Thursday, July 29, 2010

Coco Chanel Toes

'Your Coco Chanel is all shit!', Emilia said.

'Excuse me, but what did you just say??'  (Imagine mama's and dada's wide eyes and jaws dropping to the floor.)
'I said,' all exasperated, 'Your Coco Chanel is all chipped!  Maybe we should paint our toenails!' 

Now, I know what you're thinking.  'What a posh little two year old you have!  Coco Chanel?  Well, I never!'  My thoughts exactly...  But it's true.  You ask Emilia what color her toenails are and she'll tell you Coco Chanel.  (They are actually pink, but she prefers to call them Coco Chanel.)

And there we were, last week at the Chanel counter in Nordstrom perusing the latest nail polishes on display.  While there, I happened to sit Emilia on one of those tall make-up chairs they have so I could take a closer look at something or other.  (She loves this because it means she gets to try on some lipstick.)  Anyway, I turned around two seconds later to find her precariously balancing a glass bottle of something fancy in her little hand, while also managing to put an enormous cotton swap right up her nose.  See what I mean?  Posh.

And speaking of posh, you should see the most gorgeous color we are now sporting on our toes.  I did let Emilia pick it out, deciding I would veto any awful choice she made, but there was no need.  She picked out exactly the color I happened to be eyeing myself: bright, beautiful red.  It's called Dragon.  And it is truly the most beautiful red I've ever seen in a red polish.  Even Michael pointed out how pretty it is.  (So much better than I'm Not Really a Waitress by OPI or any of the Butter London ones, if you must know.)  However, we also decided to grab the last bottle of Django on our way out, because I'm a sucker for good names.  It's a lovely pearly soft pink, but, sadly discontinued (on account of the fact that it is sooo last season.)

This means we are now stocked up on Coco Chanel polishes, so I suppose we've no excuse to go around with our toenails looking 'all shit.'  Because lets face it, that's the opposite of posh -- cotton swabs up your nose or not.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Magdalenas — Spanish Tea Cakes

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  And rather than do Madeleines again, Emilia and I decided to make Magdalenas.  Magdalenas are essentially the Spanish version of the Madeleine, and they are marvelous with a cup of tea.  Or a cup of coffee, if you prefer.  Whatever suits your fancy, really.  I think when Emilia wakes up from her nap, she will have hers with a bit of Perrier.  Oh, and some whipped cream and berries — as she will likely feel jipped that her 'tuptate' does not have any frosting on it. 

Before Emilia was born, Michael and I took a trip to Spain.  (I can safely say that Spain is my most favorite place in the world. Our old cabin in California would likely be my second.  Haworth, England, my third.  Anyway, I digress...)  While in Sevilla we hopped into this marvelous café/bakery/coffee shop every morning for our breakfast and for many of our late afternoon snacks, called Horno de San Buenaventura.  The café was always jam-packed, and you would have to move wicked-fast if you wanted a seat — either at the bar (our preference) or at a small table.  You could order café con leche any time of day along with whatever else floated your boat — Michael was rather taken with the enormous Zumex machine they had that squeezed fresh orange juice for you on the spot.  As for me, I was astounded that the same two men manned the enormous espresso machine for literally about fifteen hours a day.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Falling Angels and a Rant, If you Please

If you've been paying attention at all, you will have noticed that we are rather fond of Mary Poppins in this household.  And why shouldn't we be?  The movie is marvelous and so well-done.  And the music is perfect, albeit a bit annoying seven or eight times in a row while driving in the car.  But that is just because our daughter happens to worship Mary Poppins so much.  Emilia likes to sit in front of the telly with her hat and gloves on, a teeny-tiny plastic umbrella next to her, and put on her 'make-up' with Mary Poppins.  (You know that scene in the beginning where Mary Poppins touches up her make-up while sitting on a cloud?)  Anyway, her current favorite song is Step In Time, but for the longest time she absolutely adored Sister Suffragette.  (If you don't believe me, click here.)

Personally, I find Mary Poppins to be rather educational -- you can learn an awful lot about British history just by singing along.  One of these 'things' in particular is the Women's Suffrage Movement.  Laugh as much as you'd like, but I'm dead serious.  Its all there: ... '1910, King Edward's on the throne, it's the age of men...  though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they're rather stupid... Take heart for Mrs. Pankhurst's been clapped in irons again!'  See what I mean?  It's chock-full of information: the year it happened, who was on the throne, political tension between the sexes, and a shout-out to a major player within the movement: Emmeline Pankhurst.  It even acknowledges the struggles between husbands and wives during this time: 'You know how the cause infuriates Mr. Banks!'  In a truly spectacular way, it captures everything -- down to the colors worn by the suffragettes.  And it is so well done.

(Quick disclaimer: If you happen to be one of my family, you may want to avert your eyes now.  Goodness knows you're all sick to death of hearing me talk about this.)

A few days ago I finished reading Tracy Chevalier's book Falling Angels.  This book tells the story of a few women and their daughters (with a few other voices sprinkled throughout) during the Women's Suffrage Movement in England.  It is very readable (I finished it in two or three days), and this is what I enjoy about Chevalier's books.  They always put you in a historical period and tell you about something you've always wished to know more about.  (I loved Burning Bright, The Lady and the Unicorn and Girl with a Pearl Earring.)  That being said, I have no patience when an author's agenda eclipses the story they are trying to tell.  The story ends up losing something.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Strawberries Part 4 — (Not So) Perfect Génoise and French Strawberry Cake

Yes, well, there is no need to be rude about it.  I'm well aware of the fact that my French Strawberry Cake looks far from elegant (as the recipe promises), and just plain wonky — excuse me, I mean rustic.  This was even my second attempt, if you can believe it.  As we sat to the table eating the first attempt, Michael says to me, 'what kind of crust is this?'  Of course I completely let loose and told him off.  'There is no crust!  It just cake, OK!  A very difficult and rather testy cake, in case you were wondering, not that you were.  And if you think you're so smart then make the damned thing yourself!  Hmpf!'  Or something like that anyway.  And if some of those words were left out of the actual exchange, then I can promise you that they were on the forefront of my thoughts.  I mean, really.  Crust?  For hell's sake.

Anyway, if you happen to find yourself thumbing through Baking With Julia, the ever so marvelous cookbook (and telly show) that Julia Child hosted once upon a time, then you will find yourself stumbling across the recipe for Génoise, or The Perfect Génoise, as it is called.  Apparently anybody who fancies themselves to know anything about cooking at all can whip up one of these little babies in no time.  And everyone then stands back to marvel at your most amazing and adept skill.  That being said, the recipe says something along the lines of this: 'this cake is wildly temperamental.   You must tread lightly and you will still completely fail.  People will probably even laugh at you for it.  So, bearing that in mind, you must make it at least five times in a row if you ever plan to master the concept.'  Well, I never!

The funny thing is that the cake is actually so easy to make.  The second time I made it I did not even pull out the cookbook because I remembered the whole thing. Yet there is still fear and intimidation; because, yes, it is easy — but it also requires a serious understanding of the technique.  And sadly, after all the work you put into it, if it is going to crumble and turn into a 'crust', that bit happens literally within the last thirty seconds of making it.  Drat, to say the least.  However, if it does turn disastrous, then you can always fall back on the divine, heavenly, beyond superb filling that goes in the cake — just sitting on top the crust, if you will.  Essentially you are meant to cut the cake into three, and then sandwich it with layers of macerated strawberries and cream.  It's superb.  In fact, the next time I make whipped cream for anything I am doing it in the manner of this cake — adding two tablespoons of sour cream.  The rest is a given: heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla extract.  After I made it the first time, Emilia and Governor stood in the kitchen cleaning the bowl for me — Emilia with the beaters and Governor with his little head lost somewhere inside the deep bowl.

And so, as my pièce de résistance, here is the last strawberry recipe I am giving to you.  In many ways it is my favorite.  The only problem with it (other than the sheer temperamental-ness of the cake) is that is does not store well in the fridge longer than a day or so.  (This is ironic as you are meant to put the cake in the fridge for at least an hour before you serve it.)  And having a rather small group to feed here, we cannot possibly eat that much cake (no matter how elegant/rustic it may be) in that short of time.  Particularly when you are already doing battle with jam, muffins, and ice cream — all of the strawberry nature.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Maeve Binchy and the Perfect Woman

A few nights ago I was standing in the kitchen cooking dinner, when Michael walks in and says, 'Now this is my vision of the perfect woman!'  I had to laugh because I realized the scene must have looked rather absurd.  I stood, stirring something in the pan, sipping a glass of champagne, and reading a book.  And, for once, I had abandoned my jeans or sweatpants**, and was wearing a Boden dress.  We had all been out jumping around on the trampoline about ten minutes before, but I had to go in and give dinner a good stir.  Besides, I was parched.  As for the book?  Well, oh my goodness, I could not put it down.  Four nights in a row, as Michael was sound asleep next to me, I read and read until after one in the morning.  (Maybe that has something to do with Emilia walking around the backyard earlier saying, in her newfound lazy/intellectual voice, 'I'm exhausted today...'  The things she picks up sometimes.  (And I mean what she said, not the lazy-intellectual way in which she said it, thank you very much.  I've literally no idea where she got that.)

Anyway, back to the issue at hand.  I've never read anything by Maeve Binchy before.  In fact, it never occurred to me that I should.  But I was on the phone with my mom a few months ago when she tells me of this book that she just got in the mail.  All it took was describing the cover.  'Honey, the red polka-dot dress and red shoes on the cover are so pretty.'  (I don't care what anyone says, when it comes to books, you should in fact judge them by their cover.)  I suppose I should also tell you that when I had been complaining of having a hard time getting into any books for the past few months (seriously, it was awful) she immediately suggested Binchy.  My mom is a smart lady because it worked like a charm.  From the moment I picked up Echoes  my grumpy despondency vanished.

Now what I would like to know is this:  Why on earth is Maeve Binchy not categorized as a Catholic author?  This book is positively swimming in it.  Is she not considered fancy enough or something?  Because if that is the case, then that is a load of bollocks.  I was amazed and mesmerized from beginning to end.  I know that people typically save the word 'sweeping' for Gone With the Wind (and rightly so), but the word kept coming into my head as I read Echoes.  It is so visual.  And the cast of characters is phenomenal as Binchy traces them over a ten year span.  Anyway, I just finished the book yesterday and I can not shake it from my head.  Ever since I picked it up the story has been ever-present in my mind. 

Last night as I laid in bed trying to fall asleep, the oddest thing about the book struck me.  (I will try not to give too much away.)  Most of the mothers in Echoes are not likely to sip champagne while simultaneously cooking dinner and reading a book.  Rather they are nutters — or extremely not nice — or dealing with a loose screw, or something along those lines.  Whereas the fathers are, for the most part, rather decent.  The only place where this is not the case is with Clare and David.  Oh, and with Emer and Kevin.  But like Clare and David, they did not begin as mothers and fathers in the book — they just became them over time.  (I am currently in the process of trying to forgive David.  I wonder how long it took Clare to forgive him?)  Anyway, I can't help but wonder why Binchy chose to do that.  Or was it even intentional? 

In the meantime,  I've placed another of Binchy's books in my basket on Amazon — something to do with lighting a penny candle.  Let's just see how long I can go before I click 'proceed to check-out' and am on my merry way  My guess is not long.

**Yes, sweatpants, alright?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Strawberries Part 3 — Strawberry Ice Cream

We are quickly running out of room in the freezer on account of this strawberry craze.  However, it would have been a very sorry thing indeed to leave out strawberry ice cream this year.  I love ice cream, always have.  However, strawberry ice cream has never been at the top of my list.  (I typically go more for the scoop of chocolate and the scoop of coconut or something.  You know how it is.)  But there is something very lovely about homemade strawberry ice cream in the summer.  Particularly if it turns out well. 

I've made strawberry ice cream several times over the years, and every now and then my eyes begin to roam to other cookbooks looking for a different one to try. There is no point though. This recipe from Nigella Lawson is the best one.  I've also tried the Williams-Sonoma one from their Ice Cream book, but it pales in comparison.  For starters, Nigella's recipe is basically a frozen custard, meaning it is loaded with heavy cream, whole milk, and an absurd amount of egg yolks.  Whereas the WS one has no egg yolks, less strawberries, and less flavor altogether. Also Nigella's recipe calls for a whole vanilla bean.  However, the vanilla flavor is never strong enough for me.  So I'm thinking that next time I will try vanilla paste in its stead.  We'll see how it turns out, but not till next summer.

Typically I store the ice cream in a plastic tub in the freezer.  But I tried something different this year — big glass canning jars.  I've gone a little nuts with trying to steer clear of plastics — particularly when you are heating or freezing the stuff, which is why I've gone the glass jar route.  However, if you happen to be into BPA, hormone disruptors, carcinogens, and all that good stuff, then by all means please use it.  Anyway, it hasn't been too difficult to scoop out of the jar.  But it does require a nice sitting on the counter for ten minutes before even attempting to scoop it.  This is supposedly a desirable thing anyway.  I remember reading that ice cream needs to breath the same way wine does before consuming.  Not only does it soften it up making it more palatable, but it also somehow enhances the flavor.  (This is what the Rosengarten Report said a few years ago anyway.)

And so, with (finally) soaring temperatures, we've had a few lovely nights of dinner on the deck in the backyard, with Emilia reminding us constantly throughout that she wants ice cream, 'after you finish your dinner!'  It has been so nice to sit out there, eating our ice cream and looking at how much the backyard has changed over the past while — trampoline, kiddie pool with a whale that blows water, and anything else that Emilia can slip out there when mama and dada are not looking. 

Summer has arrived.  Hopefully it will stick around for a bit.  

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Strawberries, Part 2 — Strawberry Muffins

I have made this recipe for strawberry muffins several times over the last few years, and it seems to be better than most others.  The only other muffin recipes to give Ina Garten a run for her money are by Ottolenghi.  But the Ottolenghi recipes can be so fiddly sometimes that I have to build up a bit of stamina before starting one.  They are always well worth it though.  Anyway, this recipe calls for a nice mix of berries — blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, and that is what I normally do.  (I also usually use frozen berries.)  However, with so many strawberries coming out of our ears, I skipped the medley and opted for just strawberries.  And they were divine — so divine, in fact, I've made them twice in a week.  And yes, a whole batch is currently residing in the freezer, because we'd have to be out our minds to eat that many muffins in such a short span of time.

When making these, do make sure to use paper muffin liners.  Every now and then I forget that berry recipes demand them.  If you simply brush the inside of your tins with butter, then half the muffin (the half with the berries making contact with the tin itself) will stay inside the tin and practically refuse to ever come out. Rather annoying — especially as your previously gorgeous muffins now look all mangled and disastrous.

Also, for some reason Ina Garten always calls for extra-large eggs.  She is the only cookbook author that calls for this and it drives me bananas.  Maybe I should start a petition or something against it.  Anyway, in the past I have taken an additional egg, whisked it, and then used only half, making me think that must be equivalent to two extra-large eggs.  But that is very wasteful, and besides organic eggs are nearly 5 bucks a dozen.  Now, if the batter looks somewhat dry, I'll simply add an extra splash of whole milk and say a prayer.

As I've already said, the muffins freeze beautifully.  Just pull them out the night before you want them, and let them come to temperature, fully wrapped, on the counter.  When you wake up, turn the oven on to 350°F, put the muffins on a lined baking sheet, and plonk them in the oven for 5-7 minutes to crisp up.  Nothing worse than a soggy muffin first thing in the morn.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Strawberries, Part 1 — Strawberry Picking and Freezer Jam

My hands have been grubby since Friday.  Try as I might, I cannot seem to get these strawberries out from underneath my nails.  I suppose that may have something to do with the fact that I have hulled hundreds of the little beauties.  And right as I finish up with one recipe, I have (quite laboriously) gone straight into another.  I'm not sure if I will mind not seeing another strawberry in our house for awhile.

So there we were, late Friday morning, standing out in a field of strawberries somewhere in Carnation, Washington, ready to get to work.  I had Emilia with me, and my sister had Elsa and Vigo -- the rest of her offspring was either globetrotting or just too busy to go and stand in the dirt and pick berries.  Anyway, everyone was astonished with the fetching ensemble I had managed to put together for the occasion: t-shirt, shorts, and rubber wellies.  (I still neglect to find the humor in my choice of footwear.  I wear my Le Chameau's nearly everywhere, and besides, I was counting on it being a lot muddier than it was, thank you very much.)

I believe we were less than twenty minutes in to our work when Emilia was officially fired from her job as berry picker. The girl picked four strawberries and then spent the rest of the time running around with Vigo, grabbing the wooden row-markers (that were not supposed to be touched) and smooshing strawberries into her mama's sunglasses, to nice effect, I might add. Kari was rather miffed that over half of her laborers had left her high and dry to pick strawberries (those would be the world travelers and such, not Elsa. Elsa did a great job of picking, when she wasn't pointing out the fact that Aunt Tonya's shorts, were, in fact, rather low-rise. But really, what do you expect when you are bent over picking berries? Sheesh.) Anyway, my sister raised a fine point, and one that I've maintained for years, and that is: half the reason you want to have kids is for the manual labor you can get out of them. Berry picking, weeding, shoveling snow, cleaning the bathroom, you name it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Bourgeois Trampoline and Mascarpone Jelly Thumbprints

Our strawberry picking was thwarted today because we woke up this morning to rain.  In other activities rain is not necessarily a problem; however, when it comes to standing in the mud while picking fruit, it can become a rather messy problem.  Several years ago while out picking raspberries after a lot of rain, my clogs were so caked with mud that I stepped right out of one of them and put my bare foot smack into the mud. I then had to turn around to look for my blasted shoe. 

This kind of thing is particularly a nuisance when you've got little people around you who are naturally prone to getting dirty, and you happen to be in charge of cleaning them up.  Although some of my sister's kids are much older now, so this isn't the problem it once was.  Nowadays my nieces and nephews listen to their i-pods and get told they are going to walk home if they end up too filthy to get back in the car.  However, Emilia still has a few years before I can make such feeble threats.

So anyway, as I went to get Emilia out of her bed this morning, flung open the drapes, and looked out at the grey drizzle before us, she immediately said, 'Want to go on trampoline!'  'Sorry Charlie, it's too wet today.  No bouncing on the trampoline when it's too wet.'  'Mama not say sorry Charlie!  Not sorry Charlie!'  And there you go, a glimmer of how our day has gone.

But, yes, it is true.  We have finally joined the ranks of the trampoline owners.  I know what you're thinking, 'well, la-di-da!  Aren't you so fancy!'  And I will completely agree with you.  When we were growing up it was all the rich kids who had trampolines.  We all looked at them so longingly, vowing that the very first moment we were grown up (and very rich), we would buy a trampoline and put it in our own backyards.  Michael laughs at me when I tell him this, and told me, as we were setting the trampoline up over the weekend, 'We're so bourgeois.'  In fact, when my sister got a trampoline at her house several years ago, I remember telling her 'I've never felt a chasm so great between us as I do right now.'  And then I refused to get off the thing.  Literally every time we went over to their house that summer I (after shamelessly kicking my nieces and nephews off) was on the trampoline — demonstrating my spectacular moves for everyone.