Saturday, November 12, 2005

This Time, America, You've Gone Too Far

Yesterday, readers, was not a good day in the kitchen. It was not the sort of bad day that includes the making of actual bad food, but it was the sort of day where the eventual production of very good food has been preceded by obstacles and outrages small and large, leaving me wondering if the master plan (you know, the one that culminates with the publication of The Cuisine of the Anapest [foreword by Mireille Johnston], which then spends sixteen years in the number one spot on the Times bestseller list -- yielding its position only after every man, woman, and child in the industrialized world has purchased three copies -- and propels me to the first ever Nobel prize in literature for a cookbook author; in case I forget later, I'd like to take the opportunity now to thank my Swedish translator) is really workable.

In my neverending quest to stimulate the economy (and the economy doesn't seem to appreciate my generosity; I drop loads of money on it, and it never calls), I visited no fewer than five stores last night. Trader Joe's was my first stop. I found most of what I needed for the prune cake (that never got made), and I got both some raw sugar and some organic cane sugar (which, as near as I can figure, is sort of minimally processed white sugar; whatever), but I suffered two disappointments. Through either a temporary shortage or a change in policy (I didn't ask: y-chromosome in action), there were no 70% dark chocolate Pound Plus bars. I grumbled to myself and got the regular bittersweet (48%, not that I'm keeping track, mind you). But then, I was ambling through the aisles, and I came upon the package that you see in the picture at the top of this entry. And I thought to myself "Woohoo, the lebkuchen is here!" but then as I reached to put the package in my cart, I read the label, and it said "Soft Gingerbread Cookies chocolate-covered." Leaving aside (but only for the moment: I've got you on the list!) the bizarre capitalization and the highly inflammatory misuse of the hyphen, when did lebkuchen become "[s]oft [g]ingerbread [c]ookies"?

While I certainly do not share it, I have largely resigned myself to the unfortunate American tendency towards political and cultural xenophobia. When people wanted to say "freedom fries," I just laughed at them. When people decided that they could no longer drink French wines, I reasoned that most of those people probably weren't drinking much French wine in the first place, and if they were, well, fine, the prices would fall and more for me! I dislike, of course, tariffs on French cheeses, but perhaps they'll help the domestic cheese market develop the Great American Chevre.

But now we're picking on the Germans? I thought that the selection of Angela (which, by the way, I pronounce properly, with a hard g) Merkel was supposed to mark a new era of political cooperation. So why can't we just call lebkuchen "lebkuchen"? You may well infer from the emptiness of the package in the picture that I did not let my outrage keep me from buying the poorly named, but otherwise superlative, cookies. I can neither confirm nor deny my eventual purchase of said cookies, but I will say that if I bought them, I ate them defiantly.

Anyway, after stops for other items (some related to food, some not) at The Guitar Center, Bed Bath & Beyond, and some store whose name I can't remember but which bills itself as a "discount party super store" and which did not have any cake boxes of the appropriate size, I arrived home ready to bake. I'm going to momentarily (but only momentarily, a fact that I repeat pointlessly merely to widen the split of this infinitive) suspend my tale of woe and insert here the recipe. Attentive readers will note a similarity to a preceding recipe. They are not identical, but they are close relatives. Sorry about that.

Lemon Pound Cake

One pound butter
Three lemons
One pound sugar
One pound flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. mace
Pinch of salt
Eight whole eggs
1 t. almond extract

Confectioner's sugar

Take the butter out of the refrigerator and put it on the counter so that it can come to room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

If your tube or bundt pan is not a non-stick pan, then butter and flour it.

Remove the yellow zest (no white pith) from the lemons. Put them in the bowl of your food processor with the sugar and process until the lemon is cut up very fine. Put the mixture in the bowl of your Kitchenaid. Juice the lemons and reserve the juice.

Add the flour, baking powder, mace, and salt to the bowl. Fit the whisk attachment on your mixer and mix for two minutes.

In a bowl, whisk the eggs until they are well mixed, then whisk in the almond extract.

Check your butter. If it is soft, proceed. Otherwise, put it in the microwave on defrost briefly or just wait until it is soft. When it's soft, turn the mixer on again and add the butter bit by bit until it is all incorporated. Add the egg mixture and continue whisking until the batter is well mixed. You are not looking to beat air into the batter, though, and if it isn't well mixed after a minute or so, then take the whisk attachment off the mixer, scrape the batter off it and into the bowl with a spatula, and fold the batter together with the spatula.

Put the batter in the tube or bundt pan (you can use two 9x5 loaf pans instead), getting it as evenly distributed as possible. Put the pan in the oven. A tube-shaped cake will take approximately 75 minutes to bake, but begin checking after an hour, and remove it from the oven when a cake tester (i.e., toothpick) inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool in its pan for ten minutes, then invert it onto a cooling rack.

Put about 1/2 cup of confectioner's sugar in a bowl. Mixing with a fork, add lemon juice until the mixture is no longer opaque and is too thin to be used as an icing. Brush this glaze all over the top and sides of the cake. Wait a few minutes and brush again. Wait a while longer, brush a third time, and then let the cake cool.

Put another cup of confectioner's sugar in a bowl and stir any remaining glaze into it. Add more lemon juice until you have something that looks like thin icing. It should be opaque, and it should drop slowly from a spoon when you lift it out of the bowl.

Put some waxed paper under the cake and the rack. Pour a stream of icing along the highest part of the cake and let it drip down the sides.

Naturally, a good deal of the icing will drip off the cake and onto the waxed paper. Don't worry about it. You don't really want the icing to be all that thick anyway, and I'm sure you can find something to do with the leftover icing. Rumor has it that I got out some of my own lebkuchen and dipped them in the icing, but there are no pictures, and you can't prove it.

The above recipe presumes a level of organization on your part that I did not myself possess last night. It is an unfortunate side effect of sharing a house with someone who cooks breakfast for himself after you've left for the office that the many eggs you bought some time ago will slowly go away, and if you've not done your mise en place with your usual rigor, you may find yourself visiting a fifth store when you have to run out to the Giant at the last minute.

And then when you get home and start to beat the eggs, you may find yourself face to face with the unfortunate reality that even the pint-sized bottles of vanilla extract that you get from Costco will run out eventually, and they might run out when you're not there, or you might just have forgotten (unlikely) or, well, heck, let's just blame the French. Regardless, you might find yourself without vanilla extract despite repeated (and re-repeated) searching, and even though you will then use almond extract and even though almond extract is a better choice with a lemon pound cake, you will still find yourself entirely out of sorts by the time you finally get the cake into the oven, and any hopes you might have had of making a second cake (which will, it must be acknowledged, have mostly been lost when you saw the egregious price of bundt pans and decided to buy only one) will fly out the window. Goodbye Nobel prize, hello kitchen full of dirty dishes still needing to be cleaned at midnight.

(The whole long evening's journey into slovenliness may have been accelerated by my determination to get a few other things done in the kitchen. To that end, I descended to the basement and fetched a real food processor and brought it upstairs, only to find that a vital element was missing and that I could only make it work by holding a butter knife on the switch. Also, there was a nearly constant difficulty getting the blade to come off the little shaft that makes the blade go around, so processing the ten pounds of macerating fruit, already a somewhat tedious process, became a good deal more tedious. Still, fruit that's been soaking in alcohol for a month or so and is then processed into an alcoholic fruit paste smells really terrific, and now where I had a giant container of individual dried fruits, I have the true beginnings of black cake and a great sense of accomplishment. Grinding the fruit greatly increased the mess, though.)

This morning I woke up, and V. made breakfast for us. The cake was on the counter, wrapped in aluminum foil, and when I unwrapped it, it looked great. I put it on a stiff paper plate, wrapped it with plastic wrap, labeled it, and took it off to the church, where it was gratefully received. While I was at the church, there was a couple, presumably of Norwegian descent, who were selling Norwegian waffles. L. was there (she's a great salesperson), and she insisted that I try a waffle. I think the waffle had lost much of its crispness, but it was still good. It was really a heart-shaped fifth of a waffle, but it only cost me twenty-five cents, and they had various toppings to spread on it. One of these toppings was labeled "Norwegian Goat Cheese Spread," and it had the color of gjetost, so I asked if it had gjetost in it, and they said, "Yes, it's a gjetost-based spread." You will no doubt admire my incredible restraint when I tell you that I didn't scream in horror. I just took some of the honey butter spread and went over to the used book sale.

Here you see most of what I picked up in the used book room. The cookbook section was rather more meager than in previous years, but I'm pleased with what I found. I have, of course, other copies of Joy of Cooking, but how could I pass up a vintage copy for two bucks? It would be like abandoning an orphan in a war zone. And while I may have read pieces of the book in other formats, I have never owned a copy of M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, so that was also a must have.

Obviously, however, the real jewel in the crown is Dawn Wells' Mary Ann's Gilligan's Island Cookbook. Not only is it full of recipes such as "Skipper's Skillet Bread," "Howells's Stuffy Stuffing," and "Little Spuddy Gnocchi" (just to quote from pages 68 and 69), but there are pictures of the cast members on the set and a short essay about each of the other characters (as well as a separate essay about each of the actors). I won't spoil all of the content for you (since I know that you'll all be seeking out copies of the book for yourselves), but I will reveal that while Mary Ann Summers was from Kansas, the real Dawn Wells was from Reno. I know you're shocked to learn that a Nevadan could so fully inhabit the persona of a Kansan, but it's right there in black and white. I briefly considered throwing a dinner party using only recipes from Mary Ann's Gilligan's Island Cookbook, but perhaps, after having read the recipes, I'll merely view it as an interesting cultural artifact. I may have to try one of the coconut cream pie recipes, however. The book has thirteen.


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