Monday, November 30, 2009

Saturday Lunch

Saturday we decided to skip thanksgiving leftovers and go out to lunch at the Penn Avenue Fish Company. It's one of my favorite types of eating place: a fish market with dine-in tables, very informal, everything PERFECTLY fresh. Several of us had the special fish sandwiches -- mine was a thick piece of tuna with melted cheese on a crisp roll. Miriam and Alice had adult-sized portions of sushi. A couple of us had mussels too.

After lunch we walked around this interesting food, sports memoribilia, and tourist shopping district of Pittsburgh. It's known as "the strip." In an all-chocolate shop, we found Madecasse chocolate bars (which had been found excellent in a NYT review a few months ago). Also a vast number of other specialty chocolate bars (prices from $4 to $24 for a 2 to 4 oz bar!), special hot-chocolate mix, imports of various chocolate favorites and off the wall stuff like chocolate bacon bars.

This wraps up my long Thanksgiving blog post activities. We came back yesterday. Luckily the predicted rain didn't start as early as expected, so it was nice driving. Now back to prep for the next month of holidays!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Friday, November 27, 2009

Beautiful Soup

This year's day-after-thanksgiving soup included the stock (in progress, above), some leftover 3-grain salad (wheatberries, wild rice, white rice), carrots, and a bit of turkey.

Yesterday at the table

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


We celebrated Arny's birthday a little early (it's really next week). Evelyn, Tom, Miriam and Alice arrived just as we were finishing our share of the stuffed vegetables -- as depicted yesterday. Alice explained that she'd had some pizza at their rest stop already, though, so she just wanted bread and butter. Evelyn and Tom were ready for vegetables after the long and nerve-wracking drive on the crowded roads. We all ate chocolate mousse cake that Aparna had ordered from the local Saturday Bakery. Delia had been waiting to see them all day.

Pies in Progress

Elaine made two apple pies. I helped some. Aparna made a pecan pie. They all look really good!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Zingerman's bread from the bakehouse was a commission the family assigned us. The chocolate cherry bread -- Evelyn's request -- came out of the oven at 4:00, which was just before we got there. When I called this morning to find out the schedule, I learned that today they were baking 20,000 loaves. I assume it's at least the same tomorrow. We're ready!

Thanksgiving Weekend Begins Now

Tomorrow we plan to drive to Pittsburgh where we will have Thanksgiving dinner with Aparna, Joel, Delia, and all the rest of the family. I will post photos of the food as we make it, and of the festivities as we celebrate them.

Today I am making food to bring along. The photos show the Turkish stuffed vegetables that are cooling off before I put them in the refrigerator. (The recipes are from Binnur's blog, where you should look if you ever want a Turkish recipe.)

These are for tomorrow's dinner, along with some other things. I have a few more items to cook as well. Watch this space on Thursday, if not before!

"Cookies" becomes a French word

A funny thing happened around 20 years ago. American cookies were introduced in France by some commercial bakeries that I presume were trying to expand market share. (Maybe Mrs. Fields or other emissaries of the Chocolate Chip Cookie craze then blazing in the US opened a couple of kiosks somewhere first, I don’t know.) Chocolate chip cookies were totally exotic for French people. The word went with the item: French children asked for “un cookies” – that is, one cookies. They kept the plural ending on the singular word. I believe that the mass-market cookie bakers in France subsequently adapted all kinds of American cookie recipes. The French hate when American food creeps into their lives, so they’ve probably edited the cookies' origin out of their history.

Before that, French packaged cookies were called “biscuits,” and frequently sold in oblong cardboard packages. Quite a few varieties of them are now generally sold in the cookie aisle of American supermarkets by the bakery called LU and a few others. Petit Buerre for example are solid cookies (almost like teething biscuits), that aren’t very sweet. La Bastogne are cinnamon-brown sugar cookies, recently renamed for US grocery stores. Little Schoolboys (Petit Ecolier) are flat cookies with a solid chocolate bar stuck on top (delicious).

In artisanal bakeries in French cities, you could also buy expensive and beautiful little hand-made cookies. The famous Poilane (near where we lived on two long stays in Paris) sold wonderful sugar cookies called “sables.” In most bakeries you could get some variety of sables, as well as very thin rolled up wafer cookies like Pepperidge Farm ones from a can, but better. I’m not at all sure that French people baked cookies in their homes. They had very small ovens that would have a problem with a decent-sized cookie sheet.

I'm out of touch now. Next time I'm in France I look forward to all kinds of surprises.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Cookie People

I once met Famous Amos. He was at a store in downtown Ann Arbor called Jacobsons’. It’s been out of business for ages, but that’s not important now. He was a hip black guy who had just started a business baking home-style chocolate chip cookies and was trying to find an upscale market for them. Jacobsons’ housewares and china department offered a few gourmet items. SO much was different in those days I don’t even want to try to describe it. Anyway it wasn’t long until Famous Amos sold his little start-up to a mass market baking company that’s now no doubt a food conglomerate. And now he doesn’t seem to be an actual person any more than the Keebler Elf does. (I remember asking him why he was famous, and I think he answered "because I say so.")

Fig Newmans are named after Paul Newman, and he’s a real person who just died recently. (Fig Newtons most probably are named for a town in Massachusetts, not a person, but if they were named for a person it might be Sir Isaac.) Paul Newman’s unusual food company, which started with Newman’s own salad dressing and spaghetti sauce, has gone far. The company also makes sandwich cookies – sort of a better Oreo. I wonder if he was still alive when Newmans Own began to also sell cat food. That startled me when I saw it for the first time yesterday. But it’s probably an old old product. I digress from cookies.

Just one more name: Lorna Doone. A fictional person from a novel by R.D. Blackmore. According to my search of miscellaneous google links, Nabisco execs don’t have any record of the reason for naming this cookie, first produced in 1912.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What is not a cookie?

Some people may dissent, but I think cookies have to be shaped before baking, have to be sweet, and almost always have to be made of cookie dough. That leaves a lot of uncookies. I claim that the following are NOT cookies:
  • Strudel, biscotti, komish bread, mandelbrot, and other similar things are baked from dough on baking sheets but formed in larger-than-serving-size units before baking and cookiefied only afterwards.
  • I think the definition of shortbread is open -- it may be made in a perforated sheet and broken up after baking. But commercial shortbread like Walkers appears to be formed, then baked. Maybe yes, maybe no.
  • Brownies, blondies, and other bars are made from batter (not dough), baked in deeper baking pans, and cut into shape after baking. Bars are not cookies.
  • Cup cakes and petit fours are baked from batter in small cups or pans. Not cookies.
  • Technically, Snackwells devils food squares are like petit fours, but everyone thinks they are cookies, so I guess that makes them cookies.
  • Tiny tartes or tartlets are made from dough but are then baked in little tins. Not cookies.
  • Doughnuts are fried not baked. AND not cookie dough. So not cookies!
  • Biscuits, croissants, brioches, bread rolls, dumplings, twinkies, ho-hos, and other pastries are not made from cookie dough. Totally not cookies.
  • Candy is made from sugar syrup, marzipan, nougat, chocolate or other non-cookie dough materials, though candy sometimes resembles cookies in size, shape, and flavorings.
  • Candy-like substances may sometimes be used to augment actual cookies made from cookie dough. You could, I suppose, go too far with that. But I guess the Mallomar is still a cookie.
  • Cookie vs. candy classification may be challenged by something like those sticky balls of nuts, cocoa, graham cracker crumbs, and bourbon or rum that some people make around the Holidays. They probably are not cookies even when edible.

  • No matter what you do with fruit cake you cannot make it into a cookie.
  • Crackers are almost always savory or salty rather than sweet. More important: a cracker is often used as a platform for bits of cheese, meat, veggies, or spreads. Cookies are not used that way. A graham cracker is sweet but is eaten with cream cheese, peanut butter, or jam, so it’s not a cookie. No way.
  • Melba toast, chips, pringles, goldfish, and so forth are not cookies. Obviously.
For an intolerably complete definition of what cookes ARE, see yesterday's post.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What is a cookie?

You probably think you know a cookie when you see one. You know when something is a cracker, a brownie, etc. But did you ever try to define it? Don't ask me why, but I tried. Here's what I came up with:
  • A cookie’s dominant flavor is always sweet.
  • A cookie’s size is somewhere between one bite and one portion:
  • A cookie should not exceed a single portion. Super-sized cookies are often too big for one portion, but people eat them all at once anyway. Or share them. This may be a passing fad.
  • Some manufacturers sell abnormally small versions of well-known cookies like vanilla wafers or oreos. Whatever.
  • A cookie is made from cookie dough:
  • Cookie dough basic ingredients include flour or finely-ground nuts, sugar, leavening, sometimes egg, and sometimes butter, oil or other fat.
  • Special ingredients like oatmeal, peanut butter, fruit bits, nuts, liqueurs, chocolate chips, ginger, or vanilla allow for a huge variety of cookies. You know their names.
  • Cookies may have something like cinnamon-sugar, jam, or even a whole Hershey’s kiss added to the top or inside before baking. Think fig newtons, jam tots.
  • Macaroons and meringues are not exactly made from dough but are sometimes classified as cookies because they fit the rest of the definition.
  • Cookie dough generally holds its shape during baking, though the cookies may rise or expand.
  • Cookies are formed:
  • By rolling and cutting with a cookie cutter or a knife,
  • By dropping lumps of batter and optionally flattening them, or
  • By making a roll, chilling it, and making slices.
  • Shortbread may be an exception.
  • You know any other way? Oh yes, by extruding from a cookie press.
  • Cookies are baked in batches on a flat baking sheet.
  • After baking, a cookie may be iced, glazed, sugared, embellished with candy-like substances, otherwise decorated, or sandwiched with another cookie, but no size or shape changes to the cookie-as-baked are tolerated.
  • When served, a cookie is intended to be eaten as is – except if you are of the school that permits dunking, you boor.
Coming tomorrow: what is not a cookie?

Fall at the Farmer's Market

Another chicken that I ordered from Ernst Farm was ready for pick-up at the market this morning. A few farmers still have tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, and other summer produce -- I think they must have plastic or glass covers for these crops. Root vegetables, apples, cider pumpkins, squash, and cabbage are still plentiful. I bought my favorite treat: maple sugar candy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

An Old Guide to Paris

"Liberty, Equality, Gastronomy: Paris via a 19th-Century Guide" by Tony Perrottet describes a walk through Paris in search of restaurants and food shops of 200 years ago. His subject, Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière, wrote a series of guides called the Almanachs des Gourmands during the Napoleanic era. Grimod wrote of "delicatessens, pâtissiers and chocolatiers — including the first reviews of an alluring new institution called le restaurant." A slide show features an image (right) that has a chance of depicting Grimod along with several mouth-watering images of Perrottet's dining experiences.

Perrottet's article describes his recent week-long stay in Paris. He visited the Palais Royale -- back then, a gourmet hangout, now, not so much. He ate some meals in historic restaurants, and he searched for the former locations of no-longer existing food establishments.

Who was Grimod? His guidebooks, which appeared in 1805 and 1810, have never been translated into English, so he's little known to American foodies -- Perrottet explains:
Grimod wrote his guides at a pivotal culinary moment, when Paris was flush with money from Napoleon’s imperial conquests and establishing itself as the gourmet capital of Europe. Filled with celebrity chefs like Marie-Antoine Carême, who served in the royal kitchens of Alexander I of Russia and the future George IV of England and other notables while also writing several classic cookbooks, it was also incubating the new culture of the restaurant, named for the soups called “restaurants” (restoratives) that were initially the new dining places’ staple. Unlike the old inns and taverns where food of variable quality was laid out in a family-style buffet, restaurants offered patrons private tables and the chance to choose fine meals individually prepared. They became tourist attractions in themselves, vying with one another in their opulent décor and presenting Parisians with dozens of fresh and exciting dishes printed on menus the size of newspapers.
I was captivated by this article, which combines historic detail with enjoyable details of a modern visit to Paris. I haven't been there recently -- this makes me want to get back there. And while Grimod, as noted, doesn't figure in much popular food and travel writing, I've definitely heard of his books in reading more serious histories.

The article, available online, will be in next Sunday's New York Times travel section.

It used to be a big deal

We really kind of took the release of the new wine from Beaujolais as an event years ago. It was fun. The year we were actually in Paris, the wine stores had nice promotional posters taped up in the windows. “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!” they read. In the US, some wine came by air and you could get it right away and the rest came slowly by ship weeks later. (They've fixed that, I think, by putting it all on ships but making the sellers hold it back until the magic release date.)

Now it's just another wine. OK, it goes with turkey, so it's nice that it gets to the US just before Thanksgiving. But the other Beaujolais wines also go with turkey. They are more complex and interesting to drink -- and they aren't any more expensive, either. Wine snobs and wine ignoramuses have banded together to make it a non-event. The latter in fact seem to think that a "nouveau" is a variety of wine, not just a very young one. Even Wikipedia has a big article where you can learn the legend.

So here I am, a curmugeonly blogger on an obscure hobby horse about how things were better in the past. I'll get over it. And I did buy a couple of bottles to have over the weekend. We'll do something better to go with the turkey -- and blog that too.

AND an update on how some people maintain the big-dealness of it:
If there’s an art to balancing a plate of hors d’oeuvres, a fat glass of wine, a cell phone and shaking your bootie all at the same time, the guests at last night’s Francophone Fest had it down pat. Fueled on the just-uncorked harvest of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau and driving, multi-ethnic beats from all over the French-speaking world, party goers worked up a glow (chic speak for “sweating like a cochon”) on the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Ballroom floor as they danced the night away en français. [see Francophone Fest: Shakin’ it at the Roosevelt]

Monday, November 16, 2009

Road Food, 1934

I just read The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. (See Back to California Fiction on my travel blog for a report). Much of the action takes place in the Twin Oaks Tavern, "a roadside sandwich joint, like a million others in California." The narrator, Frank Chambers, a drifter, begins his story when he stops there after being thrown off a hay truck where he was stealing a ride. On the very first page, Frank orders breakfast from the Greek owner: "orange juice, corn flakes, fried eggs and bacon, enchilada, flapjacks, and coffee."

The enchilada almost immediately becomes an issue highlighting the ethnic tension that characterizes Cora, the owner's wife, who is central to the story. Immediately upon meeting her, Frank implies that cooking an enchilada means she's Mexican. She forcefully insists on her pure-white Iowa background.

Interesting California breakfast, 1934.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Vegetable Soup with Szechuan Pepper

When I ate a spoonful of soup with a couple of the Szechuan peppercorns in it, and chewed them a bit, they did taste like black pepper but not hot. And my tongue and roof of my mouth did feel slightly numb for the next couple of bites (but not like novacaine.) The soup -- with some home made chicken broth from the freezer, a little soy sauce, bok choy, celery, dried mushrooms, red bell pepper, and green onion -- was very nice.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

And now for something completely different

I'm immersed in my Chinese cookbooks (most of them antiquated!) looking for what to do with the dried mushrooms, Szechuan peppercorns, and baby bok choy from yesterday's expedition. I'm still enjoying the memory of the aromas and odors of the Chinese grocery store -- appealing spices, fresh vegetable stand smells, somewhat dubious meaty and fishy odors, even illegally tobacco smoke.

For variety, I also looked at the food section of the Guardian online and found that maybe P.G.Wodehouse was inventing authors for them. The article's headline:
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's teatime treats recipes
If you're tired of British teatime, you're tired of life – especially if crumpets, muffins, pikelets or farls are on the menu

Friday, November 13, 2009

"A Bitter Feast"

The author of A Bitter Feast, S.J.Rozan, spoke at the Jewish Book Festival this week about her latest book. I asked if any of her books had a food theme, and she recommended A Bitter Feast, starring her detective Lydia Chin, American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants.

Chin, a private investigator in her native China Town in New York, begins with a case involving attempts to unionize workers in a palace-like Chinese restaurant, the Dragon Garden. As the plot becomes more and more complicated, Chin eats elegant Chinese food, American deli food, home-cooked meals made by her mother, and appropriate tea snacks supplied by the various shady community figures that she interviews. She also shops for food to help her mother, who is aging.

For a while, Chin disguises herself as an immigrant and works as a Dim Sum Lady pushing carts of food around the Dragon Garden. She describes the preparations: "the chefs' assistants loaded us up with dumpling-filled bamboo steamers and plates of turnip cakes and upside-down glass bowls holding mounds of eight-treasure rice." (p. 123)

For the final scene, she plans to entrap the man suspected of various crimes. He agrees to meet her at another restaurant, so she arranges a six-course Chinese banquet, starting with a cold platter and ending with fried bananas (p. 270) The day of the banquet, the restaurant owner assures her that he's obtained the freshest of sea bass. Before Chin and her quarry get to taste any of it, an unexpected ambush and shootout bring the investigation to a close.

Finally, having solved her case, she accepts an invitation from her investigator-partner Bill Smith: he cooks her an American meal. The last sentences of the book: "The tomato-glazed meat loaf filled the room with savory scents. Bill began tossing the salad with a dark dressing full of herbs, and I started to look forward to dinner." (p. 308)

A very foodie book indeed. Beginning to read it this morning helped propel me to the Asian market where I shopped this afternoon -- see Reading about Chinese food makes me want some and Chop Suey and Chinese History. Rozan's new book also sounded very interesting, and I plan to read it eventually.