Friday, April 28, 2006

Kitchen Utensils as Heirlooms

After the week at work I've had, I'm looking forward to a weekend filled with baking and puttering around our house . On my list of baked goodies to make, something for MBH made from one of the sourdough starters I keep in our refrigerator. Before I can use them to bake though, I needed to feed them tonight to get them all bubbly and active.

As I measured out the flour for the first starter's feeding, I began to think about how at that moment it felt like there were three generations of women from my family in my kitchen. I was using the flour scoop my grandmother had always used when she baked and the wooden spoon my mother used when I was little when she cooked. There is something almost magical in both of them and I use both these utensils everytime I bake.

The flour scoop is made of tin and has scooped hundreds of pounds of flour over the last fifty years between my grandmother, my mother (who had the scoop until a few years ago when she passed it on to me) and myself. I can see my Grandmother's arthritic hand curved around the handle as she shook a small amount of flour onto her countertop just before rolling out the flakiest pie crust I have ever had in my life. When she could no longer bake, she gave the scoop to my mother and it took up residence in the flour crock on the counter in our kitchen. She used the scoop to measure flour into cups, dust the bottoms of cake tins and to scrape flour from the counter after kneading bread. I keep the scoop in a tall Rubbermaid flour container. It fits perfectly in the mouth of the container and I can tell from how deep I scoop whether I have almost a half a cup or a full cup of flour by the weight and feel of the scoop.

The handle of the wooden spoon has a golden patina and is smooth from years of near constant use. The bowl has small knicks and chips. It has grown dark with age and the color of all the different sauces, cookies, cakes, and other treats it has helped stir through the last thirty years or so combined. My first memory of the wooden spoon is of watching my mother make double-boiler brownies and then letting me lick the spoon clean. I can remember using that wooden spoon to make the dough for cut-out cookies and then washing the spoon to make the frosting. If I concentrate really hard, I can almost catch a whiff of vanilla when I stir batter with the spoon.

I've read articles about how you shouldn't scoop flour with tin scoops and you should replace wooden spoons every two years or as soon as you notice chips and discoloration due to use. But I feel a connection to the two bakers who inspired me most when I use these tools to bake. I also think there is a bit of their magic that rubs off on me everytime I bake. I hope I can someday pass the scoop and the spoon on to my daughter and she can use them to bake her Great-Grandmother's Michigan Cherry Pie and her Grandmother's Double Boiler Brownies. And if I'm lucky, who knows, maybe she can use them to feed her Mother's fourty year old sourdough starter and there will be four generations of women from our family in her kitchen.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Wednesday Random Musing from a Commute

My mind has been a full, loud and busy place the past few weeks. All these ideas and thoughts flitting and fluttering around my brain. Funny thing though, everytime I have sat down to post an entry, my mind goes still and quiet. My fingers sit poised above the keyboard waiting for the words to spill out. Sigh...

Here is part of what has been clogging my brain:

- I really need to reorganize my kitchen. I think I would be a more productive baker if I had my kitchen in a different state. Right now, my baking pans and ingredients are on one side of the kitchen while my mixing bowls, measuring spoons and stand mixer are on the other. The downside to actually doing this (and thus the main reason I haven't so far) is my cabinets are not in a very conducive arrangement to allow me to put all my baking supplies on one side. It will take many days to move everything and then several weeks to get acquainted with the new location of my baking supplies. Knowing how I do not handle change to my environment very well, I probably will just live with the current arrangement and dream about the day I can have a kitchen I have designed versus one I have adapted.

- I need to bake more for MBH and less for other people. I have been hearing complaints from that front that lately all I ever do is bake goodies for work and friends and there has been a severe drought of morsels specifically for our household. MBH is a picky eater of sweets. He says this comes from the fact that his mother is an awful cook that burns everything including chocolate chip cookies. There may be some truth to this (she REALLY is an awful cook, bless her heart). I am going to endeavor to bake this weekend specifically for MBH.

- I have a backlog of restaurant reviews to post. I have careful notes of all the bistros, cafes, and small family restaurants from my Paris trip to organize and write about. I also have a list of several new places in Boston that MBH and I have tried the last few weeks. I really need to have a week of restaurant review posts. In the same vein, I have a book review or two as well.

- I need to start planting my garden. I received my seeds two weeks ago and have all the containers ready to be filled with soil. The weather has actually been cooperating and is perfect for the greens and onions to be planted. I better get on with this because in the next few weeks the tomato and green pepper plants I ordered will be here and I better have the containers ready for them. MBH will only tolerate having the kitchen table filled with potted plants for so long.

- I am falling behind in my personal reading. I have several new books I have been wanting to curl up with along with a book or two on MBH's reading list that I need to finish. This is my own fault. I have not been very organized on the weekend and wasted time doing things that could wait or that I have procrastinated on finishing or worse, just have been vegging out in front of the boob tube (even though it has been mostly PBS) or been sucked into endless hours of surfing on the internet. I am instituting a new personal rule starting tonight. I will take one hour every night and read. No computer, no outside diversions. Just me, a cup of tea and few biscuits (cookies for my American readers), and a book. Next book on deck to be read: "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman. MBH says this book is a must read for me and has placed it on my reading list. He likes for us to share a book or two so we can have a lively discussion on its contents; our own personal bookclub if you will.

I'll have to make sure I bring some home-baked cookies he likes...

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Weekend Cookbook Challenge #4: Easter Brunch

Having grown up in the Upper Midwest, I have an arsenal of recipes for good, hearty, no fuss foods. I learned at a very early age how to make a Sunday roast, bake old fashioned sugar cookies, and that hashbrowns are shaved potatoes with a golden brown outside and soft, creamy insides. I also learned how to make coffee cakes, the staple of any church brunch and social.

One of my favourite coffee cakes is my mother's Gooey Butter Coffee Cake. She would make this coffee cake every Easter Sunday to go with poached eggs, country bacon, and hashbrowns. Gooey Butter Coffee Cake is a decadent concoction of rich, buttery yellow cake surrounding a gooey, sweet, almost cheesecake like center. The perfect way to break the self sacrificing season of Lent. This recipe is my mother's that she submitted to her local chapter of the Homemakers Extension Association for publication in their 1982 cookbook.

Gooey Butter Coffee Cake (serves 14)

1 box yellow cake mix (use one with added pudding)
3/4 cup unsalted butter (melted)
1 pkg (8 oz) cream cheese (use real cream cheese not the light/fat free, etc.)
4 eggs (large)
1 lb powdered sugar

Pre-heat the oven at 350 degrees. Grease a 13" x 9" baking pan. Combine the cake mix and melted butter together. Add 2 eggs and mix until a solid dough-ball forms. Using your fingers, press into the prepared baking pan to thickness of about 1/4", pushing the dough up the sides of the baking pan and set aside (if the dough slides back to middle of pan, place in refrigerator for 15 minutes until the dough holds form and push up sides). In bowl, mix cream cheese and remaining 2 eggs. Slowly add powdered sugar until smooth. Using a spatula, spread in center of dough in prepared baking pan. Put in center of oven and bake for 35 minutes or until crust is golden brown and center set. Let cool for 30-40 minutes until center is solid. Cut into 1" x 1" squares and serve.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Book Review: Julie and Julia

Since I' m wearing my critic hat, which if you ask MBH I always have on, I want to post a review of a book I finished reading right before I left for Paris, Julie and Julia : 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. This memoir of Julie Powell’s year of cooking every recipe from the bellwether “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child has stirred quite a lot of controversy in the publishing, foodie and blogsphere worlds. It is roughly based around her blog, "The Julie/Julia Project" . Since the release of the book last fall, Julie Powell has been called everything from a pretender because she didn’t always follow the recipes in MtAoFC faithfully (she had problems finding some ingredients easily and lacked some of the cooking implements the recipes called for) to a genius in our own time. After reading the book, she may be a little of both. Basically, Julie Powell is like quite a few of us were when we moved from our 20’s into our 30’s; neither brilliant nor a “slacker” but just trying to make the wanderings most of us do in that stage of our lives mean something while seeking some validation from those we love.

Julie Powell was a secretary for a government agency in lower Manhattan in 2002 and stuck in a dead-end job. She was at the cusp of having her turning-thirty life crisis when a visit home to her folk’s house in Texas provided her with her epiphany to cook every recipe in MtAoFC in one year. She writes about how, as a child, she watched her mother cook from MtAoFC and how the book had always fascinated her.
It was enjoyable to read how she overcame her aversion to eggs and her discovery that calf liver is quite tasty when prepared correctly. It was even gratifying to read about someone else coming to terms with boiling lobsters (something I suffer from everytime I place one in a pot of boiling water). What she doesn’t write much about and doesn’t provide anywhere in the book are any of the actual recipes she cooked from during her year. Throughout the book she talks obliquely about the recipes but only provides bits and pieces of the recipes and techniques that make MtAoFC a still must have in any cookbook collection. This is a life journey book with "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" as the vehicle.

There are some very humourous moments, like when Julie sends friends and her husband on an all Manhattan search for beef marrow bones and when she finally gets something from the gelatin family to set up properly. But, unfortunately, most of the last half of the book is a “poor me, why did I DO this” whine. About thirty pages from the end, I felt like screaming, “Just stop cooking!” Also, I’m not a prude and if you ask anyone I know, I’m as capable as the next person of liberally sprinkling my conversations and diatribes with the odd epithet or two (especially the “F” word). But, like many of Julie Powell’s critics, after a while I began to be distracted by the continuous use of these words to describe the food, her life, the apartment, and the task that she had set herself upon. I kept thinking to myself, “surely a person who professes to be a writer can find more creative ways of expressing her dismay, exhaustion, and frustrations”. When at last, we get to the final recipe on 365th night, Julie has one last meltdown upon hearing from a writer on the west coast that Julia may not be amused by Julie’s year long endeavor . This temper tantrum was the last episode of many similar espisodes that, for me, made the book less than enjoyable. I’ve read differing accounts of Julia Child’s actual feelings about Julie Powell from various sources including from Julia herself where she was asked about the Julie/Julia Project and replied that she “wished Julie the best”. Having spent years watching Julia on various television shows (including the original broadcasts of The French Chef) and even encountering her at various gourmet grocery stores and farmers markets while she lived in Cambridge, I could very well believe that Julia would both be amused, annoyed, and indifferent about Julie Powell and her project. It was just Julia Child's way.

The book does end on a high note as Julie receives the validation that set her on this monumental task. She discovers she is loved and can survive the beginnings of her new life as a writer. Finally, the parting scene of her husband complementing her on her Julia Child “warble” struck a chord with me. After all, who doesn’t hear Julia Child’s tremulous voice wishing us “Bon Appetit” from time to time when we have just finished cooking something we thought was particularly difficult but that turned out absolutely perfect?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Best Meal in Vegas

A few weeks ago, I was at a trade show in Las Vegas and I promised I'd post reviews of the restaurants where I had dinner. However, I need to have a disclaimer to these reviews as you, my reader, are entitled to know I have a bias. I don't like Las Vegas. I don't gamble and not because of some religious hang-up. I would just rather spend my money on books, cooking gadgets and toys for MBH. I don't like loud and flashy shows despite designing sound systems for quite a few of the shows in Vegas. I hate being pushed and pulled by crowds and, when in Vegas, always find myself in the middle of some bus tour from Topeka that has just disgorged its contents right where I need to cross the road. Combine all of those reasons with the really long hours I work during trade shows standing on the most uncomfortable convention center floor ever poured, dressed in a business suit (complete with heels and panty-hose), answering the same questions over and over about my company's products with only the stale half a bagel from the morning breakfast session as sustenance and well, you get the picture.

According to a recent poll, Las Vegas is listed as one of the top foodie cities in the world. I'm not so sure about that but ok, maybe only if you count that you can find just about any type of food twenty-four hours a day. On this last visit, I had dinner at two highly rated restaurants: Rumjungle in the Mandalay Bay Casino, and Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in Ceasar's Palace. I also attended a pre-show catered event at Ivan Kane's Forty Deuce where the food was provided by various restaurants at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (including Nobu). I would love to report that considering the glowing reviews I have heard about all these places (burlesque club excluded) that I had a fabulous meal. Unfortunately, in almost every case, the food was mediocre at best and awful at worst.

The catered affair from Hard Rock included sashimi and sushi from Nobu, steak tips and stuffed mushrooms from AJ's Steakhouse, mini tacos and "home made" salsa with multi color home made tortilla chips from Pink Taco, shellfish platters from Simons, and the usual finger food at these types of affairs. It was actually the best food I had while in Vegas and I will probably make a trip to the Hard Rock to sample a real meal from their restaurants the next time I find myself at a tradeshow. I also admit I would have rather had the sushi at Nobu directly but the selections chosen held up rather well (California rolls, tuna rolls, etc.). I've had sushi at Nobu in New York City before and while this wasn't near the "mother ship's" quality it was more than passable sushi. The steak tips were actually very good and prepared medium rare in a nice maderia sauce. I am not that big on tacos unless they are from a roadside stand between Mexico City and Baja but the two that I did have were not atrocious as most finger tacos seem to be. The only food I wasn't impressed with was the shellfish but then I live in Boston. So, the idea of "fresh" lobster claws and littleneck clams in the middle of the desert is just frankly too weird for me.

The next night, I was part of a client dinner at the Las Vegas outpost of Bobby Flay's Mesa Grille. Time for another disclaimer here: Bobby Flay is the most obnoxious and annoying celeb chef I have ever watched. However, my personal feelings aside, I have heard nothing but good things about his Mesa Grille. So, I was actually looking forward to eating at one of the spin-offs of this well-known New York City establishment. I can only hope that the New York branch is much, much better. Besides being one of the most overpriced restaurants I've eaten at in Vegas it also was one of the worst. My mediocre wine (rated one of their best) was $14.00 a glass for heaven's sake! My roasted duck in blue corn tortilla appetizer was $14.00 and the plate was four times the size of the appetizer; which, in all fairness, actually was pretty tasty despite being only large enough for two and a half bites. As it was almost 10:30pm by the time we got seated despite having a 9:00pm reservation, I wasn't in the mood for a really heavy piece of grilled meat. After wading through a pretty heafty menu, I decided on the lightest option available, the Ancho Chile-Honey Glazed Salmon. Mistake. The salmon was so over cooked it was chewy and the combo of hot and sweet wasn't pleasant and a bad combination with the black bean sauce. Good thing I ordered the California spinach to go with the salmon because I had about two bites and between the two and half bites of appetizer would have gone to bed hungry.

The next night was dinner at the Rumjungle restaurant/club at Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort. This is the hottest ticket in Vegas right now for people watching and for dining. They have over 200 different rums on their menu not to mention the obligatory martinis and classic cocktails. I decided to put the bartender to the test and ordered my favourite classic cocktail, a Sidecar. Blank stare from twenty-something buffed pool boy behind the bar. "Um, what's in that?" After yelling over the thumping techno soundtrack to his briefly clad female counterpart, he actually mixed a pretty good one and even was nice enough to bring me two cherries vs. the single cherry that normally adorns this drink. For dinner we had the "from the pit" menu that basically consists various grilled meats brought to your table ala South America style restaurants. I was severely disapointed with the quality of the meat. In every case from the pork loin to the venison to the beef everything was over done, dry, and I think I saw whip marks from the jockey on one piece. But, unlike the night before at Mesa Grille where I had a side of spinach, I had a side of starchy, pasty, over-seasoned mashed potatoes. I ordered another Sidecar and waited for the evening to come to an end so I could go back to my room to eat my emergency road ration of instant oatmeal that I keep in my bag in case I check into a hotel after room service has closed for the night.

Thankfully, the next morning found me on my flight home where I not only got a much needed upgraded to first class (thank God for elite status) but also had the best meal I had in Vegas, a chicken breast marinated in Italian dressing on a bed of romaine lettuce courtesy of Northwest Airlines.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Trying to get back into the swing of it all

One of the things I hate about taking a vacation is trying to force myself back into my daily routine. I've found it exceedingly difficult this week in particular. Not only did I suffer from a touch of jet lag from my Paris trip, where I lost eight hours on the return flight, but on the very next night after my return, I lost one further hour due to our "springing" forward into Daylight Savings time. Poor MBH, he has literally had to kick me out of bed almost every morning this week.

But today, the last day of the work week, I actually feel like I might be back to semi-normal. For the first time my work email box didn't tell me I had over 100 email messages unread. All the mini-crisis that seem to always happen when the boss is away are now back under control (I hope). The one project that I did not get finished before I left is off my desk. With the exception of my staff's quarterly reviews, I am all caught up.

Now if I could only say the same thing about my blog postings...

Friday Random Ten

Yup, it has been over a month since I last played this little game. But, owing to a nice spring day in the greater Boston area and the fact that I've loaded quite a few more tunes to my ipod (ok, so a bulk of the music loaded is French pop and chansons), I think it is time I get back to putting the Ipod on shuffle and letting the songs play as they may. So, let's get right to it, my Friday random 10. Links as usual so you can listen along!

1. Into the Dark - Melissa Etheridge
2. Beautiful Day - U2
3. On N'a Pas Besoin - Paris Combo
4.Dream - Roy Orbison
5.Somewhere in the Middle - Nine Sky Wonder
6.Free Man in Paris - Joni Mitchell
7. Hymne L'Amour - Edith Piaf
8. There She Goes - The La's
9.Friday, I'm in Love - The Cure
10. Un Simple Histoire - Thievery Corporation

Monday, April 03, 2006

Watching the world go by

It has been a rather crazy past few weeks of travel for me of both the personal and professional kind. Between a major trade show in Las Vegas (of which, I promise, I WILL post my Vegas restaurant reviews) and my annual mother/daughter trip from which I just returned (I took Mom to Paris this year), I have been home for less than one week since the middle of March.

To tide you over until a little bit later, this is a picture of the Cafe La Rotonde on Montparnasse Blvd. It was around the corner from our hotel and we had drinks and dessert here every evening. The people watching was fantastic as well as the creme brulee. Besides, who can resist sitting in the same cafe about which Hemingway said, "Ask any cab driver in Paris to take you to Montparnasse and you will end up at La Rotonde".