Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bella Bialetti

I had to move at the end of the summer, because my greedy bastard landlords wanted to sell their house and make a killing in real estate. Too bad for them the market had stopped short and nothing was selling anymore (it sits on the market still). But good for me, because I was forced to leave a house I never liked that had bad energy and unpleasant memories (not to mention a ghost in the dining room) and found my dream home instead. A two-story, sun-filled 1920's Spanish style duplex. Just around the corner.

A benefit of having to pack up and move abruptly: I got rid of mountains of superfluous crap, purging my life and getting ready for a clear new beginning.

I found beautiful items along the way. Among them: My Bialetti (moka pot) from Italy.

All good associations here. Kitchen Goddess Three, Christina Bess, lived in Italy in the mid-90s with her husband Andy. His employer rented them a villa just outside of Florence, in the middle of a working orchard, with a view of the mountains. This villa had a small apartment over the garage. Needless to say, I was there every chance I got. This was before kids, in another life. It seemed somewhat easier to get to Europe in those days, for some reason, even though I was even more broke than I am now. I guess I was richer in time.

And my times there were languid and filled with tastes and aromas and the heavy, fragrant air of Tuscany in late August. In the mornings I'd come down to the kitchen, following my nose to the coffee boiling in this strange little pot on the stove. I'd never seen a Bialetti before. I was more a Mr. Coffee sort of American. I couldn't fathom how such a small appliance could produce enough coffee for four adults. But it was espresso that was being brewed, and as such, it only took a small amount, mixed with three parts warmed milk in a large cup, to perfectly sate. I was so delighted by the output I bought my own to take back home with me.

A lot has happened in the ten years since then. I hadn't even thought of the Bialetti for years. I couldn't even remember how to work the thing when I first found it, deep in the back of a top cabinet. It requires a small modicum of mechanical sense. There are several sections that need to be assembled correctly for it to work. There is a rubber washer involved. The first time I tried to use it, I don't think I packed the coffee in right: The water in the bottom boiled away without ever percolating up into the pitcher. The second time I used too much coffee. The time after that I used too little water.

All standard for me. I thought about giving up. I was not about to Google how to use a Bialetti. Just typical for me not to be able to use a simple appliance. One morning I tried again, using ground espresso I'd bought just for this purpose. I set it on the stove. I was busy, pre-occupied as usual. I had no expectations, and indeed, I had every intention of going out and buying a coffee later on, when this last experiment failed.

I smelled it before I heard it -- a rich, creamy olfactory hit that instantly took away the last ten years and put me back into a kitchen in Tuscany. Then I heard the strange hissing burble and I knew it was working. I sat down and waited patiently. Nothing that tastes the way I hoped this would taste is made quickly.

I had half-and-half left over from my holiday party. I heated some up in a small saucepan. To my delight I remembered the large, artsy teacup set my sister-in-law had given me for Christmas and poured one part espresso to three parts half-and-half into its deep bowl. It was a light brown mocha color. It smelled sublime. I stirred once. I sipped. I closed my eyes.

It's August, 1996. Except that it's December 2006 now and I'm so happy I could weep.Mokapot_2

Need more coffee? Here's a great how-to essay by the really smart, irritatingly prolific guy at the Big Picture.

The frosting conundrum

Some years I bake for the holidays. In select years past, December found me content, organized, focused and flush enough to buy ingredients to bake a variety of items for my friends and family. Sugar cookies are easy because they come in a tube (although you can always burn them, in fine Bad Home Cook tradition). I used to love making bourbon balls. Two years ago I made ginger stars - ginger cookies shaped as stars - to the delight of my children. It was all I could do with the scraps left over from my attempt to make gingerbread men for them. It was the highlight of the year, as I recall.

The trouble with holiday baking, however, is that it often requires decorative frosting. A dawdle for most holiday bakers, no doubt. But to me, it's another simple recipe for me to bollix up and embarrass myself with.

I know I'm not the only one to be ginger-bread-house-challenged. In her yummy blog, What Did You Eat?, Sher acknowledges the various pitfalls awaiting the untrained. But then she's trained. And she eventually comes out on top.

In early December my children started agitating for a gingerbread house. A *real* gingerbread house, of the sort you see in Martha Stewart Living and in various glossy magazine ads. My Aunt Dorothy used to make the most amazing gingerbread houses - all covered in gumdrops and held together with thick white, paste-like frosting she'd squeeze out of a pastry tube. I gave the idea some serious thought for a few days. I did make gingerbread once. Why couldn't I make a few slabs and improvise? Maybe I could start a nice holiday tradition. I'm big on those, since I didn't grow up with any myself.

Then I stumbled upon a pre-made gingerbread house kit at Trader Joe's and realized that, judging from the way my kids were falling over each other in excitement, a store-bought house would make them just as happy. It was a big triangular box, with instructions on the back in German. I decided to splurge.

Inside the box came four ginger-bread like slabs, a dozen colored hard cookies of various shapes and sizes, and two little candy characters, a mom and a little boy, presumably for decoration. But, as always happens when you buy a box intending to assemble the contents within, some key nut or bolt is invariably missing. In this case, it was the frosting. It hadn't occurred to me that a pre-made gingerbread house wouldn't come complete with a plastic bag of stay-fresh frosting-flavored product. It didn't make sense. It was bad marketing.

Why would someone buying a pre-made holiday tradition want to make their own frosting? That's why you buy a gingerbread house in the box. You want it all there for you. Didn't they realize the paradox here? If I could make frosting then I could presumably make my own damn gingerbread house. Right? RIGHT?

It's not like the Germans to overlook such a key detail.

But it was too late to turn back. I'd already opened the box -- in front of my kids, who were watching, waiting for their mother to do something magical for their holiday. Crap. I had no choice. I had to go in.

Upon quick reading, the recipe was simple enough, but it dealt with meringue, which deals with egg whites, which really, if you're a novice, isn't that easy.

For example: I dimly remembered how to crack an egg and pass the yolk from side to side over a bowl to catch the ick (the egg white). It was one of the many valuable skills I learned in my junior high school home economics class. Likewise, I thought I remembered that whipping egg whites would eventually turn them fluffy. In any case, the directions did call for "making them stiff." Ya Woll!

I whipped those egg whites with a wooden spoon until I broke out in a sweat and I could see that I would be getting nowhere fast. I whipped out the electric mixer. And mixed until things indeed got stiff, about 10 minutes.

With A. reading the recipe out to me, I added the sugar, and then the lemon juice and the vinegar.

I had just dumped the liquid in when Annie held up her hand. "Wait!" she said. "It says here lemon juice OR vinegar."

"Not both?"

"One or the other."

Damn. Trying to blot out the extra liquid with a paper towel, predictably, didn't do much, and that was that. My frosting was nice and white and fluffy and had the consistency of whipped cream. But would it hold a house together?

You can judge for yourself here.

"Mommy, why doesn't our house look like the one on the box?" asked my son.

"You ask too many questions," I said, and handed each child their own candy character to eat. This placated them for the evening, and I let the house sit on the counter for two days before slipping it outside into the trash when they were at school.

I redeemed myself a week later, however, when I helped my son's first-grade class make their own gingerbread houses. We all brought candy to decorate them with, and the teachers whipped up a huge tub of thick, white frosting, the consistency of glue. Their secret? There's an icing mix you can buy, apparently, at specialty baking stores.

I plan to investigate this closely for next year. Gingerhouse_1

Too bad I don't remember details...

My holiday open house was a great success. That's what I hear, anyway. I don't remember a lot of details. This is because my neighbors Marsha and Terry showed up first with a tumbler filled with Marsha's professional-grade Cosmopolitan cocktail. A glass and a half of this later and there was nothing that could have happened that would have flummoxed me.

I ended up only making one thing, my tortilla - which turned out perfectly and was consumed quickly, to universal accolades.

Somebody brought me a clever little bag of these cherry chocolate kisses. I didn't know such delights even existed. Too bad I don't remember who brought them.

I had the help of several experienced and well-meaning people. I must bow low and pay homage to their skills here.

Tony - who apart from being a gorgeous flamenco guitarist, is also an experienced party-giver and an extremely organized person. He made a list. Checked it twice, and made it all happen. He also thought of party elements that would never have occured to me, like why don't I just BUY a big lasagna and feed that to the masses? Make it easier on yourself, he said. And he gave me my party mantra: "This is a party for you. If your friends show up to share it with you, even better." This actually helped calm me the hell down.

Audrey Smith - who agreed to back me up in the food dept. if needed and opened the door to her glorious garage-full of Christmas decorations when I realized I had none of the necessary decorative paraphernalia. She also lent me all of her funky Christmas jazz CDs so I could make the appropriate playlist for the kitchen Ipod. She showed up early, looking festive, and stayed late. She ranted and raved over my tortilla, too, which is particularly gratifying.

Catalano's veggie lasagna was a huge hit. Other people brought dishes. Salad, and bread and lentils and lots of sweet stuff. Audrey made her popular persimmon roll. People stayed and talked for several hours. There was some dancing, thanks to Debbie, who grabbed me mid-party and said, "Remember when we used to swing-dance in junior high?"

"No!" I yelled, trying to avoid the tree. It did make for some comic relief.

A commentator also left a bit of advice that I took to heart. "Drinks, drinks, drinks." he said. I provided plenty of libation and what do you know. It worked. Tortillagone

So this is all behind me, thank God. It was fun, but I think it aged me two years.

It's still Hanukkah though. So I'm bound by honor to try my hand at latkes this week. Should be a real mess. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Holiday party: What the HELL am I thinking?

I'm throwing a holiday party on Friday. It's now Monday night. I have to cook things to serve to people. I have relatives visiting from abroad. I have work. I have Christmas-y things to do for my kids' classrooms. I have other frets. And now I have to cook. For people. Lots of people.
Tony talked me into this. He has thrown a lot of parties in his day. He has more confidence in this arena. He said if nobody shows, so what? We'll get drunk and eat all the food ourselves.
I told him we'd have to be really drunk to do this. He said fine. He'll bring a better grade of booze.
Today I asked Audrey, Kitchen Goddess Number Two, if she would help me by bringing a few special dishes. "I would just feel more secure if I know you're there for me," I said. "Watching my back." She happily agreed. "I've been wanting to try this recipe for persimmon loaf," she said.
And what about the hot apple cider, I asked. I want to make the flat smell warm and holidayicious. I want it to smell like a big Victorian house in New Hampshire, with icicles on the porch and a fire crackling in each of three hearths. How do you make it, I queried. Surely you have a traditional recipe for me. Surely you've read something in Martha Stewart Living or Gourmet or have a secret set of ingredients passed down by your grandmother. Reveal it to me!
"I go to Trader Joe's and buy their cider," she said. "And then I put some cinammon sticks in there, and I cut up an apple into really thin slices so you can see the star. And they float around in there. People really like that. They think you've picked the apples off your own tree or something."
I love Audrey.
She also gave me this valuable tip: The day of the party, don't cook anything with parmesan cheese in it. "Or your whole house will smell like vomit."
Yes, this is a gal after my own heart.
Stay tuned for Holiday Party: Tips to Grow by.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Oh My Cod

As I opined in my last post, the very fact that I'd even attempt something like a cod cake is testament to the virtues of Mark Bittman's brilliant "How to Cook Everything." They're really not too hard, but you need to have the correct ingredients, and you need to have a standard of calm and quiet in the home so you can concentrate. There are several steps you can trip up on.
I'm finding that a primary problem of mine is pressure. I tend to announce my intentions of cooking for another, and that's when I choke. I have a big problem cooking for people. Not my kids. They don't count. In fact they'd be happier if I stopped cooking for them altogether and just fed them breakfast cereal for dinner. I mean other people. Friends. Tony. My Dad. Those close to me who, like anyone, are delighted to accept the offer of a meal and probably expect a taste sensation or at least something edible put before them on a nice plate. I have the nice plates. It's the edible, tasty part that I can't promise.
I don't remember why we were talking cod cakes, but about a month back I got it in my head to cook up a batch again. I haven't made cod cakes since I left Berkeley in 2003. "Oh, I can make a mean cod cake," I bragged to Tony one night, dimly remembering my one or two dumb-luck successes. "You'd love my cod cakes." Before I knew it I was on the docket for that Friday night. Dinner at home. Cod Cakes on the menu.
The first order of business was getting the salt cod. Back in Berkeley I had access to the famous Berkeley Bowl, with its six different kinds of organic endive and 34 varieties of peaches. It sold small loafs of salt cod in a shrink-wrapped package in the freezer section. All you had to do was soak it overnight; change the water three or four times, and by the next afternoon you had cod ready to cut up and cook.
All I have now is a Whole Foods, which is like Berkeley Bowl's skinnier, better-married sister. It's got half the stuff at twice the price but it sure looks prettier. It has salt cod, but it's flat, unpackaged, and kept in a barrel, I suppose to preserve its rustic feel. I supposed they would fill out upon soaking. I had Tony bring down three fillets later that week.
The big day came and typically I wasted time drinking wine and dancing around until it was 5 and time to start dinner for the kids. I put pasta on for them and started the potatoes.
For cod cakes, you mix the cod with mashed potatoes, dredge in bread crumbs and then fry.
First mine-field: Make mashed potatoes. The Bon Appetit magazine I get (but still don't know why) had a Thanksgiving special section that included an article called "Mastering Mashed Potatoes." It promised a four-step process to perfect mashed potatoes. "What's the secret to light and buttery mashed potatoes? It's all about using the right techniques in the right order."
I can read. I can follow a simple to-do list. So I figured I should be OK. I boiled the potatoes for the prescribed time. I "dried them out" by stirring them in the saucepan for "about two minutes," per the instructions. I added the butter. Finally, I mixed in the liquid. The instructions said the milk must be warm so that the potatoes don't become gummy or cold. Check.
What it didn't mention was that you need to pour the milk in a little at a time. I only remembered this after dumping in all the milk at once.
So I had fairly runny mashed potatoes. So much for fool-proof techniques. Bon Appetit should hire me to stupid-proof all their recipes.
Next step. The Cod. Unfortunately, the salt cod floating in water in my refrigerator had not lived up to its promise. I pulled off the skin and was left with two thin flaps of rubbery fish. I cooked it in hot water, which only made it more rubbery. I cut up what I had as best I could and mixed it with my mashed potatoes.
Third step: Dredge in bread crumbs. Because I am detail-challenged, I hadn't bought bread crumbs. I ran out to the store and found some stuff called Panko, Japanese-style bread crumbs. These actually worked great because they're bigger than standard bread crumbs.
Fourth Step: Fry up. Frying is dicey. I don't eat a lot of fried foods and the very act of dumping half my olive oil into a pan caused me great pause, not to mention eye-twitching. I wondered if I shouldn't be using another sort of oil that might pair better with fish, but such instruction was not noted in the recipe.
The frying went off without incident, but throughout the entire cooking process I was vexed by constant fear of failure, anxiety over how I could save face if the meal went horribly awry and Tony was forced to call out for Chinese instead. I felt I didn't dare improvise, such as take a chance with a different cooking oil, for fear I would ruin everything. As it was, with the sloppy mashies and the disappointing cod, I didn't know how things would turn out until I took my first bite.
Tony arrived, bearing Manchego cheese, olives and bread from our favorite place in the world, Say Cheese in Silverlake. My kitchen looked like Hurricane Katrina had stopped by for a quick bite. He set out the goodies and I fell on them without a thought to etiquette, sitting there in my stained apron. When I recovered my senses, I served up the cod cakes without garnish, and realized that I'd failed on the fifth step as well: You can't serve a dish in a vacuum. The cod cakes tasted fine, but I'd prepared nothing to go with them. They became simply another appetizer. Only they'd taken a lot out of me.
Tony seemed to understand. He poured me a big glass of wine and ate his cod cake con mucho gusto, singing its praises with his mouth full. I agree that they were edible, but with better cod and a thicker potato they could be so much more. I was once again reminded that learning how to cook was very much like learning how to dance flamenco: You have to learn the steps before you can concern yourself with artistry.
And so with me you get a cod cake on a plate. But you don't get the meal.