Tuesday, September 27, 2005

I'm It

I have been tagged. With a meme. I should say before I get all long winded (which means that I should have said it thirty years ago, but there's no use crying over spilled polenta) that I was pleased to be tagged and especially pleased to be tagged with something that was easy to do, requiring only a bit of counting, cutting, pasting, and yammering (at which I am especially skilled, don't you know). There are some memes floating around out there that would require real work. I appreciate Lindy's thoughtfulness both in tagging me and in tagging me with something easy.

The concept of memes is a useful, if somewhat vague, concept. The word "meme" itself, however, is unfortunate (it's like, ooooh, me! me!, or Mimi, except that it's not pronounced that way, as far as I can tell, and I take its monosyllability as a direct affront to Mimi Smartypants, who is, clearly, a goddess). Since I've determined to start by deconstructing (and I apologize to any of you pomo readers out there who understand what deconstruction really is; I'm using the word loosely, and you can't stop me) "tagged with a meme," and since I hate "meme" , we are left only with "tag" to talk about. So let's start out with a definition of tag, as lifted from some online dictionary or other.

A strip of leather, paper, metal, or plastic attached to something or hung from a wearer's neck to identify, classify, or label: sale tags on all coats and dresses.
The plastic or metal tip at the end of a shoelace.
The contrastingly colored tip of an animal's tail.
Sports. A bright piece of feather, floss, or tinsel surrounding the shank of the hook on a fishing fly.

A dirty, matted lock of wool.
A loose lock of hair.
A rag; a tatter.
A small, loose fragment: I heard only tags and snippets of what was being said.
An ornamental flourish, especially at the end of a signature.
A designation or an epithet, especially an unwelcome one: He did not take kindly to the tag of pauper.

A brief quotation used in a discourse to give it an air of erudition or authority: Shakespearean tags.
A cliché, saw, or similar short, conventional idea used to embellish a discourse: These tags of wit and wisdom bore me.
The refrain or last lines of a song or poem.
The closing lines of a speech in a play; a cue.
Computer Science.
A label assigned to identify data in memory.
A sequence of characters in a markup language used to provide information, such as formatting specifications, about a document.
Slang. A graffito featuring a word or words, especially the author's name, rather than a picture: “Instead of a cursive linear tag, Super Kool painted his name along the exterior of a subway car in huge block pink and yellow letters” (Eric Scigliano).

v. tagged, tag·ging, tags
v. tr.
To label, identify, or recognize with or as if with a tag: I tagged him as a loser.
To put a ticket on (a motor vehicle) for a traffic or parking violation.
To charge with a crime: The suspect was tagged for arson.
To add as an appendage to: tagged an extra paragraph on the letter.
To follow closely: Excited children tagged the circus parade to the end of its route.
To cut the tags from (sheep).
To add a taggant to: explosives that were tagged with coded microscopic bits of plastic.
To mark or vandalize (a surface) with graffiti: tagged the subway walls.

v. intr.
To follow after; accompany: tagged after me everywhere; insisted on tagging along.

Having posted that arguably useful and inarguably lengthy definition, I find that I have little else to say about "tag" or "tagged" except that, as is so often the case, the meaning of "tagged" in this instance probably falls between two or more of the above transitive verb definitions.

The specific instructions for the meme with which I have been tagged:

1. Delve into your blog archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence(or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog, along with these instructions. Ponder it for meaning, subtext, or hidden agendas....

Now, really, have you ever seen anything so clearly hoping to inspire Proustian meditation? Proustian meditation (aka rambling) is, of course, a good thing; it's just that it already takes next to nothing to send me off on a stream of consciousness that flows into a river of hot air (and mixed metaphors; the River of Mixed Metaphors being the local equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys), so it would have been sufficient to start a meme along the lines of:

1. Madeleines.
2. Discuss.

I am, after all, partial to madeleines. I have no fewer than three madeleine molds, none of which appears to have disappeared in the great springform pan rapture of 2005. I use Julia Child's recipe, which is basically a genoise flavored with browned butter. It is not unlike the batter that the aforementioned Lindy uses for her financiers, for which, sadly, I have no molds at all. I would get some, but V. would not be amused.

But since this meme is a madeleine-free zone, I will cut that particular discussion short by approximately two orders of magnitude and get on with the task at hand. I had hoped that the fifth sentence of my twenty-third post (Did I say that I was actually going to get right to the topic at hand? Did you believe me? Surely not. I could not help thinking, as I typed that last pre-parenthetical sentence, of the twenty-third Psalm, the fifth sentence/verse of which is "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over," and how appropriate is that for a food blogger?. Not that I have any enemies, of course.) would be somewhat longer; nonetheless, it seems entirely representative to me:

Surely that, rather than my inability to make a list, is why I'm always running to the supermarket at the last minute.

You see in that sentence my inability to stay with a single thought, my lack of organization, both in the form of the sentence and as its subject matter, and my eternal struggle with using "that" inappropriately. Every time I see that I've used "that" without the noun that should follow it, I think back to my senior year in college, and my Dickens seminar, and the rough draft of my fifteen-page paper on the usage of bird imagery in several of Dickens' novels (I am, of course, not obsessive enough to remember exactly which novels I discussed twenty years ago, but if I were to say David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend, I would likely be entirely correct), and how Professor Tayler, having already suggested that I might want to consider organizing my very intelligent observations so that someone might actually be able to understand them, wrote "what?" where I had used "that" incorrectly, and I am traumatized all over again, even though I didn't make that mistake in the final version, which earned me probably the most well-deserved A of my academic career.

You see in my 23rd/5th sentence both how I cook and how I write. With abandon, but, ultimately, originally and pleasingly. I might start making dinner without all the ingredients, or I might change the ingredients midway through, and I might not bother with editing, but I eventually get to where I was headed, and, when I don't, I still get to somewhere that I'm happy to be.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Perfect Pork Tenderloin

I'm probably preaching to the choir here, but I sometimes feel that pork tenderloin is a highly underappreciated cut of meat. Everyone (And by "everyone," I mean all carnivores. Vegetarians are, of course, fine people, and the world would doubtless be a better, if less tasty, place if we all followed their example, but as I've probably said before, my forebears didn't scratch and claw their way to the top of the evolutionary heap so that I could eschew the consumption of meat: that would be ungrateful. And I am completely serious about that last sentence, insofar as "completely serious" means "making this crap up as I go along." I do, of course, want to be inclusive, so I will now explain to my notional vegetarian readers how to adapt any of my meat dishes. 1) For any piece of meat, substitute spaghetti squash. 2) To the end of each recipe add "and then throw it out.") knows and loves the beef tenderloin. And I love it, too, but, really, how often can you serve a beef tenderloin? It's humongous, so you can only make it for something like a big holiday dinner. And it's hella expensive: even at Costco, you can expect to spend the better part of a hundred dollars on one.

The pork tenderloin, though entirely different in taste, has the best qualities of beef tenderloin without the liabilities. A pork tenderloin is tender (duh), delicious, and elegant. It is also reasonably sized, easy to bring from package to table in forty-five minutes, and inexpensive. It is not unusual to see pork tenderloin on sale for less than three dollars a pound, and when you see it on sale, it's a good idea to buy a couple of packages and pop them in the freezer. Pork tenderloins are generally packaged two to a sleeve, and sometimes there are two sleeves to a package. I generally count on one tenderloin for every two to three people, so if I'm making dinner for four to six people, I'll use one sleeve. One tenderloin for two people is generous; one for three people is sufficient. If you're serving six people from two tenderloins, you will want to carve the meat into thinner slices to make it look more abundant, but it's still plenty.

DANGER WILL ROBINSON! Supermarkets will attempt to foist upon you tenderloins that have already been marinated in some sort of teriyaki (or something like that; I would find out exactly, but it's too painful to contemplate) marinade/glaze. Ewwwww. To add insult to injury, they will try to charge you more for these, claiming convenience. (I advise my readers of more tender sensibilities to cover their eyes for a moment.) Bullshit. A plain pork tenderloin is the soul of convenience. You don't need to pay more to get one that's been injected with soy sauce and high fructose corn syrup (or whatever they use).

We've had a sleeve (i.e., two tenderloins) sitting in the freezer for a while, so this weekend, V. put it in the refrigerator to thaw and, uncharacteristically, asked me to cook the meat part of the meal. It is fairly rare for him to ask me to cook something when we are en famille, but pork tenderloin is, apparently, not an Italian dish, so he wasn't sure how to cook it. Here's what I did.

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Rosemary

Two pork tenderloins
1 clove garlic
3 sprigs rosemary
2 T. olive or canola oil
1/2 cup dry red wine

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the garlic clove into slivers. Rinse and dry the tenderloins.

Put the tenderloins on the cutting board. Stab them with a paring knife every inch or so. Put a sliver of garlic into each incision. Make sure that the garlic gets all the way down into the meat so that it doesn't burn later.

Put a skillet, preferably nonstick, over high heat. Salt and pepper the tenderloins. When the skillet is hot, pour in the oil. Put the first sprig of rosemary in the hot oil. Let cook for fifteen seconds or so, then turn it over, using tongs. Do this until it's cooked for a minute or so. It should be very green slightly wilted. Remove the rosemary and put it in the bottom of your roasting pan.

Put the tenderloins in the hot pan. Let them cook for three minutes, then flip them and cook on the other side for three minutes. Remove the tenderloins to the roasting pan, on top of the rosemary.

Pour the red wine into the pan and stir with your plastic pancake turner or wooden spoon. It should bubble furiously. Take the leaves off the second sprig of rosemary and add them to the wine. Stir for another thirty seconds or so, then pour the contents of the pan over the tenderloins.

Take your meat thermometer and put it into the thickest part of one of the tenderloins. Insert it through the end rather than through one of the browned sides. Set your temperature alarm for 160 degrees. Strip the leaves from the third sprig of rosemary and sprinkle them on top of the tenderloins. Put the pan in the oven, and cook until the alarm goes off. Remove and let sit for ten minutes. Then slice and serve.

If you are feeling ambitious, you could cook the tenderloins in your lovely Le Creuset au gratin pan that you got two (one large, one extra-large) of for $20 at the consignment store on a very good day, and when they come out of the oven, you could deglaze that pan with some more red wine and then beat in a bit of beurre manié to make a very nice sauce, but you don't really have to.

I actually set my thermometer's alarm to go off at 162 degrees because A. was over for dinner and wants her meat thoroughly cooked. I think that 160 degrees is better, and I doubt you will have more than a tinge of pink at that temperature. Also, keep in mind that the tenderloins taper off at one end, so that the thin end will be more cooked than the thick end. Still, even at 162, the tenderloins were tender and not at all dry, throughout.

If you think ahead a day or so, you can take a large ziplock bag and put in it a cup of red wine, three or four chopped cloves of garlic, the leaves from one sprig of rosemary, and two tablespoons of olive oil and marinate the tenderloins in that for a day or two. Then when you're ready to cook the tenderloins, pull them out of the bag and wipe them off thoroughly, then follow the rest of the recipe. You can incorporate the marinade into your sauce when they've finished roasting.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

My First Time

You can just take your mind right out of the gutter, readers: I'm not writing about that. I have, however, passed another milestone. I have crossed another item off the list of major accomplishments to be realized before I die peacefully in my sleep, surrounded by grandchildren and ganache at the age of 106. I have finally tempered chocolate.

Many of you, I'm sure, have tempered chocolate successfully and probably when you were far younger and less experienced than I. Some of you may be surprised, or even shocked, that it has taken me so long to do the deed. There is no very good reason for me to not have done it earlier: it's a valuable skill, and it's not terribly difficult, especially for someone who can make feuilletage without undue worry, as I can. But it is a little bit fussy and more than a little bit precise, and that is not the sort of cooking I do. I like to fly without a net, and if I'm using a recipe, it's usually a recipe that I've made up myself, though often by combining several other recipes from diverse sources. You can't just wing tempering chocolate. Or at least I can't. There may be some group of cooks who have the culinary equivalent of perfect pitch. They may be able to reach into a pot of water and know that it's 120 degrees Fahrenheit or into a pan of melted chocolate and know that it's 30 degrees Celsius. Most such people, however, tend to die pretty young, as the temptation to use their rare talent when deep frying overcomes their immature judgment. You can see how that might end up badly.

There aren't, as it happens, many occasions where I really need tempered chocolate. I am not a big candymaker, and while I do like chocolate a lot, I generally have it in forms where it doesn't need to be handled with kid gloves. And when I've made truffles in the past, rolling them around in a bit of cocoa has seemed like a fine way to finish them. They certainly taste great that way, and it's doubtful that very many people like the truffles enough more with a chocolate coating to make the coating worth the effort.

I've been thinking a lot about chocolate truffles recently. Specifically, I've been thinking about some slightly less common (though by no means unheard of) flavorings for them. I've been thinking about making some chile-flavored truffles or some cardamom-flavored truffles, or perhaps some black pepper-flavored truffles. I still think all of those are fine ideas, but I didn't get that far this time around.

Chocolate Truffles with Ginger

1.5 cups heavy cream
3 T. granulated sugar
4 oz. candied ginger
6 green cardamom pods
500 g 70% dark chocolate

Chop the candied ginger very fine.

Chop the dark chocolate coarsely.

In a saucepan, combine the cream, the sugar, the chopped candied ginger, and the cardamom pods. Place over low heat and stir occasionally until the cream reaches the boil. Turn the heat off and cover the pot and let sit for half an hour. Remove the cardamom pods and bring the mixture just back to the boil.

Turn the heat off, dump the chopped chocolate in, and stir until the chocolate is completely melted. Let the chocolate mixture cool until it is nearly room temperature. Using a hand mixer, mix the chocolate on high for about two minutes. Cover and refrigerate the mixture for at least four hours.

Form the refrigerated chocolate mixture into balls. Roll them in cocoa powder, or dip them in tempered chocolate.

For this particular recipe, I used a Trader Joe's Pound Plus 70% Dark Chocolate bar. It is very good chocolate, and it is very reasonably priced, but when I first made the mixture, I was shocked (no, really) to find that it was too intense. I would not have thought such a thing possible, but there it was, nonetheless. I found the extra sugar helped a lot and also helped bring out the ginger flavor. The ginger flavor, nonetheless, is not as strong as I would like, even though four ounces of chopped crystallized ginger (I used Trader Joe's candied ginger slices, which certainly seem plenty strong when you eat them as candy) looks like a lot when you've got it all chopped up.

I still have a lot of the truffle dough (or whatever you want to call it) in the refrigerator. It is fairly intense stuff, and a small cookie scoop worth of it is plenty for a truffle, and since I was tempering chocolate for the first time, I didn't want to deal with more than eighteen or so truffles. I formed mine by scooping the batter/dough/whatever with the small cookie scoop and dumping small balls of dough from the scoop onto waxed paper. Then I dusted my palms with cocoa powder and rolled them into better spheres. Not perfect spheres, though. I know that professional chocolate truffles are perfectly round, but real truffles, which chocolate truffles are, after all, supposed to emulate, are not perfectly round. (Which is another way of saying that I can't make them perfectly round anyway, so I'm turning a bug into a feature. I live near DC: I'm allowed, or even required, to spin.) Once they were rolled into balls, I put them back on the waxed paper and back in the refrigerator while I tempered the chocolate.

Rolling truffles on your palms is a messy business. Tempering chocolate is a messy business. Making the truffle mixture/dough/batter/glop/whatever is a messy business. But it's chocolate, so try to enjoy it, okay?

Everything you need.There are numerous ways to temper chocolate, and they are all well documented on the Internet. I chopped a bunch of chocolate (I'd guess 200 grams, but I didn't measure, and it only matters that you have enough, and there's always some left over anyway, so don't sweat it) and put it in a bowl that was set over a saucepan of simmering water. I let it melt and stirred it a couple of times. It got up to just over 130 degrees, which is too hot, but it doesn't appear to have hurt anything. 110 degrees is probably plenty hot, but then you'd have to watch the chocolate instead of just let it sit there over simmering water while you're doing something else. Anyway, when it was all melted and stirred (heatproof rubber spatula; you don't want to get too much air into it) and smooth, I took it off the heat, dumped the hot water out of the saucepan, put cold water in (more cold water, enough so that it touches the bottom of the bowl), gave it a stir, stuck my thermometer into the chocolate, and went off to watch TV. It takes a half hour or so for the chocolate to come down to around 80 degrees, and you just want to stir it occasionally so that the temperature stays more or less uniform.

When the chocolate got to 80 degrees, I poured a bit of the water out of the saucepan, and put it on the stove until the water got to 100 degrees. Then I took the saucepan off the heat and put it on the counter, and put the bowl back on the saucepan, stirred the whole mass once, put the thermometer back in, and set the alarm to go off when it hit 87 degrees. When it got there, I stirred it again, and waited for the chocolate to get to 89 degrees. I had to put the saucepan (without the bowl of chocolate) back onto the stove to get it back up to 100 degrees. I think most people do the last stage with a heating pad wrapped in plastic (to keep it clean), but I have no idea where mine is, and I think it's considerably hotter than 100 degrees, anyway. The 100 degree water worked very well, and the chocolate never got above 91 degrees, which is, they tell me, the maximum temperature for tempered dark chocolate.

Fun historical fact: Carrie Nation, despite having been a big shot within the Women's Christian Temperance Union, apparently never learned to temper chocolate. I reckon that explains her chronic bad mood. I use a chef's knife to chop my chocolate, but if you want to use a hatchet in honor of Carrie, be my guest. I reckon the chocolate might fly around a bit, but you'll probably work out some of your aggressions.

Once you have tempered chocolate, there are a number of ways to coat the truffles. Alton Brown had an intriguing method involving dipping a larger scoop into the chocolate and then rolling the truffle around in the scoop. I tried this, but my larger scoop was not large enough. Dipping a hand into the chocolate and then rolling the truffle around on the chocolate-covered hand is another recommended method and sounds like a lot of fun, but I didn't have an apron on, and I was already wearing too much chocolate. I ended up just dropping a truffle into the chocolate, pouring some more on top with the rubber spatula, and then lifting it out with a dining fork, letting as much drop off it as possible. I did get some pooling of chocolate at the bottom of the truffle, but it was only a little, and it keeps them from rolling, right? I also got a nice thick coating of chocolate that way, and the cold truffles and the 100-degree water in the saucepan counteracted each other to keep the chocolate within the preferred range of temperatures.

When the truffles came off the fork, they went back onto waxed paper that was on top of my pastry marble. They actually hardened up pretty well at room temperature, though when I had done all of them, I hastened the hardening of the last few by popping them in the refrigerator for a few minutes.

I ended up with a fairly thick coating with excellent snap. I was very pleased with the results. As, indeed, were L. and A. who very much enjoyed the truffles this afternoon. I had expected the truffles to be too rich and too dark for the girls, but the apples did not, apparently, fall too far from the tree.

The truffles do pretty well in the refrigerator, but you should really let them sit outside of the refrigerator for a while before serving. Refrigeration can sometimes have an effect on the appearance, but these still looked very good. The flavor is much more intense at room temperature, and the ginger comes through better. Right out of the refrigerator, they are not as creamy, and the flavors are more subdued. The upside is that refrigerated, it's relatively easy to eat two of them, whereas at room temperature, a single truffle (and they are not all that big) is about as much as one person can handle. The chocolate taste will stay with you for a while, though, so while you won't still be eating it, it will still be making you happy. These truffles are great.

I haven't decided what to do with the rest of the truffle dough. I will probably let it warm up a tiny bit and then roll it into balls and then roll the balls around in cocoa powder and take them to choir practice on Thursday. I would like to temper chocolate again soon, but I probably won't have time to dip enough truffles for the whole choir before Thursday. And I wouldn't want to start a fight.

Monday, September 19, 2005

A Weekend in San Francisco

The last time I visited San Francisco (and the West Coast generally), I was seventeen, and I was there halfway through a family vacation that involved both driving from Maryland to California and from California back to Maryland, albeit by vastly different routes. By the time we arrived, I had survived such horrors as Wyoming (sorry, Wyoming, I'm sure I'd love the wide open spaces now, but when you're seventeen, sitting in a car for eight hours on a highway that never turns with nothing but sagebrush to look at while your 10-year-old sister wonders whether we're there yet, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment), and I was fairly exhausted, so that when my parents handed me the map of the city and asked me to navigate us to Chinatown, I somehow ended us up on the top of Telegraph Hill; I blame the one-way streets. At least the view was good (my parents bought a small framed set of three drawings of the area, which they hung in their living room until they sold the house about three years ago), and we did eventually make our way to Chinatown, where we had a decent dinner in a big restaurant that had lots of brass dragons and even more red velvet and that was, a week later, shot up in some sort of organized crime incident.

So I suspected that I had not exactly experienced everything that San Francisco had to offer, but I hadn't gotten back until this past weekend. I'm sure that I still haven't gotten more than a taste of the city, but they tell me that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

I flew out Thursday night on JetBlue (round trip fare: $218; yay!) into Oakland (cab fare to hotel: $70; boo!) and proceeded to the hotel where I collapsed. You might think that with only two days, I wouldn't venture outside of the city, but then you'd be mistaken. On Friday, we took a tour that combined a morning in Muir Woods with an afternoon at Sonoma and Napa wineries.

Some of you will doubtless be horrified at the notion of an organized tour, and certainly they do have their downsides. There is, for example, always at least one example of the Midwestern Curmudgeon on the bus (our bus was more of an overgrown van, and it was, at least, fairly comfortable), and this person will take every opportunity to say things like "It all tastes like wine to me!" But there are easy ways to minimize contact with such people, and V. and I managed to have a very good time. Muir Woods is beautiful, and the 1.5 hours we had there was plenty of time for V. and I to take the 2-mile loop (Midwestern Curmudgeons do not like to walk, fortunately) with a lot of stops to gawk at the big trees and other flora and fauna) and still stop at the coffeeshop for a snack.

We visited three wineries in the afternoon. The first of these, Viansa, is clearly set up to accommodate a great many tourists, but at least they do that very well. A tasting is $5 for four wines, but we ended up tasting two additional wines at no additional cost, which is, I reckon, a fairly usual occurrence. We also got lunch there and ate it out in their courtyard, sitting under an olive tree and staring out at the vineyards, where, to add insult to injury, the grapes were ripe and ready for harvest.

And there, readers, is the problem with visiting California generally and San Francisco in particular. When you live on, and rarely leave, the East Coast, it is relatively easy to dismiss denizens of the other side of the country as lightweights. Yes, you think to yourself, it's nice over there, but serious people live on the East Coast. Serious people do not make their homes on or around fault lines. Serious people do not elect actors to statewide office. But then you get there, and there are vineyards in among brown hills topped with green trees, or you're walking along almost any street in SF, and you turn a corner and look down a hill and there's blue sky and blue water on the horizon and flowering vines on Victorian houses, and a bus or trolley to take you wherever you need to go every eight minutes even on a Saturday, and you think, I want to live here! I don't want to be a serious person! I want my own olive tree (and a ready supply of lye plus the patience of Job to actually cure olives, but let's not quibble) or at least to live on a street lined with lime trees. I want to wear flip flops to work!

Ok, so maybe I don't want to wear flip flops to work, and I'm sure that if you actually live and work in SF, then you see less pleasant sides to the city, and every place is nicer when you're there on vacation, right? (On the other hand, when we were wandering through the Haight district, I did say to V., "Well, surely, this weather isn't typical; surely we just got very lucky," and an extremely annoying woman who happened to be passing said, "Oh no, this is pretty usual for us." Wrong answer!) Let's just say that SF is extremely seductive.

Anyway. After Viansa, we went to two other, smaller wineries. Our guide had not been able to reach Viansa before we showed up, so we had had to find counter space for a tasting as best we could, but at the other two wineries, we were expected, and at the Bouchaine and Larson Family wineries, they had tables and chairs for us on the patio and terrace, respectively. They also had more of a spiel, but the hosts were very pleasant, and the spiels (and the wines) were dissimilar enough to keep everything pleasant. Apparently, despite recent SCOTUS rulings, California wineries generally can still not ship wine directly to households in Maryland (and six other states), and since I was unwilling to either check baggage or lug bottles of wine on the plane, I had figured that I would just enjoy the tastings and not bring any wine home. This did not initially seem like a big hardship to me because while the wines had been pretty good overall, after two wineries, I had not drunk anything that I would have gone out of my way to procure. About halfway through the tasting at Larson Family Winery, however, the host poured me a small amount of their Gewurztraminer, and I really wanted to have more.

I have liked Gewurztraminer since the first time I tasted it, probably twenty years ago. The LFW version, while certainly not as dry as their Chardonnay, was still not sweet, but it had a complex and energetic flavor (it was unfined) that satisfied my entire palate. I reckon it will be great with spicy foods. I say "will" because the host at LFW informed us, as we were headed away from the tasting tables, that LFW can ship to all fifty states. She also said that her boss had authorized a 15% discount on all purchases for us. With shipping, and after discounts, a case cost me $200. Significantly more than I normally would spend on a case of wine, yes, but it seemed a reasonable purchase at the time, and it continues to seem so without the benefit of slight inebriation.

Everyone was pretty tired after the third winery, but our tour guide (who, it turned out, was an environmental engineer by training and had worked for some big environmental groups in DC before relocating to SF, but who now made most of his income by scalping tickets, and who was a pretty nice guy despite having a big chip on his shoulder about the cost of housing in SF and also about the 2004 elections) wisely had us stop at the Golden Gate overlook on the way back.

And here I have to say, and I beg your pardon: WTF, San Francisco? That bridge isn't gold. It isn't even yellow. It's kind of rust colored. Would it kill you to pony up a few bucks and have that thing covered with gold leaf? How hard could it be?

Anyway. The tour dropped us off near our hotel, and we decided to go to Chinatown for dinner, to a restaurant V. had tried, at the suggestion of the concierge, earlier in the week. The restaurant is called House of Nanking, and I have mixed feelings about recommending it to you. On the one hand, it's probably the best Chinese food that you'll ever have in the United States. On the other hand, once you've eaten there, everything else is going to be a step down. House of Nanking is crowded and unassuming, and it moves people in and out very quickly (the food starts arriving almost before you've ordered it), but if you haven't had their Nanking sesame chicken, you haven't lived. (Sorry vegetarians: sucks to be you.) We also had the hot and sour soup (which is nothing at all like the soup of the same name around here) and the sizzling rice shrimp with garlic vegetables, both of which were superlative. If you ever go there, just tell the waitress that it's your first time, and she'll ask you what sort of meat you like and tell you what you should order. Do not doubt her; she knows what she's talking about.

(I'm not sure whether "best Chinese food that you'll ever have in the United States" is hyperbole. Naturally, if you know of a better place to get it, let me know, but keep in mind that House of Nanking is also pretty cheap and fast, so you could have this spectacular food before a movie or the theatre. There is often a line, but the line moves very quickly. Also, even if the food is better somewhere else, the chef at House of Nanking puts stir-fried [I presume] sweet potato slices on his signature sesame chicken dish, and it was the first time in my entire life that I have enjoyed eating sweet potatoes outside of a sweet potato pie context. That accomplishment alone was a miracle.)

Saturday morning we had breakfast at Pergamino, a restaurant near our hotel. It was a cool but sunny morning, and we sat on the upper patio, the view from which you see here. We spent Saturday just seeing the city. For $11, you can get an all-day pass for cable cars, trolleys, and buses, and we did our best to get our money's worth. SF is not that big of a city, and it's very easy to get around. If you take a bus or trolley to the Castro, you can take a very pleasant walk through there and to Haight-Ashbury. (I bought L. a tie dyed t-shirt at the corner of Haight and Ashbury: I am such a tourist.)

We had dinner near the hotel at Albona, a small restaurant featuring the Istrian cuisine, which is very similar to Northern Italian cuisine. Albona is not very far from Fisherman's Wharf, but the block that it's on is kind of drab, and you wouldn't expect to find a good restaurant there. It's small enough (twelve tables) for the owner to be able to tell everyone about the cuisine and the daily specials. There is obviously a lot of repeat business.

V. started with a pureed tomato soup thickened with potatoes, and I had a salad. For the entree, he had wild salmon, and I had rabbit (the owner was impressed that I would order rabbit: puh-leeze) braised in balsamic vinegar, onions, honey and juniper berries and accompanied with creamy polenta. We also had a bottle of Pinot Noir. For dessert, I had a coffee gelato topped with brandied Maraska cherries. Also coffee. Everything was perfect. The bill came to a bit under $60 each.

After dinner, we walked back to Chinatown, and I bought some more souvenirs for the kids. It was the night before the Autumn Moon festival, and while I was tempted to buy a moon cake with mixed fruits and ham, I settled for a bag of small almond cookies, which I ate back at the hotel. Our flights were not until around noon, so we had time the next morning for another breakfast at Pergamino.

I don't know when I'll get back to SF, but I'm sure it won't be another 27 years. I'm also sure that I won't go for just a weekend. I have never flown off for a weekend trip somewhere far away before, but I've done it now, and I'm not especially anxious to go through two long flights for two days of vacation again. Even a third day would have made a great difference, so from now on, I think that weekend trips need to be no more than one time zone away, and if I want to go farther, I'll take two days off from work.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

More Cake, Please

The prune cake, in its natural habitat.

I have, dear readers, incontrovertible evidence that there is evil afoot in the world. I acknowledge that such evidence has not been exactly tough to find in recent times, but evil has, until fairly recently, kept its distance from the anapestic household, lulling me into a false sense of security, making me believe that goodness would always triumph and that I would always be able to find all of my cake pans. But such was not the case last night when I spent a considerable amount of time that I did not really have going through boxes in the basement hoping to find just one of my eight-inch springform pans. Or, for that matter, both of my six-inch springform pans, but none of my springform pans was anywhere. The two six-inchers, the two eight-inchers, the nine-incher, the ten-incher, and the twelve-incher: all gone. (Shut up, Bradford.) I really don't know what to make of it. Has there been some form of pan rapture? Is the apocalypse soon to be upon us, and have only the good pans been taken home to their eternal reward while the regular layer pans have been measured in the balances and found wanting? I don't know, and, for that matter, if there is to be a culinary apocalypse, I have no idea at all what the four horsemen are going to be. Pre-packaged cake mix seems a likely candidate, along with that stuff they sell in tubs and call frosting, but in my saner moments (which I do have: they last for about thirty seconds each and happen almost semi-weekly), I feel that founding a religion on the absence of my springform pans might be premature.

Anyway, nothing was going to stop me from making a redfox-inspired prune cake last night: not having to nag L. to work on learning the fifty states, not having to clean out the mice's cage for the first time (we got the mice last weekend; I put off buying the mice for as long as I could, and I made L. do most of the cleaning, but she and the mice both had to be supervised), not having to do laundry and pack for my last-minute trip to San Francisco for the weekend (I'm leaving this evening to join V. who was out there for a conference: no posts for a few days, I reckon, sorry; drop me an email if there's some place out there where you think I need to eat). Not even having to help A. with her physics homework (Physics? For crying out loud, people, it's the twenty-first century; how can we as a species not have evolved past the need for physics?) was going to keep me from making that cake, so I certainly was not going to be stopped by a little thing like not being able to find the right pan.

Or not having the right ingredients. After my last abject failure at prune procurement, I took no chances this time. I went to the supermarket that is right next to the largest retirement community in Montgomery County, and, sure enough, there were plenty of prunes (oddly, many of them still had their pits in them; I am all for whole foods, but pitting prunes is not my idea of a good time). And, yes, for those of you who know the Maryland suburbs, I live less than three miles from Leisure World. Shut up.

After a great deal of soul and cupboard searching, I decided to use an eight-inch square glass cake pan. I knew this was not an ideal choice and perhaps not even a good choice, but it seemed like the best choice available to me. Let me say up front (oops, too late) that the cake in the square pan was phenomenal, and "phenomenal" is not a word that I use lightly. This is the sort of cake that you taste and then think, "I must have died and gone to heaven! I will finally be reunited with my springform pans! I hope I didn't leave the oven on." Nonetheless, the cake would be better cooked in different pans because it was only phenomenal from about an inch in from the edge. At the edge, it was only very good. And then about 2.5 inches in from the edge, it was underdone (the internal temperature was 150; I would have cooked it longer, but then the edges would have dried out) and required a spoon. (I didn't eat much of the spoon part because I was really not very hungry, and it's a substantial cake even though it's not especially heavy. I put the rest in the freezer, which I never do, but I couldn't bring myself to waste it. I had planned to bring the rest into the office, but while I like my co-workers a lot, I don't like them that much; I like them about enough to bring them a pound cake.) I think that redfox' method of cooking in ramekins is a better preparation, but I suspect that the absolute best preparation would be in individual heatproof cups (ideally, I would use the set of white Corningware teacups that I used to have and that were just perfect for individual plum puddings) cooked for a longer period in a bain marie. With a nice custard sauce. Yum. That would give you the best shot at getting the half-pudding, half-cake consistency that inspired so much mouthjoy last night. ("Mouthjoy" is also not a term I use easily, but mostly because, well, eww.) I will note that my cake (unlike you-know-who's) unmolded perfectly. I was surprised that the center didn't fall through the cooling rack, but it retained its structural integrity very well.

Anyway, I'm going to give the recipe the way I made it, and you can solve the pan problem yourself or wait for future updates. I regret that the measurements are such a mixture of weight, volume, English, and metric, but that is an artifact of the best way to be accurate combined with what I had on hand. I'll try to give notes afterwards to help out people who don't want to weigh their prunes.

The My Prune Cake Is Even Better Than Redfox' a Prune Is Like a Cake Cake Cake

11 oz. prunes
1/2 cup sherry
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
pinch salt
2 T. cocoa powder
1 t. ground ginger
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
8 T. butter
1 t. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/4 cup candied orange peel
50 g bittersweet chocolate

Chop the prunes. I cut them into eighths, but I leave that entirely up to you, so long as you cut them at least into fourths. Pour the sherry over the prunes, cover with plastic wrap and let sit. If possible, do this the day before.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8" square cake pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper or waxed paper.

Set the butter aside to come to room temperature. You can hasten the process by using the microwave. Put the stick of butter on a plate, and microwave on the defrost setting for about 25 seconds. If some of it melts a little, nothing will suffer.

Mince the orange peel and set aside. Chop the chocolate (not too fine) and set aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, put the flour, the cocoa, the salt, the sugar, the baking powder, the ginger, and the cinnamon. Using the whisk attachment, mix for about two minutes.

Scrape the butter into the mixer bowl and mix again for a minute or so. Add the vanilla and then the eggs and mix again. Scrape down the bowl if necessary. The batter should resemble buttercream at this point, but it is not buttercream, so do not eat it. Neither should you frost cupcakes with it. Make some real buttercream if you want to do that.

Clean off the whisk as much as possible, then dump the prune mixture, the orange peel, and the chocolate into the batter, and fold in by hand. By "fold," I just mean stir. You don't have to worry about deflating this batter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth it out as much as possible, and bake until it's done, about 35 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for half an hour, then turn it out on a rack to finish cooling.


11 ounces of prunes is about 1.5 cups, measured after they're chopped and packed into the cup. I did not measure exactly, however, so I figured the weight by weighing the prune container with and without the remaining prunes and doing some arithmetic.

Redfox used port, and that would certainly be at least as good. I had some port, but it cost me nearly $40 for the bottle, and I just couldn't. The sherry was a decent Amontillado (I know that you think that this parenthesis is going to contain a reference to a certain nineteenth century American author with a well-developed sense of the macabre, but you are mistaken), but since V. had bought it, I didn't know the price and had no qualms. (He would not, however, have spent more than $20 for it.)

See my notes from my last entry about the mixing method. I have again used the method from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible, but there is nothing to stop you from using the standard method.

Redfox uses half all purpose flour and half whole wheat flour because she has that mixed and ready to go on her counter. I think you could use anything from all whole wheat to all cake flour, and the cake would still be great, though cake flour would probably be pointless here. I went for simplicity and just pulled out the King Arthur.

If I had thought of it, I would have diced the orange peel the day before and put it in with the prunes and sherry to macerate.

50 g of bittersweet chocolate happens to be one-fourth of a Sainsbury's 200g Plain Chocolate bar. You can use half a 100g bar or two ounces of bittersweet chocolate. You don't want to use milk chocolate here, and you don't want to chop the chocolate too finely. You want to be able to taste the little pieces of chocolate that have melted into the cake as it was baking. But you have to chop it finely enough that there are enough little pieces to get all over the cake. Pieces about the size of chocolate chips are probably best.

If you can work it so that the cake is still slightly warm when you eat it, you will be even happier. I think that I would cook individual cakes in small molds and put them back in a hot water bath briefly before serving.

I did use Whey Low in place of the sugar. Using regular granulated sugar should give you the identical result, at least as far as taste goes.

I have not actually tasted the original Prune Is Like a Cake Cake, but I am confident that mine is better. The official reasons are the prolonged soaking period and the inclusion of cocoa, the spices, and the chopped orange peel, but if you choose to think that my cake's superiority is a reflection of moral superiority on my part, I am powerless to stop you, though I could not, in good conscience agree with you, since my cake is not at all far removed from hers, and I would not have even thought of making such a cake if she had not been busy shilling for Big Prune.

During the early parts of the cake making, I was again struck by the similarity between this cake and a Jamaican black cake. I suspect that some marginal gains in the complexity of flavor could be achieved by letting the prunes and orange peel sit in the port or sherry for a longer period. When I first made black cake, I used a recipe by Laurie Colwin from her Gourmet column, and it involved using a large quantity (maybe a full bottle, but I don't remember) of Manischewitz concord grape wine, in which various chopped dried fruits were submerged for a few weeks. My then-roommate Rob thought that what I should really be using was port, and he offered to contribute a bottle for a future batch, but I never took him up on it, and the black cake was awfully good as it was. I haven't made it in a few years, but it is spectacular, and it has a wonderfuly complex flavor that evokes a reaction similar to the one I had last night. Perhaps I will make one for Christmas this year.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Someone Left My Cake out in the Rain

Ok, not really (and, in the interest of full disclosure, a concept that my readers might justifiably feel I take way too seriously, I should note that I have never heard "MacArthur Park" all the way through; I came close once when I was driving, seven or eight years ago, up to Western Maryland, and the song started, but I needed gas, so I pulled in, turned the car off, pumped some gas, went to the rest room, looked around the mini-mart for a while, bought a soda, and came back to the car to find that it was still playing), but I did have my share of cake-related disappointments this evening. I had originally planned to entitle this post "Two-Cake Tuesday" because I was going to make two cakes and because alliteration is much more important than the calendar.

The second cake that I was going to make would have been my version of Redfox' The Prune Is Like a Cake Cake, except that I would have followed some of her suggestions and added a few of my own. More prunes, cocoa, some finely chopped candied orange peel, and one or more additional spices. And I was going to make it in a single, larger cake pan rather than in ramekins. All of this would no doubt have led to some trash talk between the two of us, culminating in a meeting at dawn on the field of honor with heat-resistant rubber scrapers at twenty paces. Name your seconds. Bring. It. On.

But, alas, I was undone by my (and I'm most extremely sorry if any of what I say is going to offend anyone, but sometimes unpleasant truths have to be discussed in plain language) Y-chromosome.

Just before six this evening, I had picked up my older daughter, A., from her mother's house, where she had gone after school to wait for me, and she was not in a good mood. She was wearing (as she always does) black jeans and (as she often does) a black knit shirt. The shirt comes down just to the top of her jeans with the result that when she stands up, she very briefly shows about three-quarters of an inch of her stomach. I had noticed it this morning, but I thought nothing of it, except to think that she's always been so worried about being covered up that it was probably a good thing that she wasn't freaking out when a tiny flash of stomach peaked out on occasion. But not everyone shares my opinion, apparently, which is why we had the following discussion.

Me: What's the matter?
A: Mom has a problem with my outfit.
Me: What's wrong with your outfit?
A: She says it shows too much skin.
Me: What, your arms?
A: No, my stomach.
Me: Well, we could get you a Burka.
A: She says that I'm teasing the boys by wearing this.
Me: Oh, geez. The next time she says that, remind her that she used to be a feminist.

(I mention the conversation only because it amused me, but you can pretend that it's relevant, if you like.)

A. wanted to get her hair cut (it was down to the small of her back), so we set off to the Hair Cuttery, where I read some strange sports magazine while she had about five inches trimmed. Then it was over to Safeway to do some shopping. This was where disaster struck. Try as I might, I could not find any prunes. You are, of course, to understand that "try as I might" means walking up and down the aisles, looking for any of the places where dried fruits are likely to be, alternating with getting other things on my list. Eventually, A. and I had the following discussion.

A: Just ask somebody where the prunes are!
Me: Well, they must be here somewhere. Maybe they're with the nuts, since they're not with the canned fruits or the baking supplies.
A: Or you could just ask somebody.
Me: There's no store directory in here. I should have gone to Giant like I usually do.
A: For God's sake. Is there some law that says if you have a penis, you can't ask somebody where something is?
Me: Well, yeah. It's just as well that you understand that now. It will save you a lot of grief when you get older if you know what to expect.
A: We're never getting out of here, are we?

Eventually, we left, without any prunes. I wanted them badly enough that if I'd seen a store employee around, I might have asked where they were. Ok, that's a complete lie. I would never have asked where prunes were. Prunes are kind of embarrassing under the best of circumstances. But if I'd seen a store employee, I might have said, pretty loudly, to A., "Where in the world are those raisins?" in the hope that someone would overhear me and take pity on me. But it was not to be.

I have a pretty good selection of non-prune dried fruits in the pantry, but making a prune cake without actual prunes seemed like missing the point a bit, so I decided to scale back to one cake. (I suppose I could have gone with "One-Cake Wednesday," but that didn't occur to me until just now. Be grateful.) A prune cake (despite its similarity to fruit cakes generally and to the Jamaican black cake particularly, both cakes that I have made many times) is somewhat out of the scope of my usual cake baking, so I decided to go with an old favorite for the other (and now only) cake.

There is nothing fancy about pound cake, but people seem to fear it for some reason. I once read a lengthy treatise on pound cake in Cook's Illustrated, and boy did it make pound cake sound complicated. Apparently, many people have a lot of problems getting the batter to mix together smoothly and bake up properly. I have made a lot of pound cakes in my day, and I have never encountered this problem, nor did I this evening. I did encounter some problem with cake pans, but after the whole prune incident, I wasn't really surprised. I made the trek down to the basement and rummaged through my boxes to try to find one of my tube pans, but I was unsuccessful. I did find my giant sixteen-inch loaf pan. I always feel that a pound cake should made in a tube pan because that's the way my mother made hers. It still tastes very good when made in a loaf pan, but it looks wrong to me.

The method I use for mixing the cake is taken from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible. If you do not have a good stand mixer, then use a more traditional cake mixing method (cream the butter with the sugar, add the eggs, yada, yada, yada). If you don't have the splash guard for your mixer (like I don't), either be careful or be prepared to wipe up a few tablespoons of dry ingredients.

This mixing method WILL NOT WORK if your butter is not soft. Let it come to room temperature before you start.

Pound Cake

1 pound butter1 AT ROOM TEMPERATURE
1 pound sugar2
1 pound flour3
1 pound eggs4
1 lemon5
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. mace

Preheat oven to 325. Grease and flour a tube pan or two 9x5 loaf pans, or one 16-inch loaf pan.

Zest and juice the lemon. You will use both the grated zest and the juice.

Beat the eggs lightly with a fork, then beat the vanilla in lightly. Reserve this mixture.

Put the whisk attachment on your mixer. Place the flour, sugar, baking powder, and mace in the bowl of the mixer, and whisk for two minutes to combine (RLB says that this aerates the dry ingredients, and presumably she knows what she's talking about, but she also recommends using cocoa instead of chocolate in chocolate cakes, so it's not like she's infallibleJulia Child.)

Put the softened butter in, about two tablespoons at a time. You don't have to wait for each bit to be incorporated before you add the next bit in. If you take about a minute to do the whole pound, you should be fine. Let the mixer run until the ingredients are well combined, in a big mass. Scrape down the bowl. Add the lemon rind and lemon juice, and turn the mixer back on.

With the mixer running (it should never get above low), beat the egg-and-vanilla mixture in, in three parts. If necessary, scrape down the bowl again, and mix until you have a smooth batter.

Scrape the batter into your prepared pan, and smooth it out as well as possible. Bake for approximately one hour (longer for the tube pan), until it's done. If you don't know how to tell when a cake is done, drop me a line, and I'll give you the pros and cons of the major methods, but I'm sure you already know.

Remove the pan from the oven, and let it sit on a rack to cool for about twenty minutes. It should have pulled away from the side of the pan. Invert the cake onto a rack, set it back upright if you like, and let it cool completely.

1I almost always use plain old salted butter when I make cakes. If you want to use unsalted butter, add half a teaspoon of salt to the flour.
2I used Whey Low. I still had some on hand. Plain old granulated sugar tastes the same, and it's not like the recipe is healthy anyway.
3I used all purpose flour. You will get a somewhat finer crumb if you use cake flour instead, but you will likely only notice when you look at the slices. I think it tastes as good with AP flour.
4You can just use either eight or nine large eggs. This is not a finicky recipe, and one egg out of nine is not going to ruin anything either way.
5A second lemon (zest and juice) would be more of a good thing.

In Praise of White Chocolate

I got nothin'.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Meme Redux: Wine for Chocolate

Port, mousse, and the casualties of war.
When I saw, via Toast, that there was a meme involving pairing wine and chocolate, I had mixed feelings. I like wine a whole lot, and I like chocolate a whole lot more, but when I think of alcoholic beverages and chocolate, I tend to think of using some Chambord as an ingredient in the dessert. I am a big fan of dessert wines, but, well, this post is going to ramble a considerable distance (one of the subtitles I considered and discarded was A la Recherce des Repas Perdus), so before I let myself wander, I'm going to post the chocolate dessert recipe I used.

Perfect Chocolate Mousse

4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup coffee
1/2 cup cognac
1 lb semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tsp. granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream

In a saucepan, whisk together the egg yolks and the coffee. Cook over low heat, whisking more or less constantly, until the custard coats the back of a spoon. Add the cognac and cook for a minute or two more. Remove the saucepan from the heat and dump in the chocolate. It will seize up at first, but if you continue to stir it, it will melt nicely. When the mixture is smooth, set it aside.
When the chocolate has cooled to close to room temperature (this should not take long), beat the egg whites until they are at about the soft-peak stage, then add the sugar and beat until they form stiff peaks. Fold the egg whites into the chocolate.
Beat the heavy cream until it is stiff. Fold the cream into the chocolate.
Refrigerate for at least four hours.

A few notes:

You can use any sort of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate that you like. Even if you end up using the chips that you normally use for Tollhouse cookies, the mousse will be great. Better chocolate is even better. Live dangerously and use a 500g bar of bittersweet chocolate. An extra ounce or two hurts nothing.

You can substitute your favorite liqueur for the cognac. I was trying to avoid a strong fruit flavor that might argue with the wine I was drinking with the mousse, but Chambord, Frangelico, Amaretto, Grand Marnier, or Cassis all work.

The perfect pan for making the custard is a two-quart Calphalon round-sided saucepan (they call it a chef's skillet). If you use a straight-sided saucepan, you may have some trouble getting the whisk into the corners, and your eggs might curdle. (You can, of course, use a double boiler, but I never do.)

How long you cook the custard after you add the cognac will affect how much alcohol remains in the mousse. Mine still had quite a bit of alcohol left in. The only thing you really need to worry about is making sure that there's enough heat left in the custard to melt the chocolate, but not so much that the eggs curdle.

When the chocolate seems fully melted, there will still be little tiny bits of unmelted chocolate. You will be ecstatic to run across these when you're eating the mousse. Just make sure there are no large unmelted lumps.

This recipe is far easier if you use a hand mixer to beat the egg whites and your stand mixer (whose bowl and whisk attachment you will have placed in the freezer for a while) to beat the heavy cream. I fold everything in with my big wire whisk. You can use a spatula, but that will take much longer, and the whisk doesn't deflate anything anyway.

This mousse is extremely tender, but, once it's refrigerated, it's also very stiff, in a soft sort of way. You could easily stand a spoon upright in it, or use it to fill a multi-layered cake without worrying about anything collapsing, so long as it's kept cold.

I will brook no argument about the "perfect" in the title. The picture, however, is not so good. The mousse is significantly darker in real life. Flash is not my friend.

Back to the ramble. I was, it seems, supposed to either make or procure a rich chocolate cake for this particular meme. I have a tremendously good chocolate gâteau recipe (and where I say that I have the recipe, I mean that I have a copy of Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible and it's Chocolate Oblivion Truffle Torte recipe, which I have modified slightly). I did not, however, understand the cake requirement until after I'd already made the mousse, and, really, the mousse and the cake taste a whole lot alike. Besides, as much as I (and the many guests to whom I have served the cake) love that recipe, it is a bit nervewracking because setting the cake free of the pan takes some effort and raises a lot of tension, though it always comes free in the end.

There is no vodka here.  Honest.Back to the wine. As I said, I adore dessert wines, and one sure way to make me happy is to hand me a glass of a nice Sauternes or Auslese or Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. But in most cases, I prefer to sip any of these wines by itself after the dessert and coffee have been cleared away because it often seems to me that a great dessert wine and a great dessert served together is less than the sum of its parts. Still, I was determined to try, and I figured that as I happened to have a very big gun in my pantry, I would go with it.

My experience with sweet wines began some twenty years ago when I was on leave of absence from my undergraduate studies and living in an apartment in the Allston-Brighton section of Boston with two graduate students from the Math department at MIT. One of them (Rob), who went on to become a professor in the Math department at Boston College, liked to cook almost as much as I did (the other one at least liked to eat, and he cooked occasionally), and he knew a great deal about wine at a time when I (having been raised in a teetotaling Southern Baptist family) knew next to nothing about anything alcoholic. When we'd have people over for dinner, I'd usually decide what to make and make it (with his help; I have found that it is rare for two friends to be able to work well together in the kitchen, but he and I made a good team, probably because he always let me be in charge, even when I made a mistake), and he and I would go together to one or another of the local wine stores to buy the wine for dinner. I was mostly along for the fun of watching him work and to help carry the bottles home. We didn't have a car, and we usually ended up with a case, to get the discount, even though we'd typically only drink half the case with dinner. (Rob's rule for wine was "one bottle per person plus one for the table," and I was expected to come up with enough courses to keep us all sitting down and eating long enough to get through that much wine.)

Dinners tended to be casual but bountiful affairs. Every once in a while, we'd pull out all the stops, and that usually meant that Rob would spend more on the wine to go with something special I was making for dinner. I think it was at one of those dinners that I was first introduced to Port.

I should probably email Rob and ask him exactly what bottle of Port that was, because he doubtless still remembers it, and because I owe him an email (and have owed it him for a few years now, yikes), but I think I'll just hope that I'm right when I say that it was a fairly expensive late bottled vintage Port (but I really should go ahead and email him, as well). I do remember that it came in one of those very dark bottles with lettering stenciled on in white paint. I cannot, to this day, recall a bottle of wine that I've liked better.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Heathrow, at the end of my vacation, desultorily looking through the duty-free shop at a lot of bottles of hard liquor that I didn't want. I was about to give up, when an employee asked me if he could help me find something, and I said, "I'm not sure. Do you have any Port?" and he pointed me to a corner of the store I hadn't previously noticed, and there were a few dark green bottles with lettering stenciled on in white paint. (It was not, obviously, the exact same wine. Ten years or so ago Rob told me that that particular wine could no longer be found, but that any similar and similarly expensive bottle would be something I would like a lot.) The price was twenty pounds ($36 at the current exchange rate) for a bottle, and that is three (or at least two) times what I would normally pay for a bottle of any sort of wine, but I decided that I would take the chance and rationalized it by saying that the same bottle would surely be much more expensive back home. I also remembered that for V.'s birthday, I had dropped about $50 (so much easier to justify when it's a present, don't you know) on a bottle of Port that was good but that did not measure up to memory.

I made the chocolate mousse Sunday afternoon, and when we had finished the main course of dinner (and had some time to recover), I fetched the Port from the pantry with some trepidation. I very much wanted it to live up to memory, and I very much wanted it to go well with the mousse. There is, alas, many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip, and there is also, apparently, many a slip 'twixt the bottle and the cup, because the cork of this particular bottle was adamant in its desire not to be liberated. It defended itself against two good corkscrews, first by disintegrating, and then by moving in when it was meant to be moving out. Finally, when it realized that all was lost, it flung itself all the way into the bottle (O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!), which explains the Smirnoff Vodka bottle in the picture: I was forced (swearing all the while) to decant the wine into another container, and that's what I had on hand (the vodka itself having gone, some weeks ago, into a clementine ratafia that should be ready to drink in a week or two now). I suppose that the appropriate way to view the whole episode is that the cork won the battle, but I won the war.

And the spoils were sweet. If my mind holds up that Port I drank back in 1984 (or so) as the Platonic ideal, the Port I sipped Sunday evening was in no way lacking. An absolute steal at $36 a bottle. (And, really, it is not so expensive when you consider that it will stay wonderful for a good while, unlike most wines, which must be drunk in their entirety shortly after having been opened; the Port will delight us for another four or five meals, I reckon.)

I am, alas, not well-versed in the vocabulary of wine, nor am I terribly good at discerning the various flavors, though I can usually tell you about how many different things I'm tasting. I recall (again, in the early 80s, with the same roommates) a dinner at which we held a Beaujolais tasting, during which we compared a Beaujolais Villages, a Juliénas, and a Fleurie. They were all nice, and two of them were significantly nicer than the third, but I was struck more with how much they tasted alike than with their differences.

I'll do the best I can with the Port, but one of the best things about it was that it had a wonderfully complex flavor that was, all the same, unified. It was similar to hearing an a cappella quartet singing, wonderfully, a piece with complex harmonies but being unable to tell who is singing what: this Port had a terrific sense of ensemble. And, yes, it was sweet, but sweet in such a way that when you drink it, you don't think "sweet." All you really think is "this is what good tastes like."

And it held up very well to the chocolate mousse, which was also simultaneously complex and simple. I would not really say that the taste of either enhanced the other, but equally I would not say that the taste of either detracted from the other. In the final analysis, I would probably elect to serve them separately, but only because that would allow me to wow my guests for two courses instead of one.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Tale of Two Memes, Part I: Eggs on Toast

Before baking. It feels naked without its grated cheese topping.

After having cooked nothing all week, I told V. that I needed to make dinner yesterday. I didn't tell him that I was doing it partly to participate in two Internet food memes, but that sort of information is released on a need-to-know basis. This post covers the entree that I made for the first meme.

I've never tried any of the Internet food memes before, mainly because I was unaware of their existence, but I enjoy taking a food-related assignment and running with it (One of my favorite cooking shows is Iron Chef, though I like it somewhat less now that I know that before the competition begins, the contestants are given a list of five possible ingredients, and the secret ingredient comes from that list. It is still impressive that they make five dishes featuring that ingredient in one hour, but the development of the dishes under time pressure was always a crucial ingredient for me. I would much prefer that the chefs get an additional five minutes to confer with their sous chefs and not know the secret ingredient in advance, but I was not consulted. Alas.), so why not?

I didn't really make the deadline for this particular meme, since it's called End of the Month Eggs on Toast, and it's past the end of the month, but perhaps they'll see fit to include me, and, if not, it's still a pretty good recipe. V., in fact, had three servings of it. Three large servings. I had two, and there were leftovers, which V. insisted on reheating and serving tonight. I reckon that under ordinary circumstances, it would serve six to eight as a one-dish dinner. I did serve some French bread with it, and we had wine, too.

This month's theme-in-the-meme is Dr. Seuss. As dedicated readers of my column (and other folk who know me from around the 'net) know, my online name comes from my admiration for Dr. Seuss. If you don't know, you can read the whole sordid story here. Sadly, my first and best idea for a Seuss-inspired dish containing eggs and carbs came not from the seminal anapestic tetrameter work of Dr. Seuss (The Cat in the Hat), but from the seminal work in iambic tetrameter. Life is, after all, a series of compromises.

Mise en placeThe picture above is the mise en place. There is a bowl of grated cheddar hiding behind the box of ziti. Oops.

Ziti with Greens, Eggs, and Ham

12 ounces fresh spinach
A one-pound box of ziti
2 Tablespoons butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups milk
1 Tablespoon dijon mustard
4 eggs
10 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 pound ham, cubed
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil, and put in a tablespoon or so of kosher salt.
Blanch the spinach for two to three minutes, then fish it out with either tongs or a strainer of some sort, and set it aside to cool a bit. When it's cool enough to handle, squeeze as much water as possible out of it. I use a salad spinner to do this, but your hands and/or a kitchen towel will work. When it's reasonably dry, chop it up, roughly.
Meanwhile, bring the water back to the boil, and put the ziti in. Give it a good stir, and set your timer.
In a saucepan, melt the butter over low heat, add the garlic, and cook for a minute or two. You do not want the garlic to brown.
Add the milk to the saucepan and then whisk in the mustard. Continue cooking and whisking on low heat until a bit of steam rises from the surface of the milk. It should not be so hot that you can't put your finger in it for a second or two.
In a heatproof bowl, beat the eggs. Take a ladle or two of the hot milk and pour it slowly into the eggs while you whisk. Then whisk the egg-and-milk mixture back into the milk in the saucepan. Continue cooking over low or medium-low heat until the custard coats the back of the spoon. Do not let the mixture boil, or you will have something that looks like scrambled eggs, causing you to swear and then get out your immersion blender to save the day, not, you understand, that it's ever happened to me.
When the custard has thickened, turn off the heat, and stir in eight ounces of the grated cheddar, until it has melted, and the sauce is smooth. Add salt to taste (it will probably take about a teaspoon for the cheddar flavor to sing out) and then pepper, also to taste.
Do your best to have the sauce done at about the same time the ziti finishes cooking. Dump the ziti in a big bowl and dump the sauce on top of it. Add in the cubed hand and the chopped spinach, and stir very well to combine everything. Put the mixture into a large casserole dish (I used a glass 9x13 rectangular cake pan), and put it in the oven for about thirty minutes. It will seem soupy for a while, but in the end, it won't be.
Spread the remaining two ounces of grated cheddar on top, then bake for another five minutes.

A few notes:

Yes, yes, yes, what I've made here is essentially macaroni and cheese with some extras. I am a big fan of homemade macaroni and cheese.

You can probably get away with using a package of frozen spinach, but to my palate, using the fresh spinach made a substantial difference.

I don't think it has to be ziti, but the ziti works very well.

I used, as I always do, large eggs, but you could use extra large or jumbo eggs, without any problems.

I actually used turkey ham for this recipe. It worked very well. There is plenty of richness without the pork because of the eggs. Regular ham would also work, however. Virginia ham would not, but you knew that already.

I think that the extra-sharp cheddar is important here. If you don't like extra-sharp cheddar, you might try substituting something like some emmenthaler punched up with some pecorino romano. But I don't think Dr. Seuss would approve.