Friday, April 25, 2014

Yes, we have no bananas today

Bananas…How to Serve Them
Fruit Dispatch Company 1940

While I focus on cookbooks, I do have a few pamphlets as well. I once met a collector who specialized in pamphlets and I can see why: the visuals are profuse, especially when compared to mid-century cookbooks, the corporate copy is usually amusing at this remove, and they are just fun, kind of the comic books of the cookbook collector's world.

This pamphlet was produced by a subsidiary of the United Fruit Company, the same people who brought us the original banana republics. But first they had to teach Americans how to eat, cook, and desire bananas. A precursor to this pamphlet is one made in 1924, but until I can see that one, this one will have to do.

The inside front cover begins with the injunction "suit the color to the use." That is, it describes green, yellow, and flecked bananas and how to use them. The inside back cover pages give tips on how to buy, slice, ripen, mash and cool bananas. It's hard to take such instructions seriously when you know that a 3-year-old can handle most banana operations. The back cover page also touts the advantages of bananas for all types of people, including babies, children, teens, athletes, and "old folks" who find bananas "easy to chew, easy to digest."

And the recipes! Of course there are many traditional uses--banana bread, bananas in Jell-O (yes, once we needed a recipe for that dish), and banana desserts. But what about entrées with bananas? Don't you think your bananas need some savory treatments? How about:

Ham Banana Rolls Bananas wrapped in ham, baked with mustard and then topped with cheese sauce.

Banana Salmon Salad Bananas, pineapple, flaked salmon, celery, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard.

Broiled Bananas and Bacon Bananas wrapped with bacon and broiled: a test for the mythic powers of bacon to make anything taste good.

Plenty of the desserts are equally scary:

Banana Grape Marlow Mashed bananas, marshmallows, grape juice, and whipping cream. A note warns that this requires the use of an "automatic refrigerator."

Banana Prune Whip Sliced bananas, prune purée, sugar, and egg whites.

Banana Butter Frosting Mashed bananas, butter and powdered sugar.

Throughout there are cheerful exhortations about bananas, such as "bananas are good mixers - with meat. fish, vegetables," and "nature seals bananas in a germ-proof package."

The overall effect is equally fun and disturbing, and it left me with no desire for eating a banana. Rather the opposite, but I will own that I am odd about bananas--I like them as bananas, in banana bread, and in bananas Foster. And that's it.

I also find it nearly impossible to finish a banana. No matter how big or small, I alway have a leftover bite or two. I blame this on my childhood dog, Argos, who loved few things as much as he loved bananas. He would sit patiently watching every bite of banana disappear with his big, brown, sorrowful eyes, while his whole body emanated quiet hope for those last bites of  'nanner. Of course, I obliged.

What's black and white and yellow all over?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

If I could only have one book on desserts...this may be it*

Classic Home Desserts: A Treasury of Heirloom and Contemporary Recipes from Around the World
By Richard Sax
Houghton Mifflin 1994

Where to begin with this wonderful book? It is a trove of solid recipes, historical information, and useful tips. It is huge--nearly 700 pages and over 350 recipes. Everything I have tried has been good. It won multiple awards, including IACP and James Beard awards. And it's as good to read as it is to cook from.

When I need to bake something for a group, I turn here. When I need a comfort dessert, I turn here. When I need a basic dessert formula, I turn here. The flavors are always spot on, the instructions clear, and I usually find some inspiration just by turning the pages

Sax wrote several cookbooks as well as writing for Bon Appétit. His voice is friendly, assured, and calm. The word "classic" in the title is telling--very little fusion or forced pairings are present. This is not competitive cooking, but practical and joyous cooking.

Although the subtitle references world cuisine, my experience with the book is that it is dominated by American and British cookery, followed by French and European. And that's ok--it's big enough as it is.

One of the fun extras is the use of sidebars highlighting historic recipes and accounts of traditional foodways. Another plus is how many recipes can be converted into breakfast items!

Sax died way too young. I would have enjoyed more from him. But at least we have this great book. Here's what I have made from this:

Coffee Coffee Cake with Espresso Glaze--it's like a cappuccino flavored sour cream coffee cake!

New York-Style Sour Cream Cheesecake--I am not a huge cheesecake fan, but I have family members who are, so I make this for them. It not only has the right flavor (not too sweet) and texture (dense), it also one of the simpler recipes, with no fussing about with a water bath. Sax says it is based on Lindy's original recipe.

Double Chocolate Pudding--Pudding for grownups, this uses both cocoa and chocolate. The result is actually a tad closer to a mousse than a pudding, but it has excellent flavor.

Reuben's Legendary Apple Pancake--a kind of Dutch baby with apples. The whole thing is repeatedly flipped and caramelized with butter and sugar. I'm sure the original at Reuben's was fantastic, and Sax's is also delicious, but over the years, my tinkering has resulted in something different from halving the recipe, ditching the raisins, wanting a higher apple percentage, and trying to make the flipping go more easily--no matter how hard I tried the sheer volume of the original recipe in the 8 inch pan just didn’t work for me. Here’s where I am so far, but this is one that always comes out a little differently. Feel free to make it your own.

Caramelized Apple Pancake
1 large apple
3 Tbs butter
3 Tbs sugar
1 Tbs brandy or bourbon
2 eggs
¼ c. milk
½ tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
¼ c. flour

Peel and slice the apple. In a 10-inch nonstick skillet sauté apple slices in 1 Tbs of butter until tender and golden. Add 1 Tbs of sugar and toss. Let the apples caramelize a little then, carefully, add the brandy. Let the alcohol cook off.

While apples cook, mix the eggs with the milk, vanilla and salt. Whisk in flour to make a smooth batter.

Crank up the sauté pan with the apples and add a Tbs of butter, when foamy, pour the batter over the apples and cook over medium high heat, pulling the set sides away from the pan with a spatula to allow the runny batter to flow under and cook. Shake the pan occasionally to prevent sticking.

When the pancake starts to firm up (about 3 mins) it's time to flip it. Since this is pretty big I cheat, and use a plate like so:  Take a dinner plate and place over the pan. With potholders, grab the sides of the pan and the plate and flip the whole thing over in one movement--don't falter or you will have a mess.

Now, in the newly emptied pan, place another Tbs butter. Let melt and sprinkle evenly with 1 Tbs of sugar. Then slide the pancake back in with the cooked side up.

Let this cook another 3 minutes or so until lightly caramelized--you need to be careful now that the sugar doesn't burn. Check it frequently. Flip it again onto the plate and repeat the butter and sugar treatment at least one more time--though you could go longer. I always get too hungry by this point.

When I serve it, I like to add one more shake of a crunchy sugar, like raw sugar or a flavored one like Chicago Old Town Spiced sugar, which has cardamom and cinnamon.

Serves one, heh. What can I say, I like a big breakfast. Favorite beverage with this is a pot of Lapsang Souchong tea.

Note: If you want to serve two like Sax's original, I suggest using 3 eggs as he does, and take the flour and milk each up to a ½ cup. Splitting eggs is always a bit tricky and it is probably why this recipe didn't split so well for me.
*Choosing just one would actually be hard. But this is definitely a contender for a book I would want with me on a desert island.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Six-Minute Soufflé

 The Six-Minute Soufflé and Other Culinary Delights
by Carol Cutler Clarkson N. Potter 1976

I picked this up at an AAUW sale (always a good bet for some cool cookbooks). I was initially drawn in by the design and the title and thought it would be a quick-cook book with lots of processed ingredients. But my initial scan showed lots of simple classic French dishes instead along with some intriguing flavor combinations. Once home, a more thorough reading revealed an accomplished book whose recipes don't feel dated at all. A little quick research showed I am not alone in my appreciation; the James Beard Foundation gave it an award in the Basic category of 1977.

It does have a very 70s layout with tan pages and maroon titles, but it is attractive and the recipes still seem fresh--perhaps because of the emphasis on timeless French classics. Cutler lived in France for 12 years and studied at the Cordon Bleu, but she is quick to point out that the recipes in the books are geared toward the home cook who needs to be practical with his or her time.

One way the book reflects changing social mores is her frequent recommendation that a recipe would work well for an "important" dinner. We no longer entertain bosses or clients in our homes any more; we impress by going to Nobu or Bouchon or someplace equivalent. It may be more financially impressive to pick up a whopping restaurant tab, but it is not as intimate as entertaining at home, perhaps mercifully so. We are no longer socially required to invite people into our homes who actually mean to judge us. Back in the day, failing at dinner could mean losing a promotion or a deal. Now screwing up dinner for friends usually just means calling for a pizza and opening another bottle of wine. The result is that pulling off a well-cooked meal for non-friends is now exclusively the purview of the professional, not the home cook, no matter how accomplished.

Pale but pretty
Danish Cauliflower
by Carol Cutler

This is quite good--cool and tangy, a bit like celeriac remoulade but with a different texture. Cutler has it as a first course, but it works as a salad or a side dish. The chilling does make a difference, as it allows the flavors to mellow and permeate the cauliflower.

This is also a little more formal than one of my go-to lunches of roasted cauliflower with a dipping sauce made from mayo mixed with either tarragon and tarragon vinegar or with a dash of Taste No. 5 Umami paste. It's astonishing how much cauli I can eat when dipped in mayo!

1 large head cauliflower
1 tsp salt
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup plain yogurt
juice ½ lemon
salt and pepper
2 teaspoons chopped parsley

Break the cauliflower into florets and cook in boiling water with the salt just until tender about 5 minutes. Do not overcook. Drain at once. Plunge into cold water again and drain very well. I suggest patting dry with a tea towel.

Mix the mayonnaise, yogurt, mustard, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Place cauliflower in a deep bowl and pour sauce over, carefully turning florets over to coat in the sauce. Chill for about 3 hours. When ready to serve sprinkle with the parsley. I like parsley quite a bit, so I upped the amount to 2 tablespoons.

But what about that Six-Minute Soufflé of the title? Once I read the technique I had to try it. Cutler's trick is to use cream cheese as a base instead of a cooked starch. She does not whip the egg whites. All the ingredients go into a blender and then into the oven. It really is 6 minutes to mix up--at most.

It was a white food kind of day
The result is a bit denser than a classic soufflé--but I did cook it well done instead of tremblant, as that is what I was in the mood for. It rises, but not as dramatically as a regular soufflé. Therefore, it doesn't collapse very much on cooling and was very good the next day cold. Then it had the taste and texture reminiscent of boursin cheese. Hot or cold, this would be good with a salad. I made the blue cheese base recipe, but Cutler also offers variations that sound good, like cheddar or ham, and ones that sound questionable like canned salmon and hot potato--despite my love of the potato I am not sure about it as a soufflé flavor.

Roquefort Soufflé
By Carol Cutler

6 eggs
½ cup heavy cream
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
dash Tabasco
¼ tsp pepper
pinch of salt
½ pound Roquefort or blue cheese
11 ounces cream cheese
1 Tbs butter

Put eggs, cream, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, pepper, pinch of salt in a blender. Blend until smooth. With the blender running, break off pieces of the blue cheese and add to the container. Do the same with the cream cheese. Once combined, blend at high speed for 5 minutes. Smear a 6-cup soufflé dish or individual 1 cup soufflé dishes with butter. Pour in the batter and bake 40 to 45 minutes for the 6-cup soufflé or 15-20 minutes for the individual molds. The top should be browned and the center should jiggle just a bit when shaken. If you like a firmer set, cook 5 to 10 minutes longer; the filling will crack. Serve at once while hot. If it must be held, turn off the oven and open the door a crack to prevent overbaking.

Notes: I used an indifferent supermarket brand of blue cheese. It came out cheesy but not super blue. A better cheese would give better results, I'm sure. I halved the recipe quite successfully and baked it in two 1 ½ cup ramekins. Cutler adds that the recipe can be prepared and held in the baking dish at room temp for 1-2 hours before baking or held in the fridge for longer. Bring up to room temp before baking or add another 5-10 minutes of oven time.

A bonus feature is Cutler's suggested menus for many of the dishes. I've always enjoyed reading menus, though I never actually recreate them in full. I remember reading the month-of-menus in my mother's Family Circle and Woman's Day magazines and being fascinated by the structure and fussiness of the precise amounts and the insistence of listing simple things like milk, butter, and rolls. I even liked reading the school cafeteria menus though I knew from bitter experience that no matter how good a menu sounded on paper, I was sure to be disappointed!

Cutler places the Danish Cauliflower as a starter for a meal that includes Boeuf à l'estouffade des mariniers du Rhône (Beef Braised in Piquant Sauce), Baked Gnocchi, and Tropical Sherbet. The soufflé goes well with Sautéed Soft-shelled Crabs, Cauliflower Gratin, and Blueberry Clafouti. That sounds like a lovely spring meal.

Such joie de vivre!

Friday, April 4, 2014

In the kitchen with Peter Rabbit

Peter Rabbit's Natural Foods Cookbook
By Arnold Dobrin Frederick Warne 1977

Here is a little gem. Children's author Arnold Dobrin takes inspiration from the world of Beatrix Potter in a small cookbook for children. Richly illustrated from Potter's work it is a feast for the eyes and conjures up a halcyon world of cozy tea-tables and kitchen gardens.

I wish I knew more about Dobrin and how he devised his recipes. They are a fairly standard set of natural food recipes: lots of sandwiches made with creamed or cottage cheese, some simple soups, and most of the baked good include whole wheat flour or wheat germ.

There are no meat recipes, though some of the soups call for the option of chicken stock, so it is not a strictly vegetarian book. I can't tell if the vegetarianism is deliberate or a result of avoiding the dangers of sautéing and roasting and the increased food safety issues of raw meat.

But the techniques are not all simple. Dobrin calls for some surprisingly sophisticated techniques, including blanching tomatoes to remove their skins, using a food mill, and stir-frying, all advanced moves for an adult in 1977.

There are technique and safety tips at the back of the book, but it clearly assumes that children will be cooking with adult supervision. Dobrin never talks down to his audience, and I like his frequent tag for optional ingredients like raisins and nuts--use them "if you like them." What better way to learn about taste than to learn to trust your own palate?

That being said, some of the recipes have more appeal than others. Mr. McGregor's Scrumptious Pureed Beets may not get as many takers as Samuel Whiskers' Roly-Poly Pancakes. The breakfast and dessert sections are the most appealing, but I love the page entitled "How to Like Onions" which elucidates the different members of the allium family, their culinary uses, and how onions enhance the flavors of many dishes.

While I was past the target age for Potter when this book came out, I remember being fascinated by it and wanting to 1) cook from it and 2) be in Potter's world. I think it may also have been an early experience of nostalgia. I remembered reading the books as a small child and being frightened for Peter in the garden. I remembered trying to figure out what cambric tea was and how it would taste. Just as I had when very small, I identified more with some characters than others and that spilled over into my liking or disliking of recipes based on their associated characters rather than their ingredients.

In addition, it was somewhere around this time, or maybe a bit later, that I read Nothing is Impossible: The Story of Beatrix Potter a biography written for children by Dorothy Aldis. Although Kirkus slammed its lack of detail and authority, I loved its portrayal of how a young artist found her medium and her subject matter. It is a very interior book, but it suited the subject. And while today I am only an occasional reader of biographies, those I do read tend to be about artists and musicians.

Aren't I sweet? And my cover is washable!