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Mmm… Miette

I must admit that although I live right across the bay from Miette (located in the Ferry Building in San Francisco) I have never visited them, nor tasted their pastries. Oddly enough, I just don’t get to The City that often, and when I do I’m usually headed somewhere that is not the Ferry Building. In point of fact, on the rare occasions that I am in San Francisco and looking for something to eat, I’m a lot more likely to be making a beeline to Tommy’s Joynt for some of their delicious Buffalo Stew and incredible garlicky pickles.

Frankly, I don’t go to many bakeries. I prefer to roll my own.

So when I heard that there was going to  be a Miette cookbook, well, that got my attention. You see, while I hadn’t had any of their cakes, tarts, cookies, or sweets, I had heard they were awfully good. My copy arrived in my hot little hands just yesterday, and I must admit I’m eager to try out recipes.

The book itself is quite charming. It’s a comfortable size, and it opens flat, which is convenient for actual use. The pages are thick and glossy, and the edges are cut in a rather charming scallop. No, that isn’t necessary. It’s just pretty. It’s also lavishly illustrated with photographs by Frankie Frankeny, who has done a tremendous job of making everything look beyond scrumptious. As you can see from the illustration above, the poster child chosen to represent the bakery is their famous Tomboy cake with its naked chocolate sides and pretty pink buttercream. It’s pink because it’s raspberry. Dark chocolate and raspberry? Sign me up!

Unfortunately, I will have to wait to try making this beauty for one simple reason: I don’t have the right cake pan. You see, Miette works with the philosophy that smaller is always better… and I have not yet had a reason to acquire a 6″ x 3″ cake pan. Sigh. Guess I’d better hunt one down.

I know that Miette is all about cute, but I think I’m going to leave the ribbons out of the cakes that list them in the ingredients. It is my considered opinion that there should never be anything on a cake that cannot be safely eaten. If I feel the need of the decoration, a little icing in a contrasting color should do the trick.

There is one other annoyance – this time in the text. In the layer cake section, authors Meg Ray and Leslie Jonath harp again and again about how very difficult they are to make. In the notes on making the Princess cake, we are told it can take days depending on the baker’s stamina. Really? In nearly every case, so far as I can tell, what they really mean is that the cakes can be exacting rather than difficult. It’s a fine distinction, but one I consider well worth making. One needs to – for instance – cut the layers so that they are even and straight. This is not especially difficult, but it is important to get right. Saying these cakes are incredibly hard to make scares off the home baker, and really, is that what you want to do in a cookbook?

Besides, in the candy section there are several treats that are every bit as exacting and fussy (in some cases moreso) as the cakes, but they are never called difficult. There is a general warning to be careful when working with extremely hot sugar because it’s quite easy to burn yourself badly, but no dire warnings that any of the candies will tax your strength beyond its bearing. The correct temperature is emphasized, but again, while this is on par with most of the steps in constructing the layer cakes in terms of difficulty vs. importance, there are no exhortations that making toffee or marshmallows is a Herculean task.

Still, these are miniscule flies in the batter, as it were. As I flip through the glossy pages, I am tempted by recipe after recipe. Cakes, cookies, candies, and tarts all call to me and beg to be baked up right away. And from my considerable experience in baking (forty-one years and counting!) I have yet to look at one of the recipes and question it’s proportions or ingredients.

Yes, I can ignore being assumed to be a layer cake wimp when the recipes are this good. After all, as soon as my 6″ cake pan is in my hot little hands, I’ll be proving in spades that I have the intestinal fortitude to slice layers and roll fondant with the best of them.

How was your Easter?

Bye Bye Bunny

Bye Bye Bunny

I’ll be honest: I’ve had a grudge against Easter ever since I realized that, when I was growing up (before the invention of fire) we got a basket of chocolates with one big bunny, a couple of Easter Creme Eggs, and a lot of jellybeans, and only a few years later my much younger stepbrothers got Rollerblades, BUT I’M SO OVER THAT REALLY.

Ahem. Anyway, I didn’t do anything special on Easter and I didn’t get any chocolate except the Hazelnut truffle my friend Raul bought me from the charming Portuguese fellow at the market and no, I’m not sulking, I’M SO OVER THAT I TELL YOU WHY DO YOU KEEP LOOKING AT ME THAT WAY?

I did have a delightful and delicious Easter tea on Friday with a good friend and the most adorable 14-month-old baby you’ve ever seen, and a post will be forthcoming on that shortly, once I’ve gotten my hands on the pictures. I’d almost have a baby so I’d have an excuse to buy those adorable little baby shoes!

On Easter Sunday I got up late, put the kettle on, made myself a French Press of Kenya (yes, from Starbucks: their Kenya AAA is one of the most perfectly balanced coffees in the world FACT and the VP of coffee there once told me it had the second highest caffeine level of any of their offerings, right behind Columbia) and then had a big mess of vegetarian chili while re-reading Toby Young’s extremely addictive memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (curse you, Toby Young, how many rainy days have you cost me in lost productivity???) and then, as always, I went to the cafe with the dreadful coffee and had the green tea while I went online. Hey, a blogger’s gotta blog, eh?

What did you do? Do people still have Easter traditions? Holding out for Monday? Favorite candy? Gawker has a What Your Favorite Easter Candy Says About You quiz, and I present the following Cadbury Easter Creme Egg result without comment:

You normally have things under control but are subject to wild and uncontrollable cravings. While your life is typically together, you suffer from a serious flaw like constant tardiness, chronic attitude problems, or the lack of discipline to keep yourself in check when around seasonal chocolate treats. When you dedicate yourself to your vice, you go in whole hog. If you don’t have a drinking problem now, you probably will in a year or so. Also, you hate people who like those tiny little eggs they sell in packs of twelve. They’re like people who get wasted on New Years Eve and St. Paddy’s Day.

Michael Pollan is your Bubbeh

After explaining how certain plants have co-evolved through human cultivation (The Botany of Desire), after explaining why fakockteh factory frankenfoods are ruining our bodies and our planet (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and after laying out an eater’s manifesto for the age (In Defense of Food), now Michael Pollan is laying down the law about exactly what to eat (Food Rules).

This we need?

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Taken as a whole, the book’s 64 prescriptions confirm something more: Michael Pollan is your grandmother. In pithy Talmudic aphorisms he’s trying to nudge the world into keeping a new kosher.

Rule #8 – Avoid food products that make health claims.

Rule #11 – Avoid foods you see advertised on television.

Rule #13 – Eat only foods that will eventually rot.

Rule #21 – It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language. (Think Big Mac, Cheetos, or   Pringles.)

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Oy, gevalt! Listen up. Americans are potchkeying around with their natural bounty, making a mishmash of their lives and everyone else’s, too. What’s happening to them shouldn’t happen to a dog. Enough already. Keep eating this meshuggener Western diet and you’re going to plotz!

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Better you should eat what grandma ate, says Michael. It can’t hurt.

Odd couples

“What do you want to eat for dinner tonight?” Mrs. Henry asked for the umpteenth time.

“Whatever looks good is OK by me,” responded Mr. Henry in the mistaken belief that eagerness to please his immortal beloved would win the day.

“Why must the menu decision always be up to me?” cried Mrs. Henry, straining to remain calm. “Why can’t you come up with an idea? You’re the famous Mr. Henry. Think of something!”

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And thus does Mr. Henry receive his comeuppance for selflessly spreading enlightenment and joie d’esprit to his many faithful readers.

As luck would have it, and luck favors the prepared foodblogger, tucked away at the back of Notes on Cooking is a singular list of classic combinations:

duck & orange
orange & fennel
fennel & arugula
arugula & balsamic vinegar
balsamic vinegar & strawberries
strawberries & cream
cream & garlic

…and so on for two more pages.

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It’s a list ready made for the beleaguered husband and willing helpmeet wandering the grocery store, all the voyage of his shopping trip bound in shallows and in miseries.

artichokes & mozzarella
mozzarella & tomatoes
tomatoes & cucumbers
cucmbers & lingonberries
lingonberries & wild goose

Sometimes a combination works even though it seems to be completely at odds, as unlikely as pumpkin & prawns, for instance.

Mr. & Mrs. Henry seem to have absolutely nothing in common, either, except a fondness for the same foods, the same vacation destinations, and the same movies. Sometimes the odd coupling is the tastiest.

yogurt & meyer lemon
meyer lemon & green olives
green olives & manchego
manchego & quince
quince & vanilla bean

Notes on Cooking for Men

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Lately Mr. Henry has been reading and re-reading Notes on Cooking, a handy, fun, and blissfully succinct new book by Lauren Braun Costello and Russell Reich replete with wise lore from the kitchen.

Although Notes on Cooking covers most aspects of cooking, it omits any discussion of the social setting, specifically the interpersonal dynamic between a woman in an apron and a man waiting to eat. If you are a man lucky enough to live with a woman who cooks, pay close attention to the following rules of comportment:

1.    Set the table.

2.    Compliment her finesse at the stove and her personal sense of style. Every meal is a celebration. She, doyenne of the household, happens to have cooked the meal for you, unworthy guest. Maintain decorum. Keep your natural boorishness in check.

3.    The time to offer suggestions for improvements to choices of menu, seasoning, degree of doneness, or other components of the meal is not while sitting down to dinner. Her queries on these subjects should be construed in their narrowest dimensions. You should venture an answer only if she demands one.

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4.    When you’ve done the dishes, do not conclude that you’ve finished cleaning up. Wipe the counters, sink, and dining table. If you harbor hopes for clandestine assignations between you and the missus later that evening, sweep the floor.

5.    Take out the garbage, carefully adhering to the following dicta:

a.    Do it before she reminds you.

b.    Do it without calling attention to yourself. Simply because you humped a trash bag it does not follow, therefore, that you should be in line to receive a battlefield commendation.

c.    After taking out the trash, do not plop down on the couch in the belief that you have fulfilled your kitchen obligations. This is a critical juncture. Remain upright, in motion, and engaged.

6.    Never come home empty-handed if your route has taken you past the grocery store.

7.    Always carry the heavy grocery bag.

8.    Make a habit of carrying home heavy items like milk and fruit.

9.    Always buy more bananas than you need. By this clever stratagem you can ensure that two or three will ripen past the optimal “just a few brown sugar spots” state. After your spouse has castigated you for profligacy and a pitiful absence of common sense which she wishes to heaven she had recognized twenty years ago, she will bake her signature banana bread, the ideal breakfast. For the remainder of the week, mornings will be bliss.

Divine Julia

Yum.

That’s the watchword for the new Nora Ephron movie, Julie & Julia, in which Meryl Streep once again proves herself to be the screen actress without peer. Like the food she prepares, her performance is simply scrumptious.

“What do you like to do?” Paul asks Julia.

“Eat!” she says with her inimitable hoot. “I like to eat!”

And from this moment of insight, as simple as it is penetrating, a woman accustomed to getting things done set about to change the way Americans eat.

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But how did Julie Powell swing this book deal and then this movie deal? To be portrayed by Amy Adams, and to garner Meryl Streep as your star takes moxie.

Amy Adams bubbles with her usual performance – perky and cute – with an occasional dramatic reach into pouty and cute. The angst of wanting to be a writer, however, is nowhere shown convincingly on screen.

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Having taken a look at Julie Powell’s blog, however, Mr. Henry thinks perhaps Amy Adams may have been appropriately cast after all. It’s no wonder Julia dismissed Julie. Julia was a serious person, someone who wouldn’t waste her time or yours. No matter the subject, Julie writes sentences that are perky and cute spiced here and there with swear words. Like red pepper flakes on overcooked broccoli, it’s both overdone and under-imagined. The tone is breathy, squishy and, most damning, cheerful.

That Julie learned how to cook through Mastering the Art of French Cooking and took along thousands of readers along with her, however, is indeed commendable. Learning to cook enriches your life and the world around you. If you cook with what the French call intelligence, that is, practical good sense, you will perforce buy good local food which in turn promotes markets for that food.

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Mr. Henry is not a jealous person but he wonders whether or not Judith Jones, famed Knopf editor, might possibly work him into her schedule. He’s thinking of which actor might portray him in the movie. Tyrone Power, Jr., perhaps?

Andalusian feast

alhambra.jpgMr. Henry cannot go to Andalusia.

One reason for this regrettable fact is that Andalusia no longer exists, having disappeared in 1492 after the reconquista. Granted, he could fly to modern Granada, Cordoba, or Seville, once the seat of medieval Islam’s glorious efflorescence, but modern airplane tickets require currency not available in current household accounts.

Or he could repair to the infinitely richer resources of the imagination. For this he need look no further than Food: The History of Taste, a compendium of lively historical essays sublimely illustrated to entice all the senses – sight, sound, taste, smell, and travel.

While Mrs. Henry was out last week, Mr. Henry doctored one of her staple recipes transforming braised chicken into an Andalusian feast, one not only quick and foolproof but remarkably inexpensive, truly a feast for the New Depression.

food.jpgIngredients:

9 skinless chicken thighs
1 medium onion
6 plum tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 cup raisins
1 cup cooked chick peas
1 cup green olives
¼ cup dry sherry (fino)
pinch of cinnamon
saffron (if desired)
salt and pepper

If plum tomatoes are not in season, a medium-sized can of crushed tomatoes works perfectly well. Quantities are approximate.

In a non-reactive pan brown the thighs in olive oil. Set aside. Add the sliced onion, wilt thoroughly and add the tomatoes. Sauté until the tomatoes are soft. Add the rest of the ingredients as well as the chicken. Cover and braise slowly for a good 1 ½ hours either on stovetop or in the oven. The thighs will release just enough juices to create a proper braising liquid.

Serve with a crusty bread or over brown rice. A light red like a pinot noir or a Côtes du Rhone provides an appropriate pairing. As with any stew, it’s better the second day.

After re-reading H. D. Miller’s Food article, The Birth of Medieval Islamic Cuisine, Mr. Henry has begun planning a trip to Baghdad – before its destruction by the Mongols.alhambraview.jpg

a platter of figs

If you only buy one cookbook this season, but this one:tanisplatter.jpg

a platter of figs and other recipes
by David Tanis

In Mr. Henry’s mind, cookbooks fall into categories. There are baking books replete with wizardry and spells. Mr. Henry avoids these completely.

There are quick cookbooks featuring television personalities, picture books aimed at people who don’t like to cook.

To judge by the book jacket covers, television cook-men come in two types – those with grizzled mugs and stumpy fingers or those with blush and lipstick. Television cook-women flash smiles so toothy they look as if, should dinner not work out, they might just take a bite out of you.

Mr. Henry is happy these people have found a road to success but he has no intentions of eating their slapdash cuisine.

Like love, cooking takes a little time and a little imagination. Quickfires can be marvelous fun but not for every day. Nothing brings out real flavor like marinating and braising.

Unable to sleep, Mr. Henry repaired to a platter of figs in hopes it might quickly send him off to dream of wonderful things such as, for instance, figs on platters. He found it riveting, impossible to put down, and he read it cover to cover. In recipes and incidental remarks the writing is brief, radiating an assurance of life well lived.

Most delightful of all, this is not a 2000-recipe assault on common sense. (Who even wants 2000 recipes in his head, Mark Bittman?) In a platter of figs there are recipes for 24 meals from start to finish, each a meal to cook and share with 8-10 friends, each a bountiful vision that to Mr. Henry’s eye looks like pure heaven.

You’ve got to get ahead living your life, after all. Auden understood this. auden1939.jpg

Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

1938

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