Of daffodils and gingerbread

February 27th, 2009


Sparks of citrus yellow, the earliest woodland daffodils have begun their parade outside my door. This morning it was 32° f./0° c. again, but the brave, fragile blossoms continue to poke through their winter blanket of dry leaves. Not surprisingly, Wordsworth’s Daffodils spring to mind, as each day more dashes of chrome and cream appear.  I replay the lines, “...a crowd, a host of golden daffodils…fluttering and dancing in the breeze”, from William Wordsworth’s 1804 poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.  Just the thought of meandering through the Cumbrian hills and vales put me in the mood for a cup of tea, and with the tea there must be a sweet bite of gingerbread.

The famous Grasmere Gingerbread recipe is top secret, locked in a bank vault somewhere near Lake Windemere.  So, I sifted through my gingerbread collection to find something similar. Traditionally, it was made with ground oats or wheat flour, honey and ginger, even the unusual addition of marzipan in the eighteenth century.  This bears little resemblance to a Midwest American cake-style gingerbread, but is closer to a shortbread, or a densely sweet bar – so dense that I considered trying it as the base crust for a cheesecake or lemon pie, if the raisins are left out.  I used half flour, half ground almonds. Bake in a slow to moderate oven, or a butter-dripping toffee is the result.  Use a  pastry blender to cut the flour into the butter:  Blend together 1 cup flour sifted with 1/2 teaspoon each baking soda, ground ginger, cream of tartar, and nutmeg. Cut in 1/2 cup cold butter cut into bits, until the mixture resembles fine meal. Mix in 2/3 cup dark brown sugar (packed, Demerara), 1 tablespoon golden syrup drizzled over all, 1/4 cup sultana raisins (soaked in rum), and 1/4 cup diced crystalized ginger. Stir, then work it together with your hands and press into a buttered 8″ pie tin (Not with removable base, or butter will leak out), bake in the center of a preheated 325°f/160°c oven, test after 40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes, then cut into squares or wedges. It firms up within 30 minutes, by the time you have put the kettle on for a proper cup of tea, and walked outside – again – to admire the daffodils and to appreciate, as Wordsworth put it,…”the bliss of solitude”.

Grasmere Gingerbread recipe adapted from Gourmet magazine, April 1974 article on Cumbria, England.

Next up:  Apples for all seasons, and notes from wine country.

Last call for fresh truffles

February 19th, 2009

The truffle season is winding down, I realized this week when I read that there were only 4 kilograms/7 1/2 pounds brought to the Sarlat truffle market last Saturday. The supply is tapering off in the Périgord. So, I set my sights on other regions with more trufficulture – perhaps a longer season. Several years ago at the White Truffle Fair in Alba, northern Italy’s famed center of the delicate white truffle, I spoke with a truffle vendor from Norcia.  I was drawn to his table by earthy, distinctive aromas, and found he was the only one selling black truffles.  Well, Norcia in Umbria is the place to be during the last weekends of February. Anyone with a passion for the black diamonds will find Umbrian truffles worth the trip. In Norcia, the 46th Mostra mercato Internazionale del Tartufo Nero Pregiato fills the “City of Savors” with vendors the 20, 21, 22 February.  And we’re not limited to truffles – consider the succulent air-dried ham, famous lentils di Castelluccio, fresh trout from the Sordo river, and Umbrian woodland honey – regional products are in the spotlight. The following weekend more truffles and tastings are lined up, as well as concerts.  The last call for truffles could be a resounding trumpet voluntary on Norcia’s Piazza San Benedetto !

For details on the Nero Norcia Truffle Fair, visit:  www.umbriaonline.com or www.bellaumbria.net/Norcia – for dates as well as agroturismo/farms with rooms to rent in Umbria

The food & the mood, be sweet…be spicy

February 13th, 2009

Oysters, truffles, chili peppers, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, chocolate, oh – cinnamon, mint and almonds – the list of notorious aphrodisiacs is long. Is it the zinc in oysters (and pine nuts as well) that lends credence to their legendary powers? How much of the allure rests in nutrition, for garlic’s medicinal heat as one case, has stirred research into the pungent bulb’s properties.  Certainly each ingredient’s sensual qualities, the color and aromas come into play when preparing a menu with a hint of seduction. Fragrance is on almond’s side, as Samson knew when he courted Delilah with sweet almonds. Did cinnamon do the trick when the Queen of Sheba set her cap (or crown?) for King Solomon?  Spices are legendary, as Romans knew when they munched on anise seeds to stimulate their libido. There appear to be several winning combinations on the list, depending on the setting and mood, the season and personalities involved in the plot…..and seduction is a plot, non?

The plot… er the menu: in truffle season, pull out a paring knife, trim a small truffle and dice it, slice a log or a round of fresh chèvre cheese horizontally. Sprinkle truffle dice between the layers and wrap this appetizer in baking paper or a small brown paper bag (NOT in plastic) and tuck it in a cool place for a day or three before your dinner.  Garnish it with arugula/roquette (also on the list…). Stir up a hearty soup based on garlic, ginger, tomatoes, with basil and even a little fresh mint (to add at the end of cooking). Use chopped chicken or lamb for texture and protein, and toss in a touch of chili pepper, let it rest to mellow overnight. A fresh baguette or crusty roll is perfect on the side.  All of this can be ready well before dinner time, to allow maximum time for “conversation”.  The wine, a fresh white Vouvray with the chèvre truffé, and later a subtle and complex Bordeaux Supérieur or the dark fruit of a Gigondas would be my choice – but possibilities abound. Now, what’s for dessert? A gooey chocolate-almond-nutmeg fondant cake would be superb (with or without a dusting of chili).  Stay tuned, the Valentine recipe is being tested…and tasted.

Fondant Chocolate, a cake that is almost done retains a molten middle if not baked too long – but is not bad as a cake….if you get distracted before dessert.  Stir it  up ahead of time, it can be popped into the oven and bakes at 350°f for 8 to 10 minutes in individual ramekins (1/2 cup+1 tablespoon/150 ml) or baking cups. Melt 3 packages of 70% chocolate (each package 100g, broken into little pieces – half milk chocolate is milder) in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water; let cool while mixing 1/3 cup light brown sugar with 6 tablespoons butter cut into bits and 5 medium-sized eggs.  When blended, add 1/2 cup ground almonds (or 1/2 cup flour, sifted), 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg. Orange zest or cinnamon could also be added at this point if you wish. Blend in the chocolate – it will be grainy at first, but blend steadily – and then add 2 tablespoons dark rum. Pour batter into 5 or 6 buttered ramekins, each 2/3 full, place them on a baking sheet, dust with a little sugar, and bake until edges firm up, begin to rise but middle remains soft, about 9 minutes. Serve warm in the cup or turn out (carefully, to retain the soft center) onto a dessert plate and garnish with sour cream or whipping cream sprinkled with crimson pomegranate seeds.  If desired, dust with cocoa mixed with chili powder for an extra zing. To cut the recipe in half, use 2 large eggs to make 3 servings.

Do the Chandeleur “flip”

February 2nd, 2009

Making pancakes is good exercise, look at it this way.  When I watched women making crèpes at a foire in Brittany, they stirred, they flipped, they rolled or folded the golden pancake envelope around a sweet filling- and so deftly it took but a minute.  Practice makes perfect (as we all know, the first pancake is always ratée - a mess!) and these crèpe flipping experts have been at it since they were about six years old. But why, I wondered, is the crèpe always eaten on February second, Chandeleur ? Thank the pagans, whose sun-worshipping traditions were reinterpreted as Christianity took hold around the Mediterranean.  Roman revelers worshiping Pan carried torches on their noisy processions to chase away the last traces of winter and celebrate the longer days of early spring.  Forty days after Christmas, when the Greeks carried candles to the mass for Hypapante (the meeting) in the fifth century, they marked the day Mary and Joseph presented Jesus for consecration at the temple.  This follows – torches, candles for Chandeleur - but what about pancakes? The round, quickly-made blini symbolized the sun for Russians, who saluted the return of spring during “butter week” before their forty meatless days of Lent began. Blinis bathed in butter answered the need for street food as they invoked the nature’s spirits for an upcoming season of abundance.  So, the round crèpe is still flipped across Europe, certainly in France, during February’s days of Carnaval that run from Chandeleur to Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday.

For a far better description of the crèpe and all its cousins around the world, I dipped into a tidy little volume: Pancake, A Global History, by food historian Ken Albala.  Pancake is one of a delicious series called Edibles by Reaktion Books, a UK publisher.  Not only does Albala’s book answer many questions about this universal favorite, he amusingly covers such traditions as pancake races (what was I saying about the pancake as exercise?!). The last pages are devoted to recipes for everything from Berry Explosion Pancakes to Provençal Socca and Brittany’s Galettes.  Oh, and do try the blini – with or without caviar – to celebrate the sun’s return.

Crèpe flippers take note: London’s pancakealympics are set for February 22nd at Blackheath Market, and the flip-finals to be run at Islington Green Farmers’ Market on February 24th at 12:20.  For directions and further details about the pancake races, visit: www.pancakeday.lfm.org.uk. Bonne chance!

And Shrove Tuesday is Pannukakku Päivä in Finland, where the vagabondgourmand learned to eat split pea soup on this day – always followed by a pancake with strawberry jam.  Bring on the pannukakku!