23 April 2011

They are good

It wasn’t that long ago that the egg, a symbol of the Resurrection and such, was devilishly criticized. The line of argument was: the egg is so full of cholesterol, so full of rubbish. Just eat it and away you’ll pass, or something like that. Did the early Christians think about how unhealthy the egg is before adapting it as a token of Easter, prompting the billions of Easter-celebrating souls of every past and place into the egg blowout? Such idiots, those first Christians!

As a person who is very capable of going on the egg binge at and around festive Easter table – would you be that strong to not be tempted by an egg with stars brush-stroked all over it , sitting in the company of its brethren in an ornamental bowl seen from every corner of your studio apartment, the egg that’s eager to be cracked open, cleared from that prettied-up shell, dipped, starting from the top, into a mix of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and bitten into its glossy white and plump jiggly yolk? -- I’m chuffed to know that eggs will not quite kill me. Research shows that eggs are not as bad as they were thought to be. They are good. They are nutrient-rich. They are just angelic.

Egg whites are angelic, that is. Egg yolks be damned!

It’s not my intention to talk about the white-yolk split. Probably food scientists are right, and we should head their warnings and advice. Or maybe food scientists are misguided, and instead it’s best to listen to our bodies that know by default what we need and what we don’t. Personally, I’m for the golden-mean-approach to life in general and food in particular, except once-a-year celebrations such as Easter, Christmas, and my birthday, the bright days that, in my humble opinion, are meant to be observed by treating myself generously to foods I like, considering the season. (The list of those is extensive and thus shall go unreported on in this post.)

Anyway, it’s Easter, “air time” for whole good happy-chicken eggs and the usual Easter activities: the egg-decorating, the egg-hunting (optional), the egg-giving, and the egg-eating. This year I decided that I should somewhat diversify the latter and make something sweet with the egg at center stage. I figured out I should make meringues (egg whites – here we go!), known as early as in the seventeenth century under the names “Pets” or “white bisket bread”.

The other day I made this coffee cream. It was so ethereal and light (that is, as light as cream goes). And it knocked me off my feet and blew my mind away. I was supposed to use the coffee cream for an eponymous cake, but I couldn’t help sending spoonful by spoonful of it in my mouth from where it sneaked into my heart and is there to stay. And so the idea for meringues filled with coffee cream for Easter was sketched and off I went to try it out. After a fair amount of experimentation and testing, what emerged were pale beige, delicate, brittle, crunchy, with-a-slight-chew meringues filled with elegant fluffy coffee whipped cream. Eaten over a sink with one hand capped below your mouth to catch the crumbs, or on a plate with a fork to be good-mannered, it’s one word: delicious!

Meringue! What an untraditional thing to serve at Easter!, I hear my grandmothers say. It is a revered tradition in Russia to make kulich, cylindrical dome-shaped sweet yeasty bread, a symbol of Orthodox Easter.

As a kid, I would always stop by one of my grandmothers’ to watch her making kulich two or three days before the festive celebrations. I was fascinated by the mystery behind it. You can’t be in a bad mood to make it, and if you are, be prepared to see kulich dense and flat as a pancake when out from the oven. You can’t talk loudly next to where ­kulich is resting before baking, otherwise it will not rise. And once ­kulich is baked, you should place it, still in a tin, on a billowy pillow and cover with a clean ironed cotton sheet to let the holy bread cool off before unmolding it. So much revere, so much wonder! Only grandmothers can make kulich, I thought. They know so much, they are kind and patient and caring, and they like to speak in low voice.

I respect the traditions. I admire them. But I also want to learn the new and unorthodox for me, to find what speaks to me, to see where, in the end, I can and want to belong – and if I should avoid eating egg yolks.

Happy Easter, Happy Passover, Reader!

Coffee Cream Meringues

To me, these are so good just on its own.

For the meringues:
Adapted from Baking Illustrated
4 egg whites, at room temperature
185 gr (6.5 oz) granulated sugar
3 gr (0.1 oz) lemon juice

1. Pre-heat the oven to 100 C (212 F) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. (Note: meringues baked at the given temperature will take on pale silky beige and that's fine; it matches well the subtle white-beige color of the coffee cream.)

2. In a clean bowl, combine the egg whites with the lemon juice and beat at medium-low until foamy, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the egg whites are white, voluminous and, as Baking Illustrated aptly describes, the consistency of shaving cream, about 90 seconds. In a gentle stream, add half of the sugar and beat, at high speed, until stiff peaks form, about 2-3 minutes.

3. Dial the speed down to the lowest, sprinkle in the other half of the sugar. Mix just until incorporated.

4. Using a dry soupspoon, immediately place nine heaping dollops of meringue, spacing them evenly, on the prepared baking sheet.

5. Bake for 1.5 hours or until the meringues look smooth, firm, dry, and shiny from the outside. Do not open the oven while baking; it will lead to the loss of heat and cause meringues to sink. Switch the oven off and leave the meringues in for another couple of hours to completely cool down.

6. Placed (once cool!) in an airtight container, the meringues will keep for up to two weeks, until ready to use.

For the coffee cream:
(inspired by Pierre Hermé via Dorie Greenspan)
200 gr (7 oz ) chilled heavy cream
10 gr (0.3 oz) granulated sugar
15 gr (0.5 oz) very strong freshly brewed coffee, cooled off

1. Stir the sugar and the coffee in the cream and beat until stiff peaks form. Do not overbeat, otherwise the cream will split.

2. Keep refrigerated and use within the next 24 hours. Before using, give it a gentle stir.

To assemble:

1. With a sharp serrated knife, cut each meringue in half lengthwise. Seeing how brittle meringues are, it is probably the trickiest part of the whole business. Here is how you do it: supporting a meringue shell in one hand without applying any force or pressure, start slowly cutting into it until its hollow top gives, usually a few moves with a knife are enough. Carefully remove the top (it’s ok if it shatters slightly, it’s easy to patch the bits together; the cream will hold the pieces just right), fill the bottom with a spoonful of the coffee cream (use a desert spoon), and place the top back. Repeat with the remaining meringues. Once assembled, the meringues should be served within the next 10-15 mins to prevent them from becoming soggy and soft.

9 April 2011

This is my plan

I’ve been wondering a lot why I’ve been tight on money these days. Would it be the purchase of a silk bed linen set or a designer coat that quadrupled my life costs recently? Surely it can’t be that, are you kidding me? It must be an emergent visit to a dentist and a planned consultation with an immigration lawyer last month that dehydrated this spender’s purse. It’s saddening for me to see my porte-monnaie cash-deprived. I’m wishing my wallet a speedy recovery.

Before that occurs, I’m going to cold-heartedly scrutinize my expenses. They are reckless, I find. Reckless because how else can one call the purchase of an unneeded, but not unwanted, kilo of 65% Valrhona chocolate for 13 euro (about 16 US dollars)? Half-witted expenses, trying to befriend high-price tags, getting so wrapped up in the extraneous.

It’s time I intervene.

Since food shopping is by far the most frequent one I do, I’ll eye where my cash goes at the market. This is my plan. We all know about the money-saving properties of legumes (peas, lentils, beans), these cheap standard-bearers of fine nutrition (fibre! antioxidants! folate! iron!), also known as “the poor man’s meat”? Indeed! So I’ve decided that for now there is no better chum for my buck than a good old legume!

If you commit any pieces that appear here to memory, you might remember my unconditional appreciation of the legume chickpea. That hasn’t changed, I swear. But it dawned on me lately that to be largely eating chickpeas is very much like wearing the same pair of beloved shoes every day while your shoe rack overflows with no lesser likeable footwear. Boring. Hence no chickpeas now.

The legume of my latter days is lens culinaris -- the lentil. No particular plan behind the choice. I simply came across the recipe for the Lebanese garlicky lentil salad in an old issue of Saveur; liked its effortlessness; and being amused by the amount of garlic called for -- twelve cloves! -- gave it a try. I only had to: 1) boil up some lentils; 2), sauté the garlic and, along with cumin, lemon juice and some fresh herb, add it to the cooked legumes. Wonder if twelve garlic cloves is a big lot? Yes, it is monstrous. But if the quantity of garlic is halved, the dish is just right: full-bodied earthy lentil matter filliped by tongue-tickling garlic and lemon and quietly supported by assertive cumin. Fresh parsley on top (Saveur suggests parsley and mint). No frills. All is clear and basic. Good for the body as well as for the wallet.

Reportedly, there is a tradition in Italy to eat lentils on New Year’s Eve as a token for a bigger income in the year to come, what with the lentils’ coin-reminiscent shape. I’m going to stick to the practice even though I’m not Italian and it’s currently nowhere near New Year’s Eve.

Salata Adas (Lebanese Garlicky Lentil Salad)

Adapted from Saveur, number 132, October 2010

Serves 2 as a main course, or 4 as a side, or 6 if used in wraps

I realize the salad is called garlicky for a reason, but I would also like to remember there are lentils in it too, which is not easy because of those twelve garlic cloves. The amount of lentils unchanged, the quantities of the rest of the components were adjusted to my liking. For example, I cut down on the olive oil too: I like my lentil/bean salads to be pleasantly moisturized by -- not swim in -- oil. Anyhow, feel free to play with the measurements: a dish that simple is good material for tweaking.

Saveur recommends to serve the salad with grilled sausages or roasted lamb. I have tried with neither. My way to devour the thing in question is to envelop it in a tortilla wrap thinly smeared with hummus in the middle. Anthony observes that that makes the salad a perfect work lunch: no need to tote a Tupperware® container -- a tortilla wrap keeps the lentils orderly in place.

1 cup green lentils (e.g. de Puy), picked over and rinsed

3-4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

1/2 tsp ground cumin

salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

a generous handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1. In a medium pot, bring lentils and 3 cups water to a boil. (Choose lentils that hold their shape after cooking, the intact look of the lentils in the salad is no secondary fact to the appeal of the dish). Lower the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender, but not mushy, about 20-25 mins. Drain and set aside.

2. In a small skillet, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil. Throw in the garlic and sauté until fragrant, 2-3 mins. Do not let the garlic brown. (The original recipe has you do that for 7-8 mins. Isn’t it a bit too much? Of what use is the garlic teetering on the edge of a burn?) Remove from heat and whisk in the lemon juice, the cumin and the remaining 1 Tbsp olive oil. Pour over the lentils.

3. Add the parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with more olive oil and lemon juice before serving, if needed.