Because I can’t be your personal cook at Penn, I thought this would come in handy.
Brenda (not the one who barks)
My very first cookbook, the vegetarian epicure, a gift from a dear college friend, her going away gift as I packed my bags to head north, my grand adventure, my new life. I loved to cook although I was neither very good nor very experienced, but she knew that I adored this cookbook and offered me something that she was sure would stay with me forever.
I carefully, very carefully turn back the front cover of my vegetarian epicure and reread this dedication – I have heard many times that offering a book to someone without a dedication is bad luck. The cover is faded, the pages brittle and torn, a book opened, perused, used and loved for close upon 30 years. Pages are stained, the pages upon which are printed my favorite recipes, bits of paper stick out between pages on which are penciled notes, calculations, measurements. This gem of a cookbook contains recipes I make over and over again, recipes loved by husband, sons, dishes even eaten by my persnickety, vegetable-hating son: spanakopita, eggplant tomato casserole, as well as comfort food classics, macaroni and cheese, popovers, stuffed manicotti, cheese soufflé.
I handle the book delicately now, gently, like a newborn babe, like a broken heart; I open the book and memories flood through me, memories of the 2 Brendas (yes, one who barks, but only when inspired) and Beth, Lyn and Jackie, Pat, Becky and Rhett, those two years sitting in the hot hot sun of Florida, years spent hanging out in the Theater Department between classes, late nights drinking coffee and eating hot buttermilk biscuits at that all-night barbeque joint, days spent dreaming of something else, someplace far away. Post-dorm days cooking in the shared apartment, cooking from this cherished cookbook for cherished friends.
A Happy Birthday loan
Happy Birthday * Happy Cooking
2 – 1 – 81
I packed up my suitcases and moved north to a bigger, brighter, more cosmopolitan city, an Ivy League school, to dreams of changing who I was, where I thought I could go. This perfect gift from my older brother, my advisor, my guide in all things culinary (among other things), the vegetarian epicure book 2, added recipe upon recipe to my repertoire, dishes made with joy and pleasure over the years as I moved from city to city, country to country, as I married my Frenchman and raised 2 sons: dal and pilau, pea soup, fluffy risen biscuits, luscious cheese and tomato pie. This book, too, is torn and faded, split in two, but loved immeasurably, kept in the kitchen and near my heart, not pushed off into some dark corner or carton nor left forgotten, lost among so many others, on the hallway shelf stacked with my many, so many, cookbooks.
The years have flown by, sometimes racing at top speed leaving little time to do what we want, some years dragging slowly, painfully by yet these cookbooks, my very first, the two cookbooks that were with me, my companions, from the very start of my journey through time and space, along the road of life, the vegetarian epicure books one and two by Anna Thomas, are two jewels among my most treasured belongings, objects dear that are the first to be boxed and packed when another move is upon us. Along the road they have been joined by many friends: Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, the first cookbook JP and I bought together as young husband and wife, a book we cooked together from in those earliest days, sharing kitchen space and our love for this fabulous cuisine, my wonderful Cake Bible and King Arthur’s Baking Companion, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson standing elbow to British elbow alongside The French Chef and Françoise Bernard. Cookbook upon cookbook, French, American, English, Italian, Jewish, dessert, fish, spice, meat, pasta, they are all there, each one begging to be tugged off the shelf whenever I pass in the hallway or pause, running my fingers across their spines like a lover caressing the soft skin of a most beloved. The old, the battered, books pilfered from my mother’s kitchen cabinet over the long years I’ve been away, 60’s cookbooks and pamphlets and recipes ripped out of magazines taken surreptitiously and snuck through the house and into my waiting suitcase, have found their way back to France where they stand proudly next to my own purchases and gifts from friends and loved ones, each so overjoyed to be pulled out of the darkness and brought back to life, sharing their secrets and retro recipes in my European kitchen.
And one more has been added. One winter day with nothing to do, JP took pity on my poor, crumbling vegetarian epicures and, closing himself off in his office, in secret, searched on line for someone who could take my much-loved babies and revive them, clean and rebound, a special surprise for me. After much research he came to the conclusion that it was not worth the cost and instead, out of the pure, love-driven goodness of his heart, made the decision to order for me Anna Thomas’ newest version, The New Vegetarian Epicure, wonderful as always both he and she!
In the mood to make bread, have the house fill with the rich, savory odor of a fresh-baked loaf, slice into a light, fluffy, yeasty treat, I turned to my New Vegetarian Epicure for inspiration. One of the reasons that I love her books so is that each and every one of her delightful, intriguing, creative recipes is perfect and completely fail-proof! I have total and absolute confidence in Anna Thomas! When I found a recipe for Parmesan Focaccia I knew that this was the bread for me! And my family, my men, adore Parmesan and use it more often than salt. I knew that this bread would be loved! I added dried and fresh herbs – next time I will add even more – and took the traditional flat focaccia idea and twisted it all around to make a braided loaf. And it was perfect! A gorgeous bread, light and fluffy and perfectly baked with a deep golden crust to give that delightful crunch. The flavor was tremendous, so full of Parmesan flavor with just a hint of herbs. Fabulous! And this bread was so loved by my men, it was swallowed down in record time!
I, of course, braided, twisted and turned this Herbed Parmesan Loaf with Natashya, who is Living in the Kitchen With Puppies, in mind. She is hosting this month’s Bread Baking Day and has chosen the theme Twisted Breads. Now we will not make a comment associating Natashya with Twisted, no, I love her too much, but I am bringing this wonderful, fragrant, flavorful twisted, braided bread to her house to share for BBD #30. Perfect!
And I am also sending a loaf to Susan of Wild Yeast for this week’s Yeastspotting, which I love and have woefully neglected lately!
As many of you know, I have entered a short story in the Independent on Sunday/Bradt Travel-Writing Competition, my first official writing competition and I want to share my story with you. Return to Paris is simply a day spent in wintry, icy, white Paris, a marvelous, special, romantic day in a city that reinvented herself for one day for two lovers. If you like my story, please vote for it by clicking on the stars – the last and fifth star, of course, where it says “rate this entry”. I thank you very much and hope you enjoy it.
BRAIDED HERBED PARMESAN FOCACCIA
Adapted from The New Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas
2 ¼ tsps active dry yeast
1 ¼ cups (300 ml) warm water (body temperature or just slightly warmer)
½ tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 Tbs fruity green olive oil
¼ tsp chopped dried thyme
¼ tsp chopped dried rosemary
1 Tbs or more chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 ½ cups (500 g) flour, or less
1 heaping cup finely (2 7/8 oz, 80 g) freshly grated Parmesan or Grana Padana cheese
Large pinch of coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Place the dried yeast and the sugar in a large mixing bowl and add the warm water. Allow to sit and activate for 10 to 15 minutes until it foams. Stir in the salt, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the dried and fresh herbs as well as about 2/3 of the Parmesan cheese and about a cup of the flour, enough to make a thick, smooth paste when stirred well with a wooden spoon.
When smooth and thick, continue to stir in flour, half cup by half cup, until the dough becomes too stiff for the spoon. Turn it out onto a floured work surface (using the remaining flour you had measured out) and knead gently, adding flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking, for 6 to10 minutes (as long as you can bear it!). The dough should be smooth and elastic.
Lightly grease a large bowl and put the dough in the bowl turning so the dough is lightly coated with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap then a clean kitchen towel and leave to rise until doubled in size, about an hour.
Line a baking sheet with parchment or oven paper. Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface, punch it down and divide it into 3 equally sized pieces. Gently roll each piece of dough between your hands until you have a long snake the length of your baking sheet (like making play-do snakes). Lay the three snakes side by side on the baking sheet and braid, starting from the center and working towards one end then turning the baking sheet and finish, braiding from the center down. Tuck the ends underneath.
Cover once again (loosely) with the plastic wrap then the kitchen towel and allow to rise a second time for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C)
Brush the outside of the dough, gently so as not to pull the dough, with the rest of the olive oil then sprinkle liberally the rest of the grated Parmesan all over the top. Sprinkle with the coarse salt and give a generous grinding of black pepper.
Bake for about 35 minutes until the top is a deep golden brown – it will not be shiny and it sounds hollow when the bottom is tapped.
Let it cool on a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
This can be made into a traditional focaccia by simply patting the dough into a large, flat circle of a diameter of about 14 – 16 inches across, then slashed a few times once the top has been brushed with olive oil and topped with the Parmesan, salt and pepper.
Olive, Sun-Dried Tomato & Pine Nut Focaccia