Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Summer squash appear in their infinite varieties, including the ruffly and little bear shapes (my two favorites), tomatoes are in full force (though this summer's late blight had put something of a damper on things), and garlic scapes are everywhere, bundled into delightfully stinky bouquets.
It's pretty good times.
Sunday dinner, as a result, was a low-key, improvised meal. Nick grabbed the rose from the fridge, I sliced up some gravlax I'd cured Saturday morning, and Louisa arranged a kickass cheese & charcuterie plate, complete with a crock of the chicken liver pâté we'd made the day before.
Nick sliced some apples and sprinkled them with lemon juice (a stroke of genius), Louisa poured the gravlax's espresso mustard sauce into a little dish, and we got down to the business of eating.
The cheese was, obviously, no work at all, and the pâté and gravlax were barely more than that; seriously, I highly recommend both of these as either starters for a dinner party or as part of a perfect, cold supper.
The curing process turns the gravlax a bright pink (these photos don't do it justice) and takes on the texture and flavor of salty, sweet salmon candy. The pâté is just chicken liver sautéed with onions, garlic and brandy; you purée the mixture, add some plumped currants, and let things set up a bit in the fridge.
Serve with apple slices and crackers on a deck in the setting sun, and you have perfection itself.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Up first, the cover recipe from Gourmet's April issue - a strawberry mascarpone tart with a port glaze. It was a raging success - we managed to find some just-ripe strawberries, despite its being a bit late in the season, and the grocery store had scads of mascarpone on offer. (Not always a done deal out here in northern Ohio.)
The tart is remarkably easy to make. You make the pastry in a food processor and press it into the tart pan - no rolling out required. The crust itself is flavored with lemon and vanilla, which takes it beyond the usual pâte sucrée. Chilled in the freezer for a few minutes, it bakes up golden and flaky. Just before serving, you mix the mascarpone with a little confectioners' sugar, lemon, vanilla and salt, make a glaze with some port (and the reserved juice of your macerated berries), and put the whole thing together.
It's a great dessert for warm weather - the only baking required can be done a day in advance, so you won't turn your kitchen (or entire apartment, in my case) into a hellishly hot den for your guests. It's easy, but it also makes a visual impact - and it tastes pretty damn good, too.
And, in the spirit of leftovers: we had a little extra filling left, and we spread it on our scones the next morning. We think we might make the filling by itself just for this purpose from now on.
Monday, July 27, 2009
A few weekends ago, when the sunny weather still felt like an early release from prison, I met my brother and sister-in-law for a drink at the Boat Basin Cafe. The Boat Basin is down at the end of West 79th Street, below the West Side Highway. You can't reach it by cab; you have to walk through an odd little bit of Riverside Park to get to the stepped ramp that leads down to the restaurant, where you're liable to do battle with hordes of people to get a chair near the water.
But, if you do, you'll be rewarded with a gorgeous view across the Hudson, a generously poured gin & tonic, and a low-key hour or two in the sun.
High-falutin' it is not (and you'd do well to give the food a pass), but it makes for a lovely evening.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Hello, my darlings!
As you read this, I am making my way to Sandusky, Ohio for my annual pilgrimage to visit my friends Nick & Louisa, former New Yorkers and college classmates both. (That's me and Louisa up top, in Strasbourg on our 2006 trip to Europe.)
It promises to be an exciting 10 days - we always manage to have one or two culinary adventures together (see the evidence of last year's pork belly-off right here), and there are few dogs I enjoy more than their border terrier, Hunter. I mean, check this out:
But not to fear! I'll be posting on a regular basis from the wilds of Middle America, and promise to report on any exciting encounters with farmstands or funnel cakes.
Take good care of the island while I'm gone, will ya?
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
I just don't get it. As someone who cooks primarily for one, I almost always have leftovers of one kind or another - either bits of this and that that didn't make it into an intended dish, or cold roast chicken, or half a pot of boeuf bourgignon. I have no problem making a big vat of coq au vin and eating it for lunch four days in a row. Growing up, leftover salad (chopped salad with fresh veggies and an assortment of leftover meats, grains and whatnot) was one of my favorite meals. Whatever the leftover happens to be, I eat it happily. I re-purpose it, or warm it up, and get down to the business of dining.
For example: the other day, I was hungry, but didn't much feel like making a trip to the store to replenish my relatively empty fridge. The result? An improvised carbonara made with the end of a slab of bacon, the single egg in the fridge, some grated Parmesan, the cavatappi left over from Danielle's macaroni salad and a handful of pea shoots I'd forgotten about.
I suppose this isn't everyone's idea of "leftovers" - part of the dislike seems to be directed at the idea of eating the same thing two days in a row, which didn't happen here - but it fits mine. By looking at the odds and ends left over from four other meals, I was able to creat something new and different for a fifth. Frugality and laziness won the day - all it took was a little creatvitiy.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Last weekend, for my brother's birthday, I had the opportunity to take my favorite chocolate cake recipe out for a spin. Rich, impossibly moist and seriously easy to make, it came to me courtesy of that goddess of low-key hostessing, the great Ina Garten (better known as the Barefoot Contessa).
Ina is my go-to source for sophisticated-but-still-easy-to-make versions of French and American classics, and this cake is no exception. The secret ingredient is a cup of hot coffee, which, along with buttermilk, gives the cake its exceptionally tender crumb and adds a hint of smokiness to the chocolate. The buttercream also has a little coffee in it - a pinch of instant espresso powder.
The cake takes a morning or afternoon to put together, but most of that is cooling time. (It is very important that the cake cool completely before you frost it, unless you like your frosting to melt and soak into the cake.) You'll spend about 15 minutes actually making the batter, and about the same amount of time on the buttercream frosting. In other words, it will take you about 15 minutes longer than using cake mix and frosting from a can.
Trust me - it's worth the 15 minutes.
Ina's Chocolate Cake
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa At Home
For the cake:
Butter, for greasing the pans
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cup good cocoa powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
For the buttercream frosting:
6 ounces semisweet chocolate (I use Guittard!)
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 extra-large egg yolk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
Position the racks in the top and bottom thirds of your oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter 2 round cake pans (8- or 9-inch both work.). Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans.
Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and baking powder into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the salt and mix on low speed until combined.
In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With the mixer on low, gradually add the wet ingredients to the dry. Add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the sides & bottom of the bowl with a spatula.
Divide the batter evenly between the pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, swapping pans from top to bottom about halfway through, until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack (parchment paper side down) and cool completely.
Peel off the parchment paper and place 1 layer, flat side up, on a flat plate or cake pedestal. With a knife or offset spatula, spread the top with frosting. Place the second layer on top, rounded side up, and spread the frosting evenly on the top and sides of the cake.
For the frosting:
Chop the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until just melted and set aside until cooled to room temperature.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium-high speed until light yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes.
Turn the mixer down to low, and gradually add the confectioners' sugar. Beat at medium speed, scraping down the bowl as necessary, until smooth and creamy. Dissolve the coffee powder in 2 teaspoons of very hot tap water. On low speed, add the chocolate and coffee to the butter mixture and mix until blended - but don't whip! Now you're ready to frost!
Thursday, July 16, 2009
On Saturday, August 8th, I'll be hosting a tweetup at an opening-weekend showing of the upcoming film Julie & Julia, a Nora Ephron adaption of two memoirs: Julie Powell's Julie & Julia and Julia Child's (effervescent, inspiring, transcendent) My Life in France.
So head on over the event web page (clickety) to RSVP. And if you're one of those happy-go-lucky types who don't like to plan too far ahead, don't worry - I'll be reminding you closer to the date, you can be sure of that.
In the meantime, do yourself a (huge) favor and read Julia Child's amazing memoir. And then watch the trailer. And then...cry.
See you there!
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
In real life, I do some work that isn't food-related. No, really. So it is that the other day, I found myself reading the latest issue of Fast Company. Tucked halfway through was an article about Darden Restaurants, the conglomerate that owns Olive Garden and Red Lobster, among others.
Despite my well-documented lack of enthusiasm for chain restaurants, I found the piece about Darden and its CEO, Clarence Otis, fascinating. The mathematical acrobatics it takes to run hundreds of outposts of a single restaurant boggle my mind, and I was pretty surprised to hear about the efforts Darden is making to encourage sustainable fishing. After all, it's a bit like Wal-Mart insisting on eco-friendly practices at its suppliers: when you control that much of the market, you can make a serious difference.
This is a hot topic right now; Ezra Klein's IFA post about Ruhlman vs. Alexander is a really interesting take.
How about you guys? Do you eat at a lot of chain restaurants? Why or why not?
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
We Americans are spoiled by a gorgeous (if difficult to sing) national anthem; few other countries are blessed with anthems as stirring or evocative. However, the French come pretty damn close. Plus, they don't stick with the allusions to bloodshed you find in The Star-Spangled Banner; they go right for the jugular, with lines like "ils viennent jusque dans nos bras/égorger nos fils, nos campagnes" (Translation: they come into our midst to slit the throats of our sons and our wives.).
On this Bastille Day, I hope you'll enjoy a perfect croissant - perhaps with a little strawberry jam - while watching one of my favorite versions of La Marseillaise, from a little movie you might have heard of: Casablanca.
Photo of La Colonne de Juillet (in the Place de la Bastille) courtesy of Carlo Benedetti.
I posted about GROM back when it first opened in 2007, and things haven't changed much there. The gelato is still pretty darn good, the spoons are still really cool-looking - though the lines are, thankfully, a lot shorter.
This time around, I ordered the crema di Grom flavor, an eggy, creamy masterpiece, and topped it with cream whipped almost to the point of turning to butter. The three of us shared the tiny cup, passing it up and down the line till every last, rich drop was gone. Then, I got on the 79th Street crosstown bus and fell asleep.
Monday, July 13, 2009
This weekend, we celebrated things right, with an outing to Dinosaur Barbecue on Friday night and a homemade clambake (full culinary report later this week) on Saturday. We topped things off with a homemade chocolate birthday cake, a special request from the birthday boy himself (though this brown sugar-blackberry cake was a close runner-up).
Tonight, after he spends some alone time with his lovely wife, Miriam, we'll meet up for a celebratory Scotch.
Am I proud that my little brother chose to celebrate his birthday with a series of fabulous foods and friends? You bet your ass I am.
Happy birthday, Bear!
We (by which I mean a group of about 20 high school kids and a few brave teachers) started in the south, gradually making our way to Paris via Nice, Cannes, Avignon, Montpellier, the Gorges du Tarn and the Loire Valley. Most of the eight weeks were spent in various hostels, where we breakfasted on baguettes smeared with butter and jam, washed down with latte bowls brimming with chocolat chaud. We took language classes in the mornings and spent the afternoons seeing the sights.
That summer, I tasted my first Roquefort cheese (in a cave on the side of a Roquefort hill, no less), fell in love with perfume at Fragonard, kissed a boy on a dark beach in Nice, ate tarte tropézienne while walking down a cobblestone street in Saint-Tropez, and tasted my first Berthillon glace on the Île Saint-Louis.
Every single moment of that summer was memorable, but one sun-bleached afternoon in Provence stands out from the others.
Our two weeks in Montpellier were spent on homestays; we met our host families at the American students' center and fanned out around the city, nerves jangling. My family lived in a suburb about twenty minutes from the center of town, which was exactly as bland as it sounds. Over the weekend, we drove out into the country to visit my host mother's family at their farm in southern Provence.
All week, my family had been talking about the pool. "La piscine, la piscine": it was all I heard about for seven whole days. You can imagine my disappointment when la piscine turned out to be an inflatable kiddie pool - one that measured 10 feet across, fair enough, but a kiddie pool nonetheless.
Far more exciting to me was the farm itself. My host mother's brother took me on a tour of the fields, the enclosure where they kept the goats, and, finally, the cherry orchard. Acre upon acre of rich Provencale hillside planted with endless rows of cherry trees. I'd never been much of a cherry fan, having been raised by a mother who favored strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. But that day changed everything.
After the tour, while my family lounged in the pool, I walked back to the orchard and stood in the cool shade of the cherry trees. Their sweet, rich fragrance was overwhelming in the heat of the afternoon sun. The branches were dripping with ripe fruit almost ready for the season's largest harvest, which would happen over the next few days.
While I stood there, a cherry fell off a branch and fell to the ground in front of my feet. I picked it up; it was heavy with juice and piping hot from the sun. I popped it into my mouth and savored the scarlet juice and soft flesh of the cherry. Its flavor was complex - sweet, tangy and rich all at once, the juice stained my fingertips pink and dyed my lips crimson. I picked a handful more and ate them slowly, standing in the orchard, under the deep blue French sky.
To this day, I prefer my cherries warm, and leave them - by the bowlful - on my windowsill for a little while before devouring them. It helps recapture a tiny bit of that stolen moment, if only for a short time.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Most of us probably remember the gloppy, gluey, overly-tangy versions of macaroni salad that grocery stores used to sell by the pound (They probably still do, eh?). The pasta was usually overcooked, the veggies soggy - and the dressing? Far too plentiful.
Danielle's version, though, keeps the best parts of the original (bendy pasta, glorious mayonnaise, carrots & celery, and a bit of sugar) and leaves the gloppiness behind. The veggies are crisp and plentiful, the dressing coats the noodles but doesn't pool on the plate, and the turbinado sugar adds sweetness and tang without overwhelming the pasta. Making this salad feels like an inherently summery act, though it would be delicious in any season. I ate it with cold roast chicken, and, one hungry morning, on its own for breakfast.
The original recipe (click here) makes enough to feed an army; my version is half the size, and provided enough for four generous portions. I also added a dash of my beloved spiciness, with a few glugs of Sriracha, and improvised a half-mayo, half-yogurt dressing upon realizing I only had half a cup of the former. Danielle's recipe listed elbow macaroni, but her picture showed the decidedly more grown-up cavatappi, and I decided to follow her lead on that, too.
Whichever version you make, and however much of it you make, one thing is absolutely essential: you MUST let the salad spend a few hours in the fridge before eating it. Trust me - before it ages a bit, it tastes like a mishmash of veggies, dressing and pasta. Once it's had time to hang out and get to know itself a bit, it is pure awesomeness.
Foodmomiac's Macaroni Salad
Adapted from Foodmomiac's original version
1/2 lb. cavatappi
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1/8 cup apple cider vinegar
1/8 cup turbinado sugar
1 1/4 tbs. dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. Sriracha (you can also go crazy and add a full teaspoon, if you choose)
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 sweet white onion, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
1 carrot, minced
1 dill pickle, finely chopped
Cook cavatappi in boiling, salted water until just al dente. Drain, rinse in cold water and set aside.
Mix together the mayo, yogurt, vinegar, sugar, mustard, Sriracha, salt and pepper in a large bowl.
Add the onion, celery and carrot to the sauce in the bowl, along with the cavatappi and pickles. Mix to combine, cover, and refrigerate for at least two hours.
Serves 4 (or one person, four times)
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Today, however, I must admit that I have finally met my match. I thought I'd spend my life happily married to the Tollhouse recipe, content in our groove, calm in the knowledge that I had memorized the recipe somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years ago and could make cookies anytime, anywhere, given a few simple pantry ingredients. I was wrong.
Thomas Keller's recipe, which has been making the internet rounds in anticipation of the release of the Ad Hoc cookbook this fall, is amazing. It doesn't require cake flour, bread flour, refrigeration, or any of that nonsense. Which, in my opinion, is as it should be.
A chocolate chip cookie should be something you can whip up with the most basic pantry ingredients, not something for which you have to make a special trip to the store. Accordingly, the fanciest thing Keller calls for is a combination of bittersweet and semisweet chocolate.
The cookies bake to a dark brown, with just a touch of gold. Left to their own devices, the cookies are crisp on top and chewy inside (if you like a truly chewy cookie, mist them with water before baking).
No waiting around for your butter to get to room temperature, people! You're free!
Ad Hoc Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes approximately 30 3-inch cookies
2 1/3 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
5 ounces 55% (semisweet) chocolate
5 ounces 70 to 72%(bittersweet) chocolate
1/2 lb. cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
Chop the chocolate into chip-sized bits.
Position racks in the lower and upper thirds of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with Silpats or parchment paper.
Sift flour and baking soda into a medium bowl. Stir in the salt.
Put chips in a fine-mesh basket strainer and shake to remove any chocolate “dust” (small fragments).
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, beat half the butter on medium speed until fairly smooth. Add both sugars and the remaining butter, and beat until well combined, then beat for a few minutes, until mixture is light and creamy. Scrape down sides of the bowl. Add eggs one at a time, beating until the first one is incorporated before adding the next and scraping the bowl as necessary. Add dry ingredients and mix on low speed to combine. Mix in chocolate.
Remove bowl from mixer and fold dough with a spatula to be sure the chocolate is evenly incorporated. The dough or shaped cookies can be refrigerated, well wrapped, for up to 5 days or frozen for 2 weeks. Freeze shaped cookies on the baking sheets until firm, then transfer to freezer containers. (Defrost frozen cookies overnight in the refrigerator before baking.)
Using about 2 level tablespoons per cookie, shape dough into balls. Arrange 8 cookies on each pan, leaving about 2 inches between them, because the dough will spread. Bake for 12 minutes, or until the tops are no longer shiny, switching the position and rotating pans halfway through baking.
Cool cookies on the pans on cooling racks for about 2 minutes to firm up a bit, then transfer to the racks to cool completely. Repeat with second batch of cookies. (The cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days.)Many thanks to Food Gal for sharing this recipe on her fabulous blog!
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Saturday morning, Migliorelli had a pile of early corn for sale, and I dove right in. I bought three ears and toted them home along with some scallions, tomatoes, cherries and other goodies. Sunday morning, not much in the mood to do a lot of cooking, I decided to whip up a warm corn and tomato salad for breakfast.
I cubed two small tomatoes, diced a little red onion, and mixed the two in a small bowl. Then, I cut the kernels off of one ear of corn, chopped up a little scallion, and sauteed those two together in a teeny bit of canola oil. A splash of sherry vinegar and a healthy amount of salt later, and I had a damn satisfying breakfast - sweet, earthy, crunchy, soft, and a bit tangy. Summer in a bowl.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Most of the time, I roast mine with a little olive oil, some salt and pepper, and a sprinkling of thyme from the windowsill garden. But, one night last week, I found myself in need of dinner and without any meat in the house. The result? An improvised pasta dish: green and yellow zucchini sauteed with garlic, onion, mustard and thyme, deglazed with a little chicken stock and tossed with penne.
There's no real recipe here - just an example of improvisation at work. Don't be afraid to play around with whatever you have in the fridge - at worst, you'll have a slightly less than stellar meal - at best, you'll add a new standard to your repertoire.
I made zucchini with penne again for lunch Saturday, natch.
Monday, July 6, 2009
Having been assured by the staff that all baked goods came from the hotel's patisserie (housed in a separate building next-door), we made a point of stopping by after our visit to Grey Towers on Saturday afternoon.
The patisserie is located in one of the hotel's two smaller, adjacent properties, both of which seem to be former residences. The patisserie has a cute little porch filled with marble-topped cafe tables and wire chairs - on a warmer, less rainy day, it would be a perfect spot to sit, enjoy a croissant and a paper (they sell the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) and watch the denizens of Milford go by.
We perused the selections on offer and settled on monkey bread, a rhubarb madeleine and a cream puff, all to share (I also had, of course, a cup of coffee.).
The monkey bread was adorable - I'd seen loaves of the stuff before, but never an individually-sized version. (For the uninitiated, monkey bread is kind of a quick version of cinnamon rolls - but instead of rolling and slicing individual rolls, you coat the outside of small chunks of dough with cinnamon and sugar and pack them into a loaf pan. To eat, just pull a chunk of dough off of the whole.)
The rhubarb madeleine was pretty, but did nothing to alter my conviction that madeleines are truly meant to be eaten hot from the oven; after about ten minutes, they begin to go a bit spongy and lose the slightly crunchy outside that distinguishes them from plain old cake.
The cream puff was, in a word, awesome. The choux paste was light as a feather, but still eggy and rich in flavor. The pastry cream was judiciously mixed with whipped cream and flavored strongly with vanilla, all of which yielded to a deep flavor and a smooth texture. We had one of the "small" cream puffs, and it took a lot of willpower not to buy one of the big ones to take back to my room with me for some late afternoon alone time.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Remember, we all went to college together outside of Philadelphia, so we know from hoagies. There's something about a Pennsylvania-made hoagie, with its soft, chewy roll, thinly-sliced cold cuts, and slightly plasticky cheese, that just makes Hall swoon.
And so, instead of searching out any upscale options for lunch on Saturday, we headed for the nearest deli, Jorgenson's. Hall ordered a turkey hoagie, but I went for a BLT, and it turned out to be one of the best I've had in ages.
I don't know if it was the sweetness of the soft white bread, the salty, just-crisp-enough bacon, or the juicy iceberg lettuce. Who cares? Whatever it was, the alchemy of the ingredients combined to make one damn good sandwich.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
Happy Independence Day, everyone! We here in New York (the nation's original capital, thankyouverymuch) are celebrating with the first rain-free day in weeks. It is absolutely stunning here today, and I'm about to sign off and head to Central Park for some serious Vitamin D production.
I'm about 20 months old, and already looking to get my groove on in the kitchen. Though, judging by the look on my face, I may have been "helping" without being asked - independence asserts itself early, folks.
The first morning, I went protein-heavy, with eggs, chicken sausage, and some home fries. It was a good meal - especially the sausage, which was made in town at Fretta's - but the French toast we had on Sunday morning was to die for.
I'm guessing the brioche was made at the hotel's pâtisserie, which was by far its strongest culinary feature. This is a place that knows how to make a damn good bread product. With the fresh strawberry sauce, I didn't even need much maple syrup to sweeten things up. It was, in all honesty, the best French toast I've had in years.
The takeaway? When in Milford, have breakfast at The Hotel Fauchère, and order anything involving carbs (or sausage).
Friday, July 3, 2009
Grey Towers was the family home of Gifford Pinchot, two-time governor of Pennsylvania and the first chief of the Forest Service. Milford prides itself on being "the birthplace of the conservation movement," and Pinchot is the reason why. He's considered to be the father of conservation, the philosophy that we should use our natural resources sustainably.
The house was built in the mid-nineteenth century by Gifford's father, and the Victorian influence is very apparent, particularly in the great hall - which was too dark to photograph effectively, thanks to the complete lack of windows and all the heavy, light-sucking woodwork. Though it was only sprinkling when we left the hotel, the rain had become an absolute deluge by the time our tour began, and, as a result, Miles, Hall and I were the only members of our tour group.
Our affable guide, Ranger Lee, showed us all around the house - the aforementioned great hall, a quick trip upstairs to see Gifford's bedroom, preserved in its monastic glory, and then the library and living room, both redone by Gifford's dynamic wife, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot. She's the one who created the outdoor dining room, where the table is a slate-edged pool, and where you passed the potatoes by pushing a bowl across the water.
Cornelia's also the one who created the landscaping that makes the house so breathtakingly beautiful. In the Victorian era, infection was rampant and typically fatal, and so houses were built, with as little greenery surrounding them as possible. This kept away insects, and also helped ensure a constant flow of air through the windows. However, by the time Cornelia came to the house, there was far less need of such extreme measures, and the stark, stone-house-on-a-bare-hill aesthetic could be softened.
The resulting lush greenery, terraced lawns and one trompe l'oeil reflecting pool (it's 12 inches narrower at the distant end, making it look far longer than it is) are, for me, what made the house worth visiting. I felt like I had entered the perfect setting for a 1930s Hepburn screwball comedy - there's the pool, ready for someone to fall into, and there's the playhouse, where the hero who's outgrown it can kiss his plucky heroine for the first time.
Though, hopefully, in drier weather.