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The Best Old Things

April 5th, 2011 by Cocolat

I have mixers and processors, ice cream machines, an infrared thermometer, digital scale and my share of electric or electronic gadgets in my kitchen. But some of my best, most often used tools are old and simple. Good looking too. And filled with memories. A few date from l972, acquired in Paris, at La Samaritaine, or a street market or corner quincaillerie (hardware store). If I need a cup or two of grated carrots or beets, I'd rather reach for one of my tin (not even stainless steel) Mouli graters than bother with the food processor. One has a rotary barrel, the other slightly larger, Mouli Julienne, has three disks with different size holes. They remind me of finely shredded veggies dressed in vinaigrette, the ubiquitous salades de crudites we ate in modest French restaurants and cafes long ago.

Rolling pins? I have my great grandmother's tapered maple pin, with which my mother made her Thanksgiving apple pie, before she decided it was more convenient to make apple crisps instead of apple pies. I have a small slender pin made of dark wood, that's only 12 inches long and just an inch in diameter. More like a fat dowel than what we consider a rolling pin, this pin is used to roll out crackers or flat bread in I-forget-which country, and was given to me by a friend from Indiana. It is surprisingly versatile. Actually it's the sports car of rolling pins: I find it remarkably easy to manoeuvre and it turns on a dime. I also have a beautiful, and hefty, hand-turned ash and walnut pin crafted recently by another friend. I use whichever suits the task and my mood.

The slotted spoon is employed several times each week to lift perfect poached eggs from their hot (not-even-simmering) bath. I love my micro plane and vastly prefer the original design, without a handle to distract from the essential beauty of a perfect functional tool. I use the grooved mortar and pestle often to make, among other things, a ground coriander, fennel, and pepper corn crust for seared tuna (From Paul Johnson's book, Fish Forever).

The mystery tool that resembles a miniature jaws of life is one of my very best old things. In lieu of an oven mitt, it's used to grab a hot cake pan or dish from the oven, or at least slide it into view, without gouging the contents with the gigantic thumb of my oven mitt. Tell me that never happens to you… I bought this grabby thing at at the Bazaar de l'Hotel De Ville, (known as BHV, pronounced "bay ahsh vay" of course) for less than 5 francs when France had francs and francs were only 5 to the dollar! I'm afraid it will break some day and I have no idea what it is called or whether one can even still buy them in France (are you listening David Lebovitz and Dorie Greenspan?) I loved photographing these beloved and useful old tools and remembering when and where I got them. Not that I would object (at all!) to having a Pacojet

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

Berkeley Breakfast For Two In 15 Minutes

March 5th, 2011 by Cocolat

Every now and then I love to be reminded that the best meals I’ve ever cooked are the simple fast ones I’ve prepared for people I love: a daughter, a lover, or a cherished friend. They often involve a little serendipity.

Last week my dear friend E set out for Berkeley from the North Coast to continue the celebration of her 75th. As usual, she stopped at the Booneville hotel to break the drive. But the Booneville was booked, so they tucked her in at the Toll House Inn 10 minutes up the hill on the road to Ukiah. She headed south again the following morning, after de-icing car door handles and scooping up the bottle of Alexander Valley chardonnay (Handley 2007) gifted by the hotel. Neither of us would have chosen the chardonnay, but even the persnickety can be tempted by free wine. Good thing.

POACHED EGGS FOR TWO W/ ASPARAGUS, BROWN BUTTER, FRESH TARRAGON, AND CALIFORNIA CHARDONNAY

Be sure the kitchen table is de-cluttered and the Magnolia blossoms plucked from the neighbor’s tree are in a lovely dish in the center. Tulips should already be arranged in the big vase behind the sink with lilies in the opposite corner of the room. (It wouldn’t hurt if the rest of house was de-cluttered as well-but that doesn’t count in my fifteen-minute prep time, nor does the fact that E usually gets up first and makes coffee for both of us well before we contemplate breakfast).
 
Put a wide skillet of water on the stove to heat. Meanwhile cut four slices from a loaf of Acme levain and put them in a turned off toaster oven. Rinse, snap, and peel asparagus stalks and set the kitchen table with flaky sea salt and a pepper grinder. When the skillet water is boiling, add salt and asparagus. Plop a chunk of unsalted butter into a tiny saucepan with a sprig of fresh tarragon over medium heat. Keep an eye on the butter and swirl it in the pot from time to time until it is fragrant and golden brown. When the asparagus is al dente (and still bright green), transfer the spears to a double layer of paper towels. (Check the butter and pour it into a ramekin when it is done).

Bring the asparagus water back to a simmer. Break four very fresh farm eggs into the water, in a clockwise pattern. Turn the burner OFF, cover the pan, and set the toaster oven for 3 minutes. Meanwhile uncork an expensive bottle of champagne and discover that it is not very good. When the toaster oven beeps, divide the toast between two plates and drizzle them with a little of the brown butter. Use a slotted spoon to remove the first egg, draining the excess water by resting the spoon on a folded paper towel before sliding the egg onto a slice of toast. Repeat, scooping each egg from the water in the order it was added. Garnish plates with asparagus and drizzle more brown butter over the eggs and asparagus. Top with tarragon leaves, pinches of flaky salt, and grinds of pepper.

Serve a slightly oaky, buttery, bottle of Alexander Valley Chardonnay (which turns out to be an even better choice than the champagne would have been…) Linger over breakfast as long as possible.

PS Enjoy left over brown butter on toast with salt and tarragon leaves for several mornings thereafter and don't forget to return the champagne to the store.

 
 
 
 

 

Carrot Re-Torte

February 23rd, 2011 by Cocolat

Nora Ephron remembers nothing. I remember nothing in my refrigerator. Why do I have so many carrots?

At the market, in the carrot aisle, I say (to myself), “you should eat more carrots” or “it’s cold outside, why not braise something (with carrots)” or “how about making those Spicy Carrot Macaroons…” (Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies, page 164). Then, having NOT eaten carrots, braised anything, or made macaroons, I’m flush with carrots, bags and bags of them.

While I can’t remember if I have carrots, I can remember the carrot torte that I made from the 1948 Settlement Cookbook when I was 15. It was certainly not the cake you are thinking of, with the oil and walnuts and crushed pineapple and spices all slathered with cream cheese frosting. It was a torte. Sophisticated. European. It was all ground almonds, grated carrots, eggs. It had no baking powder or soda and not a speck of flour! You had to separate those eggs and proceed as though making a real sponge cake, folding stiffly beaten eggs whites into the whole business at the end. I had never eaten or even heard of such a torte, but I made one that day in the large aluminum angel food pan that lived (though rarely used) in our kitchen. The batter rose beautifully (see, I do remember the 60’s) and then collapsed tragically. The golden brown edges, slightly crusty yet chewy, were still clinging to the sides of the pan but the moist center was caved in. I leaned against our grey Formica counter contemplating, meanwhile exploring (as anyone would have) the chewy and gooey parts of the cake with a fork. I must have been wondering what went wrong and what to do next. Did I scoop it out and serve the yummy stuff to the family with great dollops of whipped cream and confidence? Or did I nibble a bit too much of it myself and then chalk it up to failure? That I don’t remember. But the torte has been in the back of my mind ever since.

Today, reading the recipe I could surmise that I under-baked the original and perhaps overbeat the egg whites too. Who knows what my skills were at 15? Presuming an experienced baker, the recipe offers no more than a paragraph of instruction. I could fix that!

To begin, the recipe calls for grated cooked carrots. Surely I could get better color and brighter flavor if I skipped the cooking step and just let the carrots cook in the torte. However, I smartly decided to squeeze the daylights out of the raw grated carrots to remove excess juice, as there would be no flour to absorb extra moisture. It’s a shame to remove such delicious liquid, but no one likes a soggy carrot torte! And the baker rewards herself with that bonus shot of fresh carrot juice anyway. My first try was clearly on the right track. But it wasn’t quite the torte of memory. To my taste today, it needed more salt, more orange zest, a little cinnamon, a nuance of almond extract to compensate for (heat processed, salmonella-safe) less flavorful almonds, plus a slightly more detailed mixing method, just in case a less-experienced-but-ambitious young baker might want to try it.

Voila! It’s now as delicious as I want to remember it: still a little crusty chewy on the outside with a moist, nubbly, flavorful, slightly macaroon-like interior.

CARROT ALMOND TORTE

For such an old school recipe, it’s amusing to know how many pieces of electric equipment I managed to use here: two mixers and a food processor! But I used my trusty old French 1970’s hand crank Mouli to grate the carrots!



















Ingredients:
8 ounces (1 1/2 cups) whole almonds, skins and all
7 ounces (1 cup) sugar, divided
8 ounces (2 cups) lightly packed finely grated peeled carrots
1 medium organic or unsprayed orange
4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon (slightly rounded) ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Unsweetened whipped cream (with a little vanilla if you like)

Equipment:

8=inch spring form pan with sides buttered or greased
Food processor
A hand-held mixer and a stand mixer, if possible

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the lower third.
In the food processor, pulse the almonds with 2 tablespoons of sugar until the nuts are very finely ground. Set aside.


Stack three or four paper towels on the counter. A handful at a time, squeeze the grated carrots hard, over a bowl (if you plan to sip the juice) to extract as much juice as possible. Put each handful of squeezed carrots in the center of the paper towels until all are squeezed. Gather the edges of the towels up around the carrots and squeeze some more. (Or, see my next post about using a citrus squeezer or potato ricer to do this job).  Set aside.

Use a micro plane zester to grate the zest of the orange directly into a large mixing bowl. Add the egg yolks, salt, cinnamon, and almond extract. Set aside 2 more tablespoons of sugar before adding the remaining 3/4 cup to the bowl. Beat the mixture with a hand held electric mixer or with a wire whisk for 1 or 2 minutes until it is thick and lightened in color. Sprinkle the grated carrots into the bowl, but don’t mix them in.

In the (clean dry) bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the egg whites and cream of tartar. Beat on medium/medium high speed until the whites are white (rather than translucent yellow) and hold a soft shape. Gradually sprinkle in the reserved two tablespoons of sugar, beating at high speed until the egg whites are stiff but not dry. Scrape one quarter of the egg whites on top of the carrots and batter. Use a large rubber spatula to fold the whites and carrots into the batter. Scrape the remaining egg whites into the bowl and pour the ground almonds over and around them. Fold the egg whites and almonds into the batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread the surface level. 

Bake for 45-50 minutes until the surface of the torte is golden brown and just beginning to separate from the sides of the pan and the torte springs back when you press it gently with a finger. Cool the torte in the pan, on a rack. Slide a slim knife or spatula around the sides of the torte to detach it from the pan and remove the sides of the pan. Slide a knife between the cake and the bottom of the pan to detach it. Use a metal pancake turner to transfer the cake to a serving plate. Slice and serve with dollops of whipped cream.



Another* Nectarine Story

August 23rd, 2010 by Cocolat

Fruit is memory food for me. A bite of this, a whiff of that can take me instantly to my Southern California roots (picking succulent plums from our rooftop with my best friend Linda, parking in the orange groves with my boyfriend). Often the memory is France, vivid, random, sweet…

I recently joined old friends for brunch just up the street, in the middle of the week. So luxurious. It felt like Sundays of old. My friends are retired and I seem to work all of the time lately, so it doesn’t matter for me either, whether it’s weekday or weekend. But it still felt like Sunday. The talk was so good that I barely noticed what I was eating until I’d helped myself to fruit salad three times. Sensational fruit in a giant stoneware bowl. There was a whisper of cinnamon in every bite, really just a nuance. And the fruit was bright and sweet and tart on my tongue, just as it should be. I know my hostess well enough to know she hadn’t added sugar to perfect fruit. But she had just tossed it with a little limejuice and a squeeze of orange, and pinches of cinnamon. I left with the taste in my head, saving it for later.

A few days ago, I needed a palate-cleansing snack, just for myself—something light and refreshing, without chocolate, butter, or white sugar, please. I sliced a nectarine, squeezed a little lime and grated a little cinnamon. Freshly grated cinnamon stick is magical–it perfumes the air and your fingers as well as flavoring the food. I was starting to add the ripe blackberries and tiny strawberries from my Thursday night North Berkeley farmers’ market, meanwhile previewing the fruit with juicy fingers. Licking a finger, it hit me that the big (really big) star on the plate was just the nectarine with the lime and cinnamon. Thinking back, Nancy’s salad had lots of nectarines. It was the nectarines that carried the dish! I set my lush blackberries and exquisite strawberries aside for another moment, just to focus on the nectarines.



Recipe: Slice ripe nectarines. Squeeze a little limejuice over the fruit. Toss very gently to keep the slices looking virginal. Serve on the hand-painted plates that you bought in Moustiers 20 years ago on a summer afternoon, after pedal boating in the Gorges du Tarn. Grate a little cinnamon stick over each plate.

*My first nectarine story, “Chocolate And The Nectarine” can be found on page 68 of my book, Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate.