Meme: The Cook Next Door

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I was tagged by Adam, the Amateur Gourmet who picked me for this food meme. (Then split for 2-3 weeks of vacation!) Here’s my responses…

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?

Good Seasons salad dressing.

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The measuring!
The mixing!
The magic!

No wonder I became a pastry chef.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?

Lindsey Shere, who was the original pastry chef at Chez Panisse. I was so fortunate to have someone like that influence me right from the start. I learned how to really taste things from her, and how important ingredients are to good cooking. Much more so than fancy techniques.
Alice Waters also was a positive influence as well. She has a great deal of belief in what she’s doing and is truly dedicated and passionate about her ideals.

Do you have an old photo as “evidence” of an early exposure to the culinary world and would you like to share it?

Don’t have one on my hard drive. A downside of the digital age.

Mageiricophobia – do you suffer from any cooking phobia, a dish that makes your palms sweat?

Squid (or anything with tentacles.) I refuse to touch it or even look at it. Squid scare the shit out of me. Those suckers are U-G-L-Y!
My first day on the job at Chez Panisse in 1983, the chef handed me a huge bus tub of squid and told me to clean it.
Only after years of therapy was I able to overcome the trauma.

What would be your most valued or used kitchen gadgets and/or what was the biggest letdown?

Favorite:
My KitchenAid 5-quart Mixer
Oxo Salad Spinner (and zester and whisks)
Heatproof Spatulas

Biggest letdown:
Where do I begin?
Ok, I’ll choose the 3 worst offenders:
1. Those thick rubber heatproof gloves. You can’t get a grip on anything.
2. I hate silicone baking molds for cakes. Every time I teach a class, people keep asking me if I like them. So quit asking.
3. The French Press is perhaps the worst apparatus for making coffee. I don’t care what anyone says, so don’t try to tell me otherwise. The coffee comes out muddy, over-caffeinated, and gets cold fast. Plus they’re hazardous; I had one fly across my kitchen as I was pressing down, spraying my entire kitchen (and me) with coffee grounds. I hear about complex methods for brewing good coffee in them, but who wants to deal with that in the morning? I’ll stick with my espresso pot.

BONUS RANT: The Le Creuset Tagine that has no flange on the lid. The first time I used it, the hot lid slid right out of my hands and crashed (there’s no way to hold onto it.) They refused to give me a new one, although they did change the design eventually. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who complained. And since I sacrificed my lid for the good of others, they should send me a new one, don’t you think?

Name some funny or weird food combinations/dishes you really like – and probably no one else!

I like to eat dried pasta right from the box. Especially elbows.

What are the three eatables or dishes you simply don’t want to live without?

Dark Chocolate-Covered Marshmallows
Fried Chicken without gravy (so it stays crisp) but lots of salt
Caramelized Salted Peanuts (or anything caramelized, for that matter.)

Any question you missed in this meme, that you would have loved to answer? Well then, feel free to add one!

…from Nicky at Delicious Days
Your favorite ice-cream…

The chocolate and caramel ice creams at Berthillon on the I’le St. Louie in Paris, and the Gianduja gelato at Caffè San Marco in Torino.

You will probably never eat…
Anything with tentacles.
Or Puffin.

Your own signature dish…
Fresh Ginger Cake from Room For Dessert which I’ve been served in lots of restaurants and bakeries. I’ve received more emails and kudos (from home cooks as well as people who serve it in their bakeries and restaurants) for that cake than anything else.

…from the ChefDoc at A Perfect Pear
Any signs that this passion is going slightly over the edge and may need intervention?

I’m blogging when I should be cooking.

…from Clement at A La Cuisine!
Any embarrassing eating habits?

I used to eat lunch in the shower because I was so busy when I worked in the restaurant business and never had time to eat.

…from Sarah, of The Delicious Life
Who would you want to come into your kitchen to cook dinner for you?
Aside from hauling out my Ouija board and raising Julia Child from the great beyond, the warmer-blooded Elena Arzak from Arzak restaurant is an astounding contemporary cook and is mindful, yet playful, without being silly or pretentious.

…from Adam, of The Amateur Gourmet:
Who’s your favorite food writer

Hard to pick just one. It’s definitely between Roy Andries Di Groot who wrote The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth which is the best food book ever written…(and the dude was blind!), Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book is full of great recipes and superb writing, and Richard Olney, who had the amazing ability to deftly describe a technique or taste without pretentiousness. He was American, but wrote and cooked while living in France, wandering around his kitchen in skimpy briefs drinking Scotch straight from the bottle.

…from David Lebovitz at David Lebovitz.com:
What’s the best food city in the world?

San Francisco and Barcelona.

Three people to pass it on to…

Judy at Over A Tuscan Stove

Kate at French Kitchen Adventures

Pascal at C’est moi qui l’ai fait!

Snooping Around

While snooping around a friend’s kitchen, I opened a drawer and found this.

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She swears it wasn’t directed at me.

Patriotic Pie

Happy Fourth of July!

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A l’Etoile d’Or: The Best Candy Shop in Paris

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Forget Catherine Deneuve and Carole Bouquet.

The most photographed and revered woman in Paris is Denise Acabo. With her braided pig-tails, necktie, and crisply-pleated kilt, Denise is the sweetest woman in Paris.

CBS

Her shop, A l’Etoile d’Or, has an ethereal selection of artisan confections and chocolates from France and whenever I go, I invariably find something new to try, something tasty, something that is so amazing, that I’m compelled to go back for more. What’s a guy to do?

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I give myself at least one hour to shop. Minimum. Words fly out of her mouth in rapid-fire French. She’ll often use the tu word, instead of the formal vous, which suggests immediately comradery.

Don’t understand a word of French?
That’s ok, Just nod. She’ll keep going.

Continue Reading A l’Etoile d’Or: The Best Candy Shop in Paris…

Terror Has a Name, It’s Spelled Brita…

…I-T-A, that’s BRITA™!

It lurks in my kitchen, waiting…and waiting. It thirsts for the precious fluid of life. And it will stop at nothing to get it.

It is voracious.

It is unstoppable.

And it doesn’t care who gets in its way.

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I can’t leave it alone.

I hydrate.
The water level drops, it needs to be filled. It craves it. Seeking completion. It hungers to be satiated. Quickly. I am its slave. What would happen if the filter dried out? There’s dire consequences, too horrible to mention. But there they are, the warnings, buried deep within the paperwork.
But what if I ignore it…it…I can’t, it sits there, mocking. Waiting for me to forget its presence. It’s ghastly presence.

Someday it will make its move. I know it. I sense it.

Do I dare bring bottled water into my house? My first step towards independence.
No. I mustn’t upset it. I mustn’t.
What’s that? No really, I wasn’t thinking about getting rid of you, no, heh-heh, just kidding…really.

I type.
It watches.
I think.
It drips.

And waits…

I spend my waking hours thinking about it, plotting, making sure to keep it content, brim full with water. I mustn’t upset it. I don’t sleep without making sure it’s full. I won’t leave without checking the water tank. Should I take it with me if I leave? If I leave it behind, I’ll come home to…to…to what? What awaits me if I do?

Help!
I’m a prisoner of a water filtration system…

Oprah vs. Hermes

Everyone over here is getting a chuckle over the Oprah vs. Hermès flap.
There seems be a lot of back-and-forth about what happened and who-said-what when Oprah wasn’t allowed into Hermès to buy a watch for her pal Tina Turner (I had the same problem with her as well. Tina is so particular about which brand of watch she’ll wear.)

The kinds folks at Hermès treated Oprah like they would treat anyone who tried to come into the shop –15 minutes after the store had closed.

In France, Closed means Closed. Just like the doors on the Métro. If you’re not in the Métro and the doors are closing, they ain’t holding ‘em open for you. It’s in or out. And if you’re stuck between them…ouch! (Trust me, those doors are strong.)

Hermès didn’t do anything unusual. Why should she get special treatment or an apology? Get over yourself, girlfriend. I had to when I got here. It ain’t all about the customer. She needs to wait until opening hours for a $13,000 Birkin bag just like the rest of us have to.

But don’t get me wrong, I feel the same way about Oprah that Tom feels about Katie. (Truly!…and I don’t even have a movie to promote, but someday I may, so I’d better be nice now just in case.) She is so hip and ‘right-on’ about everything and gives away new cars and cool stuff (and now has fabulous abs on top of everything else, damn her, is there anything she doesn’t have?) But has anyone called her to the mat for promoting junk-food in her magazine while preaching a weight-loss program and doling out “feel-good” lifestyle tips?

“Do not spend another summer fat! Get Oprah’s weight loss secrets and favorite snacks. Beat your chocolate cravings! Get the plan for fab abs. Plus, your questions answered. Portion sizes? Low carb? Low fat? If you need to lose weight, this is the show for you!”
-from Oprah.com

Glancing through her magazine, (and no, I didn’t buy it…someone left me a copy. Honest. Although I did enjoy the articles, “Are You Too PC?” and “This Month, It’s You Time!”…which was helpful, since I was wondering when things were going to get around to being “My” time.)

But I was rather surprised to see who advertised within…

Honey Clusters breakfast cereal, Coke, Fanta and Sprite,
Hi-C, some icky-looking Honey Snack Bars, McDonald’s Egg McMuffins, bottled salad dressing, Keebler Fruit Delights cookies, Quaker Oats Breakfast Squares, Teddy Grahams Cubs “Fun Packs”, Kraft Cheese Nips “Sport Crisps”, Taco Rice mix, Country Crock Microwavable mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, Jose Cuervo Margarita Minis, and Jell-O Sundae Toppers.

I can’t figure out which of these promotes weight loss…
And can anyone tell me what the heck a ‘sport crisp’ is?

Tortillas, in Paris?

Maïs… Oui!

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Brie de Meaux

In summertime, I follow Parisians who’re making a mass exodus from the city. We scurry from the city, jamming crowded autoroutes and packing the train stations. The city offers few trees or shade, and the sunlight reflecting off the white buildings means little respite from the withering heat no matter how hard you look-and there’s only so much icy-cold rosé that I can drink!

So I often make weekend trips to the village of Coulommiers, where there’s a lively outdoor market selling the most famous cheese in the world: Brie.
Brie is not a town, but a region to the east about one hour away by car or train. The sunday market in Coulommiers is one of my favorites because no where else in the world will you find so many cheese vendors selling all kinds of Brie, many unavailable anywhere else.

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There are two true Brie cheeses. The classic is Brie de Meaux (Bree-du-Mohw), about 14-inches across, each disk weighing approximately 5 pounds. Brie de Melun (Brie-du-Meh-Lahn) is slightly smaller, a tad higher, and doesn’t ripen all the way to make a creamy pâte, like Brie de Meaux. Often you’ll cut open Brie de Melun and discover a drier layer of underripe cheese in the middle (at left). These cheeses have the most superb flavor in the late spring-to-early summer, when the cows feast on mustard blossoms, giving the cheese a musty, complex flavor and slight golden tinge.

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Brie de Melun is aged longer than Brie de Meaux. It has a firmer texture and many aficionados prefer it because of it’s stronger and more aggressive flavor. Both cheeses can be made with raw or pasteurized milk, although I prefer the raw versions, which are rarely available in the United States due to regulations in the US (where you’re allowed to drive at high-speeds on freeways while talking on a cell phone and drinking a giant latté, but prohibited from eating cheese that has been prepared the same way for centuries.)

These two Brie cheeses are AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) as of 1990, a product designation given by the French authorities, which states that these specific cheeses meet certain criterion for heating, coagulating, and salting the milk, the subsequent ripening, as well as being fabricated within the specific region. Most cheeses you’ll find labeled Brie are not a true Brie unless the AOC label is affixed to the exterior. In the US, you’ll only find it at a specialty cheese store…if you’re lucky to find it at all. In France, a notable exception is Brie de Nangis, which is a young, milder Brie from the region but does not carry the AOC label, but it’s good. The AOC designation has also been given to 34 cheeses as well as other products like the tasty green lentils from Puy, Haricot Tarbais (the dried beans used to make cassoulet), and the free-range Poulet de Bresse.

Although AOC is often a sign of quality, other products don’t carry the appellation, since they may be made in a neighboring region, or a slightly larger size, or stirred a few more times than the regulations allow during production. So as with anything, let your nose and the taste be your guide. No matter where you live, always seek out a good cheese shop and ask the fromager for advice: they’re a wealth of knowledge and should be proud of their cheeses and happy to help you.

Coulommiers is another excellent cheese from the region, and not AOC. It’s a smaller round, about 6-inches in diameter, and not widely known outside of France. Coulommiers has the same barnyard-like smell that is delectably appetizing in Camembert and indicative of a truly ripe Brie, but is a bit more pungent.

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Locals in Brie are perhaps the only ones who have developed an appreciation for Brie Noir. Normally Brie cheeses are ripened for between one and two months. Brie Noir is ripened much longer, often 8 to 10 months. It’s such a regional specialty, and only appreciated by people of the region, that you’re likely never to see it anywhere else.

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As you can see, Brie Noir is dark, brown, and crumbly. It’s covered with dusty powder and it tastes, well…horrid. After my first eaglerly-anticipated bite, I could not get the vile taste out of my mouth. It’s bitter and acidic. A friend from Coulommiers suggested I dip it into my café au lait at breakfast, which I suspiciously tried, which actually moderated the flavor and made it more palatable. Who knew?

Brie Q & A’s

But my supermarket cheese says Brie…isn’t that Brie?

Real Brie is almost always Brie de Melun or Brie de Meaux. Most of the other cheeses labeled ‘Brie’ are not true Brie. They often won’t ripen properly and taste worlds apart from real Brie.

Should you eat the rind?

The general rule for eating the rind of any cheese is that you may eat it as long as it won’t interfere with the taste or experience of the cheese. For example, something with a lot of mold growth obviously wouldn’t taste very good. A tough rind, like the rind of Parmesan, you wouldn’t want to eat either.

How do I cut Brie?

Think of any round wheel of cheese like a pie or cake. You should slice a triangular wedge out, so that you have a nice portion of cheese.
When presented with a full cheese plate to serve yourself, never cut the ‘nose’ off the cheese, the pointy end: It’s very bad manners!

Can I bring back raw milk cheese into the US?

That depends. Most of the time, I’ve found Customs Officers (oops…I mean ‘Department of Homeland Security’) officers will look the other way as long as you’re bringing in cheese that’s for personal consumption. Obviously if you have 60 wheels of Brie, you will likely get busted. Many fromageries in France will Cryo-vac (sous vide) cheese for transport to contain the fragrance, which I recommend. I once traveled with cheese in zip-top bags and by the end of the flight, the overhead bin totally reeked of cheese.
Luckily the other passengers were French…and for some reason, the US officials quickly waved me through customs.