French cake a week – Gateau vatel

Gateau vatel

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962. I’m woefully behind with my French-cake-a-week series! Last week I didn’t make a cake at all, because it took us all week to eat David’s birthday cake. This week, I did make a cake, but I’ve been so distracted by little Clio that I haven’t had a chance to tell you about it. So here we go! In honor of little Clio and the Frenchness of the cake, we’ll begin today by discussing one of my favorite movies, Cleo From Five to Seven, by Agnes Varda. Varda was a member of the famous Nouveau Vague, and, in fact, Godard and Anna Karina appear in the movie in a sweet little film-within-a-film. The film tells the story of two hours in the life of Cleo, and is very nearly filmed in real time. It seems very simple…Cleo is a pop star, and the progress of the film follows her day-to-day activities. But she’s waiting for news about her health, and everything she sees and hears, every conversation she has, takes on significance and weight. In the end, she meets a stranger in the park, a soldier from the Algerian war. They connect on a simple human level – they’re kind to each other – and though you’ve only known Cleo for a short while, you can tell that this connection will change her.

All of the recipes in my French cookbook are cryptic and brief, but this was the most perplexing of all. It calls for hazelnuts, and tells you to peel them, but that’s it. The cake has very little flour, so I assumed the hazelnuts should be ground, which is what I did. Otherwise you’d have a sort of hazelnut omelete! As it is, the cake is very nice. It doesn’t have any butter in it, so it’s quite light and simple, but it has a pleasant sponge-cake texture, and the subtle, unmistakable flavor of hazelnuts.

Here’s Sans Toi, from Cleo from 5 to 7.

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Lacy crispy nutty chocolatey malt cookies and malted chocolate chip ice cream

Lacy chocolate-nut-malt cookie

I bought some malted milk powder on a whim the other week, and for a few days I put it in everything I made. I’ve always liked malted milk. I’m fond of mild, distinctive flavors. We have a small brewery in our town, and some days the air is full of malt and hops, which I find lovely! And, of course, the words “malted milk” made me think of Robert Johnson! King of the Delta Blues. Such a fascinating figure, as everybody knows. I can’t get my mind around his story, somehow. It’s so shadowy and full of myth, so full of beautiful, odd details that make him the legend that he is. He sold his soul to the devil; he learned to play guitar on dark nights in graveyards, aided by ghosts; he played facing the wall, away from the other musicians; he died young, in mysterious circumstances; he used a different name everywhere he travelled. It’s the real, human details of his life that kill me, somehow – if they’re true, and that we’ll never know. His mother was born into slavery. He was sent from home to home, as a child, and given a different name each time. His sixteen-year-old wife died in childbirth. And he travelled – he went from town to town, staying with a different, frequently older, woman everywhere he went. They must have cared for him, and taken care of him, in so many different ways. I’m fascinated by the idea of a rambler – of a person who can’t stay in one place for too long, who needs to be rootless and wandering. I just can’t imagine a life like that, which is what makes songs on the subject so appealing.

And Robert Johnson’s voice touches a nerve. It’s so plaintive, and somehow both human and haunting all at once. He uses it so beautifully – it’s wild but controlled. But it’s his lyrics which really throw me for a loop. Dark, mysterious, elemental, sexual, violent, cryptic, and oddly touching, all at once. I always feel like I know what they’re all about, but I have no idea what he’s saying. And, as with all great poetry, it’s that feeling of the words slipping in my brain that makes me want to hear more.

One of my favorites is Phonograph Blues, which starts

Beatrice, she got a phonograph, and it won’t say a lonesome word
Beatrice, she got a phonograph, but it won’t say a lonesome word
What evil have I done, what evil has the poor girl heard

And then, of course, there’s Malted Milk.

I keep drinkin’ malted milk, try’n to drive my blues away
I keep drinkin’ malted milk, try’n to drive my blues away
Baby, you just as welcome to my lovin’, as the flowers is in May

Malted milk, malted milk, keep rushin’ to my head
Malted milk, malted milk, keep rushin’ to my head
And I have a funny, funny feelin’, and I’m talkin’ all out my head

Baby, fix me one more drink, and hug your daddy one more time
Baby, fix me one more drink, and hug your daddy one more time
Keep on stirrin’ my malted milk mama, until I change my mind

My door knob keeps on turnin’, it must be spooks around my bed
My door knob keeps on turnin’, must be spooks around my bed
I have a warm, old feelin’, and the hair risin’ on my head

Malt chocolate chip ice cream

Which brings us back to malt powder. These cookies have almonds, hazelnuts, spices, chocolate chips and malt powder. They are very very crispy. The day I made them was extremely humid, and within an hour they melted. I’ve never seen anything like it! I put them in a warm oven for about 10 minutes, and they came out as crispy as can be. Both the ice cream and the cookies have chocolate chips that I processed for a minute or two, so they’re a little crumbly. Some chips stay whole, some turn to dust, and I like the contrasting textures.

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Zucchini, green pea, feta, & mint paté and zucchini with tarragon and hazelnuts

Zucchini green pea feta paté

It can be hard to stay cheerful when you’re a waitress. Many restaurant patrons are as needy and particular as toddlers, and they’re not always nice about making their needs known. I slip into horribly bitchy crankiness sometimes, as a mom and as a waitress, and it feels awful. On a good day, however, there’s a real joy in feeding people – even if it’s just the humble job of carrying their food to the table. People can be so endearing when they eat – the way they arrange their food before they put it in their mouth, the gestures they use to share with others at their table, even the particular care they use to get their order exactly correct can be as sweet as it is irksome. I like to see people eating together: some have so much to say they forget to eat, and others are either so comfortable together or so awkward they may not say one word through the meal. This weekend I worked with a very young woman, very quiet, very nice. An older couple came in and sat in her section. The man asked his wife what he wanted to drink – he’d forgotten. His wife knew (we all know! He gets the same thing every time.) The waitress came back to write up the order, and she said, “I love them!” Every little thing they said, the way that they knew each other so well they could finish each others’ sentences, all of it was making her so happy. I know what she means! I’d been feeling cranky about humans, that morning, but her love for this couple made humanity seem pretty wonderful. It reminded me of Alyosha, (still reading The Bros. K! Still reading) who says we should “…care for most people exactly as one would for children…” He’s trying, though he he doesn’t feel he’s altogether ready in himself. Sometimes he’s very impatient, and other times he doesn’t see things. I know what he means, too!

Well! We’re still getting tons of zucchini, and I’m trying to love that, too. Here are two ways to prepare it that both use herbs from our garden. One is simple, one a little more complicated. The paté being the latter, though it’s really not difficult to make. I’m calling it a paté because it’s nice on toast or crackers, but we ate it one night as a side dish, and it was good that way too. Feta, mint and peas seem like such a natural combination – so fresh and sweet and salty, all at the same time. This paté has some almonds in, which gives it a sort of country-paté texture. In the simpler dish, the zucchini is sautéed briskly in butter till it’s nicely browned but still has a bit of crunch. It’s mixed with garlic, tarragon and some toasted hazelnuts. A nice side dish!

Zucchini with tarragon and hazelnuts

Here’s King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with Workingman’s Blues

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Coleslaw with apples, sharp cheddar and hazelnuts

Coleslaw with apples and cheddar

Hello, my dears! We’ve been in Cape May for a few days. For those not familiar with Cape May, it’s a small town on the very southern tip of New Jersey. It’s a shore shangri-la! Unlike many places at the shore, it had a bit of shade. It has lovely gardens and shady streets, and it also happens to be a place that birds, well, flock to. You have your shore birds, of course, and you busy house wrens, with all of their chattering, sweetly bubbling drama, you have your migratory warblers. And I could swear I saw a magpie! Of course we don’t have magpies in New Jersey, but as the bird books will tell you, birds frequently accidentally or casually visit Cape May. I love the idea of an accidental visitor, especially if the visitor is a bird. We were casual visitors to Cape May, and we had a lovely time. Malcolm is a reckless & graceful water dog. If he sees the water, he must be in it, and he’s a natural at swimming in waves. Isaac, who can’t swim yet, is far more cautious. I worry that he’s absorbing my anxieties, because for some strange reason, for the past few years I’ve had a strange fear of swimming in the ocean. I didn’t used to be this way! I don’t like being turned upside down, and discombobulated. I don’t like my feet pulled one way, and my head the other, and my whole self powerless to keep my bearings. Well…you know what’s more fun than doing something you’re comfortable with? Doing something you’re a little bit scared of, but you know is fun. Malcolm explained how to do it. You watch the waves for a while, to understand their pattern. Then you walk sideways, feeling with your left foot, to the point where the sand drops off a few feet. Then…you…leap! I was so happy! It was a really heart-poundingly ecstatic feeling, being in the waves with Malcolm and David. The water was lovely, cloudy celadon green, the sky round and vast and clear. There were dolphins playing a hundred yards out. We were swimming in the same water as dolphins! If you stood with your arms out, and your toes just touching the ground, the swell of the wave would lift you gently and rock you, and you’d hang suspended and breathless, until it softly set you in the sand again. Sometimes two waves would come in quick succession, and you’d hover in the water, waiting to be set down, but delighted to be lifted up.

I could go on and on about it (and I probably will!) but it’s back to life, back to reality, back to work, so I’ll keep it brief for now.

I’ll tell you about this simple coleslaw. This is a nice summer salad, because it’s supremely easy to prepare, and it’s light and clean, but quite substantial, too. It’s good to take to the shore, because cabbage, apples and carrots all travel well in a cooler. Apples and sharp cheddar are a classic combination, of course, and they’re nice here with the sweet bite of cabbage, and the nutty crunch of hazelnuts. I dressed this really simply, with olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt and lots of pepper. You could get fancier, with maybe a little dijon or honey or lemon, but I think the grated cheese added enough creaminess that a traditionally creamy dressing would have been too much too much. Isaac called this the “white salad,” and he liked it a lot. First he picked the hazelnuts out. Then, when everybody else had left the table and we were cleaning up, I glanced outside and saw him finishing it up. He cleaned his plate.

Here’s Summersong from The Decemberists. And summer arrives with a length of lights!
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Lettuce – pumpkinseed pesto AND lettuce, hazelnut & white bean bisque

Or, two ways to prepare lettuce that don’t involve the word “salad.”

Lettuce, white bean, hazelnut soup

We’re watching Blues Brothers with the boys. It’s rated R, but we can’t remember why, so we’re watching it cautiously, with the remote nearby. Is it the non-stop swearing and the incredibly destructive car chases? Pshaw, my boys are used to that! We drive recklessly through a couple of malls a day around here. Actually, it might be a little rough for them, but I think they’re well aware that they can’t say all of the words that they’re hearing and that they can’t drive cars through store windows. What a pleasure to watch them watch the dancing and the singing, and all of the wonderful, contagiously happy music. It’s such a joyful movie! And I’d forgotten how sweet it is, in parts, and how good it looks. There are a few moments that have such a lovely, quiet grace about them, in the midst of all the raucousness. And, oddly, these moments seem to involve toast. In one scene, Elwood has just toasted a piece of bread in his small room in the home for itinerant men. His brother fell asleep, and he covered him with a blanket, and then sat in the window and looked out at the trains rumbling by in a watery blue light. Beautiful! Now, I love toast. I think it’s such a comforting, restorative food. The very smell of bread toasting can make you feel better. And I happen to have made a meal last night that revolved around toast! And lettuces, lots and lots of lettuces. We got about 7 heads of red leaf lettuce from the CSA, and I’m actually very excited about it. I love salad, as I’ve said many a time, but I also like the challenge of turning lettuce into a non-salad meal. We happened to eat two in the same meal last night, but they were both very tasty, so nobody seemed to mind.

Lettuce pesto

I made a soup with lettuce, hazelnuts and white beans. I seasoned it with tarragon, chervil, and lovage, and it was very flavorful. It was smooth, but not velvety, although you could certainly make it that way if you liked. I floated a small, plain toast in it, and it was delicious. The other non-salad lettuce item on the agenda was a lettuce, pumpkinseed, goatcheese pesto. It turned out very nice! Much milder in flavor than a traditional basil pesto, but it has the lovely, indefinable flavor of toasted pumpkinseeds, and a bit of creamy tang provided by goat cheese. We ate it with toast (again!) and a little bruschetta topping made from tomatoes, basil, french feta, and capers.

Here’s Shake A Tail Feather, with the Blues Brothers and Ray Charles. Doesn’t it make you happy?

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Eggplant pie with greens, quince, and hazelnut

Eggplant pie with greens, quince & hazelnuts

We started bird watching back in our courting days. We’d wake up as close to dawn as we could muster, we’d stop at Dunkin Donuts for some sweet coffee, and we’d listen to the Sudson Country radio show on the way out. Despite having been born in Kansas, I’d never listened to a lot of country music, and I’d never heard the classics. Kitty Wells, the undisputed queen of country; Lefty Frizzell, with his sweet, gentle voice; Hank Williams, with his twangy sass – they all seemed to fit, somehow, with our sleepy mood and the slanting morning light. Then we’d find our field or our trail, and we’d begin the slow, silent walk, stopping at every flutter of wings in the trees over our heads. It’s hard to describe the thrill of seeing your first yellowthroat, your first oriole, warblers, vireos…good lord – wood thrushes and veeries – with their hopeful, haunting songs. It boggled my mind that all of these birds had been here, all along. They weren’t new. I’d never bothered to look at them, I’d never taken the time to look up, and discover the teeming world in the tangled branches of the trees. We’d come home and write our finds in a little turquoise-covered blank book that I’d been saving for years for something special. Then we’d check each other for ticks. Birdwatching is a little like falling in love, in a way – you catch a glimpse of something bright and beautiful. You can’t believe it’s really alive, with its small warmth and its fast-beating heart. You’ve heard about it; you’ve read about it in your bird book. Other people claim to have seen it, but, frankly, you’re a little skeptical. You’re not convinced it even exists. Then when you’ve got it, you hold it in your sight, you know you’ll never understand it, but you try to identify it, this wild, fragile, lively thing.

We don’t have a lot of chances to go bird watching any more, what with children and real life and all of their demands. But we went on a lovely bike ride this morning, and it makes me happy to know they’re all still there. We can still catch a glimpse of a bird and know what we’re seeing. We’ll hear a sweet little song, or a hoarse call, and we know what we’re hearing. We’re still part of their world, and they’re still part of ours.

Eggplant pie

So! Eggplant pie! It’s got thin layers of crispy rosemary/balsamic-marinated breaded eggplant. It’s got layers of chard and spinach, sauteed with garlic and red pepper and mixed with quince jam. It’s got layers of crispy toasted hazelnuts, and it’s got layers of melted cheese. Odd combination, you say? Oddly perfect together!! All in a crispy crust. If I do say so myself (when have I not, eh?) it turned out really delicious. I think this would be nice for a party or a picnic, because it tastes good even when it’s not hot out of the oven, and it holds together well for carrying around with you. So you can take it for an evening-time picnic, and walk around with it as you look for all the birds that come out at in the gloaming!

Here’s Left Frizzell with I Love You A Thousand Ways.
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Deconstructed tapenade (With castelvetrano olives and french feta)

Deconstructed tapenade

Malcolm has standardized testing all week. These last few weeks he’s been working on essay composition. I decided to write this using the methods he’s been taught. Here we go…
“My goodness, look at those!” She cried, jumping back in surprise. [Narrative grabber] “Castelvetrano olives! I never thought I’d find them in a market so close to my home.” She bought as many as she could afford, and then her eye was caught by a creamy white cheese. “What’s that?” she queried. [Try not to use the words "said" or "asked"]
“Well,” responded the vendor, a short, pleasant woman with dark brown hair, [describe all the characters in detail], “It’s French feta cheese. Would you like a taste?”
It was the most delicious thing she’d ever eaten. [hyperbole] Creamy and juicy, with a nice salty edge, but much milder than Greek feta. She counted out her coins and bought a small slice.

There are several reasons I like castelvetrano olives. One is that they’re very pretty. They’re as green as serpents, as bright as spring grass, and as shiny as emeralds. [similes!] They taste so good, too. They’re have a very vegetable-y taste, they’re fresh and buttery and mildly salty. [List reasons and support with details and examples] I thought the feta would go very well with them, and as I drove home with little packets of each on the seat next to me, my mind whirred with the possibilities. I wanted to make a tapenade, but not puréed – I wanted to retain the taste and texture and pretty colors of the olives. I thought of all the things I could add. Tart cherries would add a touch of sweetness, chopped hazelnuts would add a bit of crunch, and tarragon and chervil would lend their intriguing lemon/anise zing. Plus they’re half of that band “Les fines herbes.” They’re the bassist and the drummer, I think.

To conclude, I love castelvetrano olives, and I was surprised to find them at a market near my home. I made them into a chunky sort of tapenade that had a lovely mix of flavors and textures. It was delicious on small toasted pieces of baguette. We ate every little bit, and I was tempted to lick the bowl! Who knows what we’ll have for dinner tonight? [The conclusion should restate what's already been said, in a slightly different way, but try to leave the reader wanting more with a takeaway ending.]

Here’s Chunky but Funky by Heavy D, to listen to while you chop olives for your chunky tapenade.
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Coleslaw with tart cherries. Or, a brief and muddled history of food photography.

The Guardian and the NPR website recently had articles about amateur food photographers. You know, those annoying people who take pictures of every meal they make and post it on every available social networking site, so that you just can’t avoid … D’oh! That’s me! I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize profusely to all of my friends who are not reading this because they started hiding my posts about six months ago when I began on this strangely obsessive blog.

The articles got me thinking about food photography over the years. It’s not a new thing to photograph food – in fact people have been painting pictures of food for centuries. Food is pretty! Food is inviting, and sustaining and necessary and temporal and symbolic. A meal can be so carefully and imaginatively prepared, so eagerly anticipated, so happily consumed. (And then comes the washing up.) I like the idea of crystalizing that one moment when everything is perfect, after all the work, before all the enjoyment. Before the creation of one person is shared with others. Photography’s great appeal is that it can capture a fleeting moment in a world where nothing is permanent. Everything passes, decays, or is consumed.

[I seem to have gone on and on, so the rest is after the...jump!]
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Paté en croute – vegetarian style

Pate en croute

This dish is so fancy! How fancy is it? Well, you’ve got your paté, and you’ve got your croute. That’s fancy! Can’t you just hear Mrs. Patmore saying, “Daisy, stop your daydreaming, and get this up to the grand dining room before Lady Mary collapses in her corset!” Of course, in that scenario, this would probably be stuffed with pheasants. Not here, my friend!

Break it down, and this isn’t hoity toity at all. It’s two of my favorite flavors together – roasted mushrooms & french lentils – mixed with ground almonds, ground hazelnuts, a bit of cheese and some herbs. And all wrapped in a peppery, flaky crust. Now doesn’t that sound good? And healthy? This isn’t hard to make, and most of the components can be made ahead and saved until you’re good and ready for them. I believe there are pans devoted to the preparation of patés. I don’t have one of those! I do have a nice loaf pan from ikea. It’s a little longer and thinner than your average loaf pan. In truth, any such loaf pan would do. This serves quite a few people, and it does seem special, so it would make a nice dinner party meal. But we had a nice weeknight dinner of it- thick slices of this concoction, roasted rosemary potatoes and a big salad.

Here’s Fancy Pants, by Count Basie and his orchestra.
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Arugula salad with asparagus and herbed hazelnut crusted goat cheese

Asparagus Salad

You know how they’re saying now that certain stores secretly monitor your buying habits? I have a suspicion that the grocery store is spying on my vegetable-buying patterns! Last week I just couldn’t bring myself to buy “winter” vegetables. I love you, cauliflower and winter squash, but enough is enough! So I bought summer squash, and eggplant. Well, I went back this week, and asparagus was on sale! Highly supsect, highly suspect! In all seriousness, I try to buy veggies that are somewhat in season. But I’m kidding myself if I think that the winter squash I buy at the grocery store was grown anywhere near here, this time of year. Right? So I bought the asparagus. Lovely, bright green, pencil-thin! I bought some baby arugula, too. What lovely, nutty, green flavors, so nice together! I lightly steamed the asparagus, lightly dressed the arugula with olive oil and balsamic. And then I made these little goat cheese croutons. I flattened little discs of goat cheese, coated them in ground hazelnuts, rosemary and thyme, and I toasted them for a few minutes, till they were brown and bubbly on the edges. Yum! I sprinkled some leftover hazelnut/herb mixture over for a bit more crunch. Threw in some grape tomatoes for color and sweetness, and that was it! A spring fever salad for February. Green and glowing!

Here’s The Carter Family with When Springtime Comes Again. Sweet and yodelly.