Forgotten Foods TM_FF_ENTRE_FI_001

For me, entremets are the food history equivalent of Gozer the Gozerian. You know, Gozer – the lace-body-suit demon lady from Ghostbusters? Venkman tells everyone not to think of a form for it to take, and Ray immediately thinks of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s that classic brain gaffe – if someone tells you to not think of something, you can’t stop thinking about it.

That’s what happened to me when I looked up entremets in one of my favorite books, Alan Davidson’s wonderfully comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food. If you will forgive me the fifth-grade-essay transgression of beginning a piece with a definition quote, here is Davidson’s entry on entremets in its entirety:

entree, entremets a couple of French terms which no doubt retain interest for persons attending hotel and restaurant courses conducted under the show of French classical traditions, but have ceased to have any real use, partly because most people cannot remember what they mean and partly because their meanings have changed over time and vary from one part of the world to another. Forget them.

Forget them? Davidson, my man, come on – when almost everyone else has forgotten about something, that’s the time when you should remember it. Those almost-forgotten things are where fantastic weirdness usually hides. In the case of entremets, that fantastic weirdness is young boys singing duets with deer and roast pig heads vomiting fire like drunk dragons. But more on that in a moment.
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DIY TM_DY_TEMPURA_FI_002

As I glugged cup after cup of canola oil into the pan, my confidence seemed to dissipate. “This is nothing like baking,” I thought. “How much oil is enough? Is this pan even going to work?” I realized I might have crossed into a whole new, unfamiliar world as I stared at my candy thermometer hoping the oil would reach the right temperature for deep-frying tempura. The oil finally reached 360°F, but then it started to go over. Removing the pan from the burner, I waited for it to cool, but then it dipped below 360°F. So I placed it back on the burner, where it didn’t heat up quickly enough, so I had to crank the heat, and of course, it went over that magic number again. At this point, I was really getting sick of deep-frying and thought I better stick to what I know. And this was before I splashed boiling hot oil into my eye.

You see, when it comes to me and cooking Asian food at home, I don’t have the best track record. I can pipe roses out of frosting, bake three pies in one day, or craft the perfect tart crust with one hand tied behind my back. But I still can’t even get the simplest stir fry right. At this point, I know to just call for take-out or make reservations when I get a craving for Chinese, or Japanese, or Thai – and for a person who loves cooking, that’s just sad. But lately, I’ve been getting a little antsy thinking how much salt and MSG is in my takeout order. So when my latest craving hit, I decided that I wanted to try my hand at making my own tempura at home.
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Dispatches TM_DI_MITHAI_FI_001

“Two hundred and fifty grams of Bombay halwa for me and amba barfi for your mom,” my dad began on the phone. I was nervous about the task he had assigned me. But there was no way to avoid it; surely my parents would have been incredibly disappointed had I returned without the good stuff.

A trip to Poona city in Maharashtra, India is not complete without a trip to Chitale Bandhu, the premier sweet shop that is always crowded, since it carries the best mithai in the city. I had been there many times before, but always with my mother. Going there alone meant that I was faced with the responsibility of ordering the perfect amount of sweets and battling an impatient crowd of customers.
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Chocolate Week TM_TP_CHOCO_FI_002_1

When I was a child, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was one of my favorite films. I would picture myself running through the chocolate room, filled with candy trees and flowers, and swimming through the chocolate river. It might have been wrong, but I was always jealous of Augustus Gloop when he got stuck in the pipe of delicious, endlessly flowing chocolate. It was also fun to think of how crazy some of Mr. Wonka’s creations were, like his three-course dinner gum. But now Wonka’s wild confectionaries don’t have to be imagined. Chocolate bars seeming to come straight from Wonka’s factory now fill almost every candy aisle.

Lining the shelves of the average grocery store, probably next to your own favorite bar, are bars that have chocolatiers pushing the limits on cacao combinations. Dark chocolate and chilies? Well, that doesn’t seem too exotic. But what about dark chocolate and wasabi? Milk chocolate and beef jerky? How about white chocolate and kalamata olives?
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Chocolate Week

Chocolate Without Compromise

Vegans deserve decadent desserts, too – and a new book is here to help

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TM_BK_VEGCHOC_AP_001When I was in high school, my best friend was a vegan. She subsisted primarily on rice, beans, fruit, and the vegan cookies her mom baked in giant batches every weekend. Any time there was a party, she’d bring a plate of these cookies to share. They were overly sweet, weirdly gummy, and not at all appealing to anyone who wasn’t devoted to a strict plant-based diet.

Happily, things have changed a lot in the world of vegan desserts over the last 20 years, in large part thanks to Fran Costigan. She has been working as a vegan pastry chef and baking instructor for more than two decades and is known for desserts that satisfy in a way that’s better for you and for the planet.

In her recent book, Vegan Chocolate (Running Press, 2013), Costigan serves up a luscious array of vegan truffles, cakes, cookies, pies, puddings, tarts, and drinks. Of the recipes I tried, not one felt like a sacrifice or compromise. They were universally delicious and were a pleasure to make, because I could taste freely throughout the prep process without worrying about raw eggs in the batter. MORE

Chocolate Week TM_DIY_COCOA_FI_001

Welcome to Chocolate Week at Table Matters! We’re celebrating all-things cocoa just in time for every chocolate lover’s favorite holiday. Stay tuned as we explore its many sides.

If I could, I would strike Palmer’s “chocolate” from this earth. You know what I’m talking about — that low-quality holiday candy that tastes like chocolate that’s been chewed up and spit out by the mouth of a dirty mama bird before being re-melted and shaped into little medallions. I cringe recalling all the Halloweens and Valentine’s Days I spent shoving those cheap candies in my mouth, trying to get rid of them before eating the much more worthwhile Kit Kats, or the ultimate trick-or-treat wins, the Almond Joys.

Likewise, I would happily rub out any of the new-fangled Hershey’s products that wear the wrappers and take the shapes of chocolate, but are in actuality the terrible bastard children of chocolate and corporate frugality. Yup, that’s right: If you weren’t already aware, there’s a good chance that the “chocolate” you’re buying from Hershey’s isn’t chocolate at all. See, back in 2008, Hershey’s started replacing some of the cocoa butter in its products with a combination of cocoa butter and other vegetable oils. Using other vegetable oils is cheaper for companies, which explains why a bag of the aforementioned Palmer’s always costs a dollar or two less than actual chocolate. But those “chocolate” products taste cheaper, too, as do most foods when unnecessary ingredients complicate their simple recipes. See, the process of making a good chocolate only requires a few steps: Cacao pods are roasted, ground, and made into chocolate liquor (which, if desired, can then be separated into dry cocoa solids and cocoa butter). Then you add in vanilla, sugar, and often lecithin (an emulsifier), and you’ve got some good eatin‘.
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Chocolate Week TM_CH_CHOC_FI_001_1

If we’ve learned anything from the locavore movement, it’s that relationships are important. Those heirloom tomatoes, the ones with furrows like a bulldog’s forehead? They’ve been imbued with the passion of the tomato farmer, whose face may or may not be equally wrinkly. That tomato is the vehicle for a relationship — one between you and the tomato farmer. Logically, that relationship extends to other foods, like eggplants, kale, and strawberries. But when it comes to food other than produce, such as cheese, wine, or chocolate, things get a bit more complicated.

Consider the chocolate truffle. If you take pains to shop at local businesses, then you probably know the person who made it. This person is a chocolatier — someone who buys chocolate and uses it as an ingredient.  For example, they can add mint-infused cream and a knob of butter to make mint truffles, or dapple a thin layer of chocolate with fruits and nuts to make bark. Or they can pour liquid chocolate into a mold to have it emerge as a hoppy bunny or bearded man. MORE

Holiday TM_HL_MINCE_FI_001

Being half-British comes with its fair share of cross-cultural personality quirks. Most of them are minimal and usually go unnoticed, but during the holiday season certain traits and affinities become more pronounced, particularly when it comes to my cooking and eating habits.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are spent assembling the usual array of annual holiday snacks. We nibble on flaky sausage rolls, soft almondy Bakewell tarts and cup after cup of tea as we plan the menu for Christmas dinner. Once the type of roast has been determined, and side dishes are designated, our minds turn to the last course. When it comes to quintessential British desserts, I can take or leave a Christmas cake or figgy pudding. It’s the traditional mince pies that I look forward to the most. MORE

Bookshelf

Homey, Not Homely

Bringing glamour back to winter baking with Wintersweet

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TM_BK_WSWEET_AP_001_2For those of us who like to bake with the seasons, the winter months often feel less than glamorous. Gone are the berries and stone fruits of summer and instead, we’re left with an assortment of sturdy apples and homely squash. Good for the occasional pie, but not much else, right?

As Tammy Donroe Inman’s new book Wintersweet: Seasonal Desserts to Warm the Home proves, that notion is entirely wrong. This volume shows with style and ease just how varied and delicious winter desserts can be. The photography is beautiful and inspiring, and the writing is personable, fun, and crystal clear. Arranged by main ingredient (Apples, Pears & Quince, Nuts & Chocolate, Citrus, etc.), Wintersweet includes both twists on classics (Ginger Apple Crumb Cake) as well as novel end of meal offerings (Honey-Roasted Pears with Blue Cheese and Walnuts).

As I read my way through the book, I marked more than half the recipes as things I’d like to try and finally settled on three that were perfect for this holiday season.
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The Larder TM_TL_COOKIES_FI_001

There is no holiday tradition I love more than the baking and sharing of cookies. Most of the year, I do my best to keep the sweet treats at bay, but during December, all bets are off. I make at least half a dozen varieties and hand them out to my friends, neighbors, and family members.

My first cookie of the season is always a basic roll-out sugar cookie. The recipe comes from an old family friend. It’s easy to make, can stand up to repeated rolling, and holds its shape during baking. I like to decorate them with a simple shake of colored sugar or sprinkles, but the truly ambitious can employ frosting as well.
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DIY TM_DY_CANES_FI_001

Q: What do Tom Green, the Hoover Dam, and candy canes all have in common?
A: They’ve all been the subject of false rumors, perpetuated thanks to the Internet.

So for the record, Tom Green didn’t dress up as Hitler at a bar mitzvah, the Hoover Dam doesn’t have bodies of workers buried inside, and candy canes? Oh, where do I begin. Perhaps with a warning: other than grappling with a particularly divine-tasting edible, a column about foodstuffs isn’t normally the place to tackle religion. Today it is, because the candy cane and Christmas are as intertwined as the stick’s red and white stripes.
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Thanksgiving TM_FF_ANTIPMPK_FI_002

Rallying against the overabundance of “pumpkin” flavored and scented items that fill our coffee-shop menus and store shelves is like worrying about Miley Cyrus’s future or whether you left the oven on when you’re on vacation: it might feel important, but you can’t do anything about it. By now, we all know that many of the “pumpkin” treats marketed at us don’t have any actual pumpkin in them, right? Rather, “pumpkin” has become shorthand for a comforting combination of seasonal spices. I get it. Saying “pumpkin” or “pumpkin spice” is easier than “cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and maybe some allspice latte.”

So, if telling you that there’s no pumpkin in a lot of pumpkin-spice stuff is akin to telling you there’s no Santa Claus, is informing you that there was no actual pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving like telling you that the Easter Bunny is fake too? While the pumpkin is indigenous to North America and they likely had a pumpkin dish at the first Thanksgiving, they didn’t have the wheat to make the crusts at the time.

Rather, the pumpkin and the pumpkin pie are American nostalgia foods – and they’ve been that for a long time. MORE

Thanksgiving TM_BK_THXPIE_FI_004

It wouldn’t be a true Thanksgiving without some pie after your turkey. But, at least in my house, which is probably true for many others, the Thanksgiving dessert spread hasn’t changed at all during my 20 years of existence (and probably for even longer than that). Classic desserts such as apple, pecan, and pumpkin pie are as important to Thanksgiving as the Macy’s Parade, the green bean casserole, or the yearly anticipation for Black Friday sales. But of late, I’ve grown restless with these traditional baked goods, and so I’ve decided to revamp the Thanksgiving dessert table.

My quibble with the usual turkey day desserts is their predictability – their sugary predictability, that is. Every year it’s the same assortment of pumpkin, apple, pecan, or chocolate pies. Each and every one often tastes like a single droll note of sweet. No real spice, no interesting or unexpected flavor pairings, and no plays on texture. Just the same plain crust and standard sugary fillings – the only real difference is whether your whipped topping came from a can or a tub.
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Bookshelf

A French Twist

Beautiful, seasonal cooking from The French Market Cookbook

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TM_BK_FRENCH_AP_001Over the last six or seven years, I’ve become someone who tries to hue fairly closely to the season when determining what’s on the menu. I eat asparagus for a brief period in April and May, go crazy for tomatoes in July and August, and fill my kitchen with acorn and butternut squash once the weather turns cooler.

This way of eating is easier on the budget, always tastes better, and makes the asparagus, tomatoes, and squash feel like a treat. The one problem with eating in this fashion is that cookbooks don’t match up perfectly (particularly if they’re written by authors based in California. They seem to have everything available, all the time).

Happily, finding good, reliable, accessible seasonal cookbooks has gotten increasingly easy over the last few years. One recent addition to my shelf is Clotilde Dusoulier’s The French Market Cookbook.
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