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.

41 comments:

  1. I haven't made one of those "perfect" meals in a long time. I used to make elaborate Sunday dinners every week for my daughters (eventually + boyfriends), Harman, step kids, and my dad. Three course fancy meals, always with plated, multi-component desserts, and homemade breads, etc. I remember feeling so proud of some of them. But Kath ended up with celiac disease, her husband can't have wheat or dairy, Emily is allergic to onions, and it all just got to be too much for me. Plus no one would help clean up the dishes afterwards.

    Your kouign amann looks great! I have noticed that when I make it, it continues to darken after it comes out of the oven, for some reason, so I learned to remove it when just a little paler than I eventually wanted it to be.

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    1. I wish I could have come to one of your Sunday dinners. Wow!
      Plated, multi-component desserts and homemade breads?

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    2. Well, yeah, but I was a pastry chef who could easily make that happen with a little minor pilfering from my work. (I more than made up for said pilfering by bringing in stuff from home to work.) I didn't mean to brag. It was actually quite stressful dealing with the cleanup and whatnot. And stressful being the rigorous purist who couldn't bring herself to cheat by buying bread or ice cream. I am glad I did this stuff, but I wouldn't want to be on the hook for this every week nowadays. I swear, the most liberating thing I ever read was your advice to buy a fricking rotisserie chicken. I still haven't done that particular thing, but I embrace the spirit of it. I recently bought Trader Joe's tamales and microwaved them for dinner.

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    3. You didn't seem like you were bragging at all -- it reminded me of the way I used to cook. I have almost never been to a dinner where someone (else) put in that kind of effort and it would be fun to have the experience. A novelty! So much work, those kinds of meals.

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  2. I have Prune from the library and will read about the Breton cake before I go to sleep this evening. It sounds exactly like what I love the best: butter, vanilla, and sugar, practically unadorned.

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    1. It might be worth breaking a diet for. She flavors the cake with orange flower water and it's REALLY good.

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  3. She really can write. Alas for me, she wrote to persuade me that I prefer to be 2500 miles away. And, shallow cow that I might be, I was annoyed that the memoir had NO recipes, which soured me on any further publications. But again, maybe it's my problem. I like cake and I like lamb and beans, so maybe it's me.

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    1. She's a tough one. I'm very ambivalent.

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    2. How does the NYT recipe differ from the one in the cookbook? I can feel my resolve to remain soured slipping . . . anyhow, I am going to buy some French butter tomorrow (or maybe just Strauss's or something) and make one. I have orange flower water, unless it's all evaporated since I last used it. And maybe I'll get a leetle bottle of fabulous dessert wine. Her NYT article, which I hadn't read, made me like her better. There are a few things I make that I feel are meant to be served a certain way, and when my sons run out to get soy sauce or butter or something NOT in the dish, or when they refuse to add the OBLIGATORY blue cheese or whatever, it really gravels me. They're good eaters -- not quite your niece -- but very respectable eaters, and I just need to get over myself.

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    3. Different quantities of everything (less) and she rolls it fewer times in that story and specifies different sizes when you roll out the dough. I would go with the book version, but of course you don't have the book and the recipe is long and obnoxiously written and would confirm you in your dislike. For instance, she tells you to put the dough on the espresso maker to rise.

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    4. That's funny! Of course she does. The espresso machine is a warm place. It is obnoxious to say such flippant things, but sassy is clearly what she was going for.

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    5. She also tells you to come talk to her at the start of the recipe, like you're one of her sous chefs. Strange, because the recipe really isn't hard at all. The instructions are excellent. I didn't need to talk to her.

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    6. So. Now I have made four of these cakes, 2 from the Prune cookbook itself (from the library -- thank you, Bay Area public) and 2 from the NYT version of the recipe. Based on my experience, I prefer the version in the NYT because: the cookbook version was more work (8 turns vs. 3 turns of the dough), AND (and this was a more critical problem) produced more dough than fit comfortably into a Pyrex glass pie plate, which meant that the sugar went past well-caramelized into fairly-carbonized while the interior was not quite baked enough and was thus soggy. This did not happen with the NYT version, which (did I already mention?) only required 3 turns of the dough and which did not seem any less well-laminated to me, on two attempts. Finally, and importantly, the NYT version, while poorly edited (it asks you to start preheating your oven about 2 hours before baking), does NOT include all that patronizing stuff about how this recipe is SO SO hard. It just isn't that hard. Also: I have made several other things from the book: lamb sausage (very tasty but TOO salty even for this sodium-phile), manti (really delicious even if a bunch of nitpicky work, but again, the cayenne butter is WAY too salty and also the specified amount of meat makes considerably more than the noted number of dumplings because one cannot tidily fit the meat into the teeny-tiny wrappers, and tidiness is important to the aesthetic of the dish); and the beet salad, which was great, although I had to make the aïoli in an ordinary blender and not my imaginary Vita-Mix (gimme a break). And while I'm on a rant, let me also say: Gabrielle Hamilton has her nerve, picking on Dorie Greenspan for too-overt food styling, given that she has produced a cookbook full of fake grease stains and fictional Sharpie notes to a fantasy kitchen serf. Phew.

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  4. At the risk of seeming boastful (which is not at all my intention), I will say that I will be in Bretagne this weekend and at the top of my list of things to do is to eat as much kouign amann as I can. I think it's marvelous that she includes a recipe for it. I've had one or two -- some with a chunk of chocolate stuffed inside, or some lemon curd, but the unadorned really IS best-- at SF bakeries and they really are lovely, though very different from the one you picture. I will have to give it a go myself, and I look forward to your post about it.

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    1. B Patisserie. I think that's where I tasted my first and it wasn't that long ago.
      I am jealous of your trip!!! I wonder how the kouign amann is different there, if at all. Gabrielle Hamilton DOES specify French butter and I did actually use it.

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  5. Kuoing-Aman was a competition pastry on The Great British Bake-Off on PBS a month or so ago. It looked different because they were made individually in large muffin tins, but it was still butter and sugar held together by flour. It was very interesting watching the home bakers trying to interpret a recipe they ahd never had before. It is also revealing how cordial the British food competition was compared to an American food competition.

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    1. I saw that show for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I loved it.

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  6. Oh, was that the one where it mattered whether they'd put the sugar in between all the layers or just on the top one? (I've become a rabid fan of the Bake Off (and the Sewing Bee!) in the past month or so. There are many full episodes of previous seasons available on YouTube, which is a great boon to the newly obsessed!)

    I too have Prune out of the library (along with Fancy Desserts and other Piglet-related cookbooks) and just put a hold on Smashing Plates. I can't see Prune as being one I'd buy--I don't eat meat, for one thing, and it looks on the meaty side--but I want to spend some time with it. Very curious to hear your thoughts on it.

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    1. Yes, that's the one. Seems a finicky detail, doesn't it, where to put the sugar? But they keep calm and carry on.

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    2. I think the sugar would need to be in all the layers, no? It would be insufficiently sweet if not.
      I've decided to only buy cookbooks after I've vetted them at the library henceforth.

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    3. No, interestingly not! The ones who put it between all the layers got in trouble--it was only supposed to be on the top layer. I can't quite remember why, but it might have been that the sugar melted whereas in the top layer, it stayed crunchier. I just remember that Master Baker Paul Hollywood shake of the head as he pronounced (correctly) which ones had put it between all the layers erroneously.

      And I am a firm believer in library vetting for cookbooks. (At the moment I have out, in addition to Prune and Fancy Desserts, Baking Chez Moi, Mimi's book and Maria Elia's earlier vegetarian cookbook. And I returned Around my French Table, for the second time, reluctantly. I feel like it has too many meat recipes in it for me to buy it, but the few things I've made from it have been fabulous. A dilemma.

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    4. Interesting! I will have to try the all-on-top sugar. In the GH recipe, she calls for more than a cup of sugar, but how would you put all that on top? I will investigate other recipes.
      The cookbook selection at our library is rather slim, but I can get books transferred eventually from other branches. I haven't bought a reading book in years -- all library -- and can't believe I didn't start with cookbooks earlier.

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    5. Here is Paul Hollywood's recipe: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/kouign_amann_09102 One thing to know is that his are small rather than big--not sure if that makes a difference.

      I live in an area (Western Mass) with a robust regional library system, which is fabulous. I put things on hold from other libraries all the time, and the librarians at the library I go to most know me as a, shall we say, robust user of the system.

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    6. Sue, not to be stalkerish but I work at the Jones Library and I think we are basically trading books back and forth!

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    7. Lace, how funny! The Jones circulation staff knows very well how much I love CWMARS, but I also know I'm not the only one. (If only I actually read all of the library books I check out so optimistically. . . )

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    8. I just got A Kitchen in France out of my library yesterday and spent an hour paging through it. Mimi's kouign amann calls for sugar between each layer, not just on top, as does every recipe I've ever seen for kouign amann. Gale Gand, David Lebovitz, Bon Appetit all call for the sugar to go inside. Mimi actually puts almost a cup of sugar inside and only reserves one tablespoon for the top! So I'm a little puzzled by the criticism alluded to on the Bake Off.

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    9. I'm such a library book horder that since my library went completely online not only do I have 50books on hold... Not to mention the. 20 that I've asked them to purchase, but just the other week I discovered that I can get a card in my husband name with 50 holds... Without him being the wiser. Haha...otherwise he'd just reserve books on Cesar (boring) or ww11. The least he knows.. The better. And I can order things with our cell phones... And then just enter his # in the machine/kiosk thingy.... Isn't technology wonderful.

      The only books I've bought recently are for my grandchildren.

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  7. Dominique Ansel, of cronut fame in NYC, makes a perfectly amazing kouign-amann. It tastes like the sweet essence of butter, and the texture is dreamy -- crunchy and chewy and bready and flaky, all at the same time.

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    1. My cousin bought me Dominique Ansel's book for Christmas -- I will go see if he has a recipe.

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  8. Morning! I don't know if anyone else has told you this yet, but I finally got around to listening to the new food52 podcast (called Burnt Toast) this morning during my run and they quoted your ice cream piece that you wrote for Slate! I geeked out a little bit and couldn't wait to let you know. You should have a listen! (Or course, they credit the quote to Slate.... but we all know it's you!)

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  9. I am RIGHT NOW in the midst of making the cake (from the NYT piece, as I don't own Prune) and it's not a very well-edited recipe. The biggest Ooops is when it tells one to start pre-heating the oven 1-2 hours before the cake will be going in, but I am also not all that happy about recipes calling for "3/4 c. butter." That's 1.5 sticks, or 12 T., or even 6 oz. Anyhow, what I presently have rising in a warm-ish place looks pretty good. In other news, I also just made David Lebovitz's lentil salad, from My Paris Kitchen, and it was just wonderful. Plus easy. That is one solid (and well-written) cookbook.

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    1. Although now I've made it (it looked great) and we've eaten it, in a largely reverential silence. My husband and older son wanted second pieces. Okay then.

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