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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Monday, September 1, 2014

Salt


 From Florida to Brittany, one side of the Atlantic to the other, across the pond. Oceanside, beachside, salt water, seafood. Salted butter was a thing of my childhood and I knew no other. Salted butter for eating, dabbing on baked potatoes, plopping on steaming oatmeal, melting onto oven-warm muffins and toaster-warm cherry Poptarts. Tossing into popcorn and making grilled cheese sandwiches. Salted butter for both savory and sweet. I knew nothing of saltless sweet butter until I moved north. My New York cousins swore by sweet, unsalted butter for cooking and baking alike and when I tried it, spread on a piece of bread, I could not understand the passion for something that tasted of nothing.

 Until I got used to it.

 Then I moved to Brittany, or close enough to it both physically and historically, to be confronted once again by the salt-no salt quandary. Our Breton friends swear by salted, come hell or high (sea) water, the ocean in their blood. Little by little I drop my sweet butter desires and focus instead on salt. Salted butter in the preparation of a gâteau nantais, for the local caramel au beurre salé, melted onto a crêpe then dusted with sugar. Beurre blanc nantais.

 A smear of salted butter on a toasted bagel. A smear of salted butter on brown bread, a bite and a slurp of oyster.

 Back to my childhood, salt of the earth.

 Little packets of salt purchased at the market, salt direct from the salt marshes a mere stone's throw from the city. Salt the color of a sandy beach, pale gray, and salt the deep white of pure snow on a bright day. Salt speckled with herbs and spices, thyme, basil, shallots. Salt blended golden with curry powder or ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Flecked with miniscule bits of black truffle.


 "You forgot to add salt," he says. "Again." Food bland, sauce has no flavor, spices fall flat and gravy insipid. "It's not bad," he murmurs with that tiniest bit of reproof hovering around the edges of his words as if not wanting to hurt my feelings.

 Take his criticism with a grain of salt.

 "Salt is the single most important ingredient," he once taught me, and repeats constantly. Pinch of salt, teaspoon of salt, shake of salt. The big blue container of fine table salt sits near the stovetop on the tray next to the canister of coarse sea salt, whiter than white, a hint of transparent. Dust liberally with salt, add generous amounts, don't be afraid. If in doubt, add a bit more rather than a bit less. Pinch of sugar, pinch of salt.

 Any cook worth his or her salt knows that a bit of sugar tames the acid and a bit of salt heightens the sweetness.

 Pass the salt, please.

 Table salt, sea salt, fleur de sel. Smoked salt colored pale brown, feminine pink Himalayan salt. Inky black Cleopatra salt the color of ash. Beautiful deep citrine saffron salt. What to cook? What to cook?


 Tears of joy, tears of sadness. Tears, salty like seawater rushing over me, warm and soothing like hot pretzels eaten on the boardwalk or comforting like a pot full of steaming homemade stew, comforting us on a rainy day. The loss of a loved one, the end of a movie, tears purging the pain. Tears, lick the saltiness with the tip of your tongue, the waves pounding, clouds rushing through the sky, foretelling a storm. We dive below the surface and come up choking on a mouthful of salt water like so many tears, the darkness wrapping around us as we struggle for breath, the salt taste lingering as we paddle towards the shore. But we will forget the whole nightmare once back on the beach, once we light the bonfire, the salty taste of roasting sausages bringing the smiles back, washing away the tears.

 Tears of joy, salt mingling with laughter, a baby born, a wedding, kiss the saltwater away, brush salty tears off of a cheek. Cry out in pain; does sweat contain more salt than tears? A finger pressed against a single rivulet as it glides down his back, stopping the course. Lips pressed against his forehead, his cheek, taste the salt, sweat or tears?


 I was raised in a salty-movie-popcorn culture. I slip my dollars through the slot and receive a ticket in return. I push through the glass doors – always heavy glass doors – and take in the atmosphere, the smells of a movie theater lobby, the oddly bright lights. Carpet – there is always a carpet – littered with bits of popcorn and ticket stubs, stray M & M's and dirt. Charming. The noise and bustle of a movie theater lobby as people push through the throngs and rush off to catch their film, afraid to even miss the twenty minutes – is it only twenty minutes it seems like eternity – of advertisement and trailers. 

 There is something about being in a cinema, a movie theater that makes me crave popcorn. The saltier the better. It always came part and parcel with every movie experience of my younger days and a film, deep velvet chairs and popcorn in a tall cardboard box just seem to go together. It can't be homemade, no, it must come from the large, square glass cage with the contraption inside that turns and turns like a carnival carousel and spits out hot popcorn under the dazzling heat lamps. Big metal scoops tucked into a box exchanged for some coins and I can snuggle down into my seat and… no, my self-control is admirable and I don't begin nibbling on my popcorn until the movie starts. What? Popcorn for the advertisements and movie trailers? I eat my way through that box of popcorn, meting it out so it lasts the length of the film, my lips puckering from the salt, fingers licked over and over again, thirst mounting, but every kernel of popcorn must be salty. 

 So think of my shock and consternation upon arriving in France, stepping up to the popcorn counter at my first French film and being offered… sugared popcorn! Sweet not salted! Oooh la la! Non, merci. Le popcorn salé, s'il vous plaît! 

 Huge pretzels the size of my hand, warm and soft and speckled with coarse salt. The tradition is to squirt on a hearty squiggle of bright yellow mustard but doesn't that just make the salt disappear beneath its overwhelming spice and heat. Grains of salt cracking under the teeth, salt bringing flavor and edge to something delicate and mundane.


There are a few things I could eat until I drop (or should I say explode?) and focaccia is one of them. I definitely prefer the original, simple type without topping or anything inside; if it is good,  nothing beats it. I have been experimenting with different kinds of flours and after years of focaccia baking, I must say that this one made with kamut or khorasan wheat flour is the best of the best! Kamut is more expensive than normal flour but I happily pay a bit extra to have its sweet flavour, and if you make it at home, you still won't pay as much as you would have to pay for a boring standard focaccia in a bakery! Read more about it here.

ILVA'S KAMUT FOCACCIA

700 g/25 oz kamut flour (you can use normal flour too but then you will have to use more of it as kamut flour absorbs lots of liquid)
250 ml/ 1+ a little more cup milk
250 ml/ 1+ a little more cup water
5 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 full tbs honey
1 tsp salt

olive oil and salt emulsion
1/2 tbs salt
2 tbs water
4 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

   Crumble the yeast in small bowl, add a little of the finger warm liquid and dissolve the yeast. Add the rest of the liquid, olive oil, honey and salt and stir well. Add the flour, a little at a time and work it until it is nice and elastic. You may need less or more flour than stated. Cover it with a towel and let it rest for an hour or two, depending on how warm your kitchen is. Let it double in size.

   Turn on the oven (200°C/390°F).

   Divide the dough in two if you plan to make bigger focaccias. Grease two baking sheets or baking pans with olive oil and slop the dough into them. I find it easier to flatten out the dough with oily hands but if you want you can roll them out before you put them in. Let the dough rest a little before you begin because it relaxes and is easier to flatten.

   Mix salt, water and olive oil in a jar and shake until you have an emulsion. Get a brush and brush the salt and oil on top of the dough and then slap it all into the oven until the focaccias are golden, it takes about 20 minutes in my oven.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Fold


 He found the billfold in our brother's belongings, a gorgeous billfold in chocolate brown crocodile the color of Hershey's Kisses. Slick, shiny leather with those recognizable markings of beast. A billfold tucked away in a drawer and stuffed with a thick fold of bills, curious and incomprehensible considering he was too ill to go out and spend it. The dollars were taken and spent on a glorious meal for us, his closest family, the night of his funeral, a dinner in his honor.

 And the beautiful, exotic chocolate brown crocodile billfold was given to my son as a keepsake.


 Fold, turn, roll. Fold, turn, roll. How many times had I watched the chef pound butter into a thick square, fold it in dough, flour and water, and go through the process of roll, fold, turn, roll and fold again? Before I dared do it myself? Puff pastry.

 "Like a book," he would say, pointing to his perfect folds, his perfectly aligned edges, his perfectly squared corners. "One fold, the right third in towards the center, the second fold over top that one until you have the dough folded into thirds, three layers turned so the top layer opens in front of you like a book."

 I longed to make puff pastry, longed to smooth my hands over the soft, supple dough. I dreamed of rolling it out into a perfect rectangle the length of the table in front of me. I yearned to mentally divide that rectangle into thirds and fold and fold again, turning the square one quarter turn until it opened like a book, edges perfectly aligned, corners perfectly square like a military bed.

 When I finally gathered my courage years later (and don't things you have put off for years for fear of failing because they seem so impossible turn out to be so simple?), what pleasure whacking those blocks of butter into a square, folding them into the pliable packet of dough like arms folded around a lover, rolling back and forth, back and forth into a rectangle albeit rather imperfect, brushing the flour off of the cool, smooth surface poof poof and folding. One fold, two folds, adjust, realign, tug the odd corner in an attempt to recreate what my chef had done all those years before and turn… until lifting the top fold is like opening the leaves of a book.


 Many swear by their stand mixer for everything from whipping egg whites into meringue, blending flour, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, milk into cake batter, kneading dough into bread. But don't I just prefer doing it by hand. Control freak? Maybe just a little. But it isn't only. My kitchen utensil of choice is a silicone spatula with the gently curved head like a softly cupped hand. I find great joy in using this spatula to fold sugar and almond meal into whipped whites, fold turn fold turn lift and scoop and fold, into a thick concoction to be piped out into macaron shells, or swirls of meringue bites. I love the sensual pleasure of folding chopped nuts into creamy brownie batter, flour into thick, fluid eggs and sugar, cocoa powder into almost anything it all, watching as the dark streaks blend, turning white into chocolate. Folding delicately, lifting, folding and a swoosh of the spatula through a batter, a liquid, a mixture and watch it change color, texture, consistency, the magic of folding resulting in something light and ethereal.

 Kneading dough by hand, while much more difficult and time consuming than using the machine, kneading dough by hand, while using much more muscle power and elbow grease than I often think I own, is a wonderful, earthy exercise connecting me to generations upon generations of bakers. Press one's fingers into the mass, lift and fold and fold again and press, knuckles pushing out air and height, fingers turning it into something smooth and velvety. Fold and tuck the edges under and shape into a loaf.

 Fold dough around filling.


 Sheets folded back, a single chocolate placed atop a plumped up pillow; a perfectly folded handkerchief tucked into a pocket or handbag; a stack of freshly laundered, precisely folded towels, thick, soft and smelling like lavender; the small luxuries of life.

 Dinner napkins carefully folded like origami swans or flowers, a gift wrapped in folds of paper, spiced and seasoned meat folded into tortillas, cheese and mushrooms folded into an omelet, tomato sauce, mozzarella, anything you like folded into dough, calzone. Soft, sweet dough folded round and round a filling of butter, nuts, cinnamon, sugar and chocolate chips, cinnamon buns, rugelach, strudel. Long fine strips of dough folded upon itself makes mighty fine pretzels. 

 Welcomed into the fold.

----

My love returned a thousand fold.

 I fold my hands in prayer. Or like a good little girl. And I always think of "here is the church… here is the steeple" fingers folded and intertwined.

 "Knowledge is two-fold," someone once claimed, "the affirmation of truth and the negation of what is false." But isn't everything two-fold? Positive-negative. Real-imagined. Love-hate.

 Like little sheep herded into the fold.



 I love making turnovers and triangles, phyllo dough or puff pastry folded around a savory filling and baked until the filling is hot and the dough is puffed and crispy. They are the perfect party or picnic food, appetizer or meal (we love this kind of food served with a big salad and a glass of wine followed by fruit) and are easy and fun to eat. They are also great prepare-ahead foods, just baking or reheating several minutes before serving. A friend of mine, a former chef, brought these to my house for a birthday meal many years ago and I fell in love with the combination of smoked chicken, sweet roasted red peppers and tangy goat cheese. Here is my version: these can be made with roasted chicken but smoked adds a wonderful flavor that cannot be beat. Goat cheese is best but replace with feta if you can't find the goat. I really prefer these made with buttered phyllo dough, but husband loves the filling folded into puff pastry.

JAMIE'S SMOKED CHICKEN & ROASTED RED PEPPER TURNOVERS

2 precooked smoked chicken breasts, about 10 ½ oz or 300 g, diced finely
2 roasted peppers, about 1 cup, peeled and diced finely
A mild goat cheese or feta cheese, crumbled, about 1 cup
2 Tbs chopped fresh rosemary or chopped fresh chives
1 tsp minced garlic
Salt and pepper
About 20 sheets phyllo dough + melted butter to brush – or – 1 ½ lbs (about 690 g) puff pastry + 1 egg white to brush
Coarsely ground cumin & coriander seeds

 Have a couple of baking sheets lined with parchment paper set aside.

 Combine the diced chicken, diced roasted red pepper, crumbled feta, rosemary or chives and garlic, salt and pepper and blend well. Set aside.

 If using phyllo dough, preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Layer 4 sheets of the phyllo, brushing every other sheet with butter. Cut the sheets of buttered, stacked phyllo lengthwise into 4 strips. Place about 1/4 cup of the filling on the end of each strip and fold up until you create a triangle packet. Tuck in the end and place on the lined baking sheet, seem side down. Continue until you have used all of the phyllo and filling. Brush each triangle with butter, dust with the coarsely ground cumin and coriander and bake for 20 minutes or until the triangles are golden brown and crispy.

 If using puff pastry, preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Cut the pastry (rolled very thinly) into any size round you like, I used a 4 ½ inch metal ring (this made about 20 turnovers). Place a heaping teaspoon (maybe a scant ¼ cup) filling in the center of each dough round, brush around the edges with egg white, fold over, press the edges with your fingers to seal then press with the floured tines of a fork. Line up on the baking sheets and continue until you have used all the puff pastry and the filling. Brush the tops of the turnovers with egg white, dust with the coarsely ground cumin and coriander and bake for 20 - 25 minutes or until the triangles are golden brown and crispy.


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Monday, August 18, 2014

Leek


Take a Leek

 Fuzzy tops like military crew cuts, great hulking greens spiking out, lush and savage and almost superfluous, fanning out in an attempt at elegance yet somehow, no matter what, retaining that something rustic. The poor country mouse cousin of slender green onions and much desired garlic.

 The hardy leek is a mainstay of every French potager. Grandpas and young city folk head home with bundles of leeks piled in an old rusty wheelbarrow or tucked under an arm, trailing speckles of black earth behind them; leeks stick out from the top of shopping baskets like baseball bats, nowhere to hide. Leeks brought home from the market.

 Leeks in the summer, leeks in the winter, leeks are a staple of every French kitchen.

 Long white cylinders, a sheath of leaves, sliced into coins, cut into slivers and long thin strips. Steamed or braised whole until falling apart, shredding, floating in threads like Ophelia's hair on the surface of the lake, drained and lined up on a serving platter and smothered in tangy mustard vinaigrette, classic. Soups and tarts, stews and braised au gratin


 My mother-in-law, was a simple, homey, old-fashioned woman. Set in her ways and always answering the expectations of those around her, her life was a series of habits and a schedule set in stone. Mealtime was very important to her, the dishes she prepared only important as they fed the family who gathered around her table, sustenance more necessary than gustatory satisfaction. The food she prepared was simple, homey and old fashioned, hardy and good.

 Wrapped in a colorful cotton housedress-style apron buttoned up from knee to neck over her clothing, sensible crepe-soled shoes on her feet, heavy cotton stockings peeping out from between ankle and knee, she spent the greatest part of her days in the kitchen chopping, stirring, cooking, baking. She would prepare delicious, heavy, perfectly orchestrated meals for us, her children and grandchildren, as she had done for all those decades of her life, for her parents, siblings and her husband and children and now us.

 The heavy meal was served at noon, the blanquette, the ragout, the roasted meats, the courses of sauced, braised and simmered. Evening was souper, a light supper of leftovers and cold foods. But always, always, this nightly repast would begin with a bowl of carrot and leek soup. Every single night, consistently, unflinchingly, unfailingly carrot and leek soup. Carrots roughly peeled with a paring knife and cut crudely into thick coins, leeks washed, the greens lopped off and tossed away, the white sliced and added to the pot. Salt, pepper, lots of tap water and then simmered until the vegetables, the carrots and leeks were beyond fork tender, floating in a watery grave. Then out came the emulsion blender and the whole would be liquefied, reheated and served steaming in the same bowls used for coffee in the morning.

 A watery, weak soup, more water than vegetable, more water than flavor, but my mother-in-law's carrot and leek soup quickly became a much-expected habit, a cozy enjoyment, a comforting end to the day, hot and relaxing. Float a plain, crispy biscuit, une biscotte, in it until it just begins to soften and, with the spoon, break off bits, scooping up a piece of biscuit in a puddle of soup and eat. Uncomplicated, homey, familiar, the expected end to a day that otherwise might have been filled with the unexpected, a soothing end to a day that might otherwise have been harried. Carrot and leek soup.


 One day, he came to me and announced, "I am going to make you a real leek and potato soup!" And as he placed a soup plate in front of me a short time later, I realized that once again something so beautiful, something so flavorful, something seen from the outside as the height of elegant and sophisticated dining, emblematic of French cuisine, was inexpensive, nay, frugal and utterly simple and quick to make.

 Cousin to the cock-a-leekie soup, and vichyssoise, less rustic than the one, less elegant and suave as the other, his real leek and potato soup is both bare bones and luxurious. Leeks, potatoes, onions and garlic, staples of every Frenchman and woman's kitchen garden, the inexpensive standbys of every French market, a bit of bacon or lardons and broth is what makes this soup. Chop, slice, simmer.

 Isn't it funny that even the simplest of foods: a pot of steamed mussels, a roasted chicken, a pan-fried steak and a bowl of fries or an omelet is raised up to some dizzying height of sumptuousness as the magical veil of "French" is thrown over it. Even as it is inexpensive, nay, frugal and utterly simple and quick to make. Leek and potato soup.


  Frittata is a true lifesaver when you don't know what to make for lunch or dinner! My favourite is spinach and potato frittata but this leek and bacon frittata is sneaking up as a close number two. I have periods when I use leeks a lot and then I forget about them so I was very happy to rediscover my old friend for this Plated Stories post; I have so many leeks lying around now and I just know what I will be cooking, this and the potato and leek soup Jamie writes about! You don't have to make them in muffin tins or cupcake cups, it works perfectly well the traditional way as well. 

ILVA'S SMALL LEEK AND BACON FRITTATAS
6 small frittatas

4 eggs
4-5 tbs freshly grated parmesan cheese
freshly grated black pepper
100 g/ 3,5 oz bacon cut into small strips
1 small leek

   Start cooking the bacon in a small non-stick pan without any fat, slice the leek and add it to the bacon. keep on cooking on medium heat until the leek is soft and the bacon is crisp.

   With a fork whisk egg, parmesan cheese and pepper quickly and then add the leek and bacon, mix it well.

   Spoon the frittata batter into cupcake cups or into a non-stick muffin tin and bake in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F). For 10-15 minutes. Ease the frittatas out of the forms and serve!

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