East of Paris Bookstore

Monday, January 30, 2012

Winter Spring

Just when you think that the days are too short and that it is too cold, California surprises with a punch of warmth. It feels like spring despite the fact that we are in mid-winter. I first noticed it this morning when I walked by the tulips in the hallway and saw that they were in full bloom. When did that happen?

 Then I went outside ...
Miniature Meyer Lemons
Tangerines ... or clementines ready for picking.
Even the outdoor cat looks happy.
Good-bye Christmas poinsettia's ... thanks for being strong and lovely these last three months.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Concord

I had not been in a snow storm for at least five years and the weather report for parts of Massachusetts only predicted a day of rain. Naturally, I woke up to snow -- heavy, fat, wet flakes swirling down through a grey atmosphere.


Fortunately, I was "stuck" in meetings for more than day. By the time I was ready to leave, the show was melting and the sun finally came out. Equally fortunately, I ate some classic New England food  ...
Clam chowder -- creamy and thick at the Taj Hotel in Boston. The soup was good, but the hotel has really become threadbare since the time when it was a Ritz.  Don't think I'll go back.
The Colonial Inn in Concord is a charming contrast.  It has the quintessencial look of historic America and the building, which stretches back for centuries, is bright, well-kept, and cozy. It's a short walk from there to bookstores, the small and elegant Concord Museum with it's 1795 Revere lantern and Emerson's study. To quote the museum's literature:
For a small town, Concord has a big history. From the "shot heard round the world" to the writers of the American literary renaissance, things have happened here, words have been spoken here and books have been written here which changed the face of a nation.
This is the town of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women,


of Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond, and of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays.

And, back to the Colonial Inn, it's a town for superlative crab cakes and sweet corn bread.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Templates

Blogs and their designs always seem to be getting updated and more interesting.  So, after 2 years of one template, I jumped into the design alternatives at Blogspot and adopted a new look. Perhaps this change will invigorate my writing and get me to blog more often.


Let me know what you think.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Floating Island


Regardless of when you celebrate New Year's Eve [Gregorian calendar, Julian calendar, or both], it's a good time to enjoy a gourmet dinner and drink champagne. We don't like to stay up until midnight or drive when there are too many tipsy people in the roads, so we "celebrate" with New York and stay home.


This year, I made The Ultimate Beef Wellington per the Tyler Florence recipe at Food Network. It was easier than I expected and worked out perfectly, although my photos didn't. 


Then for a challenge, I decided to make Floating Island, also known as Ile Flottante or œufs à la neige, which means eggs in show. These "eggs in snow" are delicious and delicate meringues floating in crème anglaise, a light custard sauce. 


I was inspired by a pre-New Year's Eve dinner at Cuistot in Palm Desert, where they serve Floating Island in gigantic martini glasses. If you don't have those, a soup tureen is more than acceptable.


East of Paris, these eggs in snow are called Snenokle (in Serbian), or Schnee Nockerl (in German) or Zuppa Nic (which literally means "Nothing Soup" in Polish because the little meringues seem disappear into nothing as you eat them). My grandmother used to make it for us as a special treat.

While Floating Island looks impressive and tastes divine, it is easy to make because you can make each part separately, even a day apart, and then assemble an hour or so before serving.  The three parts are:  the crème anglaise, the meringues, and the carmel topping. 


Also, depending on the recipe you read, the meringues can be either baked or poached and the crème anglaise can be made from the poaching liquid or completely separately. Frankly, this is such a good dessert, that you may want to try out different variations until you find the one you like best. In the meantime, here is my version of the recipe.


Meringues


5 eggs at room temperature
10 Tablespoons sugar
Pinch of Creme of Tartar
I quart of milk (no less then 2% fat content)


Separate the egg whites from the yolks. Reserve the yolks for the crème anglaise. Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar. Then slowly add the sugar while beating at high speed until the egg whites are glossy and stiff.


Heat the milk until scalding. Add teaspoonfuls of the beaten egg whites to the hot milk. [I used a small ice cream scoop to try and make my meringues the same size.]  The meringues will float in the milk and puff up.  After a minute or two, flip the meringues over so they can cook on the other side. The whole cooking process takes less than four or five minutes.  


Remove the meringues with a slotted spoon or spider skimmer and set aside. Reserve the hot milk for the crème anglaise.

Crème anglaise


5 egg yolks
5 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla or cognac 
Zest of one lemon
1 quart milk (or the milk used to poach the meringues, which will now be a bit less than a quart)
1 teaspoon corn starch (optional)


Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until they are light in color and thick. Add the vanilla and lemon zest. Carefully add some of the hot milk to the egg yolk mixture to temper them. Then add the egg mixture to the rest of the milk. Stir constantly and cook over medium heat until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. If it is not as thick as you like, beat in the cornstarch.  


Drain the sauce through a sieve and cool. Once the cause is cool, add the meringues.
Caramel Topping

Toasted almond slivers or slices
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water

Heat the sugar and water in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan until the sugar dissolves.  Keep cooking until the sugar becomes golden and reaches 230 degrees F.

Next, sprinkle the meringues with the toasted almonds. The using a spoon, drizzle the caramel on top of the meringues.

Cool and enjoy



What We're Reading Now

With the coming of the New Year, the media and blogosphere is abuzz with posts about resolutions, goals and dreams. I keep reading blogs and articles that recommend thinking about our 2011 inventory of activities and planning for 2012.  Well I have some plans and dreams and, dare I say it, "resolutions." And, since I'm an Orthodox Christian, who follows the Julian or "Old" Calendar, technically I get two more weeks to select my resolutions and to commit to them. So, my test will start on January 14th. What will I chose and will I then chose to do it?


The choice of resolutions or, rather, how to live one's life, is in tune with the two books I've been reading these last few weeks.



Your Are Your Choices by Alexandra Stoddard consists of 50 short essays exploring what it means to live the "good life ... a life well-lived, the happy life." According to Aristotle (a favorite philosopher of Stoddard's) the "good life is a life of moral excellence that leads to happiness." She shows by example how we are where we are due to external things occurrences coupled with our reaction to them.  Our reactions are either wise or unwise, but we determine our reactions and they determine where we are and where we will go.  

Whether she is talking about the benefits of simple lifestyle rituals or about leaving our comfort zones, Stoddard sprinkles her essays with quotes from ancient philosophers, like Aristotle and Socrates, religious sages, like the Buddha and the Dalai Lama, enlightenment thinkers, like Emerson and Montaigne, and modern writers and scientists, like Camus and Einstein. However, the book does not come across as if its author just went to a big book of quotations and picked them at random.  Stoddard's talent lies in her knowledge of philosophy and her ability to tie high ideas to practical application in quotidian life.

I highly recommend Your Are Your Choices. It reminded me that I make choices every day and that even a non-choice is really a choice. It put the whole concept  of New Year's resolutions and life-plans in new perspective. To quote Stoddard quoting Socrates and Aristotle:  " An unexamined lied is not worth living," and " An unplanned life is not worth examining."


The Tigress of Forli by art historian Elizabeth Lev is a biography of Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici -- daring, courageous and vilified by her enemies,.  As a woman in Renaissance Italy, she had few choices as to whom to marry (at least the first time around) or the life she would lead. But,within her social confines, she made choices on a grand scale, fought (not always successfully) to preserve her children's inheritance, gambled against enemies (like Cesare Borgia), and lived and died on her own terms. Sometimes rich and sometimes poor, Caterina was always fearless. 

My favorite vignette from her story involves her ability to compartmentalize. While fighting (blood and guts not just arguments) over territory with a neighboring nobleman, Caterina took time to write to his wife about fashions and to ask for some of her famous hunting dogs, which she got.

Caterina was the Countess of Forli and Imola in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. This is a beautiful area with fabulous cuisine and is a short drive to Ravenna with its magnificent mosaics. If I have a chance to visit there again, I know I will now are a new appreciation for its history.

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