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Pomegranates without the fuss

January 8, 2012

Plucking the fleshy seeds from a pomegranate can leave you looking like you toured a slaughterhouse. Crimson juice spurts in every direction as you pry the kernels apart, surgically dismantling the fruit’s honeycomb structure.

A simple dish—a salad topped with persimmon slices and pomegranate seeds—can turn into a forty-five minute project. This can feel like more trouble than it’s worth.

A new method I just learned changed all of that.

I’d read about creative techniques to avoid the carnage: pluck the seeds out underwater; perform the operation in an elaborate get-up of plastic bags. But nothing seemed to make the process any less time-consuming or onerous—just less messy. Impatience usually gets the better of me and I end up eating the seeds at the counter with blood-red hands. Still, when pomegranates make their brief appearance every fall, I succumb. This new method gave me every reason to.

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Bûche de Noël: my French log

December 30, 2011

Visiting my family in Paris over Christmas, I knew I would eat bûche de Noël, the elaborate Yule log cake that French patissiers invented centuries ago and that has become the quintessential French Christmas pastry, iconic as the British plum pudding Dickens describes in A Christmas Carol. What I discovered, though, was a changing tradition, one that’s evolving in reaction to changing tastes. Today’s bûche de Noël is going light, airy, slick, modern.

The traditional bûche is made of genoise sponge cake spread with butter cream, rolled into a log shape, and then covered with more butter cream that is scored to look like the craggy bark of a tree. Decorated with tiny, cocoa-dusted mushrooms made of piped meringue and a light snowfall of powdered sugar, the bûche looks like something foraged from the forest. But all that butter cream makes it a rich end to a Christmas meal. This is, apparently, the current complaint—one which French patissiers are addressing by making lighter, mousse-based bûches.

I set out to investigate the bûche scene in Paris.

 Already, I knew there had been a revolution in flavors. It’s taken me a while to get used to the idea. I grew up with bûches with traditional flavor profiles: chocolate, coffee, hazelnut nougatine, maybe raspberry. Last year, I wrote in half dismay when my Parisian family told me over the phone that they were eating a yuzu-flavored bûche de Noël. Yuzu?! What was the world coming to?! But why not? I no longer flinch when I see the pineapple or mango-passion-fruit bûche exotique. Not even raspberry-acai surprises me. The real revolution isn’t in flavors—but in texture and form. And evidence of this revolution was everywhere.

Certainly, you can still find traditional bûches de Noël. But even neighborhood patisseries’ displays reflect the changing times.

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No-name cheese

October 10, 2011

Yesterday, I tasted a cheese that doesn’t yet have a name. I was visiting Dave Eagle at his Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese shop in Granbury, TX.

The cheese was one of those “experiments,” Dave said. He called over his son, Matt, who was washing the Dutch molds in which they make their Gouda and Trappist cheeses.

“Where are those basket-cheese experiments?” he asked. “Can you get one out?”

Matt went back into their aging room with its racks of wheels and its smells of ripening cheese. (“Do you smell apple?” Dave asked me later when we went inside ourselves. I did, now that he mentioned it. The smell reminded me of my great-aunt’s cider cellar when I was growing up in France and we gathered as a family for cider-bottling.)

Out came Matt with a small, palm-sized puck, rough and speckled like a mountain rock. Ridges were still visible from the basket into which the curds had been ladled and left to drain rather than being pressed, like the other cheeses, under the disk-shaped weights of the old-fashioned Dutch press that dominates one side of Dave’s cheese room. (“If you went into an old Dutch cheesemaker’s shop, you would probably see a press like this,” Dave told me.)

The flavor of this aged basket-cheese was unexpected. The interior was firm, dry and crumbly, with a yellow hue. It tasted cheddar-like. The mold on the rind, though, had a flavor that reminded me of the flavors in the bloomy rind of Camembert, sweet and nutty. It was such an unusual and intriguing combination, not quite like anything I’d tasted before. Dave and I shared another slice while I pondered this no-name creation.

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American cheese All-Stars

October 8, 2011

It’s inevitable. The first annual American Cheese Month is announced and hard cheeses start flexing their muscles. Soft cheeses get to limbering up. Bloomy-rind cheeses fluff their delicate white fuzz. They know it’s only a matter of time before people start sizing them up, recruiting the American All-Star team. After all, this will be a month of cheese tastings, and cheesemongers are picking their line-ups. So who makes the team? To scope out the stars of the American cheese scene, find shops or restaurants holding cheese tastings in your area this month.

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Here’s a case study:

At the Scardello Artisan Cheese shop in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, owner Rich Rogers held a “10 for $10 American Cheese Celebration” today, where customers paid $10 to sample a selection of what he considers “the 10 best American-produced cheeses now.”

What counts as “best” for Rich? (See the list below.)

Like a good cheese patriot and representative of his métier, he first made sure his selection covered the major cheese categories: washed-rind, soft, hard, blue. He also showcased all three dairy queens: the cow, the goat, the sheep.

From there, he assumed his own idiosyncratic role as taste guide.

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Say cheese! First annual American Cheese Month

October 1, 2011

The American Cheese Society has proclaimed October the first national American Cheese Month.

Let’s celebrate North American cheese in all its glory, they say. Let’s recognize those who make it, age it, peddle it, eat it. Let’s celebrate the coastal-grazing goats that give us the chèvres of Northern California; the cheesemakers who wash and turn and coddle their cheeses—those who bring us classic Goudas and Cheddars and blues, and those who make new magic with ancho chile or hoja santa leaves or local pear brandy. Let’s savor the cheese names that take us places: Wabash Cannnonball, Rogue River Blue, San Juaquin Gold; and thank the cheesemongers who ply us with samples.

When I learned about American Cheese Month I was tickled. You might even say rapturous. But a few weeks ago, I was reminded that cheese can be, for some, an object of fear. Death. Heights. Clowns. Cheese. This may sound silly. What could be more innocuous than a floppy, tidy, cheerfully orange slice of “American” cheese? (Scary for other reasons.) But consider this:

American cheese tastes have expanded; your average cheese tray could include a hunk of something that smells like old socks; a squat fuzzy cylinder run through with ash; a mysterious bundle wrapped in dark green leaves. We’re way beyond the simplicity of “Swiss or Jack.”

At a wedding I attended a few weeks ago, a woman sidled up to me at the cheese table, which was beautifully spread with at least six different, unusual cheeses. She had been watching me for a few minutes. “You seem to know what you’re doing,” she said. “Will you help me?” She flushed slightly.

Cheese can leave people at a loss. Which rinds can you eat and which do you not? Will everyone laugh if I cut this wedge wrong? Eat a cheese past its prime, and a searing ammoniac flavor could take your breath away and leave you grimacing. So what’s the line between ambrosia and ammonia?

So, yes, cheese can be scary. All the more reason to spend time discovering its glories this October. I say, let this be a month of reveling in new tastes and new stories.

Bring on the cheese!

Tarte aux pommes: apple pie with a French twist

September 8, 2011

I love summer fruit. Heaping bowls of berries and cantaloupe, juicy peaches and plums—I’ve been eating my fill. But almost as though tuned to a seasonal clock, I’ve started thinking about apples, missing their crunch. I’ve started dreaming about spiced apple butter and apple pies. What I’m craving most as autumn approaches, though, is French apple tart—a refined twist on the comforting, classic apple pie.

The all-American apple pie is deep and wide, with a thick, dimpled crust that soaks up juices and spice. Maybe it’s topped with a buckling lattice or a crumbly streusel topping. With its generous wedges of fruit tossed in cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, it’s all about the pleasures of texture, the rich chaos of flavors. French apple tarts, in contrast, are exercises in understated refinement.

First, there’s the dough. The origins of our pie crusts lie in the hearty pies and pasties of England—hefty fare. French apple tarts use pâte feuilletée (puff pastry), one of the marvels that joined the French pantheon of patisserie in the 17th century. While we were cutting suet and lard into pea-sized pieces for our short pastry, the French were beating and folding butter into paper-thin sheets that would puff dough up into crispy layers in the oven.

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Homemade butter

August 15, 2011

 If you hold a buttercup just under someone’s chin, the petals reflect a yellow glow on their skin. If you’re a kid in France, this test, endlessly performed in parks and schoolyards, has only one conclusion: The person loves butter.

I was always suspicious of the test, which felt like a trap. I didn’t love butter. Not like my French cousins, who spread thick slabs of it on their tartines at breakfast. Maybe I wasn’t French enough. Even now, I cook with olive oil.

My first batch of homemade butter, though, made me love butter. And while I vaguely knew it was easy, I had no idea it would take less time than instant oatmeal.

I’m notoriously a “from scratch” person. My hallmark comment when debriefing any sample is “I’ll bet we could make this at home.” I can’t help it. Seeded flatbread with tapenade, pepper-crusted goat cheese, salted caramel sauce to pour over ice cream . . . . It’s great; I love it; I want to make it at home.

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