Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween from Tiny Banquet Committee


Hooray for candy corn, toasted pumpkin seeds, clever costumes, tp'ed trees, miniature Kit Kats, and earnest efforts to summon the apparition of Bloody Mary in the bathroom mirror. (Is that a New England thing? Here are instructions if you need them . . .).

To listen to while you carve your pumpkin: WNYC's David Garland has once again put together a superlative Halloween playlist for Spinning on Air. This year's show features the Shaggs ("It's Halloween"), Cat Power ("Werewolf,"), Antony and the Johnsons ("I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy") and loads of other treats. You can listen to it (or download it) here.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Shortbread Menagerie

When I stumbled across this cast iron cookie mold on eBay my first thought was I cannot believe someone doesn't want this. I love cast iron, love shortbread, and love to daydream about having a happy little farm with smiling piglets and fancy chickens, so I resolved to bid fiercely and to bake up the entire barnyard.

farm cookie mold barn cookie mold

There wasn't much competition for it, maybe because people are unsure about caring for cast iron. (Maybe no one wanted a cookie farm as much as I did, but really, I still can't quite believe that). Most new cast iron cookware is sold pre-seasoned, but older pieces might require some maintenance. This mold was in pretty good condition but I did follow Mark Bittman's advice and take sandpaper to a few rusty spots before reseasoning it. Bittman recommends "a fresh neutral oil like corn or grape seed" for the seasoning process and while his instructions are clear and sensible, I have in the past had better luck using shortening (yes, yucky evil shortening!) because it doesn't make the pan sticky the way that oil can. I can't remember whether I first read about this tip in the Chowhound or the eGullet forums; there is so much information on both sites. With very little effort my mold was ready to use.

I haven't made the barn yet, partly because there is a dispute in the Tiny Banquet household as to how to put it together. The silo is easy enough, but the photo on the box doesn't show what makes the sides of the barn. The shingled part is for the roof and isn't the right size to also be used as the side walls. I think you're supposed to make four of the part with the criss-cross panels, but the idea of all four sides having a door is unacceptable to me even in cookie architecture. It's ok; we really don't need a cookie barn right now.

I was going to bake a batch of the rosemary shortbread that I've been making for the past couple years, but this recipe for Earl Grey tea cookies at Apartment Therapy: The Kitchen was stuck in my mind so I decided to make a batch with tea too. I have been meaning to cook more with tea since my experience making chocolate truffles a few years ago - I infused the cream for the ganache with smoky Russian tea (Kusmi Samovar blend, which to my surprise is available at Amazon) and was startled by the warmth and elegance of the end result. I had some Lapsang Souchong — also a strong, smoky tea — and decided to make a double batch of the same recipe, using rosemary in half of the dough and the contents of one tea bag in the other half. (Faith's recipe at The Kitchen is pretty much a shortbread at heart, so I didn't stray too far from it).

The recipe I was using called for a small amount of honey, and I opted to use two different types: an Italian pine honey for the rosemary cookies, and a more neutral raw honey for the tea cookies. I didn't know at the time that Lapsang Souchong tea leaves are smoked over burning pine needles but I think I made the right choice; the tea has so much flavor that combining it with the pine honey would have been just too much.

two delicious honeys

Another decision to make when baking shortbread is which butter to use. This is an important choice; no matter which recipe you use, it will be a simple one, and the butter is where much of the flavor will come from. We are lucky in Manhattan to have such a wide assortment of butters available — I am always disappointed to see, when I visit my parents in Connecticut, that their selection is pretty much limited to Land O'Lakes or Land O'Lakes. Plugra and Lurpak are easy to come by here, and there are many others to try. There is a market not far from my apartment, for example, that stocks an Italian butter made from the cream used to make Parmigiano Reggiano. I almost always have butter from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in my refrigerator but I am also a fan of Kate's Homemade Butter, which is made in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. My family went to Old Orchard Beach every summer when I was a kid and I have a bit of a soft spot for it for that reason, but I also think its creamy, fresh taste is just as good as the better-known European imports. It is probably literally at least a bit fresher, too, for not having had to travel so far to get here. And it has a happy baby on the package. Wearing overalls. A happy, farm-y baby on a butter box is marketing genius, and cannot be trumped by competitors. What could they do, slap a miniature pony wearing a straw hat and smoking a corncob pipe on their butter? I think not.

Kate's butter shortbread cooling in pans

I baked the rosemary dough in the farm pan and the tea dough in a pie dish. Having only ever made shortbread in molds I was a bit concerned about the latter, but the dough is so rich with butter that it is not likely to stick to itself any more than it is to stick to the pan. I scored it with a sharp knife while it was cooling and again before I removed the wedges out of the dish, and it came out neatly. For the animal cookies a sharp rap of the mold on the counter while they were cooling was sufficient to loosen them.

rosemary shortbread

shortbread made with Lapsang Souchong tea

rosemary shortbread Both cookies were exceptionally good. The rosemary ones remain a favorite; I love the way the astringent, woodsy taste of rosemary is calmed by buttery, slightly salty cookie dough. The tea cookies are amazing, with so much toasty, smoky flavor that it is thoroughly satisfying to eat just one. Fortunately shortbread keeps pretty well, and I'm sure I'll be able to work my way through them before they go bad.

rosemary shortbread

Links to other shortbread recipes I want to try soon, but using semolina or rice flour to replace some or all of the all-purpose flour - I've read that makes for more delicate, tender cookies:

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Helen Gurley Brown's Single Girl's Cookbook: the first in a series of occasional reviews of out-of-print cookbooks

The Committee recently purchased an inexpensive scanner and is thrilled to pieces with it. The Chairwoman has a bit of a tendency to hoard things and is hoping to throw out some of her stockpile of pretty-or-amusing this-or-that after scanning; so far many things have been scanned and none have gone out the door, but we have high hopes. A less daunting task than actually parting with any favorite ephemera is beginning to log our small collection of out-of-print cookbooks, many of which were selected for their illustrations. Contemporary cookbooks are increasingly filled with gorgeous, well-styled, thoughtfully-lit photographs, but illustrations can be so much more charming, and while they reflect their time they generally don't ever end up looking as dated as photographs can.

Helen Gurley Brown's The Single Girl's Cookbook (Bernard Geis Assoc. 1969) was illustrated by Frank Daniel, who appears to have gone on to illustrate several children's books. Each chapter begins with an illustration of a mod young woman with Twiggy eyelashes, often accompanied by a boyfriend who looks an awful lot like Guy Smiley.
sect. 2 ch. 9 illustration

These are, I imagine, the sort of women who were too busy setting their hair and finding husbands to bother reading Betty Friedan. The book is geared towards young women who want to learn to cook not, apparently, because living well is a great pleasure, but because the thought of not being able to compete with other women drives them mad. "Make a lamb stew better than his mother!," HGB promises. "You can, too, because yours won't be so fat." A recipe for boeuf en daube is likewise introduced with the warning that "[t]his stew has undone more men than the Hong Kong virus, only it's a good kind of undoing. It definitely got one girl I know married."
sect. 3 ch. 11 illustration

The italics, happily, are not mine. At the start of chaper 1 Brown thanks Margo Rieman, "a cook" who "allowed me to take her wonderful recipes . . . and present them to you in my words, together with a few philosophical thoughts along the way . . . such as, it is better to get hollandaise all over your negligee sleeves than to wear something appropriate to cook in if you are entertaining a man." The words indeed appear to be direct from HGB: loads and loads of flighty italics, flattering addresses to the dear/darling/delightful reader, and uniquely florid hyperbole. I don't mean to grouse about it, though; that's her style and she generally pulls it off.

Well. I do mean to grouse about it a bit, and cringe a bit, but occasionally there's fine advice here:

  • "[M]ake friends with a butcher. It's fine to buy your one single-girl lamb chop for Monday's dinner prepackaged from the supermarket, but to cook lyrically for company you need a professional advisor. Most butchers are darlings."

  • "[C]heese is chic." HGB's recommendations for cheese, wine and fruit pairings for dessert hold up rather well (e.g., Gorgonzola, pears and Pinot Noir), and for readers stuck in the boonies she directs them to order from Cheese of All Nations (then located on Chambers Street in Manhattan ― the Murray's of its day?) rather than buy processed junk from the local grocery store.

  • While serving highballs, "[w]atch out for anybody who demands cream soda or clam juice or some other esoteric beverage. You have a nut on your hands and the next thing you know he'll be running his hands over the bottom of your bathtub to see if it's grit-free, or running his hands over the bottom of you or one of your guests . . . ."

  • "Cooking and eating foreign food is the way to great sensuous pleasure with great sensuous men."

In case you might not have guessed, a great many pages in The Single Girl's Cookbook explain what should and should not be served to lovers. There are five chapters of recipes and menus for the five stages of a Cosmo-style love affair, which begins with the-batting-of-eyelashes and smoldering glances but ends in disaster ("You Aren't Lovers Yet," "You're in Love," "He's Acting Funny and You Must Win Him Back," "Enough Already!" and "Goodbye Forever, Thank God! Three Dinners and One Revolting Breakfast"), and countless exhortations throughout the rest of the book. From the brunch chapter:

In addition to Sunday Brunch, we've included recipes for three delicious egg dishes to serve during the week to a friend (there's no need going into what sex and you may not even be sure) who stays overnight. If you're both scooting off to work there wouldn't be time to do one of the fancier brunches, but the quickies are delicious. For the almost overnight guest who gets ravenous at three in the morning, you simply serve one of the breakfasts. It's almost morning anyway. And of course you should never send anyone home drunk. Feed him!

sect. 3 ch. 9 illustration

There are also several chapters devoted to more prosaic aspects of single-girl living. What should be simmering when you invite the landlord over to see your leaky pipes or peeling paint? Ideally a "Poor Pitiful Ragout," which "will not only melt the man before your very eyes but establish you as the Brave, Strong, Deserving, and Ingenious Girl you are." (Quaint! Is it true that once upon a time a landlord might be torn away from rolling around in his pile of money and hate mail long enough to actually visit a tenant? Rather than sending a mumbling, fumbling super or his creepy, good-for-nothing brother?)

sect. 2 ch. 1 illustration

As for what to serve "When the Relatives Descend," it depends how much you like them. For a favorite aunt, two hors d'oeuvres, a roast leg of lamb, creamed spinach, roasted potatoes, and for dessert, ice cream with toasted coconut and Kahlúa. For an annoying aunt who will tell you that you're too thin, your apartment is garish, and your boyfriend's hair is troubling, "garbanzo dip" (a not-bad-sounding hummus, with plenty of lemon juice, garlic, coriander, mint and parsley), a yogurt dip, a big salad with anchovies, a main course of broiled kidneys with noodles, and a dessert of cheese and apples.

sect. 2 ch. 5 illustration

I have not tried any of the recipes in this book yet. There are indeed some dreary 1950's hausfrau recipes here; at least two or three of them feature canned soup, and a recipe for "ecstatic hamburgers" relies on onion soup powder for transcendence. There are, however, plenty of dishes that must have seemed odd at the time but are genuine and honest and could be served today without irony. The menu for a "Summer Feast for Married-Couple Friends" ("Here's a dinner with love and kisses for that wonderful couple who comfort you when sick, entertain you when you're lonely, feed you when you're broke, and take you in on holidays. It's frankly fabulous and they deserve it.") gets off to a rocky start with superfluous curried shrimp puffs, but the rest of the menu is quite edible: vitello tonnato, rice salad, green peppers piedmont (cooked in a slow oven with olive oil, garlic, anchovies and tomatoes), braised vegetables Adriatic (in olive oil), bread sticks, and "melon surprise" (cantaloupe hollowed out and filled with Port; I once had a cavaillon melon prepared this way and it was very, very good). The obligatory recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon (see below) is straightforward and would probably taste pretty good, particularly if you updated it with fresh herbs.

Boeuf Bourguignon 1

Boeuf Bourguignon 2

And when you're alone? HBG favors blender concoctions for breakfast (various combinations of fruit, powdered liver and raw eggs) and comforting soups and egg dishes to eat in bed if you're moping about something. There is also a short (two pages) chapter of favorite celebrity eating-alone binges. Lauren Bacall would have "[j]ust pickled artichokes. A girl can't get too many"; Julie Newmar would like a dinner of strawberry ice cream, camembert cheese, fresh French bread, chile con carne, "and for breakfast, fresh Beluga caviar." Carol Channing's answer evokes an era before publicists scrubbed all traces of personality from celebrity babblings; she would opt for an idiosyncratic combination of "sweet, earthy things like roast leg of goat, kasha . . . with goat gravy, baked fresh pears with pear juice, homemade candy made with honey and raw sugar, and fresh-pressed pineapple juice!"

sect. 1 ch. 6 illustrationsect. 1 ch. 8 illustration

sect. 1 ch. 5 illustration

My ideal single-girl dinner consists of cheese and bread (recently a bit of walnut bread and Tomme de Savoie), because I am a magnet for lactarded persons and I will never, ever get enough cheese. I may be cursed, really; my mother was struck with lactose-intolerance after giving birth to me. I lived with a man who was also lactose-intolerance for several years and after I moved out, I had cheese + bread + wine for dinner probably at least two nights per week, and I still think I have catching up to do.

walnut bread + Tomme de Savoie cheese

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Pour a bottle of burgundy out on the curb

for journalist R. W. Apple Jr., who passed away this morning. I first became aware of him when my boyfriend and I were waking up to the Times's radio station, WQXR; we would occasionally hear Apple discuss the latest news from Washington, and it wasn't long before we were both imitating his blustery, blustery bluster. (I see that Slate referred to him as a "master gasbag" in a 2003 critique but they were referring to his Iraq war coverage rather than his sonorous voice). As my interest in cooking developed I began to take notice of his work in the Dining Section, and by the time Calvin Trillin's article about Apple's 70th birthday celebration in Paris appeared in Gourmet last year I had come to admire his appetite (described in the obit as "Falstaffian"), and the evident delight he took in finding the very best things to eat. Go read the obit.