Minis, Memoirs, King Cake and Kinship: What I’m Reading

7 Mar

The good news is…I’m back! The bad news is that this is going to be a posting sans photographs. I am hoping in any event that you like me more for my brains than my beauty, LOL, since my photography sometimes leaves much to be desired. It has been some time since my last post (at least it feels that way), but not because of a dearth of ideas on my part. The last couple of weeks were awash in practicals and projects, papers and recipe testing, and then I spent 7 days reunited with my husband on vacation in a Saint Lucian paradise. Now I’m back in Charlotte, about to begin the last term of my pastry arts program. It is 39 degrees–sometimes reality is a cold wind after all. And of course, I am always ready to write….

I had some different threads of thought floating around today as I sat down to write, but I soon realized (happily) that all my ideas  relate cooking and baking to my other favorite hobby…reading.

First, as a post-script to my last post on cupcake alternatives, I brought a book on vacation with me that may not be your typical beach reading, called Sweet Miniatures: The Art of Making Bite-Size Desserts. What can I say? I obviously wasn’t going to have the opportunity to do any baking on holiday, but I couldn’t quite leave it all behind me. My husband had this book back in DC, as I had ordered it and planned for its arrival during one of my visit homes. Unfortunately, the book and I crossed paths, as I was back in Charlotte by the time the delivery arrived at my permanent address. So I was eager to get my hands on it. I had spotted it in the JWU library while I was doing some research for a paper. Being somewhat familiar with Flo Braker’s excellent instruction and recipes, and having quite a soft spot for miniatures, I was curious about this collection of recipes published in 2000.  Sitting on my beach chair, I flipped through the pages like it was a cliffhanging mystery-thriller in the vein of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I tried to imagine each step as I read through the method of preps and picture the finished products. I tortured myself with visions of pistachio petits fours, meringue bubbles, pan forte di siena, and honey bee minicakes (a miniature of one of my favorite desserts from Cakes class: honey butter cream, chocolate ganache, and tiny little butter cream honeybees with almond wings–how can you go wrong?). I agree with the author that “good things come in small packages,” and can’t wait to try out some of these delectably elegant and petite treats  in my own kitchen.

Another vacation reading pick, American Passage: This History of Ellis Island–a measured and informative account of the history and politics behind one of America’s most iconic sites—surfaced in an unlikely (and very culinary) way on my favorite reality series, Top Chef All Stars. If you know me, you know that I’m always in front of the TV on Wednesday at 10 EST (and not answering my phone)  if I can help it. I didn’t want to spoil the missed episode by finding out too much, but I did do enough searching to find out that during last week’s challenge, contestants were challenged to create dishes celebrating and representing their unique cultural heritages.  As I have gotten older, I’ve become more and more interested in genealogy. Yes, I did watch the recent Faces of America and the first season of the Who Do You Think You Are? series, crying both pitiably and pitifully during Lisa Kudrow’s segment. I have even gone so far as uncovering some census and ship manifest records that have filled in some holes in my own family tree as well as my husband’s. I’ll tune in an hour early on Wednesday in order to catch the episode and will likely follow up with some thoughts in a future posting.

The Washington Post food section, which admittedly, I used to read more regularly, also featured two articles of note last week. First is an article by Tim Carman re-imagining New Orleans’s famed Mardi Gras King Cake. I’d thought about King Cake recently because of some research I had completed for extra credit on the connection between the French pastry Pithiviers and Christianity. I had uncovered the following:

Pithivier takes on special religious significance in France during the month of January when it is commonly known as Galette des Rois, or a King Cake. During this time, Pithivier is made in special celebration of the Epiphany (January 6), or in commemoration of when the three Kings or wise men traveled to Jerusalem to visit the baby Jesus. The Pithivier-style of King’s cake is associated with Paris, while the Galette des Rois in other parts of France, like Provence, is made differently (e.g., with a brioche base). The Pithivier King Cake is traditionally filled with frangipane or a combination of almond cream and pastry cream.  Often, a paper crown is placed on the top of the Galette des Rois, but perhaps in some instances, a crucifix is also used.  Inside the cake, a special prize, or “feve” is placed, which makes the finder king for the day. Feve means bean, and this is the original form the prize took, but now, it is usually some sort of trinket or figurine. The Pithivier during this time of the year therefore plays the same cultural role as the King Cake in New Orleans.

Carman’s article makes mention of the French pastry and also traces the origin of the King Cake back to possibly pagan or pre-Christian origins. In his quest for a new and improved King Cake, he consulted with a number of heavy weights in the baking world, including New Orleanian and owner of my own neighborhood’s Bayou Bakery, pastry chef David Guas, and Johnson & Wales Charlotte’s acclaimed baker, teacher, and author Peter Reinhart. Reinhart offers a babka king cake alternative (dear to my heart because I have tasted Chef Reinhart’s babka and because the babka is part of my own maternal cultural heritage). Blogger Shauna James Ahearn, the Gluten-Free Girl, also offers an intriguing gluten-free version of the traditional treat that may just be different enough for me to have to test one of these days.

Also in the Post was a review of  chef Gabrielle Hamilton’s much-anticipated and already acclaimed memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter. Hamilton is chef-owner of the Village restaurant Prune.  I have been hearing a lot of positive buzz about this memoir–it has NPR, the Post, the New York Times, and Time magazine practically foaming at the mouth, just to name a few of the stellar reviews. As Hamilton told the NYT: “I wrote a book in a way that I would like more people to write books. I’m not afraid of the real truth. There is nothing you can tell me about yourself that is going to make me clutch my pearls.” I can’t wait to dig in to her prose and form my own opinion.

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