Monday, April 29, 2013


A Gift in Wood and Cast-Iron

 I hefted the cumbersome object waist high, needing two hands gripped around the handle to lift it off the tabletop. Grabbing it halfway down the interminable length of wood and metal – much too long – and lifting it off the table, arms pressed against my body for leverage, I was stunned at the sheer weight of the thing; this is not merely lifting an object, this is grappling with something inconceivably overweight, staggeringly bulky. But I had fallen in love and knew that from that day forth I would carry it with me, a talisman, no matter how awkward or difficult, wherever I went.

 My first skillet.

 This old orange and black Le Creuset skillet was and would ever be more than simply a cooking utensil. It meant acceptance into my new family. This was a gift – of sorts – from my mother-in-law all of those years ago. Even as I struggled to understand and make myself understood in a language I barely mastered, as I waited for any sign of rejection or discomfort from my very traditional French in-laws because of my differences, as I worried about my every behavior, battling against my very American social impulses, making every effort to not make a dreaded faux pas, embarrassing us all, my lovely mother-in-law somehow succeeded in making me feel welcome and at home. This offer of an old, timeworn, much-used skillet was more profound than she ever realized.

 This skillet, passed on to her from her daughter, was simply too heavy for her to lift. So the skillet lay abandoned and neglected in the back of a cupboard. We were just starting out, poor as church mice, and needed all the help we could get. Cooking was our passion, a strong common bond no matter our cultural differences. My mother-in-law, his maman, rifled through her cabinets and offered us what she could: an old marble surface once used to slice cheese in the shop, worn wooden cutting boards with only the faintest of fissures, and a skillet.

 It is still with us, twenty-five years of cooking up memories.

A Voyage in Wood and Cast-Iron

 Sunday morning. Home. Dad’s pancakes, sizzling butter, a swish of thick creamy batter in imperfect rounds. Eggs over easy, as American as apple pie; the sharp crack of an egg or two on the smooth, dark edge of a skillet. A side of cornbread. Morning as the sun breaks through the window, splashing across stovetop and table. The comfort of home and kitchen.

 Exotic Spanish frittata, whipped up and spicy, golden baked, speckled with festive red and green, onion and mushrooms. Eggs passionate, sexy, with a flick of the wrist, a toss of the skillet. Ambiente festivo!

 Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino ! A twirl around Italy, salty, earthy, hot and steamy. Memories of climbing to the dizzying heights of the Duomo, la Madonnina, the lush green Umbrian countryside, a stroll through rows of Tuscan vines, tiptoeing through ancient stone ruins of the Roman forum. An Italian trattoria in our own kitchen, tossing pasta, heating up an afternoon.

 Flash-fried, seared, charred and flambéed. Sautéed, braised and baked. Mexican tortillas, Indian pulao, shakshooka and blintzes. Kotlety and pierogi. And Swedish plättar.

 Rustic and familiar, the scent of iron, well seasoned, glistening with years of olive oil and butter rubbed lovingly into the cooking surface. Outside, a delicate web of scrapes and scratches.

 Weighty, like an irksome thought or a guilty conscience.

 Sunday evenings around an old wooden table for eight, waxy oilcloth, stained and burned, the pattern faded from so many years of elbow grease, memories of meals past. Too many dishes, the clatter of cutlery, pressed up against one’s neighbor, the joy of eating. My mother-in-law’s boulettes. Purée de pommes de terre, thick, homey mashed potatoes gathered together in spoonfuls, patted into dense balls, lusciously fried in too much margarine. She drops them one by one into the skillet, tossing and turning in the sputtering grease, until a deep, dark golden crust forms, burned in spots, even better. The children’s eyes light up as each boulette is scraped and scooped from the skillet and meted out, dropped on cheap china plates. Pick off the crust to reveal fragrant creamy potatoes. Childhood delight.

When I moved to Italy, my mother gave me a cast-iron plättlagg, a typically Swedish skillet in which one makes mini pancakes called plättar, because it would remind me of Sweden (and her) when I made plättar for my own children. If you are lucky enough to own one, do use it when you make these cinnamon plättar, if not, you can use the recipe to make normal pancakes. I love these topped with a dollop of full-fat yoghurt and a little strawberry jam but sugar or, why not, a little nutella which is not bad either.


150 g/5.3 oz AP flour
400 ml/1,7 cup milk
2 eggs
100 g/3.5 oz butter
2 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon

   Melt the butter; I like it when the butter is a little burnt.

   Put half of the milk together with the flour, cinnamon, salt and sugar in a bowl and whisk until smooth, then add the rest of the milk. By doing it this way, it is less likely that you get lumps in the batter.

   Add the eggs and whisk until the batter is smooth. Pour the melted butter into the batter and stir and then fry the plättar on both sides, just like you make pancakes.

Monday, April 22, 2013


“When Rabbit said, `Honey or condensed milk with your bread?' he was so excited that he said, `Both,' and then, so as not to seem greedy, he added, `But don't bother about the bread, please.'” 
– A.A. Milne 

One small family, morning edging its way over the horizon, peeking through the trees. Lush green surrounded the old stone farmhouse. No luxury holiday getaway, no elegant inn. Rather an old family-owned farm nestled in the Tuscan countryside. The mournful lowing of the cows broke the silence as we made our way through the damp grass and the heavy mist towards the open kitchen door, following the warm glow of the lights within. We were invited to join the family, the stout cheerful mamma and her two burly grown sons, around the long farm table with its flowered plastic oilcloth spread. We scooted old wooden chairs up to the table, the scent of cows mingling with the fragrance of fresh bread warm from the oven. Crockery clattered, coffee perked, the sounds of contented eating and vibrant Italian filled the room, pouring over me like warm milk into upturned hands.

And then a bowl of steaming milk was placed in front of each of us. “Fresh from the cow this morning,” la mamma proudly exclaimed. Carried in from the barn in a bucket and boiled in a saucepan on the stove, the comforting fragrance of the milk rose on soft curls of steam, the scent unlocking memories of childhood and creamy bowls of milky oatmeal on a Sunday morning. Hands wrapped around the bowl to ward off the autumn chill, I dip my head towards the white liquid, close my eyes and breathe.

The simple dignity of a child drinking a bowl of milk embodies the fascination of an ancient rite. 
– Carl Sandburg 

 Our first taste, first nourishment, first sensation. 

 Milk. Ice cold milk in our favorite glass with the cartoon characters jiggling around in circles, tiny, plump fingers clutching the tumbler, wet and slippery; ice cold milk with cookies and cake, the perfect partner. Older now, that same perfect pairing calls, sending out waves of innocence and nostalgia. A peanut butter sandwich is just not lunch without a glass of milk, balanced on knees while sitting wedged in the branches of a tree. A glass of milk washing away tears, liquid white dribbling down from the corners of lips, arm brushed across the mouth in a gesture of wonton carelessness. 

 Handfuls of snow. 

 Milk warm and consoling, a craving born of something innate, something both animal and sensual. The white, white purity of milk, the softness of silk, white sheets shimmering down bare arms. Riz au lait, memories of a French childhood of thick, heavy pudding, rice long-simmered in milk, sweetened and splashed with vanilla. A special treat, oh-so ordinary, spooned up and fed to the little ones like medicine, to plump and protect. 


A creamy rice and milk stovetop pudding best eaten warm, comfort food, homey and good, redolent of sweet memories. Perfect as is, this riz au lait can also be served topped with cooked fruit, a spoonful of jam or simmered with dried fruit and dusted with chopped nuts.


200 g/7 oz uncooked rice for risotto or pudding
750 ml/3 ¼ cups whole milk or half low-fat milk + half light or heavy cream
100 – 120 g/7 – 8 Tbs sugar or to taste
1 vanilla bean
Pinch of salt
15 g/1 Tbs unsalted butter

 Place the rice in a fine-holed sieve or chinois and rinse under running water until the water runs clear. Drain.

 Place the rinsed rice in a saucepan and cover with water; bring the water to a boil and allow to boil for 5 minutes. Drain the rice.

 Return the drained rice to a medium-sized saucepan with the whole milk (or half low-fat milk and half cream), 1 tablespoon of the sugar and a pinch of salt. Using a small, sharp knife split the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out the seeds. Add both the seeds and the pod to the other ingredients in the saucepan. Bring it just up to the boil and then immediately turn the heat down to very low and, placing a cover atop the saucepan but leaving it ajar, allow the pudding to simmer, stirring often, for 30 to 35 minutes or until the rice has absorbed almost all of the liquid. The rice should be very soft almost melting in the mouth; it should not be al dente. The pudding should be creamy, neither runny nor dry.

 Remove the saucepan from the heat and remove and discard the vanilla bean pod. Stir in the tablespoon of butter and about half of the remaining sugar. Taste and add as much of the remaining sugar until desired sweetness. Spoon into individual serving dishes, glasses or bowls and serve.

A simple but pretty perfect cake, moist with a clean vanilla flavour.


3 eggs
235 g/8 1/4 oz sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
125 g/4 3/8 oz ricotta
75 g/2 5/8 oz  butter, salted
230 g/8 1/8 oz flour
1 tsp baking powder

  Whisk eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl until fluffy. Add the vanilla extract. Pass the ricotta through a sieve in order to avoid clumps in the batter, add it to the eggs and sugar and whisk until the batter is smooth.

   Melt the butter and add it to the batter, stirring until smooth. Sift flour and baking powder into the bowl, mix well.

   Pour batter into a greased Bundt pan and bake in a pre-heated oven (175°C/350°F) for 30-40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out dry.