Monday, January 30, 2006


It should go without saying that writing a proper villanelle is as much within my power as is, say, giving birth. Nonetheless, I have always wanted to write one, and I was finally moved to try by the recent completion, after weeks of hard reading, of John L. Hess' and Karen Hess' The Taste of America, which I could sum up by saying, "We got none." Taste, that is. I did, however, want to devote a few words to the most toxic book I've read in the last fifteen years. (And probably longer, but there may have been something nastier that I read twenty years ago and which my mind has suppressed.)

As it happens, the villanelle is uniquely suited to describing The Taste of America because both rely heavily upon repetition. The Hesses are not afraid to make their point a sixth, eighth, or twelfth time, on the off chance, one supposes, that you were sleeping through the first five, seven, or eleven, for which you could certainly be forgiven.

Poets and students of poetry may feel that I have taken certain liberties with the villanelle form. Let me hasten to assure you that this impression is a figment of your imagination. Any extra syllables, faulty rhymes, metrical anomalies, or a general lack of competence brilliance exist only in your fevered brain, not on the screen. Seek medical attention.

A Poem for the Hesses

Sauces with flour are library paste,
Culinary depravity
American people have terrible taste

Modern cooks value nothing but haste
Appearance over quality
Sauces with flour are library paste

Fannie Farmer, a talentless waste,
Pilfered every recipe
American people have terrible taste

Julia Child we can never (never, never, never, never) sufficiently lambaste
Though we did try tirelessly
Sauces with flour are library paste

Our small farms having been displaced
We churn out flavorless, sad poultry
American people have terrible taste

Our forefathers' tables were wonderfully graced
But all now is catastrophe
American people have terrible taste
Sauces with flour are library paste

I want to be very clear about two things. First, the Hesses make several valuable points in The Taste of America, and there is a good deal to be learned from the book. Second, I don't like them, not one little bit.

I may not be entirely rational about this issue. It turns out that the quickest way for a food writer to get on my bad side is to go after Julia Child, the culinary figure than whom I hold no one in greater reverence. The edition of The Taste of America that I have includes the original manuscript of the book and a number of appendices. In the original book, there are unkind words for Mrs. Child, but then there are unkind words for any number of people, and the Hesses certainly have worse things to say about Craig Claiborne, James Beard, and Fannie Farmer.

In 1997, however, the Hesses wrote "Icon Flambé" for The Nation. It is difficult to imagine what might have prompted this dyspeptic attack on an eighty-five-year-old woman, but in the absence of an actual police report, we can only assume that Mrs. Child did not, in fact, eat any of the Hesses' children. Whatever the motivation, "Icon Flambé" takes a few instances in which the Hesses claim that Mrs. Child strayed from culinary ideals and from this infers that she was a fraud who made no valuable contributions to American cuisine. One might suppose that someone who had reached her eighties and had had such a huge impact on so many American cooks might have made a few minor mistakes along the way but might reasonably expect to be judged by the totality of her actions and achievements rather than by a few actions with which the authors did not agree. But one would be mistaken.

And, indeed, one might forgive the Hesses for writing a hatchet piece about Mrs. Child if it had disappeared along with the back issues of The Nation, but they included it in the revised version of The Taste of America, so one can only assume that they are proud of their invective.

If there was information about John Hess' early years in The Taste of America, I missed it, but the authors are very clear that Karen Hess was the daughter of a Midwestern protestant minister. I was afflicted with a number of protestant ministers during my own youth, and, as a whole, I did not find these people to have a great appreciation for gray areas, and the Hesses certainly carry on this tradition of obtuse intolerance. One can easily imagine the Hesses picturing themselves at the right hand of God looking down at various figures in American culinary history, saying, "Chaff, chaff, wheat, chaff, chaff, chaff, chaff, chaff, wheat, chaff, chaff...."

The Hesses' main beef with Mrs. Child (and many others) appears to be that she emphasized technique over the quality of ingredients. There is probably merit to the complaint that the gourmet movement generally held that you could make any food more attractive by throwing money, bizarre ingredients of questionable quality, overly fussy processes, and a lot of time at it, but it does not follow that technique is unimportant. Mrs. Child had television shows that were mainly about technique, but that is clearly the sort of thing that is easiest to teach on television. How many episodes of The French Chef might reasonably have been spent on trips to the market demonstrating how to pick fresh fish? It's not like you can demonstrate smell over the television. Nonetheless, I remember a number of occasions where she emphasized the importance of ingredients, saying that if you couldn't obtain a good specimen of a particular ingredient, you were better off leaving it out.

You cannot cook well with awful ingredients, but neither can you cook well with awful technique, and the relative importance of each depends a great deal on what you're preparing and serving. Certainly, if you're serving raw peaches, the quality of the peaches is paramount. But if you take a cook who knows how to make pie dough and a cook who doesn't, give the first Gold Medal flour and store brand salted butter and the second the finest artisan flour and the freshest imaginable butter, and compare the results, you'll find that the person who knows how to make dough will have prepared something superior. Naturally, you would want the person who knows the technique to have the best possible ingredients, but the technique is unquestionably important, and somebody has to teach the technique. For millions of Americans, myself included, that person was Julia Child, and to suggest that all of those people, myself included, eat worse because of the influence of Mrs. Child is the purest poppycock.

I do not, however, want to treat the Hesses the same way that they treated Mrs. Child. It would be wrong to ignore all of the good and important information in The Taste of America simply because its authors are mean spirited. (And there are certainly parts of the book where the invective is amusing. There is a lengthy discussion of restaurants, for example, where it is difficult not to laugh at the descriptions of culinary excess. If only that discussion had been half as long. Alas.)

Most of us long for a world where we can find fresh produce full of taste and free of pesticides. Where local dairies milk local cows and prepare local butter and local cheese that can be purchased (locally) fresh any time we want it. That we do not live in such a world, however, is really not the fault of the gourmet movement. It is, rather, the necessary result of overpopulation and failed agricultural policies, a point that the Hesses make eloquently, but not until the penultimate chapter of the book, leaving me to say, "yes, but" any number of times in the earlier chapters.

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate The Taste of America today in the same way as one would have when it was originally published. Many of the situations that the Hesses deplore are still around, but there has certainly been an increase in the availability of organic produce and an increase in the diversity of produce generally. There have been people (Alice Waters leaps to mind) who have been emphasizing the importance of starting with the best possible ingredients. Some of these people may indeed have been inspired by The Taste of America. And certainly, if we all followed the Hesses prescriptions, we would all enjoy our food a good deal more. Whether their prescriptions can really be scaled to the population as a whole remains an open question. As does whether the book would be more effective with less repetition, less bile, and fewer attacks on Julia Child.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

I Have Black Walnuts (and You Don't)

I may have said this here before (or I may only have said it in other blogs' comment sections, and I could go back and figure out which, but there's no point since even if I've said it before, I'm going to say it again; surely my prose is sufficiently mind numbing that you can't actually remember anything that shows up on this site, anyway), but black walnuts and I go way back. Many years ago, I had a brief flirtation with wild foods generally, but most of those interests have since waned (I would still like to make wild rose hip jam sometime, but the rose hips from the local wild rose bushes are itty bitty, and the recipe I have calls for ten pounds of them, and one November or December I went out in the cold and spent two hours subjecting myself to the thickets and thorns, and I ended up with about a pound of them. And then when I went to Germany ten years or so ago with the then-wife and A., I saw really big hips on their wild rose bushes growing in what used to be the buffer zone in the border between the FRG and the GDR, so I took four or five hips [the seed pods, I believe] and I put them in a pocket of something and brought them back to the U.S., probably totally illegally, and then never planted them, though I held onto them for many years. But, you know: someday.), but in all that time, I have never stopped taking note of wild berry bushes (rarer and rarer all the time these days) and black walnut trees (still relatively common).

The taste of the black walnut is complex and decadent (and otherwise hard to describe), and if you have never had them, I might reasonably feel like a crack dealer introducing you to something that you're going to want a lot more of except that a) black walnuts are legal and probably not bad for you, and b) the first one is most certainly not free. You can obtain the nutmeats via mail order at exorbitant prices (I used to be able to find bags of the nutmeats at Costco at reasonable prices, but time happens), or you can gather your own at exorbitant difficulty. The difficulty is not so much in gathering the fruit of the tree, though you will want to wear gloves because the green fruits will stain your hands, as it is in separating the shell-and-nut from the pod and the nutmeat from the shell. I remember one year where I had gone out and gathered two grocery bags full of fallen nutballs (I don't know the proper term, but they look like green tennis balls, only a bit smaller), and brought them home, only to be completely stymied as to what to do with them next.

I mentioned this problem to my grandmother, and she told me that she had seen people put them in pails and take the green covering off with shovels, and that she had seen people put them on the road and drive over them. I tried the former, with no success, and I thought that perhaps she was pulling my leg about the latter. But recently, I was searching the net for information, and I came upon an extension site for the University of Minnesota, which informed me that

Removing the husk is an important step in storing black walnuts properly. If the nuts are stored with husks attached, the heat released as the husks decompose will discolor walnut kernels and ruin their flavor.

Hulling walnuts, removing the husk, can be a difficult and messy task. The indelible dye from the husk stains hands, clothes, tools and work surfaces. If you are working with dry nuts, the husk can be removed by applying pressure to the ends of the nut. This can be done by pounding side to side with a hammer, of course while wearing safety glasses.

The husks can also be softened in a container filled with a slurry of three parts nuts to one part water and a handful of gravel. Stir the mixture vigorously. It may take more than one attempt to completely remove the husks.

If you are hulling a large quantity of nuts, the slurry can be used in a small portable cement mixer. An old-fashioned corn sheller will also be useful in hulling black walnuts.

Take care when hulling or shelling walnuts. The practice of driving over nuts with an automobile can be a dangerous one. Nuts and broken shells may be thrown into the air by the tires, possibly causing bodily injury or property damage.

I did not actually go to the CDC or another government site to determine how many people die each year in black-walnut-shelling-by-automobile-related deaths, but it is difficult to imagine that the number is not in the tens of thousands.

Clearly I was doing the wrong thing with my shovel and pail, but that method certainly sounds like too much work. It will perhaps not surprise you to read that my initial thought was that I really needed to have my own cement mixer, but given the eruption that occurs whenever I add a small bottle of something to the pantry, I decided that I would not suggest the cement mixer to V. In any case, even after you have the hulls off, you still have to separate the nutmeat from the shell, and this is much, much harder than shelling a pecan (when I was a child, we did this by squeezing two pecans together until one of them broke; it is not much harder than shelling a peanut) or an English walnut, so while I still think that owning my own cement mixer would be über cool, it would perhaps not be the best way to ensure a supply of black walnuts.

I am not entirely clear as to how the increase in technology interacts with the decrease in such practices as gathering, hulling, and shelling one's own black walnuts, but I am always suspicious of both technology and capitalism (though I also benefit greatly from both, obviously), and I fear that somehow my use of email, for example, is inextricably linked to the fact that my favorite blackberry patch was sacrificed for highway improvements. If there is a linkage, however, what technology takes away with one tentacle, it gives back (sometimes, and at a higher price, of course) with another: you can buy good black walnuts on ebay.

A couple of weeks ago, I bid on two one-pound lots of black walnut nutmeats (you can also buy whole nuts that have had the hulls removed; good luck with that), and I won both auctions with my initial bids of $6. The person who was selling them sent them by priority mail and insured them, so I ended up paying somewhat more than that, but each pound still costs less than a bottle of moderately good wine, and it's not a purchase that I'm going to make every week, though I might email the seller back and see if he and I can arrange some sort of regular supply deal. It would be good to have a reliable source of good black walnuts. And these nuts are most decidedly good. They arrived promptly in vacuum packs, and I immediately tossed them in the freezer. When I opened the first pack last night to make a cake, I tasted a few, and they were splendid.

I knew that I wanted to make a cake with the first of my black walnuts, and I knew that I'd likely use a recipe that called for pecans and substitute the black walnuts (which can be used in most places that pecans are used, where they will give a completely different but still wonderful result), but I was torn between the Clementine Paddleford recipe that Bakerina posted and the Joy of Cooking's "Fruit Cake Cockaigne" recipe, which I have made many times and which has always been received with enthusiasm. I had initially thought that the recipes were closer to each other than they really are, but the JoC recipe calls for four times as much flour for the same amount of nuts and dried fruits. The odd thing is that, even with all that batter (it also calls for twice as much sugar and roughly twice as many eggs, as well as half again as much butter), my white fruitcake has always seemed very dense and very packed with fruits and nuts. As it happens, that density is likely due largely to the extended storage period during which I apply copious amounts of rum, but last night, I was unwilling to go with either one cup or four cups of flour, so I took a middle course. The middle course was meant to be two cups of flour, but I only had seven ounces of flour, which is likely 1.75 cups, but it's hard to say since it's tough to measure when there's so little flour in your bag, so I just weighed it. (I really should probably pretend that I always weigh my flour, since it's a more exact way of measuring, and it sounds better than me running out of all purpose flour and having to flour the cake pan with whole wheat, but my thinking here is that if one cup of flour and four cups of flour both produce terrific cakes, then the difference between 1.75 cups of flour and 2 cups of flour, or between 6.5 and 8.5 ounces is probably really not as crucial as we'd all like to think it is. In cake, anyway: pastry is another matter entirely.) The amounts of the other ingredients are mostly from the Paddleford recipe, with some adjustments. I tend to like my fruitcakes a little spicier than the recipes call for (though I did not add any ground cardamom, and I wish I had), and I made other adjustments just because they seemed like a good idea at the time.

When I thought about a dried fruit to go with black walnuts, I really wanted dried (not candied) cherries, but I didn't have time to make a stop at Trader Joe's last night, and I didn't have anything in the pantry except dark raisins, prunes, figs, and dried apricots. Dried apricots are wonderful in fruitcake, but there is a slight appearance problem in that the pieces that are up against the side of the pan inevitably burn slightly. This does not ruin the taste for me, but I think that either dried cherries or craisins would be even better. I also probably should have lightly toasted my black walnuts before putting them in the batter; what was I thinking? Regardless, I tasted a slice of the cake this morning, and it was very good. I tested a second slice just to be sure. And then I got out a piece of loosely woven cotton, soaked it in dark rum, and wrapped it around the cake. Then I wrapped all that in a sheet of extra strength aluminum foil and stuck the cake in the pantry. It gets even better with time and the assiduous application of additional rum.

As I almost always do these days, I used Rose Levy Beranbaum's method of mixing the cake batter. The more I use it, the more I like it, and I can no longer fathom the notion of creaming my butter and sugar separately and then mixing in wet and dry ingredients alternately. So much fuss! The only difficulty with the Beranbaum method is remembering to have your butter at room temperature, and our new microwave has a soften setting, even that is no problem for me (as far as I can tell, the soften setting and the defrost setting are the same, but in either case, you can put a stick of butter in the microwave at 30% power for 30 seconds, and it will be about right). Butter does not always soften evenly in the microwave, but if part of it is melted, it doesn't seem to hurt the cake.


7 ounces all purpose flour
2 cups chopped dried apricots
2 cups black walnuts
1 cup granulated sugar
pinch salt (if you are using unsalted butter)
3/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/4 t. ground ginger
3/4 t. baking powder
1 stick (4 ounces) butter, AT ROOM TEMPERATURE
3 eggs
1/4 cup dark rum

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 9" bundt pan.

Chop your dried apricots and put them in a bowl. Take a tablespoon or so (the exact amount is not important) of the flour and toss it with the apricots to keep them from sticking. Add the nuts and toss them in, too.

In the bowl of your stand mixer, put the remaining flour, the sugar, the salt, the spices, and the baking powder. With the whisk attachment, beat together for two minutes. With the mixer still running, add the softened butter, a tablespoon at a time. Add the eggs one at a time, then add the rum, beating briefly after each addition. Scrape down the bowl if necessary; the batter should be very smooth. Add the nuts and fruits and fold in by hand.

Turn the batter into the prepared bundt pan and bake at 325 for about 55 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Suburban

I am not, truth be told, much of a drinker. I was raised in a nearly teetotal household, and when I went to college, it took precisely one game of Thumper (during which I was returning from the men's room when someone else, between whom and the porcelain goddess no wise person would have wanted to come, thrust the door open and into my scalp; fortunately, the pain was temporarily dulled by the alcohol) for me to determine that binge drinking was not my thing. I did not acquire a taste for beer (calling whatever it was that we consumed during Thumper "beer" is a level of generosity to which I cannot bring myself to rise) until some years later, and there was not much non-beer alcoholic consumption going on in my dormitory. Wine, too, was a taste that I acquired mainly after I had left campus.

So I have never had much of an occasion to drink cocktails. Most of my friends don't really drink any more than I do, and if they are having a cocktail, it will be something that strikes me as not so much a cocktail as an abomination. When accepting an invitation to my last party, for instance, one of my friends asked whether he should bring the makings for chocolate martinis. I am afraid my response to him was rather impolitic, but I suspect that it is better to be thought slightly rude than to serve chocolate martinis.

V. certainly is not the cocktail type. Last summer, we went through one of the pantries and removed all of the bottles of alcohol that V. had been given over the years that seemed unlikely ever to be consumed. The dozen or so (full) bottles were then given to V.'s son who, in addition to being a thoroughly charming young man, appears to be a good deal more conversant with heavy alcohol consumption than we are. He also has a wife who appears not to mind being the designated driver.

Sometimes, however, cocktails seem like a good idea. This past weekend, for example, I had made plans with friends to see a movie, and we had invited them to dinner beforehand. Not knowing what the showtimes would be, I suggested 6 for dinner. The movie turned out to start at 9:45, meaning that we would probably leave the leaving three and one-half to kill, since leaving the house at 9:30 would give us ample time to be seated in the theater before the preview (singular: it is not a very fancy theater, but you can always get a seat). I was reasonably sure that this amount would be trimmed to three hours because my friend S. would likely attempt to arrive at 6:10 but would manage not to arrive until 6:45. He has a very unique sense of direction which has not been corrupted by his several trips to our place.

I had not planned an elaborate dinner, though, so I figured that a cocktail hour would be a good idea. But what to serve? During the summer, I would simply have served sangria, which everyone likes, and which, though relatively weak, is very tasty. I had considered serving Cosmopolitans, but a real Cosmo would have been too strong. So I made what is, essentially, a watered-down Cosmopolitan, the Suburban. I am aware that the name is not something that lends itself to marketing. I am also aware that many people would find this too weak to call a cocktail, but I thought it was pretty good, and my guests liked it. And everyone could have two and still drive safely after two hours and a glass of wine with dinner. You can always call it punch if you'd rather.


1/2 cup fresh lime juice
3/8 cup triple sec
3/4 cup vodka, from the freezer
3/4 cup cranberry juice cocktail
approximately 2 cups cold ginger ale

In a one-liter pitcher, combine the first four ingredients. Stir and refrigerate. Immediately before serving, add the cold ginger ale. Stop adding the ginger ale before the pitcher overflows.

Serves four to six.

It is important that you use lime juice that has just been squeezed. You do not want to strain the lime juice: the pulp helps to keep the drink from being too sweet. The picture above was taken on the second day (to take advantage of daylight). When the cocktails have just been made, there will be more pulp, and this is a good thing.

You will, of course, want to serve some sort of nibble with the cocktails. I have mentioned before the recipe for Rosemary Walnuts made famous by Laurie Colwin. When I went to make them this time, I did not have any cayenne pepper, and I only had fresh rosemary (there's a big bush on the side of the house, and it hasn't been very cold here yet, but it is still amuses me that I could only find fresh herbs). I did have some ground chipotle pepper, so I substituted that, and I think that it was even better than the original. I also think that the butter and herb mixture coats more walnuts than the original recipe calls for.

Rosemary Walnuts

2.5 T. butter
1 t. salt (sea or kosher)
1 T. fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 t. ground chile pepper
3 c. walnut halves

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a sauce pan, melt the butter. Put the salt and rosemary together on a cutting board and cut until the rosemary is very fine. Add the salt and rosemary to the melted butter along with the ground chile pepper. Toss the walnuts in this mixture, then transfer them to a baking sheet. Bake for about 13 minutes, making sure that they don't burn.

These walnuts are seriously delicious and mildly addictive. The only thing that could possibly be easier to make would be a bowl of olives, and you can go ahead and serve both the walnuts and the olives. You only live once.

Monday, January 23, 2006

In Which Anapestic Proposes the Elimination of Recipes

I need your help here, people.

Regular readers of my blog will remember (at least) three things:

1. I am a tax accountant, and my busiest time of year will soon be upon me.

2. I favor the adoption of and/or return to some British usages for American English. For example, I much prefer "whinging" to "whining," though I dislike it immensely when my children do either. Similarly, Americans need to use "brilliant" the way the Brits do.

3. I have only a passing acquaintance with sanity, but I am entirely harmless.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, something that is not necessarily accurate; namely, that the current use of "recipe" as an American bastardization of the English "receipt." (There's nothing about the linguistic history on the wikipedia, and I can't be bothered to do any other research.) "Receipt" is a perfectly good word; wherefore need we "recipe"? We don't.

This linguistic redundancy and/or shift may seem like a small matter to you, and it may seem that I am tilting at solar panels, but I beg you to begin using "receipt" where you have heretofore used "recipe." It matters a great deal to me. I will, in fairly short order, be having dozens of conversations where I will be talking to clients about their receipts, and I would very much like to pick up a record of someone's cab fare from a business trip and say, "Well, fine, you went to Kansas City, but this is the receipt you brought me? Away with you, and don't come back until you have a receipt for ribs." I mean, really, I save some of these people a lot of money in taxes, and they should be thanking me by offering me something that I really value.

I know y'all won't let me down.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Is There an Echo in Here?

Last night, V. and I had another couple over for dinner antecedent to catching a late showing of Match Point. I had told both V. and my friend S. that I was just going to make something simple for dinner, and they both laughed at me. I suppose I have something of a reputation. In any event, everyone was surprised when I had them sit down at the table and the place settings consisted of a soup bowl, a napkin, a soup spoon, and a wine glass. Then I set down in the middle of the table an electric skillet full of chicken and dumplings and told everyone to tuck in. (We had a while between when our guests showed up and when the movie started, so we'd also had a cocktail, and I followed the very simple main course with a cheese course and slices of the Mephistopholes cake, so everyone was more than adequately fed, especially since they all took seconds of the chicken and dumplings.)

I don't generally like to make the same thing twice within a week, and I dislike repeating recipes here on the blog (especially so soon after the initial recipe, when even I can't pretend that I have plausible deniability when I say, "Oops, I forgot"), but the chickens came in a two-pack from Costco, and I have, with relatively minor modifications, significantly improved the recipe, which, you will remember, I found absolutely delicious the first time around.

Preparation was a lot easier this time, as well, because I took lindy's suggestion and used the stockpot that has the steamer/pasta insert instead of the (wider) stockpot that doesn't, eliminating the need to truss the chicken as well as the need to fish out the bits of chicken when the trussing failed miserable. I made up for the pot's relative narrowness by finishing the dish in V.'s electric skillet, which is wider than any of the pots we own, and I was thus able to get all of the dumpling dough into the simmering soup, and that can only be a good thing.

Even Better Chicken and Dumplings

One fryer chicken
3 stalks celery
2 carrots
1 medium onion
4 whole cloves
1 clove garlic
4 pods green cardamom
2 bay leaves
12 peppercorns
1 t. salt

8 oz. baby carrots
1 sprig rosemary
4 T. chopped dill
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, quartered
1/2 pound white mushrooms, sliced, not too thin
butter (2 T. + 6 T. + 4 T.)
flour (1.5 cups + 1/3 cup)
1 t. baking powder
1 t. mustard
3/4 c. milk

Remove the giblets from the chicken, rinse it well, and pat it dry. Cut the celery and carrots in half. Cut the onion in half and stud with the cloves. Cut the garlic clove in half. Bruise the cardamom pods and wrap them in cheesecloth along with the bay leaves and peppercorns. Put all of these ingredients plus the salt into your stockpot and add water to nearly cover the chicken. Bring to a boil, then simmer for two hours, skimming if necessary. Remove the chicken and refrigerate it. Strain the stock. If you have more than two quarts of stock, reduce it until you have two quarts.

Put a saute pan over medium heat and add two tablespoons of butter. When it has melted, turn the heat to medium high and add the mushrooms, tossing to coat them. Cook, stirring or tossing occasionally, until they have given up their juices and browned nicely. Reserve.

In a wide pan or electric skillet, melt 6 tablespoons of butter. Whisk in 1/3 cup of flour and cook for five minutes. Add stock, a little bit at a time, whisking so that you don't get any lumps, until it is all added. Simmer for five minutes. Then add carrots, 2 tablespoons of chopped dill, and the sprig of rosemary, and simmer for another twenty minutes.

While the carrots are simmering, make the dumpling dough. In a bowl, combine 1.5 cups flour, a pinch of salt, and the baking powder. Add four tablespoons of butter and rub it into the flour mixture until it has the consistency of coarse meal. Mix in two tablespoons of chopped dill. Whisk together the milk and mustard and stir it into the flour mixture. If it is too thick to drop from a spoon, add a little more milk.

Remove the skin from the chicken, then remove the chicken flesh from the bones. Break the flesh up slightly with your hands, leaving fairly large pieces.

Add the chicken and mushrooms to the pan or electric skillet and return to the simmer for five minutes. Correct seasoning. Drop the dumpling dough by teaspoonsful into the simmering liquid. Cover and simmer for ten minutes. Serve. Garnish with additional chopped dill and/or rosemary sprigs if you like.

Even though this dish involves balls of cooked dough, any refrigerated leftovers reheat splendidly in the microwave. The picture above is from the second day, when I could photograph it without using flash. It will be significantly thicker the second day, but that will probably not inhibit your enjoyment.

Friday, January 20, 2006

A Cake for Your Soul

There are, of course, many books on the history of chocolate, and I have read none of them. (Some day, I'll have to remedy this glaring omission, and if you have a suggestion for a good history of chocolate, I would very much like to hear about it, but bear in mind that I prefer the readable over the encyclopedic.) Accordingly, my notions about its history come from snippets that I've heard and read, and like the unconscious mind seeking to form random electric impulses from the brain into a coherent dream narrative, if I don't know something, then I just make it up. Of course, I lie to you this way all the time, but I reckon that most people know what I'm making up and that no one really cares as long as I'm as faithful as possible with actual recipes. I mention it today for no particular reason.

Anyway, my elementary knowledge of chocolate history includes the fact that chocolate first appeared in Mexico in 2375 B.C., when the Emperor Chuaxtxtxtxtl (pronounced "Fred") was having his morning cafe con leche and saw an eagle flying by, carrying a snake in its talons. Chuaxtxtxtxtl (pronounced "Fred") knew that this must be an omen of some sort, and, reacting very quickly, picked up a coffee bean, popped it in his mouth, and spat it some six hundred yards (you will recall that coffee was much stronger in those times, prior to the great caffeine shift of 875, but even considering his chemically enhanced state, Chuaxtxtxtxtl's [pronounced "Fred"] distance and accuracy were remarkable) where it intersected with the eagle's torso, causing the eagle to drop the snake into a basket that was on the back of a donkey owned by a local coffee farmer. The gods were much impressed, and as a reward to Chuaxtxtxtxtl (pronounced "Fred"), they turned both the coffee farmer and his donkey into cacao trees. (This, by the way, is all covered in Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Lost Chapters, which you can order from Amazon.) Bad news for the farmer (and the donkey); good news for the rest of us.

Given the close association of Mexico and chocolate, it is not surprising that I would want to make a Mexican chocolate cake, but as compelling as dear Mr. Ovid is, I actually got the idea from a blog. I get many of my cooking ideas from blogs, of course, though they more frequently come from food blogs. Faustus, however, is a fine cook and a fine fellow (as well as an exceptionally talented writer), and I knew from his blog and from some correspondence that his recipe would be meticulously detailed, with the ingredients measured down to the last gram or eighth of a teaspoon and the processes painstakingly described. In short, his approach would be the opposite of my oh-for-heaven's-sake-just-grab-some-ingredients-and-combine-them approach to cooking. Which is great because it's a lot easier to descend into anarchy than to go the other way. Entropy, or something, you know (I narrowly escaped having to take thermodynamics over twenty years ago, and I am still grateful).

Faustus was, I must say, a bit reticent to share his recipe with me. I, of course, am a great recipe ho ("I'll take words I never thought I'd see anapestic type for $1,000, Alex!") and bestow my (culinary) affections on anyone who displays the least amount of interest, but I certainly understand the impulse of the (culinary) prude, who wants to keep his secrets to himself. Nonetheless, there are few powers on earth that can come between me and a recipe I really want, and through a variety of inducements (the nature of which is not important), I eventually persuaded him to put out.

The recipe below, however, is not Faustus'. I did use his recipe as an inspiration, but having seen how important the secret was to him, I would have felt like a cad divulging it to anyone else. There were also certain elements of the recipe that I was unfamiliar with: a technique that I wasn't confident in my ability to pull off, and an ingredient that I was sure I would be unable to acquire.

There are, unsurprisingly, numerous recipes for Mexican chocolate cakes available on the Internet, but all of the ones I looked at used cocoa instead of chocolate. If I were the sort to use the caps lock key, the next sentence would be in all caps. Cakes made with chocolate are much better than cakes made with cocoa; you should not call a cake a chocolate cake if it is made with cocoa and not chocolate. I'm sure that I've had cocoa cakes that I've enjoyed, but whenever I've tried to make one, it has been a disappointment to me.

In the end, it was easiest just to look at a few chocolate cake recipes, figure out which elements from each were best suited to the cake I wanted, and write my own.

This cake has a very intense chocolate flavor. Accordingly, you will want to fill and frost it with an equally intense dark chocolate buttercream or ganache and serve it to people who appreciate dark chocolate. People who don't appreciate dark chocolate can't be trusted anyway, so while you're enjoying my cake, they can go through the drive-thru for McFlurries. Alternatively, I suppose that you could serve a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, and that would be very good indeed.

Gâteau Mephisto
(Mephistopholes Cake)

2 cups sugar
125 g unsweetened chocolate*
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 T. cinnamon*****
1/2 c. butter at room temperature
3 eggs, separated
1 t. vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup water
3 T. chili paste**

Dark Chocolate Buttercream (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare your pan(s)***.

Put the sugar in the bowl of your food processor. Chop the chocolate with a knife, add it to the food processor, and process until fine. Set the sugar and chocolate mixture aside.

Put the egg yolks, vanilla, buttermilk, water, and chili paste in a bowl and mix together with a fork or whisk.

Put the flour, soda, salt, and cinnamon in the bowl of your stand mixer and fit it with the whisk attachment. Add the sugar and chocolate mixture. Mix on low for two minutes. Then add the butter a tablespoon at a time until it is well incorporated.
With the mixer running, add the liquid ingredients until they are well mixed in and the batter is smooth.

Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks****, then fold them into the batter. Turn the batter into the prepared pan(s). Put the pan(s) into the oven. Bake at 350 for ten minutes, then turn the oven to 325 and bake until done. Remove the pan(s) from the oven and let sit for ten minutes, then invert onto a rack and let cool completely.

Fill and frost the cake(s) with the dark chocolate buttercream.

*You can use whatever sort of chocolate you like best, but since there was some Mexican chocolate in the international foods section (I grew up maybe fifteen miles from where I live now, and it was then such a Wonder Bread area [though I hasten to add, lest Mom go after me for libel, that we ate whole wheat bread at home from the time I was about ten] that I never saw a bagel until I went off to college, so I feel very fortunate that many of the local supermarkets have excellent selections of international foods; I can always count on being able to find the ingredients for a mole), I went ahead and picked it up. I am not especially enamored of the usual American brands of baking chocolate, so if I hadn't found the Luker chocolate, I would likely have used an increased amount of extra bittersweet chocolate and reduced the sugar accordingly.

**I cannot help but think that chili paste is widely available in most places, but I didn't see any at the store when I went shopping, so I just bought some dried pasilla chiles. I broke the pods open, discarded the seeds and some of the ribs, put them in a metal bowl, covered them with a small amount of boiling water, let them sit for a half hour or so, tossed them in the food processor, processed them until they were as smooth as possible, and pushed the mixture through a sieve. Probably a little more more water and/or a longer soaking time would make sieving (ick) unnecessary.

***Posting recipes generally involves the fiction that everything has been carefully planned before the cooking begins. I had nearly completed my mise en place when I realized that I couldn't find the extra-long loaf pan that I wanted for this cake. I wanted the extra-long loaf pan because I was flying by the seat of my pants on this recipe, and I wanted to be able to sample the cake to make sure it wasn't dreadful and then refrost it so that it looked like a cake that hasn't been partially eaten in order to determine that it wasn't dreadful. (Even though chocolate is a necessary ingredient in mole, it doesn't follow that chilis are a good idea in chocolate cake, and there was always the potential for unmitigated disaster, in which case, I suppose that one large round cake is easiest to dispose of. Frisbee.) As has happened with so much of my cooking equipment over the past year, however, the extra-long loaf pan had disappeared into the abyss. I also didn't know where either my good layer pans or my Magicake strips were, so I had gone so far as to grease and flour a bundt pan before deciding that I really, really wanted to fill and frost the cake, so I got out my 12-inch non-stick springform pan, greased it, and lined the bottom with a round of parchment paper. That large a cake has the potential for being overbaked at the edges and underbaked in the middle all at the same time, so I did my best to push the batter out towards the edge of the pan to counteract the normal swell in the center. I would perhaps have had more luck with this had I not added the 1/4 cup of water to the batter, but before I added the extra water, the batter seemed so stiff that I worried I would not be able to fold the egg whites into it. I also turned the oven down from 350 to 325 ten minutes into the cooking so as not to overcook the edges before the center was done, but really, I think that two nine-inch layers and a shorter cooking time is the way to go. I also think that I need to spend a Saturday morning in May going through the whole house and organizing the cooking equipment. Hopefully, that will obviate the need to waterboard V. to determine the whereabouts of my missing stuff.

****This note is really not necessary, except that I wanted to be sure to say that, because the Kitchenaid was full of batter, I beat the egg whites by hand. (I would also like to say: ouch!) Yes, I am a god in the kitchen, and the gods must be crazy.

*****I wish (because wishing that I were not too lazy to look it up myself is clearly unrealistic) that someone would explain what the real deal with cinnamon is. Alton Brown says that what gets sold as cinnamon sticks here is not true cinnamon but something either from a different tree or from the less desirable part of the same tree as true cinnamon. For that reason, it's the only spice that he recommends buying ground, so that you get the real stuff and not its less attractive sister. (Which puts me in mind of Rachel and Leah, but let's not go there because that story really, really bugs me: oops, wrong sister, but you can have more chattel the second sister for just seven more years. Also, take my handmaiden. Please.) But a couple of weeks ago, I was in the market, and I saw these really thick cinnamon sticks -- see the picture and note that the whatever stick is next to a stick of butter to indicate scale -- that may have been labeled only canela and not labeled at all in English (I'm not sure, and I lost the label), so I bought them, thinking that they were probably real cinnamon, and when I ground one up it was so much more fragrant than the ground cinnamon and so much more fragrant than whatever you get when you grind up the other stuff, that I decided to use only two tablespoons of it, instead of the four tablespoons that Faustus recommended. A lot of the online recipes recommend half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, but I wanted the cinnamon to have a real presence, otherwise, I would have just made the devil's food cake from Joy of Cooking, and half a teaspoon of cinnamon seems like you're just putting it there to say that it's in there. Of course, those are the same recipes that wanted me to use cocoa. Anyway, I think it's cinnamon. It smells great, whatever it is. It looks a little bit like mace, but can you imagine the nutmeg that thing would have had to have come off of? ("Would have had to have come off of." Savor the contorted English, mes amis.)

Dark Chocolate Buttercream

1/3 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
2 extra large eggs
1 pound butter, at room temperature
500 g bittersweet chocolate
1 T. dark rum

Break the chocolate into small pieces and melt using your favorite method. Let cool.

Break the eggs into the bowl of your stand mixer. Beat the eggs on medium for two minutes.

Put the water in the bottom of a saucepan. Add the sugar and, without stirring, put a tight fitting lid on and place the saucepan over medium heat. When the mixture comes to a boil and the sugar is all dissolved, remove the lid. When the mixture reaches 230 degrees, turn the stand mixer with the eggs back on, on low speed. When the syrup reaches 240 degrees remove it from the heat.

With the mixer running on medium, slowly pour a stream of the hot syrup down the side of the bowl until it is all added. Continue beating until the egg and sugar mixture is warm but not hot to the touch.

With the mixer running on medium high, add the softened butter a tablespoon at a time. Do not add the next tablespoon until the current one has been fully incorporated. If the buttercream ever starts to look curdled, keep the mixer running but stop adding butter until the buttercream is smooth again.

When all the butter is incorporated, add the melted chocolate and mix again until it is smooth. Add the rum and mix again.

This buttercream is relatively light in color, but it is very dark in flavor. If you prefer a darker frosting, you can use the buttercream between the layers and cover the cake in ganache. If you used two 9" layer pans, you will want to split each layer in two, so that you will need enough frosting for three layers inside the cake as well as the outer frosting. This recipe should provide enough frosting to do the whole cake, but with that many layers, you'll want to go easy on the filling, so you should have plenty regardless. If you baked the cake in one larger springform pan as I did, you will want to split that cake into three layers. There are various devices to help you achieve this task, but I generally just pick up a bread knife and have at it. It is the sort of thing that gets easy with practice, and if one of your layers happens to split when you're cutting it or moving it, you can easily repair the appearance with buttercream.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Chicken and Dumplings

When I was a young'un, there was a food (I'm probably being generous here) called Jiffy Pop, whose advertising told you was "as much fun to make as it is to eat." I reckon that I was eight or so and about as susceptible to television commercials as are most eight-year-olds, and I eventually prevailed upon my mother to bring home and make a container of Jiffy Pop, and I was severely disappointed. Upon later reflection, however, I realized that Jiffy Pop's advertising was correct. Jiffy Pop, like, say, instant oatmeal, is exactly as much fun to make as it is to eat. Clearly it was my fault for making the unfounded inference that it was very much of either.

If I were more knowledgeable about and/or more resourceful with respect to computer graphics applications, I would here show you some sort of scatter chart with two axes: fun to make and fun to eat. There would be a line running out from the origin with a slope of 1, and items on that line would meet the fun to make = fun to eat criterion.

Many foods, of course, fall far off this center line, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. If something's really fun to eat, you might not care that it's no fun to make; cheese fondue seems to fall into this category. Or it might be moderately fun to make but lots of fun to eat; many cookies fall into this category, as do sandwiches made from leftover turkey, though you could reasonably factor in the fun you had making the turkey in the first place -- you see why mathematicians get the big bucks. There are clearly also edibles that are fun to make but not as much fun to eat. Gingerbread houses leap to mind. Even though the girls and I razed our gingerbread house last week, and every bit of it was consumed gleefully, it was still really all about the fun to make.

Ideally, of course, you would like to maximize your enjoyment of both the food preparation and the food consumption processes. (Advanced students might wish to factor in one or more additional axes. Ease of preparation is a big deal for many cooks, so that a food that is fun to make, easy to make, and delicious is the goal, in which case the grilled cheese sandwich might hit the trifecta for you. I would argue, though, that for most people, ease of preparation and fun of preparation are not independent, though whether the two are directly or inversely proportional will vary from cook to cook.)

For me, few foods are more fun to make or more satisfying to eat than chicken soup. I love going through the process of making the broth and adding the ingredients. There are a number of steps, but none of them is fussy, and there is a good deal of sensory reward throughout the process. The way the house smells when the chicken is simmering is especially pleasing. And, as I have probably said before, eating a good bowl of chicken soup is for me almost a spiritual experience. It's like imbibing life, or at least health. And, of course, it's delicious.

Chicken and dumplings is little more than a variation on chicken soup. Or at least that's how I make it. I do not wish to be culinarily hegemonic, and chicken soups, dumplings, and combinations of chicken soup and dumplings are so universal that anyone who claims to own the franchise is surely misguided. I don't even make chicken and dumplings the way my mother made it. I think that hers is very good, but everything about hers, except for the feeling I get from eating it, is different from mine. Mom always used a pressure cooker to cook the chicken, and she made her dumplings in long strips. I never actually saw her prepare it, but I believe that she must have rolled it out like biscuit dough and then cut it into strips instead of rounds. The dumplings were more substantial than fluffy (as, indeed, are mine), and they were very good. Mom also used a lot more vegetables in the final presentation than I do. I doubt that she would have considered making chicken and dumplings without adding a box of frozen peas.

I don't think that peas are an ideal addition to chicken and dumplings, but I would happily eat chicken and dumplings with peas in it. In my case, the tastes of the girls (and the amount of eye rolling I'm going to have to do when I watch them picking around their peas) need to be considered. The only green vegetable that both of them will reliably eat, and I didn't want to put any broccoli in my chicken and dumplings because I forgot to buy any doing so would have violated my culinary aesthetic.

In my book, there is nothing wrong with using a pressure cooker, and you could certainly make the dish in a great deal less time that way, but I think you get a better flavored broth if your liquid never goes beyond the simmer. Also, I'm a little bit afraid of the pressure cooker, though I have in the past used them, always without incident. I suppose what I mean to say here is that if you use a pressure cooker, you're still going to end up with something that's a variation on homemade chicken soup, and that's still going to be a good thing.

My preparation really takes either two days or an entire weekend day, though very little of that is actual cooking time. I am sure that there are other reliable ways to degrease a chicken stock, but the only way that I like is to put the whole pot in the refrigerator and let the fat congeal into a solid layer which you can then pull off of the gelatinous stock. In my case, the two days were separated by two additional days in the middle when I wasn't home early enough to finish the dish before dinner. No matter. On Sunday, I was pleased to have L. say how wonderful the house smelled and remark that I must be making chicken soup. Tonight, I was pleased to have both A. and L. ask for seconds, and that never happens.

Chicken and Dumplings

For the broth:

One whole fryer chicken
Three leafy celery stalks
A handful of baby carrots, or one large carrot
One medium onion
2 cloves
1 large bay leaf
2 whole cardomom pods
10 peppercorns
3 quarts water
1/2 t. coarse salt

Wash the chicken and pat it dry. Truss it with kitchen twine.

Cut the baby carrots in half or roughly chop the large carrot. Cut the onion in half and stud each half with a clove.

Bruise the cardomom pods. Place them in a piece of cheesecloth along with the bay leaf and the peppercorns, and tie it up into a bouquet garni.

Place all the ingredients into a stockpot. Add the water and salt, and bring to just below the boil. Simmer for an hour, turn the chicken over (it will not be quite submerged) and simmer for another hour. Remove the chicken to a plate and let it cool and then refrigerate. Strain the stock into another container and refrigerate. When the chicken fat has solidified on the top of the stock, remove it, and do with it whatever you normally do with chicken fat.

For the soup

1 pound baby carrots
4 T. butter
1/3 c. all purpose flour

For the dumplings

1.5 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 t. salt
4 T. butter, cut into small cubes
1 T. chopped fresh dill
1 t. dijon mustard
2/3 c. milk

Remove the meat from the chicken, discarding the skin and bones. Cut the chicken into rough pieces.

In a saucepan, bring the strained chicken broth to a simmer and add the baby carrots.

In a wide stockpot or casserole, heat the butter until melted. Whisk in the flour and cook over medium low heat for four to five minutes. Leaving the carrots behind for the moment, ladle a cup of the broth into the flour and butter and whisk briskly. Continue adding broth and whisking, until you have added about three cups of broth. Let the veloute simmer for a few minutes, then add the rest of the broth and the carrots. Add the diced chicken and return to a simmer. Correct seasoning.

In a bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the butter and rub in with your hands until the mixture has the texture of coarse meal. Add the dill and mix with a fork. Mix together the milk and mustard and then pour it over the flour mixture. Mix together with a fork. Add more milk if necessary so that the dough is about as moist as drop biscuits (i.e., too wet to roll out, but it will still hold its shape on a spoon).

Using two teaspoons, drop spoonfuls of dough onto the surface of the soup. Cover and simmer for ten minutes. Serve.

There is no getting around the fact that chicken and dumplings is a low glamour dish (though it does look better than in that terribly washed out picture). You can add some green vegetables to give it more color, and you could add more and different herbs to the dumplings for the same reason, but it's not meant to be visually stunning. There are a lot of other things that you can add to the dumplings, and some of them would likely be very good, but I wanted to keep mine very simple.

If you want larger and lighter dumplings, you could add another teaspoon of baking powder. I like mine to be very doughy without being overly heavy. Adding the lesser amount of baking powder also means that you can put more dumplings in the soup. For the same reason (you generally end up with less dumpling than you want, so it's good to do as much as you can to maximize your dumpling load) you want to use the widest pot or casserole that you can. I very nearly got out V.'s electric skillet, but I got almost my whole batch of dumpling dough into the pot without having to do that.

Take special note of how my chicken is trussed in the picture above. Now make sure that you truss yours in a much more thorough manner. The entire reason for trussing the chicken is so that it doesn't fall apart in the soup. It is rather tedious to have to fish a disintegrated chicken out of the soup, but that is exactly what I ended up doing. Use twice as much string and wrap it well.

Of course, you could accomplish the same thing by cooking the chicken for a much shorter period of time. You would also probably end up with more flavorful chicken meat. When you simmer the chicken for two hours, though, all of that flavor goes into the broth, and that's a trade off I'm always happy to make.

All of the versions of chicken and dumplings that I've had have thickened the chicken broth, and most of them ended up with a sauce that was a good deal thicker than the one I made here, which is really very lightly thickened just to give a tiny bit of body: it is still very much a soup. You could use another method to thicken if you like, but I find that the roux works very well, provided, of course, that you cook the butter and the flour thoroughly before you start adding the broth. I had a little over two quarts of broth when I started this evening, and the amount of flour I used for the roux seemed about right.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Breakfast Pastry

I have no official opinion on the old maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I do know, however, that it's the meal that I'm least likely to prepare for myself. In fact, a good deal more often than I'd care to admit, breakfast comes from the drive-thru (I am using the spelling that the fast food emporium that I most frequently drive through uses). This abysmal practice is most consistent on mornings when I am taking A. to school. We have to be there by 7:15, which means leaving the house by 6:45, and A. likes the Sausage Egg McMuffin (with a Diet Coke; don't judge us!) nearly as much as I do. (We both used to love the hash browns as well, but there has, within the past year, been a change in either the formulation of the potato products or, more likely, the fat in which they are cooked, and neither the hash browns nor the fries are nearly as good as they used to be, and don't think that we haven't noticed, McDonald's!)

A Sausage Egg McMuffin is not a terribly expensive thing (and, really, there are worse breakfasts that you could have, and many of them are available at McDonald's; it is never going to pass as a health food store, but if you're both pressed for time and responsible, you might consider that a regular Egg McMuffin [i.e., one that is made with Canadian bacon instead of sausage] is only about 300 calories or 6 Weight Watchers points, not that I would know that sort of thing), and I certainly can afford to eat one as often as I want, but over the course of a year, that sort of expenditure adds up, so there is a mild financial, as well as a major dietary, inducement to find a substitute.

I was, you may recall, in Cornwall this past summer, and while the full English breakfast (which includes tinned baked beans, yuck, yuck, yuck) clearly wouldn't meet my needs, something similar to the Cornish pasty ought to do the trick. I did, unsurprisingly, purchase a small Cornish cookbook while I was in Penzance, and that book, equally unsurprisingly, had pasty recipes, but, really, why would anyone need a recipe? You make something like pie dough, you make a filling, you fill the pie dough with the filling, you crimp, you bake, and quicker than you can get halfway through a volume of Proust, you've got yourself some pasties.

As it happens, this is not a particularly quick recipe, but neither is it very difficult. If you want to reduce the preparation time by a significant margin, then boil your potatoes before you dice them, and don't count the time that you spent boiling the potatoes because, after all, you just had to give them a quick scrub and throw them in a pot of water, and how hard was that?

You will note the incredibly cute name of this recipe.


For the dough:

1 c. all purpose flour
1 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 t. salt
1/3 c. cold butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
1 egg
1/2 c. milk

For the filling

4 slices bacon
1 c. finely chopped onion
2 pounds potatoes, with peel still on, cut into 1/2 inch dice
grated sharp cheddar

egg wash

Make the dough:

Cut the butter into the flour and salt using a pastry blender, two knives, or your Kitchenaid. It should look like coarse meal. Add the egg (beat the egg first if you are doing this by hand) and mix to incorporate. Continue to mix and add the milk until the dough balls up. It may take slightly less or more than 1/2 cup.

Preheat the oven to 375.

Make the filling:

In a saute pan, cook the bacon over medium-low heat until it is very crisp. Remove the bacon strips from the pan and drain on paper toweling. Turn the heat very low and add the onions, stirring for a minute or two until they are translucent. Add the potatoes, toss to coat with fat, and cook over low to medium-low heat until they are tender. Crumble and add the bacon. Add salt and pepper to taste, and remove the pan from the heat to cool.

Roll the dough out as thin as you are comfortable with. Cut circles or squares about 6 inches across from the dough. Roll them out a bit thinner if you can. In the middle of each piece of dough, put a small pile (i.e., as much as you like) of grated cheddar. Then add a spoon full of the filling. Paint the edge of the dough with egg wasy, then fold over and crimp to seal. Move the pasty to a baking sheet. When you have stuffed and sealed them all, cut two slashes in the top of each pasty and coat the tops with more egg wash. Bake for approximately 25 minutes. Cool and refrigerate.

The step that will allow you to get more familiar with Marcel is the step where you cook the potatoes. Diced raw potatoes over a low flame take a long time to get tender, but they will be very nicely brown when that happens. You only need to stir them occasionally, but you can certainly boil the potatoes the day before (or use some leftover boiled potatoes) and dice them while the bacon is cooking. They will be ready to go very quickly.

My knowledge of potato varieties is woefully inadequate, so I cannot tell you which type of potato is best for this sort of filling. I used Yukon Golds because I had some in the pantry. They seemed to work pretty well.

This particular dough is probably not for everyone. I was trying to somewhat limit the amount of butter, and the half-and-half flour mixture was another attempt to introduce a measure of healthfulness that may or may not be worthwhile. I frankly expected to merely tolerate the dough, but I was pleasantly surprised (but don't substitute another fat for the butter, please). You will want to make the dough border rim as narrow as possible, though. You can get more filling in that way, and the parts of the pasty that are just dough folded on itself could be considered a trifle dry (though that also could have been due to the fact that I abused this dough somewhat; I left the Kitchenaid running while I did other things, and the butter and flour were somewhat overmixed; I really need to find my pastry blender). You could certainly use a nice pâte brisée instead (this would basically involve doubling the butter and some other minor adjustments, but recipes for it are not hard to find), and it would be flaky and delicious.

The filling recipe here is doubled from the one I used because I had twice as much dough as I needed for that filling -- the potatoes cook down a fair bit -- and I ended up with only four pasties, and you might as well have eight (if you make four, you are liable to find that, despite the best of intentions, they have all been eaten without you having taken a picture of the finished product to put on your blog). There are many other things that would be good as additions to this filling. You could add some diced ham, some cooked sausage, some parboiled broccoli and/or cauliflower, some feta or cottage cheese. Spinach would also be an inspired addition, but you knew that already.

If you are not making the pasties in advance, you will want to bake them for more than 25 minutes. They are only lightly browned at that point, and you want them to be well browned when you eat them. You will, however, be putting them in your toaster oven for another five to ten minutes in the morning before you grab them while making a run for the car serve them, so they ought to be slightly underbaked when they go into storage.

I ate two of the pasties for breakfast. A., alas, did not appreciate them as much as I did. When she came downstairs last night to ask me if I could get her into school by 6:30 (yikes!) this morning so that she could consult with her math teacher prior to her semester exam, she saw the pasties sitting on the stove, cooling, and asked if she could have one. She thought they were apple turnovers. I have since been given to understand that she does not appreciate potatoes in anything that is bounded by dough. Alas. I thought they were pretty good, but I am forced to admit that I would probably have enjoyed apple turnovers even more, and if I'd been expecting apple turnovers when I bit into mine this morning, I would likely have been disappointed.

Anyway, this morning, at the ungodly hour of 6:15, we went through the drive-thru, so that I could order A. a Sausage Egg McMuffin, and the cashier was shocked that I was only ordering one. I felt a little bad for her, so I ordered the Diet Coke. Nobody's perfect.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Lentils for Lunch

Like many people, I overindulged over the holidays (I overindulge all the time, though, so it would be more accurate to say that I overoverindulged) and especially on my vacation. I normally don't allow (over)overindulgences to trouble me, but I have been feeling somewhat leaden of late, and it is difficult not to attribute my lethargy at least in part to too much good food. (Getting up at 5:45 and going to work in thirty-five degree weather after nearly two weeks of sleeping in including five days of loafing in eighty-five degree weather may also have something to do with it, but one ought to address the causes one has control over and not whinge about the ones one can do nothing about, oughtn't one?) I'm coming up on the time of year where I'll be expected to work seventy to eighty hours a week, and wakefulness and energy are especially helpful in keeping that number closer to seventy than to eighty.

(This whole feeling of blah was brought to a head for me the other morning when I was forced to acknowledge the ridiculousness of sitting in my car and eating a Sausage Egg McMuffin while reading The Taste of America. I will write more about that valuable volume of viciousness at a later date, assuming that I can avoid sinking into the slough of despond that is the Hesses' idea of prose and actually finish it. No, really, I understand that you don't like using flour to thicken sauces; in fact, I understood it the eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth times you said it, too.)

I generally find that the quickest dietary route to increased energy is to increase my dietary fiber while limiting my intake of fat. As dinner for me often includes significant quantities of baguette with butter, it is not especially difficult for me to find ways to accomplish these goals, but I also rather stubbornly insist that the food I eat has to taste good.

So hooray for lentils. They are loaded with fiber, they're delicious, and they're very easy to prepare. I love legumes of most sorts, but making beans for dinner (or lunch) requires either a good deal of planning ahead or resorting to canned beans. You can have a nice pot of lentils ready in about an hour (which includes only about five minutes of actual work), start to finish.

There is nothing special or fancy about this recipe, but I do find it especially tasty, and I'll be eating it for lunch the rest of this week.


2 ounces bulk sausage
1/2 large onion chopped (about 1.25 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. ground cumin
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1/2 t. celery seed
2 cups brown lentils
1 cup brown rice
2 bouillon cubes
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
6 cups water, at or near the boil

In a heavy four-quart saucepan, brown the sausage. Stir in the onions, cover, and cook over low heat for five minutes. Add the garlic, cumin, red pepper flakes, and celery seed. Stir well and cook for another minute. Add the remaining ingredients, stir, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer, cover, and cook for forty minutes. The lentils should be nearly tender. Turn off the heat and let sit, covered, for another ten or fifteen minutes. Correct seasoning.

You don't have to use either the sausage or the bouillon cubes, of course, but I find that they give a good flavor to the lentils and rice. You could use a tablespoon or two of olive oil and some additional seasonings (and/or vegetable matter) instead. You do have to have some source of fat in the recipe. Health types will tell you that some fat is necessary to metabolize yada yada yada blah blah blah, but the important point is that some flavors are fat soluble, and even a very small amount of fat (the sausage rendered a good deal less fat than I'd expected, even though I was careful to eschew the low-fat variety) will release those flavors. If you avoid bouillon cubes on principle, then you are a better person than I, and I am in no position to argue with you; my lentils may taste better than yours, but surely there is no sauce as fine as moral superiority.

I am especially fond of the humble brown lentil, but you may substitute a lentil of a different color if you prefer. You may also substitute white rice (but add it later in the cooking) for brown rice or substitute barley for rice or leave the second grain out altogether and either use an additional cup of lentils or two cups less of water. You can substitute bacon or salt pork for the sausage. The variations are nearly endless.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

What I Did on My Winter Vacation

The above picture is the view from our room at the Copamarina Beach Resort on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, near the town of Guanica, fifteen or so miles west of Ponce. V. and I were there from this past Monday evening until Friday morning, and we had a terrific time. Puerto Rico, for those of you who know as little about it as I did until this past week, is a fairly small island, not much more than a hundred miles from end to end, so that even if you're flying into San Juan, in the northeast corner of the island, and you have to drive your rental car all the way to the southwest corner of the island, the drive is still shorter (and much less annoying) than the drive from suburban Maryland to Rehoboth Beach. I am told that the traffic around San Juan can be horrific, but as we were driving on holidays, we did not have any difficulties from the time we picked the rental car up until we dropped it back off. There were significant problems and delays on the trip down to San Juan, but as it is, apparently, now the functions of airports and airlines to make the rest of one's vacation seem even better by comparison, these problems are best forgotten, though I will likely not be flying the unfortunately named Ted in the future if I have an alternative.

The Copamarina itself is located on the beach and is backed right up against the Guanica dry forest preserve. Because there is a high and beautiful mountain range running through the middle of the island, most of the precipitation is kept on the other side of the mountain, and the southwestern corner of the island is essentially an arid zone, though an especially beautiful and green arid zone.

The intent of this vacation was to loaf as much as possible to build up reserves for the dreaded tax season, which will be eating my life within a few weeks. Although we got in some nice hikes in the preserve (the picture on the left is of one of the many, many dildo cactuses from the coastal section of the preserve; that is the real name of the cactus; feel free to make all the jokes that I'm going to pretend I was too refined to make) and some nice trips to the local beaches, we also spent a lot of time by the pool reading*, and in the bar watching the bartenders prepare all manner of fancy drinks. Who knew that a mojito was so complicated?

V. and I are not big drinkers, but we had purchased an all-inclusive package, so all of our drinks were free, and it seemed a shame not to take advantage of this feature. One supposes that my failure to wake up with a hangover after any of the four nights I was there must mean that I did not drink as much as I might have, but I certainly drank a lot more than I usually do. And I drank things that I would never drink at home, not least because my bar is simply not that well stocked. I had, for example, never consumed a pina colada prior to this vacation, a fact I attribute mostly to Rupert Holmes. However, it was my first trip to the tropics, and I reasoned that Mr. Holmes' heyday was sufficiently in the past for me to hazard the beverage. I will say that the drink is significantly less unfortunate than the song, but one was certainly enough. I did, however, indulge in multiple mai tais.

I am not sure exactly how reflective of the Puerto Rican cuisine the menu at the Copamarina was, but I certainly did get more than my fill of plantains (I am now officially over the plantain, I fear). The food was otherwise excellent, and if you ever find yourself there, you really must order the duck confit and spinach salad as an appetizer and the deep-fried whole red snapper as an entree. (But not at the same meal, if you wish to walk away from the table without the assistance of a forklift.) The latter is an especially stunning presentation. The deep-fried whole fish stands up on the plate, curled around a bowl of creole sauce, a delicious concoction of tomatoes and green olives. Unfortunately, it was far too dark in the dining room for me to get a picture of it, and I mostly left my camera in the room, except when we went hiking in the preserve. The deep-fried whole read snapper is a bit of trouble to eat because it has not been filleted, but it is well worth the effort.

Other standouts included the conch and octopus salad at lunch (it comes served inside a bowl made of deep fried plantains, unfortunately), and the crabcakes at dinner. V. reported that the lamb chops and the filet mignon were also excellent, and I'm sure they were, but my policy when I'm right next to the sea is to eat as much seafood as possible.

It is a shame that we couldn't have spent more time in Puerto Rico so that we could have sampled more of the island and more of the cuisine. The day we flew back was La Dia de Reyes (translated as Three Kings' Day, aka Epiphany). Our favorite waitress explained to us that this is the main holiday of the Christmas season in Puerto Rico, and it's too bad that we didn't have the opportunity to experience any of the local festivities. It is, of course, the nature of vacations (at least of good vacations) to be too short, and while I am not exactly grateful to be headed back to the office tomorrow, I am very thankful that we had splendid weather and a splendid time while we were there. I'm pretty sure we'll be back.

*I finished both Light in August and Candide while I was there. It is difficult to imagine two reading experiences more different from each other than Faulkner and Voltaire, but I enjoyed both a good deal.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


V. and I have greeted the new year in appropriate fashion. A friend of ours who owns a large townhouse in Rehoboth invited us down to see in 2006, and ten of us had a very nice dinner out. I had some potato encrusted rockfish served with a shellfish veloute and tomato and cream reduction. Yummy. Then the other eight (single) guys went to the bars for a few hours, while V. and I went back to the townhouse for some quality time with each other and an inexpensive sparkling wine. This afternoon, the same group of people were at the townhouse for dinner. I was not in charge of the preparation, but I did manage to make sure that the excellent beef roast got done to the correct temperature, and I stopped my friend C. from making a casserole with canned cream of mushroom and/or cream of cheddar sauce by making a mornay sauce myself. It was stellar. I also made the mashed potatoes, which were everything that mashed potatoes should be.

Anyway, tomorrow morning at an hour so ungodly early that I can't even bring myself to mention it, V. and I will be up so that we can head off to Dulles to catch a flight to San Juan. From there, we're driving about 2.5 hours to a resort on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico, where we will do not too much of anything for four days. V. is not taking the laptop, so there is no chance of updates, but shortly after my return, I will be sure to report on all the excellent food I've managed to ingest during the trip.

I wish everyone the very best of all possible new years in this best of all possible worlds. (Observant readers will be able to guess from that last sentence what I'm taking with me to start reading as soon as I've finished Light in August. If you can't figure it out, think of it as a cliffhanger ending.)