Saturday, November 30, 2013

Syllabub: definitely a classic

Until week before last I'd never experienced syllabub, the whipped concoction of cream, sugar, and alcohol that was popular in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. 

There are three syllabub recipes in Classic Desserts and, given that antique desserts with silly/poetic names have always appealed to me, I felt I had to make one. 

I chose the so-called everlasting syllabub, which Classic Desserts editor Richard Olney excerpted from one of Elizabeth David's books. It is wonderfully simple: In a bowl, combine the zest and juice of one lemon with 2 tablespoons brandy and 1/2 cup white wine. Infuse overnight. The next day, pluck out the lemon peel and beat the liquid with 1/4 cup sugar and 1 1/4 cups heavy cream until it forms soft, billowy peaks. Spoon into small glasses and grate a little nutmeg on top. 

I thought, here goes nothing. Another weird creamy dessert. But it was love at first bite. This syllabub was tart, sweet, light, airy, rich, boozy, all the flavors and elements in perfect balance. A recipe for the ages. Even Mark thought so. Make this. It may not be exactly to your taste, but I think you'll have to agree that there is something magical about it. 

I was so crazy about the Elizabeth David syllabub that the following day I made cider syllabub using a recipe from Anne Willan’s Cookbook Library. Willan’s recipe is older than Elizabeth David’s, dating back to 1660 when people still treated syllabub as a drink. Although I served the cider syllabub with a spoon, it was actually a beverage with a thick, foamy head. Or, as Willan puts it, “a feisty liquid topped by a creamy mousse.” I liked it almost as much as Elizabeth David's syllabub. Mark liked it better.

I wanted to know more about syllabub, so I looked it up in The Oxford Companion to Food:

It has often been said that the primitive method of making syllabub, ensuring a good foam, was to partly fill a jug with sweetened, spiced white wine or cider, and to milk a cow directly into it. When this technique was critically examined, and subjected to experiments, by Vicky Williams (1996), it was found to be unsatisfactory; and it began to seem doubtful whether it had ever been a common practice. Ivan Day (1996b) crowned the debate on this particular question by a historical and technical survey of the whole subject of syllabubs, now the locus classicus.

Locus classicus? Sheesh. So much for my American education.

The fact that there are people "critically examining" syllabub and "subjecting it to experiments" interests me more than syllabub itself. And I'm pretty interested in syllabub.

If you have 15 minutes to spare, there are worse ways to waste them than in reading Ivan Day's paper on syllabub. It's scholarly but funny. Day attempted milking a cow into his syllabub and reports: 

Unless your syllabub cow is extremely well-groomed, the congealing milk will also be garnished here and there with cow hairs and the odd speck of bovine dandruff, a most unappetising prospect, at least to our modern eyes. It is possible that a farmhand would have happily slaked his thirst with a rude refreshment of this kind, but surely not an aristocratic banqueteer expecting a “daintie silla-bub” in a delicate spouted glass.

And so on.

Even if you don't read the paper, you should check out Day's web site. For me, it was like falling through a trap door into fantasyland. Pink Twelfth Night cakes, sugar sculpture, jelly moulds. My personal dream.

On another subject, thanks to the reader who recommended Amy Thielen's New Midwestern Table which I picked up at the library. It’s a handsome cookbook, full of dishes I’ve never heard of, like runzas, which appear to be something like Nebraskan piroshki. I have not make those, but did make Thielen's cracker crust pizza. It was easy and very good and I’m not sure anyone but me noticed that the crust was unleavened and totally flat. We are not talking about a discerning audience here. The crust recipe is here.

The other New Midwestern dish I tried was the smoked oyster dip. Hugely popular at my sister’s birthday party. I should note that the recipe contains what I believe to be a significant typo, calling for a 13-ounce tin of smoked oysters when I am quite sure Thielen meant to call for a 3-ounce tin. Anyway, that’s what I used and, as I said, the dip was great. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

The quality of gratitude

quadrant of excellent pecan and the over-spiced sweet potato
My sister, Justine, hosted Thanksgiving this year, bless her heart, and I just brought dessert. 

Isabel made a Milk Bar grasshopper pie (like a mint-flavored brownie) and I made a Milk Bar pink grapefruit pie (stupendous, exotic), plus pecan, sweet potato, and raspberry pies. The pies were all done the day before Thanksgiving, so I dedicated myself to savoring a day of serious leisure, my first Thanksgiving off in eons. Relax. Enjoy. Feel grateful. Let someone else set the table, brine the turkey, have a fit. That was the plan. 

I'm an extremely early riser, but I stayed in bed later than usual on Thanksgiving morning trying to think of everything I was grateful for. Gratitude has become one of those vexing words, not quite ruined by use as an alternative lifestyle slogan, but almost. I wondered whether you have to be grateful to someone or something or whether you can just be grateful without any implied thank you. Would a better word be gladness? Except there’s something smug and unseemly about celebrating one’s gladness. And gladness for gastronomic bounty in 21st century America with our diabetes and junk food and industrial farming is problematic, and ugh, ugh ugh, you get the point, instead of feeling gratitude or gladness I was mired in tortured semantics before dawn.
Got up. After a short time, lay down again to read a book I wasn't loving. Because reading spy novels is what you do on a day off. Thought about going to see Dallas Buyers Club, thought about taking a walk, but those activities required too much effort so instead I got into little quarrels with Mark and Owen. Felt glum because I hadn’t posted anything on the blog in ages, but wasn't about to wrestle with those particular demons on a day of rest. Ditto putting the last swathe of plaster on the pizza oven or the final touches on the hard-hitting magazine story about grilled cheese sandwiches. So I took a nap that left me feeling groggy and even crabbier than when I lay down.
The grapefruit pie was a stunner.
Finally -- finally! --  it was 4 p.m. and we drove to Justine’s. Owen was holding the raspberry pie in the back seat and kept pretending he'd broken the crust and that juice was spilling everywhere because it’s hilarious when your mom shrieks. At Justine's I immediately commenced stuffing myself with bacon-wrapped water chestnuts. My father asked how I was. I said, “Kind of restless and grumpy and at loose ends.” He said, “Well, how about writing another blog post one of these days?”

I sighed and kept eating bacon-wrapped water chestnuts until I discovered the Alton Brown spinach-artichoke dip. That stuff is diabolical. You should make it.
Then suddenly I was feeling it. The Thanksgiving spirit. All these people I love were there in the same room, wearing their party clothes, and my sister had made two kinds of stuffing, two different salads, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, rolls, a magnificent turkey. My grandmother, who will turn 102 in January, looked like she’d come straight from a White House tea. She kept fretting that there were 13 of us at the table, but it wouldn't be a party if she didn't. My cousin and his wife convinced me to watch Orphan Black and I attempted to sell them on Enlightened. I ate so much of my aunt’s signature spinach casserole that I felt physical pain that persists as of this writing, but it was so delicious, that casserole, and I won't get to taste it again until Christmas. The raspberry pie was a soupy mess, but my niece Stella wolfed it down anyway. I'd made it just for her and it was a pleasure to see her pleasure.

Lovely night. You can't will or think gratitude into being, it just comes.
They look wistful. What were they thinking about?

Monday, November 18, 2013

How I learned to stop worrying and tolerate the supermarket

Don't let this be you.
In the last few weeks I've figured out how to enjoy grocery shopping, which I have dreaded and hated for many years. I just go more often. Counterintuitive, but it works. Is this what people are now calling a "life hack?" Can a change that makes you happier but less efficient be a life hack?

I used to try to cram all the grocery shopping into one grim, efficient marathon on a Sunday or Monday. I'd trudge to Safeway for staples and detergent, then to Whole Foods for quality. Recently I added Trader Joe's to the rotation. Wheeling a giant grocery cart around, I slump over the handlebar and feel 10 years older, 30 pounds heavier, and like I have 9 children instead of two. Ridiculous, but we are ridiculous animals.

A few weeks ago I was in Safeway picking up a few things I'd forgotten the day before and it dawned on me that I actually love going to the supermarket when I'm just picking up a few things. Shopping becomes a delightful break in the day, rather than a dreaded slog. Yesterday, I started writing the usual epic grocery list and the cloud of gloom descended. I reminded myself of the epiphany and the cloud lifted. Off I went and bought just what we needed for the next couple of days and was back in 27 minutes. I timed it. It took me less than a minute to put stuff away and I felt no resentment whatsoever that Mark was sitting on the sofa watching NFL Red Zone the whole time. Zero. That in itself is a miracle. If I'd been gone for several hours and come home with 47 bags, my smile of greeting might have been a little forced.

On another subject, I’m currently getting to know Classic Desserts per the new plan I described a few posts ago. The idea is to have short, shallow relationships with more cookbooks, rather than long, tortured affairs with just a few.

Classic Desserts is a volume in the Time-Life Good Cook series, published between 1968 and 1970 and edited by Richard Olney. 
If you’re wondering what constitutes a classic dessert, as far as I can tell it is any sweet that isn’t cake, cookie, pie, pastry, or candy, as there are other volumes in the series devoted to those categories. There are some pretty funky antique recipes in this book. 

appealing recipes in Classic Desserts:

magnolia petal fritters
black forest bombe
French flummery
frangipane souffle
candied chestnut pudding


celeriac custard
macaroni pudding with pears
avocado whip
black coffee jelly
red wine froth

I have so far made: 

-crepes suzette. Crepes spread with orange-flavored butter and briefly warmed in the oven. A real classic and well liked by all. I always thought crepes suzette were supposed to be flamed, but Olney disapproves. Olney: "Although some cooks douse the crepes with spirits and set them afire, purists believe that this ruins the presentation. In the words of one famous chef, flaming crepes suzette are 'operetta, not cuisine.'" 

-tea cream, chosen because it appeared to be the easiest dish in the book and we all love low-hanging fruit. This delicate, milky pudding was a dream. My dream. Probably not your dream. I don't understand it, but a lot of people don't appreciate aromatic puddings. Owen took a bite, pushed it away, poured himself a bowl of Wheat Chex. But Mark and I liked it a lot and I'd make this again if it was just him and me. The recipe is adapted from Mary Jewry’s 1868 Warne’s Model Cookery and Housekeeping Book and the directions are interesting. You should read the recipe, even if you don't make the cream.

If you do try this recipe, you'll need a rennet tablet, as in Junket. (Sorry about the font in the directions. I can't seem to fix it.) 

Tea cream

2 1/2 tablespoons loose green tea 
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 rennet tablet dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water

  1. Combine the tea and milk in a small saucepan and heat to scalding. Let sit for a few minutes. Strain into another bowl. Add the cream and sugar. 
  2. The mixture should feel lukewarm. Add the rennet. Stir.
  3. Pour the mixture into a serving dish (or dishes) and cover.  Leave at warm room temperature for a few hours, until the pudding is set. Serves 6.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Matzo ball soup and Suliman's pilaf

funny, the things we yearn for
A few years ago, Nora Ephron wrote that she was “a Jew with a big crush on WASP food.”

I’m a something-or-other with a big crush on Jewish food. Knishes, blintzes, brisket, challah, kugel, latkes. This is probably because I had a lot of Jewish friends growing up and read All-of-a-Kind Family at least seventeen times. 

The only Jewish dish that has never appealed to me is gefilte fish. I first saw a jar of gefilte fish in some supermarket circa 1975 and was traumatized by the disintegrating vomit-colored blobs floating in a cloudy liquid. Looking at jarred gefilte fish still makes me a little queasy. We all have our triggers. I'm sure gefilte fish can be edible and attractive when prepared at home. I mean, this doesn't quite make my mouth water, but I'd eat it. 

Long story short, I made matzo ball soup last night. Not for the first time, but this was a particularly great version with big, light, fluffy matzo balls. I made a basic chicken soup with celery and carrots then used Wolfgang Puck’s matzoh ball recipe which you can find in this New York Times story. The formatting is crazy, but the recipe really is in there. 

If you choose to make Puck's matzo ball soup, some tips:

a. I didn't clarify the butter
b. used sparkling water, not club soda 
c. used about a teaspoon of thyme because that’s all we had 
d. left the batter in the refrigerator for one hour, not two
e. cooked all the matzo balls at once 

Given that the soup was wonderful, you are safe doing the same.

Here is the Suliman’s pilaf recipe I promised, adapted from LambThe biggest change I made was to cook the rice by the absorption method using Madhur Jaffrey's formula. Supposedly soaking the rice enhances the flavor. I’ve never tested this; I just soak the rice.

Suliman’s pilaf

2 cups basmati rice
1 tablespoons olive oil for the rice
1/4 cup olive oil for the lamb
1/2 pound chopped lamb 
1/3 cup chopped onion
1/3 cup raisins
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tomatoes, fresh or canned, optional
2 tablespoons pine nuts or blanched, slivered almonds
thick yogurt
kosher salt and pepper

  1. Wash the rice well and put it in a bowl. Add 5 cups water  and 1 teaspoon salt. After 30 minutes, drain.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a saucepan then add the rice and cook for a minute, stirring. Add 2 1/4 cups water and 3/4 teaspoon salt.  Bring to a boil, cover the pot, lower heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for 20 minutes. Lift the lid, mix rice gently with a fork, cover, and cook for 10 minutes more. 
  3. While the rice is cooking, heat the 1/4 cup oil in a skillet and add the onions. Cook until softened. Add all the other ingredients except the yogurt. Cook for a few minutes to heat and let the flavors meld. Season with salt and pepper. Add the rice and gently fold together. Serve with yogurt. Serves 4-6.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two recommendations and a recipe

I opened a canister of maple sugar a few weeks ago to make these superb cookies and since I was on a maple sugar roll (so to speak), this past weekend decided to try the rye-maple danish from Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain, a terrific book that won all sorts of accolades back in 2010. If you haven’t bought the book already, Boyce's chocolate chip cookie recipe will convince you to do so. The danish pastries aren’t in the category of the chocolate chip cookies, but little is. They're just very tasty.

Here’s the thing. For me, a danish really needs to be plump, soft, blond, and sweet. These estimable danish are lean, angular, brown, and not very sweet. I envision the ideal baker of these danish as a restrained minimalist who lives in a modernist house decorated with austere textiles and landscaped with gray-green native grasses. That is not me. Owen and I both felt the danish needed more sugar and I kept thinking they would be perfect if thickly frosted with maple icing. But that would be like throwing your grandmother's afghan over the back of the Eames sofa. All wrong. In short, while I liked the recipe, some people are going to adore it and I hope that after my description you know who you are.  

Done with food for now. 

Recommendation #1: Mark and I went to see Captain Phillips on Saturday night and I thought it was stunning. Highly recommend. I’ve read virtually nothing about Captain Phillips, but it made me think about justice, poverty, maritime law, and American military might. I'm still wondering whether the ending was happy, tragic, or intentionally ambiguous. Meanwhile, I’ve read dozens and dozens of articles about Blue is the Warmest Color, which was poignant, but incredibly long and left me wondering about little except why the central character never brushed her hair. 

Recommendation #2: Have you watched Enlightened? I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve searched for reviews that capture its radiance and oddity, its blend of cringe-inducing comedy and transcendent sweetness, but can't find one. I don't think the trailer does a good job of capturing the feel of the show, either. You just have to see it for yourself. HBO canceled Enlightened but there are two whole seasons to enjoy on DVD if you find it is your cup of tea.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Persillade, pistachio cake, new plan

Who was Aunt Sassy?
I don’t currently have the patience or obsessiveness to delve deeply into a single cookbook for weeks or months at a time. Perhaps you've noticed. I don't want to have long heart-to-hearts with a few cookbooks anymore. I want to shake hands and make small talk with lots of different ones. The other day, I decided to start in the upper lefthand corner of my shelves and cook five recipes from the very first book then proceed to the next in line. 

Unfortunately, the first book on the shelf was Lamb from the Time-Life Good Cook series. Lamb. So gamy, so funky, so expensive. So rich and unctuous when hot, so congealed and fatty when cold. I was tempted to skip over Lamb, but couldn't go changing the rules so soon. Six days later, I am done with Lamb.

If you're not interested in hearing about lamb (or Lamb), skip down to the last paragraph of the post in which you will get the details on that incredible cake.

Sunday night, I roasted a persillade-stuffed lamb shoulder for my father's birthday party. This was a $58 butterflied lamb roast that I spread thickly with a butter-parsley-garlic mixture, rolled up, tied, roasted. See how masterfully that roast was tied?  

Sometimes, if only by accident, even I can take an arty picture.
All thanks to the very useful pictures in LambI tied a pork shoulder a few weeks ago and there’s a reason I didn’t post a picture of that. 

It was an expensive roast, or so I thought when I swiped my credit card at Mill Valley Market. But the roast served nine at the birthday dinner, four the next night in leftover form, four again the next night, and there were leftovers of all the leftovers. In the end, it provided protein for approximately 23. Not as cheap as lentils, but on a par with a nasty little supermarket chicken. So I take it back about the costliness of lamb. If you're willing to stretch the leftovers to their limit -- which this book helped me do -- a lamb roast can be reasonable.

Do you know about the Time-Life Good Cook series? It was published between 1978 and 1980 and edited by Richard Olney, a writer whose brilliance I've seen extolled a hundred times but never experienced for myself. Each book covers a category of food (lamb, pork, breads, candy, et cetera) and the first half is dedicated to basic techniques and the second to recipes drawn from a truly vast range of books. Among those recipes, at least in the case of Lamb, are some that call for leftovers. I really appreciated this.

On Monday, I used some of the leftover roast to make Suliman’s pilaf, a recipe adapted from Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food. We liked this pilaf more than we had liked the original roast. You chop your cold, cooked lamb, fry it in olive oil with onions, toasted nuts, and raisins, then toss all of this with hot basmati rice. I made some changes to the recipe and am going to type it up for my recipe binder and if you are interested, I will share. It was super-easy and super-delicious. 

On Tuesday I made a so-called French mousakka using the remainder of the leftover lamb. Richard Olney excerpted this recipe from his very own French Menu Cookbook and I'm afraid it is not a  dish that does him proud. You fry some eggplant and line a casserole with the slices. Then you mix leftover lamb with onions, garlic, tomato, egg, and dry breadcrumbs. Scrape this into the eggplant-lined casserole. Bake. Unmold. Stare. Mark said, "This is grotesque."

I wouldn't have said "grotesque" but it was definitely odd. Fussy presentations like this are totally out of style. I could have embraced and even celebrated its quaint appearance, but the thing was not that tasty. The combination of reheated lamb and dry breadcrumbs made me think at every bite: stale.

I managed to find a recipe in Lamb that did not include lamb. This was a melange of crispy green beans and soft shelled flageolet beans that Olney suggests makes an excellent accompaniment to lamb. I wouldn't go that far. That was recipe #4. 

Recipe #5, which I served last night, was a Greek dish of lamb cubes (fresh) mixed with onion, olive oil and oregano then placed atop squares of tin foil, topped with feta, sealed up, and baked. I wouldn't make this again nor recommend that you make it even once. It sounded lovely, but the lamb (too much!) was strangely grainy and swimming in liquid. You could definitely troubleshoot this recipe and solve its many problems, but that is not my mission in life. As of today, we are on to Classic Desserts

Verdict on Lamb after a mere five recipes: If you don't own it, you don't need to buy it. That Elizabeth David pilaf was incredible, but you should just buy her Book of Mediterranean Food. Or ask me for my excellent adaptation of the recipe.

But to get back to the picture at the top of this post, by far the most thrilling thing I made this past week was the exquisite, perfect, tender, rich, breathtaking, amazing, splendid and so on Aunt Sassy Cake from Baked Explorations. Torte-like layers of pistachio cake iced with honey buttercream. One of the best birthday cakes I've ever baked. The recipe is here. You must try it.