Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Kickin' it old school.

I spent Christmas at my grandmother's house in Florida this year. She very generously agreed to let me devise the menu for Christmas dinner, and I decided that sticky toffee puddings should make a second appearance in as many weeks.

Now, at home, I work with a KitchenAid stand mixer, a piece of equipment that has become pretty much standard issue for home cooks - and, particularly, bakers - these days. Nonie (that's my grandmother), however, never saw a reason to replace her vintage-fabulous Mixmaster.

At first, I was frustrated - the bowl was too wide to cream the single stick of butter and 2/3 cup of sugar effectively, and I ended up doing things by hand. Then I discovered the second (deeper and narrower) bowl - aha! So, the lesson? Always explore the depths of the cabinet before giving up, and never assume that something as adorable as the Mixmaster can't be practical as well.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Champagne + biography = this reader's heaven!

I just saw this review by Roadfood's Jane and Michael Stern on Seems there is a new biography of the Widow (in French, Veuve) Clicquot that focuses "as much [on] Champagne itself as [on] the woman who helped elevate it to celebrity status."

Veuve is admittedly not my favorite Champagne, but Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was instrumental in turning Champagne into the international commercial enterprise it is today, and I can't help but be fascinated by that.

Sounds like my perfect book, and available at Barnes & Noble for less than 20 bucks (if you're a member, that is). Score!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

I'm famous! (Well, sort of.)

How did I become famous, you might ask? Well! Schmap puts out these nifty online guides to different cities (which are absolutely perfect for use with your iPhone), and they've used two of my photos for their latest Paris edition!

A shot I snapped outside of Pierre Herme's (closed) Rue Cambon shop is included, as is the photo I took of the entryway at Angelina's. Schmap links directly back to my Flickr photostream, so here's hoping Schmap will earn Queenie some new Paris-loving readers - no doubt Schmap will earn some Queenie-loving users.

Thanks, Schmap!

P.S. - Check out the Schmap widget on the right-hand side of the page...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Feasting with friends.

You know those nights when you just have an awesome time? Where the wine is unbelievably good and flows freely, where the food is simple but tasty and leaves you free to talk instead of just ooh and aah over it, where the company is comfortable and warm?

Saturday night was one of those nights for me.

My friends Caroline, Brian and Ellie came over for dinner, and we spent a most excellent evening together. Ellie's just started med school in Chicago, Caroline and Brian have just gotten engaged, and I'm starting a new role at work in January, so we had oodles to celebrate.

Accordingly, we drank a bottle of Schramsberg and a bottle of Ayala (an unbelievably good 1999 brut millésimé from my champagne soulmate, Louisa), some delicious homemade eggnog (courtesy of Brian, and accompanied by fried chickpeas with cilantro), and a gorgeous bottle of Hall Cabernet Sauvignon (which Caroline, far more discerning than I, pronounced too young, but I thoroughly enjoyed).

The food was all comfort, all the time: roasted tomato soup, gougères, macaroni and cheese with bacon and mushrooms, and sticky toffee puddings. The music was mainly Christmas songs, with a bit of Arcade Fire thrown in for spice. Ellie insisted on washing some dishes, and I actually let her, which means I must have been tipsier than I realized.

All in all, a fantastic evening.

Roasted Tomato Soup
Adapted from Ina Garten

3 lbs. plum tomatoes, sliced in half lengthwise
1/4 cup plus 2 tbs. olive oil, divided
1 tbs. kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
2 tbs. unsalted butter
2 small yellow onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
28 oz. canned plum tomatoes, with juice
4 cups fresh basil leaves
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, plus extra for garnish
1 quart chicken stock

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss the fresh tomatoes with 1/4 cup of the olive oil, the salt and the pepper, and spread evenly, in layer, on one large or two small rimmed baking sheets. Roast for 35-45 minutes, until well-browned.

In a large dutch oven or stockpot, heat the remaining 2 tbs. of olive oil and the butter over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, add the onions, garlic and red pepper flakes, and saute until the onions have begun to turn brown around the edges.

Add the canned tomatoes, basil, thyme and chicken stock. Add the roasted tomatoes, with their juices, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered, for forty minutes.

Using a stick blender (or a traditional blender, working in batches), blend to desired consistency (I like it thick but not chunky). Taste and adjust for seasoning and serve each bowl sprinkled with a few fresh thyme leaves.

Serves six, generously. Can be made up to a day ahead and reheated gently on the stovetop.

Monday, December 15, 2008

When life hands you Pinot Noir, pie?

I spent Thanksgiving at my mom's new home in St. Augustine, Florida this year. She just moved in two months ago, and so she's in the box phase - you open one, you see what you see, and what you see is probably not what you need.

Case in point? The rolling pin was nowhere to be found, so I rolled out the pastry dough for my apple pie with a bottle of Pinot Noir, something I do not recommend to anyone but which certainly made for an interesting image (and a slightly lumpy crust). Of course, we didn't really care so much, since the pie in question turned out to be so darned ambrosial.

Typically, our family goes in for a very traditional apple pie: not too deep of dish, apples sliced fairly thin, filling flavored with cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg, and perhaps a bit of lemon juice. This time around, I decided to splash out and make Ina Garten's deep dish apple pie. She keeps her apple slices thick and hearty - they're more chunks, really - and uses a whopping four pounds of them. She adds orange and lemon juice and zest, and rounds out the spices with a bit of allspice.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this is the best apple pie I've ever tasted. It is complex, but not overwhelming, and not even a little boring. Plus, that final egg wash makes things awful pretty, no?

Rise and shine!

Room service for breakfast is one of life's great pleasures. There's something unmistakably luxurious about taking breakfast in your room - you're cocooned a bit longer in your sanctuary, able to read your paper without looking rude, able to ease into your morning peacefully rather than surrounded by the jangle and clatter of cutlery.

When I travel for business, those extra twenty minutes of peace are precious to me, and I eat breakfast in my room whenever I can get away with it. My trip to Mumbai was no exception, and the ITC Maratha performed admirably. Their basket of toast and pastry arrived warm and crusty each morning, and though Indian jams tend to run too sweet for my taste, the butter was fantastic.

And, most important - the coffee was strong, rich and hot, fortifying me for long days of meetings and hand-shaking.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paris, the prologue: me, circa 1986.

The place: Old Greenwich Elementary School. The year: 1986. The occasion: the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

Yes, that's right - my love affair with France began way back when, back when my mother and her siblings spoke in a mysterious language when they didn't want us to hear, back when I took after-school French classes where I learned stories to help me count to ten (Under Trois, Cat sank; Sis said we'd had enough of this.), back when I wore an oh-so-American kerchief along with my red beret.

That's right, folks. True love starts early - in my case, at the age of six.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Paris, part five: the search for the perfect chocolat chaud.

Once upon a time, two very lucky young ladies took a trip to Prague. Along the way, they sampled many, many cups of hot chocolate. In the many days since, they've never found anything even close to the perfection that is Czech hot chocolate, particularly not in the surprisingly quality-hot-chocolate-free land of France.

Until now.

On the suggestion of a colleague, I decided to give French hot chocolate another go on this trip, and I was not disappointed. On Sunday afternoon, I paid a visit to Angelina, the legendary teahouse on rue de Rivoli, across from the Jardins des Tuileries. I waited in a long line of tourists and well-heeled locals for a table, and was seated on the second floor, overlooking the entrance.

I hunkered down with my book, ordered a chocolat chaud and a carafe d'eau, and awaited the arrival of the chocolate. It arrived in a little pitcher, whipped cream on the side, with a spoon for dolloping at will - or, in my case, for occasionally eating the thick concoction like a stew.

Like the mythical hot chocolates of Prague, this version was rich and deeply flavorful, not at all like the sugary water served in college cafeterias or at skating rinks here in the States. It's basically melted dark chocolate, lightly sweetened and lightened ever so slightly with a touch of milk. In short, it's pure indulgence. And I really liked being to add my cream a bit at a time, so that it didn't melt too much before I got to enjoy it.

So, does Angelina's version live up to that of Prague's Café Louvre or Café Carolina? Not quite. But after years of wandering in the chocolat chaud wilderness, I feel secure in the knowledge that the French have not lost their touch.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Paris, part four: Camille, la deuxième fois.

My second visit to Camille was a slightly more sedate affair - aside from a boisterous group of American women, the restaurant was relatively quiet when I tumbled in, fresh from Bar Hemingway, at about 10 o'clock. I was seated at a small table toward the back, and settled in with my book and a pichet (25, not 50 centilitres this time) of my beloved Bordeaux.

I'd filled up a bit on Bar Hemingway's most excellent potato chips, so I decided to forgo a starter and dive right into Camille's legendary (well, to me and Louisa, at the very least) steak tartare. I had to reassure the waiter that I knew the dish n'est pas cuit ("is not cooked"), and said yes to his offer of salad and frites on the side. This was gonna be good.

And it was. It was so good that I almost forgot to pause long enough to take a picture - but that would have been a crime, since you all deserve to bear witness to this most gorgeous dish. The steak tartare at Camille remains the best I have ever eaten - and I've eaten my fair share. The silky egg, the cornichons, capers and onions laced throughout the meat, the earthy mustard: all of these are to be expected, and are fantastically in play here.

But there's something else going on in Camille's tartare that I haven't quite been able to pin down - some elusive sweetness that balances out the tang of the traditional ingredients. This balance of sweet and savory is the same thing that makes their duck so delectable, and is, I think, is the thing that makes Camille so exceptional. You don't expect a neighborhood joint to produce something this subtly and intriguingly seasoned - it's a pretty impressive feat.

Oh, and the fries? Cooked in duck fat, and completely sublime. Ditto the simple salad, bibb lettuce tossed with a house-made vinaigrette.

Finally, to finish things off nice and proper, I ordered chocolate mousse for dessert. Camille's mousse is dense and rich, made with bittersweet chocolate and not a whole lot of sugar. Which is, for me, pretty close to perfection. I tried to solider through, but only managed to finish about half. My adorable waiter was a bit disappointed, I think. I promise to try harder next time!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Books + food = fun!

I'm not the only person out there obsessed with both literature and food, and here's the proof. There's a new blog called Lashings and Lashings of Ginger Beer that features a food-focused literary passage each day. So far, they've posted on The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Goblin Market, Swann's Way (The madeleine, of course!) and many, many others.

So, if you're jonesin' for a fix of food porn and can't wait for Louisa's first novel (Can't Stand the Heat, due out in the fall of 2009 from St. Martin's Press), head on over to Lashings and get your fill!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Paris, part three: Camille - la première fois.

I don't really visit Paris often enough to have a legitimate favorite restaurant, but, if I did, I feel fairly certain that Bistro Camille would still make the cut. Nestled on a corner of the rue des Francs Bourgeois, impossibly difficult to find on my first two visits and remarkably easy to locate on this one, it's that perfect neighborhood spot: kindly lit, well-provisioned with wine, and full of delicious, simply and beautifully prepared food.

All of this is probably why I found myself there twice in two days on my trip to Paris. Louisa and I discovered Camille on this eGullet thread, and I think it's safe to say that (aside from a chance visit to the devestatingly wonderful Chez Yvonne in Strasbourg) neither of us has ever been happier with a find.

My hotel was just a few blocks south of Camille, and the walk through the Marais was lovely both nights. I took slightly different routes to be sure to catch all the shop windows and street life I could. I ate late (by American standards), not until 10:00, since I was jet-lagged and in need of naps. On Saturday, there was still a twenty minute wait for a table, so I sat outside.

I started with the escargots de Bourgogne, a traditional preparation. The snails are cleaned, the shells are stuffed with a mixture of butter, parsley and garlic, and the whole thing is run under the broiler for a few minutes. Good escargots are tender and light, not tough and spongy, and eating them is like eating delicate balls of buttery, garlicky goodness. Their shells seem so fine that you expect them to shatter when you pick them up with the special tongs (don't worry; they won't). You spend more time than you care to admit sopping up the butter with your bread.

These were good escargots.

The waitress talked me into a full demi (half-bottle, 50 centilitres) of Bordeaux, so I was in it for the long haul. I took my time enjoying the brisk fall weather, eavesdropping on the folks to my right (a British woman and two French men, speaking their own private Franglais), and savoring my escargots. Once I'd been able to stop myself from wiping up every last bit of butter from the plate, out came my main.

I'd ordered the duck breast, which was seared and served with the most delicious sauce made with pan drippings, honey and black pepper, all piled atop some seriously buttery pureed potatoes. This duck dish is a great example of how true French cooking defies its old American stereotypes - the flavors are extremely well-balanced, with the piquant pepper playing against the round, sweet honey, and the buttery potatoes contrasting with the seared crust on the duck. This is not over-sauced, over-treated food; this is gorgeous ingredients being coaxed into an even more perfect state.

Dessert was similarly delicious. Two years ago, Camille's creme brulée restored our faith in the French, after it had been destroyed by lackluster specimens in Strasbourg and Champagne. Camille still has the touch - the custard is particularly thick and creamy, heavy with vanilla and a touch of citrus. Most importantly, they've mastered the sugar-to-custard ratio: their shallow, wide dish provides lots of surface area for the crackly, caramelized sugar. Smokey, creamy goodness.

Finally, coffee. Camille makes an exceptionally delicious cup. Strong, rich, piping hot and just the right size - helps you settle down post-meal, but doesn't fill you up.

Ah, Camille, je t'aime.
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