I don’t mind spending part of my winter this year in New York. Even though it was one of the coldest winters in history, and on the first day of spring, we had a snowstorm, the beautiful snow blanketed everything in a thick white layer, which reflects the light and kept my mood cheery and optimistic. It rarely snows in Paris and la grisaille (the gray skies, sans la neige — or without snow), can augment the sullen mood around town. And the only people who you’ll see braving the cold are the hardy smokers, God love ‘em, clustered in the doorways of buildings and businesses, trying to get as many puffs in as possible before they can’t take it anymore and head back inside to the cozy warmth, with the rest of us.
If you’re not from a place, you don’t have the same nostalgic pangs for the foods, even if some of us invoke Proust when we bite into a madeleine, or get all bent out of shape when someone messes with a certain food from a particular country or region – even if we’ve never been there.
I’m not a big fan of creamy soups, but I am a staunch defender of New England clam chowder. The word “chowder” comes from the French word “chaudière,” a big soup pot or cauldron. Some say it may have been invented by Breton fishermen in France, who later brought the soup to Canada and New England. Although I am not sure about the Manhattan-variety of chowder, which to me is like adding tomato puree to the dressing for a Caesar Salad, and calling it a “Caesar Salad.” If you’re looking for a tomato-based clam chowder there are plenty of places to find one in books and on the internet. This isn’t one of them.
I grew up eating New England clam chowder, which we often enjoyed at Howard Johnson’s, the famed roadside restaurant (which was once the largest restaurant chain in America), where Jacques Pépin worked, coming up with recipes in the 1960’s.
The place wasn’t fancy, but it was pretty good; the orange and turquoise roofs were a welcome sight during long drives on the Massachusetts Turnpike. (Most New Englanders of a certain age will remember hearing the phrase; “Sorry, we don’t have Coke. We have HoJo cola. Would you like one?”
One of the few English words that my French other-half has mastered is “pastrami.” Which in his defense, is just fine because most Americans that speak little, if any French, can easily say baguette, croissant, tarte au citron, and macaron before they head to France. Seems like both cultures knows where their priorities lie!
So when I hear “Daveed, je veux du pastrami,” I look into those sweet little brown eyes, misting over a bit, I realize that I have to get him some. And some for myself, too — although I am a corned beef guy. But it’s hard to explain “corn” and “beef” (in French, bœuf maïsé doesn’t quite sound as appetizing), so I just go with le flow.
There are few really good delis left in New York. In Manhattan, Pastrami Queen does a good job, I haven’t been to Carnegie Deli since I was a kid but hear it’s still going, Sarge’s just reopened, and Second Avenue Deli reopened elsewhere a few years ago, neither of which I’ve revisited since. (But plan to.) And Brooklyn has Mill Basin Kosher Delicatessen, Jay & Lloyd’s Kosher Deli, and David’s Brisket House, which I think I need to visit, if only because of the name.
It’s always nice to meet your heroes and many years ago, I was fortunate to meet one of mine. But I can’t claim Nick Malgieri as “mine,” as he’s been a guiding influence for bakers everywhere, publishing books with recipes and technique for making everything from traditional Italian pastries to Viennese tortes and even Middle East and Greek sweets, to the delight of bakers near and far
If you like to bake and have picked up one of his books, you’ll probably feel a little kinship with him as well. Nick established his credentials as a baking professor and author after stints as the Executive Pastry Chef at the Windows on the World restaurant, as well as having extensive experience baking professionally in Switzerland, Monaco, and France.
But not to worry. Nick’s focus now is on home baking, and his newest book is meant to make home baking as straightforward and foolproof as possible. Nick Malgieri’s Pastry: Foolproof Recipes for the Home Cook has spectacular photos by Romulo Yanes, who many know for his brilliant photography that appeared for years on the cover, and inside, of the much-missed Gourmet magazine.
For those that like books with lots of pictures, and step-by-step photos, this is the book for you, especially if you want to tackle some of those more challenging doughs, like Viennese strudel and yeast dough, as well as French brioche and yufka, the Turkish version of filo dough. They’re all demystified here. (For gluten-free bakers, he presents two different recipes without a laundry list of difficult ingredients.) There’s also pizza chiena, baked in a cake pan, as well as this lovely French Apple Pie, a neat puck of pastry filled with cooked apples and raisins.
Someone recently asked me why cookbooks go out of print. I was thinking about it and when trying to find out how many cookbooks are introduced each year, I couldn’t find any accurate statistics except for “hundreds.” In publishing, cookbooks also have two seasons; fall and spring. Depending on the subject, the publisher will decide when is best to release it. And for a variety of reasons – publishers fold one book division into another imprints, editors leave, etc. – or certain topics just fall out of favor.
At the risk of dating this post, at the moment, current popular topics are gluten-free, paleo diets, and slow cooker recipes. (If you write a book that encompasses all three, you’ve hit the trifecta.) One trend that did come along, and stayed with us for a while, was low-fat cooking and baking. Then it kind of faded away as other topics grabbed the public’s interest and that genre of book faded away.
(Recent studies have shown that fat isn’t necessarily the demon that we once thought it was and certain types of fat in your diet are fine. While I like fat, I don’t need to eat an overload of it. Except when it comes to cream cheese frosting. Then all bets are off.)
One person that was ahead several curves is Alice Medrich. Alice was one of the first people to introduce top-quality bittersweet chocolate truffles, cakes, and other treat to Americans, with her legendary bakery, Cocolat (which is now-closed), and a string of spectacular cookbooks. So when Alice writes something, it’s worth taking notice.
I am definitely slowing down, because ever since arriving in France, when I’m out and about, as midnight approaches, my head starts rolling back toward my neck, which I have to make an effort to snap back when I’m à table or at a party with mes amis françaiss. When I was younger, I regularly stayed awake until 2…but usually 3am, with friends and co-workers, drinking wine, bowling, or just watching tv after work, unwinding with the baker’s favorite dinner: A big bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa. Times have certainly changed, and now by 11pm, I’m ready to brush my teeth and hop in the sack, exhausted from another day of this constantly challenging thing called “life.”
I’m not much of a social animal, as people who’ve tried to corner me have discovered, which (judging by some of the awkward situations that I’ve found myself in), proves I’m not all that great at socializing. A lot of it comes from being squirreled away in the back of restaurant kitchens for thirty-five years, where it seems most conversations are about food, sex, cooking, sex, our lack of sleep, sex, who makes the best salsa, raunchy jokes, sex, and making sure the dishwasher is on your side. Because if not, they can really f**k you up. (And believe me, they will.) Nowadays, though, my biggest concern at night is simply remaining vertical.
When you go to a party in France, be it a dinner party or a get-together of another kind (even a rendezvous at a bar or restaurant), leaving is simply pas possible. Okay, it’s not impossible, but the process can take a good two hours or so. At restaurants in France, it’s considered rude to give someone the check before they are ready to leave. So people will linger as long as they want. (And they like to make sure that they do.) To me, it seems to be rude to be the first person to suggest leaving, even long after you’ve finished up. From the looks I get when I suggest getting the check and settling up, it’s like you’re telling your friends, “I’ve had enough of you. Time’s up.” And no one wants to be that person who’s the first to make a move toward leaving. Because no one wants to be the spoil sport, which seems to fall on my shoulders.
I’ve been a bit out of sorts recently, getting a little buried under things that are less-fun than cooking and baking. Fortunately, I gotta eat. And I also have to have chocolate, frequently. (As in, daily.) Otherwise I turn into some kind of crazed person. It’s a little strange, but I guess there are odder things to be addicted to. But if I don’t have a tablet of chocolate in my kitchen (or living room, or bed room, or…), I go a little mental and find myself wandering around wherever I am, searching for a bar to break the end off of and nibble on.
Which is why unsweetened chocolate is so vexing. While it’s great for baking, and giving things like chocolate pudding an especially intense bitter chocolate flavor, it’s hard to keep my hands off the little chunks when I can chopping it up for a recipe.
One of my downfalls is that I do not have a photographic memory. Sometimes I go out to eat and the next day, I have less of a recollection of what I ate (and drank) than some of my esteemed colleagues who write about restaurants so eloquently do. (My memory is gradually been replaced by the camera on my phone.) In this case, as soon as I got home, I wrote up some notes from the meal and quotes from the chef, which some rather concerted efforts to find on my computer failed to turn up.
That said, all the meals that I’ve had at Chez Dumonet, a spot-on classic Parisian bistro, have been memorable – regardless of the evolving ways that I have of preserving them. The memories last long after that feeling of being absolutely stuffed have diminished — the next few days after a meal here are invariably “salad days.”
Fortunately, not much changes at Chez Dumonet, which is sometimes still affectionately called Joséphine. For those who want a place that is carrying on the traditions of the Parisian bistro, you can’t do better than Chez Dumonet. The only concessions they’ve made to modern times (and waistlines) are offering half-portions of certain dishes, which are massive enough to make you wish le doggy bag was more popular in Paris. (I, personally, do not mind rewarmed bœuf bourguignon the next day for lunch.)