We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.
- Iris Murdoch
- Iris Murdoch
Life is an illusion and there are times we create that illusion ourselves. And how much is it worth? We cover up the flaws with a well-chosen outfit, a dash of makeup, draw attention away from this and that with a color and a new haircut. We plump up our resumé just a teeny tiny bit or stretch a truth just enough to impress. Or maybe we wash away the crazy episodes of yelling and stomping of feet, fold up and put away the dirty laundry and present a kind, gentle, almost perfect persona to the outside world.
Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Now why would anyone want to do this? And why would I be discussing illusion anyway?
I spend my time telling stories, weaving romantic tales or heartrending anecdotes. I paint sentimental pictures and offer up pretty memories tied up in ribbon, yet I create no illusions. I have never been a believer in deception, I am totally incapable of lying, I have little power to bewitch and understand that all of those illusions, no matter how simple, are as transparent as glass. And anyone who has met me in “real life” after knowing me through my blog understands that I am pretty much what I appear to be in glorious black and white. Yet….yet, when I mentioned in my last post that I was a pathetic hostess, that organizing even a casual lunch for friends has me frazzled and panicking, that I tend to select dishes I have never made before and several foods that all have to be prepared at the last minute so I end up absolutely freaking out, cursing for all the world to hear, throwing things at the walls in the kitchen and, in the end, serve mostly overcooked and badly managed food, well no one seemed to believe me. Dear readers, I kid you not.
For it is a land of illusion, a place in the mind, a shimmering mirage of riches and mystery and death. These illusions have distorted its landscape and contorted its history.
- Richard Lingenfelter
- Richard Lingenfelter
Have I given anyone the idea that I am the hostess with the mostess? That all runs smoothly chez nous, that I am an always-fabulous cook, that I have, as someone suggested, nerves of steel? I create no illusions, I beg for no compliments. I am not the kind of girl who sweetly bats her eyelashes in the hopes of being called out on her humble avowal, her modesty painting a pretty picture to attract hugs and warm fuzzy outpourings. Nah! My words may be poetic but the truth, my truths, are as bare as my soul. I am a lousy hostess. At any outside event, whether public or private, I am as cool and collected as the most cosmopolitan Holly Golightly while my husband, strong, smart, talented businessman crumples up into an embarrassed, bumbling, sidekick. At home, the roles are reversed. My meals are a disaster, I spill the wine and trip over the edge of the carpet, I always think I am misunderstanding the French rattling on around me and my mind goes utterly blank as I scramble for clever things to say, interesting topics to dazzle my guests. And husband’s smooth, suave man-about-town kicks in… he takes over the dinner table conversation, discusses and pours the wine like the best sommelier, expertly slides trays of nibblies and aperitifs onto the coffee table and then ties on an apron and takes over the kitchen. Opposites not only attract but they make for the perfect social couple.
Our two recent dinner parties went down like the best whiskey, warm and toasty, earthy and smooth. Days before the first lunch, JP took me aside, sat me down and planned the entire menu from aperatif through coffee and dessert. His brilliant plan of creating a dessert that could be made a day or even two ahead, pre-marinating chicken so it would only need to be slid into the hot oven just as the guests knocked on the front door and purchasing everything else ready-made at the market that morning was a plan made in heaven. Like clockwork…. So as the second lunch, this one with two couples rather than just one, approached, I waited patiently; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday strolled by and I said not one word. My heartbeat stayed normal and I went about my daily business with no worries standing in my way trying to trip me up. I had already decided that my Decadent Chocolate Spice Cake would be the spectacular finish to our meal, but the rest, well, I was waiting for Da Man!
And Saturday morning rolled around and as we snuggled up in bed with the covers pulled up tightly around us, we started thinking. I suggested his amazing Beef and Carrot Daube. No. My Goulash with Biscuits? Nope. Hmmmm. A one-pot meal is always so easy. I hopped out of bed and ran to the bookshelves and grabbed an armful of cookbooks and about twenty cooking magazines. And then he had it! We would start with grilled Boudin Blanc, white sausage, served on a bed of sautéed apples and pears and simply glide into a Choucroute de la Mer, Alsatian Choucroute topped with monkfish and smoked haddock, plump mussels and crayfish with a rich, tangy Beurre Blanc sauce. Perfect. And so was the dinner party. He cooked, he organized, he entertained and it was fabulous.
So, the moral of the story? Trust your better half. Stay calm, cool and collected. Let someone else do the cooking. And never lie about your faults, weaknesses or foibles for it will surely, one day, catch up with you.
We must select the illusion which appeals to our temperament and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy.
- Cyril Connolly
- Cyril Connolly
And I made macarons. On my recent trip to London, I bought a small container of powdered beetroot, a deep luxurious pink-red color, a natural sweetener, and just knew it was destined for macarons. This month’s Mac Attack challenge was Savory-Sweet Macs, creating the perfect macaron blending the sweet and the savory, something to be served with a glass of Champagne. So Mathilde and I, yes, Mathilde is back! made beautiful pink macs and filled half with a simple cream cheese whipped creamy and smooth with a dash of dill layered with a slice of smoked salmon, and half with chocolate-orange ganache. Sweet or savory, the beetroot macs are delicately flavored, seeming almost to temper the normal sweetness and nuttiness of the shells, which made for the perfect backdrop to both fillings. Serve them to expectant guests both before and at the end of the meal and no matter how the rest of the day went, they will surely go home smiling.
From Plate to Page is highlighting Food Photographer William Brinson this week. William has very kindly shared with us some of his stunning photography as well as a few words about himself, his photography and his profession. Don't miss this, our first in a series of Star Food Stylists, Food Photographers and Food Writers, each one tempting us with their images and words, giving us a taste of their talent and a hint of the wonderful things behind From Plate to Page.
Either savory or sweet
7.2 oz (200 g) confectioner’s or powdered sugar
4 oz (110 g) finely ground almonds
2 Tbs (1 oz/30 g) granulated sugar
3 large egg whites (about 4 oz/112 g)
1 tsp beetroot powder
dot red or pink gel, paste or powdered food coloring or a bit of each
Prepare 2 large baking sheets. On 2 large pieces of white paper the size of your baking sheets, trace 1 ½ inch-diameter circles (I used the wide end of my pastry tip) evenly spaced, leaving about ¾ - 1 inch between each circle. This will be your template to help you pipe even circles of batter onto the parchment paper. You will be able to reuse these endlessly. Place one paper on each baking sheet then cover with parchment paper. Set aside. Prepare a pastry bag with a plain tip (Ateco #807 or #809).
Sift the powdered sugar, the ground almonds and the beetroot powder together into a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
In a standing mixer or with a hand mixer, whip the egg whites for 30 seconds on low speed then increase speed to high and whip until the whites are foamy. Gradually add the granulated sugar as you are whipping the whites until you obtain a glossy, stiff meringue.
Gently but firmly fold about 1/3 of the whipped whites into the powdered sugar/ground almonds. Add the rest of the whipped whites/meringue with the food coloring and fold, using a silicon spatula or the equivalent, turning the bowl as you lift and fold, making sure you fold in all the dry ingredients completely. When the batter is ready to pipe, it should flow from the spatula like lava or a thick ribbon. To test to see if you have folded it enough, drop a small amount onto a clean plate and jiggle it slightly. The top should flatten, not remain in a point. If it doesn’t flatten, give the batter a few more folds and test again.
You can also fold the powdered mixture into the meringue if it is easier for you.
Fill your pastry bag with the batter. Pipe circles onto the parchment paper, using the traced circles on the template sheets to guide you, holding your pastry bag above each circle and piping into the center. When you have piped all of your batter out into even rounds, you can sprinkle half of the shells with decorative sugar sprinkle or dried crushed herbs. These will be the top half of each “sandwich”. DO NOT FORGET TO CAREFULLY REMOVE THE WHITE PAPER TEMPLATE FROM UNDERNEATH THE PARCHMENT PAPER. YOU DO NOT WANT THIS TEMPLATE TO GO IN THE OVEN!
Preheat your oven to 280°F (140°C).
Allow the macarons to sit out for 30 minutes to an hour. The top of each shell should form a “skin” (it will feel like it hardened a bit when gently touched and shouldn’t stick to your finger). Bake the shells for 15 – 20 minutes, depending on their size (when I touched macs that were not quite done, the top jiggled a bit as if there was still a bit of liquid batter between the top and the “feet” so I let it continue to bake another minute.) I turn the trays back to front halfway through the baking.
Remove the tray from the oven and immediately slide the parchment paper with the shells off of the hot baking sheet and onto a surface, table or countertop. Allow to cool before sliding the shells very gently off of the parchment by slipping a cake spatula under the shell as you lift it up. Be careful or the center of the shell risks sticking to the parchment.
Dark Chocolate Ganache Filling for the sweet
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
¾ cup (about 100 g) chopped dark chocolate (I used Lindt Excellence 70% and sometimes one with flavor such as mint or orange)
Place the chopped chocolate into a medium-sized mixing or other heatproof bowl. Pour the cream into a small saucepan. Slowly heat the cream until it comes just to the boiling point. Pour the cream immediately over the chopped chocolate and stir until it is smooth and creamy.
Allow the ganache filling to cool, stirring every so often. If need be (I do this) place the bowl in the refrigerator, pulling it out every 5 or 10 minutes and giving a good, hearty stir. When the ganache is ready to use to fill the macarons, it should be thick and creamy, not runny. You want to be able to pipe the filling onto the shells and have it stay there not run all over the place.
Prepare your pastry bag with a plain tip that will pipe teaspoon-sized dots of filling onto the macaron shells. Pair up the shells so you have sets that match (same size and shape). Pipe the ganache filling onto one shell of each pair. Sandwich with the second shell. Allow the filling to set.