Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Women In Black

To be perfectly honest, the only time I have ever "reviewed" a book was for a 17th Century Poetry class I once took in graduate school. While the book was actually very good, and the review was a gorgeous piece of writing, I will not bore you to death with its like.

Instead, my reviews nowadays typically go like this: pick up the phone and call my mom; tell her about the book I've just read and demand that she buy it; if she does not already have said book, she will run to the computer and we will chit-chat about a few other things — namely her grand-daughter or the state of their on-going remodel; then I will tell her, 'no, really, you should read this book, it is very good.' And she'll say something like, 'Honey, I ordered it 10 minutes ago. Keep up!'

I had never even heard of Madeleine St John, let alone The Women in Black, until a few months ago. And as much as I may pick my brains now — I cannot tell you how it came under my radar. Anyway, that is neither here not there. The point is that the book is marvelous.

The Women in Black takes place in the 1950s in Sydney, Australia. It follows four women who work at Goode's department store — three in Ladies Cocktail Frocks, and one in Model Gowns. It takes place during the busy Christmas season, which is actually summertime, as I kept having to remind myself. The title refers to the black dresses that make up the trademark uniform that the ladies must wear while at work.

Fay is single and wishes very much to be married. Patty is married to a right-old-bore and cannot seem to get pregnant. Lisa just graduated from high-school, and would like nothing more than to go to college and become a poet. Magda is the Continental who is glamorous, happily married, and dreaming of opening her own up-scale boutique.

The book was actually published in 1993, but has such a strong 1950s feel to it that it seems utterly authentic. Almost vintage, you could say. It is beautifully written — very clear and very elegant — and it has a certain charm about it. After all, how often do we hear the term 'frock' nowadays? However, don't think it is an old-fashioned commentary on women's lives in the 1950s. Instead look at it like a tube of red lipstick — very much a classic, yet terribly modern.

Anyway, I loved The Women in Black — and I would let you borrow my copy, but I fear I will never see it again.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Raspberries, Part I — Pinot Noir Raspberry Sorbet

It was a matter of a few days to work through the nearly ten pounds of raspberries that I had tucked away in the fridge. Needless to say, it was a very busy time in the kitchen.

In between loading and unloading the dishwasher, hand washing the "delicates", scrubbing out the oven for 45 minutes after a bit of a mishap, wiping down the counters (again and again), making more room in both the refrigerator and the freezer — I managed to make a few things that had raspberries in them. Pinot Noir Raspberry Sorbet; Brown Sugar, Almond, & Raspberry Coffee Cake; Peak of Summer Berry Crisp; Mascarpone & Raspberry Pancakes; and Freezer Jam. Well done, if I do say so myself!

It was the sorbet though that was the most pleasant surprise. It was divine. We had it an hour or so before dinner — couldn't do it after because we had a delicious crisp already on the menu... It was light, and sweet, and refreshing, and almost creamy. Emilia kept shouting "Mo!" after each taste, meaning "more, please!", in case you needed a translation. And don't worry — even though it calls for wine, the alcohol cooks out long before it goes into the ice-cream maker. So I was not being a bad mom by giving our 16-month-old Pinot Noir Raspberry Sorbet, thank you very much.

The recipe came from Tom Douglas's Seattle Kitchen, a cookbook that I hate to say I don't use often enough. However, my now two favorite raspberry recipes are in it — this sorbet and the crisp. The recipe yielded enough that I thought about bringing some over to our lovely neighbors, but I am ashamed to say that I have yet to do it.

2 pints fresh raspberries
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup Oregon Pinot Noir (He recommends Adelsheim. However, I went to QFC and bought a not-so-fancy bottle for less than $10.00.)
2 cups water

Combine the berries, sugar, wine, and water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and with a rubber spatula, force the mixture through a sieve. Chill the mixture completely, then freeze in an ice cream machine using the manufacturer's directions. Transfer to a container, cover, and freeze for several hours or overnight until form. The wine flavor begins to fade after a few days. (Recipe from Seattle Kitchen by Tom Douglas, Harper Collins, 2001.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Feast Of St. Mary Magdalene

There is something that seems very fussy about madeleines. I'm not sure why this is exactly, because they are so easy to make. Maybe it has to do with the fact that they require a special pan. Or maybe it is their scallop shape that makes them seem so fancy. Whatever the reason, whenever I tell anyone that I've made madeleines, I'm guaranteed some sort of "La Di Da" response. And that's alright — because they are special.

Madeleines have always belonged to Marcel Proust, and it seems almost cliché to associate him with them now. But we cannot get away from it. In his Remembrances of Things Past (most recently translated as In Search of Lost Time) he claimed that simply dunking his madeleine into his tea (or was it coffee?) flooded him with memories of his childhood. Now, it should be stated that I have not actually read this collection of Proust's works. However, I do own two copies of Swann's Way and have always felt that it is a personal flaw — a mark against my character, if you will — that I have not read them. All in due time, I suppose. But really, I'd rather not talk about it.

As it turns out, madeleines have actually been around long before Proust and his torturously long novels. But their history, while a little on the murky side, is certainly French. It is assumed that madeleines originated in the south of France — Commercy, to be exact. But why that particular location is still a bit of a mystery. Most likely it had something to do with the fact that there was a convent in Commercy that was dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene. And most likely, baking (and selling) these little tea cakes at the convent helped financially. It is tradition in France that Mary Magdalene traveled there after the death and resurrection of Christ, converting all the people to Christianity along the way, and then retiring to a lovely hillside for the remainder of her life. But really, who knows?

At any rate, this is where our fussy little madeleines received their namesake — Madeleine being the French form of Magdalene. (Incidentally, Magdalene is also our daughter's middle name.)

Mary Magdalene is whom Christ first appeared to after His resurrection. And it was Mary Magdalene, along with Mary the Mother of Jesus and St. John, who was at the foot of the cross when Christ died — all others abandoning Him. And, like all of us, Mary Magdalene was a sinner. It is not clear what her sins were exactly — only that Christ cast out seven demons from her. It seems to be tradition that she was a prostitute, but there is absolutely no basis for this claim. (And in case you were wondering, the Catholic Church has no official stance on the matter.) What is clear, however, is that Mary Magdalene was a faithful disciple of Christ, and she knew him to be her saviour. And the fact that she was a sinner makes her relationship with God all the more beautiful.

I have used several recipes for madeleines over the years, but the one I always seem to reach for comes from The Paris Cookbook, by Patricia Wells. She uses the miniature pan — whereas I use both the miniature and the traditional, and they both work just fine. Remember to not use soap when washing the pans afterward. Just use hot water and a stiff brush. Otherwise you won't get a nicely seasoned pan.

2 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
grated zest of 1 lemon
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Butter the madeleine tins and place them in the freezer.

Place the eggs and the sugar in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk. Beat at high speed until thick and lemon-colored, 2-3 minutes. By hand, stir in the zest. Stir in the flour and sea salt. Stir in the butter. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 375°

Remove tins from freezer. Spoon the batter into the prepared molds, filling nearly to the top. Tap gently against a flat surface to evenly distribute the batter. Place in the center of the oven and bake until golden, 10-12 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool. Remove from tins as soon as they are cool. Best eaten immediately. They may, however, be stored for several days in an airtight container. (Recipe from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells, Harper Collins Publishers, 2001.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Raspberry Picking

Almost every summer I go raspberry picking with my sister and her kids. We all dutifully stand under the blazing hot sun (it was almost 90° today) and fill our containers — buckets with a rope for the little kids and cardboard flats in some sort of wooden-basket-contraption for the others. You have to squat down, place your face a few inches from the bushes, and get to picking. It is a glorious time — but only get the good berries!

You aren't meant to put any pressure on the berry as you pull it off the bush — it should just slide off into your hand. If you have to tug at all, then just leave it alone. It isn't ready yet. And before you sample any — because you know you will — you may want to blow on them before popping them into your mouth. There are bugs.

I look forward to doing this every summer — even though we missed last year because it was a ridiculously cold summer and, therefore, a miserable (and short) raspberry season. However, there is something to be said for eating things when they are truly in season and truly local. Our plan usually consists of eating so many that we are sick to death of them by the end of the summer. That way we don't mind waiting until next year for more. That's the idea anyway...

Typically we make jam. And typically we do it at my sister's house. The difference this year is that Kari has a three-month-old baby (now completing the jazz band), and I've got Miss Milia. So instead we have decided to stay at home and fend for ourselves. Kari is trying to convince me to make freezer jam because it is supposedly rather simple. We'll see. I do intend to make a few crisps — I am a big fan of Tom Douglas's Peak of Berry Summer Crisp from his Seattle Kitchen cookbook. But I also want to try a raspberry & nectarine crisp. Other than that, I'm still not sure.

Seems that in years past we've eaten so many of them right out of the flat on top of vanilla yogurt in the morning. And since it is 90° degrees with no air conditioning, that doesn't sound half bad right now. Still thinking though...

(Picture taken by Grace Miller.)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Uppity Tea

I am an ardent tea drinker. Sure there was a time in my early twenties when I adored coffee. However, I noticed over time that, being a slightly — shall we say — high-stress person, coffee became almost too much for me.**

When I was younger I remember my mom making cup after cup of Lipton. She would make it rather strong with about as much sugar as she could scoop, in good conscience, into her cup. I have never been one to put either sugar or milk into my tea (or my coffee, for that matter), which may be part of the reason I have become so very particular about my tea. When you can really taste it, it makes a difference.

When we were in London a handful of years ago, my husband and I wandered into a Sainsbury's to buy a few needed provisions for our hotel room. Other than being astonished by how much cheaper Evian water is in the UK than in the states, I was mesmerized by the tea. There were so many more to choose from — reaching far beyond the Lipton, Twinings, and Celestial Seasonings to which I had become accustomed. I bought a box of London Cuppa, Taylors of Harrogate, as well as Sainsbury's own brand — all derivations of the strong British cup of tea I had sought. (I also got a few delicious [and heavy] jars of marmalade for my suitcase. Who even knew course-cut was an option??)

Nowadays I order my British teas on-line — most recently from, which is a very good sight, and I no longer buy my erst-while favorite London Cuppa — instead I opt for Yorkshire Gold, Brodies 'Famous Edinburgh', and Bewley's. Bewley's makes an excellent afternoon tea. It is strong — but clean and crisp — and it is beautiful to look at once brewed.

Most recently I nearly broke the bank by ordering some very fancy tea from Dean & Deluca. It is called Mariage Frères and comes from France, naturally. I got Marco Polo and French Breakfast Tea. The Marco Polo would be marvelous if I didn't so dislike fruit in my tea. (Honestly, they made no reference to blueberries in their description on the website!) But for the blueberry aromas it is a lovely tea — just not my thing. The French Breakfast Tea, on the other hand, is the one after my own heart. However, I do not have it for breakfast because it is just not strong enough. In the morning I need my strong British teas (in rather large mugs, thank you very much!) to kick me in the pants. Whereas the Mariage Frères is perfect for the afternoon — in a much smaller (and proper-sized) tea cup.

Today my mom does not drink much Lipton because I have converted her to my Fancy-Pants-Tea ways. She was buying London Cuppa (from T.J. Maxx of all places!) but has discovered that she prefers PG Tips — a little too strong and bitter for my liking. However, it should be said that Lipton still makes the best bag. After all, they were rather revolutionary with their 'Flo-Thru' technology. None of the other tea companies seem to do this — and I'm guessing it is because it doesn't look as pretty as a little uppity muslin ball of tea.
**My husband tells me that this sentence is a grammatical disaster and just pulled out Strunk & White to point out my many offences. He is clearly a coffee drinker and does not get Uppity Tea. I apologize in advance for my unsightly infractions.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Aunt Martha's Cookies — Revisited

To anyone not living under my Aunt Martha's roof (excluding her own children, of course) these have always been called Aunt Martha's Cookies. To Martha, and anyone that does happen to live under her roof (not to mention her own children), they are called Sarah's Cookies.

When we were younger these cookies were dreamt about, drooled over, pined for, fought over, and really thought to be a reminder that life is, in fact, good. When we would visit our cousins at their old farmhouse near St. Louis, Aunt Martha would give us a big shoebox full of these cookies for the long car ride home. And to be perfectly honest — they were gone all too soon.

Over the years I (along with the rest of our very large family and anyone else who requested the recipe) tried to recreate them to no avail. They were always alright — but just not the same. I have subsequently tried many other recipes but always come back to this one. I think it is a matter of pride — as a true Edgren — to perfect this cookie! And alas, 20 years later, I think I may have done it. Maybe.

The key seems to lie in beating the hell out of the butter. Add the brown sugar (always dark), continuing to beat hell out of it, then the granulated sugar — beating hell all the while. The process should take several minutes. That being said, when it comes time to add the flour just give it a quick spin in the mixer (using the paddle attachment, by the way). In fact, I usually keep the batter a little on the white side when I add the chocolate chips so as not to over mix.

At this point Aunt Martha puts them in the oven. As for me, I cover the dough and put it in the fridge for 48 hours — a tip I recently learned from the lovely Clotilde. I cannot even explain what it does exactly other than make the cookies darker and more rustic looking. I suspect it has something to do with the brown sugar and the whole concept of the flavors "marrying". But really, I ain't no chemist.

Pull the dough out of the fridge at least an hour before you bake them, use your ice cream scoop to get the right size, and just before they go into the oven put a little sea-salt (I've also been known to use kosher to the same effect) on top of each. This is what makes the cookie truly divine — that little taste of salt with sweet. Not to worry though, this is the final deviation from Aunt Martha's cookie...

Once they have cooled enough you can happily put them in a shoebox and drive cross-country. Or you can give one to your daughter (with an enormous bib, or simply stripped to her diaper) once she wakes up from her nap. As for me, I prefer them cold after they've been out of the oven for a few hours, but I realize this is terribly un-American of me. My sister, on the other hand, takes 2 cookies and puts a big scoop of vanilla ice cream in between them — which may explain why she always seems to have so many people over at her house.

1 lb soft butter
1 lb dark brown sugar
2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp salt
2 tsp soda
4 tsp vanilla
6 cups flour
24 oz chocolate chips
sea-salt for the tops

350° for 10-12 minutes
(I typically cut the recipe in half.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Le Quatre-Heures

Last night I was thumbing through Clotilde Dusoulier's lovely book Chocolate & Zucchini looking for cherry recipes when I came across her entry on Le Goûter. This is what she says:

Le goûter is French for an afternoon snack, the one that tides you over
from lunch until dinner. Children are the most observant of this custom
and can often be seen walking home from school nibbling a croissant or a
brioche, with an optional stick of chocolate thrust into it. Another name
for le goûter is le quatre-heures (four o'clock), which refers
to the time at which kids are traditionally let out of class.

Four o'clock is also the time of day for Afternoon Tea in England, a practice of which I am particularly fond. And as silly as it may sound, I usually try to do some sort of "tea" every day round about this time.

And last but not least, this is the time of day when my little Emilia is down for her nap — or thereabouts anyway — freeing me up briefly to think about cooking (after all, what is for dinner?); books (we must have down time and expand our minds); and any other little thing that strikes my fancy (namely all of the old-fashioned feminine things that make me tick).

And so, without further ado, I've just created a blog — and this is the name of it for now. My husband thinks it is weird and hard to spell, and maybe he's right. As for me, I find it suits me rather nicely.