Monday, November 24, 2014

Dairy



 I love the cow. The cow gives us milk. And butter. And cheese. The cow goes moo.

 An old bowl of sturdy plastic, the words in a never-ending ring around the rim, round and round, letters and childish drawings covering the bowl in bright primary colors, blue, red, green, black. I love the cow. It was once part of a set, the chunky mug cracked and discarded years ago, when our son was still small, and the plate is long stained with the dregs and runoff of so many plant pots that replaced years of childhood meals.

 I love the cow. The cow gives us milk. And butter. And cheese. The cow goes moo. How many thousands, millions of times have we chanted these words as the bowl, the dish and the mug were set in front of one son and then his little brother? Like mealtime grace, we sang these words over and over again as the first spoon or fork was lifted bringing food to an eager (or not so eager) little mouth.
 Our son loved dairy, so this gift of plate, bowl and mug from his grandma was perfect! Yogurt, petit Suisse, milk and ice cream. But cheese! He was eating cheese like the Frenchman that he was since he could request it and before. Papa's pinkie dipped in creamy, tangy goat cheese or nutty Camembert and pushed between son's lips might very well have been his first solid food. The only photo of him I have at the table was when he first began feeding himself and happy eater that he always was you can bet his face was beaming, a grin from ear to ear. And that photo? Spoon clutched in his fist and fruity yogurt smeared ear to ear.

 He's all grown up now and still ends most meals with a chunk or three of cheese and an ice cream. But the mug is long gone and the plate is now a stand for a planter but the bowl, which passed from one so to second son, is now on the ground, sitting on a mat placed on the floor of the back room and filled with dog kibble. From one son to second son to pup goes the cow. And the dog loves dairy, too, although he was only offered little cubes of cheese when he was small. For the calcium so his ears would stand up and his little front paws would straighten.


Dear Dairy,

 It's common knowledge (it is!) that my mother's side of the family adore ice cream. Adore ice cream? They would live on ice cream if they could and I know that once 80 comes and goes, the diet almost exclusively consists of ice cream. But my father loved ice cream, too. The freezer never lacked for ice cream, large gallon rectangles in one, two, three flavors nestled in the sub-zero mist next to a tub of non-dairy whipped topping. And dad would indulge most every night. My father had a monumental sweet tooth and it was often let loose on a bowl of ice cream.

 He loved Dairy Queen. He would pack his brood of children into the station wagon and treat us all to a chocolate-dipped soft serve cone, picking up a box of Dilly Bars, chocolate-dipped vanilla ice cream on a stick (round rather than the more ordinary rectangle), his favorite of them all, to bring home and keep in the freezer.

 Dad loved Dairy Queen although he never called it that. For some odd reason we never understood he always referred to it as Dairy Dip and we kids laughed and laughed and teased him about it forever.

 Many long years after dad passed away, so did the Dairy Queen, his Dairy Dip, passing away into memory as the building and every trace of it disappeared. But those memories, of dad eating Dairy Queen and laughing, quiet, loving man.


You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.

 I grew up on the fringe of kosher. My parents, both raised in strictly kosher homes, were rather lax by the time they moved to and settled in Florida with three kids in tow. But meals at the synagogue, Bar Mitzvah buffets, snacks after Sabbath services, food for the kids during High Holiday Services, picnics and carnivals, the kitchen itself, were rigorously kosher, saw a stricter than strict division of dairy and meat.

 And holidays meals at the Rosenberg's, whether Thanksgiving or Passover, were kosher, dairy and meat separated.

 Rules relaxed, my parents nonetheless habituated us to some kind of separation of dairy and meat. We never drank milk with a meat meal, for example, and we still don't. But butter and sour cream on the mashed potato that accompanied a steak gradually snuck in. Parmesan cheese sprinkled atop spaghetti and meatballs. Moussaka with both lamb and milky béchamel.

 But dairy and meat never the twain shall meat, could never be served at the same meal when grandpa visited. "Do NOT ask for butter for your baked potato tonight!" my mother hissed her warning to us during grandpa's visit one summer. Dairy does not mix with meat!

 And thus I learned the existence of non-dairy whipped topping and non-dairy creamer for coffee.


 Dairy cows lined up in their stalls, lowing placidly, rhythmically ruminating, seemingly content even as the temperature dipped, even as the afternoon glided into evening misty and damp. Dairy cows in the barn pressed up close to the old stone house. We were living in Italy and decided to take the boys away for a weekend and found ourselves at a gîte ensconced deep in the Tuscan countryside. We were staying in the humble abode of a window and her three sons who together ran the family farm, humble in itself, an old stone structure connected to the barn, the old fashioned way of life. Dairy cows and humans keeping each other warm throughout the bitter winter.

 Nights, we huddled together in one room in an addition along the side of the family's home, falling asleep to the rhythm of the chatting of our own teeth and the lovely music of silence, the stillness of the country. Days, we would bundle up in layers of sweaters, scarves and coats, slip on rubber boots and take our little boys out to roam, an adventure, discovering the beasts of the farm and the culinary gems hidden in trees surrounding the farmland, mushrooms and chestnuts and such. Mealtimes, we would join the family in the kitchen at the long farm table, room enough for the four of us, the mother and her sons, smelling of the barn, straw clinging to sweaters, faces weather beaten and sun browned, hands rough, rugged from farm work.

 Mornings, we would be served milk fresh from the cows. Mamma would pass into the barn and return with the milk, which she would then boil before pouring into bowls, one for each of us. Glasses of farm fresh milk direct from the dairy cows.

 Italy, latticini. Fresh mozzarella and great wheels of Parmeson (cut before our very eyes at our favorite cheese counter), creamy taleggio and gorgonzola (like no French bleu), often layered oh-so decadently, richly with mascarpone, almost dessert. And gelato. Oh gelato (like no ice cream anywhere!).


I have been interested in butter making since I was a child; one of my aunts used to make it on her farm and I would watch her sit in the kitchen working the wooden churn. I eventually discovered that you could do it in a more modern way the time my brother was a little too ambitious with the electric whisk and managed to make butter out of the cream he was whipping. My mother wasn't as enthusiastic as I was as it was Sunday and that was the cream that was supposed to go on the Sunday dinner dessert. Making butter at home is really easy and the butter is sooo good, sweet and buttery. I prefer to make fresh, unfermented butter because it has such a pure flavour. And making butter also means that you get fresh buttermilk so it is really a winning situation!

ILVA'S BUTTERY BUTTER
makes 400 g/14 ounces

1 litre/4,25 cups fresh cream

   Put the fresh cream in a bowl, be it a normal one or the one of a stand mixer which is what I used. (You can use an electrical whisk, whisk by hand or even put the cream in a bottle with something inside it and then shake shake shake.) Whisk until the cream has separated into butter and buttermilk, it takes some time but that obviously depends on how fast you whisk.

   Drain the buttermilk into another bowl (don't throw it away, use it for a cake or something) and put the butter part in another. Now it is time to rinse the butter of all the buttermilk so that it will keep better, I take smaller pieces of the butter and work it with my hands under cold, running water. When you have rinsed all the butter, make a ball of it and and press it until no more water comes out of it. I recommend chilling your hands under very cold water now and then because the butter melts easily.

   Now put the butter into an airtight container and if you don't want to use it all in one go, you can always freeze it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Wet

wet salad

Wet Behind the Ears

 I arrived in France thirty years ago, the decision to leave one life behind and begin a new one impulsive, impetuous. Unprepared, my ideas of Paris, of the country and the culture, were formulated from images in a tattered old high school French textbook, an American fantasy of a culture idealized, idolized. I was wet behind the ears.

 French food, I imagined, was refined, fancy and fussy, too expensive for the likes of me. High end dining, white tablecloths and starched waiters serving tiny portions elegantly dressed upon the plate; or pristine shops serving up creamy white rounds of cheese or tender slices of meat the color of rubies next to the tiny ceramic forms filled with gratinéed scallops or mousse de foie gras, and golden, crispy-skinned roasted chickens, only for the privileged. And pastry shops! Layer upon delicate layer of flakey pastry, unctuous creams, clouds of meringue, paper-thin slices of fruit. Complicated, sophisticated, rich.

 But once I got my feet wet, I saw the fundamentally frugal, humble homey cuisine of the French, the hearty stews and simple desserts. And I finally felt at home.

wet whet

Wet Blanket

 The weather outside is frightful… They talk about April showers but no one mentions November storms. March might come in like a lion but November comes in like a wet dog. Autumn arrives on a blast of cold air, ushered in with rain and smoky skies the color of tarnished silver. Rooms are dim, radiators click on, sweaters and wooly socks are dug out of drawers and cupboards and slipped on, and we begin yearning for soup.

 Blustery, sodden days, wet, wet and more wet, seasonal dishes heavy with potatoes, sweet with pumpkin, dripping with rich sauces are needed to ward off the chill, heat up our bodies and fire up our souls. Stew pots simmering, soups in the making, bubbling up to leave wet splotches on the stovetop, steaming up windows drizzling trickles of condensation.

 As the month inches along and the holidays approach, the dazzling glow of sunshine, bright fall days, are interspersed with the gray and damp. We bundle up in gaily colored sweaters to protect ourselves against the joyful, dizzy drop of temperatures as we head outside to enjoy the crunch of the golden and red foliage underfoot quickly, quickly before it melts into matted, sticky swathes of dead leaves lying like a wet, old forgotten scarf in the gutter and a disagreeable wet rawness seeps in underneath our clothes, into our homes, chilling us to the bone.

 I warm my hands over the steam coming up from a saucepan, lean into the heat coming from the oven. Scents of lamb and carrots intermingle with cinnamon and chocolate; my counter is piled high with citrus and we jostle for the first bite of the bakery-warm baguette. There is some compensation for these wet, wet autumn days.

wet ice

Wet Your Whistle

 I don't know from a wet or dry martini; I've never considered whether a dry rub or a wet marinade is the better thing, thinking, as I do, that both are delicious and have their place in my kitchen. Wet curry or dry? Is the opposite of a dry wine a wet wine? The Great Northwest is wet, the Middle East is dry. But really, all I consider is risotto and sometimes rice pudding.

 Wet or dry? Tender or al dente? Creamy or sticky? Wet or dry.

 Definitely wet. I learned the art of risotto from Nonna Anna, our neighbor, our sons' adopted grandmother, while living in Italy. She cooked for an army, her brood of sons and daughters, grandkids and us and we were so lucky to join them for family meals. I watched her every movement carefully, I observed her choice of ingredients, creating scrumptious meals out of so little. And her risotto. Stirred and stirred, simmered until smooth and creamy, the grains of rice meltingly tender, the whole just wet enough until velvety and lush.

 I learned my lesson and adapted it to my husband's favorite treat, his childhood comfort food, riz au lait. The French version of simple, wholesome rice pudding. Stir and stir making sure the rice, which has been abundantly rinsed (wet rice seems to stick to everything, picking grains off of my fingers, grains sticking to my skin) and pre-boiled for three minutes, is wetter than wet, stir and stir until the milk has been absorbed, or just about, the rice smooth and delicate with barely a bite. Nursery food with body.

 W(het) your appetite.

wet brussels sprouts

Mad as a Wet Hen

 Wet ingredients whisked into dry; dry ingredients folded into wet. Is meringue considered wet? Green, leafy vegetables? I don't always suffer the patience it requires and end up with lumps or worse, the makings of a cake splattered across the counter, spattered up the wall, leaving muddy splotches on the paper which is not quite as washable as they claim.

 Patience has never been my strong suit. When I am in the mood to bake but not quite, when my son requests a dessert or a treat to share with his friends or fulfill his own craving, I turn to a faithful, foolproof recipe for a marvelous one-bowl cake. One bowl. But careful, careful wet to be stirred into dry. All the wet goes into a measuring cup, all the dry in a bowl and if I work too quickly… well, you know what happens.

 A wet meal. Hot chicken soup (with a tender matzo ball or three) or a scalding cup of tea with dry toast, meals for the sick. Or comfort food. A bowl of oatmeal wet with milk and a pat of butter melting into a wet puddle of gold in the center of the heap of steaming oatmeal. Spaghetti tossed with lots of red sauce, too much red sauce, wet with sauce, enough sauce left in the bowl to dunk in chunks of bread, sopping up the wet.

JAMIE'S LEMON CITRUS POULTRY CHICKEN_  I made and served this luscious, flavorful chicken dish for my wedding lunch, so it has a very special place in my repertoire above and beyond the fact that it is easy to make and so delicious, a dish that pleases everyone. The (wet) marinade – leaving the chicken overnight in lemon juice – not only infuses the meat with a beautiful yet delicate citrus flavor but produces super tender chicken. 

JAMIE'S LEMON CHICKEN

 This recipe can easily be doubled – but only fill up your baking dish with enough chicken stock to come not more than halfway up your chicken pieces.

1 chicken, 2 ½ lbs (1 kg), cut into pieces or the equivalent in favorite pieces
1 cup (250 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup (125 g) or a bit less flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup (60 ml) vegetable oil for frying
1 Tbs grated lemon zest
1/8 cup/1 Tbs light brown sugar
¼ cup (60 ml) chicken stock
1 lemon, sliced paper thin

 Clean the chicken pieces and dab them dry with paper towels. Place them with the freshly squeezed lemon juice in a bowl or recipient just large enough to hold them comfortably. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and put them in the refrigerator to marinate overnight, turning occasionally.

 Drain the chicken pieces well. Put the flour, salt, pepper and paprika in a large bowl or platter and blend thoroughly. Roll each chicken piece in the mixture until well coated. Or, alternately, you can fill a large plastic bag with the flour mixture and, working only a couple of pieces of chicken at a time, shake to coat completely. Shake off excess flour and put aside on a clean, dry plate.

 Heat the oil in a large frying pan or heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. (As I fried my chicken in 2 batches, I heated half the oil at a time.) When the oil is very hot, fry the chicken pieces, a few at a time so as not to overcrowd, on all sides, until well browned and crispy. This may take up to 10 minutes per batch.

 Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

 Arrange the browned chicken pieces in a single layer in a large, shallow baking dish or pan (I prefer glass or terra cotta). Pour the chicken stock around the pieces; the stock should come not more than halfway up the sides of the chicken pieces. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice into the stock (just one good squeeze to add a bit more lemon flavor). Sprinkle the chicken pieces evenly with the brown sugar and the lemon zest. Set a thin slice of lemon on each piece of chicken. Bake for 45 – 50 minutes until cooked through and tender.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Tea


Coffee, Tea or Me?

 I have always been a coffee drinker. Not that it didn't take me quite some time to develop a taste for it, bitter brew that it is. I had grown up enveloped in the mystique of coffee, a drink so very adult, so very sexy, deep and rich and dark. Off limits, taboo. I would breathe in the heady fragrance of my mother's morning coffee, a scent sweeter than it tasted; I would sneak sips of her iced coffee, always in a tall slim glass, ice cubes rattling, always tasting like coffee ice cream, a treat.

 Coffee was the everyday drink, the morning starter, afternoon inspiration, a daily elixir, the beverage served to company at the end of an elegant meal.

 Tea, on the other hand, was only kept on hand for the times that we were sick in bed. Headaches, tummy aches, colds and flu and the teabags were pulled out of the dark place at the back of the cupboard, a pot of water put to boil on the stovetop. Bread was toasted and spread with butter or peanut butter, placed on a tray with that mug of tea (a squirt of golden honey from that plastic bear) and a banana. Drunk and eaten snuggled up in bed.

 Coffee the pleasure, tea the comfort.


Having picked some tea, he drank it,
Then he sprouted wings,
And flew to a fairy mansion,
To escape the emptiness of the world....
- Chiao Jen

 Tiny ceramic cups, thick and round to be cradled in the palm of my hand or fingers wrapped around the bowl for warmth. Tea to be drunk with Chinese food, family gathered round the large table in the dim light, a television set turned on to some game show or other behind the bar and I wonder why, my ears straining to hear the answers to the questions muffled by the talking and the incessant hum of noise.

 Tea always tea with Chinese food, tea slightly tannic and bitter which balanced the complex flavors of the dishes, cut the sweetness of the sauce. The elderly owner, never the waiter, glides silently to the table and circles round refilling our cups with tea several times during the meal. The dishes are passed around and we taste each one, washed down with tea. Fortune cookies cracked, tiny paper fortunes flutter to the table, snatched up and read aloud… or silently Be on the lookout for coming events, they cast their shadows beforehand; The greatest risk is not taking one; Wealth awaits you very soon; A dream you have will come true.

 A final gulp of now tepid tea before the scraping of chairs across the cement floor and leaving the restaurant, fortune clutched in my hand, the astringent taste of the tea leaving a metallic trace on my tongue, the fortune a mysterious desire in my soul.


 Tea is a divine herb. - Xu Guangqi

 Teatime. I belonged to a small group of women who would get together once a week to exchange conversation in French and English with the obvious goal of improving the language that was not our mother tongue. We were four, two French women, one British woman and me, the American. The gathering would meet at teatime before the children were released from school, and we would rotate homes, each hosting the conversation once a month.

 As hostess of the week, we would serve up hot drinks and teatime treats, cookies or delicate little teacakes, home baked or picked up special at the local boulangerie. Indulge.

 And it would go like this: coffee, coffee, tea, coffee. Coffee, coffee, tea, coffee. Two Frenchwomen and the American (me) would freshly brew coffee, place the pot upon the table between the demitasse cups, the sugar bowl and the pitcher of hot milk. The Englishwoman would place a tray upon the coffee table, place scoops of loose tealeaves in the pot to steep in hot water and we would have to wait, be patient which we were not. She would then pour hot milk into each mug one by one followed by tea poured slowing through a tiny little strainer perched atop the mug, explaining to the thirsty three the importance of adding milk to the mug first followed by the tea.

 A mug of milky, watery tea does not hold up to the rich boldness, the lively body of a cup of coffee. Some call tea delicate; to an inveterate coffee drinker like myself it is vapid, uninspiring. Submerge a cookie, a teacake into a mug of tea and it seems to disintegrate upon contact. Or simply becomes waterlogged. Immerse a cookie or teacake into a cup of coffee or café au lait and it soaks up the aroma, is imbibed with the wonderful coffee flavor, enhancing the cake rather than making it disappear.

 In short, I would rather a cup of coffee with a teacake.


Fit to a Tee

 He does, you know, fit me to a tee. Tee-shirts and jeans and canvas sneakers in pink or aubergine or cherry red, snuggled up together on the sofa watching a film and sipping red fruit tea with just a splash of milk and half a cube of sugar.

 Tea for Two.

Love and scandal are the best sweetners of tea. - Henry Fielding, "Love in Several Masques," 1727 

Do Re Me Fa So La Ti A Drink with Jam and Bread. A miniature white porcelain coffee cup, rather cheap, the kind espresso is served in, bitter and strong, in every café and bar across France instead used for gentle portions of tea served just before bedtime. For the promise of a peaceful night's sleep, sweet dreams. A ritual in so many French homes, my in-law's, and friends' far and wide after a humble, homey meal or following an elegant, sumptuous dinner, always a tasse de thé, a cup of tea. So very British? So very French.


I, on the other hand, am a tea lover and I drink buckets of it every day; my life would be empty without it. Tea takes you to so many different places: China, India, Japan, Africa, Himalaya; they all sound so exotic and I'm forever grateful for being able to travel with my cup in hand. 

ILVA'S CHAI TEA
1 big cup or 2 smaller

300 ml / 10 1/2 fl oz water
200 ml / 7 1/4 fl oz milk
2 1/2 tsp loose-leaf Indian tea
6 cardamom pods
6 cloves
6 black pepper corns
1/2 cinnamon stick
1 piece of fresh ginger of the size of a lump of sugar
1-1 1/2 tblsp brown sugar

   Crush the spices and the peeled ginger slightly so that the flavours have a chance of dissolving when simmering.

   Put them in a small pan together with the tea leaves, add the water and the milk and leave it to simmer for 30 minutes.

   Strain the tea and the spices, add sugar and enjoy it hot!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Bake


Pat-a -cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can!

 My father loved to bake. Cakes, pies and pastries and although much came from a mix, his passion for the art of baking was evident in each precise gesture, the intense focus and concentration with which he baked. He certainly transmitted the passion, the desire to bake to his daughter. Yes, yes, of course I have a sweet tooth and that does help but the act of baking, the rhythmic, sensual movements, the magical transformation of single, separate ingredients into something so delicious mesmerized me, captured my imagination and I wanted to be able to do the same.

 And my father loved to bake because he was a generous soul. He carried cakes to meetings and events, he baked for bingo at the synagogue and Friday nights for after Shabbat services. He baked for his family, Thanksgiving pies and Sunday morning pancakes. He baked because it made others happy. This could not but fill me with the same desire, bake to please, bake to delight, bake to spread warmth and cheer. He taught me the lesson that a slice of cake made the world a better place.

 Yet my first baking project was catastrophic. A simple recipe it was, for cranberry muffins. I was all of ten years old and had already seen these muffins baked somewhere, in Girl Scouts or Home Ec. I hurried home excitedly, anxious to bake these gems for my family and proud I was. My very first from-scratch, home-baked good. Yet. Three tablespoons of Crisco, that shimmering, slippery white goo, mysteriously transformed into three cups and although I wondered, I suspected that all was not quite right I forged ahead, putting my confusion down to inexperience. The recipe must be right and that is what I read. Three cups Crisco for a mere dozen muffins. But I wanted to bake.

 And what came out of the oven? One dozen red-dotted muffin tops each floating on a sea of melted Crisco. I was shocked and traumatized. I never wanted to bake again. It took a bit of humor and gentle encouragement on behalf of an older brother to bring me back to the task, to want to bake again. Once we understood (and laughed about) my error, I did bake those muffins a second time. To untold success.

 I now bake those cranberry muffins (albeit without Crisco) every single winter to the joy of my family and friends.


The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker

 I bake, my husband cooks. The perfect marriage. He follows no recipe, I am utterly lost without directions jotted down. He ad-libs as he goes, cooking au pif, as the French call it, by the nose, by instinct, from selection of ingredients to spicing and seasoning. He markets with no forethought, no dish decided, just perusing the stalls, basket in hand, looking for whatever is freshest, seasonal, local, gathering them up and carrying them home. He dumps his harvest on the counter and only then decides what best to cook.

 I, on the other hand, panic if I have no list in hand, no idea prepared as to what dish I will make. I must have well made plans even before heading to the market. When I bake, the precision and exactitude of the performance, the science of baking, comforts and infuses my soul with confidence, even if it is I who has developed the recipe. To bake is to concoct along a precise set of rules, to bake, to measure, to weigh, to stir or whisk or beat, to steep or simmer or scald or boil, to bake or poach or griddle or toast. To ferment and rise, to nurture and gently coddle, to pamper and fold just so, just to blend. I feel like a mad scientist, a doctor curing the woes of the world with my concoctions; I feel the satisfaction of working through one measurement, one step at a time and crossing it off of my list. My husband has no such patience, no such desire to follow the rules when in the kitchen. That exactitude of baking only holds his creativity, his spontaneity back. And he ruins every thing he touches. He couldn't bake a loaf of bread or a tray of cookies to save a sinking ship.

 Lucky us for finding each other. Although this discord, the difference of styles may wreak a bit of havoc when we find ourselves side by side in the kitchen, it certainly makes for an interesting, a well-balanced marriage.

 I bake and he cooks. His stews and tagines, sauces and soups accompanied by my breads or muffins, followed by my cakes and pies. I bake and he cooks, savory and sweet, a tasty matrimony, a complete meal.


Half-Baked

 He once called what I do baking therapy. At first, he saw it as an obsession, my passion to bake. Just a crazy woman who needed to knead, had a compulsion to bake. My hands in flour, sifting cocoa, scooping sugar, chopping chocolate were seen as an unnecessary occupation bordering on the neurotic. Nothing to do? Bake! Or worse. An insecure woman (force) feeding sweet confections to her family in exchange for love and consideration, attention craved and nourished with baked goods. Half-baked.

 But then as he watched me bake, throughout the years, he realized that the urge was somehow deeper than that. When I bake…. the movements, the slow, peaceful, rhythmic movements, or the quick, vigorous motions, the scents of chocolate and yeast, cinnamon and apple enveloping me as I bask in the warmth of the oven, as the steam of something caramelizing or melting swirls around my head… fill me with peace and a quiet joy. An escape from the everyday. A zen-like happiness. Beating eggs or butter and sugar zealously, or gently, lovingly folding sugar and almond meal into clouds of meringue or whiskey and grated chocolate into froths of whipped cream, dumping scoops of dough or piping mounds of macaron batter or long, slim snakes of ladyfinger or choux paste onto baking trays, whacking bread dough against a block of wood, calms and centers me, eliminates stress and anger and I breathe more easily, my heart rate slows to tranquil. And then the very act of writing about it, sharing my stories about what I bake is better than hours on the sofa of some anonymous office sharing my innermost secrets to a therapist.

 And when I am happy, he is happy. And, more importantly, when mama is happy, everybody is happy.

 And he sings:

 Mieux encore que dans la chambre j't'aime dans la cuisine 
 Rien n'est plus beau que les mains d'une femme dans la farine

 (Better than in the bedroom, I love you in the kitchen 
  Nothing is more beautiful than a woman's hands in flour…)


 We always have Madeleines in the house, whether store bought or homemade, maybe because the French eat them like Americans eat cookies. I bake Madeleines often, both savory and sweet, and try and change the flavorings each time; they are such a great little treat because the variations are endless once you have a base recipe and it always works the charm. Madeleines are perfect for breakfast, snack time or cocktail/wine hour. With all of the flavors I have tried, my husband really does prefer these simple vanilla Madeleines, although the addition of browned butter and honey makes them anything but ordinary. 

JAMIE'S HONEY VANILLA MADELEINES

This recipe makes about 60 mini-Madeleines (1 ¾ - inch / 4 ½ cm at their longest point) or 24 regular Madeleines

9 ½ Tbs (135 g) unsalted butter
2 large eggs
½ cup less 1 tsp (85 g) granulated sugar
1 Tbs (30 g) liquid/runny honey
Scant ¼ cup (40 ml) milk
1 cup (135 g) flour *
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract

* the flour, baking powder and salt can be replaced with 1 cup (135 g) self-rising cake flour

 Prepare the Madeleine batter the night before baking:

 Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Continue heating until the butter turns a dark hazelnut brown color and smells nutty. Remove from the heat and allow to come to room temperature.

 Whisk together the eggs, sugar, honey and the milk n a large mixing bowl. Using a small, thin-bladed, sharp knife, split the vanilla pod down the center and scrape out all of the seeds. Add the seeds to the egg mixture, or add the vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt (or the self-rising flour) onto the batter and whisk to blend. Whisk in the melted brown butter: try not to add the dark dregs that have settled to the bottom of the pan. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.

 The following day Preheat the oven to 410°F (210°C). Lightly butter the shell-shaped cavities of a mini-Madeleine mold (the easiest way to do this is using a pastry brush and either softened or melted butter).

 The chilled batter will be thick and easy to work with: simply place about half a teaspoon (if using bigger molds, simply fill each shell no more than three-quarters full) in each shell cavity. Place the Madeleine tin directly on the oven rack and bake for about 8 minutes. Do not overbake the Madeleines or they will be dry: take them out when puffed up and the center forms a large bump, the edges are golden but the center is still pale. Once out of the oven, very gently lift the Madeleines from the molds using a knife and place on a rack to cool.







Monday, October 27, 2014

Six


Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

 I never knew that eggs could, would be sold by quantity of six rather than a dozen until I moved to France. Who would even have ever thought about it? A dozen eggs rolls off the tongue with ease and recognition, an automatic reflex when speaking of eggs, a dozen eggs in a pastel green, blue, pink or pearlescent white Styrofoam container that would then, once empty, be carried to grade school or a Girl Scouts to be transformed into Christmas decorations, nose masks, Easter egg holders or the petals of flowers for Mother's Day.

 And then I moved to France and found egg cartons with spaces for six. And no more Styrofoam now in carton or pressed paper. In unattractive gray or watery brown or sometimes a dull green. A visit to the cheesemonger at the market where farm fresh eggs were sold à la pièce, sold one by one, revealed a towering display of egg cartons, open and stacked, one nestled comfortably into the other. "Six eggs please" (one always seemed to order eggs by six or multiples of six) and as the cheesemonger lifted off an egg carton from the top of the pile he or she would ask for specifics, size, élevées en pleine air ou au sol, free range or not, enriched or organic. And six eggs would be selected from a basket or a large tray and plopped one by one into the six indentations in the carton. Lid snapped shut and handed over the counter.

 Their shells were no longer immaculate, chemistry-set white but brown with a neon yellow yolk hidden inside.

It was fashionable and recommended to do as our grandmothers did before us, save those six-egg cartons, recycle them, if you will, stack them on top of the refrigerator and carry them back empty to the market for the cheeseman to refill with eggs.

 Six egg omelet for three.



 There were six of us around the dinner table, father at one end, mother at the other, teams of two on each long side of the rectangle. My older brother and I would sit side-by-side facing the other two, a stern-faced sister, often grumpy, rarely happy to be one of six. And baby brother who, for lack of another choice, was sided with our sister. Six means even numbers, always two by two.

 Dinner at six sharp each and every evening. Six sharp meant the evening news, six sharp meant the end of the working day and the beginning of evening, time to wind down. Six expected at the table every night at six. And quietly. Seen but not heard.

 And let the games begin. Dad demanded absolute silence. Mom wanted a happy, quiet dinner but really never minded what we did. So the trick was, could my older brother and I make my sister explode into a noisy outburst without breaking our own silence, thus making her the cause of dad's sharp "shut up! I am trying to listen to the news!" Grimaces, ogled-eyed stares, sticking out the tongue displaying a mouthful of chewed food. Even (dare I?) touching her leg with my foot under the table.

 Deep-six. Dinner for six.



Six Foot Under.

 From six to five to now we are four. A father and a brother buried. Neighbors carry in trays of food, cold cuts and fruit salads, hot steaming pans of kugel. To soothe and relieve the shrinking family after the funeral. Six to five now four.



Five six, pick up sticks

 We treated ourselves to a trip to Basque Country, husband and I. It was merely a six-hour drive from Nantes to San Sebastien with a lunch stop in Bègles halfway there. A lunch planned, a restaurant reserved. Six hours to Spain; the world feels awfully, wonderfully small when one lives in Europe.

 San Seb (if I may) boasted wonderful restaurants, the best being the family-run joints, the tables nestled in a back room behind the bar, along with the kitchen hidden from the street so only locals know that meals are served. Homemade fish soup, a plateful of salty roasted Pimientos de Padrón, local flan for dessert. Tapas bars offered us late afternoon meals of finger foods to discover and glasses of white wine (we would sidle up to the bar trying for all the world to look like we belonged). When not eating, and my husband is strictly a three-meal-a-day man, no snacks or nibbling needed, we wandered the streets, popped into shops, saw the monuments and museums. But several times we passed the same little bakery strolling to or from our hotel, barebones really, simply an undecorated glass case behind which an older woman, plainly dressed, served clients, evidently the local residents who needed nothing chichi that screamed Basque loud and clear, like the tourists enjoyed. We would slow down and ogle the offerings laid out in the front window, rather large, homey, unadorned pastries and individual cakes, yet the best things we had ever seen. Until finally husband pulled me in, saying "it looks so good and it is obviously authentic pastries from the region. Let's get a snack!" Be still my heart. He loves me.

 Now, under ordinary circumstances, husband would have selected a single pastry and asked me to choose one as well. We would then go home and he would eat his and I mine. But as I was hesitating, not able to decide which to try, he stuttered out in his broken Spanish that he would like six, one of each of their specialties. The kind woman placed six different pastries in a box, closed the lid and tucked in the flaps, tied it up with string and handed the box to my husband. Back in the hotel room, he sliced each of the six pastries in two and we had a feast. Six pastries for two.



Six pack

 Why do sets of dishes, packs of cutlery come in six? Table service for six. And if you are four? Do you rotate? Or if you are more? Eight? And when you hold a dinner party of ten or twelve? Thanksgiving or Christmas when the table is groaning under platters of marshmallow-topped yams and turkeys the size of small ponies, pies enough for the Founding Fathers and the Boston Tea Party? Husband has actually dashed out to the biggest housewares store in the neighborhood just minutes before the guests arrived to a luncheon when we realized we did not have enough dishes to go round. 

 Twice six for a dozen roses.

 Cans of soda, cans of beer, single-serve puddings and little boxes of cereal. Packs of six. A six pack. Did you ever wonder why hot dogs come in packs of 8 yet buns in packs of 10? Hamburger buns come in six.

 Big crayons for little hands in primary colors. Six geese a-laying. Six days to create the world. 666 the sign of the Devil. Do six bananas make a bunch?

 But now I am six,
 I'm as clever as clever.
 So I think I'll be six
 now and forever.
 - A.A. Milne


There are actually a few positive aspects about this dark time of the year even though they aren't many and one of them is the wonderful choice of vegetables, usually green, that are in season from now onwards. When I had the choice to create a recipe this week with the theme of Six, it wasn't a difficult choice once I gave it some serious thought; it had to be a vegetable pie. This pie is as genuinely vegetable it can be; well, I cheated and used ready-made puff pastry but the filling is made with vegetables, a little parmesan and pine nuts, nothing else because I usually like my pies clean, without unnecessary fillers like cream etc. I hope you can excuse me for being so approximative but this kind of pie is made this way, you take what vegetables you have at hand and that marry well and just hope for the best. 

ILVA'S PIE WITH SIX VEGETABLES (If anyone can come up with a better name, please leave a comment!)

1 onion
broccoli florets, maybe two handfuls
1/4 head of Romanesco broccoli
2-3 small potatoes
1/4 head of a Savoy cabbage
the leaves (and stems if you want) of three red beetroots
2-3 tbsp pine nuts
2-3 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese
salt
black pepper
extra-virgin olive oil

   Slice the onion and start cooking in a skillet with some olive oil. Cut the broccoli and the Romanesco into smaller pieces and add to the skillet. Peel and dice the potatoes and add these as well. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, add a little water and stir often.

   When the vegetables are half soft you add the shredded Savoy cabbage and the beetroot leaves. Season with salt and pepper and keep on cooking and stirring for another five minutes. When ready, add the grated Parmesan and the pine nuts and mix well.

   Line a pie dish with dough, be it handmade or bought ready-made, and fill it with the vegetables. Bake in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F) for 20 minutes or until golden.


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Monday, October 20, 2014

Banana


bananas mashed

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

 She once also squished mashed potatoes through her teeth.

bananas plants

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

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

bananas

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

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

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

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

bananas slices

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

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

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

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

bananas cake

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

JAMIE'S BANANA CHOCOLATE CHIP SNACK CAKE

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

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

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

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

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

bananas piece of cake

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Instant





In a Jiffy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Instant Pick-Me-Up

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

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


Instant Gratification

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

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

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

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


Instant Illumination

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

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

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

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

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