Amuse bouche, I worship thee

amuse bouche in Alba, Piemonte

amuse bouche in Alba, Piemonte

Is it your petite, bite-sized sweetness, your unexpected appearance before my hungry lips, or the gentle way you prep my eager palette for what is yet to come – more scintillating surprises and morsels of enticing deliciousness just around the corner -that keeps me addicted to you and coming back for more?  I am a willing slave to your demands.

And, to keep our affair fresh and enlivened, a suitably aged bottle or two of wine from the cellar?  Is there a better threesome than this?

Vintage bottles from Ca roma

Vintage bottles from Ca roma

Amuse bouch, I worship thee

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Thank goodness Weihnachten comes only once

Freshly lit candles burned and glowed on the Christmas tree, providing a cozy, warm contrast to the somber December grayness outside.  As if on clue, the church bells started ringing, just as we sat down for our Christmas meal:  Roasted duck, braised raisins with gravy, potatoes, red cabbage, and hearty red wine.  A beautiful meal, another rich, German feast of meat and potatoes.  Don’t get me wrong, I love eating German food, any food for that matter, and my mother in law is a wonderful cook.  But really, I don’t think my poor body can consume much more meat and potatoes without going burst.  Oh broccoli, oh kale, oh mesclun – or anything green and fibrous- where are thou?

If I were a farmer, doing physical labor in the fields from sunrise to sunset, the meat and potatoes diet would probably be appropriate.  But given our sedentary lives nowadays, and especially given our inactivity during the holidays spent indoors with family, when the only physical labor we exert is moving from the couch to the dining table, a diet of meat and potatoes seems somehow too…heavy.   How has the ubiquitous warning to include more colorful vegetables and fruits in a healthy dietary regime missed arriving on the organic shores of Germany?  Did they not get the memo?

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As soon as our plates were cleared and our stomachs were on the verge of bursting, the requisite coffee and cake was served.  If you are German, have lived in Germany or been to Germany, you know that coffee and cake in the afternoon is the favorite national pastime, sport, or vocation.  If you do not partake, you are looked at as if you are from a galaxy far far away.  We had enjoyed various types of Christmas Stollen with our coffee over the past several days, but today my mother in law opened a fresh box of the famous Baumkuchen from Salzwedel.  Yum!  Although I was stuffed and had plenty of food reserve to last me years, I just couldn’t say no to Baumkuchen.  Nobody could.  Is it possible to say no to any food offered, especially during the holidays?  I didn’t think so.

Baumkuchen

Salzwedeler Baumkuchen

My observation of the marathon eating feast during this holiday season makes me think that Germany’s Christmas (Weihnachten) is comparable to the U.S.’s Thanksgiving.  When we were younger we used to stuff ourselves each Thanksgiving with dry turkey and lumpy gravy, Stovetop stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, pecan pies, assortment of fruits, chocolates, brownies, etc.  Because I can’t remember what we ate for Christmas, I am assuming the focus was not on food.  However, the mere thought of Thanksgiving provokes a Tryptophan flashback that makes me feel sleepy and groan with pain.  Now, I have another holiday, Weihnachten in Deutschland, which will provoke the same bloated and comatose sensation in the future.  Thank goodness Weihnachten comes only once a year.  Somebody, PLEASE take the Baumkuchen, Stollen, marzipan pralines, chocolates, and mandarins away from my reach; I can’t seem to stop myself…Oops, gotta go; next meal is calling.

In the beginning…

As I embarked on this new ‘cooking and baking’ experience, I threw advice and caution aside by substituting for ingredients I did not have or could not find locally.  At the time, I figured there would be no problem replacing one type of flour for another type.  Boy, was I ever wrong.

Because I could not find ‘bread flour’, which was called for in the Pain de Campagne recipe from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (BBA), I substituted Dinkel Vollkornmehl, thinking that it would be okay.  However, because of the substitution, my dough failed to rise during fermentation and didn’t develop the lofty character that I had wanted and expected.  Instead, my Pain de Campagne turned into a very dense and heavy brotchen.  Note to others:  Spelt flour (Dinkel Volkornmehl) is not an effective substitute for bread flour.  Lesson learned.  Let’s try again.

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Criticism and Feedback

Why is it so easy to criticize negatively? Why does the negative seem to trump the positive, especially when it comes to self reflection?

After I baked my first bread, I was very disappointed with the way the bread turned out. I kept focusing on the fact that the bread wasn’t as chewy as it should have been, that it did not double in size as it should have, that it just wasn’t perfect. I focused all my attention on the negative.

On a whim I took half of the bread to my class yesterday afternoon and before offering it to my classmates and teacher, I prefaced it by asking, “I am learning to bake, and I want you to give me honest feedback on this. If you do not like it, tell me why. If you think it’s bad, tell me what would make it better…” (Notice how all my questions started with negative assumptions? I only noticed this about myself afterward). They all took a piece, spread some Kerrygold butter that I had brought and sprinkled a bit of Fleur de Sel before placing it in their mouths. I waited and no one said anything. Impatience, one of my unfortunate virtues, propelled me to ask, “Und was denkt ihr?” while they were still chewing. They chewed and left me waiting (obviously they do not suffer from impatience). When they finally spoke, after what seemed like an eternity to me, my teacher said that the flavors were wonderful and asked me what was in it. I told her there were over 20 ingredients including fennel, caraway seeds, cacao, shallots, etc. She said the taste was “Wonderschoen!” When I mentioned that I did not like the crumble of the bread and that it should be chewier, she said, “Ja, es ist ein bisschen trocken aber es schmeckt sehr gut.” Another classmate noted that she loved the flavors and indicated she would buy such breads if offered in a bakery. Another classmate, who stated that she also bakes, said the flavors were perfect. They asked if they could have more, and I was pleasantly surprised and answered, “Bitte schon!” Of course, all this was happening in German, and because of my developing German skills, it’s possible that they told me how awful the bread was and I only misunderstood them (see, there I go again…).

Does everybody do this or is it only me? Why are we so quick to criticize ourselves (and often others) so negatively. How does that serve us? Should we be kinder to ourselves by allowing the positive to trump the negative so that we can be kinder to others? How do we achieve this as individuals? Perhaps awareness is the first step so that the next time it happens, we are better prepared to take immediate steps to alter those negatives thoughts, which often lead to negative feelings and inappropriate behavior. Yes, easier said than done, I know.

Appropriately enough, as I was thinking about my own self-critical nature, a friend sent me a link to Jimmy Kimmels Mean Tweets. Yes, some are funny because of the way the actors are reading them. But, I wonder, are the mean tweets necessarily about the celebrities or do they reveal the insecurities of the tweeters themselves?

Welcome to my blog!

I can’t cook.  Throughout the four decades of my life, I have been surrounded by talented and generous people who have cooked and shared their meals with me for free (friends) or for a fee (chefs and cooks).  Repeatedly I have imagined waking up each day and suddenly having the proficiency to cook or, at least, a growing desire to cook; I SO wanted to love cooking.  Sadly, that never happened as expected.  But as we all know, life doesn’t always go as expected.

Bumbi Bali cooking class creations

Bumbi Bali cooking class creations

Even after exposing myself to inspiring cooking classes in such exotic locations like Bali (Bumbu Bali), Tokyo, Bangkok, or even Chengdu, the cooking bug just wouldn’t bite me (although other bugs have definitely taken their piece of me).  Eventually, after countless futile attempts, I gave up any pretense of enjoying cooking or wanting to learn to cook.  Although relish eating delicious foods, I realized and accepted the fact that cooking just wasn’t my ‘thing’; I had no innate talent for it and I was only torturing myself (and family) trying to be someone I wasn’t.  After I made that decision, it was easy for me to avoid cooking, but I didn’t necessarily feel liberated.  Odd.  Isn’t acceptance supposed to bring liberation in a philosophical sense?

Ravioli with Alba White Truffles

Ravioli with Alba White Truffles

Because my husband enjoys cooking and is skilled at it, I benefited from his talents and craft.  However, during the workweek when we were both working long hours, our usual habit was to meet in a restaurant, eat dinner and then come home together.  This was our regular routine for almost 10 years and I couldn’t really complain.  I know that this is the norm for many people who do not have the time or opportunity to cook at home.  The weekends often provide the briefest window of opportunity and, for us, those were the days when my husband would cook and I would clean.  I don’t mind cleaning because, to be quite honest, my husband has a bit of room for improvement in that area of the kitchen.  Although I sometimes suspect that he purposefully ‘messes up’ so that I take over the cleaning portion of the meal, he denies it.  Anyways, that was our partnership and it usually worked.  But now, suddenly, things have changed for us…all because of our recent holiday through France and Italy.

Fresh egg pasta a l'amatriciana

Fresh egg pasta a l’amatriciana

I have been cooking consistently for the past week.  I have been teaching myself to make fresh pasta and fresh bread.  To say that this is a miracle is an understatement for me.  For the past week, my husband has been repeatedly looking at me in wonder and asking me, “Who are you?  And what did you do with my wife?”  When I say cooking, I don’t mean that I have been making anything of particular note.  What I mean is that I have been buying fresh ingredients at the market (German markets are wonderful!), finding recipes and making simple food in the kitchen.  This is probably a ‘duh’ to most people who do this on a daily basis and have been doing it for most of their lives and relish the beauty of it; but for me, it’s new, it’s different than my normal life routine, it’s uncomfortable and very intimidating.  But also…should I admit it?  It is rather kinda exciting and fun.  How strange?  I can’t believe I feel this way about cooking.  Who would have thought it?  What is happening to me?  I thought I was too old to change?  How could a simple holiday change me so much?  And how long will it last?

Fresh Russian Black Bread (Chorni Chleb)

Fresh Russian Black Bread (Chorni Chleb)

Because I do not know the answers to any of these questions, I am going to try and write what I am doing each day (I know, crazy right?).  Perhaps this phase of my life will end in a few days or a few weeks as will this blog, but for now, I need something to record and remember this turning point in my life.

Thus, this new blog: Mish en Place.  It’s a word play on ‘mise en place’, a French term meaning “to put in place”.  The term is normally used by chefs to organize and place all the essential ingredients and tools in their proper place to ease preparation and to provide effective and efficient results.  In order to learn something new, it’s important to put things in their proper place: to plan, organize and practice.  My goal with this blog is 1. to try new things (Exploration and Education); 2. to develop a regular habit (Practice and Commitment) and 3. to write about the journey (Sharing and Remembering).  Mishe is a childhood nickname.  Welcome to my blog!

BLTA on homemade black russian bread

BLTA on homemade black russian bread