Monday, March 23, 2015

Sometimes the stars just align

I cooked from Smashing Plates by Maria Elia last night and produced one of those perfect meals I manage to get on the table once every few years, if I’m lucky. It was an extended family dinner and something about the menu just worked in a big way. This meal was more than the sum of its parts. 

Its parts:

-slow-roasted leg of lamb. You cut little slits all over a leg of lamb (I did semi-boneless) and insert many, many slivers of garlic. Slather in a mixture of cinnamon, cumin, oregano, lemon juice, olive oil, fresh dill, and salt. Wrap in parchment and marinate overnight. Still in its parchment pouch, roast for 4 hours (or more -- I’d do more next time) until it’s soft and shreddable and every morsel imbued with flavor. Serve with a starchy foil like

-gigante beans plaki. Huge, velvety beans, oniony tomato sauce.  This dish lacked zip on its own, but was delicious in partnership with the flavorful lamb and the 

-fried feta with honey and toasted almonds, which has zip in abundance.  You slice feta into little bricks, dip in egg and flour, fry in olive oil. Place on a platter, drizzle with honey, top with toasted almonds. Everyone gets a piece of soft, warm, tangy cheese, a little honey and few crispy nuts. 

A bit of feta, a bit of lamb, a big, soft bean? 

My niece, Stella, said, “I want more of EVERYTHING.”

So far, very pleased with Smashing Plates

It gets pretty black on top. That's the one thing I'd like to fix about this cake. Foil towards the end of baking?
Dessert was Gabrielle Hamilton’s Breton butter cake which I’ve now made twice, both times with staggeringly good results. I have so much to say about this cake and Prune in general that I’m saving it all for a dedicated post at some future date. 

Meanwhile, if you have the book, make this cake. It’s not anywhere near as hard as she says it is and it is so, so, so delicious. You can read her account of trying to put the cake on her menu here, though be aware the recipe is not the same as the one in the book. As I’ve said before, the woman can write. 

The boys and I took a walk after dinner, discussed implements suitable for killing zombies.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

I keep wanting to type "Tyler Perry"

I detached the keyboard from the computer the other day because Owen hadn’t done his chores and seemed incapable of separating himself from Team Fortress 2. Based on his reaction, Owen would have preferred I detach a few of his toes, maybe even a foot.

Direct quotes:

“You’re the worst mother in the world.”

“This is my day off! I have so few days off and I just wanted to be happy.”

“I’m NEVER going to unload the dishwasher again unless you give me the keyboard back.”

“But I wanted to write a movie review on the computer! Don’t you want me to write movie reviews?”

“I’m going to step on your phone.” 

“That cauliflower soup you made last night was uneatable, the worst dinner ever. You should burn the cookbook that it came from. It left a really awful taste in my mouth and later when I tried to eat cereal to get rid of the taste, even the cereal tasted like vomit. I wasted a lot of cereal, Mom. You should know that.”

Guys, the soup (recipe here) was not that bad. It’s a very eatable, even tasty, cream of cauliflower from Tyler’s Ultimate. You make it by simmering cauliflower in milk with thyme, bay leaf, and butter, then blitzing in a blender. Toss some bread crumbs and pine nuts with more butter, toast in the oven, and strew this rich, salty, crunchy topping on the soup. Yum.

Tyler's Ultimate does not deserve to be burned. Good cauliflower soup notwithstanding, I did give it to Goodwill. 

I guess I need to back up.

A year or so ago someone left two cookbooks on the free table at the gym: Tyler’s Ultimate and The Macrina Bakery and Cafe Cookbook. Both of them were signed. The Tyler Florence book was warmly inscribed to someone who shall remain nameless.

I took the books, of course. But did I really want them?

My shelves are getting tight again, so recently I decided to cull a few titles. It seemed logical to start by evaluating books I never actually chose.

I decided I had to try one recipe (the soup) but other than that I didn’t see much I liked in Tylers Ultimate. If you love Tyler Florence, speak now and I will listen respectfully. I didn’t delve deeply and could well be wrong. But the recipes appeared standard, the pictures almost grotesquely huge, the overall feel, flashy, showy, not my thing.
Tyler's Really Good -- now there's a title!
You know, because I’m really subtle and modest and elegant.

Tyler went.

Macrina, by Leslie Mackie of the Macrina Bakery in Seattleis as drab as Tyler's Ultimate is gaudy. Which is not to say that I adore the look of this book, which is full of illustrations like this:

I think that is supposed to be a slice of toast.
No color whatsoever. You flip through this book and feel like you’re in a shabby apartment, late afternoon, with the blinds drawn. You can’t find a light switch.

Still, lots of intriguing recipes. And I do love to bake.

First, I tried the rustic potato loaf ("Macrina's most sought-after loaf") and it was perfect.

You boil potatoes in their jackets, mash, work them into a dough and bake into a lovely dense bread. I ate a piece of this every day last week for breakfast. I’d make it again in a heartbeat. Recipe here.

A few days later, I baked the Guatemalan hot chocolate bread. Really unusual. The flavor is that of chocolate cake, the texture that of yeasty bread. Big chunks of chocolate throughout. We ate roughly half the loaf before the novelty wore off. I wouldn’t make it again, but it was an interesting experiment.
chocolate bread, obviously
Friday, I made the Macrina chocolate chip cookies with dried apricots. 

Conversation transcribed almost verbatim:

Jennifer: Did you try those cookies?
Mark, frowning: Yeah, I did. What kind were they?
Jennifer: Chocolate chip.
Mark, still frowning: Really?
Jennifer: Chocolate chip with dried apricots.
Mark: AHA!!!! I knew it!! I tasted one and spit it out. It was like there was a worm in there. 
Jennifer: You did not spit it out.
Mark: When you’re expecting a regular chocolate chip cookie, you don’t want to bite into something gross.
Jennifer: Dried apricots aren’t gross. 
Mark: I will not be having another one of those cookies.
Jennifer: Are you kidding? 
Mark: Don’t tease me like that. It’s like me expecting you to go to the basketball game with me. 

I live with crazy people. The cookies (recipe here) are delicious.

Macrina stays. 

Other things cooked since my last post:

-condensed milk ice cream from Smashing Plates with 1 teaspoon of orange flower water added. Needs a new name, this ice cream. Otherwise delicious. If you have the book, you will not be disappointed by the ice cream.

-This Bon Appetit lamb and lentil dish which I liked, Mark deemed “flavorless,” and Owen said was “too spicy.” Can a dish be both flavorless and too spicy?

-The delectable little peanut butter chocolate sandwich cookies from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook. Recommend.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

It's called logrolling

page 83 of Fancy Desserts
The Piglet is over and I’m so ready to move on, but I’d committed myself to actually reading Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts cover to cover just to see what the fuss was about. As some of you know Bill Buford chose Fancy Desserts as the Piglet winner over David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen the other day, a highly controversial choice.

I was happily reading Fancy Desserts and transcribing lively quotes to share with you, because there are lots of lively quotes in this book, when I came across the passage at top. Perhaps this problematic passage has been noted elsewhere in which case, forgive me, but I almost fell off my treadmill desk.

In case you need help, I have typed it out to highlight the important parts:

“I met Dario Cecchini on my first trip to Italy. If you’ve read the outstanding Heat, by Bill Buford, you already know way to much about this maniac butcher from the tiny village of Panzano in Tuscany (If you haven’t get to your local independent bookseller and snag a copy immediately.)”

I don’t think Bill Buford should have been disqualified from judging Fancy Desserts, BUT HE SHOULD HAVE ACKNOWLEDGED THIS SENTENCE IN HIS REVIEW. I’m shocked he didn’t. I’m also shocked that one of the two recipes he made from Fancy Desserts was the red pepper sauce by Dario Cecchini, subject of his own “outstanding” book.

I disapprove.

But its not Brooks Headleys fault. He really is a good writer. His yeast ice cream was delicious. Beery. I ate it and so would you.

maybe ostrich egg whites

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

He will be reading it again and again!

Darling, would you like a little yeast gelato?
You could feel it coming, but that was still a really jarring Piglet win for Fancy Desserts and the Bill Buford review did nothing to persuade me that it was justified. I came away thinking it was even less justified than I had going in.  

I have a miserable list of errands and jobs today, but some half-baked thoughts before I go. I may change my mind about everything, so cut me slack:

*It’s possible Headley's victory reflected gender bias as laid out in the Helen Rosner essay, given that the book was advanced three times by men who seemed thoroughly dazzled by his prose style and rocker persona. Buford on Fancy Desserts: “It is humble. It is brave. It is extreme. It is wacky. It is by far the best anti-cookbook cookbook I have ever read. I will be reading it again and again. It is genius.”

Perhaps Headley should be considered for the Nobel? He sure can make those boys gush. 

Then again, Rosner, no dummy, also loves the book. I should refrain from commenting further on its literary merits until I have actually sat down and read it cover to cover.

*Does the win for an “anti-cookbook” that few people will actually use (a fact, trust me) reflect growing boredom with affable mainstream voices and cookbooks? Maybe a variant of the boredom described in the Lottie + Doof essay? Have we been so saturated with food everything that we’ve reached some kind of decadent, late-stage ennui where it’s not enough for a cookbook to be a nice, usable volume of good recipes, it has to be a crazy, rule-breaking, dysfunctional, super-stimulating anti-cookbook? 

*The recipes are sloppy. I’ve already talked about the failed chocolate chip cookies. I mixed Headley’s yeast ice cream yesterday morning because I had the ingredients and 10 minutes and what the hell. He calls for 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoon yeast//36 grams. I measured 36 grams and looked at that mountain of yeast and thought, this is more than 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoon. It was. It was a third again more. I know I gave Mimi Thorisson a pass on the little errors I spotted in her book, but it’s extra aggravating when you stumble on a mistake in the middle of cooking. This is the second time it’s happened with Headley.

Also: why would you say 1/8 cup plus 1 tablespoon when you could say “3 tablespoons?” 

Or am I being petty to care about something like that when considering a humble, brave, extreme, wacky work of genius?

It’s possible I am. But I don't think so!

A report on the yeast ice cream and maybe more fully-baked thoughts coming soon.

Monday, March 09, 2015

And with a few keystrokes, the day is shot

Pretty flowers I saw the other day. What are they?
I have a new rule about not going on the internet until noon so that I can focus on my non-blog projects without distraction. It’s been stunningly effective because once I take even a tiny peek at the internet, including email, all is lost. It’s as if my brain is hijacked, polluted, fill in your negative word of choice. I can’t stop going back, like an addict. If you have similar problems, try this some time. Very liberating. And then at the stroke of noon. . . .

Obviously, I just broke my rule so I might as well write off March 9, 2015. But I had to check the Piglet, where Kate Christensen chose David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen over Maria Elia’s Smashing Plates.

Oh well! There went all my hopes for Smashing Plates.

I can’t but agree with Christensen’s superb review, though. She cooked the hell out of Lebovitz and persuaded me that his is the better book. It’s hard to argue with this:

"I choose the one that feels more substantial, more truly literary and classic, the one that welcomed me more thoroughly into its world, if only because the author has lived there for ten years rather than a summer with childhood memories. I choose the one that feels like a future long-treasured friend."

Good for Lebovitz. He’s a pro and I can’t begrudge him anything. The book is terrific.

Honestly, of all the cookbooks in the Piglet cohort, Prune interested me most going in, and still does. I like it best for a host of reasons, which is funny given how much I loathed it when I first got my hands on it.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Confusing, illogical, hilarious, disarming, vulnerable, and intimidating

This post for cookbook geeks only. 

Ferociously smart Eater essay about the Adam Roberts/Mimi Thorisson flap right here. Serious critical intelligence brought to bear on cookbooks. I wish I’d written it, or even thought it. 

And this offers a different perspective on the dispute, lamenting how boring, homogeneous, and uncritical most cooking blogs are and how insular the food community.

Now, to the Piglet.

Thanks to John T. Edge’s rhapsodic Piglet review the other day, I bought Smashing Platesan attractive 200-page collection of Greek recipes by Maria Elia, a British chef of Cypriot heritage. Although I haven’t cooked anything from it yet, I like what I see, starting with honeyed fried feta and some kalamata olive gnocchi. The desserts are especially fetching, which I didn’t expect from a Greek cookbook. Curious about the orange and fennel seed ice cream and the almond, rosewater, and chocolate Mallomar chimneys. I’m hoping this book blows me away because I’m not 100% satisfied with the other candidates to win the Piglet, now down to David Lebovitz’s Paris Kitchen and Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts

We’ve been dining almost exclusively from David L. lately, and dining well. Multigrain bread, tarte tropezienne, lamb tagine, caramel ribs, butternut squash panade, lemon-pistachio couscous.  The last two dishes on that list are my favorites, but all have been strong.  I really, really, really like this book, but it’s The King’s Speech of cookbooks -- impeccably executed, intelligent, enjoyable, unsurprising. My Paris Kitchen could definitely win the big prize and there’s an argument to be made on its behalf, but you won’t hear it from me. It’s far from the most interesting cookbook of 2014.

Fancy Desserts, meanwhile, is without doubt one of the most interesting cookbooks of 2014. Ed Lee served up a powerhouse Piglet review the other day. Ok, it’s a little purple, but I like the energy:

"All of these desserts will alter the rest of your life, if you have the patience to make them. They’re that good.  Fancy Desserts, with its recipes connected like a mystery novel, can be confusing, illogical, hilarious, disarming, vulnerable, and intimidating -- and I could not put it down. Part culinary manifesto, part punk rock tapestry, part New York City folklore, this book is not just a fascinating read, it’s a portrait of a person, of a time, and of a place so unique you feel lucky to live it through the pages of a book. I wish more chefs were this honest about themselves. Hell, I wish more people were too. 
What I will say is this: Don’t attempt to make a recipe until you’ve read the whole book -- every page, cover to cover. . . ."

All of these desserts will alter the rest of your life? All of them? Even the borrowed Good to the Grain chocolate chip cookies reprinted with a fatal mistake?

Whatever. Enthusiasm is nice. 

I’ve made a handful of Headley’s recipes, two of them really splendid. I already wrote about the ricotta gelato (super-easy recipe here) and last week tried his cashew gelato, which was the most velvety ice cream ever scooped out of my machine. It was just as creamy the next night and the next and I dont know about the next because by then it was gone. To make this magical dessert, you roast raw cashews until coffee brown and steep in milk overnight. Remove cashews from milk, combine infused milk with sugar, dextrose powder, honey, milk powder, condensed milk, cream, and raw egg yolks. Blend. Chill. Churn. It’s not going to alter the rest of my life, but it was stupendously delicious.

So what’s wrong with Headley’s book? Nothing, there’s just not enough stuff I want to try here. I don’t want to taste the yeast, sage, parsley, or basil gelatos. I’ll never make the corn-corn huckleberry cookie or the chocolate eggplant confection, sweet pea cake, candied carrots or even that cucumber creamsicle both Lee and Adam Roberts so loved. No interest in the sunchoke or artichoke desserts, nor the strawberries in a pool of avocado puree. I’m sure it’s all wonderful, but I still don’t want to make it.

Maybe that says more about me than it does the book. Maybe Fancy Desserts should win. I’m just saying I personally have trouble getting behind it.

The exciting cookbook I don’t want to cook from vs. the semi-boring cookbook I can’t stop cooking from. This is why I have my hopes pinned on Smashing Plates.


A few final words about Mimi Thorisson’s Kitchen in France: it’s very good and I had almost universal success with the recipes. Her garlic soup is delicious, creamy, and simple. The apple tart with orange flower water is tasty, though a bit severe and not something I’d make again. The almond mussels, as I’ve told you, are a knockout. The galette Perougienne is a lovely, bready, rustic dessert, the pear flognarde, a lovely, custardy, rustic dessert. The cocoa meringues worked perfectly and the chicken with creme fraiche was a treat.

Theres some funkiness with her volume-weight conversions, especially when it comes to butter. The recipe for Sarah Bernhardt cakes (very seductive-looking Icelandic cookies) calls for 10 tablespoons//300 g butter. Clearly a mistake, as 10 tablespoons butter = 141 grams. I happened to make Thorisson’s gougeres and her almond mussels for the same meal one night and noticed that while both call for 7 tablespoons of butter, for the gougeres she offers a weight measurement of 80 g and for the mussels 100 g. I spent a few minutes going through the book and in different recipes a tablespoon of butter is weighted at 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 grams. This isn’t a big deal when you’re talking about a couple of tablespoons, but the disparities add up. For instance, in one tart dough Thorisson calls for 14 tablespoons//150 grams of butter. The difference between 14 tablespoons and 150 grams of butter is almost half a stick. Adding a half stick more of butter, or a half stick less, will significantly change a tart dough.

Is this a grave matter? No. All the recipes I made worked, most look sound, and mistakes happen. To any stray Mimi fans who might stumble over here and accuse me of being a frumpy jealous hater for pointing out these errors, put down your flamethrowers. Maybe frumpy, but not jealous, not a hater. I thoroughly enjoyed Mimi Thorisson’s Kitchen in France, will make her mussels again and again, and would recommend the book without hesitation.

On another subject, Id never heard of cruffins, but now I have and need to plan a field trip.