Friday, February 29, 2008

A Sweet, Petite Delivery

I agree to be part of the beta test immediately. There is no need to twist my arm.

The email comes from Veronica’s Test Kitchen. “I’m sending macarons,” writes the proprietor of the blogosphere’s most prestigious center of culinary science.

How could I possibly refuse?

Veronica is my hero. She can give Harold McGee a run for his money. Her keenly insightful kitchen experiments have taught me a thing or two about organization, attention to detail and using your powers of observation in the kitchen. Her macaron marathon was a tour de force, and now she’s taken the enviable step of opening her own patisserie, Petites Bouchees, offering exquisitely-crafted French macarons to the city of Richmond, Virginia and beyond. Veronica is turning her passion into a delicious vocation.

As I wait for the delivery, I decide to research the elegant pastel-colored sandwich cookies that can be found in most pastry shops in Paris. A macaron is a small, round biscuit, made from ground nuts and meringue that is crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside. They can be sandwiched together with a variety of Grenaches and cream fillings. Various sources cite the spelling as macaroon, or macaron. Wikepedia reports on the difficulty of preparing macarons, and dates their origin to the French courts of the 18th century. They are traced to a place called Nancy, a commune in the Lorraine region of Northeast France. Larousse Gastronomique tells me that macarons emerged in Venice, Italy during the Renaissance. The name is derived from the Italian word maccherone and the Venetian word macarone, which means fine paste. One story says that macarons have been made in a monastery in Cormery, France since the year 791. There is even an intriguing story of two Carmelite nuns who during the French Revolution became famous as the “Macaroon Sisters.”

I can see why Veronica has taken to this grand culinary tradition.

The package is due to arrive on Wednesday. I check the front steps several times but nothing has arrived. On Thursday morning, I am racing from the house to catch a train, and I spy the delivery box on the front steps. It must have arrived after dark. I return to the house, deposit the contents of the box in the refrigerator, and catch the next train to Manhattan. During the work day I am driven to distraction. Visions of macarons are dancing through my head.

In the evening I arrive home and immediately take the precious contents from the refrigerator. The macarons have been packaged in a sleek, slender cocoa-colored box. It is tied with a teal ribbon, decorated with brown polka-dots. Carefully, I break the plastic seal, slide out the box and slowly raise the lid.

My eyes fall on a dozen pristine macarons, meticulously-shaped and packed in neat rows. I pick up a macaron and take a sniff – the aroma is nutty, sweet and fragrant. The soft, pastel hues suggest the French countryside: Vanilla filled with a sunny Madasgacar Bourbon Vanilla Buttercream, sea-green Pistachio filled with Chocolate Ganache, and wheat-colored Hazelnut filled with Salted Caramel Cream.

I taste a stylish Vanilla macaron. The outer texture is firm and the inside is soft and chewy. The buttercream filling dissolves in my mouth like rays of sunshine. I taste a second … a third … a forth. I’m beginning to understand Veronica’s obsession with macarons. In a short time, I have consumed eight macarons. I take my responsibility as a beta tester very seriously. Of course, this is purely an experiment to determine which variety is my favorite. It’s a tie. I love them all!

Could life be sweeter?

Tres magnifique, Veronica! Merci beaucoup!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Spinach Ricotta Ravioli with Butter and Sage (Ravioli di Ricotta e Spinaci)

I admit it. I’m a Chef Boyardee baby.

Growing up on suburban Long Island, I just assumed that ravioli came from a can. There were exactly two varieties, which in the 1970s was considered an embarrassment of riches – meat ravioli and cheese ravioli, each covered in a clingy red sauce. The main kitchen tools required for preparation were a sturdy pot, a cover and a can opener.

My palate, my kitchen skills and my culinary wisdom have grown incrementally in the years since.

If only I knew then, what I know now. In 2006, I stood next to a no-nonsense Italian grandmother in Bologna and rolled pasta by hand. In the historic food markets, shop windows were abundant with rows of plump golden pillows of pasta. In Florence, under the tutelage of Chef Roberto, I fed translucent sheets of dough through a pasta machine, prepared egg tagliatelle, cut ravioli by hand, and dressed the dish in melted butter and aromatic sage. Those weeks inspired an “awakening of the senses,” as a culinary icon once said.

Chef Roberto made me promise that I wouldn’t just relegate the pasta-making experience to my European culinary adventure. “You must do this at home,” he urged.

I made good on the promise. I bought an Atlas Pasta Machine and I’ve served up many a platter of tagliatelle. But, I must confess I’ve been a bit of a ravioli procrastinator. No more. It is a frigid February weekend – too cold to go out – so there’s plenty of time to ramble around the kitchen. Ravioli is a time-intensive exercise. The afternoon experiment clocks in at roughly four-and-a-half hours. The spinach must be washed and cooked, and mountains of leafy greens are eventually reduced to about four cups of puree. My kneading hand is a little rusty, but I work the semolina flour and eggs into pliable, shiny dough. Carefully, I spoon the filling onto sheets of pasta and tuck them in.

While the ravioli is resting on the counter, I do a little page-turning through my new favorite reference book, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food by Gillian Riley. There I learn that stuffed pasta, as it is generally referred, is made in distinctive, traditional shapes, depending on the region in Italy, and that stuffed pasta was considered a gastronomic luxury of the upper-class in the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, but eventually became a popular food of the middle-class. Mixtures of fresh spinach, ricotta and herbs are traditional fillings for stuffed pasta in Parma and Modena.

The sun has gone down as I melt butter and slip the pasta pockets into simmering water. The results are pleasing, but the delicate simplicity of the meal does not adequately reflect the labor of the effort. Homemade ravioli is a physical and mental investment. It is hard work, but there is intense satisfaction in preparing a hand-crafted meal. And, the best part is there’s a healthy supply of ravioli now tucked away in the freezer for future quick-cook dinners.

It was time to give my can opener a rest, anyway.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Gumdrop Cake from 1946

I can’t take the pressure anymore! The Old Foodie and her “Week of Cakes” has worn me down. It is the middle of the work week, and instead of kicking off my shoes, pouring a glass of Bordeaux, and watching the evening news, I am baking a Gumdrop Cake.

I have a high-powered meeting tomorrow. But instead of studying, I’m obsessed with thoughts of Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders and Willy Wonka.

The Old Foodie knew she would get to me. It was only a matter of time as she sat in her secret lair in Australia and innocently presented day-after-day of retro cake confections – Hot Lemonade Cake, Busy Bachelor’s Marble Cake and Peppermint Stick Candy Layer Cake with Seven Minute Frosting. And, right in the middle of Lent, no less. I can’t even pawn this cake off on a church bake sale. The faithful are all fasting.

I give up! Stop the madness!

And, what is it that breaks me – a Gumdrop Cake, of all things. It’s certainly suitable for a children’s party, but what will those executives say when I pull this rainbow-colored loaf out of my briefcase? I suppose I can always run away and join the circus. The color scheme would certainly appeal to a troupe of clowns.

Some thoughts about the primary ingredient – is it gum, or candy? Gumdrops are actually gelatin, or pectin-based pieces covered in granulated sugar. Eight gumdrops are reported to contain only 115 calories, so I have nearly convinced myself that this will be a low-calorie treat. Yet, as I study various websites searching for the truth about the origin of gumdrops I am stymied, and can find no reputable explanation for their invention. Perhaps gumdrops really are grown on Gumdrop Mountain. If you are in a celebratory mood, be advised that we have just missed National Gumdrop Day. It occurs every year on February 15th, which seems a bit excessive since so much chocolate is typically consumed on February 14th, but perhaps it is part of the day-after-Valentine’s Day low-calorie candy diet plan.

Should you attempt to try this cake at home, be forewarned: the directions call for one pound of gumdrops, chopped finely. Gumdrops are sticky. Chopping gumdrops finely can challenge even the most experienced chef. Typically, when writing one of these Retro Cake posts, I would imagine what the baker might have been doing in the era when the cake first appeared. In 1946, I suspect they were scrubbing the gelatin off their kitchen knives.

The Old Foodie questioned the wisdom of removing the black gumdrops from the recipe. I suspect this is purely a matter of aesthetics, as many would prefer not to find black pieces in their cake. But as an added bonus, the baker can snack on the black gumdrops while the cake is in the oven.

Well, I’m off to have a slice of Gumdrop Cake, pedal 10 miles on my stationary bicycle and find a support group for Retro Cake addicts. Have a nice day on the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay!

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Luncheon for Presidents’ Day 2008

Today is Presidents’ Day, when Americans honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, great leaders who emerged at pivotal moments in our country’s history. George Washington was a military hero of the Revolutionary War and our first President, and Abraham Lincoln led the country during the dark days of the American Civil War.

While food is not the first association most make with Presidents’ Day, there is a rich culinary legacy attached to those men who have led our country for more than two centuries. According to the web site for the White House, the home of U.S. presidents for generations, George Washington’s favorite food was ice cream, while Thomas Jefferson adored vegetables.

Abraham Lincoln, known for his black stovepipe hat and beard, favored cheese and crackers and fruit salad. President John F. Kennedy, a native of Massachusetts liked New England clam chowder. President Bill Clinton was a fan of McDonald’s Big Macs, and the current resident in the White House is enamored of Mexican food.

Each year I prepare a luncheon for Presidents’ Day to experience some of the foods that were part of our Founding Fathers’ worlds. My menu for 2008 borrows from the table of the Virginia gentry in the early days of the new nation, and the period of national mourning following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865:

Hannah Glasse’s Onion Soup
Hannah Glasse was the author of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, first published in Colonial America in 1747. Glasse was the Martha Stewart of the Colonial era. The Art of Cookery was a highly detailed reference book – both a cookbook and household manual – considered essential in fashionable households of founding families like George and Martha Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Onions were a common ingredient in Colonial homes. An adapted version of the original recipe can be found here. The base of the soup is water, which results in a much lighter taste than the heavier French Onion soups we are accustomed to. Thickened with butter and flour, with a final addition of egg yolk and vinegar, the soup is a creamy chowder and you can really taste the sweetness of the onions.

Chicken and Rice Lafayette from Mount Vernon

This recipe was believed to be a favorite of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman and military man who came to the American Colonies to support the Revolution. Lafayette became a lifelong friend of General George Washington, and this casserole of chicken pieces and rice seasoned with salt, pepper and nutmeg was said to have been served during Lafayette’s visits to Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.

The original recipe is just a few lines of text. Careful study reveals is similar to modern recipes for braising. Here’s my more precise version. The chicken is very tender and the rice is fragrant with nutmeg and is a lovely golden color:
Chicken and Rice Lafayette from Mount Vernon

(Adapted from “At the Table in Colonial America” by Patricia B. Mitchell, 1994


One whole chicken 3 ½ to 4 pounds, cut into pieces
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup long grain rice
4 cups water (1 quart)
One tablespoon butter
3 eggs
½ teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Rinse chicken pieces and pat dry. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Heat butter and oil in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat until golden and fragrant. Arrange the chicken pieces skin side down in a single layer in the skillet. Fry until chicken is browned on the bottom about 5 minutes. Turn the chicken with tongs and brown on the second side about 5 minutes more. Remove the chicken to a Dutch oven along with any juices. Pour in one cup of hot chicken stock.

Meanwhile, bring one quart of salted water to a boil. Add the rice to the boiling water, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes so that the rice is cooked but not too dry. Drain well and return to the pot. Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the hot rice. Beat eggs with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Beat a small amount of the hot rice mixture into the egg mixture and then slowly add the egg mixture to the rice, beating well and being careful not to curdle the eggs. When combined well, pour rice over chicken and cover the pot. Cook in a 325 degree oven for 45 minutes. Season to taste.

Wine Jelly
Wealthy colonial households would often present a buffet of sweets, puddings, pastries and jellies to guests. Sugar was an expensive commodity, and a bountiful dessert table was considered a sign of wealth and status. Wine Jelly is a delicate, crystal-clear confection flavored with lemon and sherry. Before the invention of gelatin powder, wine jelly was an elaborate project, with homemade gelatin made from veal bones. A hand-written copy of a wine jelly recipe by Thomas Jefferson still exists.

Abraham Lincoln Cake
This cake was created to memorialize the death of President Abraham Lincoln and was first published in the popular magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1865. Sara Josepha Hale was the editor of the magazine, and is well-known as the woman who led a public campaign to institute a national day of Thanksgiving. The recipe was reprinted many times over the years, and is one of a number of “political cakes” named after politicians and war heroes of the North and South that began to appear after the American Civil War. They were, in a sense, a form of culinary rhetoric that supported prominent political figures. The Lincoln Cake is a simple, sweet loaf cake made by creaming eggs, butter, lemon extract and sugar with flour and sweet milk. It is served in slices with butter and jam. It is a curiously plain cake to honor Mr. Lincoln.

This historic recipe proved challenging. The American History Cookbook by Mark H. Zanger contains detailed instructions, yet the cake failed repeatedly. There are some serious inaccuracies in the recipe, and I suspect that the baking temperature of 350 degrees is far too high, as the outer crust was too crisp, leaving the inside of the loaf a gluey mess. I guess recipe testers really didn’t exist during the Civil War.

These kinds of incidents do give us a sense of the travails of the Colonial- or Civil War-era home cook. They had none of the directions or precise tools we enjoy today. But at the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I got the same distressing result TWICE, even with our modern enhancements. So, I went to the Joy of Cooking, and found a lemon pound cake flavored with mace. Standing in for the Abraham Lincoln cake is “Flo Braker’s Pound Cake.” It came out perfectly (although I am now seriously low on butter and eggs, and after baking three pound cakes in one day, this project was beginning to feel as long as the Civil War). For our celebration, the flavorings match the spirit of its predecessor. This is not without precedent. Most cakes named for historic figures were actually common household recipes before they were elevated to “celebrity status.”

On the luncheon table were several commemorative Presidents Spoons that my family collected when we were growing up. My brothers and I would each want our favorite president put at our place setting at dinner.

What foods will we associate with future American Presidents? Hillary Clinton already has a rather notorious connection with Chocolate Chip Cookies. Will we be eating Barack Obama’s Chicago Deep Dish Pizza, or John McCain’s recipe for doughnuts in the years ahead? Only time and the national appetite will tell.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Found Money, Barbecue and Dieting in Times Square

The time – a little while ago. The place – another rainy day in New York City. The rain is pounding hard as I dash across the intersection of 52nd Street and 7th Avenue. Imagine if this were snow, as the New York DJs always say. Already, the day is damp, unremarkable, and just a bit grim. But, as I scamper over the asphalt and look down, I spot a soaked $20 dollar bill underfoot. I scoop it up, wring it out, and shove it into my pocket. Now, there’s a ray of sunshine. I know exactly how I’ll use this found money. My colleague “Splint McCullough” is in town after a long absence. Splint is a fellow road warrior and my barometer for the dining preferences of the Everyman. The $20 will pay for the first round of drinks at dinner. Not that we need an excuse for drinks with dinner …

Lately, Splint’s been on a physician-imposed diet, strictly enforced by his wife “Blanche” who definitely wears the pants suits in that family. I’m a little worried about coercing Splint into an excessive meal, because I’m not sure I want to tangle with Blanche. But, all I need to do is dangle a little red meat under Splint’s nose, and he is complicit.

The dining hour approaches and Splint and I set out for Virgil’s Real BBQ, a New York institution. Well … it’s an institution to New York tourists. The last time I was at Virgil’s was the night President Clinton admitted his affair with a White House intern to a national television audience. The confession was broadcast on the big screen in Times Square. To this day, I still associate southern barbecue with infidelity.

Splint fancies himself a Memphis barbecue veteran, and in a past life he was a player on the Memphis chow circuit. We turn the corner at 44th Street and inhale the aroma of charred meat. The red neon Virgil’s sign winks at us and another neon sign in the window announces “Home Cooking.”

Splint raises an eyebrow. “You can’t claim “real” barbecue unless someone’s been shot on the premises,” he declares.

Inside, the patrons look very much alive and we are seated at the bar to wait for a table. The air is singed with fragrant barbecue smoke. I fork over the still-damp lucky $20 for a round of spicy Bloody Marys, that are more Worcestershire sauce than vodka. I ask Splint for his assessment of the clientele. He studies the room.

“They’re poseurs,” he pronounces, finally. “Nobody here would know real barbecue if Big Bob Gibson walked up and slapped them in the face with some ribs.”

We swig our Bloody Marys and Splint chats with the bartender about the photos of Elvis impersonators over the bar. We are told that they are regulars. Shortly, we are seated by a sunny hostess, born and raised in Texas. “Keep that smile,” Splint tells her.

Our place settings include a paper placemat with a printed illustration of the United States with top barbecue restaurants – those spots where the Virgil’s staff got its inspiration. It’s kind of a Michelin Guide complete with barbecue sauce stains.

Our utensils are wrapped in large red terry cloth hand towels. “I don’t think this is the kind of place where you need to ask the thread count,” says Splint.

He takes a quick glance at the menu and announces, “It’s virtually impossible to eat healthy, so I’m diving in.” For our appetizer, we share a football-sized platter of Hush Puppies – tender, deep-fried corn batter – with a side of maple butter. Splint offers up a few tidbits of culinary history he has picked up in the Deep South. Either that, or he’s cribbing anecdotes off the placemat.

“Did you know that Hush Puppies got their name because in the South, dogs would roam the fields, and the farm workers would toss them a handful of cornmeal to keep them quiet, or hush the puppies?

“I’m a Wikipedia of fried food,” says Splint.

He holds up a single, fried morsel and gives it a look of adoration. “In my opinion, a Hush Puppy is really just a delivery vehicle for the maple butter.”

Splint offers ongoing commentary as I examine the menu, explaining that barbecue sauce in North Carolina is vinegar-based, while in South Carolina, the sauce is tomato-based. And, if you travel further South or West, the sauce is usually sweeter. By now, I’m convinced that Splint has been watching too many “Boy Meets Grill” marathons on the Food Network. I order a mixed platter of North Carolina Pulled Pork and Texas Beef Brisket with sides of slaw and Georgia Pecan wild rice.

The health-conscious Splint has chosen Virgil’s Barbecue Salad, a large bowl of greens with about two pounds of barbecue beef piled on top. “They throw some shaved carrots on top to give the illusion of healthy, but it’s still a heart attack in a bowl,” he notes.

Splint picks carefully at his salad. The man eats like a bird now. I devour my scorched brisket dressed in a perky barbecue sauce and chomp on the crunchy Cole slaw. The pulled pork has a nice tang.

“When my wife asks, what did you order? I can truthfully say salad," says Splint, "Until she reads your blog, of course.”

In between bites, the waiter gives us the lowdown on the smokers in the back of the restaurant. Virgil's uses a combination of hickory, oak and fruitwoods. Splint bemoans that fact that his wife has become a fan of "Cooking Light." During a trip upstairs, I note that a group of tough guys are wearing pointed Happy Birthday hats, and at the table next to us, a patron has been composing a haiku on his Blackberry. It's a typical night out in New York City.

The waiter clears away the plates and we are given hot towels. "Classy touch," notes Splint.

We are too full for dessert. In Splint’s case, no doubt it was all the fiber in that salad. The bill arrives and the barbecue salad is a mere $9.50. Splint remains the quintessential cheap date.

He sighs. "Taking me here on a diet is like watching those football players on "Dancing with the Stars." It's entertaining, but unsettling."
As we leave, I grab a handful of the obligatory dining souvenier – matchbooks. It’s quite possibly the only tool I’d really need to recreate genuine Southern barbecue at home. I note that Splint is actually looking a bit gaunt. I'll have to talk to Blanche. He could use a couple of good "stick-to-your ribs" meals.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Devil Dog Cake and Brown Bag Lunch Legends

My mother always packed a wholesome and healthy brown bag lunch.

During our high school years, she’d create what amounted to an assembly line atop our white Formica kitchen counter to prepare the daily lunches for me and my three brothers. She would quickly layer a sandwich with Oscar Meyer cold cuts and whole wheat bread (my favorite was bologna with mustard), and gather together precisely-cut celery and carrots with an apple for dessert. All this was carefully stacked inside a brown paper bag that was labeled with our name in black magic marker. The top of the bag was neatly folded over three times and stapled shut. To this day, Mom is still a packaging genius.

The trip to school was a long one, so instead of carrying a beverage, we were given milk money. After years of harboring guilt, I must finally confess that there were many times I did not use the coins to buy milk.

It was a horrific example of teen rebellion. The worst. Even though I was aware of the importance of milk in building strong healthy, bones, I would brazenly walk past the milk case, hand over my loose change to Mrs. Rindethorsen and purchase … yikes … Devil Dogs!

Yes, now the story can be told. Even at the tender age of 15, I was addicted to cake. Oh, I would eat the apple in my sack lunch, but I was also secretly supplementing my pubescent diet with cream-filled cakes.

For the snack cake challenged, here’s a quick primer. A Devil Dog is made of two slender layers of chocolaty, devil’s food cake with cream filling between. It’s sort of a “cake sandwich” in the shape of a hot dog bun. Devil Dogs are sold by the Drake’s Cakes Company based in New Jersey. Founder Newman E. Drake started a business selling pound cake by the slice in Brooklyn in 1888.

Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s we were bombarded by commercial messages for snack cakes – Hostess Twinkies, Hostess Cupcakes, Drake’s Ring Dings and Devil Dogs and Dolly Madison Cakes, which were a longtime sponsor of the Charlie Brown television specials. The competition for our adolescent brand loyalty was fierce. In what has now become a curious case of a corporate confection conglomerate Interstate Bakeries today owns all of the competitor companies – Drake’s Cakes, Hostess Cakes, Twinkies and Dolly Madison Cakes.

What drew me to Devil Dogs, when most of my peers were smoking in the Boy’s Room? Devil Dogs were a soothing, rich respite from the monotony of Earth Science, the mental anguish of Algebra which made my head hurt, or the perils of Chemistry Lab which quite frankly terrified me. Much like Mrs. Kast’s English Literature Class, Devil Dogs fed my restless teenage soul with something sweet and just a bit poetic – at least according to my embryonic view of the world at the time. Devil Dogs gave me a reason to persevere, to slog through Health class and gym, because I knew something luscious and just a bit illicit awaited me at lunch.

I haven’t eaten a Devil Dog in years, although I have been known to scarf a Twinkie from time to time. So, when the February issue of Gourmet magazine arrives, featuring a recipe for Devil Dog Cake inspired by the original, I can’t resist the urge to bake it. Now, you may ask, Is Gourmet slumming? Let me tell you – anyone who turns up their nose at this recipe because of its humble, mass-produced, mass-marketed snack cake origins is missing a taste of heaven. I’m not quite sure how they managed to capture that true Devil Doggy essence, but it tastes like the genuine article, and ten times better. Ruth Reichl is a genius.

I share a slice with Mom and confess the whole story of the diverted milk funds. After all these years, she deserves to know, and it is good to get it off my chest. Fortunately, Mom is very forgiving, particularly when I’m handing out squares of chocolate cake with marshmallow frosting. And, I didn’t turn out too badly, either. I still eat apples regularly.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Foodie Blogroll

Culinary Types has joined the Foodie Blogroll! Jenn, "The Left Over Queen," who makes masterpieces from leftovers, has gathered hundreds of bloggers who are passionate about food under the Foodie Blogroll banner, which you'll find to the right. It's a fantastic method for building momentum in the food blogger community -- almost as good as being an honored guest at one giant, continuous dinner party! You can also click here for additional information on how to join.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Bird in the Hand with a Dash of Salt and Pepper

I was a fussy child. I did not like bones with my chicken.

This presented a problem. For a family of six on a budget, boneless chicken breasts were rarely an option. Chicken was typically served in pieces, bone-in, Shake ‘n Bake style. After all, we were growing up in the heart of suburban Long Island. I must admit, it was not my favorite meal. I would push the meat around the plate and whine a bit. It was not exactly what you’d describe as quality time at the dinner table.

Mind you, I didn’t dislike chicken – far from it. I longed for those Sunday dinners when my mother would roast a whole chicken, and I could eat the thinly carved breast slices that my dad would fan across the platter. Even then, suburban ingenuity defined the meal. A pop-up button, inserted into the breast of the “Oven Stuffer Roaster” would signal that the bird was done. If we were lucky, there would be bread stuffing as well, usually made with Pepperidge Farm bread crumbs.

As an adult, I clung vehemently to my independence, and my ability to eat boneless chicken breasts no matter the cost. It didn’t matter if the rent money was tight, I would spend the extra cash for boneless chicken breasts.

It was only long after when I started classes at the French Culinary Institute in 2005 did I learn that roasting a whole chicken was considered an epicurean art form.

Indeed, in the memoir, My Life in France, Julia Child muses on the romance of a roasted chicken:

“Oh, those were such fine, fat, full-flavored birds from Bress – one taste, and I realized that I had long ago forgotten what real chicken tasted like.”

The French Chef goes so far as to make roasted chicken a requirement of culinary proficiency: “But my favorite remained the basic roast chicken. What a deceptively simple dish. I had come to believe that one can judge the quality of a cook by his or her roast chicken. Above all, it should taste like chicken: it should be so good that even a perfectly simple, buttery roast should be a delight.”

For some reason, I always found the idea of preparing a roast chicken intimidating. It was our instructor, Chef Candy – in her practical and authoritative way – who got me to relax about roasting. Even the FCI’s signature chicken recipe, Poulet Roti Grand-mere or “Grandmother’s Roast Chicken” inspired thoughts of a simpler life of sensual pleasure. Chef Candy carefully walked us through each step: removing the wishbone, trimming the wings, and trussing the bird so that the breast is plump and cooks evenly. We learned how to trim the leg bone, French style, and cut the breast on a bias.

Maybe it is the dark days of February that demand some homespun warmth, or the somewhat disconcerting feeling that the wonderful, exhilarating time spent learning at the French Culinary Institute is now three years past. Whatever the reason, I have become obsessed with thoughts of trussing and roasting a chicken.

I consult Alice Water’s “The Art of Simple Food,” and the technique could not be more poetic – one chicken, about four pounds, seasoned with salt and pepper. Stuffing the cavity of the bird with bundles of fresh thyme, sage and marjoram perfumes the meat. Waters recommends, if possible, that you season the bird a day or two ahead and refrigerate allowing the salt and pepper to penetrate the meat.

My trussing skills are rusty and several times, the twine slithers from my hands. But, eventually, perseverance pays off and I wrestle the roaster into submission. It is tied into a taut, tidy package and placed in the refrigerator.

On the afternoon of roasting, the chicken must sit out for about an hour before cooking. A chilled bird will not roast evenly. The oven is a searing 400 degrees. The directions are elementary – roast 20 minutes with breast side up, 20 minutes breast side down, and finish roasting 20 minutes up.

The oven sizzles with anticipation, and the chicken breast acquires a lustrous, golden hue. That hot, buttery aroma – so beloved by Julia and now dressed with sprightly herbs – permeates my kitchen.

My carving skills have endured the years and the tender, luscious meat peels from the frame. I French the bone and arrange several pieces on the plate, topped by an amber reduction prepared from pan drippings deglazed with white wine and chicken stock.

Make no bones about it. Accompanied with a glass of white Bordeaux, the roast chicken is a meal of supreme comfort and elegance.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Lemon-Lime Soda Pop Cake from 1965

She hurries through the back kitchen door at 5:55 p.m. and hangs her coat and handbag over the hook by the entryway. She slips off her black pumps and slides her sore feet into a pair of pink terrycloth slippers sitting by the doormat. It has been a long day. It is inventory season at Gimbels Department Store and She and her colleagues have all been working extra hours.

Moving through the kitchen like a controlled tornado, She turns on the oven and grabs a pan of frozen lasagna from the freezer. She hasn’t had time recently to organize the kitchen and it upsets Her. She’s thought about asking Him if they can hire a woman from the neighborhood to do some light cleaning, but She’s not sure how He’ll react. The discussion is long overdue and the kitchen linoleum is developing an unsightly waxy yellow build-up.

She turns the knob on the radio and the voices of announcers Lou Adler and Kenneth Banghart, hosts of the program “Up to the Minute,” are describing the events of the day. She is only partially cognizant of the story – something about President Johnson increasing the number of troops in Vietnam. The staccato news report is somewhat distracting as She tries to think through Her dinner plan.

It is His birthday. At exactly 6:25 p.m., He will walk through the door, shed his suit jacket and pull on His tan cardigan sweater. She is determined to be ready with a celebratory dinner and a special birthday cake.

They have already made plans to celebrate by taking the children to the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows on Saturday. He has seen pictures of the Unisphere and wants to get a closer look. She wants to see Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican Pavilion. Tonight, though, He has only asked for a nice family dinner and a quiet evening at home.

She can barely remember the last time She baked something from scratch. She’d baked all the time when they were first married. However, these days there was always so much to do. But She’d promised herself that tonight she would bake her mother’s special lemon pound cake. Next to Her German Chocolate Cake, it is His favorite.

She pulls the opened bag of Gold Medal Flour from the cabinet, and quickly removes several eggs and sticks of butter from the refrigerator. She has tacked her mother’s handwritten recipe to the cork bulletin board by the telephone on the wall. She glances at the items on the counter and checks the ingredient list on the recipe. She looks again. Where are the lemons?

“You can’t make lemon cake without lemons,” She says out loud. She crouches in front of the Frigidaire and pulls out the produce drawer. “Lettuce, apples, celery …where on Earth are the lemons?”

She glances at the clock. There’s no time to make a run to Bohacks. She’s got to get the cake in the oven.

Vexed, she leans against the counter. There is nothing else in the house, and She can’t deprive Him of cake on his birthday. This would be the moment when that blonde actress on TV would twitch her nose and magically conjure up a solution.

She closes her eyes and wiggles her nose.

She opens her eyes.

No lemons have appeared out of thin air, but She has an idea. She opens the Frigidaire and removes a bottle of 7 UP from the door, Her favorite lemon soda pop.

“It will have to do,” She says with resolve. Within minutes, She has her Sunbeam electric beaters in hand and is watching with pleasure as the frothy beverage folds into the batter.

Heloise would be proud,” She murmurs, as she slides the cake pan into the oven.

The Story Behind the Story:

For a quick, back-of-the-box recipe, the Lemon-Lime Soda Pop Cake proved a bit challenging for your happy-go-lucky baker. These Retro Cakes can tend to be a bit rascally. Widely known as the 7 UP Cake, this recipe is one of a classically-suburban series of soda pop cakes that were popular throughout the 1950s and 1960s. According to Jane and Michael Stern’s book “Square Meals,” a bubbly baker can find historic recipes for Pepsi Cola Cake, Fresca Cake and Coca-Cola Cake. During the 20th Century, enterprising homemakers got a kick out of pop as a culinary ingredient. They glazed hams and spiked Jello Fruit Salad with Coca-Cola and basted duckling with Vernors Ginger Ale.

It is difficult to find an exact chronology for the advent of the 7 UP Cake, although some recipes note that the only leavening necessary was the soda, so perhaps it was considered a culinary marvel. The bubbles gave the cake its lift. There are other clues that suggest that soda pop cookery was a Southern phenomenon, and in fact, many soft drinks were invented in the South. Perhaps a food historian, more skilled than I, can confirm the actual origin of the recipe.

My first attempt was an abysmal failure. I used a 12-cup glass Bundt pan, and a scratch recipe from America’s Test Kitchen similar to this that uses a hefty amount of butter, shortening and granulated sugar. The cake should have had a rigorous structure, but the seemly-perfectly browned cake collapsed into a mess of molten batter when I turned it out of the pan. The crust had browned nicely, but after more than an hour in the oven, the center hadn’t baked at all. So much for recipes thoroughly tested by kitchen professionals. I suspect the glass Bundt pan conducts heat very differently, baking from the outside in, and the recently-reformulated 7 UP may not have offered the same buoyant effect that the original formula delivered.

In my second attempt, I used a traditional aluminum Bundt pan, Sprite, and … gasp … a box of Lemon Jello and a box of white cake mix as directed in this recipe. Please don’t vote me out of the food blogosphere. The use of a box mix is shocking, I know, but rumor has it that the original 7 UP Cake recipe, published in newspapers around 1950, was actually made with a cake mix. The made-from-scratch recipe, used by the fictional home baker in our story, started to pop up … um … appear during the 1960s. My short cut would be deemed historically accurate in any court of culinary law, and it's the kind of cake I grew up on.

In my case, made-from-scratch was not necessarily better, but the quick version has a light, tart, effervescent taste and gave my nose a pleasant tickle.

©2008 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved