Category: please support these fine businesses

August 05, 2004

Dear friends,

I wanted to post something long and thoughtful and laudatory here tonight, but in the end I decided there is no better way to say it than to just say it plainly.  Please go directly to Regina Schrambling’s web page, gastropoda, and read it now.

I’m trying to decide whether I am so impressed with her ruthless honesty, wicked humor and verbal grace that I want to aim for the bar that she has set, or whether I am so intimidated by all of the above that I just want to pack up my laptop and go home.  Either way, she leaves me lost in admiration.

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July 22, 2004

Dear friends, tonight’s Tale Out of Eureka Springs comes from the journal I kept while I was there, an effort to document everything I was making in that nifty kitchen.  Without further ado...

I made a vegan lemon curd last week.  Part of my demo will involve the preparation of three different lemon curds:  a low-fat one from Sally Schneider, no butter, one egg, one egg white and gelatin to make up the difference; a “regular” one from Sherry Yard, three eggs, four egg yolks, half a stick of butter; and a rich one from Pierre Herme, not quite as many eggs but 3/4 pound of butter.  In discussing this with the Colony staff, the assistant director and the maintenance guy, both of whom are vegans, asked me if it would be possible to prepare a vegan curd.  Because Jan and Sean are lovely and kind people, I did not share with them the questions that came to mind, questions that in the books-on-tape version would be voiced by Lewis Black.  “A vegan version of something primarily made of butter and eggs?” I said I would see if it could be done.  Lo and behold, I found a vegan website in the U.K. that had a recipe for vegan lemon curd.  Odds my bodkins.  12 ounces of sugar (yipes), the juice of 4 lemons, 4 ounces of vegan margarine, 4 eggs’ equivalent of egg replacer.  I went to the health food store and bought the marge that Jan recommended, and a box of something called En-Er-G egg replacement. 

The recipe basically tells you to cook everything together for 20 minutes, and to use a vegetarian gelling agent, like agar agar, if the mixture doesn’t thicken.  I am not practiced enough at using agar agar.  My experience with it reveals a substance that gells very, very gently, and then overnight hardens aggressively, turning your fussed-over and cossetted vegetarian custard into a Spaldeen ball, or a Pensey Pinky eraser.  I decided to just try it as written, no worries about the thickener; if all else fails, I thought, we’ll just call it lemon sauce.

Since the lemons were small, I used 6.  Weighed out the sugar.  Weighed out the marge, which is as probably as close to butter you will get as a vegan, but which to me tasted like nothing but salt.  Read the packet directions on the egg replacer, 4 tablespoons powder, 4 tablespoons water.  The resultant mix looked like frothy egg whites, or, more accurately, like meringue powder, that staple of cake decorators. Watching all this stuff melt together, it hit me that there was nothing in here to give it much color.  There was a pale, pale yellow from the marge, but not enough to offset the white of the egg replacer, or the general beige tone that the sugar conveyed on the lemon juice.  At least it will be lemony, I thought, from the lemon juice.  And at least it will be sweet, from the 3/4 pound of sugar.

Twenty minutes later, we did indeed have something lemony and sweet, and thick enough to be called curd.  We also had something grainy, thanks, I’m guessing, to the starches in the egg replacer meant to emulate the behavior of egg white.  Left exposed to air, the top surface developed a palpable crackle, again, much like the way icings made with meringue powder do, when your teeth hit that thin surface of sugar, only to break through it and sink into intense sweetness.  I wonder if more lemon juice would have made the difference, or maybe some lemon zest grated into it.  I wonder if I will need to add agar agar after all, to offset the additional liquid from the lemon juice.  I wonder if this is a lost cause I’m embarking on.  I know that Jan and Sean were thrilled when I came down to the office bearing my pot of vegan lemon curd, pleased and happy that I had made the effort for them.  I have no idea whether it tasted good to them or not.

I made another curd for me and the other writers, a traditional one from Sherry Yard’s recipe in The Secrets of Baking, on Thursday.  I was going to use it for shortcakes, but I ran out of time to make biscuits, so I whipped some cream, folded the curd into the cream and gave it one more good beating into something that was a bit more liquid than whipped cream but a little fluffier than pudding.  Forrest and I ate it for dessert, piled gently into bowls, laced with fresh raspberries.  This is a bright, bright yellow curd, although I can’t tell if it’s bright from the yolks of the eggs of the Araucana hens kept by the guy who sells those eggs to Bill’s Pharmacy [yes, dear friends, I bought my eggs at the pharmacy, and yes, there will be elaboration on this in a future post], or if it’s from the butter from Hosanna Hills Farm, where the cows are fed on pasture rather than on grain and hay.  When you cook the eggs and lemon juice and sugar to 160 degrees, the mix assumes the consistency of sour cream and the whisk just begins to leave tracks.  When you pull this mix off the stove and whisk cool butter into it, you can begin to see it thicken even further; you can see its future as a spread for your toast, or a filling for your lemon tart.  This is a curd you don’t have to figure out.  It just is.

A sidenote:  Because so much of the baking here has been a combination of the eggs from Bill’s and the butter from Hosanna Hills, I don’t know what the answer is when people say (as they said tonight about the brioche) “what makes it so yellow?  is it the butter or the eggs?” I’m sure it’s both, but we’ll see, won’t we, when I test the other bread recipes, the eggless one and the 2-egg one.  Either way, it makes me think of the article reprinted on the Hosanna Hills website, where they explain that the color of the butter is the result of pasturage, and that as a result, your baked goods will assume a color not seen since your granny’s day.  Now I know why the Hesses are so dissatisfied with what we’re eating.  The thought of eating Land O’Lakes ever again is laughable.  Even the French Normandy butter I buy at Rosario’s, which is delightful butter, seems a pale imitation of this stuff.  I think of the line from Something Happened, the list of the flavorless food on which we are feeding, the observation that 250 million people eat every day never knowing what real food is.  “That’s what Paradise is...never knowing the difference.”

Below:  The famous eggs from Bill’s, the famous butter from Hosanna Hills Farm, a piece of regular supermarket USDA Grade AA unsalted butter, for comparison & contrast’s sake.  Not to belabor the point, but as you look at that butter, just remember that there is no annatto or other coloring agent in the farm butter.  It all depends on what the cows are eating, and it varies from batch to batch.  In the four weeks I was there, I have seen this butter in shades of brilliant yellow, rather like buttercups, and in shades of near orange, almost—dare I say it?—egg-colored.  How does it taste?  That is for another time, another post.

brilliant

butters

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December 13, 2003

Despite my best efforts, last weekend I found myself slipping into December torpor.  Even in the best of years, December is a tough, harried, wearying month, and this is certainly not the best of years (although my brother’s wedding in October did bring a lot of sweetness to it).  This has been a particularly hard year for my mother, as my grandfather died in October and my grandmother continues to be robbed of herself by Alzheimer’s.  Last Sunday I was overcome by the realization that I was a rotten daughter, that Mom would be having a particularly tough Christmas this year, and that I hadn’t spoken to her since Thanksgiving weekend, when she and my stepdad brought my cousin, visiting from L.A., into the city for a trip to the Metropolitan Museum and dinner.  I called her, got the answering machine, and left a long rambling message about how I hadn’t called in a while, I wanted to make sure she was okay, I’m sorry I’ve been so low-profile, I love you, Mom.  I didn’t hear anything from her for the rest of the day.  I went to bed worrying.  At 3 a.m. I snapped out of a cluttered and exhausting dream with the realization that the reason Mom hasn’t called is because she and my stepdad are in France, on a vacation that they have been planning, and I have known about, for six months. I felt a momentary surge of relief, followed by a bigger, longer-lasting surge of embarrassment.  I’d forgotten about the trip that was one of the only bright spots in my mother’s year.  I *am* a rotten daughter.  Fortunately, my rottenness gave Mom something to tease me about when she called tonight to say that they were home.

Even with the toughness of this particular December, I do have something else to celebrate, and while it may sound frivolous, I am still celebrating.  For the first time in two years, I will be buying the lion’s share of my Christmas presents at Coliseum Books.  Coliseum is an independent bookstore in Manhattan, 100,000 titles strong.  For 27 years it occupied the corner of 57th Street and Broadway.  Much has been made of the ugliness of this space, at least compared to the new Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores.  If Barnes & Noble is a comfortable reading room, Coliseum was a supermarket, all hard surfaces, neon in the windows, no seats except for occasional footstools purloined from the store staff who used them for reaching the high shelves, shelf stock shrinkwrapped to keep it clean in a location where dirt was easily tracked in.  And yet, I loved this space, found it the most browsable bookstore in the city, whiled away hours in there, bought so many books that my co-workers used to joke that I should just sign my paycheck over to Coliseum.  I used to go to cosmetic industry happy hours at Le Bar Bat, leave in a tipsy, ebullient mood, head to the subway, pass Coliseum and think, hmmm, no harm in just taking a peek.  The next morning I would wake up, take my little Pez dispenser of Excedrin, mutter never again, and curl up with my new books.

Of course, there were whisperings of trouble for years about Coliseum’s lease, that once the lease was up, they would never be able to renegotiate their old terms, as the space had become too valuable.  I crossed my fingers that the store’s owner and the building’s owner would be able to renegotiate; then I plugged my fingers into my ears in an attempt to stave off hearing the inevitable.  Coliseum closed on January 25, 2002, and I felt as if my heart had been torn from my chest.  The first time I walked by the building after the store had closed, I wanted to kick all the windows in.

This may seem like an extreme reaction to the closure of a shop, even a well-loved bookshop, and it was, but then, it was an extreme year.  There was, of course, That Event on That Day.  (Everyone has a 9/11 story to tell, and I am no exception, but it is another story for another day.) I was lucky in that everyone I knew or cared about who worked in or near the towers got out and got home safely.  I knew too many people who did not have that luck, and lost someone dear to them.  I remember days, weeks, of walking around the city, feeling grief everywhere, literally breathing it in, as if it were part of the ink-scented air.  While we were trying to make sense of it all, wondering if there was even sense to be had, anthrax was discovered at NBC, literally down the street from us, and suddenly everyone around me was on the phone with their spouses, arguing over whether they should try to get Cipro prescriptions for their kids.  In November 2001 my company moved from our funky little office across the street from Coliseum to our parent company’s office on 49th and Park.  We were promptly greeted by bomb threats, which forced us to evacuate the building twice a day for six weeks.  (The “bomber” was eventually discovered to be a mailroom employee of a tenant that has since vacated the building; he confessed that he had called the bomb threats in so that he could get some additional break time while he was out delivering mail to the company’s other locations.  The NYPD, the FBI and the Secret Service were not amused.) Every day seemed like a fresh assault, another day to question just what was going to happen to us now, and how much more could we absorb?  I felt that there was no quarter for goodness in the world.  I had the darkest thoughts about my fellow man that I had ever believed possible.  Walking into Coliseum in those days was like being greeted by a friend, or the kindest teacher you’d had in high school, who would listen to you rage about your dark thoughts and then say, well, maybe you’re right, but just in case you’re not, why not immerse yourself in someone else’s thoughts for a while, and see if you change your mind?  And I always did, right up until the week before Coliseum closed, when I watched people fill up baskets with books marked down 20%, while I stood in line with my lone copy of Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, thinking, is this really the last book I’m going to buy at Coliseum?

George Leibson, the owner of Coliseum, vowed to find another space.  I waited, patiently.  Finally, in January 2003, he announced that a space had been found on 42nd Street, across the street from the New York Public Library and Bryant Park.  He noted that he would do the best he could with the space, but it would still be only 2/3 of the old store space, not counting the space that would be dedicated to the cafe (his investors required that he put in a cafe to remain competitive with the chain bookstores).  More than one person, including friends of mine who should have known better, made snotty comments about how long Coliseum could last when people could just go across the street for free books.  (The pedant in me is honor-bound to point out that the NYPL’s actual lending library is two blocks to the south of the main NYPL building, the one with the lions in front.)

Coliseum reopened on June 17 of this year, and yes, I was there as fast as I could possibly walk.  I am still trying to figure out how George only got 2/3 of the space of the old store, yet managed to make it feel so much bigger.  It feels like a bigger space.  But the old shelves, the old fixtures, the old signage dots the store, which now has friendly wooden floors, the better to stand on and browse.  On that day I walked around, touching everything.  As I was browsing the new paperback fiction aisle, I felt a touch at my elbow and a voice saying, “I thought you might be here.” It was Lloyd.  (Since Coliseum is between my office and his office, we bump into each other there a lot.) I bought a Lidia Bastianich cookbook and Christopher Moore’s novel Lamb:  The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.  All around me were people like me, people who lost a piece of their hearts the day that Coliseum closed, who got that piece back when they heard the news that Coliseum would be back.  “Have people been telling you how thrilled they are that you’re back?” I asked the clerk at the register.  “You have no idea,” he said happily.

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December 04, 2003

When I decided to join this tangy, zippy world of blogging, I made two promises: 1. I would not navel-gaze. 2. I would not shill. It took me all of two days to break the navel-gazing vow, but at least now I’m liberated from such a silly rule. This just leaves the rule about shilling, and I’m going to dance all over it, with football cleats.

In fairness, though, I probably shouldn’t call it shilling. Shilling implies a certain quid pro quo, e.g. “if you mention how great our chicken Balti kreplachs are, we’ll give you free chicken Balti kreplachs for life!” No quid pro quo for me, even though this probably has less to do with my stellar moral fiber than with the fact that no one seems all that interested in bribing me. I would love to admit that I can’t be bought by the promise of easy Balti kreplachs, but unfortunately I can’t, simply because I’ve never been able to test the thesis.

Anyone who would like to help me test the thesis, particularly by sending me free foodstuffs, drinkstuffs, books, cd’s, dvd’s, 1972 Kharmann Ghias, fetish wear from Trash & Vaudeville, stocking stuffers from Toys in Babeland, stock certificates or small parcels of land on the moors of Devon, please do feel free to e-mail me. My sense of integrity and fair game is in your hands. (grin)

So consider this less a shill than an appreciation, a chance to transcend the bonds of TypeList, under which this should be filed, but sometimes a girl just wants to go on at length.  (As far as I’m concerned, replace “sometimes” with “more often than not.")

With all of that elegant defense out of the way, you will be undoubtedly pleased to hear that I am about to extol the praises of a magazine that is difficult to find outside of the UK, and its companion book, which is difficult to find outside of the U.S. Another bag of bagels to anyone with the patience to keep reading.

In Tuesday’s post I mentioned in passing “the geniuses at Petits Propos Culinaires” without explaining who those geniuses are or what Petits Propos Culinaires is.  Bad, pretentious Bakerina.  First and foremost, PPC is better known as, uh, PPC.  It is a UK-based, digest-sized magazine, all about food, cooking and cookbooks, with articles ranging from the scholarly to the whimsical, sometimes scholarly and whimsical all at once. (Although the essays are filled with impeccable scholarship and the editorial advisory board is filled with respected culinary historians, it is not a peer-reviewed journal.) It is published three times a year by Prospect Books in Devon, under the editorship of the great Tom Jaine.  It was founded in 1979 by Alan Davidson (who is also the editor of the Oxford Companion to Food), his wife Jane and the late American food writer Richard Olney, who at the time was working on the Good Cook series for Time-Life Books.  One of Time-Life’s strictures was that only recipes that had been previously published could be included in the series, a requirement that infuriated Olney.  He and the Davidsons conspired to produce a little magazine, in which Olney could publish pseudonymously (so as to throw Time-Life off the scent) the recipes he felt should be included in the Good Cook series, and solicited further assistance from Elizabeth David and Jill Norman, David’s editor, friend and literary executor.

For those of us in the U.S., who may have trouble finding PPC in bookshops (although they do offer subscriptions, and they do ship to the U.S.), Ten Speed Press has done us a tremendous service by publishing The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy:  20 Years of the Best Food Writing from the Journal Petits Propos Culinaires. (Yep, that’s the one in the TypeList.) I was thrilled to hear that Ten Speed was the publisher, as they take pride in never letting anything on their list go out of print. 

It is hard for me to confine myself to what I consider the highlights of Wilder Shores, because, simply put, there is no dross, none at all.  All of Richard Olney’s essays are here, written under the noms des plumes Nathan d’Aulnay and Tante Ursule.  There are essays from Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, my food-writing heroes.  There is a wonderful essay by Su Mei Yu (author of an amazing book of Thai home cooking, Cracking the Coconut) about the beautiful tradition of funeral books in Thailand.  When a famous or wealthy person dies, a book is published that contains their biography and any letters they may have written, along with examples of their work; a writer’s book will contain excerpts of his or her writing, while a cook’s book will contain recipes.  These books are distributed to visitors at the funeral service. I have read this essay over and over. 

I am also crazy about an essay by Astri Riddervold and Andreas Ropeid about the Norwegian Porridge Feud of 1864-66.  I will spare you for now the details of the Norwegian Porridge Feud, but trust me, it is fun stuff.  Send me an e or a comment if you’re interested.  ("What are you reading?” my boss asks me at lunch as I chuckle, nose deep in book.  “I’m reading about the Norwegian Porridge Feud of 1864 to 66.” He laughs.  I continue reading.  When I happen to glance up, he has an odd look on his face.  “The thing is, Fin,” he says, “I never know anymore when you’re kidding.")

There is plenty of great stuff in the new issue, PPC #73, July 2003.  There is an essay by Francesca Beauman, “Perfect is the Pineapple,” about how certain food items become cultural signifiers.  There is an essay by David Potter on early recipes for pate a choux, the dough from which cream puffs and eclairs are made.  I will be citing this essay in my bibliography when I begin writing my insane culinary study on the history of eggs in baking (believe me, I wish I were being tongue-in-cheek when I say that I am working on such a project).  There is an abstract of a doctoral thesis on the use of convenience foods and the skill levels of the cooks who use them (and yes, I was surprised by what I read).  But the best thing in there is one of the best food essays I’ve read in months, if not years:  “Going Wild in Urban America.” Alastair Bland was a college student, one semester away from graduating with a double degree from U.C. Santa Barbara, when he embarked on what he refers to as, plainly, “My Project,” in which he decides to see if he can feed himself only on what he can forage and/or catch around Isla Vista, California, for eighty days.  This limited his protein to fish, specifically whatever fish he could spear.  Vegetables and herbs came from a friend’s garden.  Fruit came from the abundant fruit trees in the area, most of which he secured the owners’ permission to pick from before picking.  Figs became the new staple of his diet, 40 per day for 80 days.  When they were good, they were very very good, but when they were bad they made his tongue bleed.  Toward the end of his project, he feared that he was going mad, knew that his friends thought he was unhealthiliy obsessed, and fantasized about buying tortillas and beans at the corner market. 

All ends well, though:  he graduates, his dad comes to pick him up just as a storm blows through and knocks most of the available fruit off the trees, they stop for Mexican food on the way home to San Francisco, his dad says that the project seemed to look good on him.  It is a joy to read, right to the last sentence, which I just cannot refrain from quoting:

“I was made, purely and solidly, through to the bone, down to my heart, of the best stuff on earth.”

As far as I’m concerned, he still is.

Posted by Bakerina at 11:25 PM in please support these fine businesses • (1) Comments
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