I am ever so slightly tired tonight, dear friends, but I don't mind. Today I took a day off from the box factory, my first vacation day from the box factory since my return from Arkansas seven months ago, to spend the day with my mom, who came up from Philadelphia to see The Gates while there were still gates to be seen. Walks were taken, Thai food was eaten, books were bought at Kitchen Arts and Letters, the ne plus ultra of food and wine bookstores.
Since everyone and their second cousin has an opinion on The Gates, I will refrain from adding to the cacophony. (Besides, I think that Julie's observations are much tastier than mine.) I'll just say that I take back all of my pre-Gates snarking of Christo and Jean Claude. It really is pretty neat to see up close.
...only she's not at all well.
One would think that having spent a week nagging one's husband to stop trying to be a superhero while ill and just take a damn sick day already, one would take one's own advice. This might be true if one were not a stubborn and egomaniacal bakerina, but alas, I am, and I did not heed the advice I have been thoughtfully sharing with Lloyd all week. Granted, I'm not nearly as poorly as Lloyd has been; it's just a little head cold with me, but I have decided that the best way to beat this head cold is to saturate my blood with antihistamines, decide that my breathing passages are clear enough for exercise, and head to the office/library/gym when I should probably be curled up somewhere with a bowl of something warm and peppery. Why did I think that it would be a good idea yesterday to dose up on Sudafed, go out into the 14-degree weather, spend 5 hours in a chilly room at the New York Public Library, go back into the 14-degree weather, walk 9 blocks (including three crosstown blocks) to the gym, do bench presses until I couldn't feel my own pectorals anymore, and then spend 1/2 hour trying to get home, thanks to the vagaries of New York City Transit (motto: If You Give Us More Money, We Promise Not to Pester You With Annoyances Like Actual Service)?
I can't be too grumpy about it, though, because it was a Grand Day Out, well worth the resulting grogginess and lethargy I'm feeling this morning. Mostly I'm grumpy because I've been casting about for words about how much I love this phase of my research, and the right words just aren't coming to me. Three weeks ago I was lucky enough to be granted a six-month pass (renewable upon expiration) to the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection at the New York Public Library. The Special Collections office is normally very tough about who they allow access to the library collections; in general, you need either to be affiliated with a university or be working on a book. (Yes, I know I'm working on a book, but considering that I have no agent, no publisher, and no real text, that I'm still in the information-gathering stage, it feels a bit disingenuous of me to actually admit, out loud, in public, that I'm working on a book.) I mentioned that I was on a fellowship, but I didn't mention that the fellowship was at a writer's colony, or that I had actually taken it last year. Apparently I communicated the correct amount of gravitas, though, because I am now in possession of the little yellow card with my name on it, the card that grants me access to the collection that, according to the nice man on the Rare Books staff, includes 7,000 cookbooks and handwritten manuscripts.
About a year and a half ago, during a period of torpor and self-doubt, I picked up a copy of Jane Juska's book A Round-Heeled Woman, in which Ms. Juska describes what happened after she placed an ad in the New York Review of Books that began: "Before I turn 67 next March, I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I really like." While Ms. Juska is a sharp, nifty woman and an excellent storyteller, I found myself fixated not so much on the sexual aspects of the story (although those aspects make for fun reading indeed) as on her visit to the Berg Collection at the NYPL. Ms. Juska is a passionate Anthony Trollope fan; she showed up at the Special Collections office only to learn that just being a Trollope fan and a visitor from California would not be sufficient to get her into the Berg. After providing her academic references and arguing that she is interested in seeing the manuscripts only to review Trollope's editing methods, she is given a pass to the Berg Collection, where she requests to see Trollope's manuscript for Miss Mackenzie. When she sees it, sees the old paper, sees Trollope's beautiful handwriting, reads the words she knows so well and knows that this time she's looking at them straight from the author's hand, from history, she finds herself near tears. It's a beautiful piece of writing, but I thought her reaction was a little over-the-top: It's neat, sure, but neat enough to make you cry?
I am a cad. I am a rube and a philistine. Dear friends, I did not actually cry in the Rare Book Room, but I came close. On my first visit, I filled out a call slip for The Perfect Cook, an English translation of Le Patissier Francoise, considered the first extant pastry cookbook (while earlier cookbooks contained directions for pastry, Le Patissier Francoise appears to be the first book to specialize in pastry and baking). The English translation is ascribed to a "Mounsieur Marnette"; the original French author is still a source of controversy; there are theories that La Varenne was the actual author, but the scholar and cookery teacher Anne Willan disputes this. The original volume was published in 1653; the English translation was published in 1656.
Even as I knew that I was not looking at a facsimile, that the catalog said, plain as the nose on my face, "1656," I still felt the little hairs on the back of my neck shiver when the librarian walked over to my work table with a small foam easel, a set of small beanbag weights and a tiny, dark volume. He showed me how to keep the book open with the weights so as to keep from damaging the spine, and pointed out that the first two pages of the book had fallen out. He then left me on my own, obviously not hearing the caterwauling going on in my head: You know that I'm a feckless doofus, right? Are you sure I'm allowed to touch this 350-year-old cookbook? This is a 350-year-old cookbook!
I turned the pages gently, so gently, trying to keep my fingers off the pages as much as possible, lest the acids in my fingers damage the paper. I read recipe after recipe, recipes for rye doughs for raised pies, strong wheat doughs, soft wheat doughs, puff pastry, pastry cream, florentines, biscuits, ginger cakes, meat pies. On page 21 I found something that made me smile, something that addresses one of my deeply-held crotchets and biases about the superiority of weight vs. volume measurement:
Observe, That whensoever wee do speak of, or allege the word pound, as for Example, a pound of butter, wee do thereby mean the pound which doth weigh sixteen ounces or two marks of Goldsmiths weights, and thus of all weights proportionably.
Observe also, that when we mention or allege a Pinte, that wee mean the pinte according to the Parisian measure, the which doth contain the weight of two pounds of water, within an ounce or thereabout, and almost the same quantity in wine; The Choppin as they call it in France is half a pint, and the Septies as they call it, is a quarter of a plate; And although these measures have several appellations according to the respective places where they are used, However you can never bee mistaken in case you stick unto the weight of the measures which are by me propounded.
Dear friends, I did not cry. But I don't think I breathed, either. I realize I'm leaving a lot off this, just why I get so shivery every time I walk into the room (and not just because the temperature is on the low side), how I also managed to get my hands on the first edition of Gervase Markham's The English Hus-Wife, published in 1615, how I know that there are other books, to say nothing of family manuscripts, waiting to be reviewed, how thrilling this all feels. I don't have the words. I don't know that I ever will.
Note: This post is dedicated to the lovely Moira, who knows why.
I can hear you now. Eeeeek! Is it supposed to look like that? Not quite. The middle is supposed to sink like that, but the top is not supposed to be all broken and pathetic-like. Granted, it *is* a fragile cake, one that must be decanted from the pan with care, but this is more damage than can be attributed to careless handling. My hunch is that the oven was not quite hot enough, and the middle of the cake did not set properly, while the sides got a bit overbaked.
The cake in question is called a Trianon, and was the specialty of the late, much-lamented Patisserie Colette on 3rd Avenue and 66th Street. Adrianne Marcus, author of The Chocolate Bible (the 1978 survey of chocolatiers across the U.S. and around the world, not the Christian Teubner cookbook), called the Trianon the best chocolate cake in the world. Lora Brody's memoir Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet includes a wonderful chapter on her obsession with the Trianon, from her insistence that her husband pick up the cakes because she was terrified of Colette, to her years of recipe testing, trying to crack the code on the cake, to the dinner party that finally yielded her the recipe.
I can still hear you. So it's not very pretty...how does it taste? I baked this cake on Thursday night. We finished it tonight. It tasted like a dream made real. I keep forgetting that a drab and unassuming package can be a real beauty on the inside. Silly me.
Edit: It was disingenuous of me, was it not, to try to post a chocolate cake picture without divulging the recipe? Sorry about that, dear friends. In response to the lovely bunni, who asked how the cake got its name, I'm afraid that I must take the "must do more research!" plea. I believe that the cake was Colette's own creation and Trianon was the proprietary name she used, but as to why she named the cake as she did, I cannot say. Yet.
Once again, the recipe comes from Growing Up on the Chocolate Diet by Lora Brody, but the words are mine. And yes, that's not a typo: you really do need 10 ounces of butter. Yes, that's 2 1/2 sticks. Just remember that you're not going to eat the whole cake in one sitting -- well, hopefully, you're not -- and that this is a perfect thing to take to a dinner party where you are serving, in Lora Brody's words, "12 normal people or 8 chocomaniacs."
12 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
10 ounces (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup (7 oz.) granulated sugar
5 extra-large eggs, separated
1 cup (4 oz. [sift flour into measuring cup and level off with knife to get 4 oz.]) flour**
** The original recipe calls for 1 cup of cake flour. Cake flour is a soft (low-protein) flour that has been bleached with benzoyl peroxide. The bleaching is meant to help strengthen the gluten against the weakening properties of the butter and chocolate. I hate bleached flours of all stripes, and I am squeamish at the thought of eating something treated with benzoyl peroxide, which is an active ingredient in acne medications, so I substitute pastry flour, which is unbleached and has a comparable protein content (9% vs. 8% for cake flour). If you only have all-purpose flour (11.7% protein content), go ahead and use it. Any Trianon is better than no Trianon.
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F (Gas Mark 3) and place a rack in the center of the oven. Butter an 8-cup loaf pan, line the bottom with parchment and butter the parchment.
In the top of a double boiler, over gently simmering water, melt the butter and chocolate together. When both are melted, add the sugar and stir in with a wire whisk. Cook for 2 minutes. Whisking all the while, add the egg yolks one at a time. Remove from heat.
Beat the egg whites, together with the pinch of salt, in a mixer until they form firm but soft peaks (i.e. you don't want stiffly-beaten whites; they should still be shiny and hold a peak, but not a stiff one. If your whites start to resemble cottage cheese and won't hold a peak, you've overbeaten them and will need to start with 5 new egg whites).
Stir about 1/4 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten it a bit. Pour the chocolate mixture over the egg whites and fold until everything is almost (but not completely) amalgamated. Sift the flour over the chocolate, a third at a time, and fold in. Try not to knock out too much air, but be sure that all the flour has been amalgamated.
Pour the chocolate into the loaf pan and set the pan in the oven. Bake for 50 minutes (check the cake after 30 to be sure it's not overbrowning; if it is, cover it with a piece of foil.) The cake is done when it has risen over the pan about 1 inch, and is thoroughly baked; it should not wiggle if you shake the pan gently. Turn the oven off and let the cake sit in the oven for one more hour.
Take the pan out of the oven and let the cake cool completely. Decant the cake by placing a cookie sheet over the top of the cake, carefully flipping the pans over and removing the cake pan. You may want to pass a thin knife around the pan before flipping -- this is a good idea. Peel the parchment off the cake bottom and carefully turn the cake over, for it is quite fragile. If you can, wrap it in plastic and foil and let sit for 24 hours. If you are serving right away, just be prepared for a bit of crumbliness when you slice it.