Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Time of My Life with "Foods of the World"

I met the great love of my reading life innocuously enough, through a piece of junk mail. Time-Life Books knew to target our household because we had bought from them in the past (the "World War Two" series fascinated my brother and me; we turned to it on rainy days and were never disappointed). I had seen the Foods of the World series before in the library, but the possibility of owning all 27 volumes had not occurred to me until this well-timed and colorful piece of marketing showed up. I was thirteen years old and had recently moved from the Midwest to Brighton, a suburb of Rochester, New York. I didn't know what I wanted out of life yet, but I loved to cook, and I loved foreign languages. Yes, I thought, looking at Time-Life's glossy pitch. Yes, this is for me.

The volumes, with their matching spiral-bound recipe books, came one at a time, every other month or so, in a sturdy cardboard envelope. The first to arrive was "The Cooking of India." Soon I was seeking out fresh coriander for chutney (this was 1983, and Wegmans, bless its expansive heart, was the only store in Rochester carrying fresh coriander in sufficient quantities), measuring spices for curried shrimp, making homemade cheese for mattar paneer (the dish by which I judge Indian restaurants today) and devising a mean homemade garam masala. Something in me changed because of that book. Cooking had become more than a pleasant pastime; it was now a way of connecting myself to other people.

When I had received perhaps six or seven such books, disaster struck: Time-Life put the series out of print. It was, they said, far too expensive to continue producing a full-color 27-volume set of cookbooks with accompanying recipe books. (These are the same people who encouraged me to cook with real saffron, to use copper pots, to assess different grades of caviar.) That meant that I would have to seek out the rest of the set in used bookstores. Hunting them down would prove to be an especially keen pleasure. Over the next few years, I assembled the complete set, and now it has pride of place on my cookbook shelves.


This love of mine has a touch of the irrational to it. The series has many virtues, but it also has definite faults. There are eight volumes on American cooking, two on French, one on Italian and one on Chinese cooking, which in retrospect looks terribly ignorant. Greece is confined to one chapter in the book on Middle Eastern cooking. Korea is left out completely. On the other hand, the authors were among the great food writers of the 20th century: M.F.K. Fisher, Craig Claiborne, and Joseph Wechsberg, to name a few.

The series began to be issued in 1968 and was completed in 1973, and it shows. Although the world was on fire, the tone of the books is often relentlessly perky, as if the Time-Life printing presses had been operating to the tune of "It's a Small World After All." "One hopes that the war there will be over soon," chirps the author of the Vietnam chapter before moving on to the weightier matters of spring rolls and cucumber salad.

This retro optimism has its charms. Whenever I see one of the volumes, or even the whole set, for sale, I feel a surge of interest all over again. I have had dreams about browsing used bookstores and finding more volumes with titles like The Cooking of Nova Scotia or Burmese Cooking or The Cooking of the Arctic Peoples. Time-Life is no longer in the book-publishing business, but hope springs eternal. I wonder how many other foodie readers are out there, waiting for the moment when the good people at Time-Life come to their senses and publish an updated edition of the greatest cookbook series in history. On the other hand, the world seems even less innocent now than it was in 1968. Who today would be up to the task, so confidently tackled by the Foods of the World editorial team, of finding global peace in a cookbook series? Perhaps there really is nothing like first love.



Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen




Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Anna's Christmas Cake

There are two secrets to this recipe, which I avoid calling "fruitcake" because of the negative connotations. First is to use home-candied orange peel. It really is not worth buying the waxy, gummy, noxious substance that is marketed as "candied peel" by supermarkets; small wonder fruitcake has a bad reputation! For years I fussed with various methods of candying peel until I discovered Julia Child's recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which produces a truly delicious result. 

The second is to give the cake enough time to mature if you are planning to baste it with liquor. For consuming at Christmas, I try to start the cakes in September; when I have managed to do so, the results have been spectacular. My basting liquor of choice is a combination of Grand Marnier and Amaretto. If you don't wish to use the liquor, the cake will still be good, but its keeping time will need to be counted in days rather than months.

If you wish, you can cover the finished cake with marzipan and/or white icing, as is often done in the UK. The cake itself is based on my Swiss German great-grandmother Anna Klein Mueri's recipe, which did not contain fruit, nuts, or liquor.

On the evening before baking the cake, combine in a nonreactive large bowl:

2 c. golden raisins
2 c. candied orange peel, preferably homemade, chopped 
2 T. Amaretto
2 T. Grand Marnier

Cover and set aside at room temperature. The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cream together:

1 c. softened butter
2 c. granulated sugar
2 t. each vanilla and almond extract
2 eggs

In a separate bowl, mix:

4 c. all-purpose flour
1 T. pumpkin-pie spice

Mix in a measuring pitcher:

2 and 1/4 c. whole milk
2 and 1/2 t. baking soda

Add flour mixture and milk mixture alternately to butter mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Beat 3 minutes to aerate and develop the cake's structure.

Mix in:

The raisin-peel mixture with liquor
1 c. sliced almonds

Butter and flour a large Gugelhopf or angel-food cake pan very thoroughly. Pour in the batter and smooth level. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool on a rack for 15 minutes, then unmold onto a rimmed, non-reactive platter to cool completely. Baste with:

1 T. each Amaretto and Grand Marnier

once a day until Christmas. You may poke holes in the cake to facilitate soaking. Some people wrap the cake in cheesecloth, then in foil. Store in a cool place. Cake's flavor most definitely improves with aging.



Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen

 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Fruit Plate: Strawberries

The best strawberries I've ever eaten came from a farm in Norway owned by a relative of Diner #1's. I first had the chance to be present at the strawberry harvest one July, when Diner #2 was about a year old. Soon after arrival, we were sitting around the kitchen table when Diner #1 cleared his throat and meekly submitted that we might perhaps like to pick a few, you know, just as long as we were there. "Oh, pick as much as you want," said the relative, waving a hand. "It's not like we're going to run out."

After dinner, we walked into the still sunlit fields, from which arose a scent like that of bubbling strawberry preserves, and looked down. Spilling onto the neat straw-lined walkways, as if each plant were an open jewel box, were berries upon berries in all stages of ripening, from the cutest jade marble to blood-ripe specimens.



The scent was only a hint of the ecstatic experience. There was the glossy skin delicately punctuated with tiny seeds, the bite into the flesh, the taking of the sweetness into one's body. Pausing, one could easily become envious of others' obvious pleasure. There was an equally easy cure for this, and that was to eat more berries.

Norway is justly famed for its berries. These were not just any Norwegian berries, though, but Valldal strawberries. The village of Valldal possesses a climate and soil beautifully suited to strawberry growing. Since they fetch a premium price in Oslo and elsewhere, only strawberries grown in Valldal may be marketed as such---a sort of berry-sensitive appellation controllee. 




"Why don't the birds attack them?" I wondered out loud. It turned out that the birds preferred the local wild blueberries.

That was about ten years ago. Since then, the Diners and I have been fortunate enough to visit Valldal during several more harvests. Our relatives always apologize for not having more time for extended conversation. I always reflect that even if harvest time permitted that, it would be impractical for us as well, whose mouths are occupied with such strawberries.

Immersion in the Valldal strawberry mystique has made me picky about the ones back home. Driscoll's has proven itself time and again to be the best source. The berries should be red all over, without mushy spots (I turn the clamshell package over to examine for these). Sniffing them pays off, too: they should have an appealing scent.

Although best eaten right away, strawberries may be stored for a day or so in the fridge and taken out in time for them to warm up before serving. We don't add anything to them. Good berries don't need any adornment; the intense flavor is worth savoring on its own. The Diners and I sit and munch and remark on the degrees of sweetness: this berry needed more ripening, that one was unusually good. "But, of course," someone always adds, "nothing beats the ones from Valldal."


Copyright (c) 2016 Anna Bendiksen