Monday, December 18, 2006

i'm a foodie, i'm legit

I entered my Mille-Feuilles in a gourmet cook-off this weekend and it won best-dressed in the sweets category. How could anyone refuse that vanilla bean cream, flaky pastry in between, and a subtle glaze of Grand Marnier on top? I was worried, but for a moment, the competition was stiff. But after Col won best entree with his shrimp mango quesadillas, I gained confidence.

The elegant party atmosphere worked on my behalf. The setting was a gorgeous apartment in the renovated Hood Plant--industrial wires and exposed light fixtures melded easily with stained wooden ceilings, curved and two stories high, and buffed slate tiles covering the floor. Unexpected shapes and flavors merging together for an outcome altogether unique and refined. I wondered if, in any other setting, my favorite dessert might be misunderstood. Confusing to the palette, or worse, understated.

A mezzanine above led to a rooftop terrace with views of the lake and the street below. This is where we claimed our prizes on the balcony overlooking a crowd of onlookers. I stood there with LZ (she won for her excellent crab cakes) and let the glory of the moment wash over me. For others, this prize might not be so sweet, but for me, it was the ultimate validation.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

how to tie a scarf

If you know me, then you know I like to wear a scarf every single day. I feel absolutely naked without one! Keeps my neck warm and adds a wonderful splash of color to the complexion. It's got to be silk or cashmere or some other gorgeous natural fiber (cotton is my new craze). Something that feels nice on the skin.

Sometimes it seems a chore to add that final touch. But what a tragedy to let those beautiful silk squares gather dust. How to tie it and still show off your designer prints? Well I have a simple trick, shown in the photo here with my vintage colorblock Dior.
  1. First, start with a square and fold the scarf on the diagonal to form a triangle.

  2. Hold one end in each hand with the large point of the triangle pointing down.

  3. Next wrap the scarf around your neck from the back to the front so that the two ends meet in the front. You can stop here and tie a knot in the front creating a cape-like effect. Very nice indeed! But I usually keep wrapping around to the back.

  4. Finish by tying a knot at the back of your nape and then fluffing up the effect in the front. How tight or loose you wrap and tie will determine the amount of fluff you'll have to work with. Sometimes, it's nice to wrap it tight almost like a choker. But mostly, especially if it's printed silk, I like to tie it loosely and allow the beautiful patterns to drape across my chest. Don't worry if the knot works its way around. That's part of the charm.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

the first snow

It's snowing today. The first snow of the year. Wet, white snowflakes falling down with the thick and slushy weight of gravity. A fresh blanket of snow on the trees, on the street, on my face. Instant winter.

As I walk, I pass by the neighborhood where many Sudanese families now live. I know this is their neighborhood because I often see the young bustling families sitting on their door stoop, playing with their friends, waiting for the bus, and casting a beautiful rainbow of African dress all along the street. One family in particular, I pass quite a bit. A modest mother and her three or four young children.

Sometimes, she's with her girlfriend chatting and laughing in a foreign tongue. She seems happiest then, when she has someone to talk to. I never see the father. Perhaps he's working, perhaps he managed to find a job in this strange and distant country. Perhaps he's still in the motherland. Perhaps there is no father anymore.

I pass by and smille at the children. I smile at her, yet she averts her gaze. Quiet and sullen. What does she think of me, young, independent American woman on her way to work every day? Is she curious or does she disdain me? Me with no cares in the world. Just walking to work, walking home, every day in my nice clothes and shiny shoes. What do I know?

I always wonder what's on her mind. Does she like my coat today? What does she think of my new lipstick? Does she even see me?

This might be her first snow today. Her beautiful head-dress constrasts brightly to the newly muted landscape. She can't see the snow as I do, with comfort and childlike nostalgia. For the chilly Vermont winter holds no memories for her. There's a small chance that she can see it for its simple beauty, no matter how cold or unconsoling it may be. I wonder: does she look at a snowflake and feel the sudden calm and silence of its weight? I hope so, for what is the alternative but to see it in the eyes of cold, dead winter? That time will come soon enough, oh January. But while the snow is falling fresh, is still graceful and not yet rigid, please let her find solace in its theater of wonders.

Monday, December 04, 2006

paris flavors

We're going to Paris in three weeks. Just three weeks. And all I can think about are my tastebuds!

One of the first things I'm going to do when we touch ground is eat a King's Cake, a galette des rois. Maybe we'll eat one every day, as is the custom in France during the holidays. In fact, you can find them at every bakery, freshly made with almond paste and lots of butter, until Epiphany, which is January 6th. The twelfth day of Christmas. Each cake has a bean, or fèvre, so be careful not to break a tooth. But if you're lucky enough to receive the fèvre in your slice, then you get to wear a crown for the day. It's silly really. But a wonderful tradition. (I need to find a recipe for King's Cake... I can't believe we don't have it here! Especially so close to Quebec.)

And then I might take Col to one of my favorite cafés in the Marais, Au Petit Fer à Cheval. That means "horse shoe." We'll sit inside while the rain drizzles down the windows and drink espresso and café crème and read the French newspapers. Even though Col doesn't read French. We'll just do whatever.

We'll savor some Moroccan stew at 404. Some Lebanese fare at the street vendor near Les Halles. Then on to Angelina's, the elegant tea-room by the Tuilleries, famous for its Mont Blanc, chestnut cream piled on top of a merengue cookie, and rich African hot chocolate.

At some point, we'll be sure to taste a buttery Madeleine from my favorite boulangerie on rue Vavin. A hearty galette from the Marché Raspail on early Sunday morning. A croissant, a baguette, a bottle of wine in the Jardin du Luxembourg, my old stomping grounds. Quince jelly with some bon fromage! And even though it's slightly strange for me to say it, I can't help but crave the spicy saucissons that hang in the butcher shop. This time will be the time I finally try them.

Que je suis gourmande!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

mille feuilles, a thousand leaves

One of my all-time favorite desserts is Mille Feuilles, sometimes also called Napoleon--a name attributed to both its Naples, Italy origin and the French emperor. But that name isn't quite as beautiful as its literal translation, which means "a thousand leaves." I first tasted this rich and creamy layered pastry while living in southern France a few years ago. After coming home, I wanted to recreate the wonderful sweet thing and share it with my friends and family. So, I convinced my friend Madeleine of Cuisine et Tradition cooking school in Arles, Provence to part with her beloved recipe. Each time I make it, the result is quite different and unique. It's the nature of the process and the soul that goes into it.

3 sheets of puff pastry dough (two boxes of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry)
1 quart of fresh berries

For the cream:
3 egg yolks
4 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of flour
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
2 cups whole milk
plus 1 pint whipping cream to be whipped separately and folded in to the pastry cream.
Powdered sugar for decoration

To make:
Defrost the pastry dough in the refrigerator overnight. When thaw, unfold and place on baking sheets with parchment baking paper below. Poke all over with a fork to prevent puffing and bake at 400C/200C for 10-15 minutes or till nicely browned and cooked through (check box for cooking instructions). Remove and let cool.

Meantime, start the pastry cream. Put the milk on to scald. In a mixer, place your egg yolks, sugar, flour and vanilla and beat well until lightened in color. Transfer the mixture to a double boiler, pour into it gently, whisking all the while, the hot milk. Put on the flame under the double boiler and continue whisking till the mixture has thickened well. Keep mixing for a minute or two after it thickens. The addition of flour will prevent it from curdling too quickly. Take the cream off the double boiler, place in a bowl with ice and water and continue whisking till cool. Place in the refrigerator till needed.

An hour or 2 before serving, whip the cream and fold into the chilled pastry cream. Take out your serving platter and place one sheet of the puff pastry on it. Spread half the cream on the pastry, sprinkle with berries and lay another layer of the pastry on top. Repeat. Top off with the last layer of pastry, sprinkle some berries on top and some powdered sugar. Chill briefly in the freezer to make slicing easier. Slice with a warmed knife in rectangles. Serve with extra berries on the side.

My favorite alternatives:
Instead of using berries, you can make a glaze for the top by combining Powdered Sugar and Grand Marnier (or other tasty liquor like Baronjager) on low heat. Once the sugar is dissolved in the liquid, spread the glaze on the top pastry layer. Then melt a bar of 70% Dark Chocolate (Lindt makes a nice one) and drizzle that on top of the glaze in a pretty pattern.

For more complex flavor, try infusing the milk with lavender flowers before you begin making the pastry cream. My local co-op carries lavender flowers (they must be food grade, not perfumed) in the bulk section next to the teas and spices. Before starting the pastry cream, heat the milk and about 1/4 c. fine lavender flowers over medium-low heat until warm. Remove from heat and let sit for about 10-20 minutes or until the milk has a lavender flavor, then strain and discard the flowers. Proceed with the recipe above.

Other flavors you might try: mint, orange zest, cardamom, vanilla, etc.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

a reason to indulge

It arrived in my mailbox just the other day: an exquisite little note-card, so thoughtfully prepared. You are cordially invited... hors d'oeuvres, sweets, and aperitifs... please RSVP... and there it was, in a final statement at the bottom: Dress to impress.

As if I needed to be told! I love to dress for a party, but then I even dress up to go to the grocery store. But I understand that's unusual. Whereas for the most part people tend to look for a good reason every once in a while to dress up and indulge, this time of year, everyone is of one mind. Extravagance is the norm in cooking, in dressing, and in socializing. And just about everyone is having a party!

In fact, this little invite that I received in the mail was one of several to come my way in the ensuing days, each one decidedly different. There's the fancy cocktail, a just-dessert party, the potluck, the blowout, the family sing-along, an intimate gathering with friends, and the holiday dinner with co-workers. Oh, and don't forget New Years! This year-end, I'll be in Paris (more on that later), where dressing sharp and eating well is practically required.

At this point, I could start to worry: Will I have something to wear to all these events? Will I gain ten pounds from all of the sweets? Will I go totally broke from all of the gift exchanges and dinner bills? Well, let's just get this out of the way right now, because the answer is and always will be: YES, YES and YES.

Once you can let go of the stress that’s inevitable around the holidays, this time of year can be so fabulous. For when else can you dust off all those old party frocks, wear bells in your hair and glitter on your face, and eat five truffles in one sitting? When else do you get to see so many of your friends all in one place, all happy and with rosy cheeks? When else do you dress up your house with more sparkling jewels than even you own, while Bing Crosby sings “Christmas in Killarney” in the background?

I can think of no other time like it.

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