28 November, 2011

Turning firewater into holiday gold.

For the last twenty-five years Amsterdam has hosted a major art, antiques and design fair: PAN.
This year's collection is particularly strong.  (The torsos above are actually carved into the wood.) The fair manages to be inclusive and exclusive at the same time, with contemporary pieces shoulder to shoulder with antiquities.
In the ever-growing list of things I should have done but didn't: I didn't take note of the artists.  But you can enjoy these snaps anyway, right?  Don't judge me, I had two (increasingly impatient) kids with me...
This artist's name I did get, however:  Zhuang Hong Yi makes gorgeous, often ambitiously large-scale pieces using Chinese newspapers, rice paper and other traditional materials to create heavily worked, airy looking pieces that somehow manage to bridge the creative divide between his native China and the West, as he has lived in Holland for many years.
If you come to Amsterdam, I do suggest you check out his and other artists' work at Galerie Katwijk, in the heart of the canals and on the periphery of the antiques district.
I miss our chickens.  Can you tell?
I do wish you could have been there, to better appreciate the scale and detail in these works. The painting below is taller than me.  Which isn't saying that much, but still.  The faces are very intriguingly rendered.
Alongside these works were more classically rendered pieces.
Like this affecting portrait, with the wonderfully worked white space all around, and the neat signature dead center at the top.
A bit on the traditional side for me, but some gorgeous silver.  For your dining room, perhaps?
This is the first painting by Corneille (a founding member of the COBRA postwar art movement) that I actually really like.  And I have no idea why.  But you can see more of his work and many others at the COBRA museum, also here in Amsterdam.
These porcelain bugs were over a foot long each.  There had to be over a hundred, and each one was unique.  Cool in a odd way, right?
But I love owls most of all, especially stylized ones like this Art Nouveau one.  No idea where I would put it, but I'd definitely find a worthy spot.
This painting made me laugh out loud for its chutzpah and humor.  It is the real'er than real depiction of a kroket in a coin-operated automat.  What is a kroket you ask?  It's bastion of the crappy-but-alarmingly-addictive-late-night-snack kingdom.  It is gravy, rolled in breading and deep-fried, in the flavor of your choice.  Well, if your choice is a meat, or maybe shrimp.
There are absolutely scrumptious up-scale versions of the kroket, believe it or not.  Only they don't come out of a machine.  Like most nearly anything edible, they do taste better when they aren't made on an industrial scale.  (I don't know whether they still offer it, but the McDonald's here used to offer a McKroket Burger.  You know, to fit in with the locals.)
After visiting this giant show, I needed nothing more than to settle down, out of the cold weather.  And make something myself.
This time of year, a fire just feels right.  All the better to plan out the Thanksgiving menu.
I will spare you the hemming and hawing over the choices, the browsing through cookbooks and online, and cut to the fantastic ending: this sumptuous Bundt cake.  Oh, please do make this cake this winter, for the holidays, for me. Take apples, a bunch of booze (bourbon, whiskey, rum, take your pick, it'll work), well-toasted pecans, a big handul of candied ginger, and an indecent amount of sour cream.  You will get awful close to the best Bundt cake ever.
Thank you so much, Melissa Clark.  I have fallen in love with my Bundt pan again.  Of course, if you peek at the recipe below, you'll see you don't have to have a Bundt pan to make this.
The New York Times' Apple Bourbon Cake

Serves fourteen.

2 sticks unsalted butter (226 grams), at room temperature, plus more to grease pan
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (315 grams), plus more to dust the pan
3 tablespoons (30 grams) plus 1/2 cup (80 grams) bourbon or rye whiskey
1/2 cup (90 grams) candied ginger, chopped
1 3/4 cup (330 grams) light brown sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons (8 grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking soda
1 teaspoon (2 grams) ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) ground cardamom
1 teaspoon (5 grams) fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup (227 grams) sour cream
1 tablespoon (15 grams) vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoon (5 grams) finely grated lemon zest
2 medium tart apples (454 grams), peeled, cored, and coarsely grated
1 cup (120 grams) finely chopped, toasted pecans
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon (20 grams)

Heat the oven to 165C/325F. Grease and flour a 12-cup bundt pan. If you don't have one, you can use two (nine inch) loaf pans instead, or even two (eight-inch) round pans; keep in mind the baking times will need to be reduced accordingly.  In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons bourbon and the chopped, candied ginger and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together the brown sugar and butter on medium-high speed, until light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. Then beat in the eggs, adding one at a time, until thoroughly incorporated. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the remaining flour with the baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. In another separate small bowl, whisk together the sour cream and vanilla. Add the bourbon from the ginger mixture, reserving the ginger) and stir in the lemon zest.

With the mixer on medium speed, add the dry mixture and sour cream mixture to the wet mixture in three additions, alternating between the two. Fold in the ginger, apples and pecans and combine thoroughly, and fill the prepared pan.

Bake until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out dry, about 1 hour 10 minutes. If you made the cake in loaf pans, you'll need to start checking for doneness around 45 minutes.  If you made the cake in eight inch round pans, start checking even earlier, at around 25 minutes. Cool in the pan about 20 minutes, then run a paring knife around the sides of the pan to release the cake if necessary; allow to cool, flat side down, on a wire rack.

As the cake cools, blend the 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup whiskey in a small saucepan over very low heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the lemon juice and take off the heat. While the cake is still warm, flip back into the pan and make a few slits on top with a paring knife. Pour half the bourbon-sugar mixture over the cake. When the cake is fully cool, flip it and pour the rest of the glaze on the other side, then flip once again to serve.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

23 November, 2011

Of mice and (wo)men.

It comes down to bread and butter--a very, very fine thing when you can get your hands on a loaf of Solognot.  My favorite local baker roughly slashes rectangles of this sesame, linseed, and sunflower seed-studded dough, and the result is light years airier than the usual French multigrain.  The addictive flavor lingers and lingers, needing nothing more than a smear of unadulterated butter.  And maybe some chestnut honey.
I had time to consider bread and butter, because for nine days of my fall break, it did nothing but rain in the south of France.  Whole villages were flooded.  Dozens of roofs were ripped off by a freak mini-tornado in a nearby village, and hundred-year old plane trees (sycamores) were uprooted.  Our house was mercifully unscathed, but we lost electricity for a good while and our internet connection for even longer.
Regardless of the hail and the raindrops, we made time for visits with good friends who pressed so many tasty gifts upon us.  So delicious...and such a pity I couldn't carry all those jars back with me to Amsterdam.
Before we could blink it was already time to fly back to Amsterdam.
After having spent the time we did seeing our friends, it was a more than a bit difficult to leave despite the inclement weather.  I now feel the distinct, equal pull between two worlds, two homes.  The Country Mouse and the City Mouse both live in me.
The children also feel the differences, little losses and gains. We try to balance it all out.
Lucky for us Amsterdam is an easy city to love, already stocked with a number of favorites, in the form of people, places and tastes.  I may not be able to get my hands on a Solognot in Amsterdam, but I can get a mean baguette at a couple of spots, such as Le Fournil (more on that bakery with cult-level status another time). 

And there's always the ultimate in profoundly simple and satisfying local comfort dessert: the rijstevlaai from the Limburg region.
This is a sumptuous rice pudding in a yeast-raised, cake-ish crust.  It will cure nearly anything, including a serious jones for the faraway countryside.  My more culinarily ambitious Dutch friends throw up their hands in horror and dismay at my praise of something so darn proletarian, but honey, it's just so darn good.
And no, I have never made one myself.  That is the problem with having a halfdozen excellent bakeries within walking distance. (And I tell myself the walking hither and thither cancels out the calories.  Right?)
On Saturday mornings I roll out of for the neighborhood organic market.  Ridiculously pretty.
Breads all in a row, some of which are even labeled bread (in Dutch).
And, again from the Limburg region, the most adorable raspberry tartlets you could imagine.  They taste even better than they look, and they are absolutely packed with raspberries.
All of these are pure, simple pleasures.  I had the unexpected pleasure of enjoying an evening a scosche more haute gamme. Da Vinci's kitchen is headed by chef Margo Reuten, the only woman to figure among the ten best chefs of Holland for the last decade.  Crowned Gault Millau's Chef of the Year 2012 for Holland, Ms.Reuten has two Michelin stars as a result of the magic she works in her kitchen, which I was able to visit.  The dishes she creates are sometimes nothing less than breath-taking; she says she is still striving to add a third star.

Did I mention that I forgot to bring my camera?
I borrowed an iPhone to take photos of the ornate dishes, but the atmospherically dim lighting spelled my photographic doom, with the theoretical exception of these images. The one above is a detail of a magnificent, translucent vase by the bar.
The first bite I had was with a fine champagne.  It was a savory marshmallow made of red beet and lightly dipped in pure cocoa.  You can see three of them resting upon spoons in the last image.
After those came these extraordinary spheres filled with an intense but light cauliflower panna cotta.  Topped with gold leaf, natch. 
The evening continued in this most pleasurable manner, with one sensual, unexpected combination of flavor and texture leading to another.  I couldn't get over the order and calm of her kitchen, having seen all the insanely intense professional kitchens on televised 'reality' shows.  Her kitchen hummed with pristine good humor and equilibrium.  And what a treat to watch these guys set to work.  For the Amsterdammers reading this, there can be comparisons made between her cooking style and level to Ron Blaauw, who also wields two Michelin stars--although I have the impression she cooks with perhaps a touch more discretion.  All in all, a memorably hedonistic evening.

Just goes to show you, there are distinct advantages to being a City Mouse as well.

26 October, 2011


We're back in the south of France.  We seem to have brought the inclement weather of the north with us, too.  Doesn't matter.  We are back in France.
While we were busy settling in the city, things kept happening here.  For one thing, it kept not raining, for a long, long time.  In between tut-tutting the Sahara-like lack of humidity, my friends managed to make me fairly jealous by announcing the laughably warm temperatures.  It remained high summer--til the day we arrived.
I really don't mind the rain here, even though it means spending more time indoors.  Our capitalist Monopoly skills are being well sharpened, the deck of cards is seeing some serious use, and there is a lot of gossiping catching up to be done with neighbors and friends over fragrant cups of homemade herbal infusions.
The leaves are just now beginning to veer off into the more eye-popping shades. We are monitoring the subtle changes, all the while making little berets for our fingers using the acorn caps scattered everywhere. 

Fall break, as you can see, is a very busy time around here. 
There is dog-walking to be done, perfect pumpkins to be located (harder than you might imagine) and hot chocolate to be made.  If you actually live in the Gard, you know it isn't hot chocolate weather just yet, but the kids don't care.  A rich hot chocolate is exactly the kind of beverage you reach for after you've rolled a half dozen times down a slippery, damp hillside, dressed in a plastic garbage bag.
And now we're smelling some of the first smoke of the season, as people are finally able to burn their longstanding piles of brush without the fear of setting off a forest fire.  The piles burn slowly, sending up signals most of the day.  Sometimes you can barely distinguish between the woodsmoke and coiling mist.  Next to our own smoking pile is my vegetable garden, such as it is, is down to a single basil bush, long gone to seed. 
We're here, we're happy, even if I missed the harvest for these little crab apples, which is a small pity as I would have loved to have put away some jelly.  Tart and sweet belong together.  As for the berries: the only ones left are a few straggler raspberries, a startlingly deep,waterlogged red.  I also missed the walnuts, once again nimbly harvested by the painfully shy squirrels.
Beyond missing much of the garden harvest, I haven't been cooking all that much lately, either: we've been scoring invitations left and right.  The upside, beyond eating great food made by someone else, are all the little discoveries in other people's homes.  Just look at the new little quilted house I found at my friend Monique's place when I came by for lunch.  She has made, filled and attached it to this old door to keep out the chilly cellar draft.  
Warm drinks, bonfires, dogwalks.  Nothing mind-alteringly important going on here, simply the small, concurrent shifts that move us from one season to another.  We seem to have the space needed to better contemplate those minor details. 

Having just arrived over the weekend, I took the usual exit off the highway, we went through the usual toll booth and came up to the usual landscaped roundabout.  My ten year oldvsai, with unfeigned, profound affection: "awww...a roundabout!" There are very, very few roundabouts in Amsterdam.  In France you can't get away from them.     

Sometimes leaving helps you see more. 

07 October, 2011

Platform heels, baby.

What a weekend.
I have some smart friends.  Some of them are clever enough to live in more friendly places, climatologically speaking.  In one friend's case, home is Milan.  And for one perfect weekend, I too was a Milanesa.  (Well, I pretended to be anyway.)
At base, I'm not a shopper, never really have been, but boy, Milan could convert a girl. First of all, there are the innumerable culinary treats.
 Here are two different kinds of beautifully stuffed peppers.
 And of course the porcini--I am definitely a funghi girl.
You look at fresh pieces like this and you immediately want to make risotto.  Or you do if you're a Milanesa. Like me.  This past weekend, I mean.
I cracked when I saw the rhododendron honey.  Never even seen that one before.  But then I thought of the jar, broken en route, honey seeping into the stitching of my brand-new, perfectly fitted, taupe leather gloves (because you have to buy gloves while in Milan, it's the unbreakable rule).  There are really only two specialty shops for the aficionados, one of which is Sermoneta. I resisted buying the jar: gloves combine poorly with honey in a carry-on, even if the honey in question is rhododendron (which would taste like what exactly? Blueness?)
Even in Italy, you can't get away from beautiful French things. I know, don't judge a book by its cover, etc, but I fell a little bit in love with this canister.  It made me dream. 
We also browsed the G. Lorenzi, family-owned cutlery shop, founded in 1929 and a Milanese landmark.  Lorenzi is known not only for every possible permutation of a knife, but also for highly specialized items in bone (an orange peeler anyone?)  I couldn't afford the truffle slicers I admired, although surprisingly there was a whole range possible.  I even saw some lovely shoe horns in bone for as low as 5 euros.
As I don't need a shoe horn or a filigreed pasta knife, I settled for some toothpaste: they had toiletries to go with their leather toiletry cases.  We're not talking Crest, mind you, this was Marvis toothpaste.  One of their most popular flavors is Jasmine mint, but there is also ginger mint, and even licorice.  I chose cinnamon mint (too bad they don't offer chocolate-flavored toothpaste, as they do in Japan).  In Milan, Marvis is a fraction of what it costs beyond Italy's borders. And now, I'll undoubtedly feel that extra touch Italian, just by brushing my teeth.  Right?
What do you think of when you think of Milan, besides risotto and maybe osso buco?  Money.  This is the northerly business epicenter of Italy.  There is money.  Combine Italian men and money, and you seem to get Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Ferraris.  Sometimes five red ones, all in a row, as you can see below.
For the men and women who aren't into cars, there is ample choice of design furniture.  Ceccotti furniture stands out in particular for an extreme purity of line, craftsmanship and sensuality, classical with an art collector's twist.  Think I exagerrate?  Go to their site, check out the Manta desk, or the Bean desk, or any of Lazzeroni's dining chairs.  Really, to touch the silken lines of a Ceccotti piece is to gently and irrevocably fall in love. (Below is a dress boy, weirdly lightweight and perfectly formed.)
And of course there is the fashion.  Here are some Pucci scarves adorning the shop entrance.
We spent a lot of time wandering in and out of shops, looking at the latest collections, admiring the fabrics and the exquisite cuts, but when I arrived home, I realized the food images dominated.  Quel surprise. You know by now that my stomach is where my passion lives.  These are marzipan fruits--with brown spots for authenticity.
Of course there was the obligatory gelato stop.
The single most divine dish of the weekend?  Tough call, but most likely a simple bowl of fresh burrata, a kind of creamy mozzarella, combined with cherry tomatoes and good pesto.
We walked off the burrata by strolling deep into the night, as one does when one is from Milan: in heels, laughing, talking and generally carrying on.

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