Welcome to 2011

Posted on January 2, 2011

For New Year’s day dinner, I’ll eat lucky food, like smoked pork chops, sauerkraut, lentils with bacon.

But resolutions?  I don’t really make them.  Instead I add more lines to the ever-evolving to-do list.  Get back into my third novel and work on it a little every day.  Finish painting the bathrooms.  Organize the small utility (and currently useless) closet in the kitchen into a pantry.

You’ll agree, nothing really out of the ordinary, in the promise or the method or the necessity.

I tend to work on the difficult, more nebulous, habit-changing promises, anything from stop biting nails to be a better parent, on a regular basis too.  I should clarify: work on them and sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, sometimes come up just slightly short of the ideal.  In short, I slog away at self-improvement day by day.  Like everyone else does.

One promise that I did make to myself recently doesn’t fit into either category.  So let’s call it enrichment.  I decided to read (or in some cases re-read) lots of good food writing.  To that end I have delved into Anne Willan’s definitive word on The Country Cooking of France.

This is not just a French cuisine cookbook; it is a French food culture book rich with history, excellent ingredients, and classic technique.  Willan is neither a Food Network personality nor a cookbook celeb.  What she is, is an authority: James Beard winner, Bon Appetit magazine title holder (Teacher of the Year), and founder of Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, Brugundy.  In short, the real deal.

If you are a lover of foreign cultures and/or French food, I think you’ll love her book.

The other book I’m reading is, perhaps, the Willan book’s polar opposite.  BakeWise by Shirley O.Corriher is the book for anyone who wants to know the chemistry of baking – from the perfect recipe formula to the protein structures of eggs and flour in cakes.

To be honest, I don’t always want to know these things.  This is not romantic stuff, and I have always loved the magic aspect of baking.  Cakes puffing up, bread rising, liquid changing to solid, solids melting away into luscious pools.  But I have been asked to give some local teachers ideas for teaching science through cooking, a brief seminar I’ll be leading next weekend.

And anyway, baking isn’t magic; it’s science, and Corriher gives you enough information to be able to assess your recipes for flaws, perhaps even tweak them into perfect examples.  She relates the stories of her own baking forays, starting with the creation of something less than wonderful and working her way toward the ideal.  The progression of flop to fabulous lends the science some relatable human interest.

The re-reads include Elizabeth David and Mary Frances Kennedy (M.F.K.) Fisher.

Both women were complex individuals, both were ahead of their times in their sense of adventure and travel.  However…I love M.F.K.  but I struggle with Elizabeth David, finding her at time to be a bit of a difficult personality.  But on reflection, after the re-read, I have come to appreciate the way David always spoke her mind.  If she didn’t like a meal or a cook or large food production corporation, she wasn’t afraid to say so.

Like these, reprinted from newspaper and magazine columns, collected in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine:

“But I still wonder what the Michelin organization thinks it is doing…One star is gravely and grossly overdoing it.”

“…of all the faults which turn me off a restaurant – surely I cannot be alone in this – meanness is just about the most unacceptable.”

“D. says the Camembert looks a bit shrivelled (sic). The waiter says something we take to mean that that is only because it has been in the fridge.  Perhaps we should have plumped for the sorbet. At least it wouldn’t have been any more icy.”

“Then there was the time I criticized a terrible restaurant owned by Lyons… My punishment was to return to the same restaurant with one of the directors…a genial host, but he couldn’t make the food any better.”

Today, food journalists don’t often have the luxury to be acerbic, while bloggers have the luxury of covering only the topics we wish to write about.  Elizabeth David experienced everything and then spoke her mind about it all.

My favorite M.F.K. Fisher volume is How to Cook a Wolf.  Part history, part personal tale, part cookbook, Fisher encourages cooks during times of rationing to cook with courage and adventure rather than with shortcuts and scrimping.  If life’s given you only a potato, she says, don’t leave it at boiled; boil it, then use that boiled potato to fill your home with the scent of baking bread.

Inspiration.

From “How to Rise Up Like New Bread” (How to Cook a Wolf , ©1942, 1954), here is

Hot Loaf

  • 1 pint milk
  • 1 boiled potato
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons lard (I used butter, a different sort of animal fat; but you could also try rendered bacon fat)
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 1 cake of fresh yeast, or 1 Tablespoon dried yeast
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • flour

Mash the potato and beat until light.  After the milk is brought to a boil, add the potato, lard, sugar and salt.  When the mixture is lukewarm, add the yeast (which has been dissolved in a little of the reserved lukewarm potato cooking water).

Sift in enough flour to make the dough soft and workable.  Then knead well, place in a large bowl, cover with a kitchen towel, and set aside to rise overnight.

Next morning, turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead 2 or 3 minutes.  Form into a round loaf, and place in a greased cake pan.  Let rise for 2 hours and bake in a 350 degree oven until a fine golden crust is formed.

©2011  Jane A. Ward