stop the madness: enough with the pumpkin spice everything already

we feel your pain, Mermaid Lady

we feel your pain, Mermaid Lady

Once upon a time we welcomed the change of season, especially the advent of autumn, for the sudden chill in the air that was still warmed by a golden sun, the easing of leaves from green to gold against a brilliant blue sky, and the joy of bundling up with opaque tights, great jackets, and fabulous scarves–the suggestions that we are ready to stave off winter’s blast without yet actually having to face nasty weather.

And then there is the food.  The passage of each season brings a new menu: clementines are a bright note in sleepy winter akin to the flash of a cardinal on a snowy tree branch; as the world wakes in spring we look for the buds on the trees and sunny asparagus on our plates; in summer we anticipate the huge bounty of garden goodness that culminates in the arrival of Queen Tomato; then with fall we look forward to an orchard outing to enjoy that crisp air, play farmer, and pick so many apples that, once home, we are forced to condescend into baking crisps and cobblers until the kitchen moans under the weight of all the oatmeal-ensconced goodness.

Welcoming those seasonal treats–fruits of the earth still very much tied to the earth–represent more innocent times before a relatively recent development that flavors our autumn in a much different, even sinister, character.  Having already co-opted every conceivable holiday as a festival of consumption, Big Business has conspired to marketize the very change of seasons.  Building on historic traditions of identifying favorite foods at particular holidays–cranberries at Christmas, latkes for Hanukkah, green bean casserole whenever two or three Lutherans gather–, the scourge of Pumpkinspiceitis is now foisted upon us.

Pumpkinspiceitis derives from a regrettable, but historic, inclusion of pumpkin pie on the Thanksgiving table.  It is a curious phenomenon: pumpkin pie.  As a pie, it’s an inferior dessert; as a pumpkin product, just a clever way to get rid of something easy to grow but which no one really wants to eat.  (Like most of the Thanksgiving table, it’s also just bad history.)  Even if you think you like pumpkin, be honest: it’s just taking the place of something else that you know you’d rather have.  To make this horrid squash edible, all kinds of stuff is stirred in and gooped on top to actually cover the taste of the pumpkin.   More desperate than any other garden spawn (slightly worse than zucchini, but maybe not as hopeless as rhubarb), this homely orange orb demands not just special treatment to hide its natural flavor but the particular concoction conjured up by some set of Weird Sisters, probably in the nineteenth century.  Their brew of ordinary spices–cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg,  allspice, and cloves–has achieved iconic status due to the ubiquity with which it is used to mask the natural grossness of this “dessert.”

trouble maker

trouble maker

With a name as creative as its inspiration is delicious, “Pumpkin Pie Spice” represents all that’s bad about home cooking, and by extension, food consumption, in America–which makes it especially sad and ironic to bring to the table on a holiday that is so completely American.  The blind ease with which the home cook grabs for the inevitable plastic jar, purchased years before, used annually but never between December and October, is likewise exemplary of the oh-you-shouldn’t-have-bothered ideal that is rampant across the country.  The idea of a pre-mixed spice blend is not so bad in and of itself, as we see from a very, very long tradition of Indian garam masala and Chinese Five Spice.  Traditionally, among those cultures each household will have its own version, ground to suit the family’s custom and taste.  The ‘merkan equivalent is only home-made by DIY-types with obsessive Pinterest habits.  Pre-packaged and sold at the grocery store, Pumpkin Pie Spice is the Hamburger Helper of baking–except that Hamburger Helper is consumed year-round, and Pumpkin Pie spice had a very narrow window of relevance, confined to Thanksgiving weekend, and therefore is even dumber.

At least that was the case before the rise of  Big Pumpkin (not to be confused with the Great Pumpkin).  At least ten years ago, some genius at some mega spice dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 1000 company with a penchant for red lids) figured out a way to foist their product on the American public and increase their market share by popularizing a product that was irrelevant for  fifty-one weeks of the year.  Their target?  A product of great popularity among Americans, and which many Americans are more than happy to crap up with flavor additions rather than enjoy the actual flavor of what they’re consuming: coffee.  With the help of some genius at some mega coffee dealer (we’re guessing a certain Fortune 500 company with a penchant for a nippleless, two-tailed mermaid), they found their opportunity, and convinced the masses that their lattes were not good enough as lattes, but ought to be made to taste like dessert, and not just dessert but the lowliest of desserts, pie; and not just any old pie, but a pie so stupid it is made out of mushy vegetables.  And so it was, and so it is, that Pumpkin Pie Spice lattes, introduced in 2003, are now welcomed by crazed Starbuckians the way the solstice must have been greeted by the ancients at Stonehenge: with religious reverence and enthralled enthusiasm, evidence that the gods have not yet abandoned the world (although to the rest of us, this flakey excuse for a coffee drink is just one more proof of our fallen state).

Pumpkin Pie lattes might not have been such a problem if the silliness around them had remained cloistered in Starbuckses.  But their mind-boggling popularity has launched a whole new ridiculous enthusiasm for the “flavors of fall,” and this is really where we need to draw the line.  Food should taste like itself.  Spices and herbs are meant to draw out and complement the natural flavor of a thing, not disguise it–especially if the base flavor is something quite respectable.  In the name of Taste, you must avoid, ignore, renounce and repudiate the following products, all of them evidence of the overreach of Big Pumpkin and foul offspring, the sinister seasoning:

macarons

The divine macaron is not a place to play fast and loose with intercultural fusions.  Non!

and pumpkin salsa is just wrong

Likewise:  salsa is a tomato product.  People who eat pumpkin salsa probably think that pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping too, and we have nothing to say to them.

pop

Since toaster pastries are already skimming the bottom of the barrel, maybe this is ok, except for the pumpkin part.  Pumpkin for breakfast? No.  You meant to bake a cinnamon muffin.

PP marshmallow

Whether you mash your marshmallows in s’mores or float them in hot drinks, no; this just won’t work.

This also raises the quation of judgemnt at TJ's, which only gets worse . . .

This is all kinds of wrong, and is one of a dozen bizarre missteps by Trader Joe, whose judgement we call into question due to the store’s amazing variety of bizarre pumpkin-themed products.

no

Let us guess: we are supposed to pair this with nutmeg hummus, right?

ew

Please!  Yogurt is for fruit, not squash.

this would be bad enough on its own, but then yu see just a few aisles over . . .

This would be bad enough on its own, but then you see just a few aisles over . . .

seasonal foodstuffs are silly enough, do NOT start seasonally moisturizing

. . . this.  Seasonal foodstuffs are silly enough, do NOT start a seasonal skin-care regimen!

spieces associated with warm baked goods stirred into frozen food?

Spices associated with warm baked goods stirred into frozen food?  The horror!

c

Culver’s is currently offering Pumpkin Pie Spice shakes as well as “Salted Caramel Pumpkin Concrete Mixers,” with actual pumpkin stirred in, which MoT junior staffers can attest is a very, very bad idea.

et vos, Ben & Jerry?

Et vos, Ben & Jerry?

If you’re not yet swooning from the madness, read on for our candidates for Worst Spawn of Big Pumpkin’s Evil:

third runner-up for Nopest of Nope

Third runner-up for Nopest of Nope

Vice President of Nyet

Vice President of Nyet

King of No

King of No

Although Pumpkinspiceitis has caught the CDC unawares, wise men saw this nonsense coming a mile away–indeed centuries ago.  Founding Father and Culinary Connoisseur Thomas Jefferson (a much more reliable T.J.) worried what would become of his nation, and left the following in manuscript form:

It is self-evident that not all flavor profiles are created equal; not all are endowed by their creators with honesty of expression and decency of marketing.  Sadly, all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer sketchy food products and egregious marketing, while evils are sufferable in their cheapness and trendiness, than to right themselves by abolishing goofball flavors as they ought to, and just drink coffee that tastes like, you know, COFFEE.

This is not a tirade against the spices in Pumpkin Pie Spice.  We, like Mr. Jefferson, want you to enjoy cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves and nutmeg (the last of which ought to be ground the moment before use, but you knew that, right?).  But enjoy them where they belong: coffee cakes, cinnamon rolls, snickerdoodles, and stupid fruit desserts. (If you really, really feel compelled to eat trendily in October, you may have an apple cider donut but then, for Heaven’s sakes, pull yourself together.)

This does not address the matter of the pumpkin itself, which still has little use in the world.  The following is the best we can do to offer semi-legitimate, but still pretty sketchy, uses for citrouille (French for “yukky apple of the dirty vine”):

pie

You may as well buy this as go through the motions of “baking a pie.”  If no one in the house has any real baking skills, or can be bothered to make a cheesecake, why not.  Mrs. Smith’s it is.

xxx

Pumpkin soup: at least this comes in a cute bowl. But we’d still prefer a decent shrimp bisque or French onion, thx, and you know you would too.

And then there’s this, maybe the reason pumpkins exist at all:

we feel your pain, Mr Pumpkin

we feel your pain, Mr Pumpkin

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how to celebrate a royal event at home, all proper-like

party like the Queen, yo

this one made us delirious

2012 is shaping up to be one of the merriest of years in merrie olde England.  For the engineers in MoT‘s Celebratoria, which is housed in the Department of Festive Studies and Fun-Time Rituals, that means overtime.  Significant projects have bene undertaken (supported by funds from a MacArthur Fellowship . . . that we’re still waiting for) to celebrate, albeit long-distance, all manner of Britophilia.  In addition to a whole new year of hat-wearing by the Kate The Nearly Impeccable (any new hat day is reason enough for the full MoT staff to drop everything and pop open the clotted cream with a shout of huzzah!), a few specific big events are posted on the calendar: the Royal First Anniversary (29 April), C. F. A. Voysey’s 155th Birthday (28 May), the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (2-5 June) and the Olympics open in London (27 July).  If for some reason you have not received your invitation or secured your tickets for these big events, never fear.  MoT can help you turn your living room into a wee colony of Little Britain in three easy steps and at varying levels of economic investment (to which we are sensitive; times are tough!) and relative interest in the Royal Family (for which we have no sympathy; get with the program, mate!).

the MoT staff's Royal Anniversary Tea

the MoT staff’s Royal Anniversary Tea

Step 1: Prepare your feast.  British food gets a bad rap but, while it’s not cuisine française, you can navigate your way away from murky fields of kidney pie and eel grossness to the juicy and carboriffic heights of a roasted meat and baked pudding wonderland.  High end:  Eat the kind of thing the Queen and her Jubilee guests will enjoy: roast lamb, Beef Wellington.  A bit less so:  Toad in the Hole with long-simmered onion gravy.  That’s still too much work:  Lay out a proper afternoon tea with scones, clotted cream, jam, sandwiches, cakes (and if you go to the Italian Bakery down the street because your staff pastry chefs threw the whole pan of cakes–pan included–into the rubbish bin in frustration, we won’t tell).  Don’t know a Chelsea Bun from an Eccles Cake:  Cut the crusts off your kids’ PB&J, butter up some English muffins, and call it good.

one lump or two?

Step 2: Plan your attire.  High end: Bring out the gloves, gems and regalia, if you have them.  I’ve Got a Hot Glue Gun and I’m Not Afraid to Use It: Spend $10 at Hobby Lobby and become your neighborhood Philip Treacy.  Make fascinators for yourself, your friends, your children, your dog.  You must be kidding: Please, at least wear something that needs ironing.  Iron it.  Not allowed: Scorn your droll guests who wear their Sex Pistols t-shirts from college; it’s neither ironic nor clever.

Step 3: After taking gratuitous picture of Dog In Fascinator and dealing with the resultant canine thrashing, blot spilled tea with paper towel, spritz with a solution of water and vinegar.  If carpet stain persists, gently rub with dish detergent or salt, alternate with more cold-water dabbing.  Tune in BBC, turn up volume loud enough to drown out complaints of husband.  Proceed with festivities.

There you have it: the MoT Geek Guide to Britophilia in three easy steps.  Cheerio!

cats may also celebrate, even if they defy any monarchy they don’t control

most American sweets

Sugar Daddy Sam Adams (J. S. Copley, 1772) "you put those tongs right down, or I'll show you some *lumps*!"

Up there with life and liberty, Americans cherish their right to the pursuit of sweets.  The national palate is conditioned by sucrose as surely as the Founders’ wigs were powdered (coincidentally, the way they preferred their doughnuts).  Benjamin Franklin wrote about the virtues of honey in Poor Richard Improved (1748).  Guests to Monticello often enjoyed pastry-wrapped ice-creams at the conclusion of dinner.  Two of the tax acts that got the revolutionary ball rolling were on molasses and sugar, for crying out loud!  Patriot-brewer Sam Adams led the opposition to the Sugar Act nine years before Bostonians started getting sassy with all that tea.  It’s no coincidence that the first sundae parlor opened in New York in 1776, a year that other important things happened in American history.

But the fancy-pants puddings, treacles and tarts served up on crystal, china and silver (check out  Jefferson’s pretty silver dessert spoons here) during the Colonial period are hardly the stuff for the twenty-first century American, who has about as much time and patience to prepare a crème anglaise as he does to tie a cravat.  America’s craving for sweets is no less strong than it was back in Ye Olden Times, but now it’s modified by the expectation that dessert, like life and liberty, be served up on demand.  The same way we like our Bruce Willis movies.

Thus the following list of Most American Sweets.  Their achievement as “most American” is judged by a complex matrix involving ease, comfort, immediate gratification, fat grams and carbs, all of them virtuous truthful things guaranteed in our Constitution or Declaration or something.  Behold:

fried pie

Fried Pies

Hailing from the Beautiful South (where those two words rhyme), this treat brings together three of the things that Americans love most: syrupy fruit, flaky pastry and frying.  It provides the summery delight of pie (for people who like that sort of thing) without the hassle of a pie–why bake something for an hour when you can flash-fry it for  a few minutes?  And, unlike (baked-) pie (and those other fruited American standbys: Bettys, Buckles, Crisps and Cobblers), the Fried Pie requires neither plate nor fork: clearly the superior way to deliver one (or more) daily serving of fruit and veg into the American’s welcoming gob.

cone on the go

Bowl-Free Ice Cream

During America’s founding, ice cream was available only to elite and privileged citizens due to its requirements for expensive ingredients, costly access to year-round ice, and significant expenditure of labor.  Because those days of the haves and have-nots are behind us, ice cream (just like health care, child care and a sound public education) is easily within reach of all tax-paying Americans.  So much easier than getting your servants to slave away over a few dishes of iced peach cream, now you can have a great assortment of flavors of different pre-packaged qualities and , the best part, to go, right there in the gas station.  Although ice cream bars and sandwiches, cherry dilly bars and orange pop-ups are in the ballpark, the factory-made ice cream cone is the winner here for its perfect simplicity.  Call it a Drumstick, King Cone, Cornetto or whatever, it’s the ideal delivery system of ice cream and cookie-like cone, leaving nothing left over once you’ve tossed the wrapper in the back seat or let it fly out the window as you speed down the highway.  This land is your land, this land is my land, and it’s ours to litter with Good Humor wrappers.

brownie

Brownies

The two-fold beauty of the brownie is found in both its preparation and consumption.  The latter, like all other treats on the list, is a matter of absolute ease.  It’s a one-handed matter, leaving the other free to grab milk out of the fridge and gulp straight out of the quart.  But in its preparation, too, the brownie shows its excellence.  A distant relative in the family of cakes, it is much easier, since there’s no leavening, and even if it’s made from scratch, everything happens in the same bowl.  (We don’t need to to go into the beauty of the box-mix here, one of America’s great gifts to the culinary world.)  But let’s say you get all high-falutin’ and make brownies without the assistance of Duncan Hines: you’re looking at unwrapping a stick of butter, a few squares of chocolate, stirring in flour and sugar and some eggs.  Boom.  Done.  That’s it.  And then, further brilliance: the brownie is totally adjustable and suit any taste, and by taste, we mean Americans’ right to have what they want, exactly how they want it.  Add marshmallows, nuts, chocolate chips, peanut butter, beef jerky: it doesn’t matter.  There’s no police coming to stand between you and the way you know God intended you to enjoy it.  Brownies are the official snack of the Bill of Rights.

whoopie

Whoopie Pies

The Whoopie Pie hails from southeastern Pennsylvania and is a monument of Amish baking, no matter what those lumberjacks in Maine say (and if you don’t believe us, believe the Wilkes-Bare Times Leader, man!).   Whoopie Pies are not pies at all, but rather discs of awesomeness that accomplish the same goal for cakes as Fry Pies do for, well, pies.  The best cakes are frosted cakes, but eating them requires first rooting around for a fork and plate (or a midnight trip to the kitchen, where only you and the dog know what happens).  And who wants to bother with that?  Whoopie pies conjoin the fluffy, spongy goodness of chocolate cake with a filling that is a beautiful marriage between sweet buttercream frosting with marshmallow for a little beefier structure, in a size perfectly suited for the American paw.  Really, they’re just about perfect.  Whoopie pies are the food world’s equivalent to Kate Smith’s rendition of God Bless America.

cookies

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Cookies bring together the strong points of many of the honorees on this list: they’re one-handed, wrapper-free, utensil-free, flexible and adaptable to personal preference.  One particular kind of cookie rises from the pantheon of ice box, cut-out, molded, rolled and pressed biscuits: the drop cookie.  This is the final, most-American sweet in its ease of mixing, flexibility for creativity (or forgiveness for sloppy kitchen technique) and especially the way the home citizen-cook just wallops a spoonful of dough at a baking sheet and calls it a day.  Among drop cookies, the chocolate chip cookie reigns supreme.  First, do not waste our time with gingerbread and lemon and snickerdoodles; chocolate is the superior sweet flavor above and beyond all sweet flavors.  Fact.  The cookie is a medium for delivering chunks of the good stuff with the greatest ease and simplicity.  On top of all that, these cookies come with a great history, too.  They were invented by some dame (she probably had a name like Suzannah Yankadoodle) who was looking to save some time, in particular by avoiding the tedious melting of the chocolate.  Instead, she just tossed those  chopped morsels in the batter and, faster than you can say “two if by sea,” an American treasure was born of Yankee innovation (which some might call general American laziness, but we won’t).  You can almost hear the Founders in their Founders Walhalla, making sweeping bows to ol’ Suzannah: our tricorne hats are off to you, madame, to which she would reply, in conjunction the first recorded use of the We’re-Number-One Foamhand, heck yeah!

too fussy to be a contender--but majestic, none the less

kitchen geek: Star Wars edition

A few days ago, in a kitchen not so far away . . .

. . . a class of Jedi Younglings gathered to reinforce (haha) their skills while celebrating the birthdays of two of their number.  MoT’s resident StarWarsologist (and ranking Jedi Knight) was on the scene to ensure an appropriately Jedish revelry.

The evening began with the Initiates’ preparation of their Factryn meat pies.  Ideally they would have used the Force, but apparently their skills were a little off this night so manual work was allowed.  Factryn meat pies probably look like pepperoni pizza to you, but take note, dear reader, that these meat pies are prepared with slices of Bantha sausage, not pepperoni.  Do you know what Bantha sausage tastes like?  Pepperoni.

Younglings’ favorite beverage

Judge me by my color, do you? The most appropriate beverage to pair with a Factryn meat pie is this lovely green punch that has a certain frothy and misty quality that evokes its planet of orgin, Dagobah.  Although served in small quantities, it is strong, powerful and one cannot help but feel a little wiser for drinking it.

What is it called, you ask?  Yoda soda, it is.

Younglings’ favorite dessert

Finally, as is the case at birthday parties in so many galaxies, the meal was concluded with galactic cake (marbled, to symbolize the ‘light’ of the true Jedi’s path and the ‘darkness’ of the Sith).  Formed in the shape of a lightsaber, that symbol of the Jedi’s attainment of manual dexterity along with absolute harmony with the Force, it was served with another Youngling favorite: Wookie Cookie ice cream.

MoT special consultant Jon B. described it as “not as clumsy or random as a blastercake: an elegant cake, for a more civilized age,” and we thank him for that excellent critique. True though Master Jon’s words may be, this Knight does recognize a discrepancy between this description and the general lack of civility observed during the Younglings’ sleep-over, especially a few hours past their bedtime.  Perhaps a Blastercake would have been in order.

kitchen geek: “Prisoner of Azkaban” edition

The Matters of Taste staff has recently completed the third book in the Harry Potter series and, as a follow-up to the worldwide success of the themed dinner inspired by the Chamber of Secrets (read all about it here), commissioned its very own Literary Liason and Nutritionist to prepare the Not-Last Meal of the Prisoner of Azkaban.  The menu is presented here so you too can eat along while screening the film version of the book, as we did (but after reading the book, of course).

Note: Although the most consistent food theme in the book is chocolate, because it is always consumed as an antidote, it has not been selected as a central motif in this menu: quite the contrary.  At the same time, chocolate is not really seen in this narrative as a literary device.  As confirmed by Matters of Taste Chief Psychologist and Food Historian, chocolate should be kept close at hand and consumed regularly when Dementors appear in “real life.”  Don’t think this is just a contrivance of a fairy tale: if you have a family, or a job out of the house, or if you ever go to the post office or grocery store; in short, if you deal with any people at all, ever, you know that there are some “people” who just know how to suck the oxygen out of a room.  Guess what?! Clever disguises Dementors don these days.  Clever.  Where’s that Cadbury bar?

But on with our tale:

BeholdSirius Black Bean Soup

Preparation: Cook dry beans–dry as if these beans have endured hardship, pain, loss and soul-crushing isolation for a dozen years–in a large pot with stock, tomatoes (which you should call “to-mah-toes” for the occasion), smoked ham, onion, a small chopped pepper, cumin, chili powder, garlic, adobo and cilantro.  Cook under pressure until mixture is thoroughly demented; process and reheat.

Note: The heat of this dish should not be profound, but rather a background note to the earthiness of the beans and ham.  To achieve this result, select  a pepper that rates somewhere between “crazed lunatic” and “vengeful madman” on the Scoville scale.

Service: Serve with a dollop of boggart crème.  As diners eat, encourage them to change the shape of their dollop to something ridiculous.

Behold: Hippogriff Tenders

Preparation: Slice hippogriff steaks into strips. Dip in buttermilk and toss in a mixture of crushed herbed stuffing mix crumbs (it’s not a shortcut; it’s magic!) and parmesan (grate it off the block; no shortcuts/magic here).  Bake in oven until golden.

Note: Some assume hippogriff meat is gamey; in actuality it tastes just like chicken.  It is at its best when freshly butchered, but as the plucking of their very large feathers is exceptionally tedious, we recommend allowing a professional to prepare the tenders for you.  (Additionally, this saves one from the hassle of packaging and freezing the amount of meat which can be taken from the carcass of a fully-grown, 2200 lb. hippogriff.)

Service: Present with barbeque and honey-dijon sauce spiked with a little cayenne (it needs to have a little bite), and on a fine silver platter or china.  After all, they are right proud creatures.  Even in death.

Behold: Patronus Pie

Preparation: Conjuring the heights of your emotional history to face the extreme delicacy of custard-making, think happy thoughts as you heat milk and a vanilla bean up to the boiling point (but not to the boiling point!), whisk part of it into a bowl into which you have already whisked sugar, starch and eggs (thoroughly, but not too thoroughly!).  Still happy?  Return to heat and whisk constantly, at perfect “medium” until the custard is just barely thickened (but not too thick or you are on the verge of scrambled custard!); transfer with lightning speed (still thinking happy thoughts) through a sieve into a bowl to cool.  Examine interior of custard pot, note the amount of custard already set up within as gooky clumpy nastiness, embrace deflated mood, throw pot out kitchen door.  Return to what edible custard did make it into the bowl and slowly stir in pieces of butter until they melt.  Is there enough curdle-free custard to fill a pie shell? Even a quarter inch?  Huzzah!  (Use that feeling to strengthen yourself the next time you conjure a Patronus Pie.)  After pudding/custard has cooled, spoon it into prepared pie shell over a thin layer of chocolate ganache studded with banana slices; spread Chantilly cream on top.

Service: plate at table; garnish with a Dementor’s Kiss (see top photo).

Note: Whether your custard succeeds or fails, be sure to clean out the ganache bowl.  You’ve earned it and, quite frankly, your emotional recovery may depend on it.

Also: if custard is a complete disaster, run to the store and purchase the ready-made hand-held chocolate-covered graham-marshmallow treat seen here.  This will satisfy the need for a sweets course at the end of the meal, as well as serve as an appropriate tribute to Remus Lupin, who is otherwise sadly neglected in this menu.


kitchen geek: “Chamber of Secrets” edition

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose in the kitchen: a time to whip up a noodle casserole, and a time to knock out a Boeuf Bourguignon à la Julia; a time to roast a turkey for family gathering, and a time to bake brownies to comfort a broken heart; a time to cook a meal that is both an intellectual and a culinary wonder, and a time to geek out and play with your food.  This is one of those times.

Life goes by too quickly to celebrate only a small, select number of big holidays and universally-acknowledged achievements with a special meal: birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, graduations.  Why wait, when the calendar is full of anniversaries of historical significance, and better yet, when interesting things are happening around you all the time?

Recently the Matters of Taste staff has undertaken a group reading of the Harry Potter books.  Upon completion of the second volume MoT’s Literary Liason proclaimed a Chamber of Secrets weekend centered around a screening of the film and, of course, a special meal.  With just a brief consideration of general nutritional goals, range of palates that would be present, and general story themes, the menu almost wrote itself.

basilisk loaf with minty peas

Behold: The Basilisk Loaf

Preparation: Form the ground basilisk meat in the usual way (with egg, bread crumbs, sauté of onion and red pepper; use plenty of pepper but go light on the essence of Slytherin); wrap in bacon scales and ornament with onion fangs, mushroom nostrils and red pepper tongue and yellow pepper eyes.   Present the loaf in a bed of minty peas because, you know, they’re British and stuff.

Note: This dish is always better when you grind your own basilisk meat at home.

Service: At table, massacre the basilisk with three swift strokes of a long bejewelled sword.  Present the severed head with artfully sprayed ketchup-colored bile as shown above.  Suggest that the diner poke out the basilisk’s yellow pepper eyes.  Did you just gross out a fourth-grader?  Nicely done!

horcrux cakes

Behold: Horcrux Cakes

Preparation: Use your preferred molten-chocolate lava cake recipe.  It should go without saying that we emphasize the importance of dark chocolate in this recipe.

Note: We do not recommend the addition of an actual piece of a person’s soul in these cakes as it adversely affects the quality of the cake crumb; however, a little espresso powder does lift the flavor profile nicely.

Service: Arm your wizards with forks, Fawkes, and/or basilisk fangs to attack the cakes in the manner of Harry going after Tom Riddle’s diary within moments after they’ve been pulled from the oven.  Watch their insides ooze all over the place.  Consume.  We bet you didn’t know that Lord Voldemort tasted like Ghirardelli 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate, did you?  He may be dark and bad, but he is also delicious–and that’s even before he takes the form of Ralph Fiennes (a noseless and cruel Ralph Fiennes, but Ralph Fiennes, none the less).

Dinner may be served with a nice polyjuice potion and, of course, make sure your house elf cleans up the mess while you watch the movie.  As Aragog would say, bon appétit, my children.

the baker’s twelve days of christmas (the view from the kitchen)


The following is the thirteenth installment of the Baker’s Twelve Days of Christmas posted previously (click here)–making it a baker’s dozen.  Get it?!

After that earlier post’s celebration of baked goodness from around the world, we give you the view from the kitchen.  Behold:

By the twelfth day of Christmas, my baking had given to me:

Twelve dried-out muffins

Eleven runny puddings

Ten burned-up biscuits

Nine soggy pie crusts

Eight deflated yeast loaves

Seven fallen soufflés

Six tearful breakdowns

Five hissy fits!

Four abrasions

Three knife cuts

Two blistered burns

And Christmas Eve in the E.R.

Artwork: “The Biscuit Fire” by skorchomatik

(part of a series on the Popped Culture site; check it out)

the baker’s twelve days of christmas (as enjoyed by the appreciative masses)

Women baking in Minnesota, 1942

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my baker gave to me:

Twelve first-class fruitcakes

Eleven Swedish pastries

Ten Bûches de Noël

Nine German stollen

Eight iced kolaches

Seven warm rice puddings

Six gingerbread men

Five Panettone

Four Scotch shortbread

Three French boules

Two Sacher tortes

And one tray of frosted sugar cookies.

Photograph shows members of a Swedish-American church group in Minneapolis, Minnesota; photographer: Jack Delano/Farm Security Administration (1942).  Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs (LC-USW3- 001179-D [P&P])

stupid fruit desserts (part 2: justified by Julia)

Julia Child's kitchen (now at the Smithsonian): an apple crisp-free zone

Julia Child's kitchen (now at the Smithsonian):
an apple crisp-free zone


After my family recently picked twenty pounds of Jonamacs and Empires at a local orchard I suffered from visions of a culinary future dominated by apples, soon followed by early-onset fruit fatigue. This condition is commonly associated with the humble, horrible apple: probably the boringest fruit there is (I dare you to name one that’s more dreary), yet, curiously, the one with the worst reputation, a key prop in the biblical tale of original sin. I have a suspicion that the translator for the King James Bible identified the Hebrew “forbidden fruit” after being served one too many apple scones in late October. Had the first English-language Bible been translated in Wisconsin, you can bet we’d read that the serpent lured Eve into snatching a squash; this would support my contention that there is a direct connection between the Fall of Man and zucchini bread.

To be fair, my malaise was not just the apple’s fault; it’s what we tend to do with the apple, especially when there are loads of them: drown them in gooey syrup, crowd them with globs of batter or oats, suffocate them with cinnamon and bake them to within an inch of their lives. What comes out is soupy oatmeal or dry biscuits swimming among smushy apple slices. You know what that is? Breakfast. But we call it “Crisp” or “Cobbler” and pass it off as dessert.

As shameful as calling these foods “dessert” is the fact that they are distant relatives of more substantial and admirable recipes, dumbed down to suit the unambitious cook. Desiring a better fate for my apples I undertook a quest for apple dessert nirvana. And where did it lead me? Where culinary aspirations so often do: Julia. If anyone can do something with an apple that was really worth doing, it was Julia Child, and there is no surer guide than she to haul the home chef up the mountain of French cuisine.

Of the seven recipes for apple desserts in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the one that presented itself as the obvious choice was Pouding Alsacien, which looks like the ultimate source for Apple Crisp: a dish of sautéed apples given the gratin treatment (something layered and topped with crusty stuff—the definition of gratin, which I only mention in case you, like me, grew up thinking au gratin meant “from a box with cheese powder”). I’m not going to isolate the recipe here like some sad culinary orphan; if you want it, reference page 626 of The Book, where it is happily included within a broad discussion of the fruit dessert family.

The Gratin takes more effort, and a bit more time, than the Crisp. By my clock, it was fifty-one minutes from the time I picked up the peeler to the moment I was sliding the dish into the oven. And note, I can do up to three things at once (like: browning the apples, preparing the sauce and separating eggs) (actually four, if you include my simultaneous efforts to keep a child from harassing a pit bull with a cello bow). At least half that time was dedicated just to prepping the apples, which you have to do for a Crisp as well as the Gratin, so really it’s not that much longer to pull off the French dish. To complete Julia’s recipe I also made a pretty big mess of the cutting board, a skillet, the baking dish, a saucepan and two bowls for beating different ingredients based around the separated eggs. But it was so worth it.

Like any classical French dish, this one builds up layers of flavor. The apples are browned in butter and then folded with rum and plum jam (which seems like a cheat, but I’m not one to argue technique with Julia). Eggs are separated, the yolk mixed with sugar and wheat breadcrumbs and later the whipped whites, which increases the body and overall taste of the gratin crust. Once it’s out of the oven, you’re advised to let it sit for a day and let the flavors blend. Sacrebleu! It was worth the wait. The top of the Gratin is less sweet, and more cakey-bready than a Crisp. It complements the flavor of the apples, which are much better off for all the steps it took to get them into the dish. Overall it’s more complex, more sophisticated and more grown-up than the Crisp. The Crisp never really brings together the different parts of the dish: the flavor of apple, cinnamon and oats remain distinct. The Gratin is a whole new comprehensive and cohesive event of deliciousness in the arena of your mouth.

My family did not gush over the Gratin as much as I did, and admitted they would be as happy with the standard Crisp; but then again, each of the members of my family has the palette of a grade-schooler (which is age-appropriate for two-thirds of them). But for me, I say merci, Madame Gourmand, for once again leading the way to a marvelous treat, time well spent, and a great way to make use of all those apples. Until we meet again over the next culinary challenge, au revoir.