Last year I had so much nerve-wracking fun making my Backwoods Blueberry Buttermilk Sherbet that I have to make something else just as crazy this year. It’s hot, steamy, and sticky out there and when the weather is this gross, is there anything better than ice cream?
Especially ice cream made by me? 🙂
So please come out and let me feed you! As always, there are only a limited number of tickets available. Once they are gone, there are no more!
Tickets for the event are now available on the Bell House website at:
Now this, I thought to myself as I dined at Rosette with a friend, is what you should eat in the summertime. I wasn’t referring to the glorious mess of shredded brisket and pappardelle that you see above. No, I was thinking about the crunchy, raw asparagus spears that I was dipping into dukkah-dusted walnut tahini.
I made that giant batch of shredded brisket back in February, when the weather was arctic and I continued to hope that I would finally ween myself off Seamless and cook for myself. How little I cook during the academic year has become a common lament on this blog. This past semester, it was really close to zero unless you count putting slices of steak (leftovers from a dinner with my mother at BLT Steak) on top of stale Ritz crackers and eating them over the sink as cooking. From that same steak house dinner, there were also leftover hen-of-the-woods mushrooms that I scrambled with eggs and piled on top of of pasta because I had run out of bread.
Even though the semester has been over for about a month, there still hasn’t been much cooking. It hasn’t felt like much of a vacation either. First, my mother decided that the final exam period would be the perfect time to come to visit (it’s not; it never is). After she left, I was practically comatose for about a week from the visit and the end of the semester. Then, my almost 91-year old grandfather took a tumble in the garden and hit the back of his head (the sun’s fault, he claims). I had to stay with him for a couple of nights per the doctor’s (unnecessary, in Grandpa’s opinion) orders.
My dad: “How is Grandpa doing?”
Me: “Um, a little unstable on his feet.”
Dad: “Maybe be had a mini-stroke. Is he favoring one side more than the other?”
Me: “No. Doesn’t seem like it.”
Dad: “What is he doing now?”
Me: “He is using a pair of kitchen shears to pry open a key ring that he says is too small.”
Fall or no fall, Grandpa’s fine motor skills seem more or less intact. However, that does not mean that he has completely recovered. This summer, he seems frailer and more fragile. His legs get weak — which scares me. He forgets more things more often and is sometimes confused. It is to be expected at his age, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for him and emotionally draining for us.
Doctors’ appointments and follow-up appointments have been frequent, sometimes unexpected, and long. Thankfully, my friends have been wonderful at keeping me out of my apartment in the evenings so that I get to eat something decent and think about something else. I did desperately want to get away to Europe this summer, but unfortunately failed to get organized early enough to afford airfare. And although Grandpa continues to live on his own and be very independent, his health has put some restraint on any vacation plans. Still, it would be nice to get away somewhere like . . . Gourmandistan 😉
(Dearest Michelle and Steve, I promise you a visit! The summer isn’t over yet!)
Does this shredded brisket with pappardelle look good? It is damn good, but I would hold off on making a dish like this until the fall unless you have a very powerful air-conditioner and money is no object in terms of electric bills. For those dear readers south of the equator, this is the perfect late fall and wintertime warmer.
1 beef brisket (about 1.5 pounds), trimmed of excess fat and silver skin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
2 cups of veal or beef stock
1 16-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
2/3 of a cup of red wine
2 bay leaves
A large Dutch oven or another oven-safe casserole with a lid
How to prepare:
1. Preheat your oven to 325°. You may need to lower or adjust your oven racks so that you can fit your Dutch oven or casserole in it easily.
2. Using a food processor, pulse the carrots, celery, and onion together until they are finely chopped.
3. Pat the brisket dry with paper towels and generously season it on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in the bottom of a large Dutch oven or casserole over medium-high heat until it begins to just smoke. Sear the brisket on all sides. If your brisket is too large to sear at once, you may need to cut your brisket in half and sear each half individually.
4. Remove the brisket to a plate. Lower the heat to medium and in the same Dutch oven or casserole, sauté the chopped vegetables and finely minced garlic until they give up their liquid and just begin to brown. Add the stock, the chopped tomatoes, the red wine, and the bay leaves. Stir to combine before adding the seared brisket back to the liquid. Make sure that the brisket is completely covered by the liquid before covering the Dutch oven with its lid and transferring it to the oven. Let the covered brisket cook slowly for about 3 hours. After 3 hours, the brisket should be fork-tender. Remove the pot from the oven and carefully skim off any fat from the top of the sauce.
5. Remove the brisket from the sauce and use two forks to gently shred it. Add the shredded brisket back to the sauce and stir to re-incorporate it. Adjust the seasoning.
6. In a large pot of salted water, cook the pappardelle to package directions. When the pasta is al dente, drain it but reserve some of the pasta cooking water. Add the pappardelle to the shredded brisket sauce along with some of the pasta cooking water if needed. Toss to combine, adjust the seasoning, drizzle with olive oil, and serve.
Most of you who follow this blog know that for the past couple of years I have been a regular competitor in a series of cook-offs here in NYC known as The Takedowns. However, it occurred to me the other day that for all of my blog posts announcing competitions and updating you on what happened at each one, I have never actually written about what it’s like to prepare and compete in one.
In contrast to what one might think, there is no cooking on site; the venue just isn’t set up to accommodate that. Rather, all the cooking happens at home and then the competitors — known collectively as the Takedowners — tote their creations to the venue about an hour early to stake out a table and set up the tastings. The tastings are open to the ticket-buying public — not just the judges — which means that each of us has to prep about 250 1-oz. samples for everyone to taste.
If 250 1-oz. samples sounds like a lot, it is! The majority of Takedowners do multiple test runs before deciding on a final entry, and most try to plan ahead so that they are not scrambling at the last minute to put together something that is both tasty and winsome.
I wish that I was one of those people, but partly due to my schedule and mostly due to my inability to get organized early, I am usually the Takedowner pulling out her hair and freaking out less than 24 hours before the event. I do console myself by thinking that stress and time constraints are the mothers of invention. Sometimes it works in my favor like last summer when I brought home two ice cream makers for my Backwoods Blueberry Buttermilk Sherbet.
Sometimes it just results in something damn weird that I am still damn proud of like my Miso Awesome Cookies.
I had a couple of ideas for this year’s Brooklyn Mac and Cheeze Takedown (pizza mac and cheese? garlic bread-inspired mac and cheese? chocolate mac and cheese?). Ultimately, I decided that a baked mac and cheese was the way to go.
My entry for this year’s Brooklyn Mac & Cheeze Takedown? Mac-sagna, the heavenly mash-up of mac and cheese and lasagna.
Using a gallon of homemade, three-hour pork and beef Bolognese, a gallon of béchamel, four pounds of macaroni, two pounds of shredded mozzarella, two pounds of grated Parmesan, and half a pound of garlic and parsley-buttered bread crumbs, I made two gigantic 21 x 12 inch trays of mac-sagna for champions.
It was delicious and I had to stop myself from eating it like this:
Sadly, there were so many other excellent mac and cheeses that I did not win. I did, however, get to see and spend time with good friends, taste a lot of amazingly creative and imaginative dishes, and be part of another drunkenly excellent Takedown. That alone is worth every sweaty second in the kitchen.
A scaled down recipe is forthcoming. In the meanwhile, you can check out my fellow Takedowners here and here, and read more about the lovely winner here.
So before the weather turns definitively spring-like, this will be rich comfort food’s last stand before making way for tender lettuces and baby veg. For those of you who have tickets, I look forward to seeing you there! And for those of you who were not able to score them in time, I promise I will keep you all updated!
In the meanwhile, here is how you can help me out. I am still mulling over ideas for the Takedown and haven’t decided what to make yet! Any and all ideas are welcome!
The first really, truly mind-blowing Scotch egg that I ever had was at The Breslin. The breading was shatteringly crisp, the sausage was moist and savory, and the yolk . . . oh the yolk! Just liquid enough, it oozed and spread over the plate like runny gold. I may have moaned. I most certainly peppered the server with questions: “But HOW???? How do they get the egg so PERFECT????? How do they possibly PEEL it so that the egg stays so intact????? The whites must be barely set! DO THEY HAVE THE DELICATE FINGERS OF ANGELS BACK THERE????” In response, I only got a coy smile.
“Sous vide!” my friend Jason hissed, “It must be sous vide!”
Possible, but doubtful. It was hard to imagine anyone going through the trouble of sous-videing the quantity of eggs that a restaurant would require every night. As we pondered and chewed, and pondered another round of Scotch eggs because anything good should always be ordered twice, I thought that this would be my deep-frying project. I will make this at home, I thought, and all the Scotch eggs will be mine!
As I must be the world’s worst egg peeler, I let the eggs boil until the yolks were firmer — about 5 minutes. Next time, I’ll let them be a little runnier as I found out that a layer of sausage hides a multitude of fingernail gouges and fingertip-sized divots. The most important thing is that the oil remains hot — between 350-375° F — and the layer of sausage must remain reasonably thin.
All in all, it’s a pretty decadent affair for such a simple preparation. Deep-frying is messy business, but the final result is unbelievably satisfying.
1. Place 6 eggs in the bottom of a medium saucepan and add enough cold water to cover them. Over medium-high heat, bring the water to a boil. When the water begins to boil, cover the pan, remove it from the burner, and let it stand for 3.5-5 minutes, depending on how set you like to have your yolks (3.5 minutes for runny yolks, 4 minutes for just set yolks, 5 for perfectly set yolks) .
2. While the eggs are cooking, prepare an ice water bath. Carefully drain the water and gently roll the eggs around in the pan to crack the shells. Plunge the eggs into the ice water bath and let them sit there until they are cool enough to handle and peel. Once peeled, very gently pat them dry with paper towels.
3. Divide the sausage into six equal portions. Flatten and shape each portion into a thin disc about 1/4 of an inch thick. Lay the patty in the palm of your hand and gently rest a soft-boiled egg in the center of it. Wrap and mold the sausage around the egg, pinching and sealing the seams shut as you go. Make sure that the sausage layer is no thicker than 1/4 of an inch, otherwise the sausage will not cook through before the outside of the Scotch egg begins to burn. Repeat with the remaining sausage and eggs.
4. In a large, heavy pot, pour in enough oil so that you have a depth of about 2-2.5 inches. Insert the deep-fry thermometer and bring the oil up to 375°. While the oil is heating up, whisk the remaining 2 eggs in a shallow bowl. Keep the panko crumbs another shallow bowl.
5. Right before the oil reaches the right temperature, work quickly and dip each sausage ball in the beaten egg and roll it in the panko crumbs. While keeping an eye on the temperature, carefully place each Scotch egg in the hot oil. You will need to work in batches and the temperature should never drop below 350° F.
6. Turn the Scotch eggs occasionally so that they cook evenly. When they are golden and crisp — about 5-6 minutes — use a slotted spoon to remove them from the oil. Let them drain on a paper towel lined plate. Serve immediately.
Even though your zodiac animal’s years are special ones, they can also leave you more vulnerable to bad luck and impending doom if you are not careful. To compensate for all the bad luck that you will likely experience this year, the universe promises — as a reward for your suffering — that next year will be amazing!
(On a side note, only the Chinese would think to remind you not to eat your zodiac animal during your zodiac animal year.)
I remember the last Year of the Horse as being one of the worst years of graduate school that I had ever had. It was so bad that I moved to France (unbeknownst to me at the time, apparently traveling mitigates your bad luck since you will be physically removed from any potentially disastrous situations at home and can inflict your misfortune on a bunch of strangers instead). Furthermore, my grandmother died while I was away.
“Horseshit,” my cousin reiterated. “And I might remind you that your grandmother didn’t die. Our grandmother died.”
Touché, dear Cousin, but as I watched our family bicker around the table at New Year’s Dinner, I couldn’t help but think it was an omen, a portent of things to come. It didn’t help that every conversation that I had in the two weeks following Chinese New Year’s Day was awkward and stilted. Those interactions were so uncomfortable that I was beginning to think that 2014 would be better off spent in a menstrual hut somewhere in the New Mexican desert.
During that time I thought, “Oh no. It’s starting. Pretty soon, dormant volcanos will erupt and rising sea levels will cover and erase Indonesia.”
I was so in the dumps that an Indian colleague, deciding that enough was enough, pulled me aside one day. “Daisy!” she said while looking me straight in the eye, “In my country everyone is superstitious! I used to be so superstitious! Until I finally told myself that this was ridiculous and I am the only one who controls my destiny!”
Although it sounded like a load motivational speaker clichés, I was oddly swayed by S. Maybe it was the conviction with which she told me to (wo)man up and stop whining. Maybe it was the fact that I was already tired of being anxious about 11 more months of social ineptitude and imminent disaster. In any case, I was finally able to pull myself out of my funk and look forward to what 2014 might bring.
One of the resolutions that I have made this year besides learning to rock a funky, colorful sock (a much more challenging endeavor for me than you would think), is to wrap up loose ends from last year instead of just avoiding them until they are no longer relevant. At the very top of that list is this blog post which has been sitting in my drafts folder for an absurdly long time.
1. Preheat oven to 400°. Arrange the bacon in a single layer on a half-sheet pan. Roast the bacon until it is really crispy and most of the fat is rendered, about 20 minutes. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate and let dry/drain until it is cool enough to handle. Either crumble or cut the bacon into bacon bits.
2. Combine the sugar, the corn syrup, and the water in a 4-quart saucepan. Stir the mixture over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and it just begins to boil. Stop stirring and insert the candy thermometer. Let the mixture bubble and boil until the syrup reaches the 300°.
3. While the sugar syrup is boiling, wash and throughly dry the sheet pan that you used to roast the bacon. Line both half-sheet pans with parchment paper.
4. When the sugar syrup has reached 300°, turn off the heat and remove the saucepan from the burner. Use a popsicle stick to quickly stir in a very small drop of food coloring (a little goes a very long way). Once the color is even distributed, divide the syrup between the two lined sheet pans. Tip the pans very carefully to make sure that the syrup spreads out and evenly covers the entire bottom of the pans. Divide the bacon bits into two equal portions and sprinkle each evenly on top of each tray of candy. Let the candy cool completely.
4. Once the candy has completely cooled, take a mallet, a hammer, or a meat tenderizer and crack the candy into very small pieces/crystals. Transfer the candy to airtight zipper-lock bags.
No one likes to admit weakness, but I will here: after years of heavy teaching loads and graduate school stress, I am prone to burn out. I used to think that I was invincible, a survivor who overcame those horrible stretches of apathy by plowing straight through them. In reality, I was only papering over my needs and making the situation worse.
Today things are different. I recognize the signs of burn-out more easily, those dark twinges that hang just outside of my metaphysical peripheral vision. Unlike then, I realize now that if I don’t take care of myself, I’m no good to anyone: family, friends, students, and colleagues alike. So I draw boundaries at the end of each semester, knowing that I need to take some precious time to recharge my batteries so to speak.
One thing that always helps me recuperate and regain my joie de vivre is food, particularly cooking. When life gets hectic and the stacks of papers that I need to grade grow higher, I pretty much cease to cook at home — an obvious mistake as cooking calms me and the food that I prepare nourishes both my body and spirit. I love trying new recipes and cooking from new cookbooks, but when I am really aching for something soul-sustaining, what I love most are recipes from family and friends. Those recipes and dishes are the ones that are really special because they make me feel as if that person is in the kitchen with me even though they may be thousands of miles away.
I’ve been spatchcocking a lot of chickens lately. Partly because I’ve finally invested in a good pair of very sharp, spring-loaded shears, and also because I like how evenly and quickly the chicken cooks. The white meat emerges tender and moist from the oven, the dark meat is rich and succulent, and the skin comes out crispy, burnished, and golden.
For this particular chicken, I finally got around to trying a maple syrup-kissed rub/marinade that Victoria over at Bois de Jasmin mentioned in the comment thread of her post on Hot and Spicy Cranberry Sauce. Many people think of Bois de Jasmin as a perfume blog, but I always consider it much more than that: a celebration of life and of all things fragrant, including food and drink. Given that the olfactory and the gustatory are so intimately intertwined, is it surprising that many perfume lovers happen to be fine gastronomes as well?
Victoria calls this chicken an improvisation, but I call it genius. The chicken feels infused with a terrific depth of flavor. The maple syrup caramelizes to a sticky, burnt sugar-like glaze. Victoria uses a mortar and pestle to render the garlic cloves into a smooth paste. I would have done the same if I had one. However, as I do not, I made do with a garlic press. Regardless of which technique you choose, the garlicky chicken roasting in the oven will make your kitchen smell mouthwatering good. I used a pinch of cayenne pepper in place of a pinch of paprika, but Victoria also suggests a little bit a garam masala added to the mix — a delicious idea that I look forward to trying as soon as I get back to NYC.
As for the coconut oil-roasted sweet potatoes, I never would have tried a so-called Paleo recipe if not for On-Ke, who had recently completed 30 days of eating Paleo along with her daughter Siobhan and her family. I had initially gotten to know Siobhan through her wonderful blog Garden Correspondent. When we finally met in person, it was as if I had known her for years. Laughing and chatting animatedly over Italian coffee and pastries, Siobhan decided that she needed to introduce me to her mother, another “culture vulture” who lives rather conveniently around the corner from me. Needless to say, we hit it off right away and have spent this past fall terrorizing the city in a good way: museum visits, perfume sniffing outings, theater performances, and always food, glorious food! Siobhan, you are missed!
One afternoon, On-Ke served me a roasted and roughly cut up kabocha squash that was rubbed with coconut oil, seasoned with salt, and studded with cracked black peppercorns. Super classy woman that I am, I devoured what must have been half a pumpkin in one sitting. I couldn’t help it; there was something about that subtle coconut flavor that made that roasted kabocha squash even more irresistible. Ever since that afternoon, this has been my preferred way to cook just about any squash or yam. As I thought about a perfect complement for Victoria’s chicken, I couldn’t come up with a better one than these sweet potatoes roasted in the same way.
2. While the oven is warming up, you can begin to prep the chicken. To spatchcock any bird, flip the bird over so that its breast is facing down on the cutting board and its back is facing upright. Using a good, sharp pair of sturdy kitchen shears, remove the backbone by cutting along either side of it. Remove any excess skin that is dangling from the neck hole. Turn the bird breast-side-up. Remove the wishbone with a sharp knife. Now with the heel of your hand, press directly down on the breast bone until you hear a crack. Congratulations! You have just spatchcocked a bird! To finish, tuck the wings behind the breast. For the legs, you can make small slits in the skin on either side of where the tail used to be and push the ends of each respective leg through them. You can also leave the wings and legs as they are. Your chicken will taste the same either way, but as a firm believer in trussing, I like to have everything looking neat. To help visualize this, here is a video.
3. Combine the maple syrup, garlic, olive oil, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the mixture evenly all over the chicken. Lay the chicken out on a rack-lined sheet pan and let it marinate uncovered on the counter for about 40 minutes to an hour.
4. While the chicken is marinating, use your hands to rub each piece sweet potato with coconut oil. Season the pieces liberally with flaky salt and freshly ground black pepper, and spread them out in an even layer over another baking tray or in the bottom of a cast iron pan. I like my roasted sweet potatoes to be on the very roasted side, not exactly burnt, but just so that the surface sugars are caramelized. This should take about 40 minutes or so. If you prefer yours to be less roasted, you can remove them from the oven when they are softened and can be easily pierced with the point of a sharp knife.
5. When the sweet potatoes are done, remove them from the oven. Put the chicken in the oven and carefully pour about 2 to 2 1/2 cups of water into the bottom of the sheet pan. The water should not touch the bottom of the wire rack. Roast the chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°, this should take between 1 hour and 1.5 hours depending on how big your chicken is. If at any point you notice that the garlic is beginning to burn, you can loosely tent the chicken with a sheet of aluminum foil, removing it when the it is almost done so that the skin can brown. When the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and let it rest for 10-20 minutes before carving.
Serve the chicken with the roasted sweet potatoes.
Considering the extent of my bacon advocacy, most people are surprised to find out that I used to be a vegetarian. That was not a choice based on any kind of moral imperative. Instead, it was the best way that my 14-year-old self think of to annoy my mother. Now you would think that vegetarianism would have gotten old after a couple of weeks, but I was stubborn teenager and persisted in my gastronomic rebellion for twelve long and meatless years.
I didn’t just annoy my mother, I baffled my relatives who had never heard of Tofurkys until they were forced to procure them. My friends would collectively roll their eyeballs heavenward each time that I complained about the lack of vegetarian options on a restaurant menu. I irritated significant others to no end because it frankly sucks to not share food that you are really enjoying.
So it stands to reason that on the night before my undergraduate commencement ceremony, I would have my vegetarian graduation celebration at a barbecue restaurant.
Yes, you read that correctly.
What prompted such a paradoxical decision? You see, one of the last classes that I took at my alma mater was a cultural anthropology course on food — which ended up being a prescient choice since many of the books on that syllabus found their way into the bibliography of my dissertation. I had an amazing professor who had a number of terrific guest speakers come to talk to the class, one of first of which was Chris Schlesinger who was still at the East Coast Grill (he has since sold it to the former head chef, now chef/co-owner Jason Heard).
Until that class, I had never really thought that much about food apart from how much I liked to eat it. It never occurred to me that you could craft an approach to food that could be just as thoughtful, complicated, and elegant as any in literature, or that taste — both sensory and esthetic — could be a marker of identity, a beginning of a journey, or an end to one.
In any case, Schlesinger’s passion, dedication, and approach to big, bold American flavors made quite the impression. I also remember how he wasn’t adverse to vegetables being on a barbecue menu, which is how my friends and my family ended up at his restaurant graduation eve.
This recipe is adapted from Schlesinger’s How to Cook Meat, published the same year that I graduated. I bought the book to remember that night despite not cooking nor eating meat at the time. Who would have known how useful it would turn out to be a few years later when I was no longer a vegetarian and really did want to know how to cook meat!
I must admit that the first time that I made this dish, I wasn’t impressed; I found it too sweet and the flavors a little too weird. However, after years of vegetarianism, I probably just had no idea what I was doing. Now things are different (or back to “normal,” depending how you think about it). I find the combination of flavors to be complex, rich, and deeply satisfying on cold nights like the ones that we have been having here on the East Coast.
I’ve tinkered with the recipe over the years, making it a little less sweet (tomato paste substituted for ketchup; blackstrap for plain old molasses), and deepening the flavors a little more (roasting instead of boiling the sweet potatoes). The recipe easily doubles as the one given below is the proportions of the original halved.
Like any recipe that you have made your own, its evolution is indicative of where you come from and where you are going. In essence, that is the wonderful thing about recipes in general: they all tell a story and this is one of mine.
2. To make the A.1. compound butter, combine the room temperature butter, the steak sauce, and the chopped parsley in a small bowl. Season the butter with flaky salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Spoon the butter onto a piece of parchment or waxed paper, roll it into a cylinder, and refrigerate it until firm.
3. Prick the sweet potatoes all over with a fork. Place them directly on the wire racks of your oven and roast them until they can be easily pierced with a knife, about 40 minutes.
4. While the sweet potatoes are roasting, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan or Dutch oven set over medium heat. Sauté the onions and diced bell pepper until the onions begin to turn golden, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic, the minced jalapeño, and the spices. Let them sizzle them for about 1 minute before adding the ground beef. Cook the ground beef until it is browned, crumbly, and no longer pink. Pour off any excess fat in the pan before stirring in the tomato paste and the blackstrap molasses. Adjust the seasoning.
5. When the sweet potatoes are cooked through, remove them from the oven and let them rest. Lower the temperature of the oven to 350°.
6. When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel them and discard the skins. Mash them with a tablespoon of butter and 2/3 of a cup of half-and-half. As the mixture should be on the loose side, add more half-and-half if needed. Season with salt and pepper.
7. Spread an even layer of the ground beef mixture over the bottom of a casserole or baking dish. Gently top the ground beef mixture with the mashed sweet potatoes. Bake until the filling is bubbly, about 40 minutes.
8. Remove the casserole dish from the oven and let it rest for about 5-10 minutes. To serve, you can either dot the top of the casserole with the compound butter before dividing it into portions, or you can top each individual serving with a slice of the compound butter.
The future stepmother of my companion at the time had a chateau in the Périgord. It had been years since she had been there herself and taking advantage of our position in Paris, she asked us to take a weekend off and go down to check on the property for her. After a long drive from Paris that was made even longer by a detour forced by an errant herd of sheep, we arrived at the property famished and exhausted. The chateau itself was uninhabitable. In lieu, we stayed in the caretaker’s home — a crumbling stone house in need of many repairs, the least of which was a new roof.
Dark, dusty, and overrun with audible mice, the house was inhabited by a desperately lonely woman who not only feared the state of the only home she had known for more than 20 years, but had also become increasingly worried about her precarious life. What would happen if the owner decided to sell the property? What would happen if the owner came back and forced her out? She had nowhere to turn and no income to speak of besides her limited state pension.
Communication between her and the stepmother was so poor that she initially thought we were sent to kick her out. Once it was established that we most certainly were not, she relaxed and began to list everything that needed to be fixed. Unfortunately, there was nothing that we could really do besides listen and watch her gnarled fingers expertly reduce a pile of meager potatoes into thin slices with a dull paring knife. She continued to fret while we ate that divine gratin. In the heat of the fire (yes, the stove was a wood one) the potatoes had collapsed into a silky smooth cake; the individual layers had become indistinguishable from the whole. This was all washed down with a dozen small glasses of homemade walnut liquor made from nuts that had fallen from the trees surrounding the property.
It was a delicious meal, albeit a very sad one.
I never knew what happened to the woman. The stepmother tossed away the caretaker’s worries with nothing more than a soupçon of concern and my relationship didn’t survive the move back to New York. Consequently, I never followed up on the story.
However, ever since that meal, I have tried literally hundreds of recipes for gratin dauphinois in the hopes of recreating that recipe-less dish that was probably as natural for that woman to make as it was for her to breathe. I have made gratins with liters of heavy cream and piles of Alpine cheeses. I have added truffles and more butter. I have tried different varieties of potatoes soaked in milk, not soaked in milk, and even parboiled in milk and cream. I have tried slicing the potatoes paper thin with mandolines. I’ve tried Julia Child’s recipe.
After all that experimentation, nothing has come close. However, this recipe comes the closest.
Like all dishes born out of need and necessity, gratin dauphinois is best simple — not gussied up with an excess of cream, butter, and cheese. Although the urge to be decadent is strong when it comes to French farmhouse dishes, the best ones are made with only whole milk, some stock, and the gentlest kiss of cheese. The allure of excess is not rewarded as richly as the alchemical reaction of humble ingredients and time.
1-2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1-2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
1-2 sprigs of savory
2 bay leaves
3 smashed garlic cloves, plus one more
5-6 black peppercorns
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 cup of chicken stock
1 cup of whole milk (or light cream if you must)
4 smallish waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch slices
2. In a medium-sized saucepan, cover the herbs, the black peppercorns, and three of the smashed garlic cloves with the milk and the stock. Season with salt and freshly grated nutmeg to taste. Over a medium-low flame, gently heat the mixture until it just comes to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the herbs and garlic steep.
3. While waiting for the milk mixture to cool, rub an oven-proof dish with the remaining smashed clove of garlic. Generously butter the dish.
4. Strain the milk mixture. I like to do this into a measuring cup with a spout as it makes it easier to build the gratin later.
5. In the bottom of the gratin pan, make an even, single layer of potato slices. Pour just enough of the milk mixture to cover the slices and then add another layer on top. Top that layer with just enough of the milk mixture to cover the slices. Scatter a little bit of the grated cheese on top. Continue to build the gratin with a little bit of grated cheese in-between every other layer, and with each layer covered with the milk mixture. Reserve just enough cheese to scatter on top near the end of baking. The final layer at this point should be just potatoes. Use your hand and press down on top of the gratin. Add more milk mixture if needed, but leave about 1/2-inch of clearance from the top of the gratin dish.
6. Dot the top of the gratin with butter and cover it with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit.
7. Bake the gratin for about 30 minutes before removing the parchment paper. Continue to bake the gratin uncovered for about 15 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and continue baking for 15-20 minutes until the top of the gratin is golden and the potatoes are soft. This is very important: let the gratin rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
This blog post is my second contribution to the amazing Genie De Wit’s Our Growing Edge. Our Growing Edge is a monthly event that aims to connect food bloggers, broaden our horizons, and encourage us to try new things.
The month is just starting and anyone can be a part of the party! For more information, please go to the page Genie has set up on her blog Bunny. Eats. Design.
There is a special kind of shame that comes when you tell someone that you have a food blog and the last time you posted anything was almost a month ago. This has not been by choice, but rather necessity. As many of my friends know, my teaching load this semester has been a particularly brutal one. Not so much in terms of how my students are (they are truly lovely this semester), but in terms of how many of them there are (about 100). With class planning, grading, emails, and other assorted administrative tasks, I have hardly had any time for my friends. Let’s be honest: I have barely had time to feed myself properly. Currently, my fridge has only two things in it: booze and soy sauce. Sadly, the soy sauce has been untouched for so long that it probably has become booze — a stomach-churning yet strangely intriguing thought…
I had big dreams for the Takedown. Starting last year, I had this marvelous idea of doing mini bacon éclairs stuffed with Velveeta crème. Disgusting you say? Well, I didn’t try to make them so I don’t know, but I suspect that they would have been AMAZING! I was so obsessed with the thought that I even did some bicoastal brainstorming with Paul over at That Other Cooking Blog who suggested that maybe hand-piping 250 mini-éclairs wouldn’t be such a chore if I froze the choux pastry ahead of time.
Well, that idea evaporated when time got away from me. I thus turned to thinking about things that wouldn’t need any cooking at all — like bacon “Napoléons” created entirely out of smashed Twinkies, potato chips, and bacon bits.
Earlier in the summer, I had the privilege to see the artist Émilie Baltz talk about food at a Creative Mornings event. That morning, she spoke about her book Junk Foodie, a tome dedicated to reproducing classic French dishes using only American junk food. She described in loving detail how she recreated a Napoléon using Twinkies and crushed potato chips (she scooped out the filling, reserved it, rolled out the cake, cut it into rectangles, and reassembled the whole thing with layers of crushed chips and smears of the reserved cream).
Equally disgusting you say? She claimed it tasted just like a real Napoléon and I believe her. Unfortunately, there was no way that I could ensure that the chips would stay crispy layered under all that moist Twinkie cake and cream for the duration of the event. Sadly, that idea got scrapped as well.
Finally, while texting back and forth with another Paul about Breaking Bad, he threw out the name “Bacon Bad,” and I found the name so irresistible that I had to use it.
With my teaching schedule, I knew that cooking something elaborate was going to be out of the question. But cooking several pounds of blue bacon rock candy was absolutely doable, especially with the help of my professional candy-making neighbor downstairs.
Did I win?
To my utter shock and surprise, I won Honorable Mention from the judges which netted me a T-Shirt, a Microplane grater, and a wallet printed with bacon strips.
That’s not all: I also won Best Booth which means that my table decorations scored me A YEAR’S WORTH OF BACON!
That’s 52 pounds of bacon, yo!
None of this would have been possible without the help of my friends. Thank you all for coming out and supporting me! And many thanks to everyone who voted!
To Kalay, many thanks and hugs for coming over early, feeding me, helping me get everything to Brooklyn, helping me throughout the event, and keeping me sane! I could not have pulled it off without you. Thank you for your friendship and support!
Another heartfelt thanks goes out to Kelly O. for lending me the “lab equipment.” It pays to have scientists as friends 🙂 And I think you can continue to use those flasks for cocktails and for other off-label uses without fear 🙂
A big thank you to Paul, without whom I would probably have been serving reconstituted Twinkie mush. Thank you for the name, the fantastic idea, and the inspiration. You’re brilliant! And thank you for helping me get everything home!
A final thank you to Matt Timms for being such an amazing organizer, host, and friend. It is always a pleasure to be a part of your events and always an even bigger pleasure to share a beer afterwards. Here’s to next time!
For another write-up about the event, I direct you to Brooklyn Exposed’s photo gallery here.