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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Corn Pudding

Christmas is behind me for the year so I am reflecting on the BIG change I made to my routine. On Christmas Eve, as is our tradition, we go to Steve’s mother’s house for the annual holiday get-together and dinner. Steve is the oldest of five, with four of them being guys and one girl. Only one of the brothers has children, or more significantly, grandchildren. We have gone most years since we have been married so it is as predictable as I imagine other people’s family gatherings are. The children are observed as getting older each year, as is their grandma. The Christmas tree changed from a real one to an artificial one a few years ago, and no one really objected, understanding the practicality of the fake version. Gifts are opened with great ceremony and exclaimed over. We used to gift everyone but as we all got older, including the kids, that practice fell by the wayside. At some point the decision was made to draw names and set a cost limitation. That has held down what was once a very lengthy gift-opening process. The dollar amount limit changes from year to year but also seems to stay manageable for the most part and in these economically uncertain times, that’s definitely desirable, if not necessary.

As we all know, celebrations are invariably based around special food and this is no different and adding the weight of Christmas gives it a particular flavor. For us, it varies between the familiar and traditional, the newer and the more “special” and only some of the food changes from year to year,


Meats like roast pork and ham have been the center attraction in years past as tastes and whims have dictated but it was turkey this year by popular demand. But some things are engraved in the proverbial “stone”. Grandma always prepares a traditional old world recipe of Dalmatian origin, a sauerkraut dish which includes tomato sauce and sausage, among other things. The adult kids have fond memories of, and expect good old American Jell-O salad which varies in style and color from year to year. We daughters-in law bring our own contribution to the feast and that too has evolved into its own custom, with some bringing versions of a favorite salad or a special dessert. This year was an exception as I brought a dessert. I typically take corn pudding.

I didn’t always take corn pudding. As a vegetarian I have a lot of really good vegetable recipes that make fabulous side dishes for a special meal, if I do say so myself. Braised artichokes, roasted root vegetable or tomato and fennel gratins and roasted cauliflower are some of my, and Steve’s, favorites.

I know ways to be adventurous with vegetables. In restaurants I invariably will try a new vegetable dish that catches my eye. In a recent visit to a new restaurant serving small plates, I sampled their roasted Brussels sprouts gratinee, which was delicious! Maybe not something I would make at home, but terrific to try out.

And as I get older, I enjoy some of the cooking process, some of the time. That is, I like the idea of cooking, exploring a new recipe, using fresh colorful seasonal vegetables and of course I love the anticipation of enjoyment, both mine and my guests’. So when I do any cooking other than the day to day, I want to be excited about it.

Suffice it to say that over the years I have tried various vegetable side dishes at the family events. It is accepted that as a vegetarian I am assumed to be something of an expert at the vegetable thing. That does not mean, however that anyone else is actually interested in vegetarian cuisine. Over the years my attempts to introduce dishes with obvious vegetables have met with everything from lukewarm success to downright rejection. How do you recognize rejection? That’s easy; at the end of the meal the serving platter is full of it. And while I could comfort myself with the thought that the leftovers were there to take home and enjoy the next day, it’s still uncomfortable since the idea of bringing a dish to share is that it must be shared. Otherwise no matter how much I try to blame their uninterested palates, basically it’s my failure.

I am very aware some recipes remain customary for the holidays. The seemingly beloved and venerable green bean casseroles, the ubiquitous pumpkin pie, the tarted-up marshmallow sweet potatoes typical of holidays have continued for reasons which elude me but seem to be obvious to everyone else. My rationale is that perhaps it’s because no one really objects to them, or it’s easier because they’re routine, as much as anything. Whatever, it doesn’t leave much room for creativity.


Which brings me back to the corn pudding dilemma At a company party some years ago the caterers served this dish, this corn pudding which I, and seemingly everyone else, really liked. Not realizing what I was getting myself into, I brought a bit of it home to Steve. Instant success! He loved it. So, I asked for and obtained their recipe. As it is meant as a side dish and the recipe serves 10, it was a while before I had a chance to try it. The first opportunity was the family Christmas. It is any easy recipe to follow and during busy holidays that was a plus. And, it was a hit with everyone. I was gratified since it was a then a new recipe to me and to them.. The following year at the holiday I brought a new and different vegetable side dish, a lovely and in my opinion, delicious butternut squash and caramelized onion tart. I became aware of the monster I had created when not only was the tart largely ignored, but several family members mentioned the corn pudding from the prior year. That impression was firmed up the following June when my brother in law had a birthday celebration and in response to my question, “what can I bring?” answered “your corn pudding”. Since then the corn pudding has been requested at most of the family gatherings. Seeing a pattern after the first time or two I have balked, yielding only for the holiday, where it became as much of a staple as, oh, green bean casserole.

On the plus side of this whole saga I do know that whenever I go to a potluck or any other type of gathering that needs a covered dish, the corn pudding is always a crowd pleaser. The other side of that is I am usually asked for the recipe by someone because, as with family, most everyone likes this dish. Still after disclaiming it, not wanting it to be known as my signature dish, I typically give it out. Because giving people food they enjoy really is not such a bad thing.

Sweet Yellow Corn Pudding

2 16 oz pkgs frozen corn thawed
1 16 oz can creamed corn
10 tablespoons butter melted
5 large eggs
¼ cup sugar
¾ cup flour
2 tsps baking powder
salt and freshly ground pepper

1) preheat oven to 350 degrees
2) combine the corn, butter, eggs, flour and baking powder in a large bowl.
Season with salt and pepper and mix well. Pour into a 9 X 13 buttered glass dish
and bake 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Note: you can add flavor/color with 1 cup finely diced red bell pepper and/or canned roasted Ortega green chilies if desired.
Serves 10

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Just Dessert

My sister-in-law Therese has assigned me dessert as my contribution for this years’ family Christmas Eve dinner. Actually I suppose I volunteered, mainly because I was tired of making my usual corn pudding, which is a whole other story.

I do like making and especially eating desserts but as I (we) have gotten older I tend to stay away from them because then I always have leftovers. How could this be a bad thing? Well, if it’s something that tempted me enough to cut a recipe out and then make in the first place, how can I not eat it until it’s gone? So for the most part I try not to collect dessert recipes no matter how appealing they look. I’m not always successful however, because there occasionally are circumstances where a good-tasting and pretty recipe is needed – family dinners for example.

You would think that most desserts would do – after all, it’s dessert! Not necessarily. Some years ago Steve and I had an amazing and unfamiliar to us, dessert in La Jolla at Trattoria Aqua. It was an outstanding conclusion to what had already been a great and fun meal which had started out with the then less familiar but no less delicious garlicky hummus which was served with the bread and probably enhanced by a nice bottle of wine. Semifreddo is a frozen confection that is very rich, having a lot of good things in it like cream and nuts and sugar. We liked it well enough that we looked for it other places but never saw it again on anyone’s menu. So we decided to learn to make it. We found a recipe and even bought a special pan for it and while a lot of the ingredients were easily obtainable, cream for example, some of the stuff, like dried citron, we had to hunt for. We teamed up and together went through all the detailed steps, creaming, chopping and toasting and such. It was a lot of effort but we thought it turned out brilliant. So acknowledging how distinctive it was but also how much trouble it was to make, we figured it was a special day dessert. The next event that came up fitting that description was Christmas Eve dinner, so we volunteered to bring the dessert. Putting our heart and soul (as well as lots of ingredients) into it, we did what we thought was an excellent interpretation of what we had enjoyed at the restaurant and presented it to the family as the dessert course. It was a beautiful creation and when served each slice was colorful and chunky with fruit and nuts. It also was, we found, a tactical mistake. Even though we got lots of comments, some of them appreciative, all things considered it seemed most would have preferred pie.

So this year when I take dessert I am keeping that in mind. With an opportunity to make something really special, I first thought of English trifle and other extravagant types of arrangements, but had settled on something more restrained. Something I thought to be simple, colorful and delicious. A cranberry upside down cake. Then I rethought it because even though it’s a delicious dessert, the presentation is not really as attractive as I thought a Christmas Eve dessert should be. So instead I have settled on my own style of pie – a galette or rustic tart. I floated the second choice idea to Steve (it is his family after all) who so heartily concurred I realized that he wasn’t really enthused about my first choice. Which is okay, I like galette and there is the added advantage of it being easy to make because the pastry dough can be made ahead of time, making it just an assembly and baking process.


Merry Christmas!

Rustic Cranberry and Apple Tart

Filling
2 large apples, peeled, cored, cut into
1/2-inch-thick wedges
2 cups cranberries, picked over
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 basic galette crust

Preheat oven to 375°F. Mix sugar, grated lemon peel and
ground cinnamon in small bowl.
Toss half of sugar mixture with apples and cranberries.
Sprinkle remaining sugar mixture over fruit.
Pile onto the crust leaving a 1 ½ in border. Fold border
over the fruit, crimping and pushing it against the fruit.
This border must act as a dam, preventing juices from
escaping while cooking. Dot the filling and crust with
1 1/2 tablespoons butter.
Bake until crust is brown and filling bubbles, about 1 hour.
Cool on rack.
Serve tart warm or at room temperature with crème fraiche/
whipped cream mix (1/3 to 2/3)

Serves 6.



Galette Dough


Ingredients
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbs. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
about 2/3 cup ice water
How to make: In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut in the chilled butter using a stand mixer, a food processor, or a pastry blender until the butter is evenly distributed but still in large, visible pieces. Add the ice water all at once to the flour and butter. Mix the dough just until it begins to come together (if using a stand mixer or a food processor, be especially careful not to overmix the dough). Gather the dough with your hands -- don't worry if you see streaks of butter -- and shape it into two disks. Wrap the disks in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Makes about 20 oz dough, enough for 2 open galettes or tarts.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tamales

I have to admit, I am not a big fan of tamales. For most of you that’s probably not a real problem. Maybe many of you have never even seen or eaten a tamale.

But many of us have a cultural background that mostly seems to be either about annual celebrations or about food and frequently both. So even though not a major part of my life, tamales have always been present. Over the years I’ve consumed a fair amount of them even though they’re not really my favorite thing to eat. So why then when the end of the year holidays approach, do I have this desire to make tamales?

It’s the tradition of course.

Tamales have a long history, far beyond anything to do with me. The tamale is recorded as early as 5000 BC, possibly 7000 BC in Pre-Columbian history. One version of the history has it that initially women were taken along in battle as army cooks to make the masa, or dough, for the tortillas and the meats, stews, drinks, etc. As the warring tribes of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures grew, a need arose to have a more portable sustaining food. Fast food, if you will. Due to the creativity of the women, the tamale was born. Tamales could be made ahead and packed and warmed as needed. They were steamed, grilled on the comal (grill) over the fire, or put directly on top of the coals to warm, or they were eaten cold. There is no record of which culture actually created the tamale but it is believed that one started and the others soon followed.
The tamale caught on fast and eventually grew in variety and with diversity unknown today. There were tamales with red, green, yellow and black chile, tamales with chocolate, fish tamales, frog, tadpole, mushroom, rabbit, gopher, turkey, bee, egg, squash blossom, honey, ox, seed and nut tamales. Also red fruit tamales, white tamales, yellow tamales, dried, roasted, or stewed meat tamales, bean and rice tamales, among others.
Over the millennia, all the varieties of tamales, which had been made from available ingredients and for local tastes, have been minimized to the most common. In the US mostly being red and green chili, chicken, pork, beef, chili-cheese, sweet and, of late, vegetables. What has also changed is the every- day occurrence of making the tamales. With the preparation being so labor and time intensive, tamales have become special occasion fare, now primarily made for holidays.

This tradition has persisted over the years, with women of a family working together to make the sauces and fillings, preparing the masa, and finally assembling and wrapping the tamales before steaming them in large pots on the stove. The process takes all day, with the preparation often starting
days in advance. It is virtually unheard of to make just a few tamales. In many cases, when they are made, hundreds are made at a time and young and old, family and friends, are invited to tamale fests to share and savor.

So, even though the food is important and appreciated, like so many food traditions it’s as much about the gathering together of family and friends.

In my particular family the tradition has been sporadic. In theory, we are the poster children for this type of activity; American born of immigrant parents. But the drive to assimilate in those early days for my parents created a situation where old country traditions were not as readily welcomed or embraced as they now are. Still, as we children came of age we had a desire and interest in reviving some of those old holiday customs. Some of my best memories as a young woman have to do with being with family and making tamales at Christmastime.

I use the word “making” advisedly. In those days I don’t recall actually making anything. My mother was alive then and as with any beloved family matriarch at these sorts of affairs, she was in charge. What that meant was that she had every step of the process organized. She was involved in all the phases from preparing the fillings to assembly of the tamales to the final steaming.

The filling, typically meat in a red chili sauce but also green chilies with cheese and other vegetarian variations, was prepared a day or two in advance. The masa, or corn meal was either prepared or purchased in advance. Panaderias (bakeries) and carnicerias (butcher shops) in ethnic neighborhoods stock up on everything, planning for Christmas tamale making in the same way that Jewish delis plan for Hanukkah and Passover. The corn husks, used for wrapping, were also purchased there and would have been soaked in warm water to make them a soft and pliable casing for the uncooked tamale filling.

In reality, those that showed up on the day of tamale making were mostly part of an assembly line. This consisted of a table or tables with several bowls of masa and filling, and stacks of cornhusks placed throughout for ease of use by several “assemblers”. The process was usually like this. Select one of the larger corn husks, place in the palm of your hand and evenly spread approximately a half a cup of masa across the middle width of the husk with the back of a spoon or a spatula, enough to smear thinly and cover all the surfaces except for the top and bottom that will fold. Then place roughly 3 heaping tablespoons of the meat and sauce, or cheese and vegetables in the center of the masa. The real pros, of course, have a sense of what is the proper proportion of masa to sauce, something learned only with experience, presumably. Then both sides are folded, one over the other, and the bottom of the husk folds up over those two folds tightly. Some customs have you fold the tamale lengthwise and tie both ends with strips of cornhusk which probably works as well but was not my mother’s way.

Tamales are then steamed in a large pot, layered in a criss-cross pattern in a way that leaves an opening in the center for the steam. When I was a child this process was accomplished by putting dishtowels in the bottom of the pot and keeping 3 -4 inches of water in there, allowing steam to rise. Now this is more easily done with a steamer basket, but the principle is the same. The tamales are covered with a damp kitchen town and the pot is covered while tamales steam, approximately an hour. Because the assembly process takes a while with volunteers coming and going, the making of the tamales lends itself to that sort of communal gathering. The seasoned tamale makers are able to talk and work while turning out perfect tamales every time. A skill I have yet to achieve. Oh I can talk and work, but my finished product shows it!

These days my sister Jeannie plans a regular tamale party in the early part of December. She has included friends as well as family members, many of whom are non-Hispanic so it is an interesting mix and frequently the first exposure of many to tamales or tamale making. My non-Hispanic husband Steve likes to kid that the men know their role in this whole process. That is to stand around in another room, equipped with a bottle of Mexican beer and occasionally pop into the work area and ask “are they done yet?” In reality one of the best tamale makers in the family is brother-in-law Jess, who whips them out with the best of them. It’s always obvious by looking at the tamales who was responsible for each one. The perfect even ones are made by Jess, and my older sisters Cora and Isabel. The lumpy, uneven, misshapen ones come from everyone else, including me.

The workers need to be rewarded though so we do not wait until all the tamales are completed before cooking them. As soon as there are enough to fill a steamer, the cooking starts. Then when all the assembly is complete, which is when all the ingredients have been used up; there will be food to eat.

As with most of these types of get-togethers, other food is brought to the party by various family members and also provided by the hostess. Casseroles, rice, enchiladas, salads and other good things add to the enjoyment, with the centerpiece always being those tamales.

Everyone who comes, whether they helped or not, gets to take home some tamales. Which brings me to the old days when the tamale queen was my mom. I never had to do anything. I just got to stand around, eating and drinking and visiting with relatives. At the end of the evening my mother would have my tamales all packed up, waiting, for me to take them home for another day’s enjoyment. I sure do miss those days.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Magical Honey Cake

Being a creature of habit and also of tradition, this time of year I typically bake some small thing to give to neighbors and friends. It has varied from year to year, but usually ends up being the types of goodies like cookies or breads you might expect. Quick breads taste good but also are popular gifts for a reason. They’re easy and relatively inexpensive, having not too many ingredients and perhaps more importantly, given that it’s a busy time of year, they’re quick.
Since I am not gainfully employed, you’d think I have all the time in the world to explore the world of exotic cooking gifts but not the case. The holidays fill up for me as they do for everyone, with all the normal routines plus special holiday events. So even though I have good intentions for making really special goodies to gift people with, I usually run out of time and then fall back on tried and true. The last few years I have given out mini loaves of Wine Cakes. This is a recipe attributed to Nancy Reagan when she was wife of the Governor of California. Somehow I can’t picture her puttering around the kitchen baking, her of the size 0, but who am I to say she didn’t?
Wine cakes sound more interesting than pumpkin bread, but in fact are easy and quick so an easy fallback recipe. Then last month I spotted a recipe in the LA times for Magical Honey Cake. Don’t you just love the name? I do and so this holiday I am inflicting an untested recipe on my unknowing recipients. Basically, I am trying it because of the name and because once in a while you have to stretch your culinary muscles, even just a little. The "maturing" process in this recipe is a new one for me but I'm willing to see where it goes.

I’m hoping I will love it and the beneficiaries will too.

Magical Honey Cake
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, plus 7 days maturing time for the loaves

Servings: Makes 3 loaf cakes, or 6 mini loafs
Note: The cakes should mature for seven days before serving. Try this recipe with
any of a variety of honeys; the flavor notes of the honey come through nicely as the
cakes mature, making this recipe well-suited for more robust and unique honeys such
as chestnut and acacia. If you don't like the taste of coffee in your honey cake, replace
it with 1 cup of strong dark tea.

6 cups plus 3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 heaping teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 cups honey
1 cup canola or olive oil
4 eggs
1 cup strong coffee
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup raisins
2 cups chopped walnuts

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine the flour, sugar and cinnamon in a large bowl. Add the honey, oil and eggs and beat
into a smooth batter with a whisk or mixer.
3. Stir the baking soda and then the coffee into the batter. Gently fold in the raisins and walnuts.
4. Pour the batter into three (9-inch by 5-inch) glass loaf pans and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the tops of the cakes are risen and golden, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
5. Place the loaf pans on a rack to cool slightly; remove the loaves to cool completely. Tightly wrap the loaves with foil and place in a cool, dry place (not the refrigerator) to mature for 7 days.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bonnie’s Birthday dinner

Today is daughter Bonnie’s birthday and it got me thinking and reminiscing. There are as many different ways of celebrating birthdays as there are, well, birthdays. If we are fortunate and are indulged as children, we imagine that everyone has birthday parties. We expect them regularly and assume they’re always fun. It’s only as adults that we discover that childhood had particular joys that are not necessarily available automatically now.

So we make our own celebrations; tasteful dinner parties, blowouts at sports bars, or intimate dinners at nice restaurants. Or we just choose to ignore the whole thing, regarding it as just another day, just another number.

Over the years I have pretty much done that kind of thing for my own birthdays, although I admit I admire the people who take bold steps to reclaim their day and celebrate in their own distinctive way. In recent years my daughter Bonnie became one of those, having instituted a tradition all her own. She throws herself a birthday party, deciding on a theme, inviting all the guests, doing all the planning, shopping, cooking and decorating.

This is not a minor project. She frequently has anywhere from 12 to 40 guests. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area, many miles from where she grew up in Southern California. Like many of her generation who remained single, she has, over time gathered a congenial group of friends that are like family.

I started hearing about her parties a few years ago when she would mention them in passing during phone conversations. Since her birthday is situated right between two major holidays, she usually did not come “home” for that day, choosing instead to come on Thanksgiving or Christmas, if at all. A few years ago, after a year or two of hearing about the dinners in response to “how was your birthday?” I became intrigued; I felt I needed to go there and see what it was all about firsthand.

Exercising mom privilege, I requested, and received, an invitation, and up to the Bay area I went. At that time she lived in Berkeley in a cooperative house, which is not as remarkable there as it might be elsewhere. Her particular one had eight residents, all adults, all well-educated as you might imagine in a university town. Most were employed in good works of various sorts, helping professions and environmentally positive lines of work. The house figured prominently in the life that Bonnie led and still leads in the sense of being a sustainable lifestyle with people not using up more of everything, including space, than is needed. Of course Berkeley being a university town in addition to being in the Bay area and therefore an expensive place to live also weighed in. She moved there a few years ago to go to graduate school. During that process, she had tried various types of housing situations, giving the impression that some were more congenial than others. But each move and situation she found herself in meant she made additional friends. After getting her degree, she decided to settle there; in great part I am sure, because of those friends and bonds that were forged.

For my part, I love the idea of cooperative living. You have a built-in support system without having to be born into it or marry it. And to my mind, any differences that need to be overcome are the essence of any relationship. Bonnie’s situation seems to bear that out. While she has not confided all details of the issues involved in living closely with such a diverse group of individuals, she mentioned an incident or two that allowed me to believe that it was necessary to maintain a certain amount of flexibility and tolerance to be there.

But when it came to throwing parties, there are built-in guests and participation, and that’s a good thing. My first exposure to the birthday bash reminded me of a big extended family where everyone gets into the kitchen and has a part in making of the celebration. But I get ahead of myself.

On the first Bonnie Birthday I participated in I arrived in Berkeley midday on the birthday. Had it been my celebration, my event, I would have had all the shopping done days ahead and would have probably already made some of the dishes that didn’t have to be served hot. And, the house would have been cleaned and prepared for guests by no later than the night before. That would be my inclination and what would seem natural and right for me.

Not that kid. I drove up to her house and after the welcoming and hugging, she showed me my room, actually her room. She was sleeping in the room of another resident who happened to be out of town, and who had given permission for his room to be used that way. After I dropped my suitcase she said, “Let’s go shopping”. “For what,” I wondered, though not out loud. I knew better than to ask. So off we went and I was introduced to Berkeley Bowl, a store that originally started out in a vacant bowling alley and moved to its current location which, although it is a former Safeway store, still has that bowling alley feel. To call it a grocery store is to underestimate it and is almost disrespect. It’s a cavernous emporium of any kind of food you might want, organic and not; fresh fruits and vegetables, bins of flour, nuts, cereals and beans, to name a few. Along with a lovely selection of cheeses, all kinds of olives, a fabulous bakery and artisanal bread section, comprehensive selections of wine and beer.
As if that wasn’t enough, there is also a deli with hot and cold foods, all the usual and the unusual. It was overwhelming! It’s to be expected, of course. Berkeley is after all, the home of the renowned Alice Waters, sometimes called “the mother of modern American cooking” for her pioneering practices in what is called the fresh food movement. Berkeley is home to an area referred to as “gourmet ghetto” because of the number of great places for food. My personal favorite is The Cheese Board, a cooperatively owned cheese and bread store which is right across the street from Waters’ famous Chez Panisse restaurant. More to the point perhaps, Berkeley has lots of restaurants, bakeries, and delis that are not famous, but are still head and shoulders above what you might typically find in many cities. That a place like Berkeley Bowl exists and is so well-received here speaks well for the quality and selection of their products.

Back in the store, since I had not yet eaten lunch and we were under time constraints, I found a fresh tasty bun in the bread section to nibble on as we started shopping.
Bonnie discussed her theme and we consulted on the various choices and items she had on her grocery list. I made a few suggestions, and off we went. Fruit, flour, nuts, cheese, vegetables, all were quickly selected and tossed into the cart. I donated some nice and reasonably priced wine which I imagined would add to the festivities. Leaving there loaded down we still made another couple of stops, purchasing items we hadn’t (surprisingly) found at Berkeley Bowl.

By now it was late afternoon and, after stopping at Peets Coffee for a takeaway of good strong coffee, we returned to her home, the co-op.

The co-op is a large three-story house built about a hundred years ago as a single family house. It has eight bedrooms, five bathrooms, a guest room, a huge music room with large windows on three sides, a large dining room, living room and the sort of generous kitchen you might imagine was needed for a family and house of that sort. The kitchen is located in the back of the house and has large windows looking out to a spacious yard. It is equipped with a terrific 6-burner O’Keefe & Merritt stove with two ovens, a modest looking pre-curser to the extravagant and costly Viking and Wolff stoves of today.
We arrived with our supplies and as we carried them into the house encountered a couple of the other residents who then went out to the car to help carry in the rest of the groceries.
I was introduced and going into the kitchen, found a stool in one corner to sit, sip my coffee and observe the unloading and organizing of the foodstuffs. By then it was around 5:00 and Bonnie moved into high gear. Other residents and friends arrived and when they volunteered were each given a task. And there were plenty of volunteers. This was not a shy group, nor were they unwilling to pitch right in, even if they didn’t know anything about the dish they were assigned to.
The menu was varied, with all food groups except meat included. The house was not vegetarian but my daughter and several members were, and the meat-eaters among the group were tolerant and tolerated, this being Berkeley and all. There was a green salad with pecans, cranberries and pears. A Tian, made with a base of red and yellow peppers and caramelized onions and layered alternatively with small rounds of tomatoes, eggplant and yellow squash; festive to look at and really tasty too. I say that with assurance since it’s my recipe. And, as the source, I was called into service to produce it, or actually two of it, due to the size of the guest list. Butternut squash soup, a cheesy lasagna and home-made bread rounded off the menu.
As we got going all around me people were chopping, mixing, sautéing, whipping or otherwise making themselves culinarily useful. The feeling was convivial and the noise level was loud. Bonnie was in the center of it all, mixing her bread and answering questions and occasionally assigning newcomers to a task, or reassigning as needed. I sat on a tall stool and sipped wine, watching and listening and only occasionally contributing to the din.
Guests started arriving for the festivities and in typical Bonnie style, everything was running late. No problem here though. The guests busied themselves where needed, or set out their own contributions of snacks, or wine and just became part of the hosting, opening the door and greeting other arrivals as they came in. It seemed almost holiday-like.

Even with a guest list of 20 or more, Bonnie preferred a sit-down dinner arrangement thinking it more congenial to conversation than a buffet. So as time went on and we grew closer to being ready to serve, a few people were directed to accumulate and move chairs and tables into proper seating arrangements in the only room adequate for the purpose, the living room. Sofas were shoved to one side, tables were set end to end dressed in tablecloths and candelabra were placed and lit down the length of the tables. With a fireplace anchoring one end of the seating and the large bay window on the other end, the makeshift seating was surprisingly elegant.
By 7:30 the first hors d’oevres of nuts, cheese and bread, along with wine and other beverages were being enjoyed. Good smells wafted out of the kitchen and it seemed everyone’s appetites were sharpened. At least mine was. By 8:30 or so the snacks were pulled aside, the table was set and we placed a multitude of hot dishes all along the table and everyone who wasn’t already seated did so. Someone said a cheerful and heartfelt “grace” and then the food was passed around the table. Conversation, along with the wine, flowed easily. Sometime later, after the food was decimated, the dishes were cleared and a birthday cake was presented in the traditional way, with lit candles and singing. The large sheet cake, a delicious multi-flavored creation, was a gift from a friend of Bonnie’s who obviously excelled in baking.
I was touched to hear myself included when the birthday song was sung. Bonnie’s and my birthdays are only a day apart and she had thought to mention it and her friends had remembered to include me.
At some point I started fading and, saying my goodnights to the young people, headed upstairs to bed. The party could go on without me and go on it did, far into the wee hours of the morning. A tribute to a good time being had by all.

My special gift was in seeing how many of her friends hold my daughter in high esteem. Expressed in many ways, it was obviously heartfelt and sincere.

Early the next morning I was gratified to see that all that attention that had been focused on the cooking and celebrating had also turned to the cleaning up. The kitchen was immaculate, with everything from the dishes and cookware to recyclables and composting materials all in their allotted place. I probably shouldn’t have been noticing stuff like that but, I am the mom, after all.


Vegetable Tian
Even people who aren’t confirmed vegetarians love this dish.

Ingredients
3 medium sweet onions
4 Japanese or 1 medium eggplant
3-4 summer squash
2 lg red & yellow peppers
5 medium tomatoes
½ cup basil leaves chopped
5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp crushed red pepper
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions
Peel and slice onion, cut peppers in half taking out seeds and ribs and julienne. Heat some olive oil and cook the onion until wilted, 6-8 minutes or so. Add peppers and pepper flakes and cook another 10 minutes or until soft. Add garlic and sauté, add basic and salt to taste. Spread in a shallow lightly greased 13” X 9” gratin or baking pan with sides. Set aside.
Cut eggplant, squash and tomatoes into rounds about ¼” thick. If eggplant is large, cut into quarters, if tomatos are large cut rounds in half. Starting with eggplant, make a row of slices slightly overlapping each other along one edge of the pan. Next, make a row of overlapping tomatoes that overlap the eggplant, then squash. Each row should be the same color and overlap the previous row the 2/3. Keep repeating rows in the same order until the pan is filled. The vegetables will shrink as they cook so it’s important to overlap. So the finished dish is not thin and spread out.
When you have finished sprinkle the tian generously with salt and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Then cover with tinfoil.
Can be refrigerated at this point several hours ahead.
Bake covered Tian at 375 degrees F, check after 15 minutes and gently press down the vegetables with a spatula. After 30 minutes remove the foil and press down again with the spatula. Drain off any excess liquid and return to oven and bake for at least another 15 minutes. Check again during that time and press down again with the spatula.

The Tian is done when the vegetables are cooked through, approximately and hour.
May be served warm or at room temperature. To serve, cut into squares and garnish with basil.
Serves 4 – 8, depending on whether used as a first or main course.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving
Family meals in concept and in reality invariably have some significance to everyone. Ideally the notion of family meals evokes all sorts of pleasant feelings. Although I have no doubt that some would argue that, having had unhappy or at least, less agreeable experiences. That wouldn’t be surprising since either subject viewed alone, food or family, has great power.
Food gathers my three sisters and me. We all live close enough to each other to be able to meet semi-regularly. In Orange County these days that means not having to drive for over half an hour, at least that what it means to me. When we get together it’s typically for breakfast. Conversation covers a range of topics, the weighty as well as the meaningless (fashion comes to mind). But it always flows easily in the way of families who have come to accept each other as they are and are comfortable with that knowledge. One recent day at breakfast sister Isabel mentioned that her daughter Erin had once commented, “have you ever noticed how in so many of the pictures we have of the family, there’s food”. All of us laughed, and I quipped, yeah - it’s always about the food, isn’t it?
Even though I dismissed it then, thinking how obvious a comment that was, it did get me thinking. So later on I went into my photo albums to do my own “research”. Sure enough, there I am smiling into the camera with my husband out at anniversary restaurant meals. Or with friends at special occasion dinners, or again with my sisters at breakfast or lunch out. There we all are at Mother’s Day celebrations, centered around a buffet, of course. And that’s not even including major holidays which, if Hallmark hadn’t already marketed them would be sponsored by camera makers or food purveyors. Oh wait, they are, aren’t they?
Major holidays bring out the food and foto connection big time. Not only do we take pictures of each other, we take pictures of the food too. so when I think about major holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Fourth of July, sure I think of events and family members, but I also remember the food.
Thanksgiving in particular is the food appreciators’ World Series/Oscar Night/Olympics all folded in to one great feast. Media images depict beautifully set tables, loaded with myriad offerings, centered around the roast turkey, or other showy main course. Money is spent, effort is made because great attention is paid. Many of the contributions are the crème-de-la-crème of that person’s culinary repertoire. And, yes, sometimes there is some of that, too.
In times past, when we were all families with young children, my brothers and sisters, seven in all would all get together for Thanksgiving. With young children we were still in the position of controlling their whereabouts, and we were still able to all fit into one house. The rooms were full, kids playing board games or playing outdoors, thanks to our temperate California weather. Husbands and brothers watched endless sports on television, and we women were in the kitchen, ostensibly preparing food.
Since the food mostly had been prepared prior to going there not much had to actually be done so it was a time to be enjoyed. We mostly clustered around the table, drinking wine or other beverages and catching up on our lives. Our table wasn't quite like the idealized pictures in magazines. There was more of a jumble of dishes, but there’s no denying the beauty and attraction of the food. In those days we all had our own specialty to contribute to the annual coming-together feast. I was a relatively new cook in those days. Between attending college classes and raising two kids, I still had managed to read a few recipes that appealed to my sense that food was more than just sustenance. I learned to make quiches in the days when it was declared “real men don’t eat quiche” which was only true until they learned quiches were basically cheese and eggs in pastry. Although for the most part my contribution to family parties and what I came to be known for was quick bread. Zucchini bread, carrot bread, cranberry bread, pumpkin bread and so on. Others also specialized. One sister-in-law brought fabulous flaky-crusted home made pies, another would bring that ambiguously named buffet dish, ambrosia, with mini marshmallows and canned pineapple and tangerines. There was the ubiquitous turkey and potatoes, sweet and otherwise, and various types of salads and side dishes. Usual for us but not as typical were things like chicken in mole sauce, a somewhat spicy Mexican dish customary for family occasions such as this, and “Spanish” rice or as we knew it, arroz. My oldest sister Isabel’s special contribution was a dressing that was a meal in itself, because of the many ingredients and also because it was so good we probably could have just had that and been satisfied. It was a recipe she learned from her husband’s mother early in her marriage which had become a favorite with our family. Thinking back, I now understand that since her children were part of the occasion she included it as her own nuclear family tradition, one to which they were entitled since it came from grandparents from their other side. No matter. I always thought of the dish as being part of our family celebration. It was the best dressing I had ever tasted. Thankfully, it is second nature to make extra for a large group so that no one leaves the table hungry. It soon became apparent that we all wanted more of that fabulous dressing than we could eat there, so in later years Isabel would thoughtfully make extra so we could all take some away, even stocking up on those disposable aluminum pans in which we could carry away and reheat our bonus.
There are so many things to look back upon fondly about those times; children small and as yet untroubled by time. Parents still present and part of daily life, and the feeling of life yet to be lived. Less poignant but gratifying in a different way, I have to say one of the things I miss are those go-packs of that special dressing that were so enjoyable the day after. Combined with a sliced cold turkey sandwich made with white bread, mayonnaise and sliced tomatoes it truly was, ambrosia.

Isabel's Holiday Dressing
Since this is one of those recipes that was passed down by doing, and typically was made in a large quantity, this is an approximation of the original.

½ cup slivered almonds - toasted
1 cup golden raisins soaked in water to soften then discard water
4 oz yellow chilis from a jar & their juice, dice 1 or two, leave the rest whole
and remove after the baking.
8 oz frozen peas-thawed
4 carrots diced-cooked
4 cups chicken broth- enough to moisten the dressing
2 cooked chicken breasts – shredded
2 pickles diced
4 stalks celery sliced
½ lb brown mushrooms sliced
1 large onion diced
½ cup pitted kalmata olives
1 lb small new potatoes, cooked and diced small
1 box bread stuffing mix

Saute the celery, mushrooms, carrots and onions in small amount of olive oil. Combine
with other ingredients in a 9 x 13 baking pan, dot top with butter. Bake at 350 for approx
1 hour or until browned.

Serves 6 -8, depending on appetites

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gastro-musings
It's the weekend before Thanksgiving and this time of the year, perhaps not surprisingly, every casual conversation seems to turn to the dinner preparation. I’ve noticed that men more than women frequently have some sort of special way they prepare the turkey. It seems for many, their once-in-the-year time to show off their culinary prowess. Or maybe it’s more of an unconscious throwback to hunting days of old. Although turkeys seldom appear in their natural state in stores in California, still they do look kind of big and game-bird like. The way I've heard it, these days turkeys are deep fried, salted, grilled and jerked, along with the more conventional roasting.


In a recent conversation with friend Tom, he mentioned his turkey preparation which consists of somehow placing the stuffing under the turkey skin, thereby keeping it – turkey and stuffing – moist while it roasts. Tom is the bartender at The Quiet Woman, a Corona Del Mar restaurant and something of a landmark, and this conversation took place over drinks so I can’t be certain of all the details. Suffice it to say that he had a very specific recipe for his Thanksgiving bird.
Conversationally, my contribution was a mention of a side dish I made for last years’ dinner and will prepare again this year because it was so fabulous. When I said root vegetable gratin it got Tom’s attention as he is interested in cooking and although not a strict vegetarian enjoys good veggie preparations. Now he wants the recipe. So here it is for Tom and anyone else that might want it. It’s seasonal, colorful, easy, can be prepared ahead of time through step 1, looks grand and tastes even grander.
And after having it, like with so many of these types of foods, I always wonder why I limit it to the holiday, why not have it all year?


Enjoy!


Root Vegetable Gratin
Makes 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients
· 1 pound carrots, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
· 1 pound new potatoes, quartered
· 1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
· 1 pound rutabaga, peeled and diced
· 2 tablespoons olive oil
· 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
· 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
· 1 cup cream
· 1 cup cubed fontina cheese
· 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
· 1 tablespoon finely grated Parmesan cheese
· 1 tablespoon breadcrumbs
Preparation
1. Preheat oven to 400. Place first 4 ingredients into a large roasting pan. Drizzle with olive oil, add sea salt and pepper and toss to coat. Roast vegetables 1 hour 10 minutes or until tender.
2. Transfer vegetable to a lightly greased 13-X-9 baking dish. Stir in cream, fontina, and ½ tablespoon parsley, sprinkly top with parmesan, breadcrumbs and remaining ½ tablespoon parsley. Bake 10 minutes more or until bubbly. Serve hot.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Julia Child and Me

I need to make one thing clear. I am not a groupie by nature. I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a fan club. I will admit to writing an admiring or appreciative letter or two over the years; always to different people and never more than once. And on those occasions only because I believe that if someone is doing something you believe in you should let them know.
But, Julia Child was in a class by herself. If being accomplished wasn’t enough, she seemed like the kind of person you would like to know. For me, that impression firmed up when I saw her on a TV show sharing space with Martha Stewart., that perfectionist/upstart.
Julia, just by being her natural Julia self, stole the show. It was a holiday show, leading up to Christmas and all the special preparations that seem to be required. Both cooks created their particular version of a croquembouche, a holiday confection made up of profiteroles or small cream puffs arranged in tiers in a pyramid shape to resemble a Christmas tree. The profiteroles from each were fairly similar. It was the final assembly that differed. And it couldn’t be more different! Martha’s creation was stacked with geometric precision into a perfectly shaped inverted cone. Julia’s may well have been tossed on from across the room, so casually was it assembled. It approximated a tree shape but with nowhere near the exactness of Martha’s construction. The finish to that dessert is typically a caramel coating that serves to hold it all together as well as providing the signature crunch. Julia finished hers off with some trailing ribbons of snow-like icing, then moved on to other things. Martha continued to embellish her confection with colors and fanciful décor. Even the plate it rested on had to be a certain style and positioned just so. In my imagination I saw Julia out of camera range and already digging into hers, perhaps with a glass of champagne.

My appreciation of this woman wasn’t just based on small remote glimpses, or even on her fabulous cooking mastery And as compelling as her life story was, of a plain American girl that became a war correspondent and then went on to challenge the male-dominated world of gastronomy, that wasn’t the reason I held her is such high regard. Well not the only reason anyway. Mostly my admiration was because here was a woman who had found her passion in mid-life, worked hard at it and carried it off so fully. That her version of this involved food, rather than say, the Iditarod, just endeared her even further. We can all relate to food.


And unlike many celebrities or others in high positions Julia was available. I felt I knew her, perhaps not as a friend, maybe more as an acquaintance. We had attended the same Saturday farmers market and exchanged comments over the tomatoes, after all.
And I can even say we have dined together; or at least at the same time in the same restaurant, the eponymous William, a lovely small place in Santa Barbara.
I spoke with her then, not in a typical breathless admiring exchange one might have with other types of celebrities, but a regular conversation relating to that night’s dinner selection and how we each liked our choices. (She and my husband Steve both had the lamb -hers was a little dry- she said to us)
She was gracious. She was real. She was a brilliant example of a life well lived and enjoyed to the fullest.
Now on weekends when we sit down with a glass of wine to enjoy a nice meal one of us has prepared with care and intent, as opposed to just throwing something together for a weekday dinner as I usually do. I raise my glass in salute, and in an attempt to replicate her distinctive voice, say in a falsetto “Bon Appétit”.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Brownie Points
We take our usual morning walk and run into neighbors Yvonne and Mark, who are with friends visiting from out of town. After the usual idle weather chat, they mention that after dinner last night they went in search of the perfect brownie. This is the type of thing you do when on vacation, or perhaps after drinking a little too much.
That is my own thought of course, what I actually say is “the perfect brownie - Hmmnnn. - I’ve done that,” Meaning, of course that I have searched for that same thing though not necessarily under those same circumstances.
In any case, the perfect brownie means different things to different people. If you were on the hunt for one of those brownie desserts commonly seen in restaurants, ones that are heated, sauced and accompanied by things like vanilla bean ice cream or crème anglais, I don’t know about that.
What I do is give them is my interpretation of the perfect brownie. My perfect brownie is cakey but not overly so and is moist but not heavy or sticky. Must have walnuts, not pecans, and is not frosted.
To my delight they agree. “Well, I say, that’s easy. Zinc Café has them.” “Zinc,” they react, somewhat doubtfully. Right here in our Corona Del Mar neighborhood?
Yep, and not only that, I reply “but they are not too expensive, are generously enough sized to feel that you have something worthwhile enough to call dessert, but not so large that you question your ability to consume them.”
They laugh and decide to take my word for it. Though I know that having voiced this opinion, it may be subject to challenge. So, rather than wait around for that, I go home and look up brownies on the internet. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has navigated the web that there are lots and lots of recipes out there for anything you may desire. That includes brownies.
With a particular thing in mind, a brownie vision if you will, I was not happy to find that brownies come in all sorts of flavors and styles. And, I have to say, most of them not particularly appealing sounding. Irish mist brownies, toffee brownies, espresso brownies, layered and swirled brownies. Oh sure, they may appeal to some of you, maybe to many, but when I think brownie I think of the plain ones I described. These other versions may be “brownie desserts” but in my opinion are not true brownies.
And, what you see on-line of course, are recipes for brownies. Maybe the best thing about my perfect brownies is that I don’t have to make them, going through all the processes and ending up with more than I need. I can walk down the street and get them, or just one. Now that’s a perfect brownie!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Morning Muffins

Like many mothers do, I suppose, I have certain and sometimes fond, memories of my kids’ growing up years. What I have discovered, as they have gotten older, moved away and formed their own households and lives, is that my memories don’t always correspond with theirs.
Over the years I have concluded that this could actually be a good thing. Some parts of life are not worth remembering, or are in fact, better off forgotten.
Still I persist in a mom-like way, in seeing much of that time through the warm glow of remembrance. Hey if it was good enough for Proust, it can work for me too.
Take morning muffins, for example. I used to make these for my two when they were adolescents. The way I remember it, they were always running late for school or something, or were otherwise too busy or distracted to eat breakfast. Since we all know and agree that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I hit upon a method to provide a healthy and quick option for their busy lives. Morning muffins were actually from a recipe I found on a bran flakes package. Along with the healthy fiber already in the cereal, the recipe added other stuff that made them an even more well-rounded meal, and taste good besides. They could be prepared ahead and frozen in quantities. And, they were portable, so could be taken and eaten on the run.
In my head, a vision persists of me casually tossing a wax-paper wrapped morning muffin to each kid as he and she rushed out the door; I of course basking in the glow of my good mothering. They of course, have no such memory. It’s not that they deny that it happened, they just don’t remember it. So much for giving your kids warm childhood memories.
I know it did happen because I still have the original recipe, somewhat grease-spattered from use. Steve says at some future time when the kids visit I should bake some and have them available, in effect re-creating the experience. I haven’t done it so far, not wanting to test those memories further. Still, it’s a good healthy recipe, and some day I may just make them for myself. I too have a busy life, after all.

Morning Muffins
Makes: 12
Ingredients
1-1/2 cups flour
2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1 egg
1-1/2 cups fat-free milk
2 Tbsp. oil
3 cups Bran Flakes
1/3 cup raisins or currants,
(finely chopped dates, or other similar dried fruit also works well)
½ cup chopped walnuts
MIX flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in large bowl. Beat egg in small bowl; stir in milk and oil. Add to flour mixture; stir just until moistened. (Batter will be lumpy.) Stir in cereal, nuts and raisins. Spoon batter into muffin pan which has been sprayed with cooking spray, filling each cup 2/3 full.
BAKE at 400°F for 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly browned.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Samples

I enter a store, Trader Joe’s, Peet’s Coffee, Bristol Farms. Maybe it’s after breakfast, or lunch, so I’m not hungry. And, if I was hungry the food I would probably choose isn’t necessarily what is being offered as a sample. And yet, if there are samples I make a beeline to them. Why is that?

When you ask anyone or almost anyone if they like food samples, most people will say yes. For some it’s a fortunate fluke when they come upon them; but others specifically go to stores that give them out. We all have heard of the Costco “buffet” even if we have not been there. I will line up for a two-inch piece of pizza, a chunk of cheese, a bit of cookie, a minuscule cup of coffee. I’ll line for foods I would not think of having at home or ordering in a restaurant. Knowing that doesn’t seem to make any difference. If it’s offered free, I will try it. The joke goes “broken cookies don’t have calories and neither do samples”.

Farmers markets have the sampling thing down to a science. As you walk down the center concourse of any farmers market, you will be accosted by people whose sole mission is to stand in front of their booth and thrust a slice of melon, or peach, or a grape at you. One walk through and you might find you’ve had more fruit in 100 feet than you normally would have in a whole day! And it’s not necessarily limited to fruit. One local market has freshly roasted peanuts and kettle corn to sample. Another has samples of Hawaiian style potato chips.

I just love those samples. I try to convince myself, and others who listen to me go on, that it’s only because I want to sample before I buy. And, frequently, legitimately, that exposure does lead to the purchase of something I might not have otherwise discovered.

But if I am honest, I have to admit that’s not what it’s all about. It’s really about the spontaneity, the surprise. So much of life is, necessarily, planned, scheduled, pre-thought. To have someone just offer me a little something, a piece of chocolate, a perfect raspberry, a tiny cup of mango smoothie. It’s a gift not anticipated or expected and for that reason has the power to brighten my day.

And the fact that it’s free is a bonus.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I dream of food. More correctly stated, I dream of food situations. Does everyone do this? I am in a strange city, traveling with husband Steve, my daughter Bonnie and unknown others. It is morning and as is my natural habit, I am up before they are. As with most peoples’ dreams, this is not clearly stated, it just seems to be. I get up and head out into the day, looking for good coffee and good rolls, by my definition.
The place I am in seems to be more of a city – with tall buildings and warehouses- than a place that would have food areas. Although I do know that food is sometimes contained in places that seem unlikely unless you’re familiar; since I am not familiar that knowledge does not help. I drive around and notice a place that looks like a combination of night club and greasy spoon with a parking lot that has cars and others coming in. I assume it must be the local’s morning spot. I go into the place which has a long dark paneled entry hall and looking beyond I can see an area with booth and tables where people are eating. But all I want is coffee! I quickly figure out, or assume that the type of coffee I want is not going to be available here so spin around and after telling a waitress I am not staying, start to leave. The momentary distraction throws me off and I have to exit by a different way that I came in, taking me by a cashier and a bakery case. I have a momentary wave of hopefulness; perhaps it’s one of those hidden gems, a tacky restaurant that has a few specialties of fabulous baked goods! No such luck, I see tired looking Danish pastries that appear to have come out of grocery store packaging, and some dry looking cookies is all. Oh well. Again I head out.
By this time I am willing to settle for the average known, Starbucks, but that is available only if you are familiar with the territory. Still, I get into my rental car and start to drive, trying to estimate how long I can be gone before I am missed, and the others get hungry.There is a call on my mobile; “mom where are you? Bonnie asks. Well you should ask, I reply. I have no idea”. I continue back, hoping to come upon something, someplace on the way.
Where are the places with light and fluffy brioche, with interesting braided breakfast breads laced with currants and walnuts, I wonder. Someplace I could get a good strong flavorful cup of coffee?
That would be in another dream, apparently.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

And so I start

I have a lot to say - were blogs invented just for people like me? What fun! It's scary and wonderful at the same time.

Food. I love food. Oh sure, everyone loves food, or at least likes it somewhat. Like Sara Lee, nobody doesn't like food, do they?

Anyway it's more than sustenance. In fact if that's what it was about, for me I would starve. I like a lot of things that aren't particularly "healthy", like bread. Love bread. Man may not live by bread alone but this woman could.

Bread and books

It seems I have always had two loves in my life; bread and books. Not necessarily in that order. Both are essential for life, at least my life. And besides bread, they say, is the staff of life. So the feeling I have must be universal. Bread the food and the concept has a lot of meanings to other people besides me, I find. For example, “breaking bread” with others symbolizes community. My own feelings about bread are probably less esoteric than that. I just love bread! An early memory about bread has to do with a book called Heidi. Heidi was a character, a young girl in a story that took place in the Swiss Alps. I must have read the book when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade. Frankly I don’t remember the story line well. What did stay with me, and something I remember reading over and over, had to do with Heidi”s grandfather cutting off a thick slice of bread from a (presumably) homemade loaf and then spreading butter or cheese thickly on it. The author describing the thickness of the bread, the spreading of the butter and cheese, and Heidi’s enjoyment of it so convincingly that my mouth was watering at imagining it. It was as if I was there too.

In a family with seven children there weren’t many extras, particularly in my early childhood. Resources were spread pretty thin so most things that weren’t absolutely necessary just weren’t part of our lives. Although at the time that wasn’t part of my thinking, I must have felt deprived in some way. At least that’s what I imagine now. Pictures of me from that time do show a skinny little girl, but I have to admit that is mostly genetic.

However it happened, I developed a great love of bread. Not just your ordinary Webers white spongy bread. I’m talking about extravagant breads. Crusty sourdough. Fragrant rosemary/olive oil. Exotic chocolate-cherry. Satisfyingly filled focaccia. My introduction to fabulous breads, besides Heidi, occurred in my childhood. The bread that was atypical and showed me what wonders bread can be was Mexican pan dulce.

We lived in Orange County, which is about 30 miles south of Los Angeles. From time to time my parents would take the Red Car, which was a local train service that was operating at the time, into the city. We would exit the train at Union Station which was right next to Olvera Street or as it was known then, “La Placita” which means “the little plaza”. There was a Catholic church across the street from the plaza where we would go to Sunday mass and then afterwards walk to breakfast The nearby Mexican bakery had a fabulous assortment of different kinds of pan dulce in a large glass display case. Here were the plain bollilos that my father always had. They were crusty hard French type rolls with just a hint of sweetness.; a little butter and jam completed those. There were the semas or “semitas” that my mother would have. Light wheat rounds, slightly sweet, studded with tiny bits of cinnamon bark. At the time, I didn’t understand why they both always had those plain, and to my eye uninteresting, rolls. There were so many other appealing options. I loved it that I had so many choices. Each visit I would select something different. Sometimes it was the large round brightly colored thick butter cookies. Other times it was the “elotes” which means corn, because they were shaped and colored to look like an ear of corn. And then there were the torcidos, or twists, which were made with an egg and butter dough, like challah. I recall the gingerbread-boy like pigs, and the turnovers filled with all sorts of the usual fruit fillings but also with less typical pumpkin, which was somehow fresher tasting and not as spiced as the more familiar pumpkin pie filling.

After we each made our choices, mine taking the longest, we would go sit down at a table or booth, and our choices would be served to us along with thick flavorful spicy Mexcan hot chocolate. Pure heaven.

That was the beginning. Over the years, I have experienced more breads. That is to say, I am drawn to bakeries everywhere I go and so taste all kinds of breads whenever possible. Some are more successful than others. I discovered croissants some time in the late sixties. We were living close to Laguna Beach which was probably at the time the most sophisticated town in the area. There was a bakery there named The Renaissance which had foods and breads not usually found in our suburban landscape. After I discovered croissants, they were my favorite for quite a few years. Then, some years ago I found a new love which became my ultimate favorite, my most loved bread; brioche. Brioche, they say, is what Marie Antoinette was referring to in the French Revolution when she uttered her infamous phrase; “let them eat cake”. Brioche is cake-like. It is made with a lot of butter and eggs and is supremely satisfying. But it is bread. I have attempted baking brioche a time or two with no success. So I mostly leave it to the experts. I have accumulated a bunch of recipes however in case I ever can’t find a good French bakery nearby and am forced to try to bake my own which I would have to do as I cannot imagine life without brioche.

Then there’s my other love -books. Loving books really needs no explanation. Everyone loves books, don’t they? Well actually, in my case the books are truly related to bread. Books give me sustenance. They fill me up. I don’t know exactly at what age I started reading but I think it was pretty early on. I also was introduced to that most luxurious, yet most basic creation of modern life, the public library, at an early age. Since the day I first acquired a library card I have been an enthusiastic user of libraries. And wherever I am, whenever I’ve moved, one of the first actions I take is getting my library card. When I browse in the stacks, reading and sorting through the books, I am transported with each possible choice. When I take my pile of books home, and set them upon my nightstand, I feel rich. I am satisfied in a way I have no words to explain adequately, and that’s even before I actually start reading them!

Which takes me back to Heidi. You might say that particular book gave me the whole experience at that early age. A book with bread at the center of it. my idea of heaven.
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