Sunday, December 30, 2007

Pandanus Flower: Flavor for the New Year

Floral flavors have a tendency to jar unfamiliar palates, but for those who adore the voluptuous freshness that floral ingredients add to food, pandanus flower may prove a most enticing find.

Pandanus flower, also known as kewra, is the male flower of the pandanus plant (Pandanus odoratissimus). The distillate made from kewra petals offers an intriguing level of complexity not found in rose or orange blossom waters. Unlike the pandanus leaf (Pandanus amaryllifolius), a close relative with a lactonic, rice-like flavor, kewra bears the fragrant markings of rose, musk, sandalwood and champaca. Kewra water is commonly used in milk-based Indian sweets such as ras gulla, gulab majun, ras mala, and kheer as well as rice dishes like biryani.

New flavors are best experienced in simplicity. This provides psychological space for experimentation and lessens the discomfort one may occasionally anticipate when being introduced to a new flavor (this reaction is completely normal and deeply ingrained in our instinct for self-preservation and the avoidance of poisons). In an effort to properly introduce pandanus flower to the taste buds I’ve developed a recipe for a warm breakfast cereal that balances kewra with familiar ingredients. Should kewra overwhelm your palate, you can decrease the amount of floral water or utilize recommended substitutions* as the cereal is highly nutritious and extremely beneficial for hair and skin in cold winter months. As an added benefit, the recipe is gluten-free.

The New Year provides many opportunities for growth and discovery. May your bounty include novel flavor experiences infused with inspiration and wonder.

Kewra Comfort
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
(Serves 2)

Ingredients:
· ¼ Bob’s Red Mill® Organic Brown Rice Farina (Creamy Rice Hot Cereal)
· ¼ cup Bob’s Red Mill® Organic Golden Flaxseed Meal
· ¼ cup Bob’s Red Mill® Organic Almond Meal
· 2 jumbo Medjool dates, chopped
· ⅛ tsp. ground cardamom
· 10 ounces of water
· ½ tsp. kewra water

Instructions:
· Mix dry ingredients together and add water. Stir thoroughly and allow to rest for three minutes.
· Chop Medjool dates and add to mixture.
· Add kewra water and stir.
· Microwave for four minutes.
· Remove from microwave and allow to rest for an additional three minutes.
· Mix warm cereal until the consistency is uniform throughout.
· Serve in two small serving bowls.

*To change the flavor of the cereal, eliminate cardamom and kewra and utilize one of the following three combinations of ingredients:

· ½ tsp. rosewater * ⅛ tsp. China cassia cinnamon * ½ tsp. Tahitian vanilla
· ½ tsp. orange blossom water * ½ tsp. cardamom
· ½ tsp. rosewater * ¼ tsp. almond extract * ⅛ tsp. cardamom * pinch of saffron

Notes:
Ahmed® brand kewra water may be purchased online from Kalustyan’s. Swad® is a terrific brand and though it is not sold at Kalustyan’s, may be found at a variety of Indian groceries.

Bob’s Red Mill® organic grains and nut meals are available at Whole Foods and select health food stores. Bob’s has an online store finder so you can find a local purveyor.

Screw pine, kewda, ketaki and keora are other names associated with the pandanus flower.

Vidyakara, an 11th century Buddhist monk, wrote a poem in which the pandanus flower appears. The bloom is called by its Sanskrit name—ketaki:

A cloth of darkness inlaid with fireflies;
flashes of lightning;
the mighty cloud mass guessed at from the roll of thunder;
a trumpeting of elephants;
an east wind scented by opening buds of ketaki,
and falling rain:
I know not how a man can bear the nights that hold all these,
when separated from his love.

The poem appears in Sanskrit Poetry from Vidyakara's Treasury, translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls. It is available online at Amazon.com.

Photo of kewda flower from Mumbai Magic.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Diane Haska: The Caron Boutique's Christmas Cupid













It’s a cold Friday afternoon in New York City, remnants of the previous day’s snowfall moistening sidewalks and streets. The neighborhood is bustling with determined shoppers scurrying along a stretch of Lexington Avenue between 56th and 60th Streets. Wisconsin natives Dr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Hollander step out of the crowd and enter the Caron Boutique. The air between them is perfumed with a touch of playfulness and a quality of warmth that noticeably emanates from their eyes. A luxurious and fragrant pre-holiday ritual is about to begin and boutique manager Diane Haska has quickly rendered her gilded bow and arrow invisible—leaving the rest of the magic to the contents of the boutique’s Baccarat perfume urns, which patiently await the seasonal visit of the Hollanders.

Dr. Jeffrey Hollander is a professional pianist whose mentor was György Sándor. Sándor, who was famous in his own right, studied under the tutelage of renowned Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Hollander reconnected with Sándor at the urging of his wife Elaine, who while viewing a PBS broadcast of The Art of Piano - Great Pianists of 20th Century discovered that Sándor was living in New York City. The three would then meet whenever the Hollanders were in town. Trips to the Caron Boutique were part of subsequent get-togethers and Sándor found himself equally partial to Caron Pour Un Homme and Diane Haska, who he referred to as “the lovely woman of the perfume shop.”

When it comes to selling fragrance, Diane’s approach has a level of depth and caring that is not often experienced in traditional retail settings. The fact that she is situated in a boutique filled with time-honored classics infuses her approach with the charm of heritage. Her passion for people and the melding of their personal stories with the stories of Caron’s perfumes make her a sublime conduit for the art of perfumery. Haska describes her approach in a soothing voice marked by rich elocution, “When I first meet a customer, I will ask them what they have worn, what they can’t live without and how their tastes have evolved over time. We walk through the fragrance process together and explore several Caron scents to see which one best suits them. I gauge their reactions to the blotters to see how they respond to levels of spice and floralcy and it gets to a point where I can just look at someone and tell what fits. The process is very intuitive.”

The Hollanders rely on Haska’s fragrance expertise when it comes to choosing gifts for each other. The couple plays what Elaine Hollander refers to as “a little game.” They go about the boutique inquiring of specific items and when they’re through, share their personal favorites with each other. When concurrence is reached each one speaks with Diane in private and arranges for the gifts to be shipped to their home in time for Christmas.

Jeffrey is always the one who answers the door when the parcels arrive. “Elaine thinks that Diane purposefully arranges to have the packages delivered when she is not home, but it just seems to be the way it works out each and every year.” says Jeffrey, who enjoys wearing Le 3ème Homme. Elaine, whose favorites include Infini, Muguet Du Bonheur and Violet Précieuse, is just as enamored of French fragrances as she is of Diane, “When it comes to American fragrances the refinement just isn’t there. I enjoy the beautiful Baccarat crystal bottles and packaging as much as I do the perfume that fills them. Then there’s Diane. She positively sparkles and has so much joy for what she does.”

The Hollanders’ gift selections are especially sentimental as the couple became engaged on Christmas Eve of 1998. It is the second marriage for each of them and love the second time around has proved to be true love. “It’s hard to explain, but when I first met Jeffrey it was as if I had met my soul mate, like I had known him forever.” says Elaine. The Hollanders, who are seated opposite each other in the boutique’s parlor area, look at each other and smile, their eyes glinting beneath similarly bespectacled faces. After spending over an hour with Diane, Jeffrey and Elaine say their goodbyes and promise to return in the spring, when they will once again play their fragrant game of love.

Notes:

Mrs. Hollander was partial to a limited edition Tabac Blond Coffret (available in a numbered series of 150). The Baccarat flacon holds 45 ml. of perfume and is housed in a luxurious wooden box. The collectible retails for $2000.

To make an appointment with the Caron Boutique's Diane Haska call 212-308-0270. Caron’s fragrances are available in packaged form or may be drammed from the boutique's urns. Silk ties and shawls are also available in-store. Phone orders may be placed at 1-877-88CARON. The Caron Boutique is located at 715 Lexington Avenue (at the corner of 58th Street) in New York City and is easily reached via the 4, 5, 6, N, R and W trains (59th Street station).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Holiday Exquisitries: A Sensualist’s Gift Guide


There is a unique exchange that takes place between sensory object and self. In a single moment the ordinary becomes transcendent and deep connections are made. Time disappears as boundaries melt away and essences merge; a quality one finds in physical or spiritual love. Sensualists live vicariously through their senses and their ability to connect with beauty in such a passionate manner requires the utmost in skill and discrimination. Buying gifts for these individuals requires thoughtfulness and care. Forgo the faux and indulge in holiday exquisitries that stimulate the senses.

TASTE…

Oliviers & Co. Olive Oil with Bergamot
More commonly recognized as an aromatic impression in tea than by name, bergamot is truly “the little orange that could.” Oil expressed from the Citrus bergamia peel imparts an uplifting quality when used as a top note in perfumery and is prominently featured in Earl Grey tea, known the world over for its revitalizing scent.

Oliviers & Co. has infused one of its olive oils with bergamot and the result is an interesting balance of bright citrus, soft green and subtle floral notes (in that order). Recommended use for Oliviers & Co. Olive Oil with Bergamot includes; shrimp & avocado salad, grated carrot salad, grilled scallops, chicken, lamb, green been salad, Greek salad, pasta, sautéed leeks, vinaigrettes, fruit salad and vanilla ice cream.

Prior to becoming White House Executive Pastry Chef, Bill Yosses created an Olive Oil and Bergamot Fleur de Sel Cake at the 2006 “Worlds of Flavor Baking & Pastry Arts Invitational Retreat,” at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus. The fact that oil is one of the chief ingredients in chiffon cake suggests that experimentation with Oliviers & Co. Olive Oil with Bergamot could lead to delightful discoveries. Earl Grey chocolate layer cake with cream cheese icing would be an indulgent start. Retail Price: $19.50 for 8.4 fl oz.

Dark Chocolate with White Pepper and Cardamom Bar, by Dolfin
Dolfin has a history of flavoring dark chocolate bars with interesting essences, but many of their dark chocolate bars are simply too sweet. Though the exact percentage of cocoa mass is not stated on their Dark Chocolate with White Pepper and Cardamom Bar, taste and mouth feel indicate a percentage of 65% or higher. The heat of white pepper is gentler than its fiery red cousin, but its kick exhilarates taste buds like a refreshing flurry of snowflakes. Cardamom’s camphorous tendencies dissolve, delivering an impression that is decidedly rich and spicy. Small 30 gram bars are sold at Oren’s Daily Roast coffee chains in New York City and at $2.50 a pop, are completely irresistible. The bars, part of Dolfin’s Saveurs du Monde line, are available in packs of five on Amazon.com and priced are at $10.25.

TOUCH…

Darphin Aromatic Hand Cream
According to Virginia Bonofiglio, adjunct professor of cosmetics and fragrance marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, most women’s hand creams are formulated with a white floral aldehydic scent. This would explain the generic olfactive memory one has when recalling the hand creams our mothers and grandmothers used (with the exception of Jergen’s Original Scent, which still includes addictive cherry and almond notes). Darphin products were originally showcased in spas and the brand’s “treatment” heritage has infused Darphin Aromatic Hand Cream with a more complex level of fragrancing. The platform is decidedly floral and vaguely aldehydic, but the way the scent blooms on skin melds traditional and modern freshness à la Jean-Charles Brousseau's Ombre Rose. Darphin Aromatic Hand Cream is so beautiful it could single-handedly revive the tradition of hand kissing. Retail price: $35.00.

Perfume-Filled Poison Rings by Ayala Moriel
To say that Smellyblog editor Ayala Moriel is obsessed with natural raw materials would be an understatement; her spirit is positively charged with an abiding respect for the history of perfumery in the natural realm. Her formulas are smooth, rarely jagged (an issue with many “natural” perfumes) and ingrained with beauty, humor and mysticism.

Moriel’s love of poison rings began with an Aztec poison ring her grandmother wore (a gift from Moriel’s grandfather, after one of several business trips he made to South America). In the past, one would conceal poison in the ring chamber as a means of protection from enemies. In Moriel’s hands, poison rings conceal solid crafted fragrances which can be applied to skin at leisure. The addition of the sense of touch to the fragrance experience is a magnificent pleasure indeed.

Price: $55-$100, depending on the particular ring (some are vintage and some are collector’s items). Shipping is $10, including insurance.

SMELL…

Histoire de Chypre (Aedes de Venustas/Molinard)
For over 12 years, fragrance connoisseurs seeking unique artisan fragrances have turned to Aedes de Venustas, a renowned perfumery boutique in New York’s West Village. Owners Karl Bradl and Robert Gerstner are extremely particular regarding pedigree and quality, so it’s no surprise that when the idea of designing an exclusive fragrance for the boutique came about, a perfumer found them.

Perfumer Dominique Camilli’s access to the Molinard archives, along with subsequent collaborations with Braidl and Gerstner, has resulted in Histoire de Chypre, a carefully crafted homage to a genre started by François Coty in 1917. Histoire de Chypre begins with refreshing notes of Bergamot, Mandarin, Neroli, Jasmine and Galbanum, and moves into an addictive heart of Jasmine, Bulgarian Rose, Osmanthus and Iris. The Patchouli, Oakmoss, Musk and Amber dry down is très chypre, lacking the aged quality one may sometimes find in this historical fragrance category. Histoire de Chypre (Eau de Parfum) is exclusive to Aedes de Venustas and is priced at $225 for a 3.4 oz. bottle (which is, incidentally, made of Lalique glass). The product may be ordered online or by calling 1-888-AEDES15.

SEE…

Lipstick Queen in Rouge Sinner
In the medium of lipstick, red is the ultimate color of seduction. The color of fire and blood, red turns heads with a quality of visibility that makes objects seem closer than they appear to be; a bona fide fact in color theory. In the world of lipstick, red can be a difficult color to wear. If the shade is not matched properly to natural lip color and skin tone, the effects can be clown-like or tawdry, which often keeps women from pursuing the joys of this pigmented provocateur.

Enter color maven Poppy King, whose name is synonymous with lipstick. “The best way to know if a red is right for you is to identify whether it is a blue-based red (one that is a little on the pink side) or a yellow-based red (one that is a little on the orange or clear side). “Getting over the fear of red lipstick starts with toning down eye makeup,” says King. “A woman knows if she has found the right red by looking at three key features, eyes, skin and hair, and seeing if these features have come alive and look illuminated with [the addition of] color.”

Lipstick Queen in Rouge Sinner is a shade of red that looks great on nearly every woman. The association of red with holidays and special occasions makes this the perfect time of year to indulge the senses with a terrific red lipstick. A less pigmented version of “rouge” is available in Lipstick Queen’s “Saint” line, which goes on like a lip stain, but is replete with moisture. Lipsticks are priced at $18.00 and are available at Barney’s.

Irene Suchocki Photography
Canadian Irene Suchocki is a self-taught photographer whose evocative work blurs wakingEtsy.com.
boundaries and catapults the viewer straight into a dream world. “Fireweed,” a photo featured in the gallery marked “Through the Viewfinder” uses pink and sepia tones to illustrate a field of fireweed flowers. Remarkably astute, Suchocki gives equal weight to what is in and out of focus, resulting in photographs with multilayered facets that are not unlike a beautifully constructed fine fragrance. Unmatted and unframed prints are available in matte and metallic finishes, ranging from $35 to $155. Suchocki’s work is also featured on

HEAR…
Le Pas du Chat Noir by Anouar Brahem
The “oud” is a an instrument used in the Middle East and East Africa, and is equivalent to a fretless lute (not to be confused with the hypnotic raw material which makes Tom Ford Oud Wood the equivalent of an aphrodisiac in a bottle). Anouar Brahem is a Tunisian oud player whose music is a mélange of classical Arabic music, folk and jazz, (think a very mellow Astor Piazzolla, resorting to minimalism and floating on a carpet of butterflies over the Mediterranean). Le Pas du Chat Noir (which means "the path of the black cat’s footsteps") soothes the senses with a quality of auditory spaciousness that literally gives one room to breathe—a well-deserved respite from pre-holiday harriedness.

Note:
Photo of "Sunflower" fractal from The Lunar Archives.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

In Search of a Cookie (Part Two): Cuccidati Revealed


















A week after John and I discover pastry bliss at Bruno's, I find myself thinking about his cemetery visit and the direction it is taking both of us. Determined, bleary-eyed and under-caffeinated, I enter Antoinette’s Patisserie in search of a drink dubbed the Euro; a magnificent beverage based upon cappuccino served in Italy. The Euro is smaller than its American cousin and the milk is steamed to scalding, breaking down the sugars and eliminating any need for sweetener.

Chef Antoinette Beham and I have become good friends over the years as we share a mutual love of artisanal baking. When I enter the patisserie, she calls me into the back of the kitchen and I accept her invitation with anticipation. I greet Antoinette, a petite woman with soft brown eyes and a large cake knife in her hands, and am requested to taste two cuttings of cake she has designed for a wedding. I am not told what I will taste with purpose; Antoinette is using my skills as a professional “nose” and gourmand to evaluate the creations. Since I am a sucker for dessert and she has a knife, I willingly oblige.

The first cake is positively decadent—three layers of syrup-infused sponge dressed in white chocolate mousse. I enjoy the textures and mouth feel, but there is not enough contrast in the arrangement of flavors. The next cake looks similar, but the taste is out of this world. It is a refreshing lemon mousse layer cake that is built upon the same structure as the previous cake, but the contrast of refreshing lemon, cream and cake is the equivalent of shiatsu on my taste buds. Three bites and I am invigorated with sugar joy.

“I am not particularly fond of the white mousse cake and I’ve tried to tell the customer that white chocolate mousse is better with something strong, like dark chocolate cake,” says Antoinette. I agree, adding that white chocolate is not true chocolate, a subject for future culinary debate. I begin to tell her about John’s cookie quest and her eyes light up. She calls for her sister, Tina, who also works in the store. “You’re friend is Sicilian, isn’t he?” Antoinette asks, her intonation indicating that she already knows the answer, being half Italian herself. “Yes he is,” I reply. “We went to Rocco’s and Bruno’s in the city and couldn’t find the cookie.” Antoinette looks at Tina and smiles. It is evident that they have had this cookie or at the very least, are familiar with its spirit.

Antoinette, a former pastry chef at Le Cirque, stops to think and says “I know that cookie. It’s probably one of those cookies that someone’s grandmother made in Sicily, maybe a holiday cookie with Italian mincemeat, like a pierogi that has been sliced. It’s not mustazzouli, but I’m not sure what it is called. Those kinds of cookies don’t get into bakeries like canoli. It’s funny. I have been thinking about them for the past week and want to make them myself.” The next day I return for coffee and strike up another conversation with Antoinette. She reflects on her days as a student at The Culinary Institute of America and a research assignment she had to do on the subject of walnuts. “You know, you discover all kinds of interesting and odd facts when you go to the library to do food research.” That evening I raid Google with the resolve of a bloodhound. “Okay, think. Search smarter,” I tell myself. Then I type the magic words, “Sicilian baking.” Jackpot.

Anna Maria Volpe is an Italian chef with Roman and Sicilian roots. Her website has a variety of recipes and in the dessert section there is a Sicilian fig cookie called cuccidati (also known as buccellati). She has taken Chef Nick Malgieri’s recipe for cuccidati and adapted it to suit her taste, (I have done the same with ma’amoul, adding homemade Tahitian vanilla extract and China cassia cinnamon to the date paste mixture). I call John at 9:30 p.m. “I think I found your cookie, but I’m not sure.” I do my best to pronounce the names in Italian, reading the filling ingredients one by one. “So what do you think?” I ask him. “It sure sounds like it, especially the spicy part,” he says, his smile evident over the phone line. We decide to see if De Robertis Caffe in the East Village sells cuccidati.

It’s a strange autumn day in October. Rain showers drift in and out like cranky baby tears, pealing with sunshine one moment and bawling rain the next. John and I are walking east on 14th Street, towards the café. As we pass Veniero’s, John tells me that the De Robertis Caffe's history spans four generations and that many of the Italian bakeries in the area are now run by families of Arabic descent. Opened in 1904, De Robertis occupies the same New York City block that it did at its inception. John’s mother grew up in the area and it is one of the reasons we have decided to explore its desserts. It turns out that De Robertis doesn’t sell cuccidati, but Joseph, one of the managers, tells us that the cookie is sold in December. We’re so close, but will be required to cultivate patience for at least two months.

The following week I meet with Antoinette and she suggests I look for a more authentic recipe than the one Volpe has re-orchestrated. That evening I find a cuccidati recipe by Marianne Esposito which appears to be genuine, but there is no “ah-hah” moment. Volpe’s recipe stands out as it resonates strongly with John’s memory of what he tasted. I’ve seen Ms. Esposito’s programs on public television and she eagerly seeks Sicilian recipes that are faithful to tradition. I come to the conclusion that John’s cuccidati is slightly Americanized. The pursuit of the cookie is put on hold as I prepare to fly to Chicago the next day. Unbeknownst to me, the spirit of Beppina is getting restless.

While in Chicago I have the luxury of spending two hours alone on Michigan Avenue, following a day of tedious business meetings. After a bit of window shopping I find myself craving coffee, but refuse to find solace in a plethora of Starbuck’s that populate the neighborhood. I was about to give up and go back to the Westin Hotel when I passed by the John Hancock building and discovered a food court on the lower level.

I venture inside L’Appetito, an Italian café and deli, and stand on the coffee queue. When I get to the cashier I notice a pastry case and am immediately struck by a tray of cookies that look like the cuccidati on Anna Marie Volpe’s website (the sprinkles were a dead giveaway). I ask for a half dozen and head for my hotel room. Once inside, I sit at a desk and carefully remove two cookies which are wrapped in a piece of transparent waxed paper inside the bag. The gustative recognition is instant; every taste that John had described is inside these cookies; the small bits of chocolate, orange peel, traces of clove, fig paste, and hints of an espresso effect.

I call John and tell him what I’ve found. It isn’t even December, but there are cuccidati in Chicago. The other four cookies never make it back to New York. I eat them on the plane ride home, 20,000 feet above the ground, winking at Beppina in the clouds…

Notes:

Anna Marie Volpe’s recipe for cuccidati (complete with demonstration photos) can be found here. Her recipe is a dead ringer for the cuccidati at L’Appetito. I’ve made these a few times and prefer to omit the sprinkles.

Antoinette's Patisserie is located in Hastings on Hudson, a quaint village in Westchester. A 40 minute ride on the Metro North (Hudson line) will take you from Grand Central Terminal into the village of Hastings. The ride is extraordinarily scenic with impressive views of the Palisades on the western side of the river. The patisserie is a ten minute walk from the station.

Part one of this story can be found here

Photo of cuccidati from Baking Delights.