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Sésame, ouvre-toi

June 27, 2014

Despite the heat, or perhaps because my brain is addled by it, I have been baking bread frequently. In fact, the need to bake bread in order to eat good bread in Brooklyn has diminished significantly just in the last year. Two newish bakeries (frankly they could have been around for quite some time, so I should really say “new to me”) sell quarter miche (you can buy a whole or a half, but that’s a lot of bread!). Even with the terrible exchange rate, the prices are far from Parisian (which in this very unique context actually means low!). Thus while I am buying extremely expensive organic local flour I probably manage to save 50 cents a week once I take heat and electricity into account. More importantly, I like baking bread. So there.

photo 3

Usually I follow the Tartine formula with minor adjustments. It’s a sticky dough, and I used to use quite a bit of flour to ensure the boule wouldn’t stick during the final rise and before the transfer from cloth to pot. However, a couple weeks ago I tried using sesame seeds instead, and this is a very delicious and successful alternative.

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The loaf served for two delicious dinners. First with ricotta and olive oil (and an overshadowed salad) and then with a parmesan pudding and asparagus. I made another one on Monday that we ate with asparagus and hollandaise and then as croutons with broccoli and burrata.

This is a lot of bread and cheese, and my photographer did such an excellent job in capturing the spirit of the meal that I knew I could not not share it here.

photo 1

Sesame in French is Sésame, and I read a recent academic paper that said something along the lines of “controversies are the sesame of modern science studies,” by which presumably the author was not referring to a delicious seed when toasted or ground, but rather the magical unlocking properties of sesame. And for that key we can thank Antoine Galland (1646–1715).


Is that a woman? Bobby asked me. Ahem, no, but perhaps a-historically I like to confer a certain amount of androgyny on those powdered gentlemen of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. When will ridiculously curly white wigs come back into fashion? I cannot wait!

Open sesame! As you know, is from the tales of Ali Baba. While Les mille et une nuits is allegedly a translation of a 14th century Syrian manuscript, two of its most famous tales: Aladdin and Ali Baba, have no surviving Arabic originals. Some speculate whether they were invented by Galland himself.

If you can get your hands on the originals (or alternative translations) of the other tales, they are supposedly much racier and full of poetry. Translation is treason, don’t you know.

But what I was very curious, and why I invited Monsieur Galland for dinner, was pourquoi le sésame?

Galland explained that no it was not a metaphor nor an abstruse comment on Middle Eastern cuisine, but only a very good word. In fact, some translations write “Open simsim” instead, closer to the pronunciation of the Arabic and further emphasizing the importance of sound over meaning. With an appropriate French accent, sésame sounds not unlike “shazam”–another mystical sounding collection of letters.

Did Monsieur Galland himself like sesame? I would hazard to say yes, as he seemed to enjoy his bread and cheese very much.

And if you are looking for the perfect adjective to describe a night full of magic, daring escapes, tremendous fortunes gained and lost, and oil lamps (but nothing too risqué), and if you don’t mind dabbling in Spanish, might I suggest the adjective milyunanochesco?


May 5, 2014

HIBK is not a particularly easy to pronounce acronym, and perhaps more memorable for that very reason. As I learned in 11th grade English, HIBK is a romance novel trope (by romance, I mean late eighteenth to early nineteenth century western European, not Danielle Steele) employed when the hero or heroine looks back on the series of unfortunate events that have unfolded and thinks (aloud) “had I but known…”
Had I but known how much I loved food, I would never have decided to spend a year in St Andrews. Yet such a decision would have deprived me both of the best Indian food I have ever eaten and digestive biscuits.
In St Andrews I had one good friend who lived in a proper house, and whenever I would come round (sometimes unannounced–I didn’t have a cellphone and things were much more accidental as a result), she would put on a cup of tea and a few biscuits. There was a special cupboard just full of biscuits, mostly of the digestive variety. You can find digestives very easily in New York nowadays (even the caramel and chocolate dipped Hobnob variety), but why buy something from the store when you can make it at home?

The Guardian is a useful paper for recipes (I’m afraid that I can’t comment on the other content), in particular a current column by Felicity Cloake that tests various recipes of a particular dish and takes the best elements from each one. Her digestive recipe seemed thoroughly researched and I highly recommend it.
Ms. Cloake notes that digestives are not in fact particularly healthful. They contain much more butter than the average slice of (unfrosted) cake and are alarmingly fast to eat. The fact that the British would give such a medicinal name to a cookie goes a long way toward explaining a great many things as my tea guest could tell you.
I’ll admit that I mostly wanted to invite Alfred Hitchcock over to tea so that I could take a stab at drawing him.

When I confessed to this ulterior motive, Hitchcock simply responded, “puns are the highest form of literature.”
I’m glad we agree.
Unlike my boyfriend, my mother, and my sister, I have never taken a cinema class on Hitchcock. I have seen at least half a dozen of his films, including the one that according to Wikipedia was his favorite, Shadow of a Doubt (which seems to have been the primary inspiration for the recent film Stoker–a worthwhile and disturbing film in its own right). So anyway, we had plenty to talk about in between sipping and dunking.
Most recently, I re-watched Rear Window (a film my sister has written at least two essays about) after discovering my cousin inhabits a very rear window oriented apartment . My own rear window looks out on what appears to be a youth kickboxing studio. That said, when the unseen neighbor’s dog wakes us up at 5:30 in the morning, I can’t help but feel some of that claustrophobic urban angst.
Unlike digestives, Hitchcock explained, “revenge is sweet and not fattening.”

Coffee Bach

April 7, 2014

I live in a world of morning songs. Morning songs, in case you were wondering, are something like commerical jingles where you aren’t trying to sell anything. They are extremely catchy for about an hour and full of the nonsense that accompanies waking up. The vast majority of our household’s morning songs do not originate with yours truly, with the one exception of the enduring hit “coffee time.” If I’m not mistaken, “coffee time” has one note. The first verse goes “coffee time” and the second verse goes “coffee time, coffee time” in the same amount of time, and thus, twice as fast.


“Coffee time” signals the time of morning (sometime between 7:15 and 8:30 depending on the day of the week) when I start boiling water in preparation for my cup of café au lait. As the water  comes to a boil, I wash out my French press and fill it with one and a half tablespoons of (currently) a Costa Rican blend advertised as tasting of sugar cane, sea salt, and honeysuckle (I am skepticle as to whether this description has any baring on the actual product). When the water is ready, I fill the press halfway, stir with a wooden chopstick, and put on about an equal volume of milk to warm up. When the milk is hot, I add the two together in my Café du Monde mug.


It sounds methodical, but compared to contemporary Brooklyn coffee culture, the whole procedure is a bit slapdash (no weights, no temperatures, no grinding of beans, no checking of clocks).

That is coffee time.

As you can see by my measured half-portions, coffee time is ripe for sharing. Moreover, the coffee time tune is perhaps in need of a little updating. So I invited over the famous expander of ditties, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).


The story goes that in 1747 Bach was invited to the court of King Frederick II of Prussia. The king played a simple tune and challenged Bach to improvise a fugue around that theme. Though I know very little of music, I know enough to know that improvising a fugue is no mean feat. Bach arrived at the Musical Offering–a fractal like song if ever there was one.

Bach looks like a man who enjoyed a Berliner or two with his cup of joe, so I baked a cake as well. He was happy to share in my morning ritual, and told me about his own Coffee Cantata–which sounds as if it were written after rather than before imbibing (translated thanks to wikipedia).

Ei! wie schmeckt der Coffee süße,
Lieblicher als tausend Küsse,
Milder als Muskatenwein.
Coffee, Coffee muss ich haben,
Und wenn jemand mich will laben,
Ach, so schenkt mir Coffee ein!
(Oh! How sweet coffee does taste,
Better than a thousand kisses,
Milder than muscat wine.
Coffee, coffee, I’ve got to have it,
And if someone wants to perk me up,
Oh, just give me a cup of coffee!)

Although Bach helped himself to seconds of cake, he couldn’t offer much help in improving “Coffee Time”. After all, it’s only one note so any fugue on the theme would be quite literally monotonous.

Nevertheless, I thanked him for his company and his contributions to the culture of singing about that beverage that launched the Enlightenment (maybe?).

bachsealAs a master of court culture, Bach soon sent a very kind thank you note, complete with his ultrasymmetrical Leipzig seal.

I loathe to go out for breakfast (or brunch) because I never order the right thing. If I choose the baked eggs and vegetable hash, it turns out I really wanted waffles. If I decadently decide on something with chocolate, the apple dish proves more promising. Tea should have been coffee and a mimosa would be better off grapefruit juice.

At home, where a local “hen egg” costs 35 cents instead of $7, I have no such qualms and hesitations. Sometimes it’s oatmeal and sometimes it’s leftover soup, but mostly it’s toast.

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The best butter this side of the Atlantic is the Vermont Creamery Cultured Butter with Sea Salt. The best vehicle for butter is cinnamon raisin bread. And buckwheat crêpes. And enveloped into puff pastry. Since this is real life and not mathematics (or grammar), we’re allowed to use superlatives generously.

Since I can make up my mind at home, it seemed pragmatic to invite a guest who notoriously could not. I haven’t read much of William James (1842–1910), but I have read his brother and I hear good things. William James gave us “plasticity of the mind,” “the stream of thought,” and “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” Any thinker today owes him a firm handshake and maybe some toast and coffee.


While we might have discussed our commonalities as former Parisian residents, amateur painters, and persons who have never held a real job, instead we talked about physics. James was a proponent of the pluralistic universe, and now seemed delighted to hear that in parallel universes every possible option is concurrently realized. The answer is always yes and no, which is very convenient when you aren’t quite sure.

In this universe, I offered James a second slice of toast. Without a blink of hesitation he helped himself.

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(Many special thanks to my sister for both the bread and butter knives. Her blog can be found here.)

We were throwing an intimate brunch and I made a list: apple turnovers + filo baked eggs w/pesto, ricotta ravioli w/pesto + roasted cherry tomatoes+mushrooms, eggs florentine?

As soon as I wrote it, I knew the list could stop. English muffins usually come from a refrigerated pack of six and require much toasting and topping to taste edible. Homemade English muffins are a beautiful example of the possibilities of wheat and water. Baked in a very hot oven that same dough could yield baguettes. Enfolded around butter, it became a croissant. Cut into rounds and griddled, we had English muffins.


Most of my cookbooks are in Napa, except for two-thirds of the Tartine triumvirate. As Cook My Book reboots, I felt it only fair to begin at the beginning again.

The rest of the eggs florentine did not materialize, and was sensibly replaced by choice of fried eggs, butter, raspberry jam,  roasted broccolini, and a tricolor fruit salad (pineapple, clementines, and dried cherries).

Researching the story behind English muffins, I came across this woman, who I really should have invited over long ago.

elizabeth david

Elizabeth David (1913-1992) wrote English Bread and Yeast Cookery in 1977, but by then she had been writing and educating on food for over a quarter century. Her last publication was entitled An Omelette and a Glass of Wine–and I think that pretty much says everything worth saying.

They say she introduced olive oil and garlic to Britain. Two foods that had not yet made it up to St Andrews by 2004, I might add. While she was an outspoken advocate for good food and found the word crispy unnecessary.

Of all the delightful people to have round for brunch, Elizabeth David would also be one of the more terrifying. In fact, I very much doubt she would support the institution of brunch, which is often no more than a late breakfast or eggs for lunch.

Elizabeth David eats a runny fried egg atop an English muffin with a knife and fork in the French style. She does not make small talk, She is famed to have said that everything there is to know about her is in her books. Clearly, I need to go to the library.

P.S. Why do all my women look like men in drag? Good question! I attribute this to practice, since most of my drawing people are white guys from the early nineteenth century…

5 sisters in 4 space

May 10, 2013

Returning from my most recent visit to New York, I decided it was time to eat a bit more conscientiously. So I started baking small cakes.

Ahem, some of you might not see the very clear cause and effect of this decision. Let me explain my logic.

Though I am not much of a dessert person, there is nothing quite so nice with a cup of tea in the afternoon as a small slice of something sweet. With the knowledge of this daily treat in mind, I am much less likely to gorge on a pound of croutons, peanuts, or whatever leftovers I was planning to eat over the next few days. Secondly, I have been stockpiling freshly milled French flours, which need to be eaten up. Finally (as some of you are well aware), I cannot find an ideal loaf of bread in this town. And, as everyone’s favorite Parisian princess once said, if the peasants have no bread…

First, I made a very nice Breton buckwheat cake–no leaveners and lots of delicious butter. Then I made a sadly unsatisfying chocolate-almond-buckwheat cake–too light! Thirdly, I made a pear cake into which I substituted apples causing it to get a bit burnt around the edges before the middle was set. And yesterday I made a poppy almond cake.


Oh yes! Sure it may look a bit homely (and that IS my strawberry plant in the background) and maybe poppy seeds don’t float your boat. But to paraphrase Dr. Frankenfurter, “I didn’t make it for you!

As soon as I started this cake baking frenzy, I knew exactly who I would invite over once I perfected the menu. My favorite sisters: Mary Ellen, Margaret, Alicia, Lucy, and Ethel Boole.

Mary ellen margaret

alicia  lucy ethel

If the name Boole rings 0 or 1 bells, then you may be familiar with their father George. There mother, Mary Everest (niece of the man of the mountain), was a self-taught mathematician who helped her husband write The Laws of Thought and bore five children before the age of 32 when Mr. Boole passed away. After that, she supported herself and family as a librarian and private tutor.

The Boole girls were by all accounts extremely intelligent. All of them either engaged in mathematics research, married mathematicians, or had mathematical offspring. Kind of like a 19th century team of superheros who traversed the fourth dimension with their minds.

However, knowing their attention to precision, rigour, and the scientific ethos, I knew that this cake had to be truly top-notch. Mathematicians aren’t trying to be mean when they point out flaws, it’s just their job.

Voilà! This poppy cake hit all the right notes. Slightly crisp around the edges, buttery in the center, and with a delightful pop all the way through (that’s why they’re called poppies, right?).

Mary Ellen, Margaret, Alicia, Lucy and Ethel materialized into my space time and I boiled some water for tea. I am making my way through an African blend right now called Kitcbi. I offered milk, lemon, or sugar and we discussed all the possible variations one could have with those options. Some say that milk, lemon, and tea together solve the incompatible food triad problem. It was a truly delightful afternoon, though not a little unsettling when one or the other would disappear into the fourth dimension and reappear in another part of the room. Sometimes leaving just a smile behind, in reference to Alice in Wonderland, which we all agreed was a very good book. I told them about my research, and they gave constructive critiques.

When every last crumb had been eaten and the tea had run dry, we bade our farewells. Come back soon! I called into the emptiness they had left behind.

Then I began to plan tomorrow’s cake.


March 27, 2013

Cinderella (or Cendrillon en français) is the story about a girl being transformed into a princess. But it is also the story of a plain yellow pumpkin being transformed into a golden carriage.

Yes, spring is almost upon us and if this were a real cooking blog it would be utterly unfashionably unseasonable to talk about the autumnal delights of winter squash. However, at 42 degrees and falling outside, I am not exactly expecting strawberries and asparagus in the immediate future.

Maybe someone else with craftier skills could turn a pumpkin into a carriage, but I am content to turn mine into soups and pies. I have every intention to write about pumpkin soup in January, and made a pumpkin soup for such a purpose. But though this is not a cooking blog, it is an eating blog, and it would be antithetical to write about something at best mediocre–much less share it with a special guest!

So let us travel back in time to early December and talk about pumpkin pie.

There is a season for pumpkin pie, and most people seem to agree that season is Thanksgiving. However, as much as Thanksgiving is about unbridled gluttony, it is also about family gatherings, and family gatherings mean compromises. My ideal Thanksgiving feast would probably involve something like turkey vindaloo, and then I would be eating alone–sad. So really having the perfect meal on Thanksgiving is not the point, and sometimes pumpkin pie is swapped for pumpkin cheesecake and as much as that seems wrong wrong wrong, it is the company that counts. I can make pumpkin pie any of the other 364 days of the year, more or less.

My favorite pie is the fleeting sour cherry followed by a four way tie between peach, blueberry, pumpkin and malted chocolate pecan (which I haven’t actually tasted yet, yet know I will love). Really, this is mostly a confession for my love of pie insides. I am relatively ambivalent about crust (even though I have mastered the perfect flaky crust). So when I am with company I tend to give my crust away, and when I am without I make something that is more of a pudding.

In early December this took the shape of the most ridiculous recipe ever:

Take about half a cup of vanilla yogurt, one egg, a generous pinch of salt and about a cup of roasted pumpkin. Blend together thoroughly until very very smooth. Pour into a buttered dish and bake on medium (thanks oven!) until set. As I recall, I dusted the top with freshly grated nutmeg, but that could be skipped.

This was as much pumpkin pie as is pumpkin cheesecake, but it still hit all the right notes and could probably be eaten all in one sitting without feeling too guilty.

I did not eat it all in one sitting because, naturally, I had a guest. The man perhaps responsible for making the impossible possible.

No, I am not talking about Lobachevski and hyperbolic geometry! This guy:

perraultCharles Perrault (1628-1703) the writer of Cendrillon and other less optimistic tales.

I learned about M. Perrault in a French conversation group at straight away knew that I had to invite him over. I am terrifically fond of fairy tales, or contes en français.

So as soon as the not pie emerged from the oven, I called him round for an afternoon tea and a good warming story. As it so happened, this was the one day of the year when my apartment has a fireplace and two very cozy chairs surrounding it. With our plates and mugs perched on the arms, he began.

“Il était une fois…”

Un oeuf, Victor Hugo

January 25, 2013

Last Friday, at a colleague’s house we were eating mini-pizzas and there were two left. The hostess urged us to finish them.

No, I said in my best possible French, you should have them tomorrow for breakfast with an egg.

Savory breakfast? my companions replied aghast.

The eating habits of continental Europe and the United States are in general not so different, barring the crucial exception of breakfast foods. While eggs have made recent leaps and bounds into menus for lunch and dinner in fancy restaurants in America, they remain strongly associated with the crack of dawn and the crowing of roosters. Here in France, and I suspect in most of Europe on most days, eggs are for lunch or dinner. Breakfast is bread (or pastries) and coffee (or tea or hot chocolate).

But while we were on the subject of eggs I had a few questions to ask with respect to translation. Omelets are omelettes–that much I knew. For the others, in both real and literal translation:

Sunny side up (on the plate):


Soft-boiled (in the shell) or Hard-boiled (hard):


Poached (poached):


Scrambled (scrambled, but also could mean a quarrel or a scuffle):


My favorite way is naturally the most difficult–poached. If I did succeed in poaching an egg one of these mornings (or evenings, more like these days), I would plop it on a piece of Poîlane toast and invite Monsieur Victor Hugo for supper.


Victor Hugo has not been round to my place, but I’ve been to his. The permanent exhibit of the Maison de Victor Hugo is free to the public on the Place des Vosges. In the rooms of his former apartment (for 8 years I believe), one can see his furniture, wallpaper (inspired by Chinese decorations), photographs (he was an early enthusiast), and family heirlooms. I was especially struck by his writing table both for its historical significance and also for its height. Hugo must have been a very tall man, unless he wrote while wearing platforms…doubtful. Sadly, the tour does not include the kitchen or the toilet–both of which are much more historically interesting than beds and dressers.

I began reading Les Misérables in its original a few years ago and found it surprisingly funny. If I can figure out the lending system at the libraries here (or if I buy a copy at Victor Hugo’s apartment where it was available used–très parisien), I might give it another shot. The prolific meanderings away from any plot were frustrating 15 years ago when my mother and I undertook the English translation. Now, I might better appreciate their cultural significance.

Of course, the only way to firmly ensnare a jemma into reading your book is to include some sort of food reference, and Les Misérables includes this curious nugget:

But you are good-natured princes, and you do not think it a bad thing that belief in the good God should constitute the philosophy of the people, very much as the goose stuffed with chestnuts is the truffled turkey of the poor.

Well, if a goose stuffed with chestnuts is the poor man’s feast, maybe it is not so bad to be miserable after all. Along the lines of this logic, poached eggs might be the caviar (a word which needs no translation) of the working class.

I explained this analogy to V. H. when he showed up for the very humble supper. As might be expected, this prompted him to speak for hours on another topic altogether. Happily he did not let his egg go cold in the process. Unfortunately, I could not put another word in edgewise. If I might have I would have asked what his kitchen was like, if he had ever cooked anything, and whether, truly, he knew the cost of a goose.