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.

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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.

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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?