Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

Today is Mother's Day and I made brunch.  The last time I made a Mother's Day brunch was freshman year of college, four years ago, right when my interest in cooking and entertaining was in its nascence.  It all started with baking---cookies, cakes, scones, but certainly not pies yet---and so my brunch was more like a tea party, with scones and a variety of little sweet and savory bites that in retrospect were so semi-homemade that it embarrasses me now to think of it.  I guess like many young girls, I had always thought of myself as the kind of woman who was too independent and modern to bother with cooking, and especially baking.  The image of the '50s housewife in poodle skirt and twin set waiting patiently, meatloaf in hand, for her husband to get home everyday, serving him, throwing dinner parties for his work colleagues, turned my stomach.  But something strange happened over the course of college.  Somehow, I came to realize, much to my own shock and dismay, that I actually enjoyed cooking, baking, and making dinner for others.  It started slowly---making desserts for my dad when home from school, throwing together some simple pasta dishes and soups---but by the end of college it had become my favorite hobby.  I cooked for myself every day senior year, and I found that it calmed me and gave me an outlet for all of my creative, non-academic energy.  In the midst of research and thesis writing, I relished those couple of hours every night that I spent cooking, eating, and cleaning up.  Even at my busiest, that seemingly large portion of down time was always, always worth it.  And I've come to realize that knowing how to cook, bake, and put a dinner together are not skills to be ashamed of, a mark of a backwards, premodern society, but rather fundamental skills that every woman and man should know.  For what is more fundamental that being able to feed oneself?  And being able to so enjoy oneself in the process and in sharing one's creations with others only makes it that much greater.  In fact, there's much we could and should learn from premodern cooking and eating habits, and the beauty of doing so as a modern woman is that we need not be defined by our domestic capabilities.  I could be the perfect housewife, but I'm allowed to be so much more.

So this year, my first Mother's Day home in four years, I returned again to brunch.  I wanted something rich and decadent and befitting a special occasion, and this time I had the skills to make it happen.  My mother requested a crabmeat quiche, so I adapted the classic Quiche Lorraine, subbing crab meat for the bacon.  I also wanted a dessert to finish it off.  I ended up finding the exact thing I was looking for, a chocolate and hazelnut torte, in a Nigella Lawson recipe found on Bake or Break.  Each seemed straightforward enough, and I imagined that I would start cooking at 10 and we'd eat right around noon.  Well, what I thought was a generous estimate turned out not nearly generous enough.  Three hours of constant labor later, and we finally sat down at 1 pm.  But it was all worth it.  I was worried it would all end up a complete disaster---I don't have the best record when it comes to pie crusts, and a similar chocolate sponge cake that I attempted for my birthday last year was a catastrophic failure---but luckily all turned out perfectly and my mother loved them both.

Crabmeat Quiche
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 1/4 cup flour
1 tbsp corn starch
6 tbsp cold butter, diced
1 egg
1-2 tbsp water, if necessary

Mix together flour and corn starch.  Add the diced butter and mix with a pastry blender until the butter is the size of small peas.  Add the egg and stir until the dough begins to come together.  Depending on the size of your egg, you may need to add a tablespoon or two of water to make the dough come together (I did).  Roll the dough out on a floured surface to a 12 inch round and place in a 9" deep dish pie pan.  Crimp the edges and chill while you prepare the filling.

1 3/4 cups leeks, thinly sliced
1 cup onion, thinly sliced
3 eggs
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
1 1/2 cup lump crabmeat
salt and pepper, to taste

Cook the leeks and onions in a little bit of olive oil or butter over medium heat until caramelized, about 30 to 40 minutes.  In the meantime, whisk together the heavy cream and sour cream, then the eggs.  Add the cheese to the custard and season well with salt and pepper.  Pick through the crabmeat to make sure there are no shell fragments.  When the leeks and onions are ready, spread them into the bottom of the prepared crust, add the crabmeat, and then pour the custard over top of that.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and cook for 30 minutes until golden brown.

Chocolate Hazelnut Torte
From Nigella Lawson via Bake or Break

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 jar Nutella
6 eggs, separated
1 tbsp rum or Frangelico
1/2 cup ground hazelnuts
4 oz. dark chocolate, melted and cooled (Trader Joe's 72% dark chocolate was perfect for this)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9" springform pan.  Cream together the butter and Nutella, then mix in the six egg yolks, the Frangelico, the hazelnuts, and the chocolate.  Beat the egg whites until stiff with a pinch of salt and then carefully fold them into the other ingredients.  Pour into prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes.

1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp rum or Frangelico
4 oz. dark chocolate
4 oz. hazelnuts

In a heavy saucepan, heat the cream, Frangelico, and chocolate over low heat until the chocolate is melted. Whisk together (with a mixer preferably) until fluffed up a bit. (You could keep going until it's like a real whipped frosting, or you could be lazy like me and leave it mostly as is.) Toast the hazelnuts in a saute pan until lightly browned. If they haven't been skinned, remove the skins after toasting.

When the cake is cooled, spread the frosting just on the top and decorate with toasted hazelnuts.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Paradise Lost

Jeffrey and I often lament the unfortunate lack of a native food culture in the United States.  Not only has the idea of eating seasonally and locally been lost to most Americans, but they also have no cooking intuition whatsoever.  Even if you gave them a basket full of fresh produce and meats, they would have no idea what to do with it.  Generations are growing up without watching their mothers and grandmothers (and fathers and grandfathers, for that matter) cook and bake.  They don't learn to appreciate the taste of fresh, homemade food, so they settle for tasteless store-bought bread and pallid out-of-season tomatoes, and that becomes the norm.  Nor do they learn to appreciate the joy of communion that sitting down to a home-cooked meal can bring.  Convenience trumps quality and all else.  Fortunately, the ever-growing 'foodie' trend, as obnoxious as it can be, is introducing people to the standards of quality and knowledge of preparation that native food cultures around the world have always known, but which are news to most Americans.

Despite the barrage of processed foods that have possibly irreparably damaged Americans' attitude towards food, there are some regional cuisines that still defend their traditions.  The best, in my mind, is the Cajun food of Louisiana, now popular all throughout the bayou regions on the Gulf of Mexico.  Both of my parents graduated from high school in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, a small town on the coast not far from New Orleans, thus I've grown up eating and enjoying a variety of Cajun fare.  Like all rustic, traditionally peasant cuisines, Cajun food relies heavily on local, seasonal ingredients, and a meal is a real event that brings people together.  Every gathering of my dad's family involved a feast of fresh seafood---boiled shrimp, steamed crabs, oysters eaten raw straight out of the water.  Growing up like this, I took for granted that what I was eating came out of the inlet in which I had just been swimming, was caught by people I knew personally, and was prepared at home within hours of leaving the water.  Though sometimes my uncle who still lives on the bayou would throw it together in a jambalaya or an étouffée---Cajun staples which I hope to share with you sometime---most of the time we ate it just by itself, cooked simply.  With such ingredients, it's all you want and need.  The crawfish boil is an excellent example of this.  Like mini-lobsters, live crawfish are plunged into boiling water that has been heavily seasoned with a blend of Cajun spices, until they emerge with their shells gleaming bright red.  The tail meat is sweet like lobster, but more tender like a shrimp, and you must couple that with sucking the spicy juices out of the head (and eating the roe-like guts, too, if you're so inclined).  It's an experience I can recommend to anyone who can handle the heat.  

Lucky for us, my dad came home yesterday from a week in Mobile, Alabama, with a cooler full of boiled crawfish and raw Gulf shrimp.  Though nothing like the feasts of my childhood---which, as my generation has gotten older and moved on, are no more---these days I'll take what I can get.