work, instant relief. Instant jolt of life.

 Only in Paris did I learn to make pots of coffee from ground beans. Three scoops into the filter, boiling water, once filled then twice, and wait as it takes its own sweet time drip drip drip. Heavens what was my surprise when, in the land of marvelous coffee, café au lait and espresso, did I learn that the French drink instant at home! Jars of Nescafé in even the most bourgeois of domiciles. Tiny porcelain demitasse set in front of me, a tablespoon or two scooped from a jar, boiling water and stirred with a tiny, elegant, designer teaspoon. Instant coffee, nonetheless.

 And I began buying boxes of instant chocolate powder for my very French sons.

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Herbs



Garnished

 Flip through a cookbook from the 1950's, those dark, hazy images in muddy shades of brown and autumn golds, or brash primary colors, or the 1960's brightening into gaudy lemon, turquoise and bubble gum pink, food arrayed out in glorious Technicolor on coordinating cloths, silver perfectly aligned, crazy collections of centerpieces. Whole turkeys and roasts on imposing platters, crowns of jello garnished with glistening lipstick-colored maraschino cherries, miles of brown foodstuff that are often impossible to define.

 Garnishes of red and white radish slices, twists of orange and limes, chunky flowers carved from carrots and whole tomatoes dress each dish offering a defining landscape, color to an otherwise flat expanse of brown or beige (ah the glamorous food of our childhood). Rings of pineapple and whole strawberries, and tiny shapes cut out from bright red and green peppers provide a certain swashbuckling gaiety, a sign of the times

 But the herbs took pride of place, great clumps and sprays of curly-leafed parsley, seemingly whole nosegays of mint or sage, branches of rosemary filled every empty space. Herbs festooned in garlands and wreaths, draped around whole lobsters and woven in and among the shrimp. Chicken legs and lamb chops topped in tiny paper hats are held up by bundles of herbs, clusters of herbs in all their deep jade and forest greenery are tossed around serving platters, main courses and appetizers, soups and sides as if dozens of elfin bridesmaids had paused in that dining room and tossed bouquets of herbs across the table.


Condiment, Seasoning, Garnish, Décor

 Tiny, delicate herbs tossed elegantly, sparingly across the tabletop. Single branches of feminine chervil and feathery dill dance across single servings, ramekins and demitasses, miniature tarts and cakes, as if blown around the room unexpectedly, placed by fairy hands. Tiny stems with tiny drops of thyme repose atop creamy concoctions, sweet or savory, a hint at what is inside, or so we are led to believe.

 The very essence of herbal decor has changed. No longer placed in grand leafage, vegetation in great bunches cluttering the serving platter, aggressively announcing their presence. An unnecessary bundle of green, imposing shrubs. Now exquisite affectation, gracefully dropped in some ethereal, delightful display of sensibility. As if an afterthought. Tender shoots, a scattering of baby leafs in unexpected, mystifying arrangement.

 Garish color schemes have given way to pretty pastels, bold statements to feminine composition. Hearty dishes to pretty little confections. But herbs ever present, their presence ever mysterious.


Basil, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

 Don't forget to use the herbs I have planted for you, mom. You just need to open the kitchen window and there they are, son exclaims as he shows me the herb garden he has placed on the balcony. And don't forget to water those herbs, this gift from your son, my husband adds, just a tiny wedge of sarcasm edging his voice.

 Tiny sachets of lavender fill my drawer, miniscule pearls of lavender from my wedding bouquet. 

 Tarragon, sorrel, watercress, the proud trio of French herbs. Tarragon stirred into sauces, stuffed under chicken skin, floating in jars of pickles in brine. Fines herbes, sauce béarnaise. Sorrel, his favorite, chopped and turned into soup or sauce à l'oseille, his favorites, reminiscent of happy childhood moments. I broke his heart when I told him that I didn't like it, that it was too bitter for my unaccustomed taste. Watercress, peppery, a faint hint of mustard, like rocket, a favorite, yet so very French.


Ah me! Love cannot be cured by herbs. - Ovid

 Herbal remedies. My mother-in-law was a great believer in the healing powers of herbal teas. Infusions of chamomile and mint, lime and verbena could cure most anything. She would brew a pot each night, an infusion, passing around tiny white ceramic cups once used to serve coffee in some little French café, urging the steaming hot brew upon us just before bed. Une tisane.

 An herbal tea for a good night's sleep, Nuit Calme. One for an oncoming cold or to soothe stress. Elder against that nightmarish coup de froid, a chill, always on her mind, her windows always shut tight, her home sealed against the weather. Une tisane, an herbal infusion, was the perfect cure-all and do not refuse her offer of one as a nightcap. A magic potion.

 She rarely used herbs in her cooking, possibly a thick branch or three of thyme or rosemary, un bouquet garni, would find its way into a broth in which a chicken or chunks of veal would poach, aromatic. But her pantry was overflowing with boxes and sachets of herbs for steeping, herbs for curing, herbs for healing. Herbs for a good night's sleep.






Monday, September 29, 2014

Round


 Roundabout after roundabout, France is a country of roundabouts. Love them or hate them but round you go.

 Love makes the world go round. He wraps his arms round me, pulling me into an embrace. I run my finger round the edge of the flute, spirits to raise our spirits. The tabletop a pattern of damp rounds, the spirit of so many bottles and so many glasses, past embraces.

 Pie plates, soup bowls, mixing bowls, cookies and more cookies, boxes of them (fit a round cookie into a square tin), pizza. Camembert and huge rounds of Parmesan, row upon row of rounds. A round of cheese, of pie, of pizza sliced into wedges.

 Oranges and grapefruit, apples and plums. But square-cut or pear-shaped, These rocks don't lose their shape. But round is best.

 Doughnuts!!

 My mother had a tiny silver skillet in which she would fry one single egg. For a fried egg sandwich. Whisk one egg (cracked into bowl with a plop a deep yellowish orange yolk absolutely round floating in a viscous fluid mistakenly referred to as white) with just a dash each of salt and pepper. Melt a pat of butter in that tiny skillet over medium heat, lift and swirl the melted butter round and round to coat the pan. Add egg. Fry, flip, fry. One single, round fried egg the size but not shape of a slice of sandwich bread. A splotch of ketchup and a second slice. No way round it, the best little lunch ever.


She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain

 My chef, the pastry chef whom I followed around for more than four years as his interpreter, my chef instructed the class as to how to roll out the perfect round of pie crust. Which, in many ways, could be said for pizza dough, as well. Or any round dough. He would gently, but firmly, shape the dough into a round, like a big, fat, thick coin. Turn it round and round between the palms of his hands, his fingers quickly tapping to shape, like a kid making mud pies or damp sand forms on the beach. Then the tricky part, the gestures that take patience. And practice. Round and round we go. With a sharp, expert flick of the wrist he would speckle dust across the surface of that round of dough. A firm pressure of the rolling pin against the cool circle and then a series of roll forward, roll back, lift and quarter turn, roll forward, roll back, lift and quarter turn and on and on, round and round he would go, his rhythmic movements barely broken by the regular shower of flour he would toss across the surface of the round. Don't push the dough, he would say, simply roll it out, coax it into shape, do not force it. Let it ease naturally into a round. Slow, steady, regular movements and the round of dough would gradually flatten and get larger and larger but always, always retain the roundness of the initial pat of dough.

 How large a round to roll? He would place the selected pie dish atop that round of pastry and show how the dough round was so much larger than the dish, to allow for the sides, of course, and he was done. He would then wind and roll that round of dough, perfect every time, round the rolling pin he held in his expert hands, lift and drape across the pie plate then lift and press, one hand lifting the edge of the dough, the other gently pressing it into place. A roll, gentle pressure, across the top of the round dish and pull off the excess dough. I would glance round the table to the group of students gathered round chef and see so many pairs of eyes wide and round with awe, soaking in his words and motions.

 I memorized his every gesture, his every movement, etched into memory. The twenty some years during and since I stood beside him through so many pastry classes, watching him turn out round after round of pie crust, I have repeated his movements, his gestures to a tee. Sometimes it worked and I would gaze down upon a lovely, graceful round of dough, perfect in every way, the glow of pride shivering up through my body. And sometimes it would go awry and my crust, my pizza would be like a giant amoeba, slithering across the work surface in all directions at once.


Round and round and round we go. Where we stop, no one knows.

 From one end of the year to the next, where does a year start, where does it end? Jewish festivals are rife with symbolism, and at the New Year we celebrate the continuity of the years, the circle of life. We eat round foods, apples and pomegranates, both round and sweet. The traditional holiday Challah, that gently sweetened, braided loaf is shaped into a round with no beginning and no end. Foods eaten for a round, sweet year.


 Blueberries and peas, tickety tickety roll round the bottom of a colander, roll across the kitchen table and bounce onto the kitchen floor. Round cherry tomatoes. Miniscule grains of pepper, innocent in their size yet attempt to pour them into the pepper mill and find yourself chasing a scattering of little round orbs across the counter, across the floor, gathering them up before the dog discovers them. A headache, are those little round foods.

 Scoop up a portion of preparation, a savory or sweet concoction, and shape into circles, rolling round and round between the palms of one's hands until a round has been formed. Matzo balls, meatballs, chocolate ganache into truffles, dough for chocolate chip cookies. Round the kitchen.

 How do you eat corn on the cob? Up and down, following the rows? Or round and round and round from one end to the other?



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Monday, September 22, 2014

Fruit Bowl


A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy? - Albert Einstein 

 There is and always has been a fruit bowl standing on my kitchen table. I am a fruit eater.

 Winter fruit bowl filled with oranges, navels to be peeled and eaten at the end of each meal; tangerines or clementines, eaten two, three, even four at a time, reminiscent of a very citrus childhood obsession. Or stuck all around with cloves at Christmas. Grapefruits, one at a time will find its way to my fruit bowl, perched atop, yellow or pink and always from the Indian River, those groves dancing along the water just across the bridge from my childhood home, a sticker proudly announcing the fact of its Florida birthplace.

 Apples and pears all autumn long and well into the winter, crispy Reine des Reinettes, Fuji or Tentations with their acidic nip and sweet juiciness, and Comice for eating, Williams for baking. Both husband's predilection. An apple a day keeps the doctor away and makes a pretty damn fine pie.

 Summertime finds that fruit bowl groaning under the weight of pears and nectarines, white and yellow, plums of so many varieties my head spins, in a fancy array of red, green, yellow, pink and purple, sometimes bordering on black, like an ever-varying bouquet of dahlias.

 And bananas. Always bananas no matter the season.

 Little summer fruit flies dancing around and around. Wave them off with a flick of the hand.

 Who put the onions in the fruit bowl?



 I had one little boy who loved vegetables and one little boy who loathed them, wouldn't touch them with a ten-foot pole. One little boy who adored fruit of every color, the other who preferred not with the rare exception of an apple or a banana, not too ripe, please. To each little boy his own.

 One's plate was piled high with veg, steamed broccoli doused liberally with freshly grated Parmesan, fork-tender carrots and zucchini bathed in couscous jus, a healthy square of spinach and feta baked between flakey layers of phyllo dough. Mushrooms, chard, peas nothing put him off. He would plow through a plateful of vegetables with glee and a huge appetite. But fruit? A placement of the fruit bowl in front of him and an offering of this or that would elicit a No, thank you! Much to a mother's chagrin, much to my disappointment and surprise.

 As I piled the vegetables high on his plate and after I placed it in front of him, I would begin preparing the fruit bowl I would offer his little brother. Halved cherries in summer, grapes in the autumn, thick banana coins and a handful of berries. Cubes of apples and pears or peaches and nectarines; strawberries and wedges of tangerines. There wasn't a fruit he did not love. Colors, textures balanced to reward his growing body with a variety of vitamins.

 A bowl of vegetables for one, a bowl of fruit for the other.


A bowl of fruit. A bowl haircut. A bowler. A bowling ball. Bowl me over. Life is just a bowl of cherries. Bowl me a kiss.

 Forbidden fruit.


 The contents of the fruit bowl on my kitchen counter vary on any given day. Fruit, yes, oranges, apples and bananas. A stray pen, capless, no doubt, or the odd pencil. My husband's favorite knife, the handmade knife with the beautiful cherry wood handle that he uses at most meals. The elegantly, naturally tarnished blade stuck down between pieces of fruit. What the French refer to as the "heel" of a baguette or a loaf, the rounded end of the bread, usually fallen to the bottom underneath what fruit there is. Crumbs, always bread crumbs from the odds and ends tossed into the bowl, atop the fruit at the end of a meal. A dead fruit fly or gnat once in a blue moon. Rare, but true. Tomatoes. I mean, fruit or veg? Avocados while ripening, onions or potatoes when someone has been lazy, preferring to add them to the fruit when there is a perfectly good vegetable bowl on the back counter in front of the kitchen window. A rotting piece of fruit lost and forgotten, nestled and hidden under the others, leaving a splotch of gooey dark on the bottom of the bowl.

 How do you like them apples? I mean, I know, I shouldn't give a fig. Everything is pretty peaches and cream although I will admit sometimes it does drive me bananas.


 The fruit bowl changes with my mood. One day or two it could simply be a soup plate, white and marked from the dishwasher. Casual. Or the old serving bowl my husband bought in a frenzied run through the houseware department of the supermarket on the outskirts of Milan when we had a party of folks invited for lunch and simply not enough dishes. Ugly it is, off-white turned to pasty beige with time, crackled ceramic, chipped edge, a painted design of tiny oranges with tiny green leaves in a ring around the bottom of the bowl. Or the nicer white bowl with the curled lip. Sophisticated.

 If there is overflow, say a pound of cherries or a pint of strawberries (or two), one might very well find two fruit bowls on my counter. A smaller one for the spillover, the surfeit, the delicate, the fragile. A pretty mauve or dove grey oversized coffee bowl like those found in a French bistro.

 And if company comes, one of our beautiful, handmade, Italian ceramic bowls makes its own dramatic appearance bearing a cornucopia of fruit. To be served with the cheese course. Hand-painted lemons bright yellow, deep jade green leaves. Or a sea green bowl full of tiny flowers to catch the fruit.

 An old battered aluminum colander, a brown straw basket, pint-sized cardboard boxes or pale balsa wood crates meant to carry home a bowl of berries. A coffee mug or a painted wooden bowl carried back from Africa. Almost anything will do. As a fruit bowl.


Fruit Bowl.

 Always, always a fruit bowl at every official event, wedding, Bar Mitzvah, family reunion, dinner party with the boss. A fruit bowl is as common as a punchbowl on these great occasions, at every celebration, a refreshing, healthy alternative to all the rich, heavy, indulgent desserts. Or so they say.

 Just to make us all feel a little bit virtuous at the end of the festivities.

 Wedges of strawberries and pretty green rounds of kiwis to show a generous hand and an exotic kiss; slices of bananas, which become gummy with liquid and time; chunks of pineapple (canned? fresh?); watermelon shaped into perfect orbs the size of gumballs, sweet and revivifying after the dancing, the heat of bodies pressed into a space inevitably too small for so many. Oranges, or more likely sections of tangerine, often of the canned variety with its tinny flavor and jarred maraschino cherries, gaudy, neon red like lipstick, glistening on their own, spreading a faint pinkness as they float in the juice. Reminding one of an old-fashioned cocktail. Without the kick. And often pushed to the side, left on the plate in a puddle of what juice cannot be slurped up. And of course cubes of apple, always apple, for the crunch.

 And then there is cantaloupe. And honeydew. Muskmelons. In every fruit bowl at every occasion and the bane of my existence. Why does everyone feel the need to add cantaloupe and honeydew to every fruit bowl? Their sickly taste overwhelms. Suddenly the strawberries and the delicate kiwis taste like melon. The watermelon, once sugary sweet and reminiscent of childhood summers, turns into honeydew. Cherries and apples are now infused with the odd flavor of cantaloupe. The bananas, the very bananas ubiquitous to fruit bowls everywhere, well, no, they still taste of banana. With the addition of melon, an otherwise luscious fruit bowl has been ruined.

 So I will have another slice of the chocolate mousse cake. I have no choice.






Monday, September 15, 2014

Moka Mocha


Coffee and chocolate—the inventor of mocha should be sainted. - Cherise Sinclair, Hour of the Lion

 Moka Mocha a confusion worth clearing up, I dare say. As both a coffee drinker and a lover of, well, mocha, that divine and near-perfect combination of chocolate and coffee that I hold close to my heart, even I had to find out what it all meant. I imagined they were one and the same, just a different spelling. But no.

 Moka, un grand café, as the French would say, a coffee with a definitely savage bent. Steamed hot and rich, reminiscent of the mysteries of the port city in Yemen after which it was named. Steamed in a tiny metal pot, a moka, stained with seasons, with years of coffee; leave it for just a second too long and that moka sizzles and froths up and over. Splattering moka across the stovetop. Moka blackened with years of sitting atop that flame.

 Mocha, oh mocha, that heavenly, sinful blend of coffee and chocolate! Hot chocolate, thick and creamy, a shot of bitter café serré, strong espresso, quite possibly a moka, a froth of foam and a pile, a swirl of whipped cream. Be still, my heart, is it love or is it sugar and caffeine? Nectar of the gods.


 A birthday cake. Or shall I say The Birthday Cake? Every single year. Mocha. A deep, dark, dense chocolate cake, any liquid required replaced by strong coffee. A creamy frosting, a buttercream rich with cocoa whipped into cream, butter, mascarpone whatever the mood preaches. And sugar, of course. Then add the coffee, moka in powdered form, and beat until the chocolate, the sugar, the espresso create an ambrosial concoction, impossible to resist.

 Aromatic, like the best little café of dark wood paneling, scratched mahogany tabletops, wobbly chairs, the air redolent of coffee, doled out in a continuous stream from the steaming machine behind the bar, coffees sipped one after the other all morning long accompanied by mountain of pains au chocolat.

 I make my own birthday cake every single year and I invariably choose a mocha cake with mocha buttercream. My party, my choice and who agrees can share.


 Tiny little moka pot, innocent, inanimate objet yet somehow terrifying, the bane of my existence. For many years of my life, coffee was instant, granules measured into a mug, drenched with boiling water, stirred until dissolved. What could be easier? Or prepared in great quantities for synagogue buffets or evening cake and coffee in those giant silver urns with the intriguing little spigots; press down on the black plastic pad and coffee comes out, have the cup ready! Wonderful and heady that pervading aroma of coffee! Always in the responsible, capable hands of the ladies in the kitchen.

 Or filtered. Place a white paper filter into the plastic cone, three scoops coffee and boiling water. Pour slowly. Fill the filter twice and the pot is full. Preferred even to an electric coffee machine!

 But a moka, the tiny, virtuous, rudimentary little coffee pot, scares me. There is something too mysterious and uncontrollable about it. Pour the water into the bottom chamber; press the coffee into the center compartment and screw on the top. Invisible, the process is invisible and the pot stands uncertainly, precariously atop the flame. How does one tell? How does the water push itself up, push its way through the grounds and into the top? How does one simply keep from getting burned in the process? I once made a boyfriend quite angry when I let the coffee boil up and over. He gave me the delicate task, the overwhelming responsibility of removing the moka from the flame when the coffee was ready but, I protested, I have never seen one of these contraptions! How will I know? How does one keep it from boiling over and out all over the stovetop? But he left the room, left me to my own devices and, staring hard at that moka, willing it to speak to me, begging, praying for a sign that would let me know when the espresso was ready, not to soon, not too late. But it was.

 La cuillère à moka, the tiny, delicate little moka spoon for stirring tiny little espressos in tiny little demitasses. Or eating ice cream, maybe. Coffee ice cream. Or mocha with a hint of chocolate.


The combination of coffee and chocolate is like a perfect marriage, the flavours complement each other but they still stand out on their own and this cake is the epitome of that! I have to confess that the icing doesn't look perfect but it is so good on this cake that I never really worked on making it visually beautiful;  let's put it this way, it isn't the best looking fruit and vegetables that tastes the best and that goes for this icing as well!

ILVA'S SIMPLE MOCHA CAKE

cake:
180 g/ 6.3 oz soft butter
170 g/ 6 oz light cane sugar
3 eggs
2 tbs prepared very strong coffee
180g/ 6.3 oz pastry flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 tsp cocoa powder

icing:
100 g/ 3.5 oz dark quality chocolate
20 g/ 0.7 oz butter
3 tbs milk
125 g/ 4.4 oz icing sugar

   Cream butter and sugar in a bowl until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time until well blended and then add the coffee and mix well. Sift the flour, baking soda, and cocoa powder into the bowl; stir into the creamed mixture.

  Put the batter in a greased and lightly floured cake tin (approx. 21 cm/ 8.25 in) and bake in a pre-heated oven (175°C/350°F) for 30 minutes. When ready, transfer the cake to a wire rack and let it cool.

When the cake has cooled down, make the icing: melt the chocolate, butter and milk in a water bath (or be daring (lazy?) and do like I do and do it in a small pan over a very low flame). Remove from the heat and sift the icing sugar into the mixture and when it has cooled down a little, spread it out over the cake.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Mustard Yellow

mustard yellow

 He once bought me a beautiful mustard-yellow coat from the Compagnie Française de l'Orient et de la Chine, a stunning wool bouclé coat in the shape of a kimono. To wear in the autumn when the leaves transform from plump, luxurious green to shades of gold and red, violet and chocolate. And mustard yellow. We still refer to it to this day as The Mustard Coat. Later, he offered me a silver ring, thick and chunky almost but not quite like a man's, with three, square stones, citrines, mustard yellow.

 And the gorgeous silk scarf, as large as a shawl, delicate and flowing and the yellow of American mustard! Vibrant and elegant at once, is this how he sees me? I wrap that mustard yellow shawl around my shoulders and as light, as ethereal as is that silk it cloaks me in warmth, the warmth of a yellow sun, the heat of yellow mustard.

 Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe.

mustard yellow props

 Leaves the yellow of mustard indicate autumn, leaves the yellow of mustard spread out across the vineyards, flicking in the cool autumn breeze, imitating the watery mustard yellow of the season's sun. 

 Leaves the yellow of mustard gather around the feet of the statue of Anne de Bretagne, herself the color of a tarnished night sky, striding confidently across the tiny square in front of the city's château, her own château, those autumn leaves unruffled. A golden yellow the color of the paper crown I once found perched atop her regal head. 

 Leaves the yellow of mustard collect atop the trees in the city squares, lining the city avenues, leaves rarely auburn or russet but always mustard yellow. Catching the sun. Those yellow leaves flutter down around our own feet, fill the gutters, collecting there to wait for the rain. 

 Dog wading through carpets of matted yellow leaves, tiptoeing, loath to press his feet into the sopping blanket of wet leaves. Photographs, and I have several, of our two boys lying on their backs against another carpet of leaves, mustard yellow, sepia brown, deep amber, or pushing wheelbarrows filled with the colors of an Italian autumn, another era, another dog dancing around their feet. 

 Mustard yellow number 2 pencils clutched in the hands of school children. Remember?

mustard yellow peppers 

A tale without love is like beef without mustard, an insipid dish. - Anatole France 

 What is more French than mustard? Dijon, of course, strong, nay, powerful! The tiniest spoonful clears the sinuses, quite a bang for one's buck, as they say. Mustard is the condiment par excellence, and no French kitchen is complete without a jar or three. 

 And we do. Have jars of mustards, each serving a particular purpose, each serving someone's taste. Dijon, of course, the color of yellow Champagne, the color of dull straw. A delicate yellow belying its often rabid bite. A dollop in a bowl whisked (always with the tines of a fork) with a capful of red wine vinegar and two portions olive oil, salted and peppered, for a French vinaigrette tossed with mixed greens or spooned over steamed leeks or asparagus. Lapin à la moutarde on a disastrous blind date in a tiny Parisian bistro, tiny wooden table topped with crinkly paper placemats on the sidewalk. Wonderful lapin à la moutarde even if the date turned out to be yellow. 

Mustard's no good without roast beef. - Chico Marx 

 We must have a jar of this! he exclaimed as he handed me a jar of scarily lurid, neon yellow Savora mustard. The mustard of his childhood. Gaudy. And whole grain mustard, my son's favorite, flecks of sepia, speckles of amber amid dull gold, khaki yellow. Mustard for dipping chunks of roasted chicken in. Mustard for smearing on a hot dog. 

 American mustards, so different in aspect, in yellow, than their French cousins! Ah, French's mustard, the mustard of my youth is a bold, vivid yellow, so American. With bite but yet not the heat. Zesty yet judicious. And spicy brown the yellow of goldenrods. 

 Creamed honey the color of dull mustard yellow.

mustard yellow powder-2

 Upon my return to France, a return he only half expected, he welcomed me with a bouquet of tulips, golden and mustard yellow tulips that somehow matched the color of my tattered old silk dressing gown. 

 Fields of colza dazzling in the sun, dazzlingly yellow spread out in blankets of mustard yellow as our car whizzes along the autoroute or through country roads of France. Or fields of sunflowers, their petals a bright, vivid yellow, all staring intently at the sun. Fields of flames. 

 Bananas and squash, shiny yellow peppers, corn on the cob. Early apricots or French butter. And French egg yolks. Mangos? Dried apples and devilled eggs. Ah, macaroni and cheese and cheese soufflé especially when kicked up with a spoonful or two of. Mustard. Cornbread. 

 Yet mustard greens, although with the peppery bite, the heat of mustard, are green. 

 So green. Sponge Bob, Big Bird, Winnie the Pooh. Curious George and the Man with the Mustard Yellow Hat?

mustard yellow recipe

These are the perfect bread to serve with a light meal of soup or salad, a meal of grilled meat or fish and plain vegetables, or a sweet and savory brunch; the cheddar cheese, the mustard and the green onions give these easy-to-make muffins the punch of flavor an otherwise simple meal needs. Serve them warm from the oven with lots of butter to melt onto the tender, moist crumb. 

JAMIE'S MUSTARD CHEDDAR MUFFINS

2 cups (260 g) flour
1 Tbs baking powder
1 Tbs sugar
½ tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
¾ cup (175 ml) milk
¼ cup (4 Tbs, 60 g) butter, melted
3 Tbs Dijon or Dijon-style mustard
1 ½ cups (about 6 oz, 180 g) grated sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
½ tsp paprika
1 – 2 Tbs thin green onions/scallions, tender green part only, or chives, chopped (I would use some of the white too)

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Prepare a 12-cup muffin tin either by lining the cups with cupcake papers or greasing generously.

 In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and a generous grinding of black pepper. In a separate medium mixing bowl, combine the eggs, milk, melted butter, mustard, grated cheese, paprika and chopped greens. Whisk until well blended.

 Pour the liquid mixture over the dry ingredients in the larger bowl and, using a rubber or silicone spatula, fold just until well combined. Do not over mix! Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, dividing evenly. Bake for 20 minutes or until puffed, golden and set in the centers. Remove from oven, turn out of the tins and serve warm.


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