East of Paris Bookstore

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The 100 highest-grossing independent restaurants in the U.S.

Ann Althouse's multifaceted blog provided a link to the 100 highest-grossing restaurants in the U.S.  She said, that “It looks like a good list of places to avoid.”  Can’t speak for all of them but here is my impression of the places I’ve been:
  • Smith & Wollensky, NYC -- if you like red meat, great big hunks of it, with strong red wine, this is your place;
  • Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, DC -- like Smith & Wollensky, only with smaller red meat hunks, and everyone keeps telling you which Senator/Cabinet Secretary/Other Official is regularly seen here;
  • Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe, Lake Buena Vista -- the word “passé” comes to mind, enough said;
  • Delmonico Steakshouse, Las Vegas -- willing to go back; but since it is run by the famous Emeril Lagasse one expects a little more “Bam!”;
  • Gladstone’s Malibu, Malibu -- after driving by on PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] for years and reading the sign, “Gladstone’s 4 Fish”, we finally went; so, been there, done that; at least the parking is good for something on PCH; 
  • Four Seasons, NYC -- Not [and this is a plus] related to the hotel on 57th; the decor is a species 1960s minimalist; the food is great, and this is still considered a "place to go”; we entertained a UN Ambassador at a table next to the “bubbling marble pool” in the “Pool Room” -- she was diplomatic [of course] but candid [fun!]; the wine bill was eyebrow raising;
  • George’s at the Cove, La Jolla -- Beautiful ocean views, decent California cuisine, no guilt but a bit dull;
  • Cliff House, San Francisco -- ate abalone there for the first time more than 20 years ago with a boss who liked to drink; no fond memories; the cold weather and fog were appropriate to the experience;  
  • Daniel, NYC -- superb food and service; I forgive them them the chandeliers that look like they came from a prop auction from the re-make of Battle Star Galactica and the quasi-collage art on the white paneled walls;  it’s also a good idea to blank-out some of the international guests whose wives are in couture while they wear running suits [I am not making this up!];
  • Greek Islands, Chicago -- went there with a friend who is a vegan; survived, happily;
  • Aureole, Las Vegas -- the best fois gras I’ve had on either side of the Atlantic; and I am not being influenced by the very tall wine bottle tower or that fact that I cleaned up at Black Jack at the adjoining casino;
 ... all of which brings me to the existential question:  is this familiarity with 11% of the list one of the reasons I need to go back to doing 5K per day?

Kulich [Easter Bread]

Kulich [also known as Babka Wielkanocna] is a cross between an eggy yeast bread and a cake. The texture is on the dry side and the finished product is a bit crumbly. Using a 2-pound coffee can as the baking pan produces the traditional stove-pipe shape. But, I have also seen it baked in round tins with a hole in the middle.
On Sunday night I had pre-measured all the ingredients; the chemistry experiment began Monday evening. I was so enthusiastic about baking my Kulich this year and showing off for this blog, that I even bought fresh yeast and threw out the heretofore reliable giant sized package that has been in the freezer forever.


Hubris! I should have kept the old yeast. I should have listened to the little voice in my head that said:  the yeast you mixed with the lukewarm water has not bubbled up, don’t use it; try this small step again. Bah! I decided that the voice in my head was interfering with my schedule. I ignored my subconscious and followed through with the recipe. Disaster!  As for the re-do, this year I'm having  Katia's Russian Tea Room in San Francisco send the official treat via FedEx.


My recipe (adapted from Grandmother’s, which used a dozen egg yolks) has worked for years [see photo above].  It works, that is, when I go about things the right way.


Kulich/Babka


2 envelopes active dry yeast (= 4½ tsp.)
½ cup warm water (110º F)
1½ cups lukewarm milk
1 cup butter, melted & cooled
4 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbsp. orange-flavored liqueur (optional)
Grated zest of 2 oranges (optional)
Grated zest of 1 lemon (optional)
8 cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups golden raisins
½ cup slivered almonds, chopped


Place yeast in a large mixing bowl and pour warm water over it. Stir with a spoon to break up the yeast. Add a tablespoon of the sugar, stir and let it sit about 5 minutes during which time the yeast will bubble up. Stir in salt, sugar, milk, butter and eggs, mix well. Add almonds, raisins, zest, vanilla. Beat vigorously until well mixed. Add the flour gradually; then knead 10 minutes at medium to low speed with your electric mixer’s the bread hook attachment [or double that time if you want to knead by hand and need an upper-arm workout]. The batter will be heavy, smooth, shiny, and somewhat sticky. Put the dough in a large bowl prayed with cooking spray; cover the bowl with a damp towel and let the dough rise until doubled I bulk, about 1 hour. While dough is rising, butter and flour two 2-pound coffee cans. Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 2 minutes [by hand this time, no other choice]. Divide the dough in half and transfer the halves to the prepared cans. Cover with a damp towel and allow to rise to the top of pan. Bake in a pre-heated 325º F degree oven until golden brown and hollow sounding when tapped, about 1 hour. [Optional: before baking, beat an egg, and brush the top of the dough; this will assure a very deep golden top.] Turn out the baked Kulich onto a cooling rack so bread does not stick to the pan.


White Icing


2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup cold water
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice


In a small bowl, combine the confectioners sugar, water and lemon juice,
and beat with a spoon until it is smooth. Pour the icing slowly over the top
of the warm cake. Allow it to run down the sides. Sprinkle with colorful sugar balls called nonpareils.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Moscow Metro

I awoke this morning to the tragic news of two bombings on the Moscow Metro. One of the stations impacted, Park Kultury on the Red Line, was a station I regularly passed through when I worked in Moscow. I would get off at Frunzenskaya, one stop past Park Kultury, and walk to my office. There was a restaurant I liked near the Chistye Prudy stop, also on the Red Line in the opposite direction; it is one stop after Lubyanka, the sight of the second bomb.




Although I had a car and driver at my disposal when I lived in Moscow, I loved using the subway. By using the Metro, I avoided the formalities of the car and driver and avoided the traffic jams of this huge city. The Moscow Metro is affordable, efficient, clean, and visually striking –- each station has its own architectural style. In winter, the long connecting corridors between some of the transfer stations provide a warm place to walk and respite from the wind. The underground passages are also filled with kiosks selling newspapers, magazines, CDs, ice cream bars, and assorted household products.

There are always many people at the Metro stations, on the escalators, and at the entrances: grandmothers, students, workers, parents with children –- all politely moving along on their daily commutes. Real people, engaged in the normal aspects of real life. Except today, for some, it meant death.

Lake Como Lunch

The island of Comacina in Lake Como is cursed. Possibly because some participants in the Fourth Crusade, which destroyed Byzantium, deployed from there; possibly because of inter-city state rivalries in the middle ages. In any event, for more than 50 years, the Locanda restaurant has been redeeming the island’s history.

The Isola Comacina is a tiny island in Lake Como, one of the most stunning spots anywhere. The boat ride to the island is part of the process of slowing down and enjoying the view. There are water taxis available or you can splurge and rent a boat for the day. Mr. Wonderful and I usually rent a boat at our hotel in Cernobbio and take the long, leisurely, and gorgeous ride to the island. Part of the fun is looking at the villas lining the shore and wondering who lives there.

Enjoy the Locanda restaurant by sitting on the terrace under the trees and looking at the shore. The building itself and the interior remind me of a no frills Alpine lodge – only good if it rains. The menu is the same every day, you have no choice in the matter, and the portions are generous. Accept these basics and enjoy. Lunch starts with sparkling mineral water, fresh crisp crusted bread, and a half tomato served with a slice of lemon and olive oil. Then come at least a half dozen roasted vegetables, including whole onions, red peppers, broccoli sprinkled with olive oil. This course is followed by broiled trout, and then a pan roasted chicken. Next, the owner or a waiter brings a half of a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano and cuts chunks directly onto your plate. Finally, when you think you can eat no more, you find out that you can and begin to enjoy creamy rich vanilla gelato with peach slices and peach liqueur drizzled over the top. Meanwhile, you realize you’ve had at least a bottle of the light white wine they serve without measuring milligrams and your head still feels fresh and clear. After a coffee, it’s back to the boat, which now sits lower in the water, and time for the long ride home.

The Locanda is casual and welcoming. On any given day, there are families with children at one table, young couples at another, and groups of friends of various ages, shapes and sizes. The service is unpretentious and fast, the portions are huge.
A confession: the first time we were there, I think our heads were not entirely fresh and clear. As we approached our hotel dock, Mr. Wonderful suggested we go a little further and see the shoreline of city of Como. Nearing the harbor of Como, he noticed two parallel lines of buoys marking a short channel. “That’s a sign to keep the boat inside the lines of bouys,” he said telling me that he’d learned this boating rule during winters in Florida.  For a minute, it seemed he was correct … until the seaplane landing over our shoulders blew our hats off. Oops! Thankfully, the only downside to this feat of navigation was feeling rather silly.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Slava

Today is Lazarus Saturday and Mr. Wonderful and I attended the Slava of our Bishop. A Slava is a Serbian Orthodox custom whereby a family celebrates its baptism into Christianity, circa 620-850 A.D., on the feast day of a particular saint. For more about the history and traditions of a Slava, go here, here and/or here.


One of the traditional foods that is blessed and served at a Slava is žito (wheat) also known as koljivo; it is similar to the kutia (though minus any poppy seeds) made in Russia and Ukraine. For more about koljivo, go here. The žito is often served as a mound on a large flat plate and covered in powdered sugar and sometimes decorated with walnuts or chocolate chips placed in the shape of a cross. However, our Bishop’s creative mother molded the žito in to the shape of a Romanesque church.
How to make žito? I make it using equal amouts of
  • cracked wheat (and sometimes add a handful of four-grain cereal for more texture) cooked per package instructions (usually 1 part cereal to 2 parts water) and cooled to room temperature
  • ground walnuts
  • powdered sugar
plus dashes of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and Cointreau.

Start with equal amounts of all the ingredients, say 2 cups of each, and stir with a wooden spoon. The mixture should be very thick and sticky. Adjust the sugar to taste. Also, based on personal preference, add cinnamon, allspice or cloves, nutmeg, and a teaspoon of Cointreau (an orange liqueur) or rum. Put in a decorative bowl and chill. Before serving, keep it in the bowl and decorate with powdered sugar, nuts, raisins, chocolate chips, etc., or unmold unto a large plate and proceed to decorate.

Another serving idea is to put the žito into chocolate dessert shells and top each shell with a few toasted almonds. However, if the Slava occurs during Great Lent or another fasting period, the dessert shells may not be used if they contain any animal products (such as milk).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tuscan lunch

A fellow blogger is going to Italy for a major wedding anniversary, which started me thinking about romantic places to eat. One can go on and on about the wonderful food in Italy, be it in the local outdoor market or in a simple trattoria or in an over-the-top multi-Michelin starred restaurant. In the interests of geographical diversity, I will recommend three restaurants that Mr. Wonderful and I have enjoyed in Tuscany, Lake Como, and Rome. However, my most important recommendations are two: go hungry and pretend the prices are in dollars not in euros.


Before the wonderful books of Frances Mayes -- In Tuscany and Under the Tuscan Sun : At Home in Italy -- made Tuscany into TUSCANY, there was Il Falconiere.  It is both an inn and a restaurant on the outskirts of Cortona. To capture the Il Falconiere atmosphere, go to their web-site. Do not skip the “intro”, rather,  listen to the music, watch the photos scroll through, and feel a smile appearing on your face as your mood turns dreamy. You really have to want to go there since finding it can be a challenge. But, once you’ve been there, you will want to go back.

Of course, when Mr. Wonderful and I first got there, dreamy was not our mood. We had been wandering through the old town of Assisi with friends on a very hot day, when suddenly Mr. Wonderful looked at this watch and said we must leave for lunch; the relics of St. Francis must wait until another visit. If traffic is kind, the drive from Assisi to Cortona takes just under two hours. We made it in almost half that time but were still an hour late on our reservation. We also missed the exit from the main road to the restaurant. A quick telephone call and we got instructions to turn right after the third stop after a car dealership. Then we were on a tiny narrow road bordered with hedges and winding around a stone wall with strategically placed convex mirrors. Just as I become convinced we were lost on a road where no turns were possible, that same road opened up to Il Falconiere.

We piled out of the car and into a little gem. We sat at a table covered in fine white linen under arched ceilings. The staff gracefully dismissed our lateness and breathlessness by quickly bringing flutes of Prosecco and a melon-prosciutto amuse-bouche. We sipped and munched while studying the elaborate menu, the cover of which had a pale watercolor of a Renaissance woman on a horse with a hunting falcon on her wrist. The late lunch took hours as we ate luscious appetizers made with local mushrooms and a main course of tender veal chops with perfect al dente green beans and a pumpkin risotto. Tuscan wine in copious amounts made the lunch that much more dreamy. And, I cannot forget the assorted sweats we shared with our double espressos.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What We Are Reading Now

Still preparing for the adventure trip to Central Asia, we are now reading:  The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia (well written and pithy descriptions of the silk, spice, and amber trade along with politics and geography) and The Silk Road and the Cities of the Golden Horde (written by a famous Russian scholar).

And for some fiction:  Alexandria: A Marcus Didius Falco Novel (Marcus Didius Falco Mysteries) (think:  Brother Cadfael -- The Cadfael Collection -- solves crime in Ancient Egypt) ... not finished yet, but a good read so far.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Seasonal Transitions

Anyone with links to the Balkans [southeast of Paris] has encountered ajvar [pronounced aye-var].  It is a roasted eggplant-pepper mixture that is canned in late summer and served as an appetizer or relish through out the winter months.  

It wasn't until a summer in Santa Fe, New Mexico that I experienced a different take on an old favorite.   One year at a pre-opera cocktail party we were served cherry tomatoes stuffed with ajvar as a passed hors d’oeuvre.   It was made with red peppers and with enough cayenne to make things interesting.    Summer tomatoes plus winter preserves ... the best of both seasons.


Ajvar:
1 eggplant
2 green peppers
1 red pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon paprika 
1 teaspoon kosher salt 
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

  
Cut the ends off the eggplant and microwave on high for 3 mintes.  Turn the eggplant over and microwave on high for 3 more minutes.  Cool to room temperature.  Then scoop out soft flesh; discard skin.

Roast the peppers under the broiler turning every few minutes so the peppers are charred on all sides.   Cover and cool to room temperature, then peel the peppers.  Discard seeds and chop.

Combine eggplant and peppers in a food processor.  Process until smooth.
Add vinegar, olive oil, garlic powder, paprika and red pepper flakes. Salt and pepper to taste; adjust spices to taste.

Serve cold as a salad or on toast points or crackers or stuffed into cherry tomatoes.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Springtime in Paris

Springtime in Paris can be rainy, cold and grey.  But, at the George V, one of my favorite hotels in the world, the flowers and colors can erase the gloomiest of weather.

By using one flower, an orchid, in a vibrant color and in large numbers, the courtyard arrangement was a simple yet stunning punch of life.

Similarly with a light lunch, a chilled fresh pea soup served in an ice cube with a bit of coral colored salmon, the impact was dramatic as well as delicious.

Une Amuse-Bouche

Creative things can be very simple and yet stunning.  In trying to do something creative this weekend for the first day of spring, I thought of a simple and beautiful amuse-bouche that we sampled at the George V in Paris.  An amuse-bouche is a small or bite-sized hors d’oeuvre that is designed to “amuse the mouth” or titillate the taste buds.  It is something the chef has prepared to surprise and delight patrons before they are served any of the dishes they’ve ordered.


Last spring, when we sat down to dine at the Le Cinq, the beautiful and elegant dining room at the George V, the waiter presented us with an amuse-bouche that was a tiny multilayered “sandwich” consisting solely of thin slices of red radish and green apple. Simple, stunning, refreshing, delicious.  No wonder Le Cinq has two Michelin stars.


Here is my replication of the green apple and radish amuse-bouche.


Before 





After










P.S.  People have a bouche (mouth) while animals have a gueule.   Sometimes, an amuse-bouche that doesn't thrill or that is just too big or off in some way is called an amuse-gueule. ;-)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Puttin' on the Ritz

Sometimes the obvious escapes me until I see it.  About a year ago, we redecorated our bedroom.  Together with input from my interior decorator, I choose to have a tufted headboard in a pale blue suede.  It is beautiful.  But, as is with all things that come in contact with Mr. Wonderful and me, there is a bit of wear and tear.  Over the months, some of the suede has been rubbed smooth and has darkened.  This is because we read in bed and watch TV in bed and our heads and backs rub against the suede.  What to do?

The answer to the headboard preservation dilemma was an unexpected bonus of staying at the Ritz hotel in London.  My room gave a whole new meaning to posh.  There were heavy silk fabrics everywhere, including on the gilt-wood framed headboard.


How do they preserve the pristine condition of the headboard fabric?  The simple solution became obvious after the turn down service.  Each night the staff was puttin' on a heavy linen sheet over the headboard and covering the silk fabric.  Now, why hadn't we thought of that?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What’s for Dinner? Reservations

Remember the old joke and about a wife making reservations for dinner?  No joke. This is a serious task.  It can take time and patience.  Which is why I like Open Table. Open Table supplies restaurants with a table management system that has a great features for customers.  It makes reserving a table in many major cities fast and easy -- it is all done online. Customers also accumulate points that are exchangeable for cash at one of the participating restaurants. Here are five reasons I like Open Table:
  • The system operates 24/7.
  • You don’t have to talk to anyone.
  • You can choose the city, date, time, and type of food you are interested in, and Open Table gives you a list of restaurants that meet your criteria. 
  • No one puts you on hold and then asks you to spell your name (twice).
  • There is an easy to use iPhone App.
And, did I mention points?

A Field Trip to Beverly Hills

A friend of ours and his mother are auctioning off some paintings and jewelry with the proceeds to benefit several charities they support.  Last night the lots to be auctioned were on display at Heritage Auction Galleries in Beverly Hills.  Mr. Wonderful and I decided to attend the preview reception.

Attending events in southern California, especially on weeknights, requires planning.  How many cars?  If we are going together in one car, who is picking up whom?  What time?  A simple 50 mile drive from Newport Beach to Beverly Hills can take one hour or three, it all depends on the time of day or night you are on the road.  And Beverly Hills is not freeway convenient.

We decided on one car, and Mr. Wonderful would pick me up at my office after his golf game.  We were on our way at 3:30 p.m. for a reception starting at 6:30.  Traffic was with us, even though it was not a holiday, and we realized that we’d have time for a quick dinner before arriving at the Heritage Auction Galleries.  I checked a few restaurant availabilities using Open Table on my iPhone and made a reservation at The Grill on the Alley.  The Grill is an old standard with white linens, dark wood wainscoting, green shaded light fixtures, and solid steakhouse food. We had scrumptious tomato and onion salad followed by crab cakes. [Note: getting good tomatoes is a real achievement in California, where most of them seem like cardboard.]  We arrived to our reception feeling energized and relaxed. Saw the interesting auction items, chatted with our friends, had a glass of wine, and got home before 9:00.  A successful field trip.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tafelspitz

The best boiled beef dinner I've had was with my friend Olga in Vienna at Plachutta.  Plachutta is to tafelspitz what Smith & Wollensky is to steak.  The photo is from Plachutta's website; the recipe is mine.

2 quarts water
2 large carrots, cut into thin slices
1 teaspoon salt
2 celery stalks, cut into thin slices
1 parsnip
3 lbs beef brisket or shoulder
2 leeks, white part only, thinly sliced
1 or 2 marrow bones
1 onion - cut into rings
1 tablespoon peppercorns
1 bay leaf
parsley

Heat the water with salt.  Add beef and marrow bones and bring to a boil.  While the water is boiling, skim the foam from surface until it no longer appears and the surface is clear [this part is admittedly tedious but important].  Partially cover pot and simmer 1-1/2 hours.

Add the sliced leeks, onion, carrots, celery, bay leaf, peppersorns, and parsnip to the beef.  Continue cooking until the beef and vegetables are tender.

Cut beef into 1/2 inch slices. Serve vegetables in a separate dish with 4 tablespoons cooking liquid spooned over the top.  Garnish with parsley. 
Serve with horseradish or a horseradish sauce.

As a variation, subsitute chicken for the beef.

Why I'm Cooking Now

Every once in a while, usually when traveling in Central and Eastern Europe or the Balkans, I get a whiff of something that reminds me of my childhood. It happened most powerfully one summer in Salzburg.  Mr. Wonderful and I were staying in the old town at the Goldener Hirsh, and we walked into a lovely restaurant nearby.  The formally clad maitre d’ sat us down in a luxe country house environment and the next thing I knew, I was ordering boiled beef [aka Tafelspitz].

It was not merely boiled beef. The meal started with a clear delicate yellow consommé soup [the liquid in which the beef had simmered] with tiny dumplings and a discrete sprinkling of chopped parsley.  This was followed by the beef, deliciously tender and falling off a rich marrow bone, and chopped carrots, potatoes, celery, and parsnip that had been drained from the consommé.  A horseradish white sauce was served on the side.  Simple, delicious food that reminded me more strongly of childhood than the pączki we had been eating in Poland, the stuffed peppers of Serbia, or the piroshki in Russia.

When I was little, both of my parents worked, and my grandmother ruled the kitchen. She believed in daily marketing for fresh ingredients and made everything from scratch.  We rarely ate anything canned, frozen or out of a box.  A consommé soup followed by boiled beef or chicken was a staple meal that she prepared at least once a week.  In the mid-west, there were ethnic neighborhoods and food, but I wanted “American” food, meaning a full freezer and cake from a boxed mix.   Her recipes were a mystery to me.

Gradually, I learned to cook, but I rarely thought of replicating grandmother’s kitchen skills.  Once in a while, I’d have a traditional dinner at the home of European friends.  I considered it a special treat but had no thoughts of cooking the same dishes.

That dinner in Salzburg was a turning point. We returned to the same restaurant the next night. The maitre d’ remembered us [he probably remembered the generous Mr. Wonderful], and seated us at the best table in a romantic raised window alcove. I ordered the same meal, and started reminiscing to my husband about the meals my grandmother had made and wondered aloud how it she did it.  When we returned a few years later the restaurant was gone.

Since that summer, I have found my grandmother’s old cookbooks (one in Polish, one in Russian, one in Serbian), her recipe-filled spiral notebooks, and a pre-war [WWI, that is] notebook with my grandfather’s writing that had some recipes in it was well.  I read and experiment.  I also ask friends for recipes and pointers.  It’s fun.  And, if a recipe doesn’t work out, there is always pizza delivery.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Day's End

Perfect end to a perfect day.  I'll deal with the time change tomorrow.

Dining Far East - Sort Of

We dined at Maison Akira last night.  French style with a Japanese twist and, if you wish, tapas-sized dishes instead of dinner-sized.  It's so far East of Paris that it is in Pasadena, California.

The service was amazing.  They remembered us from our prior and only visit more than an month ago.  Sat us at the same table.  Brought my coupe de champagne without asking.  Inquired of Mr. Wonderful if he wanted to order the same Burgundy as last time or if he wanted to see the wine list.  So, either we are very memorable or this restaurant keeps a very efficient data base.

The food was lovely.  We started with a cup of white corn soup with roasted shrimp and followed it with wild Canadian salmon and winter vegetables.  We shared the flourless chocolate cake.  Yum!


Mr. Wonderful reflected in the mirror while contemplating the wine.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What We Are Reading Now

Books are like breathing -- can’t live without them.  Mr. Wonderful and I are always running out of shelf space, rearranging the library, and adding books to every room.  Typically, we have a few books going at a time, and our tastes are eclectic.  
Here is what we are reading now: 
In further preparation for our trip,he’s reading The Lost Heart of Asia (P.S.)  Shortly after the fall of the USSR, Colin Thubron traveled through the ‘Stans we’ll be visiting and he describes the scenery, both natural and man-made.  I’m reading Tears of Pearl (Lady Emily Mysteries, Book 4) by Tasha Alexander.   It’s got a murder in the Sultan’s harem in Istanbul, a titled English protagonist, romance, and jewels .  A fun read, though Mr. Wonderful won’t touch it.

I am also re-reading So Stressed: The Ultimate Stress-Relief Plan for Women, written by my wonderful doctor, Stephanie McClellan M.D., and her colleague, Beth Hamilton M.D.  This book explains how our personality types impact how we process stress which in turn impacts our health.  I wasn’t sure I believed it, but the things I’m reading here simply make sense.  This time through, I'm underlining key sentences and taking notes.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ah, The Spa

I decided to take my own advice hidden in yesterday’s blog post: namely, to exercise more.  At noon I went to The Spa.  Located a few miles from my office, this is an oasis where I can exercise without feeling self-conscious.  It has all the amenities of a “spa” as well as the challenging parts – ellipticals, bikes, weight machines, and the rest.  After 50 minutes, I treated myself to a salad from the sushi bar and went back to work.

My doctor recently told me that exercise is to be an unavoidable part of my life. Somehow, I don’t think I could be a regular at big and busy gyms where all the women are sculpted in spandex and look like they don’t need to be there.  Fortunately, The Spa makes working out easy for me.  Why?  Mostly because it is not crowded when I go and the very name feels relaxing.

So, I spent 35 minutes doing an interval training program on the treadmill followed by 15 minutes with a few weight machines.  All the while I could watch two of the large flat screen TVs suspended from the ceiling.  My eyes wandered from CNBC to the Food Network.  Watching the market close while a chef made fried chicken made the time pass very quickly.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Homage to France, East of Paris style - Napoleon Torte

My mother’s cousin Ligia makes a fantastic eight-layer torte called Napoleon.  While not made with the mille-feuille dough of a traditional Napoleon, it is the version often made East of Paris in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia.  The layers are fragile and crisp.  The cream filling is smooth and rich.  Admittedly there is more butter per square inch than I want to think about, but a moderate slice is worth it.  Think:  enjoy torte, exercise more!

Cake Layers (the hard part):
4 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cake flour
4 sticks (1 lb.) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 egg, slightly beaten
3 Tablespoons brandy
4 ounces sour cream (not low fat)

Cut the butter into the flour until the mixture is crumbly.  Add the remaining ingredients and mix until the dough comes together.  Divide into 8 equal pieces, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.  Roll out each piece of dough on heavy-duty foil in a circle and pierce all over with a fork. [Each layer needs its own sheet of foil.  Use an 11 to 12 inch pan lid as a template for even circles.]  Bake in a pre-heated oven at 375°F until lightly golden brown (it takes about 8 minutes for 2 layers in a convection oven at 375°F). Cool the layers completely before assembling.

Filling (the easy part):
1 large (4.6 oz.) and 1 small (1 oz.) package vanilla pudding mix (not instant)
3½ cups milk (2% fat works as well as whole milk)
3 sticks unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon powdered sugar
1 Teaspoon vanilla extract
Juice of ½ lemon
Zest of 1 lemon
Apricot jam

Cook the pudding mix and milk stirring constantly until very think.  When it is cool, add the vanilla.  Cream the butter with the powdered sugar until light.  Beat in the cooled pudding a little at a time until it is all incorporated in the butter, and then add the lemon juice.

Assembly:
Spread the filling on the first 4 layers of the torte.  Spread the fifth layer with apricot jam.  Finish adding layers and spreading them with the filling, also spread the filling around the sides.  [It’s a good idea to press down on each layer before spreading with filling or jam.  The layers will crack but the torte will not fall apart.]  When finished, sprinkle with ground almonds and more lemon zest.  Chill thoroughly before cutting.

Variation:  For a chocolate cake, use chocolate pudding mix, substitute orange juice and orange zest for the lemon, and substitute ground walnuts for the almonds. 

Rolling out the layers

Golden layers cooling on the table

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Figs with Tea & Walnuts

Reading about Trebizond and Samarkand and the places we’ll go, got me thinking about the cooking from this part of the world.  I found a recipe for dried figs that I made for our dessert.  It is a perfect way to use the light brown dried figs that are sometimes sold strung on a length of straw and are so hard you can chip a tooth.


The recipe is from The Ottoman Kitchen by Sarah Woodward.

12 dried figs
1 cup brewed tea [I used my favorite Royal Blend from Fortnum & Mason]
3 tablespoons honey [I used orange blossom honey]
Juice of  ½ lemon
5 bay leaves [I used dried ones that I’d picked from my mother’s laurel tree]
Walnut halves

Pour the hot tea over the figs and soak over night.  Remove the figs.  Measure out 1 cup of the soaking liquid [add water to the tea make a full cup] into a saucepan; add the bay leaves, honey, and lemon juice.  Boil on high heat for 3 minutes.  Add the figs, stem side up, and simmer for 20 minutes.  Cool.  After the figs are cool, cut a slit in the skin and stuff with a walnut half.  Serve on a plate with a little of the syrup.


The Silk Road

We are off to Central Asia late next month.  Mr. Wonderful likes to travel to exotic places, provided there are luxuries to be had somewhere.  Thus, we’ll be stopping in Istanbul on the way home.  Our travel coordinator sent us a report yesterday about the status of our visa applications.  Visas have been obtained for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.  Now we are waiting for visas from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.  The trip is called a visit to Five ‘Stans.  You really have to want to go there.  First, the visa application process is paper intensive and expensive.  Then you send off your paperwork and passport to a company that specializes in getting travel documents.  Then you wait, and wait. 

In the meantime, we are attacking the reading list that came with the trip itinerary. Mr. Wonderful is almost finished reading The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha Globe) by Peter Hopkirk about the imperial struggle for power in Central Asia between Victorian England and Tzarist Russia.  I am in the middle of Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World.  In the early 1400s, Spanish ambassador Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo visited Samarkand, Tamerlane’s capital.  According to Marozzi:  “Everywhere he looked, Clavijo saw food… [meats,] fruits and vegetables including delicious Samarkand melons, grown in such abundance that many were cured and kept for a year.”  (p. 215).  While I doubt that we will see the “sheep with tails so fat they weighed twenty pounds” or silks and rubies from India in the shops of today’s Samarkand, the echoes of its history leap from the books on our reading list.
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