The End of an Era
Reader, I hope you're sitting down.1
I have been struggling. And I don't mean struggling with work (it's always a struggle at this time of year, and I'm resigned to that) or struggling with family (everyone's doing pretty well) or struggling with blogging 2 or even (for the most part and this weekend aside) struggling with my diet. No, I have been locked in a month-long battle of wills with this woman.
While I was on vacation in January, I happened to spend a bit of time chatting with a nice young man who also happened to be on vacation. He was carrying a copy of Bleak House, and I happened to mention that it was very likely my second favorite Dickens novel, and from there the conversation meandered off on a path through much of Victorian literature that came to an end when our boat arrived at the reef. In the course of that conversation, he innocently (or so I thought!) mentioned that a friend of his from the Internet had suggested that he read Villette as a companion piece to Bleak House.
I have not read a great deal of Charlotte Bronte. In fact, it is likely that my exposure to this particular Bronte Sister3 had been limited to two readings of Jane Eyre. But I had relatively fond, if vague, memories of that novel, and I figured that if another Currer Bell novel was normally considered illuminative of Bleak House, then I would be well advised to read it.
And it is certainly true that Villette is a bleak affair. I will be the first to admit that I am likely writing out of turn, insofar as I have completed only two of the novel's three volumes. And Mr. Bell/Ms. Bronte is not entirely to blame for the slowness of my progress: the novel has many words, and I have little time. I typically pick it up after I am in bed for the evening and read only until I am exhausted (generally about a page and a half later) by either fatigue or, more likely, the prose. But if one reads two-thirds of a way through the novel and has yet to discern more than a ghost of a plot, then one ought rightly be able to assume that no strong plot is forthcoming. Similarly, if one finds the language overwrought in the first chapter and then again in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, twenty-first, twenty-second, twenty-third, twenty-fourth, twenty-fifth, twenty-sixth, and twenty-seventh chapters, it is perhaps not unreasonable to assume that there is a significant probability of additional overwrought language to come. And while it is certainly true that one has a slightly better understanding of the narrator's character at the end of the second volume than one had before beginning the first, it is equally true -- alas -- that the narrator is not significanly more likable than a character about whom one has never read.
Careful readers may well note a certain, shall we say, hypocrisy in my writing that someone else's language is overwrought. (Pot, kettle, black?) Well, yes. And, frankly, I am occasionally almost envious of Ms. Bronte's linguistic excess. More to the point, I believe that I understand its source. I think it is safe to say that Charlotte Bronte lived a life that was not marred by excessive joy. And if Villette is wildly successful in anything, it is in ruthlessly creating a visceral understanding of just how difficult it must have been to be an intelligent woman of limited means in Victorian England. There is inescapable oppression on every page, and part of the problem, I'll admit, with reading the book is that it's just such a downer. Clearly, Charlotte Bronte must have been a woman of a passionate nature with no means, in her everyday life, of expressing that passion. What was left to her must have been a passion for language. A passion for words. It is all enough to make me feel very, very sorry for her, but it is still very depressing. And a very tough read.
But I will finish, eventually. I am generally not one to continue in an abusive reading relationship. If I find that a book has no merit, then I have no trouble casting it aside and seeking a restraining order. But Villette is not a meritless book: it is just hard. And Victorian fiction is often (but by no means always) hard. Persevering in the face of this difficulty has often rewarded me with great enjoyment and sometimes not (I'm looking at you, William Makepeace Thackeray), but I have always gotten some value. If nothing else, then every other bit of Victorian fiction one reads adds to the context which allows one to experience Middlemarch, the single most valuable book ever written.
I suggest that the most difficult lesson that many of us have to learn is to not take ourselves too seriously and to focus on what is truly imporant in our lives4. And I submit that the easiest way to learn this lesson is to consider poor Mr. Casaubon. Whenever I find myself becoming too ponderous (say, by means of a wild example, thinking about just what's wrong with contemporary society and by what means it might be fixed; but, of course, you might well suppose that ponderous is not much of a leap for me) or getting involved in an earnest discussion about something not involving my personal welfare or the welfare of a family member or close friend, I try to take a step back and say to myself, "Oh yes. Keep on this line and perhaps you'll have The Key to All Mythologies in another hour or so." And then I laugh at myself and think that perhaps my time might be better spent enjoying the company of my daughters in the last few months before A. heads off to college. I owe my very sanity to George Eliot.5
Speaking of A., I attribute my rather more loquacious than usual mood6 in part to the fact that just yesterday we celebrated her eighteenth birthday. There is no point here in trying to describe just how proud of her I am or just what a wonderful person she is: there are not words. But I will relate that within the last month she has been accepted to her second and first choice colleges (Antioch and Marlboro), and that she's very happy about that and about most things.
As it happens, my parents had to be up in the area (they now reside in Florida and summer in Southwestern Pennsylvania) for medical visits and were staying with some cousins of my father, so in addition to the usual suspects, the annual birthday dinner included my parents and two more of my relatives, none of whom had met V. I find that the best way to deal with stress and abject horror is to cook like a madman, so despite having to work on Saturday and not being able to be home until about 4:45, I had planned to serve a large dinner for ten at 7:00. This turned out to be a wise decision as it forced me to plan ahead and to spend about two hours in that Zen state one reaches when one is cooking all out.
As it happens (and as expected, really), everyone was very cordial and seemed to have a very good time. More to the point: the food was, without exception, totally kick ass7. I had very much wanted to make Bakerina's spiced beef for this very special occasion. The annual family dinner, however, always includes the ex-wife, and the ex-wife has decided that neither she nor, really, anyone else should consume beef because American protections against bovine spongiform encephalopathy are horribly inadequate. Clearly, this view is not one to which I subscribe, but I really did not want to witness, let alone cause, the scene that was sure to occur if beef appeared on the table, so I went with something else. (The ex also doesn't eat eggplant or zucchini or any other form of squash. I'm just saying8.)
Although I reluctantly decided to reserve the spiced beef for another occasion, I did make a pair of dishes from two of my favorite food bloggers, the mother-daughter team9 of Lindy and Redfox. (FYI, the links are to the particular recipes.) Apparently, the fennel gratin comes originally from Elizabeth David; I believe that the broccoli with pine nuts is redfox' own invention. Not surprisingly, both dishes were knockouts. The fennel garnered more praise, probably because it is not something that my family normally eats (I don't believe I was ever served it as a child). I actually thought the broccoli was slightly better, but that was just because I did a better job making it. If you make the fennel (and you really should), remember, as I did not, that the only chance you get to salt the inner reaches of the fennel is during the boiling, so be sure to add enough salt to your water. But if you don't, it will still be awesome.
But back to the protein. I have been wanting for some time to make a pork shoulder roast. I was listening to The Splendid Table a while back and heard Lynne Rossetto Kasper suggest to a chef that he make a slow roasted pork shoulder seasoned with basil and garlic. Then, a bit later, I read over on Serious Eats a totally different pork shoulder treatment, and it watered the seed that had already been planted. I looked in a couple of stores, and I didn't see any pork shoulders, but when I was at Costco, I found some giant (> 10 pounds) pork loin roasts, so I decided to give them the same treatment.
Just to be nice, I'm pretending that I measured stuff. Measuring is really irrelevant here, but I'm pretty sure these measurements would work out. In practice, you dump the basil in a food processor, process , add the garlic, process some more, drizzle in olive oil -- while processing -- until the mixture is somewhat liquid, and add some salt and pepper.
Roast Pork Loin
A pork loin roast
Large bunch of basil
3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
2 t. kosher salt
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
Wash your pork loin and pat it dry. Put it on a large cutting board or a sheet pan. With a sharp paring knife, cut slits (about one inch wide and almost all the way through) about every two inches on one side of the roast. Cut similar slits on the other side of the roast, also about every two inches, so that they fall between the slits on the first side of the roast (in other words, if you connected the centers of the slits, you'd have a zigzag).
Using the food processor as directed above, combine the other ingredients into a thin paste. Spoon or otherwise insert the mixture into the slits. Rub some or all of the remaining paste all over the roast. At this point, you can wrap the roast well and refrigerate it for a day or two. Or you can proceed directly; the basil is not the sort of marinade that will or needs to get all the way through the meat.
Roast at 325 degrees, to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Let sit for 25-30 minutes before slicing.
It should take about an hour and a half to an hour and forty-five minutes for your roast to be done, but ovens vary. If it's done early and has to sit a few minutes longer, it won't hurt anything. It retains its heat pretty well while it's sitting.
I knew going in that A.'s birthday meal was going to be the sort of feast that's incompatible with a diet, so I decided to give myself the day off entirely. It's hard for me to think of a food that is more nutritionally indefensible than macaroni and cheese made the way I make it. My recipe is based on James Beard's recipe from Beard on Pasta, but I have made some significant changes, hopefully for the better. Mr. Beard instructs you to use a very sharp cheddar and not to skimp on the hot sauce (which serves only to bring out the flavor of the cheddar), and he is correct. His recipe (which I doubled as well as changed) says that it serves 4 to 6. I believe that he means as a main course. As a side dish, what I made would easily serve twenty. This was a problem on in that there are now leftovers in the frig, and this mac and cheese is so good that to resist its call is practically impossible, given that I can't easily have myself bound to a ship's mast. This is a very white mac and cheese, and you can change that by using an orange cheese, but I used a very fine aged Vermont cheddar, and that was a very good choice. You can add more color generally by adding all sorts of things to the basic recipe, but I like it fine the way it is. Besides, there was plenty of other color on the plate.
Macaroni and Cheese
4 ounces butter
3 large shallots, minced
1/2 cup all purpose flour
4 cups milk
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 t. hot sauce
1/2 c. heavy cream
1.75 pounds sharp cheddar, grated
1 lb. elbow macaroni
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a large baking dish. Put a pot of water to boil on the stove. Call your mother.
In a large, heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the shallots, cover, and cook over low heat until well softened but not browned, about five minutes.
Meanwhile, either in another saucepan or in the microwave, scald the milk or at least make it hot.
Whisk the flour into the butter-and-shallot mixture and continue whisking over medium heat for three minutes. Gradually whisk in the hot milk.
At some point here, you want to start cooking your macaroni. The idea is for the macaroni to be done at the same time as the sauce, but if you are off by a few minutes, it is no big deal. When the macaroni is cooked, drain it. If the sauce isn't done yet, pour it into a big bowl, add a tablespoon of butter, and stir well to melt the butter and coat the macaroni.
Continue whisking over medium heat until the sauce comes to a boil. Whisk in the wine, mustard, hot sauce, and cream. Return to a boil. At this point you will probably want to switch to a spoon.
Reserve about a quarter pound of the grated cheddar. Stir the rest of the cheddar into the sauce, and stir until the cheese is melted and the sauce is smooth. Taste the sauce and add something if you feel like it's a good idea.
Combine the cooked macaroni and the sauce in a large bowl. Stir thoroughly. Turn into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle the reserved cheese on top.
Bake at 350 for about thirty minutes.
I like to cook my m&c until there are some brown spots on the top, but not until it's brown and crusty all over. But cook yours for as long as you like. If you're looking for a nice crusty top, you can also sprinkle on bread crumbs after you've sprinkled on the cheese. I kind of wished I'd done that, but mostly just because I had bread crumbs left over from the fennel.
A. requested that her birthday cake be a cheesecake, so I made one. This is not my recipe. It is very slightly adapted from Lori, who used to make cheesecakes professionally and who also has some other cheesecake recipes on her site. She says that it's the best cheesecake ever, and I certainly can't think of a counterexample. It's also very simple to make. I don't really entirely agree with her philosophy on cheesecake crusts, so my recipe makes a slightly thinner crust than hers does. Also, in the future, I think I'd put this cheesecake in a slightly smaller pan: I'd like mine to be just a shade taller.
But, really, Lori's cheesecake recipe is amazing. Because of the topping I used, I decided to skip the lemon juice and use amaretto instead, and when I was eating my piece, it occurred to me that a small touch of acid would really have been a very nice thing. So next time, I might go with two teaspoons of lemon or lime juice. But the cheesecake I ended up with was nothing short of amazing, and the almond flavor is also very nice.
1.5 cups graham cracker crumbs
6 T. butter, melted
2 T. sugar
1 lb. cream cheese, preferably at room temperature
A 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
1 T. amaretto
Cherry sauce (entirely optional, but yummy; recipe elsewhere on page10)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
Combine the first three ingredients and pour the resulting mixture into a nine-inch springform pan. Press the crumbs about halfway up the edge and evenly across the bottom. Bake at 300 for ten minutes. Remove and cool.
In the bowl of your stand mixer, beat the cream cheese until fluffy. Slowly beat in the condensed milk. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat to combine. Turn off the mixer, lift the paddle, and run a spatula around the inside of the bowl to make sure that everything is getting well mixed together. Then mix in the amaretto, again making sure that the entire mixture is uniform.
Pour the batter into the cooled (or semi-cooled) shell and bake at 300 degrees for about 55 minutes, or until the edges are set but the center is still slightly wobbly. If you start to see cracks around the edges, remove the cake from the oven immediately.
Let cool in the pan for an hour, then wrap the pan well and refrigerate for at least four hours, but preferably overnight.
Remove from the pan, top with cherry (or other) sauce if desired, and serve.
A jar of sour cherries in light syrup
2 T. sugar
2 t. cornstarch suspended in 2 T. water
1 T. amaretto
Drain the syrup into a saucepan. Bring the syrup to a boil and whisk in the sugar. Whisk in as much of the cornstarch/water mixture as you feel you need. Return to the boil and whisk for a minute. Remove from heat and whisk in the amaretto. Reunite the mixture with the cherries. Cover and refrigerate.
I had originally intended to make my syrup thick enough so that I could decorate the edges of the cheesecake using the syrup in a squeeze bottle. If you're going to do that, you'll obviously need to put a few tablespoons of the syrup in a squeeze bottle and refrigerate that separately. As it happened, my syrup ended up not being that thick, so when I tried to decorate with it, it all eventually ran together. But the thinner syrup probably made a better cherry sauce, and no one (even me) really missed the extra decoration.
In fact, I had originally planned a more elaborate decoration in the middle of the cheesecake, but I overbaked the cake by a few minutes, and I got a fairly substantial crack in the middle, so I dumped some of the refrigerated cherries and syrup in the middle of the cake to cover the crack. Slightly overbaking the cake did nothing at all to harm the texture, or at least the texture was already so wonderful that I couldn't really imagine it being even better if I'd baked it slightly less.
Make sure that you taste the syrup before adding the additional sugar the recipe calls for. I was surprised to need it since the cherries had been packed in light syrup, and it is usually the nature of light syrup to be at least sweet enough. In this case, however, the cherries had passed on a good deal of sour to the syrup, and I needed the additional sugar to get a sauce that was delicious without being too sweet.
It is truly not easy to accept that your little girl is not a child any more. A. is a young woman of uncommon maturity, so it is something I have been learning to accept for some time, but an eighteenth birthday pretty much destroys any deniability that I had left. I'm not sure that cooking, or serving, a terrific meal makes the transition any easier for me, but it might, and I am sure that A. deserves at least the best food I can make. And, really, eating very well is always a lot better than eating something mediocre.
1Not for any particular reason. I just think it's silly to read an Internet post while standing. Especially seeing how I do have a tendency to go on a bit. Oh, and if you're reading the footnotes before the rest of the main text: don't worry; there will be recipes. Eventually.
2I kinda just threw that in as a way to make fun of people who struggle with blogging. I've actually read people writing about how they're struggling with their blogs. Surely "struggling" is the wrong word in that context. Isn't Jacob said to have struggled -- all night, yet -- with an angel and gotten a nasty hip injury in the process? Can you imagine Jacob finally prevailing in that fight only to become despondent because he wasn't sure exactly what he'd say about it on his blog?
3Readers who believe that I have erroneously capitalized "Sisters" will be displaying their unfortunate, though completely understandable, ignorance of musical history. The Bronte Sisters were, in fact, one of the earliest examples of the girl group phenomenon. They specialized in close harmonies and unusual time signatures and were wildly popular on the Haworth Parlor Circuit in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Sadly, the Misses Bronte had near-constant artistic differences, and the group broke up in 1843, reportedly because Charlotte refused ever to let Emily sing lead (most knowledgable scholars believe that events from the career of the Bronte Sisters provided the inspiration for Dreamgirls). Rumors of a reunion were rampant, but probably overstated, and Ann's death in 1848 effectively killed (as it were) such prospects.
4I beg you to take my word that this is, in fact, one lesson rather than two. I firmly believe that the two halves of this lesson are inextricably linked, but a discussion of why I believe that contention is beyond the scope of this post.
5There are, in fact, other ways to learn this lesson. By way of example, one can learn to let the nature of the universe worry about itself and instead focus on what's really important by going through a vicious divorce and custody battle. But if you are ever offered the choice of spending a great deal of time in the company of attorneys or reading Middlemarch, I respectfully suggest that you choose the latter.
6I fear, however, that the real answer to "Why are you going on about this on a cooking blog?" is mostly "Because I can." I'd be more sorry about that if I weren't also giving you three recipes.
7I know what you're thinking, and, no, I did not steal the term "totally kick ass" from George Eliot.
8Again, I know what you're thinking, and (issues of sexual orientation aside) while it is unthinkable that I should spend thirteen years with someone so culinarily incompatible, yes: reader, I married her.
9To the best of my knowledge, the two have never joined forces in a professional wrestling context, but I aver that if such a thing were to happen, it would be unwise to bet against them.