Monday, April 14, 2014

Meat

Meat scales  

Meeting his family for the first time was more than nerve-wracking. I was being introduced to a family by their only son, introduced as his future wife. And I would be spending an afternoon, the time of a long meal, immersed in French conversation, a language I barely mastered, if at all.

 His meeting my family for the first time must have been just as trying. We had married after a whirlwind courtship, if one could even possibly call it a courtship, married and had a baby. He would meet my mother and brothers for the first time around a cradle.

 My future mother-in-law had made lunch. Although that meal was close to thirty years ago, I can certainly guess that she made meat of some kind. Meat made a star-studded appearance at every single lunch in her home, beef, veal or chicken if not liver or rabbit, often preceded by a slice of meaty pâté. A hardy, filling, hot lunch every single day. A garlic-studded roast beef sizzling with margarine, a chicken, fragrant and deeply golden, the skin crisp, the meat tender. Or stewed, a veal blanquette, pale pink meat and bright orange carrot wedges in a thick white sauce.

 Meet we did. He my family, me his. How many meals have we all shared since?

 Meat and two veg.

Meat mincer

 Meatloaf, dense and heavy, ground meat packed into the shape of a loaf cake yet much less tempting, much less savory. Certainly not tempting. No, my mother's meatloaf was anything but.

 Meatloaf, the symbol of my mother's lack of culinary skills and interest, the emblem of a culinary era in which I grew up, raised on substantial, meat-heavy meals. A slice of meatloaf – at school we would fondly refer to something eerily similar as "mystery meat" – would lie on the plate between the helping of mashed potatoes and the scoop of green beans, canned, naturally – lie on the plate rather grey, dry and forlorn, just begging for ketchup. Flecks of green pepper and onion would taunt me with their ineffectiveness, laugh at me for being obliged to eat meat in this form, this fashion, this uninteresting, unappetizing, unseasoned semblance.

 Ground burger was the meat of choice in the Sixties and Seventies. Packed into patties to be served on a bun, slathered with plenty of condiment or stuffed with a slice of yellow cheese and spaghetti sauce before being placed in the pan, a Surprise Burger; tossed with the ingredients of a packet and a can, heated and simmered in a skillet and served over squiggly little pasta shapes; stuffed into taco shells dripping with spicy salsa; Swedish meatballs, sweet and sour. Better was Saturday night when dad would take meat in its more genteel, refined rather urbane form of T-bone steak, one for each of his hungry family, chucked onto the grill until charred.

 One of my husband's rare trips to the States, down to Florida and a meal at my brother's. My sister-in-law, an excellent cook, places a platter in the center of the table, tickled pink, a platter groaning under the weight and heft of a meatloaf, a platter nestled in between the bowl of mashed potatoes and the dish of green beans. "Just like your mother always made!" she exclaims, beaming with generosity. My husband balks. American cuisine.

 One man's meat is another man's poison.

Meat pancetta

Meat Market

 Rabbits still dressed in their fluffy pelts, whole pigs' heads as naked as the day they were born nestled in between the chops and the sausages, cubes of meat, veal, beef, chicken, glistening in some choice marinade or sauce, threaded on sticks just waiting for a grill in someone's garden, trussed chickens in pale pink, Easter yellow or deep hued the color of wood pressed together in rows, clawed feet, beaked and crested head tucked prettily under wings, a French butcher's case is like no other.

 Years working in a professional cooking school, I loved walking through the courtyard and peeping into the special sections' classrooms, the bakery with its roaring ovens and trays with rows of baguettes or pastry with its rows of concentrated students in white steadily piping out choux or rosettes. But the butchery students never ceased to amaze me. Young men (mostly) and young women (few) decked out in identical blue aprons with one strap up and over one shoulder only, the better to protect the whites when hefting a carcass across a shop or market. Young men and women, knives in hand, leaning over slabs of meat, muscle, bone and flesh, and with a mix of brawn and finesse, force and delicacy, they learned to slice and carve, cleave and plume. An elegant dance immersed in centuries of tradition.

 “Don’t take a butcher’s advice on how to cook meat. If he knew, he’d be a chef.” - Andy Rooney

Meat steak

White meat, dark meat.

 Once long ago when my babies were but tots, another mother of small children made the statement to a roomful of like souls “I’ll bet that we all give our children the white meat pieces of chicken because there are no bones.” As if the offering of the white meat to our darling and fragile children was a prodigious sacrifice of the motherly kind. As if white meat was better than dark, more flavorful and succulent, and thus the most desired, that self-denial a sign of motherly worth bordering on the saintly simply out of concern for our offspring. And all of the other mothers smiled angelically and nodded their haloed heads in unison. I chuckled and, smiling serenely, shook my head. “No,” I admitted boldly, no sign of shame on my face, no waver of apology in my words, “I give my children the white meat because I prefer the dark myself.”

 My own halo has long been tarnished and worn slightly askew. When I can get away with using only dark meat in a recipe, I do. A baking dish of lemon chicken for a wedding; hot and spicy breaded thighs for company; curries and tagines for a weeknight family meal. Only when the boys were old enough to voice an opinion, articulate a disagreement, did I throw in meat of the white persuasion. Four thighs, two breasts, please, all in the name of pleasing my men.

 “Gourmets! Serve the bird roasted, with pink feet, a strip of bacon to cover its modesty, the breast sprinkled with lemon drops.” - Charles Monselet


Meatballs in tomato sauce 

This is such a great way of making meatballs in tomato sauce, a true no-fuss dish because all you have to do is roll the meat into small balls and then drop them straight into the tomato sauce without frying, then just leaving them to simmer for about an hour all on their own. Apart from the occasional stirring now and then. This recipe is how I prepare meatballs, but see it as an outline on a canvas and fill in the empty spaces with your own signature, add herbs and/or spices that you like to the meat or anything that you think would be good. I do it this way, you do it your way! The recipe is for 8 servings, but I recommend preparing the whole amount given in the recipe even if you are not serving 8 - make enough for leftovers - because they are even better the day after!

ILVA'S ITALIAN MEATBALLS IN TOMATO SAUCE
8 servings

meatballs:
1000 g/ 2.2 lb minced meat
2 small eggs
50 g/ 1.75 oz grated parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
black pepper

sauce:
1 small onion
1000 ml/ 4 1/4 cups tomato sauce
salt
sugar
extra-virgin olive oil

   Chop the onion finely and cook in some olive oil in a large pan for a few minutes. Add the tomato sauce, add some salt and check if the sauce is too acid, if so add half a teaspoon (or more if needed) sugar. Bring it to a simmer.

   Meanwhile mix the minced meat with eggs, parmesan, salt and black pepper. Taste to see of more salt is needed. Start rolling the meat into small balls that you drop into the tomato sauce as you go along. Once finished, bring to a simmer and leave it simmering for about an hour with a half closed lid on top. Stir now and then.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

Table

Table drawer

 À table, les enfants! Come to lunch! Come to supper! To the table, little children! They scurry to the table, skinny legs, chubby legs, scraped knees, dirty toes, tumbling over each other, elbowing their way to the chair next to grandpère, the best spot!

 À table, les enfants! Such a common phrase in France for such a commonplace activity. A jumble of toddlers jostling their way to the table, tummies growling, carefully place a tattered cloth napkin on a row of laps, as grandpère instructs. Squiggling, wriggling children torn between wanting lunch and anxious to get back to their play. But grandmère made frites!

 À table, les enfants! The song of so many mothers and fathers, grandparents and older siblings, head out the door or at the bottom of a staircase, hands on hips or hands rubbing clean on an old kitchen towel. Knives and forks clattering as games wait, quiet and abandoned for the length of a meal.

Table milk

Table writings

 We were poor as church mice when we married. An old mattress and a worktable were our sole possessions, but it was all we really needed. But by the time we moved into our first real home, we were two going on three and needed more. We ransacked my in-laws' attic among the dust, among the memories, and claimed an ancient armoire whose creaking doors and cracking wood would follow us around for the next twenty-five years. We added a matching nightstand – the second long gone – and the bedframe, each carved with the same Art Deco flowers hovering around the edges. A small round of pale gray marble dappled and streaked with deep pewter, a cutting surface once used in their shop to cut cheese, made it into our car towards home. And a table. Heavy wooden oak the color of bittersweet chocolate on turned and carved legs, six of them supporting the table's heft. Six, or is it eight, leaves, each so heavy it requires one person, two hands and arms wrapped around it to lift and carry it, left stacked up in a corner or in the basement or garage, wherever we moved to, only pulled out when company arrives, set in and slotted home. An old oak table that seats four when leafless, the three remaining sections pushed heavily together, the outer edges of the oval dropped down, unrequired. 

 Near on thirty years later, that table is still with us, taking pride of place in the center of our dining area. Throughout the years, this old table, now scratched and marked with time and usage and love, has seen countless family meals and holiday celebrations. It has spent years in service as a sewing table and later used as a photographer's support for a light box. Now back to part time desk, part time dining table.

 I have always been loath to part with a table with such a personality, no matter how badly my husband would love to. Warm and familiar like a favorite grandparent, teasingly annoying like a naughty, mischievous child the way it sometimes knocks against one's knee, leaving a bruise, all in good fun. Worn and scarred with time, each knick, mark and stain a memory burnished into the surface.

Table setting-4

 Trips back home to Florida always mean evenings at my brother's. A hot meal or something tossed onto the grill, sitting around the dining room table with the best China and crystal glasses; family meals special occasions. Coffee is served in the paper-thin porcelain cups and saucers, inky images of Chinamen against pearl white, once the table is cleared of dishes and cutlery. Coffee done, the table is cleared once again, cloth removed and the table becomes a surface for frolic and amusement as the board games are pulled out of closets and placed on the wood.

My brother can drink us under the table and usually does at one of these game nights. While we sip wine or iced tea, he fills glass after glass of whiskey from the babble of bottles clinking and clanking on the drinks cart. One too many and his joy becomes merriment, boasting and laughing louder and longer than the others around the table. But then who am I to talk? Two glasses of wine and I'm under the table.

Table work-2

 My mother-in-law's home was crowded with oversized furniture, too many chairs, a jumble of tables, a mishmash of the old and the new, none of it handsome. The dining room table, long enough for a gaggle of grandkids and the generation in between, a grandparent at each end, was covered with a utilitarian oilcloth, flowers in shades of brown, orange and yellow, which she would cover with a white tablecloth for Sunday or holiday lunch once the stains, halos of coffee and crumbs of morning breakfast were wiped away. Piles of newspapers and old magazines would be pushed out of the way once naptime was over – small children and grandfather alike – and the table would become game central. She and my father-in-law taught them card games and board games with the patience of saints, racking up hours upon hours, year after year, of rummy and scrabble, boggle and belotte, treating the boys as intellectual equals, much to their delight. Children, knees on chairs, bodies leaning heavily forward over the game mat, excited chatter and laughter as cards were slapped down, tiles carefully placed or pieces moved from space to space.

 Evening, the crêpe grill at grandpère's end of the table, batter ladled, crêpes flipped then passed around the table.

 My mother-in-law's tiny kitchen floor was taken over by a round table, equally covered with oilcloth, flowers in shades of brown, orange and yellow, a cloth scraped and rubbed white with time and elbow grease. That table saw so many meals made, vegetables chopped, pastry pressed out, sticks of potatoes wrapped in a clean towel waiting to be fried. One single chair, all that there was room for in that narrow kitchen, meant one person standing for breakfast coffee as the other one sat. A mess of coffee cups, broken biscuits, smears of jelly across that table, rickety and unstable, cleared away, oilcloth rubbed and lunch preparation begun.

Fresh Herb pasta
Gathering family and friends around the table for a meal is a daily joy, and nothing is more comforting and familiar than a plate of fresh pasta. This is a very simple dough to make and although we have chosen to add fresh herbs, the flavor variations are many. Making pasta is a fun project to prepare with the children around the kitchen table. A drizzle of good quality olive oil, a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and you suddenly have the best meal ever.

ILVA & JAMIE'S FRESH HERB PASTA

1 lb (500 g) flour, preferably durum
3 tbsp (or more if you want) finely and I mean very finely chopped fresh herbs like thyme, sage and rosemary
¼ tsp salt
5 large eggs, preferable at room temperature
1 – 5 tsps water, as needed

 Blend the flour, salt and very finely chopped herbs together in a large mixing bowl; make a well in the center and break the eggs into the well. Using fingers or a fork, whisk the eggs into the herbed flour until well blended, homogeneous and a dough forms. Add water a teaspoon at a time as needed to moisten pockets of flour. Knead the dough on a floured surface for about 5 minutes until smooth and elastic. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow to rest for 1 to 2 hours at room temperature.

 Divide the dough into 4 or 5 balls. Working one ball of dough at a time, flatten the ball with your hand or a rolling pin. The dough must be rolled out paper thin, either by hand (with a rolling pin on a floured surface) on a large, long table or a pasta machine (follow the directions, beginning the process on the widest/thickest setting and working the strip of dough through every setting until it goes through the thinnest, dusting the dough with flour as needed.)

 Lightly roll or fold the paper-thin dough and cut into strips, as wide or as narrow as desired. Unroll to cook in lightly salted boiling water until al dente, 1 – 3 minutes.  



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Monday, March 31, 2014

Jam


Jammin' With You.

 From grape jelly to cherry jam illustrates my life. A childhood of grape jelly, deep, dark purple, almost black except in the light when it shimmers the violet of aubergines. Grape jelly spread on toasted white bread, grape jelly with peanut butter for the ideal sandwich – although I did prefer them separately. Unsophisticated jelly for a kid.

 Jelly glasses, jam jars. A collection of Flintstone's jelly glasses lined up in the kitchen cabinet (right next to the Goofy Grape, Jolly Olly Orange and Freckle Face Strawberry mugs), the only glasses we kids drank from, always one important reason to buy grape jelly. Fred and Wilma, Barney and Betty, Dino and the kids, we scrambled to claim each one as our own. Pour a glass of milk or juice and drink it down, discovering the face of the cartoon character molded into the bottom. Who was I today? Wilma? Betty? Pebbles?

 Cherry jam, my adult predilection, a mark of the country I have adopted – or which has adopted me – the country I now call home. Cherry jam spread on toasted baguette for breakfast or tender brioche for an afternoon treat. Jam jars, not glasses. Jam jars stacked in threes, cleaned of the jam, jars perfect for storing spices and colored sugars, baking mixtures of cocoa and sugar or cinnamon sugar, raisins and nuts let loose from their packet. Jam jars the best for stashing half cans of chopped tomatoes or leftover pizza sauce, chickpeas not used in the latest tagine. But never to drink from. A long way from childhood, a long way from home.



Jam Session

“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday - but never jam today.” the Queen said. - Lewis Carroll

 Jam, jelly, marmalade, preserves. I never give it a second thought, what makes it jam, what jelly, what preserves?

 And throw fruit butter into the mix. I discovered fruit butter – jam to my obviously naïve, gastronomically challenged mind – in Philadelphia. We used to get together at the hippest restaurant in town for college students back then, an all-you-can-eat salad bar buffet, the best French onion soup and homebaked breads in the world. And there was always a terra cotta pot filled with smooth, sweet, tart apple butter the color of deep caramel, a local specialty. Apple butter – jelly? jam? – generously spread on thick slices of chewy bread, goodbye diet, hello hips. College comfort.

 Marmalade must be bittersweet, the sugary sweetness of fruit and sugar, the bitter edge of citrus rind. Orange, lemon, kumquats….

 Jam or jelly, jelly or jam, no one has explained it to me yet, no one has yet to convince me. Smooth and wobbly, gelée they call it in France. With bits and pieces of fruit, confiture. I always, invariably choose cherry.

 Jam swirled into vanilla cake batter. Jam melted and brushed over paper-thin wedges of fruit in elegant concentric circles on a fine round of puff pastry, glistening gold.


Traffic Jam

 One memorable traffic jam in the center of Milan, an Italian traffic jam. Heated argument ensues, the drivers out of their cars, struggling towards each, fists clenched, arms flailing, girlfriends hanging on, pulling back. Voices raised in hysterics, calling names, threats flying back and forth like punches. Whose fault? Your fault? The whole macho thing going on. Cars inching forward, closer and closer, from all directions, lines of cars splayed out like the June Taylor Dancers in formation. Car doors pop open one after the other, drivers step out, some enthusiastically, wanting to get involved, others tentatively, curiously, just wanting to discover the cause of the holdup, anxious to move along.

 We stood and watched from a distance. Thoroughly amused.

 In a jam. In a pickle. In a stew. In a nutshell. In apple-pie order. In the soup.


Jimjams

 My legs turn to jelly, wibbly wobbly. My teeth chatter, my heart pounds. My blood runs sluggishly through my veins like jam. Cherry red. Sanguine Strawberry. Blackberry dark. My heart jammed in my throat like an old sock. Breathe deeply, slip into jammies and bake.

 Bake. Cookie dough smelling of vanilla and cinnamon, tiny bits broken off and rolled between the palms of my hands, gently, tenderly; fingers, hands buttery slick. Dough like wet sand on the beach; building castles. Line up the balls of pale yellow dough on a worn, tarnished old baking sheet silver and black, line up those balls of cookie dough spaced apart but in perfect rows. A jam jar… or a jelly glass… press carefully, rounds becoming discs, not too flat, not too fat, perfect discs. Then press the thumb into the dough, into the center of each round to make a small well, a dip, – only the thumb will do, making the ideal indentation, not too big, not too small, not too deep.

 A teaspoon of jam. Spooned into the impression made by the thumb in the center of each disc. Strawberry, blueberry, rose or lemon it doesn't really matter; we each have our predilection. A teaspoon of jam, one by one then bake. Jam thumbprint cookies.


In a Jam

 The steps from the hallway of the house down to the garage – a combination, a mishmash, a merger of garage, basement, laundry room – was steep and narrow forcing one to lean heavily against the wall for balance. It smelled of, oh, I don't know, locker room, gas station, subterranean cellar all in one, damp, musty, earthy, metallic, of petrol and forgotten boxes of clothing.

 Just at the bottom of those stairs (one reached for the light switch, groping and feeling one's way along the dusty wall until finding it and illuminating the back half of the garage in a faded light from one watery weak light bulb overhead) and straight ahead was the second refrigerator – nothing fancy, mind you, but an old thing in the family for years and years – chock full of tubs of margarine, packets of gruyere, wheels of Camembert (heavens! In the refrigerator?), a chicken or a roast beef for Sunday's lunch. Next to it was the hulking freezer, a child's treasure chest; lift the lid to find chocolate-dipped ice cream on a stick (eskimos), cones topped with vanilla ice cream swirled with chocolate, crunchy with chopped nuts, and popsicles in every color. Big plastic freezer bags were filled with summer fruit right off the trees, cherries, purple plums, peaches and apricots waiting for winter.

 But along the back wall of the garage, jammed back between extra rolls of paper towels, bottles of sugary syrup for summer drinks and cans of beans and corn were rows of Madeleine's homemade jams. All summer long when the berries were ripe from the bushes and trees, she would make jam. She made her jams much the way she made everything else. By intuition. She rarely weighed or measured anything; her one measuring cup was marked in approximations, flour, sugar, semolina, rice, liquid marked along the top and black lines up and down to show you where to stop.

 She would clean, pit and trim the fruit as needed and dump it into a large pot, eyeballing the quantity, the weight in order to add, more or less, the equivalent amount of sugar. Then she would bring it all to a hardy boil and let it all simmer, stirring and skimming as needed. She would have a row of empty jam jars (the kind that had once held store-bought jam), sparkling clean, and when she judged the concoction ready, she would ladle it out into those jars, pop on the lids and carry them down to store on those old wooden shelves in the back of the garage for other seasons.

 Fruit jammed together in jars jammed together on those old shelves.


This must be one of my family's absolute favourites, and what is strange is that they all like it. I don't know about you, but few are the times I can satisfy both my three children and my husband with one dish but this one - a cross between a muffin and a cupcake - does it. I hope it does the same for you!


ILVA'S STRAWBERRY AND CHOCOLATE MUFFINS
12-14 medium-sized muffins

2 eggs
200 g/ 7 oz sugar
3 tbsp fresh cream
100 g/ 3.5 oz butter, melted
250 g/ 8.8 oz flour 1 tsp baking powder
100 g/ 3.5 oz dark chocolate, chopped
3 - 4 heaped tbsp strawberry jam

   Whisk eggs and sugar in a bowl for a few minutes, add the cream and the melted butter and stir until smooth and then add the chopped chocolate.

   Sift flour and baking powder into the bowl and mix well. Now it is time to add the jam and when you do that, you need to be quick and careful, I fold it in with a baking spatula or a big spoon and take great care not to mix in the jam too well because I want there to be jam 'clusters' to surprise me in the finished muffins/cupcake.

  Spoon the batter into muffin/cupcake forms and bake in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F) for 10-12 minutes.

Monday, March 24, 2014

White

white still life-3

Symphony in white.

 A froth of meringue like a debutante's gown, a drift of whipped cream like pristine snow, peaks drooping elegantly like weeping damsels. Snow angels, portrait in white on white.

 Flour, white purity. Flour sifted onto a wooden board, a surface scarred and warped with time and use, brown rubbed to white. A shower of white. A round of dough cool and damp plops into a puddle of flour, a poof of white. Two white handprints on the back of my skirt.

white sugar

 I placed the bowl of pumpkin soup in front of him and it was as if a lightbulb went off in his head. He jumped up, yanked open the refrigerator and grabbed the packet of butter. He peeled back the foil, shiny gold and blue, encasing the sweet butter the pale yellow of baby chicks and sliced through the chilled block.

 "When I used to stay at my grandmother's house over school vacations" he began as a thin slice of butter slid into the thick orange soup, cold melting into hot, "we used to do this. The butter was fresh and white, so absolutely white! And it smelled fresh… insanely fresh!" He contemplated the puddle of butter against the surface of the soup. "It wasn't like this. It was delivered straight to my grandmother's door from the farm right outside the village. Pure white creamery butter wrapped in white paper. A tiny little lady would come and deliver it. My grandmother always called her "my cousin - ma cousine."

 Fresh white butter. And visions of the salty, yellow sticks of butter of my youth; the discovery of white, sweet butter at my aunt's. I never knew butter could be so white. New York butter. Farm fresh French butter. White.

 And thoughts of my mother-in-law making cheese in the family shop. Fresh milk, as white as white, fresh cheese wrapped tightly in powdery white muslin dripping white.

white cauliflower-4

Pasta in bianco. Riso in bianco.

 Plain pasta, plain rice, the two pillars of my young son's diet. Pasta in bianco. Riso in bianco. White pasta, white rice. Unadorned, no red on white, no green against white, not thick, tangy tomato sauce, not salty pesto heady with fresh summer basil. White. Add to that a just-grilled slab of swordfish, his favorite, seared to cook no darker than white. Tiny little mozzarella balls, ciliegine, the size of large marbles, the color of snow, cream, polar bears, stars.

white popcorn-2

The World in Black and White

 Black and White cookies were our special treat each visit up north, New York and family. We would stop at the first bakery we found and each get one, or Sunday morning bagel run meant slipping a Black and White for each child into a brown paper bag. White cookie with a faraway hint of lemon, white icing, black icing, half and half. I would always eat the side with the white icing first, icing tasting of nothing more than sugar. I would reserve the black side, the dark side, the chocolate icing for later, to be eaten, to be relished in private.

white

White Wedding

 The bride wore white but not only. Virtuous white cut with blue symbolizing peace and unity, purple symbolizing magic and mystery. A marriage of color.

 Two cakes, not one, graced the table, embodied the union. Devil's Food Cake, dark and dense, wickedly gooey, mischievous. Black as sin. Devil's Food Cake slathered with buttercream drunken with cognac, messy and slippery in the noonday sun.

 Angel Food Cake, light and ethereal as angels' wings, a feather gently brushed across a cheek. White as innocence. Angel Food Cake upright and tall, the whites of eggs whipped and whipped to elegant glossy crests, handled ever-so delicately, ever-so tenderly, like a bride on her wedding night. Folded into powder-white flour and icing sugar, lightness, fragility.

 A white cake for the day, its immaculate perfection, its milky whiteness only broken by the blue, by the purple, of the wild berry coulis. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries crushed and stewed until the color of her corset, of her shoes. Innocence and purity, peace and unity, magic and mystery.

White cake-3-2

 My brother Michael was a fabulously talented cook and baker, even when we were mere teens. This cake was a special treat and I still have fond memories of slicing into it with a serrated bread knife and enjoying spongy, light mouthfuls. The only thing I have left is a recipe card on which he penned the recipe. I baked to serve this at my own wedding lunch.


JAMIE'S ANGEL FOOD CAKE

1 cup flour (cake flour, if you have)
3/4 cup confectioner's/powdered sugar
10 egg whites (should come to about 1 1/4 liquid cups) at room temperature
1 1/4 tsp cream of tartar (if you don't have, stabilize the whites with a few drops lemon juice)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract, optional

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C)

Sift together the flour and confectioner's/powdered sugar, sift again 3 or 4 times total.

Beat the whites, cream of tartar/lemon juice, the salt and the vanilla/almond extracts until foamy then continue beating as you gradually beat in the granulated sugar until stiff peaks hold. Fold in the flour/sugar mixture in four additions.

Mound into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan. Bake 30 - 40 minutes (depending upon your oven) until set and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool inverted.

Michael always drizzled chocolate glaze on top, allowing it to drip down the sides of the white cake.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Plated Stories Wins the Best Photo Based Culinary Blog at the IACP awards!



  One year ago, sitting in a chilly, impersonal airport terminal in San Francisco, high on a weekend IACP conference, we came up with the idea of Plated Stories.

  This past year has been an extraordinary adventure, Plated Stories has brought us such joy and pleasure not only as a space that allows each of us to explore our creative urges, do just what we like, but we plain and simply love working together. We laugh and laugh together, the way we work together perfectly, every so often we are amazed at how the photos and texts enhance each other despite us not having an idea of what the other is doing - this collaboration is a constant source of happiness and personal inspiration.

 Winning the IACP Award for Best Photo-Based Culinary Blog is the cherry on top.

 Per aspera ad Astra, a rough road leads to the stars.

 Thank you to our wonderful friends and readers who inspire us every day. Thank you to the IACP for this immense honor.

 Ilva & Jamie

 PS. This Friday, March 21, join us on a live google+ hangout hosted by Jenni Field in which we will be talking about Plated Stories the blog, the Plated Stories Workshop, food photography and food writing. We will also answer your questions, so feel free to leave questions on the google+ event page. See you Friday at 10 PM EST (3 PM CET/ GMT+1)! (And if you cannot attend the actual hangout, you can always watch it afterwards when you have the time)








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Monday, March 10, 2014

Cheese


Cheese Doodles 

 It was a glorious experiment, one that doesn't happen often in my kitchen. I decided to make ice cream with cheese. I had seen this mentioned in a brochure or magazine once, and it was too intriguing not to try. A local cheese with the texture of a Reblochon, a heady flavor close to but not quite as strong as a Camembert, an orange-tinged, slightly sticky crust to be trimmed off before chopping the creamy pale interior and adding it to a pot of milk and sugar to dissolve and melt.

 Cheese ice cream. We rarely have company for dinner yet this day we did. Friends in town to visit and their daughter. Once the meal was over, I pulled out the chilled concoction from the refrigerator and slowly poured it into our hand-crank ice cream machine. We took turns churning, passing the container around the table, from one family member and guest to the next, the anticipation and excitement mounting as the mixture chilled and firmed up into something thick and creamy. And it was ready.

 I unscrewed the lid and lifted out the paddle. We peered into the canister. The ice cream was oddly granular and tinged an unappetizing yellow. I spooned scoops into each waiting bowl and passed them around. We each stared into our own bowl of cheese ice cream, then nervously at each other. Suddenly a bit less anxious to try. Who would begin?

 A first taste and noses wrinkled. Odd. Weird. Sugary sweet, savory and cheesy all at once. An unexpected combination that did not quite balance out into something tasty. Mmmm no, I don't really think…. A second mouthful. Not very good, is it? A third and then a fourth. Well, it actually isn't that bad… it is, well, intriguing, curiously interesting. The bottom of the bowl, spoons clattering against glass, eyes shifting from one to the other. Um, is there enough for a second bowl? More scoops all around to buoyant, grinning guests, the second bowl of cheese ice cream going down much quicker than the first amid groans of pleasure. Cheese ice cream! Excellent! Who would have thought? Quite good!


Say Cheese

 My father had an old Brownie camera, a black plastic box, not too big, not too heavy, that created memories. His Hawkeye Brownie in shiny Bakelite sported a cute little carrying handle and an attachment allowing us to screw in tiny little bulbs that flashed with a satisfying pop like in an old film noir. A drawerful of square black & white photos is proof positive of his passion for capturing images, albeit sometimes blurry, stills of giggling children, smiles frozen in time, caught in the joyous movement of childhood or formally posed like good little soldiers. Say cheese! The flimsy, frilly-edged snapshots with the date stamped indelibly in the white edging framing the smiling – or otherwise – faces of the four of us and mom fading gently into ghosts of time past now lay strewn across my own desktop connecting me to something long gone.

 I have hazy memories of carrying dad’s Brownie to Girl Scout camp, careful not to break it, allowed to snap pictures of my friends, creating my very own memories. Say cheese! But I do clearly remember my first camera, my very own, a Pocket Instamatic. You remember the Instamatic, the slim rectangle now sporting a long, slim loop that I could slip onto my wrist, the cubes snapped one by one onto the camera itself that flashed and clicked as it turned one-two-three times. 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 albums in glorious Technicolor dimming to yellow.

 A Polaroid stuck away in a drawer now gathering dust was a long-ago gift, possibly high school graduation. As simple and quick to use as my old Instamatic, the Polaroid gave immediate gratification. 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.

 From one camera to the next, I grew up learning to aim and shoot, a quick squint and click and the moment was captured forever. With a simple Say Cheese!


Cheesed Off 

 As anyone who has traveled to France knows, cheese is an integral part of the country's culinary patrimony and an integral part of daily life. And an essential element of every meal. First course followed by main course, followed by salad. Always. And then the host or the cook carries out a beautifully arranged cheese platter offering each diner, each convive, a selection of hard and soft, tangy, sharp, strong and mild. Balance a fresh goat cheese with a slice of nutty, fruity Comté, a wedge of fragrant Camembert, a segment of salty Bleu. 

 When it came to guests, my husband has always taken extra special care at the fromagerie selecting the perfect cheese platter. And when my family, my mother and brothers arrived at the birth of our first son, my new husband (who had never met them before) wanted nothing but the best. And to make a good impression. 

 Sitting at the long table wedged into the tiny living room in our miniature doll's house, our first home, he served up a beautiful meal. I had married an excellent cook. He cleared the dishes and set new, of course, a clean plate, knife and fork for each guest for the cheese course. 

 And he came out of the kitchen proudly bearing a gorgeous cheese platter. And my younger brother screeched, jumped up and ran – ran – out of the house and down the street. 

 When questioned later, he claimed to have an overwhelming, an indomitable, a powerful disgust of cheese and the very stink of the thing had him running for dear life.



The Big Cheese 

 A first meeting with my future in-laws. A first impression. I so wanted to please. I could barely speak the language, floundering through a conversation in stumbling schoolgirl French, praying like the dickens that I would understand what they said to me. 

 We had invited them to the big, old communal house that we shared with a dozen other men and women, a motley crew. The others had so kindly left us in peace. Husband prepared a glorious meal, not too fancy, not too special or his humble, folksy, simple parents would have balked. And of course, a cheese platter. I have never in all my days as a member of that family once known them to skip the cheese course. 

 Near the end of the meal, a loud clatter emanates from the kitchen. Future husband jumps up and scrambles through the dividing door only to reappear with an empty cheese platter. That dog of his, scamp and rascal with the piercing, golden eyes and the personality, the cleverness of a human, had reached the counter and swallowed that cheese in one gulp. 

 A vacation deep in the center of France, amidst the mountains and greenery. An enfant sauvage found generations ago living in the forest, raised by wolves, forever captured and immortalized in bronze. Caves deep below the earth, below the roaming sheep, damp and chilly, aromatic with mildew, corridors deep in the belly of the earth like secret passageways. Tremendous rounds of cheese lined up on wooden benches telling the tale of the passage of time. A taste of Roquefort, a deep blue-green against creamy white, salty and smooth, delicate and fluid, sharp and memorable.


Thin savoury Parmesan shortbreads that melt in your mouth, revealing the sweetness of the jam hidden inside - I can tell you it is difficult to stop eating them. I used a tomato jam given to me by a neighbour (who also keeps bees that make a wonderful honey) but any good jam would do. Come to think of it, a little of the slightly bitter but sweet chestnut honey would probably be very good as well.

ILVA'S THIN PARMESAN SHORTBREADS WITH OREGANO

150 g/ 4.5 oz wholewheat flour
80 g/ 2.8 oz grated parmesan
1 tsp dried oregano
100 g/ 3.5 oz butter
1 egg yolk
a pinch of salt

   Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Rub the butter into the flour and add the egg yolk. Mix quickly until the ingredients are well blended.

   Roll out the dough thinly, the easiest way to do it is between two sheets of parchment paper, and cut out the shortbread with a cookie cutter or with a knife.

   Bake in a pre-heated oven (175°C/350°F) for 8-10 minutes. Let them cool down before handling.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Softly


Rest you then, rest, sad eyes, 
Melt not in weeping 
While she lies sleeping, 
Softly, softly, now softly lies sleeping. 
- Anonymous 

 Hushed voices, words softly whispered like the rustle of silk against bare skin, fingertips softly grazing the back of a hand or a cheek softly blushing. A prayer murmured softly to no one in particular. 

 Hushed voices broken by giggles, confidences divulged behind cupped hands, girlhood secrets, girlhood laughter. Shhhhh softly so no one will hear. 

 Tears. The rumble of low voices, softly imparting reassuring words.
 


Kiss Me Softly, Listen Closely 

 Soft peaks of whipped cream, snow falling softly, a light dusting of white. Whipped cream, drooping softly, or elegant sweeps of glistening meringue, thick creamy sweeps of cake batter in soft waves. 

 There is something so sensual about cooking. No, not the slicing and mincing, knife thudding against wood, rat-a-tat-tat; not the crack of chicken bones or the violent sizzle and pop of onion tossed into hot oil, seething, or the aggressive bubbling of red sauce, spattering angrily across the stovetop. 

 The tickety-tack tickety-tack of beaters against plastic as eggs whites froth and rise, the foam of a head of beer, the bubbles of champagne. Thick, thicker until opaque and glossy, snow piled up on the rooftops. Gently, softly, lovingly fold mountains of whipped egg whites – so aptly, so elegantly blancs d'œufs montés en neige in French, egg whites whisked to snow – into cake batter, softly, delicately so as not to break the white, deflate them into flatness. Fold, turn, fold until a luxurious, creamy, soft-as-velvet batter is created, almost a shame to bake it into cake. 

 Radio humming softly as I knead. I push my hands into flour, letting it gather softly around my skin, flour filtered through my fingers, softly drifting down to the tabletop. The slow, rhythmic movement of kneading, pressing fingers softly into cool, damp dough, pushing, pressing until smooth. Therapeutic, really. 

 I love pushing my fingers into flour, lentils, couscous grains, beans, softly, softly. Sensual.


Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
- William Butler Yeats

 We came together at a party. Loud music faded into the background, barely heard as little more than a reason to dance, slowly, arms wrapped around each other softly, tentatively.

 He leaned in towards me; months of doubt and yearning fell into confidence. He murmured in my ear ever so softly, his warm breath on my neck, in my ear as I listened shyly.

 All that remains of that night is a black and white photograph taken in a softly lit room, early morning. My profile against the blank wall, a smile dancing softly on my lips; my knees are pulled up to my chest (sitting on that old, worn mattress on the floor) and I feel delicious (no other word). Noises from deep in the house, voices, footsteps on the wooden floor, clattering down the stairs, noises of people preparing and eating hurried breakfasts filtered softly into the room, our private haven. None of that, no one existed apart from us at that moment.

 The filtered light softly illuminating my skin, my dreams.

 One last hug, one single "you drive me crazy" spoken softly, lips pressed against my shoulder. "Will you come back tonight?" expectation lighting up his face, briefly hidden behind the camera. "Will you stay?"


Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

 Parenting. Words softly spoken, lullabies crooned, tunes hummed gently, softly. Admonitions yelled, fists clenched, holding back. Angered threats slipping softly, guardedly, between pinched lips. Parenting is a complicated balancing act. Utter delight and perfect joy slip into anger and frustration with little explanation.

 A tiny bundle of joy wrapped up, swaddled softly in a cuddly blanket, the sleep of a newborn, smelling sweetly of milk. Two parents leaning over to watch, breath held so as not to wake him. Tiptoe softly from the room, voices held in check, muted whispers not to break the peaceful silence.


Softly…. Laugh, Rain, Thunder, Touch

 I loved watching my father bake. With the precision of the engineer that he was, with the attention usually reserved for working under the hood of a car, he would make cakes and puddings, gorgeous, delicate choux puffs and luscious prune and apricot compote like jewels shimmering in the moonlight. 

 His big, strong, rough hands – I remember slipping my tiny hand into his, him softly taking mine and holding on, secure, safe and warm - would softly fold beaten egg white into batter, creating what would be the perfect sponge cake, light and ethereal. Those hands would softly and precisely pipe out dough, which would puff up crazily in the oven, puffs which he would later fill to overflowing with pastry cream. Those hands would ladle out perfect rounds of batter onto the old pancake griddle to sizzle and set, piles placed before four hungry, happy children.

 His movements as he baked or cooked were as soft and gentle as the manner in which he would gather me in his arms for a hug or cradle my face between his warm hands. Softly. A father's hands are full of magic and fascination; gardening, tightening bolts, boarding up plate glass windows against hurricane winds, taping cartons for mailing, handing out quarters for straight A's or lunch money.


Definitely not "stewed prunes" which evoke images of cold, harsh diningrooms in senior residences straight out of the 1960's, seltzer water and rye bread. My father made pots of gorgeous prune compote, prunes and apricots slow simmered in water spiced with cinnamon and magic until the dried fruit softened and plumped up, shimmering jewel-like in a rich sauce. This is a sumptuous adult version in which prunes are simmered in a gorgeous red dessert wine and water with just a hint of orange and cinnamon. Serve these delicate, wine-infused prunes warm in small bowls topped with whipped cream or ice cream or use them as a topping for almost any dessert. 

JAMIE'S WINE-POACHED PRUNES

For 250 g moist pitted prunes (weighed without pits, about 35 - 40 prunes)
1/4 cup (50 g) granulated white sugar
2 cups (500 ml) total liquid = water + red dessert wine (or a fruity red wine or port wine) - (I used 1 1/2 cups/375 ml water + 1/4 cup/125 ml red wine but you could use less water + more wine, up to 1/2 cup, for a stronger hint of wine)
Pinch ground cinnamon
Thick slice (about 1 cm/ 1/2 inch) orange (with peel and all)

Place everything (prunes + sugar + water + red wine + cinnamon + orange slice) in a saucepan, bring to the boil, lower to simmer and simmer 10 - max 15 minutes until the prunes are plump and tender but have not exploded. Carefully remove the prunes from the liquid to a bowl and continue to boil the liquid with the orange slice until slightly thickened, maybe another 10 minutes or as desired.

Serve the prunes warm in a bowl with some of the liquid/syrup and topped with whipped cream or ice cream.

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