Friday, June 26, 2009

foodie lit roundup

I've read quite a few foodie books since stumbling into the section adjacent to the cookbooks in B0rders. It's not specifically labeled "foodie lit," but doing a quick title scan made me discover a completely new genre that melded my two loves - food and literature. I keep a separate shelf in my GoodReads profile of books for foodies (as well as a baking shelf), so check here if you need recommendations.

Recently I have powered through a few, and I will share some thoughts. I do not believe in long book reviews. When I read a book review, I want to see some distilled thoughts and impressions, not a long and rambling plot summary. Thus, I will not be giving away the heart of these books. Just enough to whet your appetite (or cause you to activate your gag reflex, in some cases). Please keep in mind that I am an ignoramus when it comes to photos in blogger.

#1. "Gastronomical Me" by M.F.K. Fisher

M.F. K. Fisher was one of the earliest American food memoirists. Though people had surely written about food before she wrote "Gastronomical Me" in 1943, she was one of the first to write about her life through a culinary lens, framing her stories around her food discoveries and experiments with cooking. While the prose is a bit dense for the casual reader, it is beautifully written and even provocative in some places. In particular, this phrase captured my thoughts and seemed to sum up why it is that I too share Fisher's love of serving the perfect bite:

"I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world."

#2. "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly" by Anthony Bourdain

I had heard about Anthony Bourdain before I found this book, but because he was not a Food Network chef, he was not on my radar. Sarah recommended that I read it, and I was immediately sucked into Bourdain's world of culinary debauchery. He truly writes like the bad boy of the culinary world and "adventures in the culinary underbelly" is an understatement at best. Being a published author of mysteries prior to his writing Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain's writing style impressed me. (I was praying it didn't go down the same awful road as Chef Jeff's Cooked. If you read 42 metaphors for drugs in the first chapter, it's probably not a good indication that literature is to follow.) Luckily, Bourdain did not, and his style was classic yet edgy, like most of his food, come to think of it.

#3. "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti" by Giulia Melucci

This book is quality chick lit meets foodie lit. Giulia Melucci travels through her romantic past via meals, and each chapter is cleverly named for a dish and a man. Though most of the men have not remained in her life, the meals have, and the recipes appear to complement the text - everything from pasta to cake. Chick lit sometimes has a tendency to dwell in juvenile prose or conjured situations that ring false and do not sufficiently develop the primary female character. Melucci seamlessly blends the genres and makes herself as a character vulnerable and loveable at once. We've all been Giulia at one point or another, but most of us would be happy if we could do it with such grace. I would hesitate to say that this book would appeal to men, but if you're a male foodie and want to get into a woman's head, this is an enjoyable and safe way to do so.

#4. "Under the Table: Saucy Tales from Culinary School" by Katherine Darling

Lest you start to think I glow about every book I read, we come to Darling's attempt at a compelling culinary school memoir. I do know that it is possible to write a good one (see The Sharper the Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn). I read only about 30 pages (which is my standard for trying a book out). I rolled my eyes approximately 70% of the time and had to make three attempts to keep reading. Darling tells of her desire to quit her job in publishing (in NYC!) and go to culinary school, how she shows up in a dress and heels to her first day, and how she proceeds to make friends with her class partner. Everything she wrote has already been said by Flinn and others, and it seemed she almost borrowed the structure from other culinary school memoirs, figuring that since she quit her job to go to culinary school, she must be unique. Maybe, but her writing certainly isn't, and it is light years away from "saucy," as the subtitle promises. Considering that Flinn went to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and did her training in French, going to the Culinary Institute of America in NYC doesn't seem too impressive. When a book devotes an entire chapter to the author's boyfriend's reaction to her in the new checked pants for school, it's time to put it down. There are too many good books out there to spend more than 30 seconds on this one. You've been warned.

I am currently reading "Let Me Eat Cake." It's...interesting. Look for a review in the near future.

Go forth and read, foodies.

a student of the Wilton method

Mark and I are taking a cake decorating class at a local Michael's, specifically Wilton Method 1. We have to make a cake each week for class and decorate it using techniques we learn. We are allowed to make any type of cake with any recipe that we would like, but to my great chagrin, we must use the Wilton buttercream recipe.

To call it buttercream gets on my last literary nerve, since it uses Crisco as a base instead of butter. This is to allow it to sit out for weeks at a time (even though cake only stays fresh for a few days) and to give it a thicker consistency to give piping and decorating clean lines and good support. I think it tastes awful, and so does Mark, even though his "buttercream" recipe is similar to the class recipe. For more on the "buttercream wars," see his blog.

Anyhow, I've made two cakes thus far and both went to Amber's work the day after. The second was made specifically for them.

The first was practicing the star fill-in technique, as well as piping letters.

The second uses flowers. The rest of the class made a clown cake, but clowns are an abomination and I am horrified by them. Thus, I stayed with flowers so as not to have nightmares.

I am relatively satisfied with them, but it's hard to care about a confectionary creation when you aren't even tempted to sneak some icing.

to recreate a peanut butter pie

When I was young, my grandparents would take my family to a truck-stop sort of restaurant off of I-90 when we came to visit called Beef & Beer. I don't recall having beef there, and I certainly didn't have any beer at age 10, but one thing I do remember is the peanut butter pie. We always got it, no matter how much we had already had to eat, and we always paid for it later. But it was fantastic. And good food is often worth stomach distress, in my opinion. In any case, I thought I would try and find a peanut butter pie recipe to make for a Memorial Day picnic.

This was a recipe from Emeril, and it didn't turn out anything like the glory pie from Beef & Beer, but it got a "yum" reaction from the picnic attendees. This is a peanut butter pie for people that like moderate amounts of peanut butter, because the chocolate seems to take over the top flavor spot.

First, make a crust of Oreo cookies, graham crackers, sugar, and butter, and press it into a glass pie dish.

I did this first and then had so much leftover that I decided to put it in a springform instead.

So far so good. On to part of the filling: cream cheese, confectioners sugar, and milk.

Add melted chocolate and peanut butter. (I only use Jif. I would rather abstain than eat other peanut butter. That's saying a lot.) It starts to look like goop at this point.

Make homemade whipped cream.

Fold the cream into the chocolate peanut butter mixture and dump in springform.

It was at this point that I realized that something was off. There is too much crust for the pie pan the recipe calls for, and too little filling for it to be in a springform pan. Thus, after you make a chocolate sauce and drizzle on top, you get this. Delicious, but proportionally off.

I suggest you make two 9-inch pie pans and extra mousse. Better yet, call Beef & Beer and get their recipe. You will not be disappointed.

a girly sort of skull

My friend Sarah had few requests for her urban family birthday party : hot dogs, badminton, and chocolate cupcakes with cooked frosting.

I used Magnolia's chocolate cupcake recipe, and started by beating eggs and sugar.

Followed by 6 one-ounce blocks of baker's chocolate...

Mix it all up, adding vanilla and milk mixed separately...

It starts to smooth and turn a nice, smooth chocolately brown...

Fill up those cupcake liners (silver Wilton wrappers to match the forthcoming dragees)

You can see I have no sophisticated way to fill these. Two spoons seem to work just fine for me. While those are baking, I started the cooked frosting, otherwise known as whipped buttercream or perhaps the world's best cupcake frosting. Start with four sticks of butter and two cups of sugar.

About 45 minutes before I whipped the icing, I prepared the "cooked" part by continuously whisking flour and milk until it thickened over the stovetop. This sits on a cooling rack for 3/4 of an hour until a film has formed over the top. Pull the film off and throw it away.

Whip the milk paste mixture in thirds with the butter, sugar, and vanilla already in your mixing bowl. Behold the glory.

Add some Wilton pink rose gel food coloring and you've got fluffy pink heaven. (Always use gel color in frostings, as liquid color will change your consistency and more often than not, separate into multiple colors.)

Ding ding! The cupcakes are finished and ready for finishing touches.

Fill up a piping bag with icing and a medium star tip and go at it.

Sarah loves skulls, so I surprised her by carving white skulls out of rolled fondant. I was rushing like a madwoman at this point, so I didn't take any photos of actually carving the skulls. I decided to spell Happy Birthday Sarah and use skulls on the rest of the cupcakes. I had leftover batter, so I made mini cupcakes as well and added the same silver dragees to those. (I had a brain fart and attempted to take photos of the cupcakes with a flash on a steel table, so the quality isn't fantastic.)

Luckily Sarah got a few. Photos, as well as cupcakes.

Girly and a bit edgy at the same time. A delicious cupcake paradox.

i love you cake

When words fail, a flourless chocolate torte with brandy whipped cream and raspberry coulis is just the trick.

Enough said.