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This Burgundian recipe from Mireille Johnston’s The Cuisine of the Rose is whimsically titled in French “Le Steak,” as if there were only one kind. The English title is “T-bone Steak with a Mustard, Sherry and Cream Sauce.” Neither name acknowledges the coating of crushed black peppercorns, for which I’d have called it steak au poivre.

I made the dish to match with a beautiful Burgundy wine – a 2001 Bonneau du Martray Corton Grand Cru – that was Tom’s special cellar selection for September. Since the dinner would be just for the two of us, whose capacities are far below what they were in the days of our youth, I’d chosen a boneless strip steak, rather than a whole T-bone apiece. (How big are French steaks, anyway?)

I coated both sides of my steak with crushed Tellicherry peppercorns two hours in advance.

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The recipe’s cooking directions surprised me. I was to sear the meat quickly on both sides over high heat. Period. I’d expected to be told to lower the heat and continue cooking to the desired degree of doneness, but no: That steak had all it was going to get. Fortunately, we both like our steaks bloody rare.
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I put it on a platter in a warm oven to wait while I made the sauce. The ingredients for that were two tablespoons each of sherry, cream, and Dijon mustard. They had to be added to the “coagulated juices” in the frying pan one after the other, stirred “vigorously,” brought to a boil, and cooked for five minutes over lower heat. Not so easy. First, there were no coagulated juices – the steak hadn’t released any. Second, over that high heat, the sherry evaporated immediately, the cream boiled instantly, and the mustard thickened everything almost to a paste.

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To loosen the sauce, I had to add more cream and even a little broth that I had on the stove for another purpose. Even so, it was just about enough sauce to spread over the steak for serving.

Well, despite the peculiarities of the recipe, the steak and its sauce turned out very well. I served it with a gratin dauphinois and peas braised with butter and shallots.
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The beef was tender and flavorful, the peppercorns contributed spice as well as heat, the mustard’s bite was mellowed by the cream and sherry, and – best of all – the food and the wine were a marriage made in heaven.

See Tom’s blog for more about the lovely Corton.

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Timbale of Fresh Corn

Local corn season started slowly this year. All through over-heated July, the ears of corn I had from my greenmarket were either underdeveloped or overgrown, and prices were higher than ever: a dollar an ear. (I remember when corn cost a dollar a dozen.) Now prices seem to be edging down, and ripeness is improving.

So, at last I was ready for a corn recipe that I’d wanted to try since last winter, when I’d noticed it in Julia Child & Company: a timbale of fresh corn. That book is organized by complete dinners, and the meal in which this recipe appears is an elegant one, designed to impress an important guest. Nevertheless, I saw no reason not to make it for family: We’re important enough for me.

Julia warns that it’s a lot of work to scrape or grate the kernels off raw ears of corn, and she strongly urges using a specialized corn cutting tool. Since I’d be scaling the recipe way down – making it with 3 ears rather than 12 – I decided I could use a box grater.

I gathered my ingredients and set to work.
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I used the box grater all right, but I’m not showing you a picture of that stage of the work. It was squishy, messy, lengthy, and tiring. It also grated a bit of skin off one of my fingers.

Once that ordeal was over, everything else was easy. I beat an egg in a large bowl and stirred in breadcrumbs, minced onion, minced parsley, grated young Asiago cheese, crème fraiche, salt, black pepper, and hot pepper sauce. (The recipe actually calls for heavy cream and suggests several choices for the cheese. I used what I had in the refrigerator.) It all made a pleasant looking sort of porridge.
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Then I stirred in all the grated corn and poured the mixture into a small souffle dish, which I’d buttered generously and lined on the bottom with a round of buttered wax paper.
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The souffle dish, set in a larger pan partially filled with boiling water, baked for half an hour at 350°, then for a whole hour at 325°. In that time, it was supposed to have risen quite a lot, the top should have cracked open, and a skewer plunged into the center should have come out clean. When mine passed the skewer test, it had risen very little and hadn’t cracked at all. But it was nicely firm and fragrant, so I declared it done. One out of three is good enough.
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I left the dish for 10 minutes in the turned-off oven, door ajar, and then unmolded it. Though quite soft, the timbale held its shape well. It looked very appetizing on the plate.
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And it was delicious. A light, tender custard, laden with nubbly bits of corn, and well-flavored from the mix of other ingredients. I was especially pleased to have used the crème fraiche. It added a little bright tang to contrast with the sweetness of the corn, which regular heavy cream wouldn’t have.

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Maybe I’m going to have to buy one of those special corn graters.

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A great pleasure of opening any of Martin Walker’s “Mysteries of the French Countryside” books is anticipation of the dishes that Bruno Courrèges, his police-chief detective, will be making for dinner guests in the intervals of solving crimes. Bruno’s kitchen work is described so fully, I’ve been able to recreate several of his recipes for myself – about which I’ve done posts, here and here.

This time Tom and I and the friend who shared those earlier occasions gathered to make a dinner based on two of Bruno’s recipes from The Shooting at Chateau Rock: a main course of chicken and a dessert of cherries. Earlier, I’d written up the book’s information on each dish, so we could make notes on scaling down and quantifying. This we did while having kirs, the aperitif that Bruno served.
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For our appetizer at the dinner table, we couldn’t match Bruno’s homemade pâté de foie gras, but we had a hearty chunk of peppercorn-crusted pâté de campagne, served with cornichons and mustard.
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Our main course was this dish of chicken thighs, which, owing to a peculiar omission in the book, might well have been called a “mystery of the French countryside” itself.
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For all the book’s detailed narrative of chopping shallots, garlic, and tarragon, softening them in butter in a casserole dish, adding wine and stock, bringing it to a simmer, covering and putting it in the oven for 45 minutes, it never said to put the chicken thighs in the pot.

I kid you not. All three of us had read and reread the book’s pages, and once the raw chicken thighs are salted and peppered on the kitchen counter, the next we hear of them is when they come out of the casserole to wait while the sauce is being finished.

Needless to say, we needed an intervention. When would Bruno have put the chicken in the casserole? We opted to brown ours quickly in butter at the beginning, took them out of the pan to wait while we softened the vegetables, and returned them in time for the addition of wine and stock. From there, we were able to return to the book’s “instructions.”

Finally, the pan juices were reduced, and the sauce was finished with crème fraiche and lemon zest. We served the chicken with a very plain rice pilaf, as Bruno did (plus green beans, which he didn’t). The whole dish was excellent, with just a touch of spicy-sweet tarragon in the creamy sauce.
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Bruno’s dessert was cherries (picked from his own tree, of course) lightly stewed with honey and topped with a custard made from crème fraiche and heavy cream. It sounded luscious. Alas, our version didn’t entirely succeed.
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We did take extreme care in the time and temperature for heating the two creams and in the continuous vigorous whisking, both when beating them into the eggs and when finishing the cooking. But our custard first refused to thicken, and then – slowly but inexorably – curdled. Too much heat, I fear. I’ve found custards made with milk much easier to work with, and baked custards are easiest of all. Wish we’d used a double boiler here!

Our dessert wasn’t quite ruined: The cherries were fine, and you could think of the topping as a kind of furry, sweetened ricotta. But it didn’t have the silky texture you expect in a custard. Still, well chilled, and with cherry juice drizzled over the top, it was a pleasant enough ending to the meal.

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And finally: Tom produced three white wines for us to drink in the course of the dinner. A Mâcon-Villages for the kirs, a Condrieu with the pâté, and an older Savennières with the chicken. He’s done a post about them on his blog.
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I chose this recipe, from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking vol. 2, to match with a bottle of 2007 Vintage Tunina, one of the 12 special wines Tom is featuring on his blog this year. It’s the kind of lush, rich dish needed to stand up to this majestic 14-year-old white wine.
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My piece of veal was not exactly a steak, which the recipe calls for. My butcher denied all acquaintance with the concept of a veal steak, and the best I could get was a longish, thickish hunk of boneless veal shoulder. But, at home, Tom contrived to butterfly it and pound it into nearly the requested ¾” thickness.

Of course, once the veal went into a hot pan, to be browned in butter and olive oil, it began to shrink back, hump up, and thicken again. No way to stop it; that’s just the nature of the beast. I resigned myself to whatever shape it wanted to have.

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I salted and peppered the meat; stirred in chopped shallots; sauteed for a few more minutes; poured on white wine and homemade mixed-meat-and-chicken broth; and added two fresh sage leaves. (These last, from my little rooftop herb collection, are by far the biggest sage leaves I’ve ever seen. I have no idea what variety of sage I’m growing. But it tastes just fine.)
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While the veal simmered gently, covered, for an hour, the recipe’s instructions were to wash, quarter, and sauté fresh mushrooms in butter, to be added to the veal for its last 10 minutes. It was my good fortune to have some previously sauteed morel mushrooms in my freezer, perfect for just such occasions. In they went.
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When the veal was tender, it and the morels came out to a warmed platter while I finished the sauce. Removing the sage, I boiled down the cooking liquid almost to a syrup. The shallots had virtually melted into invisibility, leaving behind just their essence.
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I added a good dose of heavy cream, boiled the sauce down again until it thickened lightly, and poured it over the meat and morels. In fact, I was supposed to have swirled in some enrichment butter first, but I just plain forgot. Not a problem, however: the sauce was luxuriant enough without it.
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The veal had cooked perfectly, tender and juicy, and the morels had retained all their woodsy essence. This dish and that white wine, as big and complex as any red, were a marriage made in heaven.

For more about the wine, see Tom’s blog.

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Individual mozzarella soufflés make a nice, light first course for a dinner: simple, elegant, and delicious. True, all soufflés require special efforts, but these are much less trouble to make than large traditional ones. More of the preparation can be done in advance, assembly is easier, baking time is shorter, and the finished dish is not as fragile and quick to deflate as most soufflés are.

For this recipe, from Tom’s and my book La Tavola Italiana, there are two major considerations: having a lot of egg whites available (the recipe doesn’t use any yolks) and having an electric mixer capable of rapidly whipping the whites to stiffness. Those are easy for me, because (a) I often use more yolks than whites, so I keep a container of extra whites in the freezer, and (b) my heavy-duty Kitchen-Aid mixer whomps egg whites in next to no time.

Of course, the better the quality of the mozzarella you use, the better the soufflés will taste. As always with Italian cooking, the prima materia is crucial.

Are you still with me? I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone. What follows is an account of four of these little soufflés that I made the other day for dinner with my brother- and sister-in-law.

In the afternoon, well before dinnertime, I made up the sauce base. This required melting two tablespoons of butter in a pot, stirring in two tablespoons of flour, and cooking over low heat for two minutes, stirring and not letting the flour brown. Off heat, I dribbled in a cup of heavy cream, vigorously stirring to keep the mixture smooth. Then I returned the pan to low heat just long enough to stir in half a cup of grated parmigiano and eight ounces of diced mozzarella.
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This base sat at the back of the stove, uncovered and requiring no attention, for several hours. Also early in the day I defrosted ¾ cup of egg whites (six eggs’ worth) and buttered four 1½ cup ramekins and set them aside. In the evening, all that was left to do was whip the whites and fold them into the sauce base.
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For ease in getting them into and out of the oven all at once, I set the filled molds in a shallow (empty) baking pan.
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After 20 minutes at 375º the soufflés are normally done, but I think my oven needs adjustment; this time I had to give them 10 more minutes. They never do rise as high as conventional soufflés, so you don’t get airy towers of custard. But as I said above, they don’t sink as fast either, so you don’t have to sprint to get them – and your diners – to the table. Even when they do deflate a bit, they still have a lovely soft, pully texture under the thin, crisp crust. They have both intensity and delicacy of taste and texture that you wouldn’t think mozzarella would provide. In short, they’re a very satisfactory dish, well worth the effort required.
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When it comes to pasta, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t approve of restaurant chefs who need to vaunt their “creativity” with dishes whose ingredients have never before encountered each other on a plate. There’s a reason some pasta combinations are classics: they work! But even a cranky person like me can occasionally appreciate something new.

This time it came about because Tom noticed that a farm stand at our Greenmarket was featuring boxes of very fresh, small king oyster mushrooms.

 

 

He couldn’t resist them. We’d had ordinary oyster mushrooms before, but not this different variety, which have been available locally only in much larger, stemmier sizes. I looked them up in Elizabeth Schneider’s magisterial Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini to see if they needed any special handling. The answer was yes: moist cooking to tenderize the very dense flesh.

Then I needed a recipe to make them with, so I did an Internet search for recipes using oyster mushrooms. The description of this one attracted me: “Oyster mushrooms are poached in butter and cream and tossed with pasta, Parmesan cheese and green onions.” Obviously, that’s not a classic Italian pasta preparation, but there was a reason I decided to try it: I happened to have a lot of scallions in the refrigerator.

 

 

My faithful knife man cut the mushrooms into small pieces, which I was to sauté for six minutes in butter, adding parsley, salt, and pepper for the last minute. Apparently if they had been the common oyster mushroom, as in the recipe, they’d have been tender by that point, but these sturdier ones weren’t yet.

 

 

When I poured on the recipe’s amount of heavy cream, I could see that it wasn’t going to be enough liquid for poaching, so I took it on myself to add a little broth.

 

 

Next I was to cook the mixture “at a gentle boil” for about five minutes, until the sauce thickened slightly. I was concerned that doing so might dry up the sauce and toughen the mushrooms, so instead I covered the pan and simmered it until the mushrooms were tender. The sauce didn’t thicken much, but I didn’t consider that a problem.

I set the mushroom pan aside while I cooked the pasta – linguine, as recommended – and chopped up two of my many scallions. I finished the dish right in the pan of sauce, tossing in the drained pasta, the scallions, and a few tablespoons of grated parmigiano.

 

 

I really hadn’t been expecting much, especially with the scallions going in raw at the end like that, but to our great pleasure everything came together extremely well. The linguine absorbed a good amount of the sauce, leaving the dish just moist enough. The mushrooms were delicious – the caps tasting noticeably different from and even better than the stems. The scallions also made a real contribution to the harmony of flavors, aromas, and textures.

I still wouldn’t call this an Italian dish, but it certainly was a good one. Guess I have to admit that the “classics” don’t have an exclusive lock on excellent pasta combinations.

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Culinary serendipity takes many forms, not the least of which is sparking ideas for using small amounts of leftovers. On a recent day, my refrigerator and freezer produced a 7-ounce raw filet of John Dory, 3 ounces of raw shrimp, and 4 ounces of mushrooms.

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With an open container of heavy cream also available, inspiration for dinner was easy: something classically French. Julia Child to the rescue, with her poached fish recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. From the book’s five major recipes, five variations, and five suggested shellfish garnitures, I chose almost the simplest, Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons.

Scaling down the recipe to serve two instead of six required some adjustments. I also took a few shortcuts for further simplicity, hoping that Julia wouldn’t disapprove. For example, the shrimp for the garnish were to be first boiled for five minutes in a stock made from wine, water, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, tarragon, and peppercorns; then tossed in a pan with butter, seasonings, and wine.

I couldn’t see doing all that for my eight little shrimp. I just boiled them for two minutes in salted water, then sauteed them briefly in butter with minced shallots and thyme. I sliced the mushrooms and also sauteed them in butter for a few minutes.

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The fish filet was to be poached in a 350° oven. I strewed minced shallots in a shallow baking dish; laid in the fish filet topped with salt, pepper, and more shallots; poured in enough wine and water to cover the filet; and dotted butter over all.

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Now I was supposed to bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove before covering it with a sheet of buttered wax paper and putting it in the oven. But I couldn’t: my only baking dish small enough not to surround the filet with too much liquid couldn’t take a direct flame. So the poaching took quite a bit longer than the recipe expected. I worried a bit, but gentle cooking rarely harms a fish, and eventually a fork could pierce the flesh easily, which meant the fish was done.

At that point I realized I had another problem. The poaching instructions that I’d followed had been in a separate master recipe, which didn’t have mushrooms. When I returned to my Bercy recipe, I saw that I ought to have included the mushrooms in the poaching. Oops! Oh, well – it was a pity that my mushrooms couldn’t exchange flavors with the poaching liquid, but they’d just have to join the dish later.

I gently removed the fish to a plate, poured its liquid into a small pot, and boiled it down to about half a cup’s worth. I stirred in a flour-and-butter paste and then heavy cream. Brought the sauce to a boil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, and folded in the shrimps and mushrooms.

Back into its baking dish went the fish filet, and all the sauce and garnishes over and around it. The recipe also called for more dots of butter, but since the dish had already received almost a stick of butter and half a cup of cream (!), I decided to skip that.
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All this was done in the afternoon. In the evening I sprinkled grated parmigiano (instead of gruyere) over the fish in its sauce and reheated the dish under the broiler. Again, because I couldn’t first reheat it on top of the stove, it took a longer time in the broiler – about 10 minutes to warm it through. It hadn’t browned as much as it should, but I was afraid to overcook the fish, so I took it out and served it.
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It was wonderful – even after my shortcuts and alterations. The John Dory was excellent, as always. The mushrooms had – amazingly, given their short time in the sauce – absorbed all the goodness of fish, shrimp, and cream. The sauce itself was silk and velvet on the tongue, and it tasted like the sweet-salt soul of the sea.

Being something of a partisan of Italian cooking approaches, I hardly ever make classic French dishes any more, but this one reminded me of what I’d been missing. Maybe it’s time to revisit them occasionally.
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Incidentally, Beloved Spouse poured a relatively simple white Burgundy with this dish – a Côte de Nuits Villages – and the combination was delightful.

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A Fabulous Hazelnut Torte

For Thanksgiving last week I baked my traditional contributions to the feast hosted each year by our friends Michele and Charles: a dessert and a bread. The dessert this time was a hazelnut torte, and the bread a focaccia. I’ve written about my focaccia before, so today I want to talk about the torte, which is a paragon of simplicity and flavor.

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Now, don’t laugh at its appearance:  I’m hopeless at cake decoration, and I had a lot of luscious icing that I couldn’t bear not to use. Those wobbly rosettes were all I was capable of. Gorgeous it wasn’t, but it was very, very good.

This easy, delicious recipe was given to me by my Italian friend Maria over 30 years ago. It was her adaptation of a recipe from a British magazine, which she’d written up for herself in Italian. My copy, a yellowed sheet of paper, never translated but now heavily annotated by me, has had an honored place in my recipe binder ever since.

The only thing slightly labor-intensive about it is shelling and toasting the hazelnuts (if you don’t have a ready-prepared supply on hand, as I do). Even that isn’t so bad, because you don’t have to rub off the nuts’ brown inner skin, which is a maddening task. Eight minutes in a 350° oven is all it takes, if you need to.

To make the cake, I energetically whisked together 2 jumbo eggs and ⅜ cup of sugar; added 1 tablespoon of flour, 1¼ teaspoon of baking powder, and 1 cup of ground hazelnuts; transferred the batter to a buttered and floured 8-inch pan, and baked it at 350° for 20 minutes.

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This is a delightful cake just as is, or with a dollop of whipped cream. For home consumption, I usually stop right there. It tastes and feels light on the palate, nut-sweet rather than sugar-sweet. For Thanksgiving, I wanted something dressier, so I went on to make Maria’s recipe for the icing, which is also amazingly easy.

I stirred 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder, 2½ tablespoons of powdered sugar, and a few drops of vanilla extract into a cup of heavy cream. Whipped on high speed in my heavy-duty mixer, the combination turned into a luscious buttercream icing in less than a minute. It too wasn’t sugar-sweet or heavy – a gentle mocha kiss is more like it.

I know that, strictly speaking, a torte should have more than one layer. The full written recipe, which serves 12, calls for 2 cakes, to be sliced in half horizontally and assembled with 3 internal layers of icing. With only 6 of us dining on Thanksgiving, I made just the single cake. If I’d had a slightly smaller pan, the cake would have been thicker and I could have halved it. But with a cake only an inch high, it was too risky to attempt. Nobody at the festive table seemed to mind the absence of internal icing: Maybe the rosettes made up for it.

torte served

The torte went beautifully with the wine-poached pears that were the other dessert of the day.

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I don’t often make (or eat) desserts. It’s partly because I know from experience I have no talent for making them, partly because it’s the easiest part of a meal for me to forgo. For my dinner parties, I usually rely on a few tried-and-true recipes like simple fruit tarts. But once in a while I feel adventurous, and this time I went exploring in Baking with Julia. Published in 1996, it was based on Child’s Master Chefs television series.

It’s a big handsome book, and many of its recipes are too ambitious for me. However, I’d had one solid success with it in the past – beautiful buttermilk scones – so I took courage and looked for a not-too-elaborate dessert. (An additional incentive was that, in writing up my results, I’d be able to tell my very own Julia Child story; see the end of this post.)

Hazelnut Baby Loaves looked like something in my league. I hasten to say these are not made from, with, or for actual babies. I’d describe them as the world’s lushest hazelnut-flavored pound cake, baked in individual loaves and served with the world’s richest cream topping.

Pound cake is something I’m comfortable with. No separating of eggs, no elaborate fillings or frostings. You just cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs, add dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt) alternately with liquid (milk, other flavorings), transfer the batter to a loaf pan and bake it. That was the technique for these little loaves, all right, but they had some special twists.

The dry ingredients for this recipe included ground hazelnuts. I happened to have some excellent ones from Italy, which was an attraction in the first place. Rather than milk, the recipe called for a cup of crème fraiche and a little almond extract. You had to gently fold the dry and wet ingredients into the butter-sugar-egg base, rather than beating them in. The baby loaves were supposed to be baked in 8 tiny pans, 4 by 2 by 2 inches. The smallest pans I had were twice that size, so I suppose my 4 should be called toddler loaves.

Being larger, they took longer to bake than the small ones would have, so I had to watch them carefully. They came out with a slight depression in the center, rather than being nicely rounded. Maybe the batter was too delicate to hold itself up in the bigger pans, or maybe I folded too vigorously and deflated the batter somewhat. The texture and flavor of the finished loaves were wonderful, though.

And oh, the cream that’s also part of the recipe! Sweetened whipped cream is certainly a good thing. Sweetened whipped cream mixed with mascarpone and a dash of grappa is a whole nother thing – to die for. This is a cream that makes you think about smearing it all over a lover’s body and licking it off. Or at least, buying some strawberries to have with the leftover cream the next day. Which is what we did, and I’m looking forward to it for tonight.

By the way, all the recipes in the book are credited to professional chefs who worked with Julia on the television series. This recipe is from Johanne Killeen, a chef-owner of El Forno restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island.

My Julia Child Story

In 1992, I was invited on a food writers’ trip to Sicily. To everyone’s excitement, Julia Child was also among the participants. When I was introduced to her, the first thing Julia said to me, looking down from her 6-foot-plus height to my 5-foot-10 inches, was “Where do you buy your shoes?” The perennial challenge for big women!

Julia was a joy on that trip. Already 80 years old, she never missed a meal, she never missed a drink, and she was interested in everything that we saw and did. On the bus that took our group from one extravagant culinary event to the next, when most of us wanted only to nap off the latest indulgence, if you were sitting near Julia she’d poke you awake and start a conversation.

I took this photo of Julia examining a 6½ pound astice (lobster) that the chef of Ristorante Porto Bello, on the island of Lipari, off the Sicilian coast, was about to prepare for our group.

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