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Posts Tagged ‘Gourmet’

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Not a lemon cake. Read on for the gripping truth!

I am not an Elvis fan. I mean, I’m not a mouth-foaming, sobbing-on-the-steps-of-Graceland Elvis fan. Seems to me there’s no other kind, and moreover it would require a Swiffer and a lot of Kleenex. I’m not lazy, but that’s a lot of work. His music is good. But his food is even better.

Whenever you see a muffin, crepe, milkshake, or anything named the ‘Elvis’, it usually contains chocolate and/or peanut butter and/or bananas.* And if it can be deep-fried, it will be.** I love it all. But I have a favorite, and while it smugly holds its own in the fattening department, it features none of the above attributes.

Years ago, back when there was a Gourmet Magazine, the editors interviewed Elvis’s personal cook. This lovely lady heaped them with the best kind of blessing: she gave them the recipe for Elvis’s favorite pound cake. The editors mince no words: it was the best pound cake any of them had ever eaten.

The cake looks like nothing; you’re already glancing askance at the pictures wondering why I’m suddenly trying to bore you. Maybe this will help: It contains two sticks of butter, seven eggs (which explains its yellowy-ness), three cups of sugar, and a cup of heavy cream.*** It also calls for cake flour—much more powdery soft than regular AP flour—and has you sift it three times for the ultimate in lightness.

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Those crumbs are so gracefully arranged, aren’t they? Within seconds they were disgracefully devoured.

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, Independence Day here in the States, and I was torn between two recipes to make for the pre-fireworks picnic I was going to with friends and family. I have always wanted to make this cake, but whined internally that I wasn’t feeling awake enough to handle it. Halfway to the store for ingredients to make cookies, I told myself to stop being ridiculous and bought cream and a pound of butter to make it.

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The snickerdoodles will have hold their snickering.

It came out of the oven about half an hour before I was supposed to bike out to Asbury Park. I sliced it up still warm, and it was like slicing through warm wax—the tenderest, squishiest texture, comparable only to the King’s own belly. (One begat the other, after all.) I wrapped the pieces one over the other in parchment. Then I put it all in a Ziploc, closed it only halfway so steam could escape, and loaded it into my backpack.

The friends and family and I ate Cuban sandwiches and caramelized plantains and then we ate cake. The best reaction came from young Charlie, whose eyes widened as he ate. The King must have been watching from up north, and if that didn’t put the sparkle in his sequins, I miss my guess. I sent the leftovers home with Charlie and his family. Elvis would have wanted that.

And the recipe was not lost to the ages; it’s on Epicurious now, making me happily reconsider my agnosticism.

I have three pound cake recipes. Two are Martha’s, and they are sensational. But I concur with the Gourmet crew: this is the best I have ever tasted.

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Cooling by an open window and toying with the neighbors.

*You will never come across an Elvis spinach salad or hummus platter.

**OH, somewhere someone has figured out a way to deep-fry a milkshake, don’t you think otherwise.

***Crap, I meant to suggest you swallow a Bayer before reading that.

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Whenever I tell people I’m a food writer they always assume I have Food Network standards, or that I’m a gourmet cook. And God knows I hate to be a buzzkill, but here I go.

Re: the first allegation—while the Food Network does hire some decent people, they also have no problem bringing on hacks who can decorate, or swear, or mug like rock stars, but not, you know, cook. In too many cases, shock value is what goes; the food, let alone the quality of it, is almost incidental.

Re: the second—that’s very nice of you, but still no. I’m actually way more boring than that. All I really care about is quality ingredients, prepared in a simple way that shows off how awesome they are. Ta dah. As opposed to the chef wrecking them as a sacrifice to his own ego. Can I please just eat without you handing me your resume with every bite?

Serenity now.

The following review isn’t for chain restaurants. They’re not about quality cooking; they’re about sticking to a formula. It’s for the independents that have gotten off track, or are new to the business, about to open a burger place called Berger’s Burgers Burgers and Burgers, and muse, ‘Wouldn’t a sushi bar look JUST FABOO in that back corner?’

Well—happy to help—it wouldn’t. And segues right into my first point.

1) For the love of all that is righteous, pick a cuisine. One.

Have you ever been to an Irish restaurant in the US that didn’t feature veggie fajitas on their menu along with shepherd’s pie?* Me neither. Restaurants and trying to please everyone are as cliche a pair as Rogaine and a Corvette. Be known for doing what you said you’d do, and doing it very well. I know a sock hop joint in South Jersey that’s known for their grilled cheese sandwiches (thepopshopusa.com. Count ’em—30 kinds of grilled cheese. Looky above for the one I got, the Haddon.). They’re freaking amazing at it, as evidenced by the happy customers who stand on line to get in without complaint.

2) Don’t throw flavors around like you trained at Chez Panisse.

Sometimes restaurants know how to combine unexpected flavors, and the results are successful. Other times it’s as if the kitchen staff wrote down every conceivable flavor on the planet, and some on Jupiter, tacked them to a wall, and then everybody did a shot, then started winging darts at the flavors.

‘Woo hoo—we’ve got two new flavors for our fish tacos! Let’s see…we’ve got…cilantro! And……..huh. Nutter Butter Swirl.’

Other times it’s clear they’re just cleaning out the fridge. That’s when they add ‘vinaigrette’ to throw us off the trail. Genius move.

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You forgot the applesauce and the bottom of the Hellmann’s jar.

3) Quit mailing it in.

Tomatoes. It’s high season. Buy local ones, for crying out loud. They’ll cost more than the pink ones that taste like wet tube socks, but people will remember how intensely flavored the tomatoes on your sandwiches were. They’ll be further impressed that you source locally (people do want to hear this today) and will be back, begging for it. Go ahead and charge more. We’ll pay it because it’s worth it. Promise.

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Juicy, runny, and worth licking off your arms.

Then there was the time last month when a bunch of us went out after a show. I asked the server what was on tap for dessert. My friend Tom started laughing and said, ‘You just want to see a dessert menu so you can mock it.’

But I’m hoping it’s good. I am! I’m genuinely rooting for you, hoping there’s somebody in the kitchen who’s making something yummy from scratch. I would be thrilled to order it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at times with wonderful treats in restaurants. (That’s homemade Italian ricotta cheesecake below, from Portofino in Tinton Falls. Best I have ever eaten, anywhere. And it came just as you see it, with the lightest ever powdered-sugar snowfall.)

But oh yeah, I’ll cheerfully mock the dessert menu if I sense everything they offer is frozen, and/or was borne of a paper pouch, and/or otherwise tastes like it’s full of fake and acrimony. And wouldn’t they kind of deserve it?

Can we all agree that cake mixes uniformly blow? The real thing is chocolate, butter, sugar, flour and eggs. A five-year-old can swing that. $9 for something they shook out of a box is a fat no.

If your brownie’s essentially a little square of lab ingredients, I don’t care that on top of it you recreated the left wall of Taylor Swift’s walk-in closet in royal icing. Get the brownie right first.**

Whenever I order dessert out I always ask for it without all of the glitterati. This inevitably makes the server a little twitchy. With a big smile she assures me that the toppings are scrumptious. I am resolute. Then she scampers off to tell the kitchen her customer wants to see what the Toll House pie looks like in its birthday suit. They’ll panic, and, collectively twitchy now, they’ll press their little noses up against the kitchen door’s windows to inhale in short gasps as they watch me eat it. And maybe they’re inspired to mix together some butter and sugar.

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*By the way, authentic shepherd’s pie is made with lamb. No shepherds in it. Just sheep. (Made with chopped beef it’s called cottage pie. No cottages in it. Cows.)

**I wrote about this in my bora bora post when I said restaurants hand you a dessert covered with goo, betting you’ll be too impressed by this quaking, amorphous blob to notice they’re stiffing you and giggling about it in the kitchen. Hasn’t changed yet, and stoicism is such hard work on my part. Get with it, people.

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Clearly I used to be a Martha acolyte. Pussy willows, dyed eggs and vintage toys from my childhood. The lamb is also a music box that plays ‘Smoke On the Water’. Kidding, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’. The bunny is a Steiff puppet. Both circa 1968.

Last spring I published a photo essay about eggs. This year I give you three stories about eggs.

1) My friend’s mom is an elegant, vivacious lady in her 60s who was born and raised in Japan. A couple of years ago I gave him a dozen local, organic eggs and asked him to share with his mom. There were brown and Araucana eggs. She didn’t see them until the following morning, but he told me that when she opened up the carton she quite literally squealed. Then I got this fantastic story.

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Thank you so much for getting us these delicious eggs! Sorry, I didn’t write this letter to you sooner, but I wanted to wait until I tasted both kinds. I love them both, but if I have to choose, I love the blue eggs better. They are creamier, and to me they have more depth to the taste. Yum….. I’m really enjoying them!  Eggs are one of my most favorite foods. When I was small, my mom used to send me to the greengrocer to buy some eggs. I took mom’s shopping bag, which was made with woven hemp, walked to the store. The eggs were in a worn plastic basket, normally 5 eggs in each, just placed on the wooden stand next to the vegetables. No refrigeration. The wife usually tended the store with one of her children on her back in a sling. She transferred the eggs in a bag made with old newspaper for me, so they could reuse the plastic basket again, and put them in my shopping bag. I walked home with my eggs in the bag. In those days in Japan, eggs were an important protein source, and when I had one whole boiled egg to myself, I was very happy. Eggs have a long history of memory in my mind…I just love them!

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Imagine not taking eggs for granted—being so appreciative of them that you could actually discern the flavor of one variety versus another? It’s mind-blowing. I want that.

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2) Sara Moulton, at the time Executive Chef of Gourmet magazine*, told a story about a cake she and her kitchen testers had fallen for, both for its flavor and for its impressive height. The chef graciously shared the recipe, and Gourmet baked the cake several times, as testers do, to make sure they could replicate it accurately for readers.

But when they did, while the flavor was there, the wonderful height was not. Time after time after time**. They went back to the chef and went through the recipe with a fine-toothed comb, both for ingredients and process, baked it again, but it was still flatter than the first they’d tried. This went on until they somehow learned that the chef lived across the street from a farm that had laying hens, and he routinely bought eggs there. Fresh eggs will make a difference in the lightness, airiness and height of your finished oeuvre.

3) Last one. This was just a nutty fluke, but I was kind of freaking at the time. I was having friends over and had hard-boiled a dozen eggs to make deviled eggs. Cut them all in half and all but one was a double yolk. Crazy, right?

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Totally not shopped.

And taking a page from Story #2…

I’ve been baking Easter bread all my life, taking over a tradition that’s three generations old, and will be going at it again this Friday and Saturday. But this is the first year I’m making a point to use local NJ eggs—the first time since my grandmother was baking, decades ago. So stoked. With any luck, they’ll make an already spectacular recipe even better, and I’ll have another story to tell.

*God rest its awesome soul. Online’s not the same.

**With apologies to Cyndi Lauper. Hoping you like cake.

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laurie colwin, novelist and food writer, refused to buy bakeware anywhere but at garage sales. she had a wit so dry you could towel off with it, she was not above eating an entire pan of anything by herself, and she hated fussy food. laurie was also a fan of english food. this invites giggles and eye-rolling from one’s friends, which, if nothing else, makes you stoic. my kind of chick. RIP, and I wish I could have met her. I can picture the two of us shamelessly downing a pan of roasted red peppers with garlic and oil.

jane and michael stern, formerly of Gourmet, presently of Saveur, wrote a column called road food. it took us readers with them as they crisscrossed the continent, finding rinky-dink holes in the wall that served incomparable food, usually home-style cooking. at their recommendation I ate off-the-bone tender chicken and dumplings in the backwoods of new york state, dense ice cream made from jersey cow’s milk at woodside farm in delaware (they called the vanilla ‘maximum moo’), and the lightest, crispiest fried fish sandwich served in a brown paper lunch bag at coleman’s fish market in west virginia. the owner didn’t believe in tartar sauce, saying it distracted from the flavor of the fish. I didn’t argue with him, and I am glad.

woodside farm's creamery wall.

I’ve always been a serious cook, eater and writer, but these three writers are my framework and the horizon I shoot for when I write. honest, fresh, clever–I hope I come close to what they have done.

on to publications.

Gourmet. I’ve moved a lot, and I always schlep my collection with me (1997-2007). the magazine was always wonderful, if a bit tweedy, but in recent years it has evolved into something great. now online only, it’s much more quirky and readable than it was in my parents’ day. they had a subscription for forty years (!) and I grew up eating Gourmet recipes.

Gourmet home runs: moroccan chickpea soup; salmon with wasabi and soy sauces; easiest thanksgiving turkey; zeppoles with orange zest (a childhood favorite).

Living. Martha’s…um…fastidious, and in my eyes, sometimes unnecessarily so (only light brown sugar! always strain the sauce!). but her staff is enormously talented, especially with sweets. I keep my collection of old Living magazines right alongside my Gourmets and have never made a Living recipe that I didn’t love…even if I always use dark brown sugar and don’t strain sauces.

Living home runs: homemade s’mores; cinnamon-rum ice cream; chocolate cinnamon babka.

martha's s'more. digging how the marshmallow kind of oozes down over the chocolate.

Joy of Cooking (1997 edition). mine has a cracked binding and the pages are loose in the yeast bread section. great stuff, basics and otherwise. this is the go-to for every comfort food and classic your little heart can think of, as well as the place to learn method. when I brought home local clams and didn’t have the slightest idea of how to cook them, this is what I turned to.

JOC home runs: hot cross buns; really gooey, sticky, dark gingerbread.

who and what do you read? curious.

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