Friday, August 28, 2009

Mehlspeisen Küchen

Several years back I started reading a book called "The Fig Eater" which is set in Vienna in 1910 and under the guise of being a murder mystery is really just a means of sharing all sorts of facts about Vienna in Freud's era, there is some writing about psychoanalysis, much about forensics, some about culture, some about feminism (or it's precursors) and some about food. I of course focused in on the food aspects...
In the book there is a character who travels from house to house cooking, very much like today's personal chefs but with one great distinction. The mehlspeisen küche only bakes delicious sweets. She pulls sheets of pastry as thin as gossamer to fill and roll into strudels, she kneads sweet doughs to make into tiny cakes, fills layers with creams and custards and mixes batters to bake into warm, sweet and comforting cakes.
Of course, upon reading this I thought what a wonderful idea to recreate this old custom- to travel form house to house filling it with delicious nibbles and desserts, to warm the hearth and, well, let's be honest, fatten everyone up. We did live in health conscious Berkeley, CA at the time and I imagine I was a bit fed up with granola and raw food. So with only the Atkins Diet as an obstacle I set about organizing myself as a Mehlspeiser. (Pardon my Germlish). I put together brochures that listed pastry after pastry, all stamped up with my running bitters bottle logo and my fancy new mobile number and email address. I distributed these at the local fancy food stores, shops and such and I waited. I waited patiently to start a new trend- the traveling baker.
Well, the phone never rang. Oh, well, it did but it was to cook for a lovely family in Napa who I had the pleasure of spending many years with. They liked desserts, but they preferred barbecue and bread. They longed to be leaner, so a daily addition of sweets and cakes wasn't in their plans.
Which left me with the occasional dream of rolling and pulling and throwing out sheets of pastry, ready for a life as a strudel filled with fruits and drenched in glaze. The perfect friend to a piping hot cup of coffee.
But maybe I was in the wrong city? Maybe London needs some fattening up?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cuisine Economique

These days I've been looking for ways to streamline my cooking. Between having a toddler and now a European sized fridge and pantry (one cabinet with three narrow shelves) I have to make the best use of my limited space and time. After years of cheffing in the sprawling kitchens of the rich and famous as well as some nice sized kitchens of my own, it's been a bit of a shock to the system. But I find myself doing more of what I'd call junk cooking or "cuisine economique" as a hat tip to one of my kitchen heroes, Jacques Pépin.

When I was a teenager aspiring to have an important first job- as a baker; so serious was I that I agreeably started my days at 4 am- I learned a lot about the economy of re-using foods that were still good but that everyone was less than charmed with on the 2rd or third round. I know this sounds horrible, like chicken becoming a tetrazzini in it's final incarnation but it's much more tasty and practical than that. It started with a cookie and a brownie and the cut ends of cake... we would chuck all of these things into the mixer with loads of spices and some oil and a bit of molasses, mixing in sugar and other things to correct the dough, roll it into logs the length of a sheet pan, bake and glaze. The final product was called a spice bar and it was always a hit. Joggers (it was the 80s) would come our way on their runs to get a few- for energy- always saying how healthful they were. Many asked for the recipe, which my boss would always retain with a wink- old family recipe, guarded for generations.

So now in honor of all who have taught me, I am making bread puddings from the endless bits of puddings that keep finding their way into our kitchen. I buy a chicken now not just with the intention of making a stock from the carcass after the bird has been roasted and consumed, but with the menu worked out for the next few and final days of that chicken's existence as anything resembling fowl. You see, my freezer is the size of a shoebox, I have no space to make and save endless bits, stocks, demi glaces or other delectables.

The toddler helps me stay honest in my cooking and grocery shopping because I have to always keep space on his buggy for toys, nappies, books and extra clothes in case the weather turns. So when I shop I can only bring home what will fit. Sometimes I'm amazed at what I can fit, but I no longer buy things in bulk and let them sit for years while I figure out how I will cook them.

An oversized batch of de Puy lentils became patties for the babe, a pilaf for us (with cumin seeds and cilantro) and was ground up to thicken a soup. I have always known how to cook like this, I just got lazy with my american sized fridge, freezer and a whole room dedicated to the saving and cataloguing of foods of every ethnic persuasion imaginable.

I have no pictures of these junk dishes I'm been making, part of the economy of preparing them is lacking the time for glamour shots, but I shall fit some in here soon. That or I'll just make up some recipes like this.

Bread Box Pudding
2 cups of stale breads, preferably with some fruit or nuts
1-2 cups milk
1/2 a homemade granola bar, 1/2 a bran muffin, odds and ends
a handful of dried fruit
2 eggs
tiniest pinch of salt
1 T sugar
1 T ground almonds
2 four ounce ramekins oiled with 1 T butter

Cut or tear the stale bread into 1/2" pieces and soak for 40 minutes in milk (you may need a little more than 1 cup).
Preheat oven to 200º C.
Gently squeeze the milk out of the bread and put into a second bowl. Add the granola bar/muffin/etc and lightly toss to incorporate the bits evenly. Measure out the milk and add a bit more to total 1 cup, beat in eggs, salt and sugar.
Put 1/2 of the bread mixture into each ramekin, sprinkle with 1/2 of the almond and then pour the milk/egg mixture over the top slowly letting it soak in.
Bake for 30 minutes in the middle rack.

Let cool for 10 minutes before eating, although this will be hard!

Past successes, perhaps future successes?

Now that we've fully settled into our thoroughly British new life I become wistful about things I have done in my 15 years of cooking for a living.

I always loved throwing a party which I attended only as a host, coordinator, go to gal... etc etc. I know that for many it defeats the whole purpose of the party. Don't misunderstand, I love throwing my own parties, drinking cocktails with my friends, losing my cocktail plate a million times and only eating once the attendees has dwindled down to w mere handful and all partake in one rollicking conversation. But relieved from the expectations of hosting as a friend- maintaining a thread in a discussion, keeping your fabulous and frivolous outfit together, making sure glasses are full, people are attended to- the minutiae of the event can be checked, rechecked and perfected. There is a large part of my personality this appeals to and it just doesn't exist outside of the vocation of event management (what a unflattering job title that is!) unless you don't mind your friends thinking of you as a bit eccentric.

When I first began cooking for a living I was in the better part of my 20s, the time when you're too broke to notice, too cheap to lavish yourself with things, too young to bother with sleep, too busy to stop socializing. I knew multitudes of people who were always ready to dash over, slice off a hunk of roasted cheap meat, scoop up some kind of cozido, tear off a claw of homemade bread, wash it all down with a cheap but solid glass of wine and then stay for hours while others filtered through my home doing the same. So I threw parties, impromptu affairs that started with calling (no texts, no email, no facebook) about 50 people, inviting all, ending up with friends of friends of friends and often well over 100 people milling around my loft in downtown LA. I hosted parties so large that there were times I met people for the first time in my own home, "guests" who had attended my parties numerous times before figuring out who I was in the crowd and coming over to say thank you. But as wonderful as my memories of these times were, there was very seldom anything that stood out about these parties, making them unique events.

As I approached 30, I had thrown many of my own parties but also hundreds of events for clients. Events that included live concerts, people being flown in, elaborate floral arrangements, changing the color of pool water, hiring ping pong tables, hiring musicians... I had become an event planner. The thrill of having strangers approach me in my own home had shaken hands and traded places with the thrill of "pulling it off". Having a laundry list of the unique needs of clients and fulfilling it...

When we moved to Berkeley, I found a group of like minded eaters and cooks who liked to gather around a roast, a paella pan, make gnocchi, share recently foraged ingredients, celebrate the harvests of stonefruits, apples, arugula, berries, nettles. From this community I grew as a cook, but I also learned to teach people how to cook, I learned to talk about food. I found all of this enriching to my menu planning for even clients with the plainest palates.

As I approached my mid 30s I missed cooking more challenging food, and my desire to widen my circle of guests beyond friends had been rekindled. It was not yet the rage when my husband consented to me taking over our entire San Francisco flat and hosting a "secret restaurant." We convened twice a month, an email went out to what began as a small list and then expanded to a large list. Twelve seats filled each night, 5 courses were served at a polite pace with very polite pours of wine. Once the amuse bouche and the first glass of wine were taken in, rooms full of strangers (a four top in our makeshift hallway dining room, an 8 top in our living room with a view out the bay window and the fire lit) became acquainted. I took breaks to get feedback, explain ingredients, cooking techniques, see how things were going, but for the most part I was hidden in the kitchen. We had dinners that focused on outdoor cooking, or just salt, or just one region of the world.

So now I wax sentimental about these times in my life- when I hosted an event people would remember. It is not the most important thing in the world to do, but it is something we do to carry us from day to day. Relax, uncoil, explore our palates, break from the every day.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Delicious things from Abel & Cole

Among the many delectable treats we have been getting from our organic produce and grocery delivery peeps is perfection in a slice of toast- 100% rye sourdough bread from Long Crichel Bakery. They hand form the loaves after a long ferment and then fire them up in a wood oven. This with a little butter and jam in the morning and I'm set for the day.

Also among the notable box items this and every week- Eccles Cakes! I swear, these British sweet treats will be the end of me. And if they can get to me, who has never had a sweet tooth even when I was 8 and trick or treating only to give the candy away at the end of the night, they can get to anyone!

Of course, the food research is the driving force behind all of this new nibbling. How can you move to a new country and not sample the foods that are the backbone of their history. And it's not all just mobray pork pies and jellied eels, my friend. No no, there's Victoria Sponge, Puds (puddings, abbreviated in a way I can't get used to), Hot Cross Buns and the list goes on.

It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make for the sake of knowledge.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Ginger & White, a delightful addition to Hampstead's Village

While out on errands today the family and I made a discovery that may be so good it's bad.
Walking down Perrins Court in search of non-food items we saw a new beautiful brown awning poking it's head out, sheltering a few trim tables and their occupants. The rain threatened to drizzle down, but no one seemed deterred. We quickly walked over to see what new cafe had sprung up overnight in our tiny berg.
Already from the outside you could see the people behind Ginger & White have excellent taste as evidenced by their teapots and china- hybrids of Heath heft and Victorian flare. Peeking inside there was a lovely cozy room at the entrance where coffee and tea were being prepared, sweet toothsome snacks were out out on display and things were bustling. To the right and nestled in was another room with beautiful modest furnishing that had obviously been painstakingly chosen to represent comfort, design and cafe style. All that and still the room felt uniquely cozy.
So even as we had satisfied bellies from our full English only a few hours prior, we thought it best to sample a little of what G&W had to offer. We had some lovely carrot cake made by a local and fresh brownies, the babe had a flapjack that I later noticed came wrapped in cellophane but was fresh and delicious as if it had been made on site. My husband had a flat white to drink and I had a perfectly prepared Silver Needle White tea. The coffee was apparently good enough to win allegiance as the new morning commute coffee even at a slightly higher price than the current choice of Gail's. High praise.
The sweets were just as I like them- full of flavor and then sugary only at the end. I was happily surprised by a very slight saltiness of the carrot cake, which stood out nicely against the flowery undertones of my white tea.
We had a lovely chat with Emma, one of the co-owners, who in spite of the crazy schedule she must have of late (opening the new cafe with her husband and a 3rd business partner AND being mommy to a 9 month old!) was charming, poised and friendly. She and her business partners have some great ideas of what Hampstead needs in a cafe- along with normal weekday hours, they are currently offering brunch from 8:30 into noon on weekends; of course they make a mean cuppa and they also seem to know how to make some great nibbles and how to source the rest. I hope that people discover their cafe and love it as we did, and from the looks of it, they already have. But as I said at the start, it may be a bad thing we found them so soon (they only opened 6 days ago!), just on the heels of a new ice cream shop opening on Flask Walk- my waistline may have regrets!