Friday, February 27, 2015

My life is good enough

I want a piglet.
Perhaps you’ve heard, there was a kerfuffle involving the Adam Roberts Piglet review of Mimi Thorisson’s Kitchen in France. Thorisson wrote a very good cookbook that rubs some people the wrong way for reasons that have been amply discussed, here and elsewhere. Roberts produced a smart, funny review that left Thorisson feeling wounded. Thorisson reacted. Her fans reacted. Roberts’ fans reacted. He reacted to her reaction. I was a bit player. Good times. On the advice of counsel, that is the last I will ever speak of the matter.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it. 

Today Dorie Greenspan restored class and order over at the Piglet with her gracious concession (it's in the comments) to Alice Medrich, whose outstanding Flavor Flours won out over her own superb Baking Chez Moi. 

I love both these books. Flavor Flours is probably the only gluten-free baking book on the planet that doesn’t shout “gluten-free!!!!” on the cover, spine, and every single page, which is why it is the only gluten-free cookbook I will have in my kitchen, at least until I’m diagnosed with celiac disease. Medrich’s approach suggests that there is more to recommend these flours -- sorghum, buckwheat, chestnut, etc. --  than just their nutritional profileI have baked only the teff brownies and they were great, though I’m not sure I could tell the difference between a teff brownie and a wheat flour brownie, which is either good or bad, depending on your point of view. Rosie Schaap’s review has convinced me to tackle the carrot cake which, “made with rice flour and oat flour, is the best I’ve ever made, the best I’ve ever eaten, just the best: moist but solidly constructed, intensely fragrant and full-flavored.” 


Actually, not sold. Library copy, so I’d better get cracking. This is one I might buy. 

I’m a Dorie Greenspan completist and bought Baking Chez Moi within days of publication. At Christmas, I made Greenspan’s crispy-topped brown sugar bars for the cookie boxes we gave away and they were lovely. I made her sables last week and they were beyond lovely.

Two terrific books. I only wish they were both advancing in the Piglet, but it would come to a showdown eventually, so might as well be now.

On another subject completely, let’s talk about My Struggle, the multi-volume magnum opus of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Ha ha ha. Not kidding. Are you with me? Anyone? No? Knausgaard is a brooding Norwegian memoirist/novelist who writes in granular detail about his everyday life and I feel like I’ve been reading this blasted series forever. One of Karl Ove’s trips to a coffee shop can last a dozen pages and he never even talks to anyone at the coffee shop, let alone witnesses a murder, robbery, or alien invasion. And yet he keeps pulling me along. I’ll be trudging through an endless stretch in which Karl Ove discusses the breasts on the leader of his daughter’s boring playgroup and I want to throw the book across the room, then suddenly I’m in the middle of one of the most spellbinding scenes I’ve ever read. His account of cleaning out the bottles and alcoholic detritus from his dead father’s home will never leave me. 

During idle moments, like when I’m driving or whisking pastry cream, I find myself trying to capture my feelings about this singular work in a few words. Options always boil down to:

engrossing but a slog
a slog but engrossing
engrossing and a slog
a slog

Even if I never decide on the perfect combination of adjectives, I think you have a sense of how I feel about My Struggle and can probably gauge whether it is right for you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Juventud, divino tesoro

I turned 49 yesterday. Perhaps that accounted for my feistier than usual tone on the blog. I wasn’t upset to be turning 49. On the contrary, I woke up elated and full of it. I didn’t expect that, can’t explain, and feel the same way today. How you feel about different ages and stages of life isn’t subject to conscious manipulation. At least it hasn’t been for me.

A short, personal story.

The night before I turned 47, I was flying home from New York with Isabel when out of nowhere came a wave of dread unlike anything I’d experienced before. Window seat. Crushed slice of Milk Bar crack pie in my pocket. Unflattering vintage red coat. I had a premonition that I was heading into a very rough period. The next morning I lay in bed and basically couldn’t get up. It was as if a switch flipped on my 47th birthday and just like that I was lost in a dark wood. 

I didn’t expect it, can’t explain. Somehow I’d thought midlife crises only happened to men and involved sports cars. 

It was a terrible time. I went to visit my grandmother a few weeks into this period and was so down and desperate that I tried to explain my feelings to her, though she was frail and 101 and I didn't expect her to have anything to tell me. I just needed to tell her, because she was the closest thing I had to a mother. She sat across the kitchen table and as I talked I watched her eyes light up. No one brought problems to her anymore, no one asked her for help, and here I was laying out a real, live problem. She proceeded to quote from memory the opening lines from a Ruben Dario poem about melancholy and the fleetingess of youth, one that had spoken to her during her own midlife confusion. I thought maybe she was hallucinating (so condescending) and looked it up on my phone. She had the words all right, it was a real poem. I had never once heard my grandmother quote poetry or say the words “Ruben Dario.” She had a lot to tell me that night, but the most valuable message I took was that she had been there, that maybe Ruben Dario had been there, that I was not alone. I guess that’s why I’m writing this post.

It wasn’t quick or easy, pulling out of those woods, but at 49, I’m really, really out. Sad, hard, surprising things will happen in the years to come and who knows how I’ll handle any of them, but there will not be another shocking midlife crisis. For me, facing up to the inevitability of those things was the midlife crisis.   

Mark offered to take me out to dinner for my birthday yesterday and I thought about it, because that’s what you’re supposed to want on your birthday, to go out. But I really wanted to stay in. I made Marcella Hazan’s spaghetti with tomato and butter sauceone of my all-time favorite dishes, and we ate on the sofa while watching The Walking Dead. I looked forward to this all day, getting that bowl of pasta and sitting on my corner of the blue sofa. Owen, Mark and I have seen  every episode of that dark show and I love watching TV with those two and eating dinner on the sofa. I’m not even going to make a joke about how lame that is, because I’m 49. No more self-deprecating apologies for my tastes.

For cake, I baked Mimi Thorisson’s pear flognarde, which is like a clafoutis. Or, as Thorisson puts it in A Kitchen in France: “like a big pancake filled with melt-in-your-mouth pears. . . In the old Occitan language flognarde means ‘soft’ and it can refer to a duvet, so you can just imagine how a bite of this feels in your mouth -- as light as a feather.”

Well, not quite that light, but pretty light and really delicious. Mark described the dessert as “inconvenient” because the pears are cut in quarters and didn’t meld well with the custardy cake. I agree. I think this would be better if the pears were chopped, but I liked the cake, like Thorisson’s book, and like being 49. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I don't read novels very often and have unsophisticated taste, but here's why Fifty Shades of Darker is better than Lila

Piglet commenters this morning seem to be loving A.J. Jacobs review comparing Huckleberry to Lunch at the Shop, but I thought it was one of the weakest yet. Or maybe I just finally lost patience. Nothing against Jacobs, who is smart and funny, but there’s something insulting about asking a guy who admits he “doesn’t make food very often” and has an “unsophisticated palate” to review cookbooks for a community of avid cooks. Like cookbooks are so dumb that anyone who can turn a phrase is qualified to judge them. 

Well, cookbooks are kind of dumb. Do you know what else is kind of dumb? Sports. 

A quick thought experiment. Just for kicks, let’s throw gender into it: 

My husband edits a web site called Bleacher Report that is visited by legions of passionate, knowledgeable sports fans. These readers are predominantly male. If my eyes do not deceive me, the passionate, knowledgeable readers of Food52 are predominantly female. 

What if Bleacher Report invited a clever, amusing lady writer (Lena Dunham? Sloane Crosley?) who admitted that she “didn’t watch football very often” and had an “unsophisticated eye” to weigh in on the relative merits of Peyton Manning and Marshawn Lynch? 

Oh, it would be hilarious! What an awesome joke. Maybe it would even go viral. 

Of course, any suggestion that what this charming female had to say about Marshawn Lynch be taken seriously would be followed by a wave of comments so horrifying your eyeballs would fall out. 

Women are so much more polite than men. I love reading thoughtful, knowledgeable commentary on cookbooks and theres almost none out there. Sometimes it turns up in the Piglet and Im just bummed when it doesnt.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Stupid, stupid Academy

Todays is the first Piglet review of the year with which I completely concur. In case you aren’t motivated to link and read the whole review, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt explains in detail why he prefers David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen to Bar Tartine by Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns.

I share his feelings. I’ve made two excellent dishes from Bar Tartine -- a cauliflower salad and their fabulous, strange kale salad with sunflower seed pesto, yogurt, and rye croutons, but I will probably never cook from this daunting book again. As for Lebovitz’s affable Paris Kitchen, I’ve already gone back to two of the recipes because they were so simple, tasty, and useful.

Which brings me to last night’s all-Piglet Oscars menu:

Mimi Thorisson’s roquefort and walnut gougeres
Mimi T’s almond mussels
David Lebovitz’s barbecued pork (repeat from Super Bowl because it was easy, great, make-ahead, and feeds a crowd)
David L’s vegetables slaw (repeat from Super Bowl because it was easy, great, make-ahead, and feeds a crowd)  
Mimi T’s apple tart w. orange flower water
Brooks Headley’s ricotta ice cream

Other than the fact that Boyhood didn’t win Best Picture, everything was good. Two dishes were delicious enough that I actually went to the trouble of typing out the recipes, which I am generally loath to do because it feels like stealing. But you need these recipes and I did make a few amendments to each.

-I’d never eaten mussels as finger food straight out of the shell before and I’m not sure why not. Mimi Thorisson’s almond mussels from A Kitchen in France were a runaway hit. We all sat crowded around the TV with two big trays of these mussels and devoured them like potato chips. You got a little bite of mussel with some crunchy-buttery topping and then you pitched the shell into a bowl. Surprisingly tidy -- no napkins necessary. My niece Stella must have eaten a pound all on her own and I ate another pound, but we deserved the lion’s share because we were the ones who assembled these lovely things, which wasn’t hard, but took a while. Definitely find a companion for this job.  Do it alone and you risk becoming resentful, which makes you a worse host than if you just put out a bag of Fritos. 

In a bowl mix 7 tablespoons soft, unsalted butter with a handful of chopped parsley, 3 minced garlic cloves, and a cup (60g) of fresh breadcrumbs. Season well with salt and pepper. Stir in 1 1/2 cups (180g) finely ground almonds and mix until you have a paste. Cook 4 pounds of mussels in a covered pot for a few minutes with a splash of water until they just open. Discard any that don’t.  Remove the top shell of every mussel and leave the meat in the bottom. (They might be very small and you’ll wonder if that’s ok; it is.)  Top with a teaspoon or so of the almond paste, pressing it down. Put the mussels on a sheet and bake at 425 degrees F for 6 to 8 minutes until hot. Thorisson says “until golden and bubbly” but that never happened and based on what I saw, was never going to. Enough for 8.

2. I’m glad Adam Roberts convinced me to revisit Fancy Desserts because otherwise I wouldn’t have made Brooks Headley’s ricotta gelato, which is a gem of a recipe and so easy I couldn’t believe it was going to work. Three cups ricotta (Headley recommends Calabra brand), 1 1/2 cups simple syrup, 1/4 cup honey, big pinch of salt. Blend well with a stick blender -- or any way you choose. He specifies stick, but I don't see why you couldn’t mix in a stand blender or Cuisinart or whisk by hand or even just stir. Chill. Freeze in ice cream machine. Makes a quart of a fantastic pure-white gelato.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Maybe she's oblivious?

I first saw Mimi Thorisson’s Kitchen in France when I was in Barnes and Noble a few weeks ago trying to figure out if I needed to buy any of the Piglet books. Thirty seconds of flipping through hers was all it took to turn me off. The lavish and abundant photographs never let you forget that Thorisson is gorgeous, slender, young, wealthy and has superb taste in expensive clothes, furnishings, and antique china.  No thank you, Clarkson Potter. I checked the book out of the library instead.

In his Piglet review, Adam Roberts gently mocks Thorisson by marking up some of the glamorous portraits that appear in the book with thought bubbles. I guess it’s debatable how “gently” he mocks, but I thought he was fairly gentle and very funny. He writes that her underlying message seems to be “my life is better than yours.” 

But even as I was enjoying Roberts’s derision, out of nowhere I began to feel sorry for Mimi Thorisson. Ashamed of taking pleasure in her shaming. She looked vulnerable up there with the little balloon comments attached to her pretty face, comments that made her appear vain, coy, and foolish. I felt oddly protective. This protectiveness only intensified when I spent some time reading her blog, which is unguarded, personal, and sweetly rambling. She doesn’t seem like she’s lording her privilege over readers. She seems open and nice.

What if the message some of us take from Thorisson’s photographs -- my life is better than yours! -- isn’t the one Thorisson thinks she’s sending? I’m just floating this out there as a possibility. Maybe Thorisson doesn’t quite grasp how she comes across. Self-presentation is complicated for women, especially beautiful women.

Consider the photo at the top of the page.

You could definitely find the woman in this picture annoying. The leg? No, no, no. 

But there’s another way to look at it. What if the woman simply doesn’t quite understand how close that whole scene is to self parody? Thorisson is half Chinese, half French -- what if this picture doesn’t read as ridiculous and show-offy to someone from that background? What if it reads as lovely and natural?

I don’t know. I’m just thinking aloud. I could go on, but have to  put Thorisson’s walnut-roquefort gougeres in the oven, say hello to my guests, then plant myself in a chair to watch the Oscars. 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What would the world do without me?

I put a note in the library copy of Fancy Desserts. Obnoxious. I'll probably take it out.
A commenter expressed bafflement at my recent posts and I need to provide some context. For those of you who aren’t already avidly tracking the competition, every winter Food52 holds a cookbook contest called the Piglet modeled on the Morning News Tournament of Books.* The Food52 staff and community choose noteworthy cookbooks from the previous year and pit them against each other in a tournament that is judged by a writers, chefs, and sundry qualified and unqualified luminaries. Roz Chast, Alice Waters , and Stanley Tucci have all judged in the past and the quality, sensibility, and style of the reviews varies widely. That’s part of the fun of the Piglet. You see how different people use and value cookbooks -- and how some, like Roz Chast, don’t. In each round, a cookbook is advanced and one is dropped. At the end of the tournament, a single book prevails. Comments on the reviews can get extremely heated.  I love the Oscars, but I love this a little more. 

The other day, writer Adam Roberts weighted the merits of Fancy Desserts by Brooks Headley against A Kitchen in France by Mimi Thorisson. I agreed with everything Roberts wrote in that charming, intelligent, and persuasive review -- except his conclusion. 

 I’m not at all confident that Fancy Desserts is a better cookbook than A Kitchen in France.

What follows will be interesting only to cookbook geeks and boy, do I feel like a cookbook geek even writing it. But here goes.

The first Headley recipe I tried 10 days ago was the fake healthy chocolate chip cookies with lots of salt. (He calls them “fake healthy” because they contain whole-wheat flour.) The dough was oddly crumbly and dry, but I forged ahead and baked a batch, trusting that everything would work out in the end. It didnt. The cookies were disastrously crumbly and dry and I threw away the rest of the dough. What had gone wrong? I pulled out Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain (Piglet winner of 2011) to see how Headley’s recipe compared to her own renowned and impeccable whole-wheat chocolate chip cookie recipe. His recipe is identical except that he calls for an additional 3/4 teaspoon of salt and an additional 1 1/4 cups flour.

No one adds 1 1/4 cups flour to a functional cookie recipe. This was clearly a mistake. Mistakes happen. But it wasn’t an auspicious start to my experience with Fancy Desserts. And what to make of the fact that, aside from a little salt, Headleys recipe was identical to one already published and much adored?

A few days later I made his fregolotta -- giant almond cookies you’re supposed to be able to smash at the table. They needed to bake twice as long as indicated and were bendable, not smashable. Delicious. But not as advertised. 

Random frustration: Id been hoping to try some of Headleys gelato recipes, particularly the cashew gelato and maybe the yeast gelato as well, if I started feeling hostile towards my family. But his recipes call for dextrose to keep the gelato soft and that stopped me in my tracks. Is he talking about dextrose powder? Liquid dextrose? This? Where can I buy dextrose? Unless I missed something, there is no such information in the book and after 10 minutes of googling, I couldnt figure out what kind of dextrose youd use in gelato or where to buy it. I gave up. Do you know the answer?

None of this criticism of Fancy Desserts is a knock on the Roberts review. The opposite. Roberts made a strong case for the book and provided solid evidence. I had decided firmly against Fancy Desserts before I read his review and he convinced me to reconsider. So that’s what I’m doing. 

More to come. 

*The Tournament of Books is great. When people start discussing Gone Girl, I always want to tell them to go read this

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My one-track mind

some tasty almond cookies from Fancy Desserts
Oh boy, the Piglet has started and right out of the gate: No! Ryan Sutton chose Sean Brock’s Heritage over Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune and obviously I view that as a major upset and mistake.  I’m not going to repeat all my reasons for preferring Prune, will just say that Sutton’s “(expletive omitted) cookbook review” (sic) didn’t change my mind.  

I enjoy seeing how other people experience and judge cookbooks, no matter how vehemently I disagree with their conclusions. 

I so badly wanted to blog more about the Piglet cookbooks before the tournament started, but I was getting carried away. I was walking around thinking about cookbooks all the time. Pondering what recipe I was going to test next, seeking out water kefir grains, figuring out what was wrong with Brooks Headley’s whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies (lots), wondering where I could buy chestnut flour so I could bake from Alice Medrich’s admirable Flavor Flours, trying to articulate why all the beautiful pictures of beautiful Mimi Thorisson in her beautiful Kitchen in France irritated me. I was extremely happy and thoroughly engaged. This was a problem. For about a week there, the blog became an all-consuming, unpaid full-time job and I was only growing more preoccupied with each passing day. Other projects languished. I finally had to lay myself off. 
Gentlemen, I think this is a cookbook for you.
 What I’m saying is that sometimes when I don’t post on the blog it’s not because I care too little, but because I start caring too much.

I checked both out of the library and won't buy either, but prefer A Kitchen in France.