Le Patinage

My son skated for the first time last week. It was not his first time on the ice. I had dragged him once as a little guy, and then brought him to the Yerba Buena rink in San Francisco three times and even got him a private lesson there in preparation for our holiday travels. (I even had a moment of complete parent failure when I realized that somehow allowed my kid to reach ten without learning how to skate. What kind of raised-in-Minnesotan was I?) But the first time he really skated – which, during his many protests that he’d already gone and didn’t like it when I was saying that since he hadn’t actually skated yet he had no idea if he liked it or not, I described as gliding on the ice with alternating feet – was on December 30 in the Parc La Fontaine in Montréal.

A pretty damn magical place to skate.

It’s a huge long rink that snakes a bit around and past the rec center-cum-warming hut. Unlike the previous rinks he’d been on – including the giant and beautiful one at the Plaines d’Abraham in Québec City – it is just open ice. People generally go to the right of each other, but there is no dizzying circle for counter-clockwise skaters to follow. No place I ever skated was quite as gloriously perfect in setting, but it was, in other ways, like the rinks I grew up skating on. No fees, no lines, so start times. People from the neighborhood just walk over to the park where the baseball fields were flooded, put on their blades, and skate around – some seeing how much speed they could work up or practicing their spins, but most just gliding on ice, turning the freezing cold into something fun.

After we finally left to eat lunch, he asked to go back. As I taught him how to do a simple spin he said “Mama, you should get skates so you can skate whenever you want.”

Which was funny, because two days before that, as I was gliding around the rink in the Plains of Abraham in Québec City, I had thought that it was funny that when I was, say, 11 and 12 there were three things I really really liked to do besides read: Ice skate and speak French. At that point I was just learning French, but I loved it. It felt like a secret code and it was somewhat difficult so when things clicked it felt like it mattered. I have, as with my skating, let it fall to the wayside. I don’t use it, so I’m losing it. Sure, I can still get through commercial transactions and read okay, just like I can still whiz around the ice, but I have completely lost the ease and fluency I had in my late teens. I also have some work to do before I land a toe loop.

I have, I am happy to report, changed a lot since I was 12. But this Winter Wonderland tour we’ve taken (Minneapolis-Québec City-Montréal) has shown me that it ends up I still like ice skating and I still like speaking French. In 2014 I’m going to do both. I am going to get skates and go skating, even if the rinks near me are tiny and I have to pay to spin. And I’m somehow going to recapture some of my facility with French. I have a podcast of a decent radio show to get started and a book in French I’ve been meaning to read and a neighbor who would, I’m betting, be willing to correct my bad grammar once in awhile.

New Year
ice skating

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The BMW of eggnogs

I have a friend who is the kind of person who is asked to do things like drive a BMW around for a month and write up a few blogs about his experience driving a BMW around. While I’m quite happy not driving a BMW or any other automobile around, I must admit that I would like to be the kind of person about whom someone thinks: “Hey, you know what would be interesting? To have Molly Watson drive a BMW around for a month and write about it.”

So far, however, that it not the case. Instead, I am the kind of person who gets asked to taste eggnog and maybe write that up. It’s better than not being asked to do anything, but it lacks both the glamor and the potential for lifestyle reflection that the BMW experience seems to offer up on a platter.

Alas, I like eggnog. I like eggnog even though when I was a kid my mom always watered it down with skim milk, a practice that now strikes me as vaguely criminal. Though to her credit, she also used to sprinkle the surface with nutmeg, and this was before coffee shops had all kinds of brown ground spices sitting around for sprinkling-on-drinks purposes; nutmeg on eggnog was pretty darn festive. Dust on sweet eggy milk! Merry Christmas!

So I grabbed my purse and, lacking a BMW to test drive, walked down to the Whole Foods near my house to meet up with their public relations person and several other writers (I’m guessing they didn’t arrive in BMWs either, but I’ll confess that I didn’t investigate) to taste through the various eggnogs the store sells this time of year.

One thing about PR people who work in food, as a group they are a one-two punch of generosity. PR folks in general want to make writers and editors and really everyone happy and often go about trying to do that by giving them things; food people tend to be an effusive, hospitable lot; put the two together and you had to sort of know going in that more than just nog would be on offer.

Several cheeses, an orange cake, a turtle tart, some brilliant cranberry membrillo, a few crackers, and several bottles of wine were also on the table. And a ham. You know, as one does.

The ham (Wellshire, $3.99 per pound) sat next to me. Honey-glazed and spiral-cut, it was a ham straight off my grandmother’s annual Christmas make-your-own-sandwich buffet. I have foggy memories of a traditional roast and a set table and the general re-creation of Thanksgiving that was Christmas dinner in the big house on Wooddale Avenue, but then my grandparents got divorced and Gram moved into a townhouse in Bloomington and “didn’t want to go to all that fuss.” As a kid I thought it was brilliant. No more long dinner to slog through before present-opening. Sign me up for ham sandwiches!

So I ate a piece of ham and it was good. Since it was right next to me I managed to snag what I’m sure many would have seen as the slightly overdone piece on the cut-side of the ham. The crispy bits and browned surface were, to this edge-loving girl, perfection. Nice and salty. Left the kind of heightened savory state in my mouth that only eggnog can conquer.

To the nogs!

We started with two non-dairy nogs. We all agreed that the almond milk one had an unpleasant processed flavor and a weird aftertaste that was not at all eggnog-ish. Everyone else liked the coconut milk one. I thought it tasted like eggnog-flavored coconut milk, which it was and which immediately conjured up an image of a big vat of “eggnog flavor” sitting on the shelf at the coconut milk factory and I just wasn’t there. If, however, I didn’t drink dairy and really needed that special Christmas taste that only eggnog can deliver, it would appeal. It didn’t taste bad, I just didn’t like the picture of that flavor vat in my head.

Non-dairy unpleasantness out of the way, we moved on to the real task at hand: which commercially made eggnog sold at the Potrero Hill Whole Foods in San Francisco is the best? Surely many cuticles have been gnawed down to shreds as people wait anxiously for this information.

It must be said, in the spirit of full journalistic disclosure, that I went in with a favorite. I figured I would politely sip whatever eggnogs were poured and then have my deeply held belief that Straus makes the best one confirmed by a jury of my peers.

Pride goeth before the fall!

The best, as unanimously agreed upon my all those present, was Organic Valley. Nutmeg and vanilla in the mix made the difference, as well as the thick and smooth mouth-feel (Such a gross term! Yet so evocative! We food people adore it!) provided by the gellan gum included in the list of ingredients. Straus, by adding neither vanilla nor gellan gum, kept to a more traditional and natural path that, while utterly delicious, simply wasn’t the best on offer.

The good news? We can all save money: a quart of the Organic Valley is $4.99 while a quart of Straus is $6.49.

The bad news? We’ll have to up our intake of gellan gum.

Gellan gum is made by fermenting an aquatic plant. It’s a gelling agent used as a vegan alternative to gelatin and as an additive that keeps the particles suspended in soy milk and the cocoa hanging around evenly in chocolate milk. I’ve never seen it called for in any of the many recipes for homemade eggnog I’ve surveyed over the years.

I’m not positive, of course, but I don’t remember there being any gellan gum in the eggnog Christina Lopez’s stepmom made and paid us $5 an hour to ladle out at her Christmas open house when we were in eighth grade (money we wisely spent on Duran Duran EPs). Whipped cream and whipped egg whites and a custard base and a bottle of brandy were involved, and we had to pour and ladle and stir and then not stir them in a particular order, which is why we were getting the big bucks.

Gellan gum is probably just fine to eat. I know next to nothing other than what the google machine just told me about it, but I tend to eschew the processed and I’m suspicious when foods with more highly processed ingredients are tastier than their non- or minimally processed counterparts. Do they really taste better or were they simply scientifically formulated to make me like them better? What is the difference between those two things? Santa, I’d like an answer.

After all, I’ve spent years waiting for Christmas to roll around so I can buy Straus eggnog. Such an improvement, I always thought, over the thicker, sweeter versions of my childhood (the taste of which is spot-on captured by Clover, $3.99/quart, and which made me think perhaps Mommy Dearest wasn’t so crazy with her skim milk addition to cut that brew a bit). I bet if I’d tasted the Organic Valley on it’s own, far from a sample of Straus, I would have thought “This is really good, it’s almost as good as Straus,” and then looked at the label, seen something I didn’t know what it was, and happily bought Straus the next time I was at the store.

But the side-by-side revealed the lack of vanilla and a slightly thinner, less gellan gum-enhanced texture in Straus. So I’m going to gently suggest two things: First, that Straus throw a few vanilla beans in their eggnog next year and maybe a little more cream to thicken things up (although I think the vanilla was really the key to Organic Valley surging ahead with the crowd of six tasters); second, that the fine folks at Organic Valley make theirs without the gellan gum. Now that would be an eggnog tasting!

Come on guys, you have months to fiddle around with the exact recipe in time to make Christmas 2014 the best ever.


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How to Cook a Turkey

I’ve cooked several lifetimes worth of turkeys. Being a food writer will do that to a person. Such vast experience has left me with no desire to cook one ever again. It has also left me with a remarkable ability to cook a turkey—blindfolded if necessary—and to do it well. Like, really well. People say things like, “Holy shit, this is the best turkey I’ve ever tasted,” and, “Why is this turkey so much better than every other turkey I’ve ever eaten?” and, “Molly, will you marry me?”

It seems wrong to keep this precious knowledge to myself, especially in November, when so many people are suffering, overwhelmed by what they mistakenly think is the Herculean task of cooking a turkey. That’s their first problem: they let the turkey get into their head. Like dealing with your drunken aunt’s insults at the dining table, cooking a turkey is primarily a mental game and you need to start from a position of confidence, with a take-no-prisoners attitude. Then, do as I do, and be the boss of that bird:

1. Salt the Shit Out of the Turkey

I know, you’ve heard all about this brining thing. If you want the hassle of creating gallons of brine and figuring out a place where your turkey can simultaneously be submerged in the brine and kept cold, knock yourself out. I stopped brining turkeys years ago. I just salt them. It’s easier, it makes a crazy delicious and moist bird, and you don’t risk overdoing it and ending up with something more sea sponge than poultry. On Monday, I work gobs of salt into every part of the turkey. I salt it inside and out. Instead of letting the turkey get under your skin, get salt under its skin. Then I plop it in a pan, cover it, and stick it back in the fridge. On Wednesday, I uncover it, pour off any liquid in the pan, and put it back in the fridge uncovered so the skin can dry out—all the better to crisp up! Early on Thursday I take it out to let off any chill, which helps it cook more evenly. Cooking a cold bird is the primary cause of The-Breast-Is-Dried-Out-But-The-Thighs-Are-Bloody syndrome. Food safety experts will tell you not to leave the turkey out for hours; you may want to listen to them or you may want a delicious turkey. The choice is yours!

2. Layer On Some Fat

Here’s another reason to let the turkey de-chill before cooking: an ice-cold bird is near impossible to slather with butter, and turkey rewards me with moist meat and crisp skin in exchange for said butter massage. If newspaper food sections and television cooking segments are to be believed, people around the country live in mortal fear of a dry turkey. I figure I’d mention this easy work-around.

I’ve also been known to lay slices of bacon or pancetta all over the breast to give it a bit of protection from the heat. This tactic also results in crackling turkey-flavored bacon for me to nosh on while finishing up the feast. You may choose to share it, but that’s fucking insane— Who’s watching football? Them! Who’s making this bird? You! So who gets the bacon? It’s simple math.

3. Put the Turkey Someplace Crazy Hot

For most of you, this is an oven. For me, it’s a grill. Wherever it is, make it hot. Really hot. The someplace hot may, if you’re a bit nuts, be a giant vat of oil because you’ve decided to deep-fry your turkey. Color me impressed.

Note: Grilling the turkey frees up valuable oven space for roasting brussels sprouts and re-heating all those crap dishes your guests insisted on bringing to “help.” If you’ve put the bacon slices on like I told you to, your yard and possibly even your neighborhood with be perfumed with the scent of cooking bacon and you’ll have something pithy to say if you’re gathered with people who insist everyone at the table say what they’re thankful for. I know I’m always thankful that “I’m grateful for a deck that smells of bacon” keeps me from saying, “I’m grateful for all the times I haven’t had to go around the table like it’s kindergarten saying what I’m grateful for.”

4. Cook the Turkey Until It Is Done

But how long do I cook the turkey, you’re asking. You’re pleading. You’re emailing and texting and tweeting me all Thursday morning. Such a question forces me to state the obvious: you cook it till it’s done. If you’re into gadgets, go buy a fancy digital thermometer. But while your fix-it friend is busy figuring out how to replace the batteries, you can just wiggle the leg. Does it feel loose? Like your son could pretty much rip it off and gnaw on it Henry VIII-style? The bird is done.

How big the turkey is, the temperature and size and altitude of your oven are all going to factor into the magical, mystical equation. Another important factor will be how often you and your nosey relatives open the oven door to check on its progress.

5. Give the Bird a Break

After all the salting, butter-massaging, roasting, and wiggling, your turkey is exhausted. The key to being a good boss is knowing when to push and when to let up. Let the bird hang out for awhile before you attack it. Give it at least half an hour. Yep. Just let it sit there and mellow under a cozy blanket of foil. The turkey will think all the fuss is over, relax, and let all its yummy juices settle back in place after their frantic attempts to escape the protein as it cooked. Plus, it will give you time to eat that bacon, pound back a Manhattan, and try to remember why all those damn people are in your house.


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Fried goat and discomfort

I am just back from Addis Ababa. It is big and sprawling and amazing and smoggy and fascinating and filled with traffic and rubble and green and yellow painted corrugated tin construction fences.

Food-wise the most stunning thing was that for the most part the Ethiopian food I encountered there was shockingly like the Ethiopian food I’ve had in the United States. One place, in particular, served up a “fasting foods” combination that seemed magically tele-transported from the long-defunct Odaa restaurant in Minneapolis where I ate many a “vegetarian combinations” in high school.

That said, not every bite was something I’d had before. A delicious example was a flat bread (ambesha) made for holidays (the occasion for my tasting was St. Michael’s Day) that seemed a lot like some version of foccacia topped with berbere and melted butter instead of rosemary or garlic. At first the cook didn’t want to top it with the berbere because she, like many Ethiopians, believed that foreigners don’t like spicy things. Our host, who was better versed in the many and varied ways of foreigners, assured her we would be fine. And as we pulled off pieces and stuffed them in our jet-lagged faces, we were.

An equally interesting example was the fried goat I tucked into at the “Honeymoon Resort” – that was the actual English name of the place, not some creepy euphemism as evidenced by the fact that it was filled with extended families enjoying a leisurely and in no way illicit lunch – and washed down with tej, the remarkably Tang-tasting slightly effervescent honey wine of Ethiopia.

The tej and goat were consolation for our inability to see the waterfall, baboons, and medieval monastery we had set out to see. As we headed back to Addis our driver-friend asked if we wanted to stop for lunch. There was a place famous for it “and meat too” in the next town. The answer to that type of question, in my mind, is always and enthusiastically yes.

After we toasted our unsuccessful but enjoyable morning with tej, our server offered us ox, sheep, or goat. When we chose goat he wondered if we would like it raw, boiled, or fried.

I wish I were brave enough to order raw goat at a roadside restaurant on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, where even in the city most meat is sold from shops like this open-air number where the butcher simply cuts off a piece of the carcass hanging behind him unrefrigerated and exposed to the dust and exhaust that fills the street -

- but fried it was. The oil, we figured, would take care of most possible contaminants. It arrived piping hot and was kept so by the live charcoal burning under the cast iron serving plate. Can you see them? The live embers?

We scooped up the small bits of crispy meat with the injera and dipped or dredged each bite in the trio of spicy dollops alongside. The tej softened the heat as we worked out way through the pile of goat. I soon forgot how very baboon-less my morning had been.

As we went about the rest of our day I noticed that my companion that day kept asking where the bathroom was and then sneaking off and back with alarming frequency. Later that night I learned exactly why. The next morning I started the day with just tea and crackers, but was right as rain by lunch time. It was my only instance of digestive disturbance during two weeks in Africa, and it served to remind me that discomfort is not always to be avoided.

Would I, knowing the lack of sleep I would get that night, still have eaten the fried goat in order to share a specialty with someone excited and proud to show off his country’s delicacies? Absolutely. Just as I happily endured the swollen feet that come with 24-plus hours of plane travel to get there in the first place.

More tales from Africa to come. I promise.


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Snails as escargots

“Not bad,” I said twenty-five years ago after choking down the chewy, gray nugget with a smile on my face.

“They are super, aren’t they?” my Dijonnais host father asked, full of enthusiasm, as he always was when exposing me to something particularly French.

“It is strange that escargots are a Burgundian specialty,” I observed, avoiding the question he had actually asked.

“Strange? Why strange?” he asked.

“Because we are so far from the sea,” I said.

“The sea?” he asked with that tell-tale mocking tone of his, “but what does the sea have to do with it?”

“The snails,” I said, speaking more slowly than usual, having a sense that I was digging my own grave, “are from the sea, no?”

The entire family looked at me, stunned, for a second or two before dissolving into Gallic laughter.

“No, no, cherie,” the father said, “snails, they are from the land!”

They then took turns incredulously wondering out loud how on earth I could have possibly thought escargots were shellfish. It seemed obvious to my Minnesota-raised self: they were in shells and they were fancy. Shellfish were rare and the harsh winters meant I had seen neither snail or slug in all my days of weeding my mom’s garden and pulling dandelions from the lawn. Too bad for the snails, too, since the rock garden my mom tended to one side of the house was a snail’s paradise, full low-growing leafy greens, stalks of tulips and iris, and plenty of dark, dank spaces between and under the rocks.

Since there are sea snails that get eaten (whelks!), I maintain that my seventeen-year-old ignorance was (and is) completely understandable. So imagine my utter delight when it came out – through a loud declaration on the street during our New Year’s trip to Paris while we were talking about finding a restaurant that served escargot to indulge our omnivorous son’s desire for same, that my dashing husband had the same impression. He managed to carry that impression with him for well over four decades. I understood, of course, and stopped myself from immediately pointing out that our garden had, at one time, been full of snails.

Yet the fact that our garden snails and escargots are, at heart, the same, came out on New Years Eve when our son finally got his escargots, and the table reveled in that funny fact. At our son’s insistence – since escargots are so very delicious, mind you – I then harvested, purged, and cooked snails from not our but our friend’s Bay Area garden. You can read all about it in my story “A Snail’s Tail” in Edible San Francisco. It includes detailed instructions on catching, purging, and cooking garden snails. I feel I must first warn you, however, that the whole endeavor is a messy process.

I started with this colander full of snails. They lived in a bucket in my study, kept in by a pair of old black tights stretched across the top which proved a great top since they could happily cling to it (they seem to really dig being upside down) and I could keep it, and thus the bucket, damp without any standing water lying around making things gross. Correction: grosser.

Every day I would take the snails out, put them in a big bowl on the kitchen counter, and, while they riled around in what can only be described as an orgyistic fashion, I cleaned out their shit- and slime-covered bucket. The snail excrement was really the least of it. It was the slime that made the process so disgusting. The poo rinsed right out, easy peasy. The slime, though, the slime clung to the bucket and required scrubbing.

The slime then stayed with them when they were parboiled in a pot of salt water for three minutes so when I pulled them from their shells I was pulling out gray snotty-looking chunks that stretched somewhat straight before springing back into their spiral shape. The slime then needed to be cooked off in a bath of vinegar-laced water before the snails could then be prepared to be eaten.

A quick run-down: first catch the snails, then feed them cornmeal for a few days, starve them for about a day (trust me, you want all that poo out), all this time you’re washing out whatever you’re keeping them in daily, then rinse the snails clean, boil then in salt water for three minutes, use tweezers to pull the snotty snails from their shells, boil the de-shelled snails in a mix of three or four parts water to one part vinegar until the slime cooks off (you’ll see the slime in the form of curdles little bits in the water), drain the snails and rinse them very very well. Only then can you cook them up with plenty of garlic-shallot-parsley butter. (Oh, did I mention that if you want to use the shells you’ll need to boil them in six cups water that has one-quarter cup of baking soda added to it, drain them, and let them dry.)

I don’t know, none of it really seemed worth it to me. And after all that slime, I found I wasn’t much in the mood for snails, even if I dubbed them escargots.

Worst of all, the whole process made my friend dream that I served her hamsters and rats I kept in cages and was “working on the smoking technique to make them less chewy.”

Truth be told, after taking care of the creepy crawlies all week, I had intermittent thoughts of vegetarianism as I prepared them. Even mucus-factories were, it became clear, in search of life and freedom. When they weren’t entwined in indiscriminate snail humping, they were up and out of that bowl, scurrying away as fast as they could (and faster than the phrase “a snail’s pace” would have you imagine).

My moment of sympathy would pass, however, as I scrubbed up the trail of slime they left behind them.

San Francisco

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Un petit gateau

If you’re a food writer and you go to Paris, people are going to ask you about what you ate. Or, to be more specific, a remarkable number of people will ask “What was the best thing you ate?” It will be their first, and often only question about your trip.

If you answer that, honestly, the best thing you ate was the bœuf bourguignon you made yourself, well, they aren’t going to like that. They want, I assume, to hear about the best baguette ever or flaky croissants every morning or cheese that blew your mind (okay, I did have a cheese that was washed in walnut liqueur that was pretty crazy awesome). They want tales of loupe de mer so perfectly cooked it was worth the surly attitude of the waiter. They want you to be as enthralled by the meals you ate as they are about the idea of you eating them.

The problem is that while there is a lot of delicious food in Paris, there is also a lot of mediocre food there. There is also a lot of really good food here. And if you’re a family with tastes that tend towards either the ultra-fresh produce California-style and/or spicy, Paris in winter is not going to hit your culinary sweet spot. I first went to Paris 26 years ago. I lived there at two different points and visited many times in between. The difference in quality that used to exist between the average French meal and the average American meal – at least the average meal I eat in America – is no longer a giant slap in the face. And, I would humbly assert, if you’re operating on anything resembling a budget, the City by the Bay has the City of Lights beat by a mile on both variety and quality.

I’m not saying we didn’t eat well – we had some great meals and, just as importantly, we had some really super fun meals. And my son would point out that any place where steak frites is a normal lunch option and where escargots are thick on the ground is nirvana – I’m just saying that nothing stood out and grabbed us by the throat and screamed “eat more of me!” while we wondered where it had been all our lives.

Nothing, that is, except the individual gateaux Paris-Brest I bought at Maison Landemaine on the rue des martyrs on an impulse while picking up what are widely considered to be one of the best baguettes in Paris (yes, the baguette was very good indeed). As we ate them I kept wondering why they were so much better than any other I’d ever had.

A few weeks later, when called upon to bring dessert to a surprise birthday party, I though I’d make one. I pulled out a recipe I’d used before and what made the one at Landemaine such a winner slapped me in the face: they left out the pastry cream.


The dessert was lightened considerably, the praline flavor could shine through, and it was scads easier to make in the bargain. I made the big traditional wheel-shaped version for the party, but had just enough choux left over to make this mini one, like that from Landemaine. It was perfect to photograph and, I’ll be honest, to eat all by myself with a cup of coffee after lunch. So far it’s been the best thing I’ve eaten while thinking extremely fondly of our trip to Paris.

Gateau Paris-Brest

Created, so the story goes, to commemorate a famous bike race between Paris and Brest in 1891, this cake will strike some as a fancy riff on an eclair. As mentioned above, usually the praline is added to a pastry cream which is then spread in there which is then topped by a lesser amount of whipped cream than used here. I am not lying when I say that this is a prime example of less being more. The whipped cream-only version may be less, but it is way, way more.

Part of what I love about this pastry is that it contains just butter, flour, eggs, sugar, almonds, and cream. That’s it. There’s some water thrown in here and there, but those six ingredients are used in various ways to create a remarkably complex, delicious confection.

Start by preheating an oven to 400°F.

First, you need to make a choux paste. In a medium (2-quart is ideal) saucepan, bring one cup of water and 1/2 cup of butter to a boil – start it off on a low enough temperature so the butter melts before the water starts bubbling. Dump in 1 cup of flour. Seriously dump it all at once. Use a wooden spoon to stir everything together into a mass. A dough will quite quickly, and rather surprisingly, form as you do this. Reduce the heat to medium or so and cook and stir the dough until it clearly forms a single mass that holds together as you stir it and pulls away from the sides of the pan. Take the pan off the heat.

Add an egg. Stir like hell. At first the dough will fall apart and look horrible. Do not panic. This is just what happens. Keep stirring. It won’t seem like it, but the dough will come together again. Now that you’ve passed that hurdle you need to do it a second time. And a third. And a fourth. For this cake, instead of adding a fifth egg I like to add two egg whites. And no, you cannot add all the eggs and egg whites at once. You must do them one at a time and go through the dough breaking apart and then you man-handling it with a wooden spoon to get it to go back together each time. Choux paste is not for babies. Man up.

Lightly oil or butter the largest baking sheet you have. Use your fingertip to trace as large a circle as will fit on said pan (I find tracing around a cake pan or plate works nicely). Use a spatula to transfer the choux paste from the pan to a pastry bag fitted with a large tip. Make a circle of the choux paste on that circle. Make a second circle directly inside the first. Now make a circle on top of the two concentric circles. See how it sort of looks like a bicycle tire? A little bit?

Brush the pastry with a beaten egg and sprinkle it with about 1/4 cup of sliced almonds.

Increase the oven to 425°F and bake until the pastry is a dark golden-turning brown and the whole circle feels fairly light when you lift it, about 50 minutes. Cut horizontal slits into the sides of the pastry and return to the turned off oven for about 10 minutes to dry out the insides a bit more. Transfer the pastry to a rack and let it cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, make the praline, which is a real flavor of this dessert. Bring a sauce pan of water to a boil. Add one cup of raw almonds and boil/blanch for about 30 seconds. Drain the almonds, rinse them with cold running water, and slip off all their skins. This is an excellent task for children, should any be loafing about. Spread the almonds to dry on a clean kitchen towel or layers of paper towels.

Place a baking sheet next to the stove. If it’s nonstick, great; if not, spray it with cooking oil or lightly grease it.

In a light-colored frying pan, bring one cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of water to a boil. Swirl the pan as the water heats to dissolve the sugar. Add the almonds. Keep boiling and watching until the mixture turns a dark amber color. You want the sugar really caramelized and the almonds toasted. This goes from done to a burnt mess in the blink of an eye so, seriously, just stay there and watch it. When it’s ready, pour the caramel-almond mixture onto the pan. This mixture will be extremely hot and burn like hell, so be careful. Have the almond-peeling children well out of the way. If you happen to get the sugar mixture on you or someone else, get the coldest water possible on it immediately to harden the sugar and then pull the hardened caramel off the skin and get that skin under cold water.

Let the almond-caramel harden. Once it is completely cool, break it up and whirl it into a powder in a food processor. Now you have what the French call “praline.”

Just before serving, slice the pastry in half horizontally. Pull out any doughy bits of pastry, if you like.

Whip two cups of heavy cream until soft peaks form. Fold in about 3/4 of the praline. Spread the cream over the bottom of the pastry wheel. Sprinkle with about 1/2 of the remaining praline. Set the top of the pastry wheel on top of the whipped cream, being careful not to push down on it.

If at all possible, bring it to your friend’s house to surprise him for his 43rd birthday. Cut it into sections and serve the pieces sprinkled with the remaining praline, of you like (you may prefer to just eat the extra praline with a spoon). Set aside an extra slice for the birthday boy and stand with him while he eats it at the kitchen counter as you both sip a late harvest Riesling and reflect on the fact that being friends with someone for over 20 years is a fine and noble thing.

San Francisco

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Krabbe & kransekake

If K’s are funny, Norwegian is hilarious.

In all seriousness, it’s been a month of crab and kransekake. Crab because I wrote a story about going crabbing for Edible San Francisco, so I had to go crabbing to write it because the whole angle of the assignment was that 1) I love crab and 2) I’d never caught one before. Rough seas and crab fishermen strikes seemed like they were going to thwart my best efforts, but I finally found myself on Baker Beach at the ass crack of dawn with my My Very Tall Cousin Sam, a two-person kayak, a crab pot, and a professional photographer. My dad, who was visiting from Minneapolis, came along to see the show. You can read the full story in the Winter 2013 issue.

Kransekake because two different friends had occasions to celebrate and for both of them I made a kransekake. The one above was for our friend and neighbor. In place of the tiny paper Norwegian flags that traditionally decorate this wedding/birthdayChristmas cake, my son and I made flags with pictures of the man of honor on them. It was, to put it simply, a hit. I was thinking of baking kransekake for Christmas Eve, but the entire household agrees that two kransekakes in one month is sufficient.*

These kransekake-marked celebrations were both for people I admire a great deal. They are both smart, creative professional artists who are completely unpretentious and always up for fun. They remind me what I love about San Francisco.

And as much as I love my adopted city, there are times when I hate it. One of my younger cousins was in town and we met for lunch. Being the younger brother of the cousin I went crabbing with, he had heard about our adventure and was asking about it. As we talked, a woman eating several tables over came to our table and said “Excuse me, but I’m a vegetarian. I’m trying to eat my lunch and your discussion of crabs is disgusting.” She proceeded to use the word “disgusting” two more times and to have the unmitigated gall to ask us, in the most righteous, entitled way imaginable, to stop talking about what we were talking about.

I won’t get into how I laughed and asked if she was kidding, or how my cousin recognized that getting into it with such a person was a waste of time and told her sure, whatever. I won’t go into detail about how our discussion was not “disgusting” by any common definition or how we weren’t talking about killing, eating, or cleaning crabs, just going out in boats on cold water with traps. I won’t drone on about how her reward was getting to listen to us talk about how bat-shit crazy she was and trying to come up with scenarios where we would ever feel we had the right to tell someone else what to talk about (we only came up with examples that would first and foremost involve a call to the police).

I will, however, tell you my New Year’s wish: May all the grown-ups stop telling each other what to do.

I will eat my crab and bake my kransekake, as my adopted city and my homeland dictate, respectively, for this time of year. You can eat your bananas (disgusting!) or join a drum circle (my own personal nightmare!) and I promise I won’t get in your way.

* If you haven’t made any kraneskakes yet, here’s how: Whirl 1 pound blanched almonds (I use slivered almonds to avoid having to boil and peel all those nuts individually) in a food processor until they are ground to a fine meal. Stir in 1 pound powdered sugar to combine them well before stirring in 3 egg whites. If your kitchen is warm, you may be able to proceed as is, but I find the dough is easier to work with if I warm it in a double-boiler (or a metal bowl set over simmering water). Once the dough is malleable, transfer it to a pastry bag or large plastic bag with a snip of one of the corners cut off (I like this method because of the insanely easy throw-it-away clean-up). Pipe out thin rings into well-greased kransekake molds (you can get the Norpro Nonstick Kransekake Forms I use here) or, draw concentric circles on pieces of parchment paper and semi-free-hand it – a bold but workable move.

Bake the circles at 300°F for 30 minutes, remembering to rotate the pans or sheets about half-way through the baking time to avoid over- or under-done specimens. Let them cool for 10 minutes in the pans, then remove them and let cool on cooling racks.

If they break coming out of the molds, don’t stress – you can glue them back together easily enough when building the tower. While they cool, make a royal icing of about 1 cup powdered sugar, either a drop or two of vaniall extract or 1/2 tsp. lemon juice,  and enough milk to make an icing that is at once spread-able and drip-able. Stack the cooled rings, from largest to smallest, using the icing to glue each ring to the one underneath in. Decorate with drips of icing around the outside and any tiny flags you like.

My son dreams of the day I will let him add sprinkles to the whole thing. Serve the kransekake by letting people simply rip off pieces (in my experience, people need a bit of prodding to do this). Like all Norwegian desserts, it’s truly fabulous with coffee.


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New world

When I opened my eyes on Sunday morning there were snow flakes floating past the window. I lay in bed, trying to savor the extra hour at my disposal as much as I had savored the craft beers and fine company the night before. I was in Montreal, a guest of the tourism board, there to eat in general (I did) and experience their brand spanking new restaurant week called Montréal à Table (ditto). Friday and Saturday had been cold, windy, and drizzling at times, but the charm of the city shone bright in the gray depressing weather. I put on the heaviest clothes I brought, layered up, and ventured outside just as the snow stopped. As I walked the four kilometers to meet an old college friend for breakfast I stopped a few times to check the street signs and twice pulled out a map – my fancy-pants phone refused to roam – to make sure I was still heading the right way in an efficient fashion as I meandered a bit. Each time a fellow pedestrian or two would stop, ask if I needed help, and wish me a bonne journée.

My friend and I caught up, toured his neighborhood (he thoughtfully took me to his favorite food shops – all I can say is why doesn’t my neighborhood market have house made jars of cassoulet and choucroute in the fridge? why, it’s almost enough to make a girl pull up stakes and move like les filles du roi in the 1660s, so called because Louis XIV gave the poor, often orphaned or otherwise unprotected women trousseaux and dowries if they agreed to go marry settlers along the St. Lawrence, have as many French babies as possible, and generally act as a civilizing influence on the young colony), and I peppered him with questions about his adopted city. I asked if he had noticed the uniquely, to my mind, Quebecer habit of referring to North America as “the New World.” He had, and found it equally striking. In the way of a history professor and former historian, we batted around ideas about why that might be, all while tucking into plates of lost bread – French toast to you and me (so called either because it is made with bread that would otherwise go to waste or because to make it properly you need to let the bread really get lost down in the egg and milk mixture, depending on who you ask, and the restaurant‘s namesake). Mine all simple with plenty of maple syrup and his a savory version with cheese, topped with a poached egg, and served with a big pot of beer-braised ham and potatoes.

And before I knew it, it was time to grab my suitcase and hop in a cab to Pierre Trudeau airport to head west. I forewent my usual habit of decidedly not speaking to cab drivers in favor of getting in a last bit of French. He immigrated from Lebanon, loves Montréal, and seemed truly delighted that I – an American! – was so interested in food. He gave me his card. I am to call next I am in town. He knows some restaurants he thinks I would like.

In exchange for breakfast and a walking tour of the Plateau, I paid the price of an end-of-the-day flight home from parts east. I’ve done it before and I always manage to forget that particularly icky film that covers one after a long flight at the end of the day that lands late. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself until I walked into the gate area and saw the throngs of people waiting to get on the next flight, a red-eye to Guadalajara. From French-speaking Canada to Spanish-speaking California with U.S. customs in the Québec airport and a lay-over in Chicago in between; it was all very NAFTA.

I took a cab home. I was in no mood to talk about either the Giants or Sandy. But my cabbie was having none of my anti-social behavior. He started on the subject of the unseasonably warm weather and quickly shifted to politics, particularly the various “props” on the ballot in California. We agreed yes on 37 (labels those GMOs!) and that taking one’s absentee ballot to the polling place on Election Day makes it seem like more of an event. He and I moved to the same neighborhood at about the same time. I came to California to go to grad school. A Palestinian, he came to escape violence and oppression and make a better life for his family. He told me he enjoyed talking to me; I said I did too and wished him luck with the rest of his shift.

Montréal is a place where people will put rosemary in beer (bad idea Dieu de Ciel, although your trappist ale was fabuloso), pour warm maple syrup over creamy brie (Le Saint Bock you are clever!), and serve lamb tartare (Chez Victoire, vous me manquez déjà!). We may lack the obsession with maple syrup that our neighbors to the north embrace with such fervor, but Californians have, I’m quite sure, done all of those things at some point. We are a continent of immigration and invention, at our best when questioning tradition, not falling for “that’s how it’s always been” as a reason for anything, and open-minded about what else could be. The tour guide’s explanation of how French-Canadian sugar shacks are amalgams of Gallic, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon traditions doesn’t capture it in any way that makes the phrase useful in a contemporary context, but two cabbies, three thousand miles and eleven hours apart, with their love of their new world and their desire to talk with a stranger about the things they love best about it sure did.

I know too much about history not to appreciate the right to vote. Ladies: it hasn’t even been a 100 years since our kind have had that right throughout the U.S. I’m going to be casting my ballot with the new world in mind: a place, slowly but surely, of opportunity and civil rights for everyone.

Then I’m going to come home and douse some cheese in maple syrup.

maple syrup

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Ultimate Oyster

I’ve eaten dozens and scores of oysters on the half shell over the decades, once carrying a cooler full of them back to Minneapolis for Christmas when one could still carry a cooler full of oysters on a plane to the delight of security personnel.

These lovelies were not eaten on the half-shell. Rather, they were on the half-shell, but they were not raw.

I sort of set out to make barbequed oysters. I didn’t want just cooked oysters slathered with sickly sweet barbeque sauce, though, I wanted to replicate the ones I’ve had twice at the Marshall General Store on Tomales Bay. Both times I was up in Marshall for work – once to write a profile of cheese maker Marcia Barinaga for Culture magazine, the other time to tour the Straus Creamery. The oysters are cooked on a grill with some garlic butter and then lightly brushed with a barbeque sauce.

The thing is, I flew through Houston airport last month. I had a two-hour lay-over at lunch time. I hit Pappadeux’s and treated myself to a dozen raw oysters. They arrived, plump and fresh, with a dish of cocktail sauce and a dish of something much more intriguing. I’m pretty sure it was a mignonette made with sweet and spicy pepper jelly. And yet… I had no pepper jelly at hand.

So instead of barbeque sauce or the magic I had at the Houston airport (stranger things have happened, surely, than the discovery of something delicious at an airport?), I made my own spicy concoction that I dub spicy mignonette. I heated up the grill, set the oysters cupped shell-side-down on the grill, cooked them until the shells loosened, took them off the grill, easily shucked them, topped them each with a bit of garlic and parsley butter (a.k.a. beurre maitre d’hotel), put the oysters now on the half-shell back on the grill to cook through (look for the edges to just start to curl up), used tongs to carefully lifted them off the grill and onto a platter without spilling too much of their juices or the yummy butter onto the flame, and served them with the spicy mignonette.

We worked our way through the two dozen oysters pretty quickly. I sat, happy with my work, watching as my dashing husband went back at his shells to pry off any remaining bits of oyster and my omnivorous son licked his shells clean. Then they both attacked the remaining sauce with bits of bread. Dipping and eating until the dish was as clean as the oyster shells. Trace of neither bivalve nor sweetened and spiced vinegar was left when we were through.


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Well stocked

We are well stocked. At least when it comes to tomatoes. At least for the moment. Over 100 pounds of ripe San Marzanos and dry-farmed Early Girls have passed into my kitchen and been forwarded into jars in various forms. I dried them, as above. I popped them into jars, blanched and peeled, but still whole -

I realized that approximately all of the time I end of chopped whole peeled tomatoes to use them in sauce, so I canned some of them already chopped -

Of course, if I am chopped them to turn them into a sauce, a person may as well can sauce too -

Then I figured I may as well round things out and put up some perfectly  smooth skin-free and seedless purée -

What I really did with the vast majority of all those tomatoes, though, was to put in a supply of over a dozen half-pints of homemade tomato paste or, as we lovingly call it in my house, tomato conserva -

My dashing husband reckons that while he’d love to go through a full pint every week, he can probably limit himself to a half-pint each month, stingily spreading it, as Brits spread marmite, thin and scraggly on his toasted tranche of baguette before topped it with a fried egg for breakfast. Dabbing a bit here or there in pasta dishes when it’s his turn to cook. Doing this, please understand, when what he’d like to do is eat it by the spoonful while he researches graffiti artists or streams soccer games. He will sacrifice because he has seen what it takes to produce this brick red gold, because he is grateful anyone does such a thing for him, and because he can’t bare to think of that window of time that will inevitably come between when the last jar has been scraped clean and the first jar filled with a new harvest, when once again the house will smell of bubbling tomatoes and the seeds and pulp I pull from those tomatoes destined to become conserva -

get strained and we drink the most tomato-flavored and refreshing concoction I know -

It is a flavor that cannot be canned or jarred or kept with any integrity. I tried freezing it and something fell flat, if only my imagination. This tomato juice must be consumed immediately at best, within hours at the outside to capture all its tomato-ness. It is a reminder that you can only stock so much, only prepare and plan for things you can actually imagine. Some things must be taken in when they come along, no matter how much you’d rather have have had time to prepare or wished they’d come to you earlier. Cupboards may well be for stocking, but fresh tomato juice, like life itself, is for drinking up right now.


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