Monday, February 16, 2009

Picnic with Albertine (V): Sandwiches with Cheshire Cheese and Lettuce

The girls all preferred sandwiches and exclaimed at seeing me eat only a chocolate cake, with its Gothic architecture of icing, or an apricot tart. But sandwiches of Cheshire cheese and lettuce, untried and unknowing fare, had nothing to say for themselves. Whereas cakes were privy to much, and tarts were talkative. In cakes, there was a cloying creaminess, and in tarts, a refreshing fruitiness, which were aware of many things about Combray and about Gilberte, and not just the Gilberte of Combray days, but the Gilberte of Paris too, for I had renewed my acquaintance with them at her afternoon teas

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 482-3

Cheshire cheese sandwiches are more silent probably because they are new to the narrator who can hardly navigate through his own memory to match his impression to such a simple food. It is simple probably because, compared with cakes and tarts, it does not carry much flavor except the supple milkiness from the cheese. With only one dimension of flavor from the cheese, Cheshire cheese sandwiches are truly “boring.” Boring as it may seem, the sandwich itself is certainly not silent. At the first bite, one could taste the sharp cheese flavor. According to Food Lover’s Companion, red Cheshires are “young cheeses, having an average age of eight weeks, with a semi firm texture and a mild, tangy cheddar like flavor” (141). The sharp cheesiness, however, doesn’t last long. The sharpness drops quickly and is replaced by smoothness from the cheese. However, the smoothness is definitely not the creaminess that cheese should carry. It is pleasant on the tongue but, as soon as it is eaten, the flavor is completely absent, gone. What are left might be the slight butter taste from the white bread and the moistness from a piece of crunchy romaine lettuce. The whole sandwich, as narrator seems to indicate, is without much character; it becomes bland after the first sharp taste from the cheese.

Perhaps, the cheese sandwich reflects the sense of boredom that the narrator experiences during girls’ conversations which don’t trigger any of his interest at all. Compared with the refreshing fruitiness from the apricot tart and the cloying creaminess from the chocolate cake, the Cheshire cheese sandwich can hardly trigger any memory or experience from the narrator’s past. The sandwich, therefore, along with its flavor, plummets to the unknown, about which the narrator has no idea how to deal. Indeed, with such a meager taste, I don’t find this sandwich worth much illustration, except that it might reflect the sense of meaninglessness among the girls’ gossip and mindless game.

Cheshire Cheese and Lettuce Sandwiches

5 thinly sliced Cheshire cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
5 romaine lettuce leaves
10 slices white bread

Spread 5 of the bread slices with mayonnaise, then top the mayonnaise with a piece of romaine and a slice of Cheshire cheese on each. Spread the remaining mayonnaise over the remaining bread and top the sandwiches. Cut each sandwich in half and serve.

Picnic with Albertine (IV): Misreading Chocolate Cake in Proust

The girls all preferred sandwiches and exclaimed at seeing me eat only a chocolate cake, with its Gothic architecture of icing, or an apricot tart. But sandwiches of Cheshire cheese and lettuce, untried and unknowing fare, had nothing to say for themselves. Whereas cakes were privy to much, and tarts were talkative. In cakes, there was a cloying creaminess, and in tarts, a refreshing fruitiness, which were aware of many things about Combray and about Gilberte, and not just the Gilberte of Combray days, but the Gilberte of Paris too, for I had renewed my acquaintance with them at her afternoon teas

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 482-3

Actually, I made a mistake in the chocolate cake for Proust’s picnic with the gang of girls. In planning menus, I had forgotten a detail about the chocolate cake. Assuming that on a picnic simplicity would be the choice, I chose the chocolate sponge cake dusted simply with powdered sugar rather than filled or frosted with icing. The detail I had forgotten was that in the text Proust does refer to the baked good as a piece of chocolate cake with gothic architecture of icing (482). Such error does indicate my “misreading” of Proust’s text.

If my simple sugar-dusted cake is to facilitate my own interpretation of a “picnic cake” in which the elaborate icing should not be spread on the cake for the sake of portability, I was wondering how much of Proust’s persistence on a “frosted” cake in this picnic with girls is also out of convenience for interpreting difference by means of extracting a familiar experience from the past. Not to justify my own blunder in failing to apply icing on the cake (at this point, I am thinking that the simple chocolate-coffee butter cream would have been an adequate icing to meet with the narrator’s preference), but I cannot help but wonder if the icing on the cake is truly the solid frosting mainly made of butter, chocolate and coffee (or, maybe cream cheese, chocolate and tons of confectioner’s sugar?) or, more to the point, if the icing is simply the shadow reflected from the narrator’s memory to validate the reality he is facing. Therefore, could the icing, such sweet and sugar-based mixture, be the comfortable, reliable and necessary memory that is applied to “coat” the different reality that is full of the unknown and risks? With such a coating, the uneven or imperfect surface (e.g. crumbs, or the protruding dome top surface of the cake layer due to the interaction between heat, liquid and leaveners, or even a crack due to dryness) of the cake can be covered and smoothed out. It is similar to the necessary memory from the past: harsh reality, which is full of the unpredictable, could be explained; and the vulnerable self, like the body of the cake, could be protected. As such, if icing a cake is to make the pastry appetizing, sophisticated and further keep the cake moist, the memory of Combray and Gilberte is also the necessary “frosting” that the narrator has to apply to the reality—the picnic with girls—over which he has no control.

I also realize that the act of writing can be an act of frosting. If writing down the memory is to fix the uncertainty in the past, the words themselves, then, are like the frosting which covers the untamed memory, affects, perceptions or trauma that might not be adequately re-presented on a piece of paper. Writing, therefore, like frosting, could be some sort of defensive mechanism that assists the self with fitting into reality. Or my lengthy explanation so far is meant, simply, to mend and repair my negligence in making the icing.

Picnic with Albertine (III): Chocolate Cake

The girls all preferred sandwiches and exclaimed at seeing me eat only a chocolate cake, with its Gothic architecture of icing, or an apricot tart. But sandwiches of Cheshire cheese and lettuce, untried and unknowing fare, had nothing to say for themselves. Whereas cakes were privy to much, and tarts were talkative. In cakes, there was a cloying creaminess, and in tarts, a refreshing fruitiness, which were aware of many things about Combray and about Gilberte, and not just the Gilberte of Combray days, but the Gilberte of Paris too, for I had renewed my acquaintance with them at her afternoon teas

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 482-3

What surprised me in baking this cake was that no baking powder is used in the recipe. In making her preliminary remarks on “five usually good and typically French cakes,” Julia Child indicates that without the use of baking powder, the “lightness [of the French sponge cake] is due to the careful folding of perfectly beaten egg whites into the batter” (668). In addition, instead of the typical usage of cocoa powder found in many chocolate recipes, Julia Child only uses 3 ½ ounces of semisweet baking chocolate combined with two tablespoons of coffee to flavor the cake. From my past experience of baking various chocolate cakes from various recipes, Julia Child’s minimalist list of ingredients reminds me not of typical French baking but of the importance of using ingredients with higher quality if baking or cooking with small amounts of simple ingredients.

With that in mind, I impulsively selected Ghiradelli at the grocery store. Though not a fancy-schmansy French brand, this famous San Francisco chocolatier at least seems (or sounds) better and more sophisticated than Baker’s—the brand that is often considered as grandma’s all-American choice. Therefore, if such a down-to-earth version of chocolate sponge cake can be described as a part of haute cuisine in French cooking while the baker is just an ordinary home cook, my selection of Ghiradelli as the major chocolate ingredient in this recipe, at least in hope, would make the whole cake more special.

Different from Julia Child’s steps for unmolding the cake, I not only followed her steps in buttering and flouring the cake pans, but also consulted with my experience of making Ina Garten’s coconut cake recipe and added a piece of greased and floured parchment paper at the bottom of the pan to guarantee the perfect unmolding of the cake.

Like many other cakes, the chocolate cake came out oven puffed. After resting on the cooling rack for 20 minutes, it came out of the pan successfully to cool completely on the rack. What differentiates this cake from other chocolate cakes I have baked in the past is the lightness of the cake’s texture. The airiness of the texture created by the egg whites and maintained throughout baking by the stable heat source proves to be similar to the process of making a soufflé. However, such lightness in texture does not sacrifice the flavor of the cake. In contrast to the light and spongy texture of the cake, the taste of the cake is intensely chocolaty. Such a chocolate flavor is hardly found in most chocolate cakes I used to make, in which the chocolate flavor came from the sweetened icing while the cake itself didn’t have much taste at all.

The crunchy texture and vulnerably flakey surface crust of the cake, due to the puffed meringue, sent my tongue through some sort of adventure. Simply, I was never sure when the extremely thin and fragile meringue would break and dissolve in my mouth. Once it did break and irretrievably melt in my mouth, there was the sensation of sweet fluff followed by a faint bitterness from the chocolate cake. Such uncertainty was inevitably combined with the relentless desire of tasting even more. Even with the fear of destroying the perfect crust, ethereally sweet, the tongue still reaches out to explore the bitter sweetness, to reach out, to feel.

My own experience of tasting the cake seems to echo the narrator’s experience in playing the game of ring-on-a-string. Like the narrator’s desire being conjured up by a piece of paper from Albertine which read “I like you,” our tongues also accept the invitation of the chocolate cake—the creamy, bittersweet aroma from the cocoa oil that combines with the doughy smell from the flour, butter and eggs. The narrator’s clumsiness at not being able to snatch the ring put himself at the center of all the participants. Such a position could be easily interpreted as shame; however, like our tongues which nervously and joyfully explore the thin crust of the meringue on the cake, the narrator is also enjoying and exploring the opportunity or the rupture where he can touch Albertine’s hand in the game. Just as the meringue dissolves in our mouth and we taste the unavoidable bittersweetness of chocolate, so does the narrator experiences the sweetness of touching Albertine: “In that moment of intoxication, I sensed a tiny squeeze of Albertine’s hand on mine, a faint caress of her finger between my own, and I caught a wink from her that she meant to be barely perceptible” (499) and the bitterness from Albertine’s furious stage-whisper: “Take that thing, would you! I’ve been trying to pass it to you for about half an hour!” (499)

Such bitterness shamed the narrator: “Abashed and deflated, I lost my grip on the string…I had to go back into the middle, where, as the shuffling hands did their frantic shuttle around me, I stood desperate and despised, the butt of all the girls’ scorn, trying to laugh it off when I felt like crying…” (499). From then on, as we know, the narrator never gives up the chance to get closer to Albertine. Thus, the bitterness turned into the addictive sweetness which keeps attracting the narrator to Albertine, even though as Françoise later mentions, “That girl will bring you nothing but grief” (The Prisoner 99). Like the narrator, I, as the taster of the cake, also kept coming back to more servings of the bittersweet cake even though there was always another inner voice which kept warning me about irresistible indulgence; in my case, of accumulated calories.

Le Marquis [Chocolate Sponge Cake]
(Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child et al.)

A round cake pan 8 inches in diameter and 1 ½ inches deep
3 ½ ounces of semisweet baking chocolate
2 tablespoons strong coffee
A small covered pan
A pan of simmer water
A wooden spoon
3 ½ tablespoons softened butter
A wire whip or electric beater
3 egg yolks
A 3-quart mixing bowl
½ cup granulated sugar
3 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
A rubber spatula
1/3 cup cake flour
A cake rack

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter and flour the cake pan. Measure out the ingredients.

Place the chocolate and coffee in a small pan, cover, and set in the larger pan of simmering water. Remove pans from heat and let chocolate melt for 5 minutes or so while you proceed with the recipe. Then beat in the butter.

Beat the egg yolks in the mixing bowl, gradually adding the sugar, until mixture is thick, pale yellow and forms the ribbon.

Beat the egg whites and salt together in a separate bowl until soft peaks are formed; sprinkle on the sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed.

Fold the tepid chocolate and butter into the batter, then fold in one fourth of the egg whites. When partially blended, sift on one fourth of the flour and continue folding, alternating rapidly with more egg whites and more flour until all egg whites and flour are incorporated.

Immediately turn batter into prepared pan and run it up to the rim all around. Bake in middle level of preheated oven for 25 minutes, or until cake has puffed ¼ inch above rim and top has cracked. A skewer or straw should come out clean when plunged 1 ½ inches from edge, but should be slightly oily with a few specks of chocolate clinging when plunged into the middle area.

Let cool 10 minutes; cake will sink slightly. Run a knife around inside of pan, and reverse onto a rack. Let cool 2 hours before icing.

You may serve the cake with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, or fill with butter cream and cover with the chocolate-butter icing on page 684.

Picnic with Albertine (II): Meding a Tart Shell

The girls all preferred sandwiches and exclaimed at seeing me eat only a chocolate cake, with its Gothic architecture of icing, or an apricot tart. But sandwiches of Cheshire cheese and lettuce, untried and unknowing fare, had nothing to say for themselves. Whereas cakes were privy to much, and tarts were talkative. In cakes, there was a cloying creaminess, and in tarts, a refreshing fruitiness, which were aware of many things about Combray and about Gilberte, and not just the Gilberte of Combray days, but the Gilberte of Paris too, for I had renewed my acquaintance with them at her afternoon teas

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 482-3

Sometimes making perfect pie dough is like creating a successful negotiation. It takes a great deal of patience to communicate with the dough before one can roll out a perfect piece of crust to fit into the tart pan. The more tart shells I have made, the more I feel that the whole tart shell business is not simply about how to roll out the dough to fit into a tart pan but more about how to create the balanced relationship between one’s mind and the dough. As I have found out, the more eager I am to flatten the dough and make it into the shape of a circle that can perfectly fit into the fluted pan, the more unlikely the dough is to follow my will in conforming to my idea of a perfect circle. Dorie Greenspan mentions in her Baking From My Home to Yours that all I need to do is to use the rolling pin and bang on the dough to force it to flatten a bit. However, the more I beat on the dough, the more will cracks appear on the dough. Such a final product, then, is not a perfect circle but the broken pieces that I always need to mend together in the tart pan with some water. Moreover, it is widely believed that excessive handling of the dough will often result it tougher pie crusts. Violence, then, proves to be unfeasible in my experience of making a perfect pie crust. What improves the chances of making a good crust is the necessity of allowing the dough to come back to room temperature before rolling. Moreover, a piece of parchment paper placed under the dough while one rolls it out is very helpful. The parchment paper not only prevents the dough from sticking to the working surface but also assists the baker in rolling up the dough for transfer into the tart pan.

It seems that making a tart shell is a bit different from baking as whole in which the process is generally deemed as chemistry—the measurements needing to be exact with each step followed faithfully; whereas the process of making a tart shell seems to require more of the baker’s heart in the perception of vision and tactility. As Emily Luchetti suggests, bakers sense the readiness of the dough by observing the size of butter after it is combined with the dry ingredients. And, later, one should feel the dough after adding the liquid ingredients in order to sense the right mixture. The amount of ingredients, then, is never exact as science but is contingent upon the final product of the dough. The amount of dry and wet ingredients is flexible, within limits, to create a perfect final product.

If a lot of factors influence the making of a perfect tart shell (e.g. the temperature of the working surface, the coolness of the butter, or the speed of the food processor or counter top mixer), the careful adjustment of wet ingredients in a dough proves to be the act of care between the baker and the dough. Perception through touching and vision proves to be necessary, while the “purposeless” rolling of the dough also proves to be the key in morphing the shapeless dough into the fit pie crust.

Of course, as in my experience of baking the shell for Proust’s picnic apricot tart, one must take a lot of care with the broken parts that never cooperated. If negotiation fails, reparation—mending the broken tart shell parts together, gluing it together with a bit of water—will never come too late.

Egg-Cream Tart Dough
(Adapted from Classic Stars Desserts by Emily Luchetti)

1 large egg
2 to 3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
7 ounces (14 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½ -inch pieces
Flour for dusting

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed until combined. Scatter the batter pieces over the top and mix on low speed until the butter is the size of small peas.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and 2 tablespoons of the cream. Add 3 ½ tablespoons of the egg-and-cream mixture and mix on low speed for about 10 seconds. Stop the mixer and gently squeeze a small amount of the dough in your hand. If the dough comes together and does not have any dry pieces, it has enough water. If it is dry, mix in another tablespoon of egg-and-cream mixture and test again. Continue to mix on low speed until the dough almost comes together in a ball.

Form the dough into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling it out.

For a 9 ½ -inch pie crust and top, divide the dough in half and roll out each half into a circle 13 inches in diameter and ¼ inch thick.

To roll out the dough, place it on a lightly floured work surface. Dust the top lightly with flour. Roll the dough from the center toward the edges into a circle, rotating the dough a quarter turn after each roll. Occasionally loosen the dough from the work surface with a metal or plastic scraper to prevent sticking and lightly flour the top and bottom of the dough as needed.

Wrap the dough around the rolling pin, carefully center it over a tart pan with a removable bottom, and then unwrap it from the pin. Gently ease it into the bottom and sides of the pan. Fold the overhang inward and press gently, creating a double thickness along the inside edge of the pan. This helps to strengthen the sides of the tart crust. Trim the top of the dough even with the pan rim by cutting it away with a small knife, working from the inside edge outward. Refrigerate the lined pan for at least 30 minutes before baking.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the unbaked tart crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights, uncooked rise, or dried beans. Bake until the edges of the crust are golden brown about 35 minutes. Remove the weights and the parchment. Continue baking until the bottom is golden brown, about 15 minutes more.

If your tart crust cracks on the bottom, make a thick paste out of a little flour and water and seal the crack. Place back in the oven for a few minutes to dry the “glue.”

Picnic with Albertine (I): Silent Apricots

The girls all preferred sandwiches and exclaimed at seeing me eat only a chocolate cake, with its Gothic architecture of icing, or an apricot tart. But sandwiches of Cheshire cheese and lettuce, untried and unknowing fare, had nothing to say for themselves. Whereas cakes were privy to much, and tarts were talkative. In cakes, there was a cloying creaminess, and in tarts, a refreshing fruitiness, which were aware of many things about Combray and about Gilberte, and not just the Gilberte of Combray days, but the Gilberte of Paris too, for I had renewed my acquaintance with them at her afternoon teas

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 482-3

Unlike peach, its relative, the apricot doesn’t carry strong fruitiness or intense fragrance. Instead, even though covered with fiery orange, apricots are silent in taste and subtle in flavor. According to Food Lover’s Companion, apricot is the “fruit of ancient lineage [that] has been grown in China for over 4,000 years. It now thrives in most temperate climates, with California producing about 90 percent of the American crop” (24). Perhaps it is due to its faint flavor and temperate growing environment that apricots shy away from the Taiwanese fruit market where local tropical or subtropical fruits are more abundant in character, substance, and taste. Indeed, growing up in Taiwan (a.k.a. the kingdom of fruits) where indigenous and exquisitely-engineered succulent peaches or delicate Asian pears are available only in deep winter and only from the high-mountain orchard of Li-Shan, I had never tasted fresh apricots until my attempt to make the fresh apricot tart at my New York adobe. Perhaps, the unbeatable popularity of Li-Shan peaches and pears accounts for why apricots have never been given the chance to vie for a place in the Taiwanese fruit market. Besides, limited Li-Shan orchard space would hardly permit the experiment. It is my suspicion that fruit farmers who have to contend with unpredictable natural disasters such as typhoons are not about to court the potential economic disaster of apricot’s gentle character not being able to stand up to Taiwanese bananas, papayas, guavas, lychees, tangerines, mangoes, pineapples, watermelons, or the local giant-peak grape. Even in the era of WTO, the apricot’s cottony texture and mediocre sweetness has kept it out of the importing limelight.

Apricots, however, are not at all shy after baking. Like an elusive, stuck-up figure who only shows his/her true colors after having been wooed, apricots have a lot to say after they have been warmed up in the oven. The effusive language of the baked apricot in a tart speaks passion, excitement and happiness. The meanings conveyed by the fruit tart are sweetness, tartness and fragrance. The nose anticipates the forkful being carried to the tongue. The tartness of the fruit stimulates saliva—a mechanism, a coaxing, that triggers the taste buds to explore the flavors. The custard made of sugar, egg yolks and heavy cream enters into the conversation but can hardly calm down the cheerful verbosity of the apricot. Rather, the creaminess from the custard is a comfort that prolongs the sweet happiness, a furthering of sensation which dances on the tongue and on the lips. The intoxicating syrupiness of the apricot filling, with its complicating fruitiness and creaminess is almost giddy in effect. Not until the sweet tart crust was blended with the filling could the tongue satisfyingly detect the full and substantial happiness lingering in the mouth, gliding across my tongue from this particular taste to that of abstract sweetness.

Proust, when having a picnic with the gang of girls on the cliff top, comments that, unlike a sandwich, the apricot tart is talkative. It is the refreshing fruitiness of the tart as well as the creaminess of the cake that reminds him of his days in Paris and Combray with Gilberte. Triggered by the sweet sensation of the fruit tart that does not just linger but loiters on his tongue, he reflects upon the sweet memory and applies it to what he feels among the girls. Surrounded by them, the sweetness is no longer in taste on the tongue but also in the feelings conjured up by the intimacy with the girls on the cliff. The sense of happiness conveyed through the taste sensation of a piece of apricot tart also carries a sense of authority because the one who enjoys the tart also has seeming control over how the taste of the tart is perceived.

The sense of perception, as the mechanism of understanding, is the process of incorporating the unknown and blending it in to a part of the self. In addition to the perception of the fruitiness from a piece of apricot tart—the taste of the tart being translated by the narrator’s sense of taste—the narrator also exercises the sense of authority among the group of girls by offering them some trinkets so as to enjoy their giddy laughter: “We would enjoy our picnic; and then, if I had brought with me a trinket of some sort that I thought one or another of the girls might like to have, their translucent faces would instantly turn red with such a vehement surge of joy that their mouths could not contain it, and they would burst into laughter” (483). The joy from the girls is not only translated through their laughter but also reflected through the narrator’s mindset in which his happiness is brought about through his ability of creating the sense of joy among the girls and for himself. As such, the cliff, with the joy, can be transformed into the lively garden wherein the narrator is the gardener: “They [girls] were grouped about me; and between their faces, which were close together, the airy spaces were like azure paths, such as a gardener might make in order to move around in his rose garden” (483).

In tasting the piece of tart, what I could experience is the sense of “talkativeness” not only of the tart per se, but also, perhaps, the sense of ecstasy and the sense of satisfaction, triggered by the tart, which simultaneously embraces my mouth. Perhaps, it is through the sweetness and fruitiness of the tart that the narrator reflects upon the situation in which the girls, like the tart, are talkative, while he as a taster is quiet and always ready to taste sweetness, tartness and happiness, be it from the tart or the girls. By appreciating the mouthful of apricot tart that clinches him, taste, then, is a process of judgment and also the act of control so as to define the girls or tarts from outside so as to embody ourselves to them. The taste of the tart is also similar to the act of understanding the joy from the girls. Therefore, the act of writing is also the act of eating the piece of tart—the process of translating the happiness.

Apricot Custard Tart
(Adapted from Classic Stars Desserts by Emily Luchetti)

This is a versatile summer dessert. You can substitute peaches, plums, or even berries for the apricots. It is ideal after a dinner of barbecued chicken, sliced tomatoes, and corn on the cob.

¾ pound (about 5) ripe apricots
1 prebaked 9 ½ -inch tart crust (see my tart shell entry)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks
¾ cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of kosher salt
¼ cup (1 ounce) sliced almonds

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Halve and pit the apricots, then cut into slices ¾ inch thick. Arrange the apricot slices in the tart crust in a decorative pattern. Set aside.

In a bowl, whisk together the sugar, egg yolks, and cream until blended. Stir in the flour and salt.

Carefully pour the cream mixture over the apricots. Sprinkle the almonds evenly over the top.

Bake until the custard is almost completely set, about 35 minutes. Let the tart cool until it can be handled, then remove the pan sides and place on a platter. Serve the tart slightly warm or at room temperature.

Dining Out with Saint-Loup (II): Chocolate Soufflé and Port

An amount of beer, let alone of champagne, that I would not have wanted to drink in a week at Balbec, even though my mind, when unclouded and sober, was capable of having a clear appreciation of the taste of these drinks as a pleasure, albeit one that could easily be forgone, now passed my lips in the space of an hour, interspersed with a little port, which I was too preoccupied even to taste.

Some of the waiters rushed along the aisles between the rows of table, on outstretched hand bearing a dish that it was the seeming purpose of this type of race not to drop. Sure enough, the chocolate soufflés reached their destination without spilling.

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 391

The dessert soufflé emerges from the oven as a billowy crown, striking in its contrast of chocolate dark and egg white. With some over-ripe apricots left from the tart I made for Proust’s picnic scene with Albertine and other girls, I decided to meander a bit away from the Proust text and test a fruit sauce as accompaniment to the soufflé. At first, the combination was complimentary but it soon developed into a competition with the chocolate winning out over the delightful but too feint hint of apricot.

This led me to wonder if the narrator would have been too drunk to appreciate or even try the chocolate soufflé. In his inebriation, from all that port, might he have burned his tongue on this creation which is served immediately out of the oven? Port? How does the soufflé taste with port? Wonderful! The port travels across the tongue, as if knowing where the chocolate had been, even bringing back its taste, seemingly, for a moment—though different than the taste of the soufflé itself. In the back of the mouth, on the back of the tongue, the port and the chocolate each do the same thing: The sweet becomes bitter, slightly piercing the throat as you swallow.

Before the taste, though, there is the visual experience. The cloudy crown is supported by outer walls crisped by the caramelized sugar, the sides of the bowl having been sweetly dusted before baking. Cracking the chewy-promise of a shell unlocks the rich, warm, creamy soufflé which one can almost inhale or drink in. Yet, would the narrator have been able to remember? His eyes and mind were certainly on other things that night.

Julia Child’s classic approach to the chocolate soufflé calls for the addition of sprinkled sugar, into the cracks, after baking for 35-40 minutes. However, Dorie Greenspan, in her Baking From My Home to Yours, prohibits the opening of the oven at all. Why even risk cracking the soufflé, she rhetorically remonstrates. Instead, she instructs that the cooked soufflé be dusted with confectioners’ sugar at the very end—white specks against the dark chocolate soufflé that will be beautiful to the eye. Perhaps Julia’s version would be tastier to the tongue because of the crunchy caramelized sugar on top. Either way, soufflés are tricky business (as I already wrote about it in the savory cheese variety). Greenspan adds to the lore, recalling challenges faced by Marie Antoine Carême, arguably the inventor of pastry and also someone who took notes on how hard it was in the 1800s to make soufflé. Greenspan writes: “It’s my guess that soufflés earned their reputation for fragility at a time when ovens were unreliable, electric mixers were not even a dream and the distance between the kitchen and the dining room was long, cold and drafty. Hardly ideal conditions for allowing soufflé to live up to its name, which, translated from the French, means puffed up” (406). I don’t know if the chocolate soufflé that the narrator has is as good as the one I was having. My kitchen adjoins the dining room. However, I can imagine the long, drafty distance between kitchen and dining table that would have had to be navigated by those astral, orbiting bodies of Rivebelle waiters, about whom the narrator seems to remember more than he does about his chocolate soufflé.

Chocolate Soufflé
(Adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan)

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup whole milk, at room temperature
4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Give the inside of a 6- to 7-cup soufflé mold a thick coating of butter, sprinkle it with sugar and tap out the excess. Refrigerate until needed. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.

Put the chocolate and ½ cup of the sugar in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and heat, stirring often, until the chocolate is melted. Transfer the bowl to the counter and whisk in the milk. Let the chocolate cool for about 5 minutes, then, one by one, whisk in the yolks.

Working in the clean, dry bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, whip the 6 egg whites until they just turn opaque and start to hold peaks. Still beating, add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in a slowish, steady stream and continue to beat until the peaks are glossy and almost firm. Stir one quarter of the whites into the chocolate to lighten it, then use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the remaining whites.

Delicately turn the batter into the prepared mold and lightly sprinkle the top with confectioners’ sugar. Put the mold on the baking sheet.

Bake—it’s better not to open the door and peek until you think the soufflé is almost done—for 40 minutes, or until the soufflé is beautifully puffed and a thin knife inserted into the center comes out clean (find a non-crusty part of the soufflé and gently insert an angle). Remove the soufflé from the oven and serve immediately, dusting the top with more confectioners’ sugar if you’d like.

Dining Out with Saint-Loup (I): Pauillac Lamb and Potatoes À L’anglaise

[T]he potatoes à l’anglaise, despite the canter and the apparent shaking about, always arrived as they had set out, neatly ranged about the Pauillac lamb. I noticed one of these servers, very tall, with a superb plume of black hair, and wearing makeup of a color more suggestive of certain species of rare birds than of a human face, who ran to and fro, without letup and, it seemed, without purpose, from one end of the room to the other, and brought to mind the macaws that fill the large aviaries in zoos with their gorgeous coloring and incomprehensible agitation.

—In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower 391

“No longer the grandson of my grandmother” (391), the narrator suspends his preoccupation with maintaining good health—a regimen that has been in place so as to avoid another attack that might preclude his becoming accomplished as a writer. Instead, the narrator, arriving at Rivebelle, removes his overcoat, dismisses Saint-Loup’s warning that the dining room might be cold and steps into the restaurant, feeling in his body the thrill of exuberance (391). Yet, being careful not to show his bodily excitement—for he does not want to appear as a giddy girl, the “swaggering songstress who performs in cabarets” (391), he hides his feelings and his body’s expression of them in an assumed posture of manliness: “an appearance of glacial gravity and a world weary gait” (391). Still, that which he does not want to seep out of his body are juices, humors, that affect his internal temperature all the more, in that on the inside he revels as being “but briefly the brother of the waiters who were about to serve us” (391)—brother waiters, whose exotic appearance (“rare birds… gorgeous… and incomprehensible”) and dizzying movements on the floor and between tables of diners, embody the body which the narrator is both trying to hide within his own body while also experiencing in the displayed bodies of those others—waiters; brothers, but briefly. It might not have been at all, except for the easy flow of beer, champagne and port; except this flow of feeling was already coursing in the body of the narrator, perhaps by his proximity to Saint-Loup who would not dote on the narrator’s obsessive quests about girls. Thus, they set out to dine; and, instead of a compulsive inquiry about the intentions of women, the narrator opens up in his attentions to his brothers—one of which was “very tall, with a superb plume of black hair, and wearing makeup” (391).

In all the to and fro of that scene, the reader might miss that this server, or one like him, has just delivered the Pauillac Lamb—a seeming throw away line but in reality, or experientially, a dish—a body—inside of which is the very exuberance of which the narrator speaks and the author writes. In the preparation of this dish, does the reader-cook experience the exuberance, the intoxication seeping out; the rapturous moment. Just as the narrator pities the diners for not having the kind of experience he is having, so too might one pity the poor reader who just reads, from page to page, without stopping to remove the overcoat, no longer the scholarly student of the text, in order to be a fellow diner at the Rivebelle, if but briefly.

It is in the second hour of cooking this three-hour, slow braised lamb dish that one is given entrance into the experience. The scents keep coming to your nose much as all the sights kept presenting to the narrator’s eyes—scents/sights that one takes into the body: the rosemary, garlic and tomatoes; the sweetness from the caramelized sugar and meat, and the root vegetables. The sober chef is intoxicated by the meal as aroma, even before it is eaten. Was the narrator too intoxicated from the beer, champagne and port to even notice that the braising liquid for this dish is an elixir?

Pauillac Lamb, similar to the larger scene in which it is served, has androgynous undertones. True, it is not best to use the gender allusion. Yet, is not the narrator, in body and through the bodies become astral in their movements, alluding to both the binaries and their seeping into each other? The deep, too strong flavor of even young lamb, and the sharp bite of rosemary, are muted and made mellow—a transcendence that can be tasted because of the blending and melding with ingredients that outside of the braising pot would be considered dichotomous. Yet in the pot, in the cooking experience, in the Rivebell dining room is there a taste of this oneness.

Slow cooking is an amazing process, bringing about a more amazing dish. This is not your Manhattan quick-grilled meat or fish with a flashy sauce. The Pauillac Lamb is a dish with flavors that come from somewhere. You remember these flavors; perhaps, not the way they are experienced here in the moment, but they haunt. They wake up recollections of meals you had as a child, when grandmothers and aunts (and some uncles and fathers) lived in the kitchen. The turnip in this lamb dish (both Escoffier and Julia Child name turnip an ingredient) reminds me of something I grew up with in Taiwan: soy sauce, rice wine, star anise, cinnamon, wild dry pepper, clove. None of these elements are present in Pauillac Lamb. So why do I remember? The connective might well be the rock sugar and braised fatty meat of then and now; and it is the turnip that carries the present to memory and back. The turnip, too, somehow connects me to the text, which otherwise would have remained a hidden body, a meal missed. In all of this, I am doing the same thing as the narrator: making sense of the present by how it appears to present the past to me, or me to the past—rendering the text meaningful: slow-cooking lamb, slow-cooking me, slow-cooking the text.

Whereas Escoffier’s cookbook would have been a text contemporaneous with the narrator’s dining experience, as cook I had to rely on Julia Child in my apprenticeship of approximating (let alone mastering) the art of French cooking. One aspect of her methodology that stood out for me in preparing this dish—Navarin Printanier [Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables]—is that she instructs one to brown the meat and season it and then only after doing so does she add the flour. This is in contradistinction to most of my cooking experience and the directions listed in various other styles of cooking, for usually the coating of meat with flour is called for first. I feel the difference between these two methods is that, in the Childs’ French chef version, the flour acts as an agent connecting meat flavor with liquid ingredients. The flour acts as a catalyst whereas in other recipes, where meat is covered in flour before browning, the meat’s flavor is sealed in, so well-sealed—coated (over-coated)—its flavors cannot seep out into the sauce. Furthermore, in this French method, even after the flour is added, bits continue to become affixed to the pan and they need to be scraped and stirred in, adding more available flavor for the dish. Proust’s rich text is such a phenomenon. His allusions are not sealed in. If you scrape across the text, flavors are unlocked, communicated. His text is not just about memory but is a catalyst for memory.

This particular episode, different from his attempts at enslaving Albertine and being closed in himself, has the narrator quite open. Everything blends together. He is not paranoid. Rather, he is open to being connected, infused; and that’s what Pauillac Lamb offers, too. Again, these references to food and specific dishes which might be read as throw away lines or more detail than with which the reader desires to bother are, rather, huge footnotes on the text. The cooking, smelling and tasting give an eerie expression to the text—eerie in that literary criticism and interpretation can hardly probe the textures and tastes. I also realize that my cooking is not a replication of the dishes the narrator mentions—just as there can be no replication or cloning of a memory. Yet, still, my dishes become an improvisation on In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, an artistic exploration such that I can hardly approximate in a scholarly paper alone. So, too, the narrator can hardly approximate a recreation of the original, though he is doggedly determined in his attempts. Fortunately for me, the re-creation is recreation (except when I start worrying about deadlines and submissions); for the narrator, it is, all too often, desperation. He is trying to appreciate/taste/comprehend reality, or at least his experience of the present time, from the hoped for and insisted upon vantage point of memory. As a result, he is not able to be open and fluid with his metaphysical/phenomenological traversing between here and there. The narrator is compulsive about his agenda. Though he pities the diners who rather than enjoying the meal and the grand experience are fixating on the cost of the evening (392), he is able to pity them because he knows, only too well, because what they are doing embodies who he usually is, himself.

Navarin Printanier [Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables]
(Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child et al.)

Navarin Printanier, a most delectable lamb stew with its carrots, onions, turnips, potatoes, peas, and green beans, is presumably done in the spring when all the vegetables are young and tender. But as it can be made any time of the year, it is not a seasonal dish any more thanks to deep freezing. Frozen peas and beans are discussed on pages 449 and 466. The written recipe is long as each detail is important if the navarin is to taste like a French masterpiece. But none of the steps is difficult and everything except the addition of the green vegetables at the very end may be made ready in the morning. The stew can then be finished in 10 to 15 minutes just before dinner time.

With the stew serve hot French bread, and a red Beaujolais or Bordeaux wine, a chilled rosé, or a fairly full-bodied, dried chilled white wine such as a Mâcon, Hermitage, or one of the lesser Burgundies.

For 6 People

3 lbs. lamb stew meat
2 to 4 tablespoons rendered fresh pork fat or cooking oil
A 10 to 12-inch skillet
A fireproof covered casserole large enough to hold the meat, and all the vegetables to come
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoons salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons flour
2 to 3 cups brown lamb- or beef-stock or canned beef bouillon
¾ lb. ripe, red tomatoes, peeled, seeded, juiced, and chopped (1 cup or pulp), or 3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cloves mashed garlic
¼ teaspoon thyme or rosemary
1 bay leaf
6 to 12 peeled “boiling” potatoes
6 peeled carrots
6 peeled turnips
12 to 18 peeled white onions about 1 inch in diameter
1 cup shield green peas
¼ lb. or about 1 cup green beans cut into 1/2 –inch pieces
3 quarts boiling water
1 ½ tablespoons salt

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Cut the lamb into 2-inch cubes and dry with paper towels. The meat will not brown if it is damp. Brown a few pieces at a time in hot fat or oil in the skillet. As they are browned, place them in the casserole.

Sprinkle the lamb in the casserole with sugar and toss over moderately high heat for 3 to 4 minutes until the sugar has caramelized. This will give a fine amber color to the sauce.

Toss the meat with the salt and pepper, then with the flour. Set casserole uncovered in middle level of preheated oven for 4 to 5 minutes. Toss the meat and return it to the oven for 4 to 5 minutes more. This browns the flour evenly and coats the lamb with a light crust. Remove casserole and turn oven down to 350 degrees.

Pour out the fat; add 2 cups of stock or bouillon to the sauté skillet. Bring to the boil and scrape up coagulated sauté juices. Then pour the liquid into the casserole. Bring to the simmer for a few seconds shaking and stirring to mix liquid and flour. Add the tomatoes or tomato paste and the other ingredient (garlic, rosemary and bay leaf). Bring to the simmer for 1 minute, then add more stock if necessary; meat should be almost covered by liquid.

Put the lid on the casserole and set in lower third of preheated oven; regulate heat so casserole simmers slowly and regularly for 1 hour. Then pour the contents of the casserole into a sieve set over a bowl. Rinse out the casserole. Remove any loose bones and return the lamb to the casserole. Skim the fat off the sauce in the bowl, correct seasoning, and pour sauce back into casserole. Then add the vegetables which have been prepared as follows:

While the lamb is simmering, trim the potatoes into ovals 1 ½ inches long, and cover with cold water until ready to use. Quarter the carrots and turnips, cut them into 1 ½ inch lengths, and, if you have the patience, trim the edges to round them slightly. Pierce a cross in the root ends of the onions so they will cook evenly.

Press the vegetables into the casserole around and between the pieces of lamb. Baste with the sauce. Bring to the simmer on top of the stove, cover and return to the oven. Regulate heat so liquid simmers slowly and steadily for about an hour longer or until the meat and vegetables are tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from the oven, tilt casserole, and skim off fat. Taste sauce again, and correct seasoning.

While the casserole is in the oven, drop the peas and beans into the boiling salted water and boil rapidly, uncovered, for 5 minutes or until the vegetables are almost tender. Immediately drain in a colander. Run cold water over them for 2 to 3 minutes to stop the cooking and to set the color. Put aside until ready to use. [May be prepared ahead to this point. Set casserole aside and cover askew. Bring to the simmer on top of the stove before proceeding with recipe.]

Shortly before serving, place the peas and beans in the casserole on top of the other ingredients and baste with the bubbling sauce. Cover and simmer about 5 minutes or until the green vegetables are tender.

Serve the navarin from its casserole or arrange it on a very hot platter.