Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Chaque couleur, s'il te plait.

Suffice it to say, I've never had a macaroon (Le macaron, en francais) that I thought was really good. Until about 30 seconds ago.

Vacances is over. Vacances is the 6-week paid vacation that all French citizens get during the months of July and August where pretty much all of Paris shuts down and it's impoosible to get a good baguette (let alone a good patisserie) anywhere. Everyone is in the Cote d'Azur, Nice, Provence, Marseille - feasting on coq au vin and ratatouille in lavender fields with lots of chilled Chardonnays. La vie francais.

But now, the patissieres are returning to their shops and it is finally possible to walk 20 steps out your door and buy fresh bread. I went out on a limb today after my excursion to the Musee Maillol turned out to be fruitless (Tuesday is a strange day to be closed on). I went to the patissier just 20 steps outside my door and noticed that their specialty was macaroons.

A crash course in macaroon making might be in the cards: A macaroon is basically baked almond-flavored meringue disk. You can add colorings and other flavorings to make them prettier. The disks are sandwiched together by a hardish creme patissiere (which actually reminds me a lot of Oreo cookie filling (I guess Oreos could be considered American macaroons).

In this particular patisserie there weren't a lot of impressive looking pastries (I mean, hey they just got back from Toulouse last night!), but the macaroons were among the prettiest and most tempting i had seen. There were ten flavors and colors ranging from a verdant green pistachio to a regal purple creme de cassis. They were absolutley beautiful - I had to have one of every color, no matter what the cost, except for the blue "menthe frais" macaroon. I stand with my hero Jeffrey Steingarten when I adopted one of my mantras "food should not be blue." Plus, if it were really menthe fraise (fresh mint), it wouldn't be blue. Sorry.

I tried the purple one first - it was just screaming to be eaten. It was also the one I was most worried about. I was so, so wrong. A slightly crunchy shell encased a cassis-flavoured jelly like meringuey center filled with this Oreo-filling creme. The second, a coffee and chocolate macaroon just made it impossible to distinguish which I preferred.

Thusly, I have eight more macaroons left. Each with their own taste, but uniform in texture and gratification. I will attempt to be Proustian and concoct a sensory memory from each one. Lucky for you, I will keep it to myself. Not every madeline has a story to tell the world.

ADDENDUM: I just bit into the caramel macaroon and it gave me chills. I'm not even joking a little bit. And I actually hate caramel.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Little To Do With Food...Much Ado About Nothing.


Nutella is a sticky subject. It becomes exponentially stickier due to the fact that it happens to be different all over the world. Italy’s Nutella is heavier on the hazelnut, guaranteeing at least 40 hazelnuts per jar. The French and Swiss Nutella is chocolate-happy, producing a sweeter, creamier product, even at room temperature. American Nutella, still largely unknown except to a select few who seek it out, is almost solid and tends to be grainy and waxy. It has yet to be perfected, since those who enjoy it are either just happy to have Nutella, or know no other trans-continental Nutella.

Is this an un-American distinction? Have I forsaken the land of the free just for a moment of anything-slathered-with-specifically-French-Nutella bliss? I’ve been told as much. The president of Ferrero-Rocher, an Italian by birth, has voiced his preference for the French and Swiss versions. Is he ex-patriate? Or does he just prefer a higher chocolate-to-hazelnut ratio?

Americans have become paranoid. Before leaving for France, my father handed me a pair of surgical-style masks, explaining that they were specially fabricated for use during nuclear holocaust, and urging that I keep them in whatever bag I happened to be carrying at the time. Upon arrival at the airport, I had to throw away my $25 Estee Lauder lipcolor because the Transportation Security Administration thinks I might be mixing it with liquid nitrogen in the airplane’s lavatory. Yet, somehow, I still didn’t have to show my picture ID in order to board the aircraft. I don’t understand that. “Ex-patriate” (or “expat” to their friends – themselves, usually) has become a dirty word again, equal to “Communist” in the 1950s and 1980s and “Jihadist” today. It is the age of the new propaganda. Advertisers layer page upon page with American celebrities (i.e. Paris Hilton - but never Johnny Depp, he’s Parisian) in order to show the world that not only does America carry the best products, but it also has the most beautiful, most visible people. Blowing up America would not only cause the destruction of Jenny Craig weight-loss centers, but also would cause the destruction of Kirstie Alley, who is beautiful again and therefore should not be blown up. Meanwhile, I flip through 50 pages of Dolce&Gabbana and Candie’s ads in order to get to the first-page-masthead of the Vogue I’m reading just to see if Jeffrey Steingarten’s post as food critic has been vacated and lies in waiting for my culinary verbiage. All of this while I’m on the treadmill, attempting to get thighs like Nicole Richie.

Am I being too harsh on America? I doubt it. Maybe I am a little bit un-American. I never fail to cite the 1997 incident when a controversial American filmmaker (who shall remain nameless) orchestrated the First Annual Healthcare Olympics. The only three countries who participated were Communist Cuba, Socialist Canada, and the good ol’ Democratic U.S. of A. The three countries were tried and tested on three specific criteria. Length of time it took for a person with a minor injury to wait in the clinic, amount of money charged for services, and amount of paperwork needed to file in order to complete the healthcare transaction.

A report of the Healthcare Olympics was scheduled to air on the NBC Nightly News. However, the results of the Healthcare Olympics turned out to be – well – not in America’s favor. In fact, the United States came in last. Much like rugby. Following the United States was Canada. Those damn commies won. Now, not only were Cubans beating our immigration system to a pulp, they were also undermining the pride of the United States – no, not Hilary Duff – our flawless healthcare system. NBC asked the director/producer very nicely (read: forceably) to alter the results. They requested that Canada and Cuba switch places. They didn’t mind being beaten by Castro, they just minded being beaten THAT BADLY by the commies.

How I know this is that I read Adventures In A TV Nation by Michael Moore (oops.) while at BYU. A Michael Moore book at BYU? Yes. That is what makes America great.

What else makes America great? I can think of no better midnight snack than 20 extra-hot wings from Hobbit Hoagies in Tallahassee, Florida with several cold Bud Light’s to wash them down and a round of pool with good friends. Grilling is the best way to eat anything (I’m counting the healthful factor too, otherwise my vote would have gone to deep-frying). Our flag is one of the prettiest around. I love Target. Our president is much more entertaining than either Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair, or Chancellor Angela Merkel. I love the United States.

I guess I just don’t compliment America enough. I just figure that it’s general ignorance of other cultures (mostly the ignorance is centered around the mid-West and Southern states (including Texas) – sorry Oklahoma), and “rugged individualism” makes compliments from a young woman like me unimportant. America has enough crippling self-esteem. Why does it need me to validate it?

France, on the other hand is quite aware of other cultures. It just prefers its own. American mistake this “preference” for dislike, enmity, and even hatred. I have heard claims that French people treat Americans badly when Americans try to speak French, and it goes awry. Sorry, but when was the last time you heard an American make fun of the way an Asian person pronounces the English “R”. Hmmm? When was the last time you heard an American mock a Japanese tourist for asking “You take peektcha!??”

Lighten up. There’s no reason to hate on people who love the French. There’s no reason to hate the French. Except that their Nutella is better than yours.

As a peace offering to my American friends, I’d like to offer my new recipe for Nutella soufflés, which can be made with American, French, Suisse, or Italian Nutella. But not English. Gross.


40 g/1.5 oz unsalted butter
185 g/ ¾ c caster sugar
2 cups crème patissiere (see Why Are Cream Puffs… entry for recipe)
4 oz Nutella, heated to approx. 97 degrees F
3 tbsp chocolate liqueur (optional, but I love it – ooh, even better: Grand Marnier)
12 egg whites
3 tbsp caster sugar
confectionary sugar (for dusting finished soufflés)

Brush inside of eight soufflé dishes with softened butter, then coat butter with the caster sugar. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C) and put a large baking try in the over to preheat with it.

Warm the crème patissiere in a bowl in a double boiler, then remove from heat. Whisk in warmed Nutella

Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form, whisk sugar into meringue gradually until mixture becomes glossy. Add half of the meringue to the crème patissiere to soften it, and then fold in the remainder of the meringue with a large wooden spoon or spatula. Pour into soufflé dishes.
Put the dishes on the hot baking try and bake for 15-18 minutes or until soufflés are well risen and wobble slightly when tapped. Poke a skewer through a crack in the soufflé. It should come out slightly moist. The internal residual heat from the soufflés will cook the rest of the soufflé by the time it gets to the table. Serve IMMEDIATELY and watch magic happen.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Ode to Confiture

Some proclaim the pride of France to be foie gras, to be cheese, to be bread – with its crusty shell encasing a vulnerable center. Some exclaim it is Escoffier!, it is Bocuse!, it is Ducasse! – with their gallivanting the world collecting Michelin stars and claiming to need none of them. Even some exclaim that the pride of France is it’s tradition, is it’s history, is it’s religion – of which none really exist…anymore.

Non! J’exclaim. All are anathema! The pride of France is its confiture. Its jam.

Taking the shape of its decagonal jar, the jam in France is its own Ecole Superieur. A mock hand-written label signifies its homemade taste. Its ability to be licked, nay, plucked from the glass with the fingers – allowing its gelatinous sugars to drip from the tip of the nail to the base of the digit where it inevitably becomes stuck in the well between the lucky one and the less fortunate. No discrete motion efficiently extirpates the jam. The tongue must engage in battle. It must ride forth from the cave that holds it captive and ride into the valley with a single purpose. The hand must twist and maneuver to provide the path for the tongue. Perhaps, if you are lucky, the drip in the well contained a caviar of raspberry, a preserved cherry, or a shred of strawberry.

You must work for your confiture - even in France, nothing is really free. If you are lucky enough to be able to pry the lid free of the jar (in my world, the jam never has time to stick to the sides long enough to become a hindrance), if you are lucky enough to smell the rendered fruit – never the sugar, if you are lucky enough to open a jar of Bonne Maman confiture, you have just begun your morning.

Confiture has risen to a higher level in Europe than it ever has in America. Americans use jam as an enhancement for otherwise tasteless and unexciting bread. Jam is sandwiched between cream cheese and butter as a mere condiment. Europeans know the true abilities of jam. It has been tried and tested and proven worthy. Confiture in France is the true compliment to bread. Adding confiture says to the bread, “I am proud of you.” Butter is optional. Cream cheese – the waxy, completely tasteless commercial variety - is heretical.

There is nary a food that confiture does not enhance. Spread on pork, cherry confiture increases the smoky flavor of a ham, a chop, or a slice of bacon. Strawberry jam creates a sweetness and moisture in chicken and game that never could have existed without it. Perhaps my favorite, however, is a FG&J sandwich. A thin layer of goose liver pate and an equal layer of raspberry confiture on a soft piece of pain de campagne. I am swooning.

The pride of France may be its white yogurt. But no yogurt is sweet enough without a full spoon of jam.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Fall of Athens: My First Review

Socrates (pronounced So-krates), the great Greek, said something about "the unexamined life" not being worth living. I believe the same holds true for the unexamined moussaka. If a Greek life is worth examining, let us also take a thoroughly circumspect look at one mistake in the truly fickle world of Greek food.

Possibly the most underappreciated and least known among the major international cuisines, Greek cuisine yields some of the most colorful and tempting combinations of texture, smell, and, of course, flavor. When it's done correctly. Unfortunately, while most Americans have no trouble at all pointing out an anemic enchilada or a mediocre moo goo gai pan, it is a much more formidable task to take down a turbid tzatziki or recognize a so-so spanikopita. It is much easier to produce Greek food that is passable but not perfect due to the almost mystical nature of the cuisine in most of Americana.

On a recent trip to Taki's "Greco-Roman" restaurant in Leesburg, Florida, it became apparent why Leesburg isn't on the Top Ten list of world culinary capitals and why Floridians so often choose the Chili's or Red Lobsters that dot the highways when it comes to dining choices.

Upon entering Taki's, the sounds of the well-known Greek musicians Nelly Furtado and Timberland greeted us with a hearty and welcoming "promiscuous boy/let's get to the point." It probably couldn't get any worse. And then it did. Our meal was narrated by Casey Casem counting down America's Top Forty, which somehow included "Unbreak My Heart" by Toni Braxton, several BeeGee's songs (appropriately enough, "Tragedy") and of course, the ubiquitous soon-to-be one-hit-wonder Daniel Powter. I was jonesing for some Yanni, regardless of Barry Gibb's striking resemblance to the same.

Other than the music, the typical and unimaginative decor, which I'm sure was purchased as a package from Greek Restaurant Decor Depot, added little charm to the space. I looked around disinterestedly at the false window cut-outs in the drywall, made to resemble an airy, sunshiney villa on the turquoise Aegean. My culturally-astute dining partner (read: My mom) earnestly wondered aloud why Greek people have such a strong prolivity towards limestone statuary. Easily, this was the highlight of the evening.

We were introduced to our dinner by no cordial means. My selection of the Greek Combination Plate #2 consisted of a slab of flavorless, greasy spanikopita, several phyllo dough triangles filled with goat cheese, a skewer of pork souvlaki, and a square of slightly congealed moussaka (flippantly referred to as "Greek lasagna" for us dumb Americans). Everything needed salt, first of all. Such an elementary flavor miscalculation meant only one thing. I called to our punk-rock princess of a server (who, incidentally, had VERY cute hair) and asked her about the abominable spanikopita and equally-as-offensive "triangle thingies" (I clearly astonished her with my distinguished command of culinary argot). Further investigation and rather probing questions revealed what I had suspected: both were delivered frozen and subsequently reheated for service. I was, rather smugly, told that if our server had been a kitchen staff, she would probably have been upset, but since she had "nothing to do with whatever happens in the kitchen" she couldn't be emotionally involved with the food. This kind of disconnect jarred me, and was the greatest downfall of what otherwise would have been a passable meal. Knowing that the staff did not stand behind the food made everything just a little more disappointing - and worthy of a blog review.

I do have one significant point of praise, however. The souvlaki (marinated pork tenderloin skewered and grilled) was fantastic. The skewer dripped with juices and packed quite a punch of flavor. Bravo. Serve a couple of pieces of that delectable pig with some of the housemade tzatziki (a sour cream and cucumber sauce that lacked a significant amount of garlicky glory, but was nonetheless very good), some warm pita slices, and a few tomatoes. I tremble.

I failed to mention my mother's meal of "baked spaghetti Parmagiano with mushrooms" simply because it was not worth mentioning until now. Noodles overdone to the point of mushiness, slathered with a tablespoon of red sauce, lightly broiled bagged pre-shredded mozzarella (which added more of fat than of flavor), and sprinkled auspiciously with canned mushrooms just didn't merit any explanation other than the explanation I just gave. It definitely doesn't deserve further criticism.

I do not believe I will return to Taki's, regardless of the longevity of the establishment. If anything, the fact that Taki's has stood unchallenged in Leesburg for 20 egregious years is only evidence of my prior postulation: Americans just don't know Greek food. Instead of spending the money and going to Taki's, save a few more dollars and go to Chicago. Eat at Kosta's on Halsted in Greektown and experience true Pelopennesian perfection. Socrates will be proud.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Comfortable Food.

As many comfort foods as there are, you would think that there would be a uniform, accepted way of preparing each one. However, this fails to be the case.

For one minute, I'm going to name every comfort food I can think of. Ready. Go

Mac and Cheese
Green bean casserole
mashed potatoes with gravy
Stove Top
Chicken Noodle Soup
Fried Green Tomatoes
Fried Chicken
Creamed Spinach
Au Gratin potatoes
Cheese Grits

Okay, that wasn't a lot. And clearly my Southern roots are showing. I should touch them up. I mean really, who would put fried green tomatoes on the list of comfort foods besides a true Southern belle. Ditto for creamed spinach.

Tonight I made a fantastic meatloaf. I had a rather difficult night last night and an equally difficult day, so the only real answer was meatloaf. And Caramel Praline Crunch ice cream, of which I am partaking at this moment. Praline. There's the Southern-girl-ness again.

Sorry, I got distracted. My house started so smell like heaven smells (or what I imagine Heaven to smell like) about 25 minutes into the cooking process. The reason for this is that I WRAPPED THE ENTIRE MEATLOAF IN BACON. Let me say that again in italics in case you missed it in caps.

I wrapped the entire meatloaf in bacon.

It was insanely good. As a result, the meatloaf was not only tender and savory (thanks to some fresh sage and another result of my being brought up by a Maryland native - Old Bay seasoning), but when i cut into it, all the juices and bacon fat just poured out like the most incredible waterfall you can even dream exists in the rainforests of Hawaii. Or the jungles of Hawaii. Whichever. Of course I saved the fat. My brother and I are going to be making a substantial pot of clam chowdah tomorrow, and the bacon fat will come in quite handy.

The juice alleviated the need that some meat loafs have to be drowned in ketchup in order to stay moist. A friend and I were discussing the the addition of ketchup to meatloaf this evening and agreed that a meatloaf should be prepared so as to not require ketchup, but that it is an acceptable addition if said meatloaf happens to be dry. I think that my meatloaf tonight was the exact opposite of dry. That being moist. To the point of incredibleness.

I even forgot the Lea and Perrins. I'm amazing sometimes. I mean all the time.