Sunday, February 24, 2008

Medlar: The Fruit of Misunderstanding

This month confectioner Pierre Marcolini added medlar to his stable of fruit rich jams at his New York boutique. The concentrated reduction is speckled with Madagascar vanilla, which naturally highlights the fruit’s autumnal flavors. The medlar is no ordinary fruit; it has inspired reverence and revulsion because of its obscure ripening process.

The center of a medlar flower invites curiosity and introspection. Flirtatious stigmas and stamens reflect the self-fertilizing nonchalance of a fruit which is edible when it borders on rotting. As the medlar fruit matures on the tree it resembles an apple with a crown at its bottom. Its nether region is the source of risqué references in literature, including this one from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (II, 1, 34-38):

"Now will he sit under a medlar tree,
And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit
As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.
O Romeo, that she were, O that she were
An open-arse and thou a poperin pear!"

After medlars are picked they are stored calyx end down and allowed to overripen. This process, referred to as “bletting,” permits the breakdown of starches into sugars. As the flesh softens the inside of a medlar begins to resemble applesauce. It is precisely at this time that notes of cider, spice and the musk of ripe apricots develops. There is short window of time between edible and rotten, which has led to adoration by connoisseurs and disgust by those who cannot contend with the medlar’s fermentation. The fruit is more tenacious than those who have no patience for its obscurity. In addition to being self-pollinating the medlar can set fruit without pollination—nature’s reckoning for those who misunderstand this amazing fruit.

Medlars may be eaten raw, cooked or baked. Jellies are commonly made as the fruit is naturally rich in pectin. Pierre Marcolini’s Medlar Jam tastes great on toast, fresh brioche or with Silk Road Spice Cake, a recipe I’ve developed to complement the flavors in the medlar. The cake is best served warm with touch of jam. If you favor decadence, a scoop of vanilla ice cream will do nicely.

Silk Road Spice Cake
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Yield: 2 cakes

Ingredients:
· 4 cups Arrowhead Mills® Organic Whole Grain Pastry Flour
· 1/3 cup Bob’s Red Mill® Ground Golden Flaxseed Meal
· 1 cup granulated sugar
· 4 teaspoons aluminum-free baking powder
· ½ teaspoon baking soda
· ½ teaspoon salt
· 4 tsp. Penzey's China Cassia Cinnamon
· 2 tsp. ground coriander seeds
· 2 tsp. organic orange zest
· ½ tsp. ground cloves
· 1 tsp. ground allspice
· 1 tsp. ground ginger
· ½ tsp. ground mace
· ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
· 3 tsp. Penzy's Double Strength Vanilla (Madagascar)
· 5 ounces golden raisins (picked through for stems)
· 2 ½ cups low-fat, “no salt added” buttermilk
· ½ cup grapeseed oil
· 4 large egg whites

Instructions:
· Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
· Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add spices and flaxseed meal. Mix all of the dry ingredients together.
· In a separate bowl mix egg whites and vanilla extract.
· In another bowl mix buttermilk, orange zest and grapeseed oil. Add the vanilla and egg white mixture and incorporate.
· Add golden raisins to the buttermilk mixture.
· Make a well in the center of the bowl containing the dry ingredients and add wet ingredients, gently folding until everything is well mixed.
· Fill two 8 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ¾ greased loaf pans and set on the center oven rack. Bake for approximately 50 minutes (or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean).
· Remove cakes from the oven and allow them to cool on a wire rack.
· Store cakes in the refrigerator. Slices can be served at room temperature or warmed up.

Notes:

Pierre Marcolini’s Medlar Jam retails for $16. The store is located at 485 Park Avenue, between 58th and 59th Streets in New York City. 212-755-5150

Photo of medlar flower by Michiel Thomas on Flickr.

Photo of medlar fruit by Anne Miek Bibber on Flickr.

Photo of bletting medlar from The Cat’s Tripe.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Perfume Memories: Mitsouko

Adolescence is a strange and awkward time, yet it is in this period of life that we encounter sensory experiences that stay with us forever. When I look back on my adolescent days I recall feeling like no one could see who I was. I remember the nostalgic and admiring looks given to me by my parents’ friends, many of whom foisted their own experiences and expectations on my “potential” without giving any thought to my individuality. Though their intentions were good, I found their perspective extremely irritating. I retaliated by engaging in intellectual mutiny and though I was generally well-behaved, there was a distinct period when I did not enjoy spending time with my parents' friends. There was one exception, a beautiful woman named Aldona who reveled in decorum and femininity unlike any woman I had ever known. Aldona saw me for who I truly was, irrespective of the past or the future. Under the tutelage of her blue-eyed gaze she held a mirror to my senses and introduced me to myself.

Though she died nineteen years ago I can still hear her voice, its cadence wrapped in a soft Polish accent radiant with charm, wit and passion. With or without makeup, Aldona’s face was beautiful to look at. She was graced with high cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes and thick sable blonde hair which she kept up in a bun. Time, war and cigarettes gave her laugh lines and crow’s feet, but there was something about the way she carried herself that softened everything. If you stared at her face long enough, you could pull back the years and see her at twenty, lit up from inside, devastatingly beautiful.

My mother and I would regularly visit Aldona for tea and it was at her table that I first sipped Earl Grey. I had always associated tea drinking with being sick and never experienced it as a relaxing ritual, replete with porcelain teapots and cups. A refreshing floral aroma rose above the steam in my cup and my inquisitiveness was instantly stirred. Compelled by the need to know what was moving my senses, I asked Aldona about the aroma. She handed me a yellow Twinning’s tea tin and I learned the name of an ingredient that would become a lifelong favorite; bergamot. After drinking Earl Grey I gave up dabbing Love’s Fresh Lemon behind my ears and graduated to a more sophisticated fragrance; Max Factor’s Khara (1976), a fragrance which contained bergamot in the top note.

There were never any men at the tea table and in their absence matters of beauty would be discussed with abandon. This was preferable to conversations about World War II which would inevitably crop up if Aldona’s husband (a former soldier in the Polish army) and my father (a teenage survivor of Auschwitz) were tempted by tea and cookies. Once a month, Aldona was visited by an Avon lady named Rae who would deliver makeup and fragrance to her home. Eye shadow, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, anything with color intrigued and excited Aldona. It was 1978 and I was in high school. Color appealed me and it was Aldona who convinced my mother that color cosmetics were not the enemy if they were used with discretion. In 1978, the same year Poland’s Karol Jósef Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, I became the proud owner of a few Avon eye shadow sticks.

It was shortly after my induction into eye shadow that the subject of perfume came up at the tea table. Aldona began speaking about Guerlain’s Mitsouko with the honey-like sweetness of someone peacefully talking in their sleep. When she said Mitsouko it was as if she had unleashed everything that shaped the woman she had become. Mitsouko was an eternal bookmark on a favorite page lovingly committed to memory for safekeeping, a symbol of femininity. Aldona got up from the table and went into her bedroom, returning with an ivory-handled hairbrush. She released her hair and began brushing it in long strokes as she spoke about how much she loved Mitsouko. I was mesmerized by the way her hair fell in thick streams across her shoulders, how it made her eyes brighter, her words more intense, everything about her more alive.

Aldona’s impenetrable spirit was no match for a weak heart. Eleven years later, in the month of March, the family dog began barking and crying at her bedside, rousing her sleeping husband. My parents told me that that Aldona was in the throes of a heart attack and died in her husband’s arms that morning. I was deeply saddened and at a loss for words, but moved by the way she left this world. I imagined her in a white cotton dressing gown, hair unfettered, meeting eternity like a beautiful heroine. I think of her every time I open a bottle of Mitsouko and the top note of bergamot hits my nose…

Florida at Dawn

The moon is low in the sky,
And a sweet south wind is blowing
Where the bergamot blossoms breathe and die
In the orchard’s scented snowing;
But the stars are few, and scattered lie
Where the sinking moon is going.

With a love-sweet ache a strain
Of the night’s delicious fluting
Stirs in the heart, with as sweet a pain
As the flower feels in fruiting,
And the soft air breathes a breath of rain
Over buds and tendrils shooting.

For the sweet night faints and dies,
Like the blush when love confesses
Its passion dusk to the cheeks and eyes
And dies in its sweet distresses,
And the radiant mystery fills the skies
Of possible happinesses,

Till the sun breaks out on sheaves
And mouths of a pink perfume,
There the milky bergamot shakes its leaves;
And the rainbow’s ribbon bloom,
Of the soft gray mist of the morning, weaves
A rose in the rose’s loom.

The fog, like a great white cloth,
Draws out of the orchard and corn,
And melts away in a film of froth
Like the milk spray on the thorn;
And out of her chamber’s blush and loath,
Like a bride, comes the girlish morn.

Source: Excerpt from: Harney, Will Wallace. "A Florida Dawn" Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June. 1875, Volume 51, Issue 301, pp. 66–67. Listen to the poem being read via MP3 here, courtesy of Lit2Go.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Aldona Joskow.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Violet Pleasures in Food and Drink

Fragrant flowers that arouse the senses enter the vocabulary as words for color, inspiring expressions of love and beauty. This weekend the city of Toulouse celebrated La Fête des Violets, a yearly festival which pays homage to the diminutive bloom cultivated in greenhouses and used in confectionary and scented products. The Parma violet was allegedly introduced to the region in the 19th century by Napoleon’s second wife, Maria Luigia of Austria, Grand Duchess of Parma. Floral, sweet, cool and woody viola odorata asserts a distinctive olfactive presence, articulated brilliantly in the last two stanzas of “Ode to a Cluster of Violets” by Pablo Neruda:

Fragile cluster of starry
violets,
tiny, mysterious
planet
of marine phosphorescence,
nocturnal bouquet nestled in green leaves:
the truth is
there is no blue word to express you.

Better than any word
is the pulse of your scent.

Violet pleasures exist in food and drink, though true gustative and olfactive creations are rare. Essential oil of violet is extremely costly to produce and nearly impossible to work with when it comes to flavors. Synthesized ionones inspired by violets and berries (the molecules exist in both) are commonly utilized in flavor and fragrance and are less volatile, permitting lasting sensory impressions. Only one of the products reviewed in this article is built around violet petals—Pierre Marcolini’s Violet-Infused Praline.

Lavender Violet Vanilla Bean Sugar, Savory Spice Shop
Smelling Lavender Vanilla Bean Sugar and tasting it are two distinctly different experiences. The aroma possesses a vanillic bravura that is woody, slightly anisic and lavender-infused, generating the sense of violet as a color rather than a flavor. When eaten out of hand, notes of violet float over vanilla and transition into lavender, inspiring thoughts of application in pastry.

Violette-Infused Praline, by Pierre Marcolini
Heartbreakingly beautiful, this violet-infused chocolate is truly a labor of love. Chocolatier Pierre Marcolini cold infuses fresh cream with violet petals in order to preserve the fragile flower’s delicate flavors. He combines the flavored cream with melted chocolate to create a ganache filling and the result is true artistry. At first bite, aspects of naturally occurring ionone flirt with the palate, massaging the taste buds with notes of strawberry, raspberry and blackberry. As the chocolate melts in the mouth, the floral aspect of violet begins to show itself, gently lingering in the finish. Warning: A trip to Pierre Marcolini’s store in New York City may induce chocolate ecstasy.

Rothman and Winter Crème de Violette
There is no cream in Crème de Violette, but its smoothness warrants the title. Delicate and complex it is delightful sipped neat or added to cocktails, (distributor Hauz Alpenz provides drink recipes on their website). Like absinthe, violet liqueur is making a comeback and is much preferred to the cloying contents of Monin® syrup bottles favored by bartenders and baristas.

Bêtises de Cambrai, Violet Flavor
This French candy is a doppelganger for Caron’s Violette Précieuse fragrance. Delicate, vaguely woody and slightly citric it refreshes the palate with a sweet floralcy that is extremely addictive. Though difficult to find outside of France, it is worthy of pursuit.

Notes:

“Ode to a Cluster of Violets” can be found in the bilingual edition of Odes to Common Things, a precious and beautifully illustrated book. The poem, which has never been available on the web, can be found on Memory and Desire (one of many reasons to visit the site regularly).

Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette is available at Astor Wines and Liquors in New York City. They are located at 399 Lafayette Street at East 4th Street. 212-674-7500

Pierre Marcolini is located at 485 Park Avenue, between 58th and 59th Streets in New York City. 212-755-5150

Photo of Candied Spring Violet Cake is from Mirabelle.com. The cakes on this catering site are enticing and unforgettable.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Cruel Gardénia by Guerlain

Sylvaine Delacourte graciously introduced Cruel Gardénia to editors at Guerlain’s New York offices this week, at the close of an informative presentation entitled “The Language of Perfumery.” Delacourte—a beautiful, intelligent and passionate advocate of the art of perfumery—collaborated with Symrise perfumer Randa Hammami to create an evocative gardenia fragrance that honors the softer facets of the flower, while preserving its seductive qualities.

The only thing cruel about Cruel Gardénia is the perfume's hold on the senses—it captivates and then, like a beautiful woman in a crowded room dissolving conversations in her wake, arouses yearnings that can only be satisfied in its presence. This is exactly what Delacourte intends for the wearer, “Perfume is an inner perfume that reflects the deep personality of what you really are inside. It’s not worn over you. You leave a trace of yourself behind in the memory of others.”

Cruel Gardénia starts off innocently with notes of damask rose, peach and neroli. It transitions into creamy gardenia, shy violet and multifaceted Comoros ylang-ylang, teasing and tempting all the way. As base notes of sandalwood, tonka bean and vanilla rise to the surface, a pulse of devastating white musk becomes apparent, magnifying all of the senses.

The magic of Cruel Gardénia was not lost upon me. A trace of the fragrance had inadvertently remained under my nose following the presentation and with each inhalation, began to mingle with everything around me. Immediate surroundings grew olfactively vivid; the trees, the Hudson River, the damp cement sidewalk wet with rain, the latency of spring hidden in unseasonably warm temperatures, all of these treasures rose up to greet my senses, leaving me with an intense affection for Cruel Gardénia.

Cruel Gardénia will be available at Guerlain Boutiques in April 2008 and is priced at $220 for a 75 ml bottle.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup

The comforting perfume of warm sweet plantain is hard to resist. Traditionally used in Latin and Caribbean kitchens, these starchy fruits are treated like potatoes and served boiled, baked or fried. Sweet plantain is by definition an overripe green plantain. Sweet and musky, the cooked fruit has an aroma that is sap-like and syrupy, with a banana note that reveals a hint of tart lemon. Tostones, twice fried plantains served with a mashed garlic condiment, are familiar fare in Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhoods in New York City. Adventurous preparations of plantain that combine sweet and savory tastes are the domain of home cooks and chefs. If fortune smiles upon you, you will know one or the other.

Chef Orlando León, who currently runs the kitchen at The Restaurant at The Benjamin, introduced Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup at his former haunt, Mosaico. Chefs from well-known restaurants all over the city frequented the café for take-out, hoping to fill their bellies while deciphering Chef León’s multiregional Latin cuisine. The Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup was part of many not-so-stealth missions and tickled León, who continued to turn out dishes that put restaurants like Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill to shame. Chef León’s warm and hospitable demeanor endeared him to patrons who would occasionally find him serving food to customers from behind the counter. Though León revealed his recipe for Pumpkin Cajeta Cheesecake in The New York Daily News, the Columbian native’s recipe for Lentil and Sweet Plantain Soup stayed in the confines of Mosaico. There was one caveat; it was up for discussion if you were a customer who fell in love with it.

The recipe for the version of Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup presented on Glass Petal Smoke is the result of a series of discussions with Chef Orlando León that took place when he was at Mosaico. Measurements and spices were not disclosed by the chef and tweaking liberties were taken with regard to spices and the addition of a vegetarian protein booster called TVP®. Lovers of hot sauce rejoice; the combination of heat with savory and sweet is addictive, lending a harmonious contrast.

Sweet Plantain and Lentil Soup
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Inspired by Chef Orlando León


Ingredients:
· 16 ounce bag of green lentils, rinsed
· 3 sweet yellow plantain (sliced into discs)
· 2 large carrots (diced)
· 2 large stalks of celery (diced)
· ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
· 1 medium Spanish onion (chopped)
· 1 tablespoon olive oil
· 4 cups of water
· 2 quarts nonfat, low-sodium chicken stock
· 2 teaspoons ground cumin
· 1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
· ½ teaspoon oregano
· 3 teaspoons epazote
· 2 cups Bob’s Red Mill TVP® (texturized, vegetable protein)
· plain nonfat yogurt for garnish

Instructions:
· Heat olive oil on a low flame. Add onions and celery and sauté until onions are clear.
· Add all dry spices, except epazote. Mix thoroughly, coating celery and onions with the spices.
· Slowly pour chicken stock and water into the pot. Add carrots and sweet plantain, gently mixing all of the ingredients together. Cover the pot and heat on a low to medium flame. Allow contents to simmer until they reach a gentle boil.
· When the soup begins to boil add lentils and epazote, reducing heat to a low setting and covering once again.
· Stir soup every half hour until 1½ hours have passed.
· Add TVP and simmer for an additional 40 minutes over low heat.
· When finished, serve with a dollop of plain nonfat yogurt and fresh cilantro. Heat lovers can add hot sauce to taste.

Notes:

When shopping for the sweet variety of plantain, yellow and brown are the colors to seek out. Green plantain is starchy, its flavor akin to a mixture of squash and potato in flavor. Semi-ripe yellow plantain is sweet and grows more sugary as it turns brown. Brown plantain is sweetest and softer than yellow plantain when cooked. All sweet plantain should be firm to the touch.

TVP® is texturized vegetable protein made from soy flour and is available at most health food stores. It adds protein, isoflavones and fiber to the soup and keeps carbohydrates in check. TVP® has a cereal-like aroma in the bag, but has no flavor. It is a popular ingredient in vegetarian dishes as it absorbs the flavor of sauces and has a texture that lies somewhere between a meat and an al dente grain.

The Restaurant at The Benjamin is located at 125 East 50th Street in New York City. 212-715-2500.

Mosaico was opened in 1997 and is now closed.

Chef Bernard Ibarra, of The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, shares his recipe for Sweet Plantain and Raisin Soup with Saffron on the California Raisin website.

Photo of plantains comes from Gourmet Sleuth, which has additional recipes for the fruit.