Friday, June 14, 2013

Culinary Tourism*; or "To make bisket bread"

Reading cookbooks is a lot like traveling: in both you have to balance your desire for the new with your need for the known. If your destination is too familiar, you may as well have stayed at home; if it’s too strange, you may wish you stayed at home. So too with cookbooks. If they’re so familiar as to tell you what you already know, who needs them? But if they’re so strange as to be unusable, you may long for your good old comfort foods.

The thought passed through my mind the other day as I sat there reading through an early 17th-century cookery book by Sir Hugh Plat (also spelled Platt) called Delightes for Ladies to Adorn Their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories: With Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters. As I flipped through the pages, I read how to candy rose petals, how to hollow out lemons and then fill them with sugared rose water syrup, and how to mold sugar into a paste “whereof to cast Rabbits, Pigeons, or any other little bird or beast.”

Sugar. On the one hand, it’s as familiar an ingredient as they come, but on the other hand, how strange its uses in Plat’s pages—not to mention the quantities! There’s not a page that doesn’t call for pounds and pounds of sugar—cane sugar, that is, imported from the New World and which, by the time Plat sat down to write his book, had long since eclipsed honey as the country’s favorite sweetener.

When Queen Elizabeth I died—just a year after Plat published his Delightes—her teeth were black, but then so must have been those of many of her contemporaries. Dessert tables—then called “banqueting tables”—were the rage of the day and Sir Hugh wasted no time divulging the royal confectioners’ secrets to the ladies of the realm.

If you’re hoping I’ll share some of his recipes, my apologies. Lacking Queen Elizabeth’s sweet tooth (see my last post), I find the book historically fascinating, but it doesn’t send me running to the kitchen. Somehow I can resist the urge to candy my marigolds.

But then, in the midst of his (to my taste) overly sweet confections, Plat redeemed himself. Despite its unfamiliar language, I recognized the recipe entitled “To make bisket bread, otherwise called french bisket” to be an old friend.

Take halfe a pecke of fine flower, two ounces of Coriander seedes, one ounce of annis seedes, the white of foure egges, half a pinte of Ale yeast, and as much water as will make it up into stiffe past, your water must be but blood warme, then bake it in a long roll as big as your thigh, let it stay in the oven but one houre, and when it is a daye olde, pare it and slice it overthwart, then sugar it over with fine poudred sugar, and so drie it in an oven again, and being drye, take it out and sugar it again then boxe it, and so you  may keepe it all the yeare.

Translated into more familiar English, the 17th-century recipe combines flour, coriander, anise, egg whites, yeast, and water into a stiff dough that’s shaped into “a long roll as big as your thigh,” and baked. After cooling overnight, it’s sliced, sprinkled with sugar, and returned to the oven where the slices are dried out, sprinkled with sugar once again, and boxed for up to a year.

What Plat called “bisket bread,” we call biscotti. Still frequently flavored with anise (less often with coriander), today it’s more likely to be rolled into a log than a thigh—but then again, perhaps the thigh image is more appropriate considering that half a peck of flour amounts to approximately 18 cups. That’s a lot of dough!

As I said, reading cookbooks—especially historical ones—is a balancing act between the familiar and the strange.

*I borrow the phrase from the folklorist Lucy Long, editor of the 2004 collection of essays titled Culinary Tourism.
A most delicate and stiff sugar paste, whereof to cast Rabbits, Pigeons, or any other little bird or beast, either from the life or carved moulds.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

On Sweet Teeth, Dessert, and the SLCa2 Gene

My family frequently makes fun of me for what they see as my complete and utter lack of a sweet tooth. They just don’t understand how two scoops of Kahlua Brownie Fudge can leave me cold. Or how I can pass on the tiramisu. Or do without the strawberry-glazed cheesecake. As far as they’re concerned, there’s no such thing as a too sweet dessert.

Which puts me in mind of Paul Simon’s “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.”

What they call a good dessert—a chocolate-brownie sundae, cream-filled cannoli, baklava dripping with honey—I call saccharine-sweet. What I call a good dessert—walnut-black pepper biscotti, dark-chocolate-covered coffee beans, lemon sorbet—they call spicy, bitter, or sour. If it ain’t sweet, it ain’t dessert, they tell me.

But, I argue back, think about this: the word dessert has nothing to do with sweet. Nothing whatsoever. It comes from the Middle French dessert which meant “last course,” or, literally, “the removal of what has been served,” from desservir, “to clear the table.” Fruit and cheese, for instance, were often the last things served and so, I argue, qualify as dessert. Technically, anything can be considered dessert if it’s served last.

But that’s a technicality. In reality, if you’re going to serve a dessert to almost anyone other than me, it had better be sweet. 

Once I even tried researching the matter online. “Why do people want sweet desserts?” I typed in. Apparently six years ago, someone asked the same question and received the following responses: “What other kind of dessert is there beside sweet desserts?” “Because sugar tastes good and that’s [sic] the way taste buds are.” Hands down, my favorite reply was: “Is this a trick question??”

The more I researched the matter, the more “scientific” evidence I discovered, all explaining why my family craves sugar. Because evolutionarily, our species sensed that sweet foods are more nutrient-rich than bitter ones (but wait: aren’t we told that kale is the über-vegetable?). Because breast-milk is sweet and so from infancy on, sweet is our favorite taste.

I even came across an explanation of why some people crave more sugar than others. According to a group of geneticists from Toronto, “people with a certain DNA difference in their SLCa2 gene ate more sugar than people with other versions. The researchers hypothesize that these folks may have brains that are less sensitive to the amount of sugar in the blood. Which means they may need to eat more sugar to feel full.” 

By this logic, it’s not my family’s fault that they can’t control themselves in a pastry shop or ice cream parlor. It’s genetic. 

Here's a thought. If you, like me, lack the SLCa2 mutation, let me know what your favorite dessert is. There’s power in numbers. Maybe, just maybe, we can petition for walnut-black pepper biscotti or (fill in the blank) to join the ranks of the cannoli and tiramisu on the dessert menus of the world.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Butter Up

How can you not love a city that’s got a street named after butter?
Sorting through my photo library recently, I came across a shot of a street sign I took when I was on vacation in Belgium last summer. Why did I take it? Well, on the one hand, I wanted to remember the narrow cobble-stone street down which I wandered, happily munching cookies, waffles, and chocolate. But truth be told, I also wanted to remember the sign on which was printed the street’s name: Rue au beurre/Boterstraat. Hence my photo.

For complicated historical reasons, roughly half the city’s population speaks French and the other half Dutch (or, more precisely, the dialect of Dutch known as Flemish); thus street signs appear in both languages. So too do the menus that restaurants display to entice hungry passers-by. The dish that best epitomizes Belgian cuisine, as any visitor knows, is mussels and fries, but it’s called by its French name of moules-frites as often as it is by its Dutch name of mosselen-friet. If there’s a contender for the national dish, it’s got to be Belgium’s answer to boeuf bourgignon—but the dish appears variously as carbonnade de boeuf à la Flamande and as Vlaamse stoverij.

Of course I know that, on the one hand, it’s simply a matter of two names for the same thing. What the Dutch call boter, mosselen, and stoverij, the French call beurre, moules, and carbonnade. On the other hand, as I have so often observed, translations of food names are seldom as straightforward as you might think.  If they were, why would we so automatically prefer the French names to the Dutch ones? Who can deny that beurre has a panache that boter simply doesn’t have? And just think of the difference between soupe de poisson (or de poulet) and Waterzooi. Similar ingredients but one sounds like a delicious fish (or chicken) soup and the other . . . ? Well, the other you probably have never even heard of.

But here’s the rub. As much as we prefer French names, our English food words are a lot closer to the Dutch ones. Case in point: we put butter on our bread just as they spread boter on their brood.

So why are we so quick to prefer beurre? And why do the guidebooks refer to Brussels’ chief tourist destination—its square surrounded by ornately decorated and steeply gabled guildhalls—as the Grand Place, rather than the Grote Markt, as it's known by half the population?


Because for historical reasons even more complicated than the ones I referred to above, we speakers of Germanic languages (which include English and Dutch, not to mention German, Norwegian, and Swedish) have been brought up to believe that if it’s French, it’s got to be more sophisticated. But do champignons a l’escargot really taste so much better than paddestoelen met slakkenboter? They’re both just mushrooms with snail butter. And are crêpes really so much tastier than pannekoeken? Or have we just been taken in by self-proclaimed Gallic resonance?

Admittedly not as elegant as a mille-feuille, it’s the chewy waffles with their nuggets of pearl sugar I’m still dreaming of. And, by the way, that’s wafel, not gaufre.