Friday, April 21, 2017

Sweet Potato Galettes from Ottolenghi

So, I was sitting at Kirala, one of my favorite sushi places, eating lunch, which happens to be across the street from the Berkeley Bowl, and I thought, "Hmm, I should make dinner tonight."* Such is my life. While eating one meal, I am often contemplating the next one. This was the result. 

*Full disclaimer, that day was not today, as I am laid up in bed because I broke my tailbone (I fell). But I was recently sitting in my favorite sushi place having these thoughts.

Because I am in an admitting mood, I am going to reveal a few things here:
1.) This is a lazy, lazy dinner. The amount of work here is almost miniscule, and it makes me wonder why I have evenings where I cannot bring myself to cook (enter popcorn and pickles. Again, don't judge. I like salt.)

2.) What sets this apart from other lazy dinners I normally make is the the chile and pumpkin seed combo tossed in with the sweet potatoes. Yep. This launches this little puff pastry concoction into a new realm. 

3.) Which I did not cut thin enough. Go ahead. Judge me on that one. I am okay with that. (Here's a photo where you can judge me fully.  That is one mighty thick-cut potato.)

4.) Sweet potatoes are markedly different from yams. In the US, mostly what we eat are sweet potatoes. Although, confusingly, we call the darker-skinner variety yams, more often than not. However, they're still sweet potatoes

5.) You know what would be even prettier? A range of different colored sweet potatoes. (Or yams. But probably sweet potatoes.)

6.)  But this is pretty enough as is. In fact, pretty enough, when shot by a professional photographer, that Ottolenghi chose to make this the cover for his and Sami Tamimi's cookbook Ottolenghi: The Cookbook.  Go look. 

7.)  Finally, let's face it, this is also a great way to use up an abandoned sheet of puff pastry dough that was hanging out in my freezer. And we have been trying to clean out the freezer. Total win all around.

Okay, as far as admitting things go, that was pretty easy. And so was this dinner. Easy enough for a simple dinner after a spectacular lunch. Now that's my kind of day.


Sweet Potato Galettes

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's Ottolenghi: The Cookbook

Makes 2 puff pastries, serves 4-6

3 sweet potatoes
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, preferably all-butter, thawed
All-purpose flour, for dusting
1 egg, lightly beaten
6½ Tbsp sour cream
¼ cup goat cheese
2 Tbsp pumpkin seeds, roasted and salted 
1 medium hot chile, finely chopped
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Bake the sweet potatoes in their skins for 35-40 minutes, until they soften up but are not fully cooked through. Leave until cool enough to handle. Then cut into slices about ⅛ inch thick (I cut them much thicker than that, and I left the peels on, despite Ottolenghi's advice to take the peels off).

2. While the sweet potatoes are int he oven, roll out the puff pastry to about ⅛ inch thick. Cut out four rectangles and prick them all over with a fork. Like a baking sheet with parchment paper, place the pastry rectangles on it, well spaced apart, and let them rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

3.  Remove the pastry from the fridge and brush lightly with the beaten egg. Spread a think layer of sour cream on the pastries, leaving a ¼-inch border all around. Arrrange the potato slices on the pastry, potentially overlapping them, keeping the border clear. Season with salt and pepper, crumble the goat cheese on top, and sprinkle with the pumpkin seeds and chile. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the pastry is cooked through. Check underneath; it should be golden brown.

4.  While the galettes are cooking, stir together the olive oil, garlic, parsley and a pinch of salt. When the pastries come out of the oven, brush them with this garlic mixture. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lemon Gâteau in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food in what appear to be rather long-winded posts (seriously, these are long!). This fourth installment is a book about food. 

Okay, the choice of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender was an easy one. We all knew that this would incorporate food in some meaningful way. But come on, from time to time we need an easy path. So let's take it.

But I have a question to ask: why is so much food connected to innocence or to its loss?  I have some answers, some of them perhaps flimsy, but answers nonetheless. We often associate food with our families, and when did we spend the most time with our families?  Or more specifically with our parents? And if we are parents, with our children? When we were young, and (mostly) innocent or when we were watching the innocence of our children.  

This book is in that vein. 

Lemon Gâteau in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake // Cook Your Books

Sure, I thought about choosing another food in this book (and there are plenty--fried chicken (13), sugar and jam on toast (36), chocolate chip cookies given to our protagonist by the boy she likes (61) homemade pretzels (117), Doritos (127), Tunisian lamb stew and eggplant-tomato tart (138), mass-produced and "utterly blank" enchiladas (167)), but in a book entitled The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, it seems a bit blasphemous to choose anything but the lemon cake. Given that it is so particular. 

The book opens with Rose Edelstein touring the ingredients her mother, Lane, is putting together to make lemon cake: "Flour bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges. A shallow glass bowl of lemon peel" (3).  Rose is nine, and she is about to discover that she can taste other people's emotions, particularly her mother's pain. In a move that conjures up Like Water for Chocolate (truly one of my favorite books), there is a transference of one person to another through the food we eat, even if we're not ready or able or even willing to carry that transference with the originator of the emotion.

Rose's mother is not much of a baker, but she is a craftswoman who likes to work with her hands. She has gardened, stitched, installed oak doors, and as the book goes on, she becomes a furniture maker. This is a woman who wants to mold things, to produce things, to have her hand in it all.  Her desire for creation seems to be a desire to leave her mark, to produce something less transient than her emotional state or her relational attachments to others.

While Rose's and her mother's lemon cake is one with chocolate frosting and rainbow sprinkles, I wanted something a little less geared for the nine-year-old set. But there is no cake--sprinkle-laden or not--described more lovingly than does Rose of her birthday confection: 
The room filled with the smell of warming butter and sugar and lemon and eggs, and at five, the timer buzzed and I pulled out the cake and placed it on the stovetop. The house was quiet. The bowl of icing was right there on the counter, ready to go, and cakes are best when just out of the oven, and I really couldn't possibly wait, so I reached to the side of the cake pan, to the least obvious part, and pulled off a small warm spongy chunk of deep gold. Iced it all over with chocolate. Popped the whole thing in my mouth. (6)
Here, Rose is in tandem with her mother--who has gone to lie down "for a bit"--taking the cake from the oven. And like her mother, Rose is full of desire and curiosity--in Rose's case, for the taste of her just-warm cake, for the celebration of her own birthday, for the connection to something luxurious and purely pleasurable. But it is a secret desire, one that she has to hide or at least not make look obvious. And I love the last two sentences--so simple and pure and confident that this would be as she had always expected it to be.

But such are not the realities as we enter into knowledge. It seems no mistake that Rose is nine.  She is just entering those tween years, those years often hyperbolically marked by profound solipsism coupled with a growing awareness of a world beyond one's self. It's scary stuff:

[A]s I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction...Because the goodness of the ingredients--the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons--seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensations of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary... None of it was a bad taste, so much, but a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that make it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate where just surrounding a hollowness. My mother's able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it. (10)

And so she begins to understand that her mother is more than just her mother. That her mother is unhappy, unfulfilled, searching. "[W]ith each bite, I thought--mmm, so good, the best ever, yum--but in each bite: absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows" (10). Being Rose's (and her brother Joe's) mother (or being a wife to Paul) is not enough enough for Lane. That somehow making a cake is not the extent of what she wishes to create.

And so Bender sets off this novel in the first ten pages, letting us into Rose's burgeoning understanding of a world outside herself, into Lane's desire to mold and shape something bigger than herself in order to truly create her own individual self, into Rose's brother Joe's uncanny ability to merge so fully and completely with others (people, objects) than himself. 

It is certainly no accident that Bender chose Brillat-Savarin's quotation in her epigraph, "Food is all those substances which, submitted to the action of the stomach, can be assimilated or changed into life by digestion, and can thus repair the losses which the human body suffers through the art of living." Particularly the losses of innocence, repaired through a sense of knowledge, connection, and the realization that our parents are more than just extensions of our selves. This is certainly a bildingsroman whose protagonist aches to stay young, to stay protected and innocent and ignorant. But we suffer through the art of living and hopefully repair what losses we can.

Which Rose ultimately does. 

She learns to cook for herself: the first time a spectacular spaghetti with marinara sauce and big bowl of Parmesan cheese. (221).  A simple dish, often one of the first many of us learn to make solely for ourselves in our first apartments or dorm rooms. And when Rose does, she tastes "sadness, rage, tanks, holes, hope, guilt, tantrums. Nostalgia, like rotting flowers. A factory, cold" (222). But it is hers, and Rose (now in her late teens) has a glimpse into herself the same way she did with her mother. She makes it again and again it tastes like a factory (241). "A machine-tinge I could not identify... Alongside a little-girl voice wanting to go back, to go back to a time with less information. Go back, said the little girl. Blank, said the factory" (242). But she cannot and will not go back.

Instead, she learns to cook, joining her sense of self to a simple French restaurant. She impresses the chef not through her cooking skill (which she is slowly acquiring) but through the simple knowledge that her first quiche has eggs from Michigan, milk from Fresno, bacon from an organic farm in Northern California, cream from Nevada, and parsley from San Diego (and she also knows that the parsley farmer is a jerk) (270). All from just a taste. Like it or not, Rose has learned two important things--that others are not extensions of herself and that, perhaps, she and the food she eats are truly products of and extensions of each other. 

Thus, we repair each other's losses endured from the art of living.


Lemon Gâteau

"Flour bag, sugar box, two brown eggs nestled in the grooves between tiles. A yellow block of butter blurring at the edges. A shallow glass bowl of lemon peel... I dipped my finger into the wax baggie of brown-sugar crystals, murmered yes, please, yes" (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake 3). 

Adapted from Valerie Aikman-Smith and Victoria Pearson's Citrus: Sweet and Savory Sun-Kissed Recipes

This literally and figuratively sweet, little cake needs no topping (it has a lovely lemon juice glaze); however, I topped it with candied lemon peels (recipe to come). Oh, but a thick whipped cream would be divine or even a drizzle of chocolate (if you want to conjure up the chocolate frosting from the book). The cake itself is tart and sweet and light and perfectly lemony.

Serves 6


⅔ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
zest and juice of 3 lemons
2 eggs
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
⅔ cup confectioners' sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 400° Fahrenheit. Butter a 9-inch round springform pan, then dust with flour and tap out the excess.

2.  In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar together on medium speed until light and fluffy. Slowly pour in one-third of lemon juice and then add eggs, one at a time, and continue to beat until well combined. Add flour and baking powder and continue to beat until a thick, smooth batter forms. Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, fold in two-thirds of lemon zest until evenly combined. Pour batter into prepared pan.

3.  Bake cake until a thin wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and prick top of cake all over with skewer. Set aside.

4.  In a small bowl, whisk together confectioners' sugar and remaining lemon zest and juice. Pour glaze over cake and allow to sit 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan, slide it onto a plate, and serve. Feel free to add some whipped cream (which would have been lovely) or candied citrus peels.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Duck Confit and Tagliatelle

Duck Confit and Tagliatelle

Where has March gone?  Where is April going? I cannot keep track of this spring and it seems to be slipping away. For example, I made this duck confit (post on how to make duck confit itself, soon) and then I made this pasta and then two months passed and now we're here

And here seems to be spring break, our move to Richmond (oh, Oakland how we already miss you), and a life lived out of boxes, which admittedly, we have been doing lately.  I have come to appreciate the well-labelled box, and to shake my fist at my past self who labelled far too many boxes "Miscellaneous."  Those are the most frightening boxes.

Until we have a full kitchen, I am resurrecting old dinners that I haven't posted and am subsisting on pickles and popcorn. Both of which I love. Don't judge. I just love salt, okay? 

Maybe I'll just get a salt lick for the new kitchen. It could happen.

However, if you're feeling fancy (and we both know you and I like to feel fancy), then I recommend this dish. While the duck confit takes a while itself, the pasta is a snap. One of those jazzy snaps that requires a fancy French beret and a cigarette, mind you, but a snap nonetheless. Unhurried (read: this takes a long time) and a little bit sophisticated without announcing itself as such, duck confit requires patience. But the pasta, well, the pasta could be thrown together with just enough planning to saute some sunchokes. That's all you need--well, if you have them, go ahead and saute up some wild mushrooms because those would be divine in this recipe. 

So this weekend, maybe make some duck confit (until I post the recipe I used, this one seems like a good one), and then all next week, eat succulent, luxurious duck, as you marvel at how this spring is passing us by so quickly already.


Duck Confit and Tagliatelle

Adapted from Ithai Schori and Chris Taylor's Twenty Dinners

Serves 4

Olive oil
1 medium shallot, diced small
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 cup Marsala or Madeira
2 cups duck or beef stock
2 legs duck confit
1/2 cup crushed walnuts or pecans
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, divided
8 2-inch long sunchokes, cut into ¼-inch slices
1 lemon, cut into wedges
¾-1 pound tagliatelle
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Put a pot of salted water on the stove to boil for the pasta.

2. In a medium saucepan over low heat, warm enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Sweat the shallots until their are translucent, about 5 minutes. Lightly season with salt, and then add the garlic. Sweat for another minute. 

3.  Pour the Marsala into the pan (be careful to do it slowly, as you're pouring alcohol into a hot pan and if you have a gas range top, then it's over an open flame). Bring the Marsala to a boil over medium heat, and then reduce to a simmer. Cook until it begins to thicken enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes. Add the stock and reduce the stock mixture until it is a bit thinner than maple syrup.  Remove the pan from the heat. 

4.  Using your fingers, tear up the duck confit into bite-sized pieces.Add the duck and the crushed nuts (either walnuts or pecans) to the sauce and reserve.

5.  Warm the tablespoon of butter in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat and allow it to foam and brown lightly. Saute the sunchokes, with a pinch of salt, until they have softened, about 10 minutes. Transfer the sunchokes to a small bowl. Finish them by squeezing a little bit of lemon over the top of them. Set them aside.

6.  Cook the tagliatelle in the boiling, salted water until al dente.  Strain, reserving about ½ cup  of the pasta's water; add the pasta water to the reserved sauce. Warm the sauce over low heat, add he remaining tablespoon of butter, and stir as it heats to make a butter emulsion. Taste for salt and add a generous amount of pepper. 

7.  Mix the pasta with the sauce, and add the sunchokes. Top with a heaping of Parmesan cheese and finish with parsley.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Cauliflower Cake from Ottolenghi's Plenty More

I have always loved cauliflower, so it is nice to see that this little brassica get its 15 minutes in the spotlight. Granted, its current moment seems to be confined to substitution status for white rice. (Seriously, have you seen all of the recipes for cauliflower "rice"?  Enough to make anyone's paleo heart pitter patter.) But not for me--cauliflower can always step the spotlight, in any form. Enter Ottolenghi, center stage.

Let me tell you a little about this cauliflower cake. With the addition of the flour, this dish is a little bit more substantial than your basic egg dish.  Infused with onions, this cake is savory and satisfying.  And while there is the slightest whisper of turmeric, it's more for color than taste. I really wouldn't change a thing, even the slightly precious sliced onions placed ever-so-decoratively atop this cake. But come on, let's treat ourselves with a little decoration, even if we're serving this for a simple dinner.

Like a fluffier frittata, this "cake" can serve as a side dish (which is what it did for us as the husband grilled meat for us and some of our carnivorous friends and their ravenously carnivorous children), but trust me on this: make this little cake for your next brunch. 

Ah, hell. Just make this for your next meal, whatever it may be: brunch, lunch, dinner, breakfast, second breakfast, tea, mid-morning snack, 4 a.m. insomnia splurge. It doesn't matter. Not only is this cake astonishingly beautiful (and those seeds on the sides add beauty, crunch, and a sudden salvo of flavor), but it makes the whole house smell amazing. 

Finally, in house-related news that none of you have been waiting for: Our shower has been leaking, the dishwasher was draining incorrectly tonight, and the backyard is a mess. We are living here only one more month (and then we're moving only about 15 minutes north--more news to come soon). 

Sweet business, house. Just make it through the next five weeks.  I can bake you a cauliflower cake if that would make you feel better. I promise: it will make you feel better. 


Cauliflower Cake

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty More

4 Servings

1 small cauliflower, outer leaves removed, broken into 1¼-inch florets (about 4 cups) 
1 medium red onion, peeled (6 ounces) 
5 tablespoons olive oil 
½ teaspoon finely chopped rosemary 
7 large eggs 
½ cup basil leaves, chopped 
1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted 
1½ teaspoon baking powder 
⅓ teaspoon ground turmeric 
1½ cups coarsely grated Parmesan or another aged cheese 
Melted unsalted butter, for brushing 
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds 
1 teaspoon nigella seeds (also known as black caraway) 
Salt and black pepper

1.  Preheat the oven to 400°F.  

2.  Place the cauliflower florets in a saucepan and add 1 teaspoon salt. Cover with water and simmer for 15 minutes, until the florets are quite soft. They should break when pressed with a spoon. Drain and set aside in a colander to dry.  

3.  Cut 4 round slices, each ¼-inch thick, off one end of the onion and set aside. Coarsely chop the rest of the onion and place in a small pan with the oil and rosemary. Cook for 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until soft. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. 

4.  Transfer the onion to a large bowl, add the eggs and basil, whisk well, and then add the flour, baking powder, turmeric, Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt, and plenty of pepper. Whisk until smooth before adding the cauliflower and stirring gently, trying not to break up the florets.  

5.  Line the base and sides of a 9½-inch springform cake pan with parchment paper. Brush the sides with melted butter, then mix together the sesame and nigella seeds and toss them around the inside of the pan so that they stick to the sides. Pour the cauliflower mixture into the pan, spreading it evenly, and arrange the reserved onion rings on top. Place in the center of the oven and bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and set; a knife inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean. 

6.  Remove from the oven and leave for at least 20 minutes before serving. It needs to be served just warm, rather than hot, or at room temperature.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Puff Pastry Tarts Three Ways from Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart Puff Pastry Tart Harissa and Goat Cheese, Asparagus and Gruyere, or Potato and Rosemary (Or All Three)

Do you need a super easy go-to appetizer? Are you stressing about your pre-dinner bites? Are you sick of cheese and crackers (okay, that's blasphemy)?  I gotta say, it's as simple as having some frozen puff pastry on hand, because Martha Stewart is to the rescue. Again. We would expect no less from the queen of entertaining.

Martha Stewart Puff Pastry Tart Harissa and Goat Cheese, Asparagus and Gruyere, or Potato and Rosemary (Or All Three)

While this would be the perfect appetizer for a Mexico-Italy soccer match up in the World Cup, I can also vouch for its viability in an American Superbowl game this past February. Since I don't particularly care about the Superbowl (and somehow do decidedly care more about the World Cup), I do try to ensure that the food is fantastic on that wintry Sunday evening. Enter Puff Pastry Tart Three Ways.

Martha Stewart Puff Pastry Tart Harissa and Goat Cheese, Asparagus and Gruyere, or Potato and Rosemary (Or All Three)

Sure, you could make just one, but this is perfect as a combination piece because everyone can have a little of everything. And it really does look quite striking all together. And if you cut it into even smaller bites, you can spread the love even further.  

Martha Stewart Puff Pastry Tart Harissa and Goat Cheese, Asparagus and Gruyere, or Potato and Rosemary (Or All Three)

It does take a tiny bit of finagling (cook everything for 15 minutes and then add the cheeses; cook for 5 minutes more), but I think we can all handle it. And don't ask me about amounts. I just messed around with all of my amounts when I cooked it.  Here was my rule of thumb: make enough ingredients to give the appearance of abundance on the tart.

Martha Stewart Puff Pastry Tart Harissa and Goat Cheese, Asparagus and Gruyere, or Potato and Rosemary (Or All Three)

Which takes me to my golden rule of appetizers as taught to me by an English teacher who once moonlit as a caterer--just make sure everything on a platter, tray, bowl, or plate looks abundant and overflowing, and your next dinner party will go off without a hitch. Be it a football (American or otherwise) match, holiday party, or just cocktails with friends. And this is the puff pastry to do the trick.

Martha Stewart Puff Pastry Tart Harissa and Goat Cheese, Asparagus and Gruyere, or Potato and Rosemary (Or All Three)


Puff Pastry Tarts Three Ways: Harissa and Goat Cheese, Asparagus and Gruyere, or Potato and Rosemary (Or All Three)

Adapted from Martha Stewart's Appetizers

Harissa and Goat Cheese

Serves 4

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, preferably all-butter, thawed
All-purpose flour, for dusting
2 Tbsp harissa
2 Tbsp olive oil
4 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
Sea salt
Mint and parsley leaves

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lay pastry sheet on a lightly-floured surface and roll out into a 10-x-16 inch rectangle. Trim the edges with a sharp knife. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use a knife to score a 1-inch border around the pastry (do not cut all the way through), then pierce inside the markings at ½-inch intervals with a fork.

2.  In a small bowl, mix the harissa paste with oil. Spread inside border.

3.  Bake until crust is golden, about 15 minutes. Top with goat cheese, and bake 5 minutes more. Serve warm, sprinkled with sea salt and herbs.

Asparagus and Gruyere

Serves 4

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, preferably all-butter, thawed
All-purpose flour, for dusting
1½ pounds asparagus
1 Tbsp olive oil
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded
Salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lay pastry sheet on a lightly-floured surface and roll out into a 10-x-16 inch rectangle. Trim the edges with a sharp knife. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use a knife to score a 1-inch border around the pastry (do not cut all the way through), then pierce inside the markings at ½-inch intervals with a fork.

2.  Trim asparagus spears to fit inside the border, and then arrange the asparagus in a single layer atop the tart. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake about 15 minutes.

4. Remove from oven, and sprinkle the asparagus with cheese. Bake until cheese is melted and browned, about 5 minutes.

Potato and Rosemary

Serves 4

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, preferably all-butter, thawed
All-purpose flour, for dusting
1 Yukon Gold potato (unpeeled), very thinly sliced
1 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp fresh rosemary
Salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lay pastry sheet on a lightly-floured surface and roll out into a 10-x-16 inch rectangle. Trim the edges with a sharp knife. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Use a knife to score a 1-inch border around the pastry (do not cut all the way through), then pierce inside the markings at ½-inch intervals with a fork.

2.  In a small bowl, toss the potato slices with oil, rosemary, and generous amounts of salt and pepper. Arrange evenly over the pastry.

3.  Bake until crust is golden, about 20 minutes. Drizzle with more oil, and serve warm.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cucumber Sandwiches with Yuzu (or Lemon) and Chive Butter in Fun Home // Cook Your Books

In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food (in very long posts, apparently). This third installment is a graphic novel. 

Three books in and my theory was almost debunked. 

As I read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, I kept thinking, oh no. There's no real, or at least meaningful, connection to food. Sure there are mentionings of meatballs (67.2) and a hot dog (139.2). The family makes popcorn (141.3) and eats paella (160.2) and moussaka with sourdough bread (163.3). And there are hamburgers (169.3), a martini (179.3) and pizza (180.5), but none of it really was central to the story. 

People eat. Even people in graphic memoirs. Sometimes food is just utilitarian. Clearly, my theory was bogus.

But then, there it was. Glaring. Obvious--Sunbeam bread. 

Fun Home tells the story of a young Alison who comes out to her parents four months before her father is hit by a Sunbeam bread truck--in an apparent but ambiguous suicide. She tries to make sense of her relationship with her parents, particularly her father, as she comes to understand her own sexuality and that of her father's, who spent the last 20 years of his adult life engaged in affairs with young men while still married to her mother.

Let's go back to that apparent suicide, the moment that Alison keeps coming back to herself. Emblazoned across the semi truck: Sunbeam bread

How could I miss it? How could I overlook all of that cherubic innocence of a ringlet-laden girl as she bites into a slice of bread?  Even according to Sunbeam's own website, "No other bread brand in America has the personality and appeal of Little Miss Sunbeam. For more than 60 years, the image of this sweet girl has been synonymous with fresh, quality baked foods." 

And I started looking more closely. The bread is everywhere in the book.

Theory intact.

Let's dig a little deeper, shall we?

Most clearly, Bechdel connects the Sunbeam bread to her father. Of course, this most obvious connection to Sunbeam is when we see the logo front and center on a truck bearing down on her father (59.3). In reality, her father is, indeed, hit by a Sunbeam truck. However, in the book, what we see in this panel is not his death. We see a fantasy alternative for her father, where Bechdel imagines him being just missed by the truck. He is oblivious as it speeds by, and Little Miss Sunbeam looms. Innocence--or at least this commercialized and commodified version of it--keeps powering on by, as her father continues his life. 

But that's not really how it happened. Instead, he was hit by that Sunbeam bread truck. Innocence comes to a full stop for Alison. In an interview with The Comics Journal, Bechdel says of Sunbeam: "So its cheesy, sunny logo stands in as a sort of ironic memento mori."

This memento mori is one not only of her father's death but that of innocence. Throughout the book, bread juxtaposes the fixed innocence of the Sunbeam girl and a growing understanding of sex, sexuality, and secrecy for a young Alison. The Sunbeam bread suggests a kind of innocence that can be pinned down in a moment. However, despite the desire to pin it down, that innocence is fleeting and mutating. 

And that mutation is not always to disastrous effects, for Little Miss Sunbeam is the ideal young American girl of stereotypical femininity that Alison so strongly bucks against.

Let's take a moment just to detail all the moments Sunbeam shows up in the book: 
  • 21.1:  Her father smashes a plate at the dinner table beneath a loaf of bread. He is the "minotaur" around whom the whole of the family must step as he hides his own shame of his sexuality.
  • 31.2:  Alison carries bread as her "urbane father with his unwholesome interest in the decorative arts" encounters "old school chums" who, dressed in baggy clothes and a baseball hat, encourage him to come to camp where he won't "hafta shoot nothin'" and can instead "sit around the stove and get bombed." This is the first time we see the Sunbeam bread in a panel that sets up this stereotypical masculinity up against her father's experience.
  • 96.1:  We see this juxtaposition again in an advertisement in the window of gas station as she compares her father to "the grimy deer hunters...with their yellow workboots and shorn-sheep haircuts." Her father often comes up short in her mind.
  • 112.2:  This connection between her own sense of innocence and this burgeoning understanding of sex, sexuality, and transgression continues with its connection to Sunbeam bread. Her father carries a bag of Sunbeam bread as he gets in the car. Younger Alison has just discovered a female nudie calendar given to her father by her Uncle Fred. In the next hours she goes to a strip mine where it is imperative that the man who shows them around sees her as a boy rather than a girl. And he has the same nudie calendar on the wall (113.1).
All of these add up to some elusive, gendered and sometimes sexualized innocence, if only for a moment, that she wants her father to make space for but fails at time and again. And so she becomes as trapped by this image of innocence as much as she wants to hold onto this innocence. 

Not all of the Sunbeam bread is connected to Alison's father, however. Twice it moves to her mother.
  • 217.2:  A bag of Sunbeam bread sits in the background as her mother tells her of her father's affairs, shoplifting, speeding tickets, lying and rages (216.3). It's the first time her mother speaks to her as an adult and she advises her mother to leave her father (which she does, two weeks before he is killed by the Sunbeam truck). 
  • 67.1:  She and her mother make meatballs as she tries to make sense of her parent's "arctic" marriage through allusions to her mother as a Henry James character ("a vigorous American idealist" (66.1) and her father as one from F. Scott Fitzgerald (a man who can metamorphose the imaginary to the real).
Damnit, Sunbeam.  You're everywhere in this book, and you refuse to be pinned down.

So there it is, all wrapped up in her parents and their sexuality and independence, in her fantasy of innocence powering on without the death of her father, and her own growing understanding of her own sexuality and gender expression.

Bread and innocence, or a desperate desire for this bought-and-sold version of it, firmly fixated in the book.

Now, you're probably wondering how I am going to make the leap from Sunbeam bread to cucumber sandwiches. Here we go:

The summer Alison turned 13, her mother played Lady Bracknell (Aunt Augusta) in a local production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

In the play, Algernon wolfs down cucumber sandwiches that were intended for Lady Bracknell. When another character, Jack, is left to eat only bread and butter, Jack too eats as if he "were already married to" Algernon's cousin Gwendolyn. Already, food becomes connected to consumption, this time sexual consumption. Even Bechdel writes of these sandwiches as such: "desire is encoded as one of the character's uncontrollable gluttony" (166.4). Algernon is a man with a considerable appetite that does not always take into account the effect of this appetite on others. Wilde, himself, had to cloak his own sexuality, until he was brought to trial in 1895 for "gross indecency" with men. 

In the very next panel, we learn that the Bechdel family eats cucumber sandwiches all summer long (167.1). But their father eats them faster than they can make them, reaching in to consume the sandwiches as the children spread on mayonnaise and stack cucumbers. A man with appetites. Appetites that younger Alison is ignorant of but then later sees as her connection to her father.

And this is a book that is wide reaching in its own appetites and that cannot pin down anything. It is one concerned with intertextuality, for Bechdel makes connections and comparisons to Proust, Homer, Colette, Joyce, Wilde, James, Fitzgerald, Camus, Stevens, Daedelus and Icarus. Explaining this book to someone is a tricky one because it relies on its connection to all of these other stories to be understood. Just in the same way Alison relies on her father (and her mother) and his story in order to understand her own (as perhaps we all do). Meaning and understanding in this story are slippery--for Alison the character, Bechdel the author, and for us as readers. Her father's sexuality and her connection to it, her father's death (is it or is it not a suicide?), her own relationship to her father, language itself (as she writes "I think" over and again in her diary, finally moving to a notational shorthand that obliterates her own written rendering of experience), her search for the meaning of father in the dictionary and it leads her on a circular goose chase through the word beget, and her disdain of Victorian decoration which her father used as a way to conceal one's self loathing--"He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not" (16.4).

Indeed this is a book of revelation and cloaking, of glimpses of a passing innocence and a surety of experience. Of appetites and shame. Of commodification and construction of innocence. Of a refusal to be fixed in meaning or knowing or understanding. 

That's a lot for white bread.

But I know. I could only choose Sunbeam bread. It seems so obvious (almost pedestrian) now, doesn't it?

So in the fashion not of Fun Home but of The Importance of Being Earnest which in turns means of Fun Home, I present to you cucumber sandwiches made with white bread (sadly, mine was not Sunbeam bread, but it was requistitely similar in pure, unadulterated commercialization of white bread). I could do it only from a properly fussy afternoon tea book by Will Torrent. Go ahead, consume a lot of these.  

You might have some appetites you want to indulge under a cloak. I won't tell.


Cucumber Sandwiches with Yuzu (or Lemon) and Chive Butter

"Mom helped the prop mistress find a recipe for cucumber sandwiches. We ate them all summer" (Fun Home 167.1).

Adapted from Will Torrent's Afternoon Tea at Home

This is a lovely little cookbook, whenever you need a fussy lunch, brunch, snack, or tea time.

24 little sandwiches


7 Tbsp butter
2 tsp yuzu or lemon juice
1 Tbsp finely chopped chives
salt and black pepper, to taste
1/2 large cucumber
2 tsp cider vinegar
8 slices white bread

1. Beat the butter until really soft and spreadable. Gradually add the yuzu or lemon juice, mix and season with salt and black pepper. Add the chives and mix to combine.

2.  Peel the cucumber and thinly slice into rounds. Put the slices in a small bowl and add the cider vinegar and toss to coat.

3. Lay half of the bread slices on the work surface and spread with 1/2 the butter mixture.

4.  Arrange the cucumber slices on top as neatly and evenly as possible and season with salt and pepper. Spread the remaining bread with the butter mixture and press on top of the cucumber-topped bread, butter side down.

5.  Gently press the sandwiches together and trim off the crusts, using a serrated knife. 

6.  Cut the sandwiches into neat rectangles or triangles to serve.