Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday snacks, courtesy of M. Proust.

In what is probably the most famous food-related passage in the history of prose, Marcel Proust waxes nostalgic about the madeleine. "The little scallop-shell of pastry," he writes, is "so richly sensual under its severe religious folds."

For Proust, the taste of the buttery, eggy madeleine (dipped in tea) recalls image upon image from his childhood,
"as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people."

And so it's clear that the madeleine is no ordinary cookie, but one saddled with an extraordinary history. It has become so symbolic of French identity that it was chosen to represent the country at the Cafe Europe expo in 2006.

You would think, given all this hoopla, that the madeleine is hard to make. You'd be wrong. Nothing, really, could be easier. Yes, it's true - you do need the special, shell-shaped pan - but other than that, it's one of the simplest things you can bake. Add to that the opportunities for endless variety (add orange juice and zest, do the same with lemon, maybe infuse the butter with a bit of lavender), and you begin to understand the madeleine's enduring popularity, and also why it's my go-to afternoon treat.

The recipe I'm including here is the simplest version - play around with it, find variations you like. It's a small-batch recipe, since madeleines are best fresh out of the oven. However, it multiplies really easily, so if you're feeding a crowd, double and triple at will. This afternoon, I whipped up a honey-flavored batch.

Basic Madeleines

2 eggs
1/3 cup sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
1/2 cup of flour, sifted*
4 tbs. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly, plus extra butter for greasing the pans
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Pre-heat the oven to 375°F and grease the madeleine pan(s), making sure to get butter in each little ridge.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar and salt until thick - this will take about 5-8 minutes, depending on your eggs.

Fold in the flour until well-combined, then quickly stir in melted butter and vanilla. Spoon the batter into the greased pan(s) and bake till slightly golden brown around the edges, and until the sponge bounces back when touched.

Cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn the cookies out onto a plate or some parchment paper.

Makes a dozen large or 24 miniature madeleines.

*I'm normally not much of a stickler for sifting, but it's actually really important here if you want a fluffy, spongy cookie.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Update: Not dead yet!

My adorable little Meyer lemon tree bore its first ripe lemon last week. It was teeny tiny, only about an inch across. When it turned yellow, I plucked it off of the branch and sliced it open - there was very little flesh, mainly rind, but what there was smelled heavenly, like flowers and lemons mixed together. But not in a floor polish kind of way - just fresh and clean and springy.

Now the tree has two new lemons growing out of a new branch, and three little branches have sprouted from its trunk. I'll be transferring it to a deeper, wider pot this weekend, and I can't wait to see what it does with all that new real estate.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Playing hooky - well, sort of.

My mom came to New York this week - and even though I took the whole day off to spend with her, she went and made lunch plans with her friend! The nerve! Of course, it did afford me the opportunity to finally have lunch at Bouchon Bakery, something I've been meaning to do since it opened.

Few things feel more indulgent than a leisurely lunch, particularly when the rest of the city is humming and buzzing itself through a work day. I love to sit, read, eat, sip a little wine, and watch the world swirl around me for a bit.

After a quick trip to Barnes & Noble to get some reading material (One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson - really good so far), I arrived at Time Warner Center around 12:45. I was seated right away at the communal table, ordered the lobster roll, and settled in with a glass of Roederer and the amazing bread basket. Obviously, that wasn't all for me.

My lobster roll arrived, absolutely humongous and topped with the seemingly ubiquitous pickled red onion (which I love, no complaints here). It was really too big for one person, and lobster salad is a terrible doggie bag candidate, I had to leave about half the sandwich behind on the plate. Sad. But still tasty. The lobster was very sweet, and the herb mayonnaise dressing it was suitably tangy. I particularly liked the combination of the lobster with the cornichons and the salad - and, of course, all of it went beautifully with the champagne.

I had plans to meet Mom in Williams-Sonoma, but before that I headed to the bakery counter to pick up some of our favorite Bouchon macarons - the caramel ones. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the current crop of seasonal macarons includes strawberry-rhubarb. The caramel were reliably delicious - rich, slightly salty, perfect. But, sadly, the strawberry-rhubarb were too sweet for me. But oh, so pretty in pink.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

À Lyon, on mange de cervelle.

When we were in Paris in 2006, Louisa and I visited Alain Ducasse's phenomenally popular restaurant Aux Lyonnais, a bustling, energetic tribute to the cuisine of Lyon, a city known for its bouchons (casual, brasserie-like eateries serving traditional foods) and its textiles. Our hotel was instructed to call and confirm the reservation not once, not twice, but three times, lest we appear unenthusiastic and thus lose our table to the cutthroat competition vying for a table.

The dinner was good, not great - but the appetizer we were served while waiting for our table was delicious. Called, disturbingly, cervelle de canut (literally, "brains of the silk worker"), it's a mixture of fromage blanc, herbs, shallots and vinegar and is traditionally served spread on slabs of toast. I still remember how surprisingly good the combination of vinegar and cheese was - it reminded me of a slightly more sophisticated green goddess dressing.

So when I saw that fromage blanc at the farmers' market on Saturday, I immediately knew I wanted to make some cervelle de canut to serve to some friends who were due that evening for cocktails and a Sex and the City marathon.

If you don't have all the herbs called for (chervil can be hard to find), just compensate with equal parts of the other herbs listed, or improvise and create your own mix. Like all traditional foods, there's no one right way to make cervelle de canut, and you should customize to your heart's delight!

Queenie's Cervelle de Canut

8 ounces fromage blanc, drained of its liquid
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tbs cream or half and half
2 small shallots, chopped fine
1/4 cup parsley, chopped fine
1/4 cup finely chopped chives
1/4 cup chervil, chopped fine
Salt and pepper to taste
1 loaf sourdough or other hearty bread, cut into small slices and lightly toasted, for serving

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the cheese, vinegar and cream with a wooden spoon, mixing until well-blended. You are aiming for a slightly watery consistency, but one that is still spreadable.

Add the shallots and herbs and combine evenly. Salt and pepper to taste (keeping in mind that the flavors will develop while the mixture rests), cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Taste and adjust seasonings before serving with toast (or crudites).

Serves 6-8 as an hors d'oeuvre.

Out and about.

Yesterday, I took advantage of my hangover-free Saturday morning to get up, at 'em, and out the door before 9 AM. I grabbed a cup of coffee at Two Little Red Hens, a bakery up the block from my apartment, and hopped on the subway. 15 minutes later, I emerged in brilliant, crisp sunshine at Union Square, where the farmer's market was in full swing.

I wandered through the plants and flowers - my gardening goals for the spring include a big pot of succulents, so I was really excited to see the variety of beautiful ones available. I haven't bought the big pot yet, though, so I passed up the plants for some groceries. I pondered the duck eggs, but ended up going for some more typical brown chicken eggs at a stand a bit further up on the west side of the park.

A good rule of thumb for farmer's market outings: when in doubt, always pick a stand with a line. A long line means the wares are worth waiting for. I waited in a line of about ten people for my eggs - sold alongside the eggs were chickens from poussin to full-size and pasta made from the eggs. A chicken bonanza.

After the eggs, I picked up onions and shallots at the root vegetable stand, then made my way to the Tonjes Farm Dairy stand, where all sorts of cheesy goodness were on display. Loyal readers of this blog know that I've historically been a bit ambivalent toward the cheese, but when I saw that they were selling handmade, locally-produced fromage blanc at ridiculously reasonable prices ($2 for eight ounces) I leapt into action.

I headed back to the subway and up to my local Italian market, Agata & Valentina, to pick up some odds and ends, and on the way passed Orwasher's Bakery, a Yorkville institution (It opened in 1916.). For some reason, I've always had it in my head that - as a kosher bakery - Orwasher's wasn't open on Saturdays. But, turns out, it is! So I ducked inside and grabbed a loaf of bread.

A quick stop at Agata & Valentina for some tomatoes (I know, shamefully out of season), cucumbers, lettuce and oranges, and I was home again. All before 11 AM. Aren't I so grown up?
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