Thursday, September 27, 2007

Let us eat brioche.

When confronted about the bread shortage that precipitated the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette infamously replied, "Let them eat cake."

Only she didn't. First of all, it wasn't Marie Antoinette who said it. The phrase first surfaces in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1766, when the future queen of France was a child in Austria. Rousseau claims the words were spoken by a "great princess," but no one in particular is mentioned. Moreover, he did not use the word "cake" (or its French translation, gâteau), but, instead, brioche. To quote: "S'ils n'ont plus de pain, qu'ils mangent de la brioche."*

If you don't know what goes into brioche, you might not think this is so bad - the remark may seem tempered: "Oh, she's just telling them to eat a different kind of bread. Lighten up, people!" But then you make brioche, and you realize that, honestly, it might as well be cake. It's the gâteau of breads, the foie gras of baking. (OK, the latter title probably belongs to croissants, but you get the idea.)

I discovered this for myself during my trip to Ohio in July, when Louisa and I decided we needed to make bread. Given our love of all things French, we thought brioche would be a good place to start. I remembered that Ina Garten had a recipe for brioche in her Barefoot in Paris cookbook, and thought that might be a good place to start. Garten's recipes are always easy to follow, and are typically the cooking equivalent of the straight line - they represent the shortest distance between two points, without sacrificing taste or quality.

People give Ina a lot of grief for the amount of butter and eggs she uses in her recipes, and brioche is no exception (though it's not really her fault, since the definition of brioche is an eggy, buttery bread). Her recipe features six extra-large eggs and half a pound of unsalted butter - like I said, foie gras. Heart attack in a loaf pan, baby, but a remarkably easy one to bake up. You just mix the ingredients together in your electric stand mixer, give it a minute or two with the dough hook, and let it rise. That's it!

Now, it's easy, but you'll need to plan ahead, since the dough needs to rise, refrigerated, in a buttered bowl overnight, and then on the counter in the loaf pans. Once the rising is done, you paint the loaves (the recipe makes two) with an egg wash and pop them in the oven till golden-brown. Bread is one of those things with very few ingredients, so if you decide to give brioche a try, please, please, PLEASE spring for high-quality butter and fresh, preferably local eggs. You'll be doing yourself (and the environment) a favor.

After all, if you're spending the calories, why wouldn't you spend them on the best food you can find? Except for Cheetos - there's always room for Cheetos, empty, crappy calories be damned.

*Translation: "If they have no more bread, then let them eat brioche."

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fresh from the dock.

I'm a big believer in partaking of the local specialties - why else would you travel? And so, I've sampled bone marrow salad in London, obscene amounts of foie gras and tarte flambee in Alsace, champagne in Napa, and now fried perch in Ohio. Sandusky, Ohio, to be more specific - in full view of Cedar Point.

On the last Saturday of my visit to Norwalk, Nick, Louisa, Hunter (their border terrier, with whom I am desperately in love) and I piled into the car to drive out to Sandusky for some fried perch and a sail on Lake Erie.

We pulled up in front of the New Sandusky Fish Company (heartily endorsed by Nick and Lou, as well as by the always-reliable While Louisa and Hunter saved us a table outside, Nick and I went inside to order two perch dinners and a sandwich, all with extra tartar sauce. The restaurant is take-out only, and oddly resembles the office suite of a small-town paper goods distributor. That aesthetic consideration aside, the place is awesome. There's basically nothing on the menu but different preparations of fish from the lake, along with fried accompaniments (french fries and onion rings among them). Extra tartar sauce will set you back 25 cents for a small, 50 cents for a large.

We toted our Styrofoam boxes out to the picnic table, where Hunter danced around our feet, hoping desperately for dropped pieces of fish. My sandwich was loaded with light, flaky strips of fried perch. The fish was fresh as could be, mild and tender, and the crunch of the crust against the soft bun brought back memories of my beloved chicken finger subs, the meal that kept me going through years of terrible prep school cafeteria food.

Nick and Louisa got the perch dinner, which came with coleslaw and french fries. The slaw was decent, the fries excellent - crispy, piping hot, and judiciously salted.

We never did make it out of the dock that afternoon, due to a spider infestation followed by a broken bilge pump - but the drive to Sandusky was more than worth it. Plus, I got to hold this on my lap all the way home:

Friday, September 21, 2007

A slap on the back.

Drinking has long been considered every legitimate writer's second career, and I'm afraid I'm no exception. Though, given that writing is really my second career, I suppose that makes drinking my third. Or something.

Its tertiary status notwithstanding, as I sit here, watching the minutes tick by and seeing Friday's cocktail hour approach over the horizon, the thought of my first drink of the weekend is creeping up on me. I'm thinking about a martini, or, more likely, a Manhattan - a real one, with two dashes of bitters. But should I have a twist, or a cherry?

But enough of me - to kick off your weekend something proper, here are a couple of my favorite drinking quotes, from writers illustrious all. And, if you're so inclined, won't you share your favorites?
"We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air."
- Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

"Champagne is funny stuff. I'm used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne's heavy mist before my eyes."
- Macaulay Connor (Jimmy Stewart), The Philadelphia Story

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."
- Oscar Wilde

"Come quickly - I am tasting the stars!"
- Dom Perignon*

"Sometimes too much to drink is barely enough."
- Mark Twain

"The food of thy soul is light and space; feed it then on light and space. But the food of thy body is champagne and oysters; feed it then on champagne and oysters; and so shall it merit a joyful resurrection, if there is any to be."
- Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities

"No animal ever invented anything as bad as drunkenness - or as good as drink."
- G.K. Chesterton
*Definitively apocryphal, but lovely nonetheless.

Friday, September 14, 2007

There is beauty - and Miya's here to tell you all about it!

For those of you who like crafts, design, cooking, or any or all of the above: may I direct your attention to There Is Beauty, a new blog by the lovely and talented Miya Hirabayashi? (She really is lovely, no? That's her, right there on the left.) See, for example, today's post on designer Tord Boontje, or yesterday's step-by-step instructions for putting up pesto for winter. Can't wait to see what she shows us next!

It truly is sweet to do nothing.

A few years ago, I went out to dinner at Ouest with my friends Nick and Louisa. After a thoroughly delicious meal (I can still remember my first taste of the cauliflower custard with parmesan and lobster meat), dessert seemed a lost cause. Nick, always thinking, ordered us a bottle of Far Niente's Dolce. From the first sip, I was entranced. Here was an American wine that rivaled the great Sauternes, ripe with noble rot and sweet as honey.

And so when my mother and I were planning our trip to Napa, I insisted we make a pilgrimage to the home of my favorite dessert wine. Mom was game, particularly given her love for Far Niente's Cabernet Sauvignon. She still tells the story of how she bought a case of it back in the 1980's, and how the single bottle she has left, for which she paid about $10, is now worth about $200. She would return to the vineyard a triumphant collector, and I would get to taste Dolce at its source.

Far Niente was our first stop, and I drove at breakneck speed from Fresno to ensure we wouldn't miss a single minute of the visit. We ended up only missing about 10 minutes, not a bad showing, and joined our tour group on the balcony overlooking the fields and Route 29 beyond them. Far Niente's grounds are exquisite, lush with gardens and fountains, and the view was breathtaking.

From the balcony, we headed down into the cool quiet of the cellars, where we walked past yards and yards of French oak barrels, inside which the precious Cabernet sat, aging to perfection. The winemakers test the wine periodically as it ages, and little dribbles of red stain the barrels. The solution? Paint the barrels evenly with the wine, creating a soft red stripe down the middle of each. The wine ages the barrels, and the barrels age the wine.

On our walk to the wine library, we paused in front of a wrought-iron gate decorated with a golden sign - just beyond lay barrels of Dolce. So close, yet so far!

Once we had seen the library, we trooped back up the stairs to the main reception area, where a long oak table was set with ten places, each with a plate of three cheeses and five glasses. The tasting started with two Chardonnays, one from 2004 and the other from 2005. I preferred the 2004, which was a slightly richer, warmer wine. Both were paired with an Abbaye de Belloc, a French sheep's milk cheese whose caramel flavor went beautifully with the Chardonnays.

Next up, two Cabernet Sauvignons, one from 1998 and the other from 2004. I preferred the 2004 this time around as well. It was smoother and a little less spicy, but still round and full. The Cabernets were paired with a San Joacquin Gold, a creamy, rich cow's milk cheese.

Finally, and most delightfully, the freshly chilled bottle of 2003 Dolce was opened and poured into our waiting glasses. Dolce is a gorgeous honey color, thick-but-not-syrupy in the manner of the best dessert wines, like a good muscat, but redolent of noble rot, like a Sauternes. Far Niente paired the wine with a Bleu d'Auvergne, my most favorite blue cheese. It comes from the Auvergne region of France, and its flavor is strong, robust, but not overpowering - the perfect compliment to the slightly mouldering wine. Yum. And oh-so-pretty.

All in all, a wonderful visit, capped off with a significant purchase of Cabernet, Chardonnay - and, let's not forget, the Dolce. I bought two 375 ml. bottles for my own cellar.

Who wants to come over for dinner?
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