chocolat

For my 24th birthday (only 20ish posts ago–so goes my intention for frequent updates), I thought it would be proper to have a croissant and a hot chocolate. The trouble was that my neighborhood croissant supplier (only one at the time–this was obviously not in Paris) did not serve hot chocolate! So before striking out for my birthday breakfast, I heated up a cup, put it in a jar, and was kindly allowed to sip it in the café while simultaneously enjoying buttery, flakiness.

But the hot chocolate was not quite right. So, uncharacteristically, I gave up. Decided that I just cannot make hot chocolate, and will have to get my kicks from the professionals.

The story does not end there! It is quite cold here in Paris (may even snow over the weekend) and there is an abundance of good chocolate, so it is no surprise that hot chocolate is always on my mind (oh and let us not get confused about “chocolate milk” versus “hot chocolate”–“hot chocolate” should mean “chocolate melted in milk”–anything else is at best so-so, and not worth dreaming about). While bumbling around on the internet looking for recommendations for hot chocolate purveyors, I found a nice little recipe for hot chocolate. I didn’t take note of measurements, but I was piqued by the addition of sea salt. Oh, I thought, yes.

chocolat2

And that is how I learned to make my perfect hot chocolate. Here is the recipe: about 1/2 cup of milk, about 15 grams of chocolate (if more than 85% I also add a sugar cube), and a healthy pinch of sea salt (the salt I am using now is very coarse, but something finer would be…fine). Do you like my schizophrenic measuring system? You should listen to me talk about the weather.

Warm up the milk and salt. When it is hot add the chocolate. Stir all the while. When everything seems integrated, pour it all back into the cup you used to measure the milk (magically, through evaporation, it should all fit).

Of all the people I spend a lot of time with, there is one in particular who is very very deserving of a nice cup of hot chocolate: Jean Victor Poncelet (1788–1867).

poncelet

After studying mathematics, Poncelet served in Napoleon’s army in which he went to Russia, got captured, and stayed for two years as a prisoner of war. It was so cold that the mercury froze (about -39 degrees Celsius) and he only had geometry to keep him warm.

Trust me, geometry is not very warm.

Nevertheless, Poncelet persevered and after returning to France published a Traité on perspective geometry, which I have been trying to wrap my head around for the past few months.

I imagine that such an experience leaves a permanent chill in ones bones. So I had Poncelet over for a chocolat chaud chat.

Immediately, he wanted to talk about his priority dispute over the invention of duality (a very cool thing–imagine it as a recipe where in substituting each ingredient for something else but maintaining the same proportions one would have a new and equally delicious dish).

No, no, Poncelet, I told him. Just let it be, nobody cares about who invented what first. In fact, it is decidedly unfashionable for historians to talk about that sort of thing. Besides, I reassured him, you have a street named after you in Paris, Metz, Chelles, and Saint-Avold. Gergonne only has a street named after him in Nîmes.

This seemed to greatly delight Poncelet, who may or may not have put a few drops of something stronger in his chocolate.

Now, I told him, you must explain to me your proof for the construction of the common secant between two conic sections where one is created by the envelope of one side of an inscribed polygon to the other.

Just read my book, he said, it’s all there.

Yes, in 400 pages I imagine it is.

 

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Growing up, my favorite cake was the carrot kind.

This had something to do with having a late March birthday (which occasionally fell on Easter) and something to do with an affinity toward vegetables and something to do with a love love love of cream cheese.

I hardly ever eat cream cheese anymore. Maybe on a bagel once every few months. Perhaps in the rare cheesecake or in frosting form. But in high school, oh my goodness, it’s a wonder I didn’t weigh a ton because I put cream cheese on EVERYTHING. And by everything I mean all manner of unhealthy snacks including tortilla chips with salsa, inside out oreos, and other cheeses. It’s kind of gross to recount, although it was amazing at the time.

Apparently, I was not the only one to live and die by a blue cardboard package. Once in Germany I had a very amusing conversation with an Italian girl whose mother made the best dessert with blackberries and feel-a-del-fee-a.

In Paris, too, they have Philadelphia, and that is indeed what I used here.


While cream cheese enjoys a favorable international reputation, carrot cake with cream cheese frosting is decidedly Anglo-Saxon. It is supposed to contain baking soda (which is available from the pharmacy–I substituted baking powder), some sort of flavorless oil (once made carrot cake with sunflower seed oil, also in Germany, and it came out tasting a bit too much like that), and powdered sugar. I’ll attribute the lack of powdered sugar to the difficult frosting experience.

I made this cake on the Boulevard de Beaumarchais. It would have been entirely inappropriate to not share it with him.

This post is somewhat of a compliment to my first post on croissants and Thomas Jefferson because not only did Thomas and Pierre-Augustin share the same hairdo (perhaps they went to the same guy?) and both Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732–1799), support the American and French Revolutions, and enjoy the attentions of ladies out of wedlock, but also there I was in America (continentally speaking) making French fare and here I am in France making American treats.

Very wise it was too, to invite the self-named man over for dessert and provide an opportunity to practice French.

Since I am at most an advanced beginner, I was more than happy to simply eat while C de B carried on the conversation single-handedly (the other hand held the spoon). Sincerely lost after we exchanged Bonjours, I only managed to pick out a few words here and there: opéra, guerre, argent, poison. I imagine it was quite a story.

Having moved to a different street, Beaumarchais and I no longer cross paths with much frequency. However, in my current apartment, one of the doorbells is marked “Caron” and a former spy can turn up in unexpected places.

Hunny Pie

August 28, 2012

When I walk into a bookstore, I begin with a feeling of awe. So many wonderful books to read: this one with the nice cover and that one I heard about on the radio and the other I always was meaning to read some day. Within a short time the awe overwhelms. A sadness creeps in filled with knowing I will never read them all and there are so many good ones. On the tail wind of that sadness is an anxiousness telling me to go write something quick! before all the words are used up. There are only so many unique combinations, and although it is a huge number it is also finite (unless (and here is my mathematics training flying in the face of reasonableness) we allowed words and books to be infinitely long, but that is another–long–story).

On the other hand, isn’t it nice to read something, which is exactly what you intended to say except written much better. Here is A. A. Milne taking the words from my mouth.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s the same thing,” he said.

Exactly.





This week’s excitement aptly took the form of a salty honey pie thanks to several delicious experiences at Four and Twenty Blackbirds and a search revealing their generously shared recipe online. Since my pie tin is not so high I found 2/3 of the filling reached capacity. Otherwise, I followed the simple instructions and it was delicious. So delicious I made it twice, even though, as my mother tells me and she is right, it is summer (ignore that back-to-school propaganda) so to make any dessert without fruit is practically sinful. This is very true, but the honey was harvested by a dear friend farming in Hawaii and what better way to showcase an extravagant gift then by carmelizing and custardizing it within a buttery shell alongside freshly whipped cream.

Of course, honey…hunny spells only one thing and that is P-O-O-H.

Winnie-the-Pooh came round for elevenses (or breakfast dessert, as you might prefer to say). When a pie contains nearly two sticks of butter and half a cup of cream certain company might mind their waists.  Not so Winnie-the-Pooh who helped himself to seconds, thirds, and thirds and a halfs. Beyond murmurs of appreciation and offers and acceptances to more pie, we did not need to talk being of the same mind so often.

When we had our fill we sat back, patted our contented bellies, and wondered, what’s for lunch?

My sticky crumby keyboard can attest that I do not separate the activities of working and eating. Indeed, there are few foods that I would outright rule out consuming while typing. Ice cream on a cone, probably. Fondue, maybe. Oysters, yes, but not to protect my electronics as much as to fully immerse myself in the bivalve experience.

Along these lines, I often find myself in a library. As proof of the matter, I recently gave a talk at the joint British, Canadian, and American (they don’t say American–American societies declare their dominance by foregoing national adjectives) History of Science Society meeting in a session entitled In the Library. My talk had very little to do with libraries, except that I had researched much of it within them.

Regular readers will be entirely nonplussed to hear that I love libraries. My relationship with libraries is thankfully the closest thing I have to a drug dependency, in that I bend rules to use them and often owe them money.

Recently, I have been frequenting the Pratt Library.

It still looks like this! Hooray for old things.

My cousin who went to Harvard told wide-eyed stories of finals week when she would have to leave her shoes by her workspace in the 24 hour libraries in order to get food and return to her seat. I assume this was during the spring finals for her toes’ sake. Rather than risk walking around the streets of Brooklyn barefoot (not that there is much competition for seats at an art school’s library in July…), I often bring along a snack. Since one is not technically allowed to eat in a library, there are several important criteria for deciding what to bring. Nothing crunchy or crumbly or sticky or melty or requiring utensils or heating or cooling. Something that can be safely placed in a lap should surveillance eyes pass by.

Yes. Of course.

This brings us to part two of the title because I am fairly certain no self-respecting food blog* would fain to record a peanut butter and jelly recipe. I did not make the bread, peanut butter, or jam (but I could, and maybe, someday, with a real food blog, I will). I have no ingredient measurements to share. Although, I can confidently say, this serves one.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are an American institution. Tell stories of your childhood lunches to your European friends and they will eye you with disgust and never let you near their confitures, jams, or marmelade. A PB&J is more emblematic of our nation than apple pie, although it doesn’t have the same ring to it. Invented in the late nineteenth century, the humble peanut butter sandwich had high and mighty beginnings in the elite tea rooms of New York. Julia Davis Chandler is credited with publishing the first version of a PB and J, but we do not know what she looked like.

Wrapped carefully in tinfoil I snuck my lunch through security and up to the shelves. Hungry after much procrastination disguised as research, I was about to open my bag when who should I run into but Mr. Library himself!

Melvil Dewey.

I truly appreciate his work. Though I must admit I am more familiar with the alphabetical organization of the Library of Congress.

Nice day, I said.

551.6 E56, said Dewey.

Umm, I said.

808.51 D484, said Dewey.

At a loss for words, and by now fairly certain he wouldn’t rat me out, I offered him half of my sandwich.

647.95 G231S, said Dewey, and took a bite.

*Note, I stand very much corrected. See here, here and here if you are at a loss for how in the world one might construct such a difficult dish!

I’m a sucker for children’s books about food.

The other day while browsing the New York Public Library website, I saw an ad for Frank and Ernest by Alexandra Day. In this short story a well-dressed lion and elephant run a diner for a weekend.

The story begins with them sitting in a library and learning that diners use specific lingo (I am also a sucker for stories featuring  libraries). For instance, “First Ladies” are ribs and “Put out the lights and cry” means liver and onions. The rationale behind adopting this secret language escapes me, still I like it.

Here a gentleman orders “a stack with Vermont and a blonde with sand.”

Inspired and hungry, we had oatmeal pancakes with blueberries (on the flip side)–or, rather, “Beat up a Pile of Horses in Vermont” (I made that one up, but I think it jives well with the other machismo examples).

When considering with whom to share this breakfast feast, I turned to the origins of diners. However, as the American Diner Museum  indicates, it would be difficult to credit one person. Do we thank Walter Scott for the first walk up covered wagon eatery in 1872? Or Thomas H Buckley for beginning the first lunch car company? Or Jerry O’Mahoney for producing 2000 diners shipped throughout the United States from 1917 to 1952?

Then I had a second thought, and decided to put the business men aside and invite the man who captured the image of the American diner.

They say Edward Hopper was lonely. Perhaps he was, but for the second half of his life he had a lovely wife, Josephine Nivison, and they would go on painting and drawing road trips together up and down the east coast. Since the Hoppers lived modestly, I imagine they ate in many diners along the way.

Though Aunt Jemima pancake mix had been invented and popularized by Hopper’s time, the syrup was not yet a household staple. I used to prefer my pancakes with corn syrup, which, although bland, is at least honest.

“More maple syrup?” I asked Hopper. He politely accepted. We discussed his show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923. I told him that I hadn’t visited yet, but planned on going soon. It’s just down the road. We talked about his favorite places to visit along the Atlantic coast. We spoke of the importance of balancing solitude and companionship. I showed him my first watercolor from the previous post. It’s a crab in an oyster, I explained. He politely suggested that I should keep practicing.

Hopper iconicized the image of the American diner at night. One imagines that same diner in the morning might have been full of contentment and pancakes. Just like our bellies.

This story begins with a flight.

I was halfway round the world gratefully traveling from Xi’an to Beijing. A full and delayed flight on which I had happily secured a seat since my later flight was further delayed and I risked missing my connection to EWR (or paradise, as one flight attendant so poetically put it). How appreciative I was in my small seat drinking safe water and politely declining the pasta and sauce offered as a vegetarian breakfast alternative. But there was one dark spot on my cheery horizon. A dark spot in the form of two rear coughers. Nasty, hacking, uncovered things shooting straight into the back of my sleepy head.

After 20 odd hours of transit, I felt that sticky sourness in the back of my throat which no amount of ginger-carrot-orange-watermelon juice could fight. Sick. Sick sick sick. And so I remained for the next two weeks, instantaneously passing my symptoms (arriving one by one) to Bobby and later to my cousin who miraculously had them all at once and recovered after 24 hours of…well…I’ll spare the details.

This is a food blog, right? Well, by Saturday, having suffered a week of head cold discomfort I began to google foods that might offer remedies. After the usual vitamin C recommendations, I learned that oysters promised zinc. And deliciousness.

The barest mention of o****** inspired Bobby to drive from his parent’s place in Merrick to Freeport’s nautical mile. There we saw some badly burned fat men and fine bivalves Much bigger than my northern Californian creatures and sporting numerous bivalves, these were no farm raised sissies. Hence, we also bought a knife.

The first one housed a small translucent crab. Bobby tried to tempt his family’s cat who would have none of the pea sized squirming morsel. When the second oyster also revealed a boarder, we decided to do some research.

What news! What fun!

These were not ill omens of oysters past their prime, but rather living pearls. At two dollars a piece at the turn of the century (yes, that century) one can speculate at their current market value. Fried alive they made for delicious bursts of concentrated crab flavor. There were four altogether, and never has one ounce of meat proved such a treat.

Who to invite to such a rare feast? Why a rare gentleman of course! None other than Cornelius Mackall, the first and only American winner (1976) of the International Oyster Shucking Championship in Galway.

Cornelius enjoyed the American treat (for oyster crabs do not lodge in European hosts). He kindly offered a quick lesson in oyster handling and politely declined that portion of the meal. After so many competitions, Cornelius is no longer so much inclined to oyster consumption. But he knows a pearl when he tastes one.

 

Who’s John Montagu?

May 8, 2012

There are games to play on sunny days with balls in parks and there are games to play when the weather is stormy or the road is long and conversation has been exhausted.

Among the latter, my favorite is the top 5 ingredient game. In case you were wondering, mine are: olive oil, garlic, chiles, mushrooms, and apples. Salt and water are free (I made the rules). You could also play the namesake game, that is, what would you like your eponymous legacy to be? Honestly, I haven’t given this query too much thought. Jemma’s Lemma has a nice ring to it, and there is something charmingly Cinderella-ish about Lemmas in general. But I’ll have to spend some more thought on this (which goes to show what a wonderful game this is).

Speaking of things named after people, have you ever tried a ham and cheese montagu (and no, it isn’t a gross flavor of endurance nutrition)?

As the picture above might suggest, John Montagu (1718-1792) is better known by his title, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. All his potential cultural and political contributions are wholly obscured by his far more lasting legacy of having put bits of things between bread. There is some debate as to whether the convenience of this mode of eating was occasioned by his gambling or his working habits. As someone with a crumby keyboard, I can certainly appreciate his forethought regardless of the motivation.

This particular sandwich was fashioned for my father who eats things like ham. Mine had mushrooms instead, although if you had asked me twenty years ago for my top five ingredients, ham would certainly have made the list. At least ham and cheese croissants, which happen to be my mother’s favorite breakfast pastry. But that is another game altogether.

Not a Pound Cake

February 25, 2012

“His chief enemies were literary language, poetic inversion of word order, and adjectives.” wrote Paul L. Montgomery in his 1972 New York Times’ obituary of Ezra Weston Loomis Pound. Montgomery was describing the poet in 1910, before his fascist turn, when we could still approve of him more or less unmitigatedly.

My experience with Ezra Pound is very superficial. I first knew of him through T. S. Eliot‘s dedication, “il miglior fabbro”. One night while procrastinating at Green Apple Books, I purchased some nicely covered, roughly illustrated collection of Pound for my father, who has a penchant for reciting the beginning of The Wasteland every now and again. This was not the most successful gift, but was how I learned of the poet’s political leanings.

We could batter Ezra Pound with a whole slew of adjectives. In brief, I do not like him but I am awfully grateful for his existence.

If only, one might muse, he hadn’t lived quite so long. Mr. Pound circa 1920, he wasn’t so bad. Let’s invite that man, the one who demanded writing stripped of rhetoric, for the simplest of cakes. Pound cake.

Except this one isn’t.

If I had made a pound cake, I would have combined a pound of butter, sugar, flour, and eggs. Such a recipe is certainly in line with Pound’s principle: “2. To use no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” There is nothing superfluous in a real pound cake. No hidden rising agents or flavor enhancers. On the other hand, pound cakes are (surprise, surprise) notoriously dense and heavy.

This cake has salt, baking powder, milk, and vanilla too. It also has changed the memorable ratio. In following with the first principle–“1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective”–this cake will henceforth be called “cake”. You will notice it is topped with frosting.

So Ezra Pound came round for cake. Or maybe not. The truth is, I do not want to meet Ezra Pound, not even in his prime. They say he was a great seducer of women. What if he tried something, or worse, what if he didn’t? Better to send a slice by post and get to know Pound through his poems. This is the only one I’ve read, and I only read it yesterday.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

(1913)

P.S. Of the fascists more commonly taught in university, I’d rather read Pound than Heidegger any day.

Every Mummy had a Mother

January 25, 2012

Allow me to introduce you to my mother.

No, not that mother, my other mother.

What a beauty! Here, if this was a normal cooking blog, is where I would tell you how I first made my sourdough starter. Instead I will tell you that I tried and failed to make a sourdough starter. Several times and using a variety of methods. I would end up with something sour, but with no apparent rising power. Trying to start a starter is not so easy, and involves throwing away substantial amounts of flour (which is not getting any cheaper). So for those of you interested in having your own mother I recommend you beg, borrow, or steal someone else’s.

That’s right–take the mother of another and make her your own. That’s what I did, and let me tell you, while I seem to be unable (unlike Dr. Frankenstein) to bring something to life, I have had remarkable success (like Seymour Krelborn) in keeping that thing alive.

And while we are on the subject of monsters, let’s go back to ancient Egypt. I learned recently that the most difficult mathematics problems back in those days concerned the distribution of wheat for making bread and beer. Thus I invited a former queen and current mummy for a breakfast of beer and bread.

In all honesty, Nefertiti probably never needed to worry about the bread and beer problem. However, as a royal ruler I imagine she would be curious about the welfare of her people. Plus, I wanted to see if her neck was really that long.

Nefertiti is not the warmest of guests. She spends her time promoting worship of the sun god, smiting her enemies, raising a large family, administering an empire, and posing for sculptures. It is a tight schedule. Certainly not one for small talk, Nefertiti sized me up, drank her beer, and was on her way. Frankly, I was glad to escape unsmote and nearly decided against sharing my mother with her. What if she misunderstood the gesture?

I should have known better. Nefertiti is a queen and knows how to accept gifts with graciousness. Just in case, I said, handing over a mason jar of bubbly gray mass. Nefertiti smiled serenely.

We both understood the importance of mothers.

Cook my Boardgame

December 27, 2011

In the opening line of Little Women, Amy March laments “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!” Later, Amy reforms and the March sisters agree to donate most of their gifts to the poor family next door. Despite what you hear, Christmas can be Christmas without any presents. But would the holiday survive without any cookies?

Doubtful.

Thus a small group of us did our part with a third annual cookie baking party. The first annual cookie baking party happened to coincide with the birth of the Bushwick Settlers of Catan League Night. To commemorate the occasion, I decided to make these.

Despite their superlative tiling abilities, hexagonal shaped cookie cutters are not widespread on the market these days. Happily, I was baking in a home with a very large collection of Catan tiles.

Since Christmas was approaching, a certain white bearded red capped man seemed like an apt guest for such a sugary feast. However, after a bit of research I learned (not unlike the March sisters) that there are much more needy Christmas folk out there. Fjosnissen are Norwegian barn elves who care for the animals throughout the year and hand deliver presents to good children on Christmas Eve. To thank them for their services, households leave out a bowl of porridge and a pint of beer. A bowl of porridge, though delicious, doesn’t exactly provide year round satisfaction.

I am told that the Catan Settlers are based off of the early Norse explorers, so I invited a few Fjosnissen around for a round and some game board consumption. They proved good company, although I cannot promise that the game was played fairly. These elves are known for magical abilities.

You will observe that the Fjosnissen grow surprisingly plump on such a meager diet. Nevertheless, they seemed to enjoy the cookies. Or at least, the cookies disappeared. How that happened, well…