- Mark Twain, Joan of Arc
He sits hunched over his ipad, tapping, tapping his forefinger against the screen, a quick occasional glance up at the film on the television. Every now and then, up he pops and scoots over to the other sofa to show me something he’s working on, a discovery, an idea, always interested in my opinion, excited to share. The intermittent dazzle of sunshine energizes and gives us hope, yet the somber leaden skies that normally greet us each day with a mournful shake of the head and an oppressive sigh keep us huddled inside, so we spend our days putting together our projects and pushing towards the future.
I find that I write less and less about food. Strange for a food blog, you may say. As life forges ahead in time, my thoughts are wrapped up in our day to day, our plans and projects. Our conversations are concentrated on our sons’ educations and how they can possibly build a safe and secure future while living out their passions. We waver between moving to the States, staying in France and wandering off to distant, exotic lands, far-flung and isolated where we can live out an adventure away from the madness of the world. Discussions rage, peppered with laughter and dotted with hijinks, lists are made and blueprints laid out for each and every idea that crosses our minds. As philosophical and thoughtful as we normally are anyway, as practical and orderly as we naturally are, this time of our life, this period of transition and change has made us even more sagacious and reflective and I cannot but help myself, this all comes out in my writing. These momentous decisions haunt my every thought and writing is my own personal way to think each one through, weigh out the consequences. Seeing it all in black on white is my way to measure our words against my own desires and judgment, to fix my emotions and come to my own conclusions. I am, after all, a writer and this process is necessary to me.
Yet this is, as you know, a food blog. And it may seem to those who visit that I randomly throw out recipes, that my choice of what I prepare for my family is haphazard and that the blog posts that I write are totally unconnected to what ensues in the kitchen and vice versa. But there is rhyme and reason to what we, my husband and I, cook and bake. Hidden behind each story I write, each tale of our daily life that I tell is a particular meal, a dish, a cake or treat tacked onto the end with little apparent explanation as to why it is there, yet I do assure you that all is intimately connected. You see, I do not cook simply to feed and nourish my family nor do I simply have the automatic gesture of recreating family traditions. Food and life are intertwined, woven together in a delicate, complicated dance. Yes, we see this at holiday times or when we celebrate one of those many events that dot our lives: births and deaths, marriages and holidays. We flip through our recipe cards handed down from parent to child, the old family favorites, the dishes created without thought or discussion on this special day or that. Yet our every day is a gentle blend of ritual and chance, the predictable and the unexpected. And each requires some carefully thought out and selected sustenance, some comforting refreshment, for normally a craving is triggered, a need kicks in, a desire sparked.
Chez nous, cold, drizzly days call for something rich and steaming, a dish spicy and succulent, chunks of long-simmered lamb or chicken and tender vegetables. Couscous finds its way to the table, a variety of tagines, tangy with preserved lemons and olives or sweet with prunes and almonds, bringing with it memories of old days in hotter, sunnier, more colorful and exotic climes. Misery loves company? Quite possibly, but nothing feeds the blues like a hearty plate of Parmentier, cozy mashed potatoes studded with sweet caramelized onions and blended with sautéed beef or sausages or a bowl of mussels in a wine and shallot broth, the aromatic steam circling up and around your head. Breathe in the goodness and a smile will quickly be found playing on satisfied lips. Soups appear as the cold, damp weather sets in, offering healing and soulful contentment when resignation and despondency threaten to settle in; pizza, focaccia and everything in between are lazy-day recipes when we want to lounge around the television in front of a fun movie, en famille, the four of us together as a family; these, as with all breads, take up a healthy chunk of preparation time, so this usually happens when things are looking up, good news has rolled in and we are all feeling chummy and positive. And desserts, whether fancy cakes or simple, homey goodness like cookies and brownies, well, these are made as a son or husband requires, as the pitter patter of man-sized shoes is heard on the parquet, tromping through the house bored and restless. When fruit is the main ingredient, it usually means there is guilt to be appeased; apples, pears, peaches or citrus assuage a need to return to childhood pleasures and running barefoot in the sun. Berries are for celebration, sweet, tangy and special for their rarity, local strawberries, plump and bursting with flavor, delicate raspberries and tart red currents, also grown in the neighborhood of Nantes, signal something special happening in our lives when we have the ability and desire to splurge just a little. And the familiar is needed, the same old is demanded when the house is filled to overflowing with more men than this lone woman can count, comforting panna cotta or sponge cake, chocolate chip cookies or cinnamon buns, when discussion bordering on argument is on the agenda and when Starting Over tends to make us all restless and introspective; chocolate is required in any shape or form when the American in each of them calls or when one or the other wants to impress.
So, as you see, one can easily read meaning into each recipe I post on my blog without the typical “why I made this recipe and what I found at my local greengrocer” introduction. Philosophy in food form, edible therapy, if you will. No need for me to explain or lead into a recipe, just follow the dots and you should be able to get the general ambiance around here without my having to speak. Like making eye contact across a crowded room or playing charades, the dishes I prepare and then post on my blog along with a seemingly unconnected story are in fact interconnected, one inspiring the other or both inspired by the same general mood, an up or a down, a success or a series of bumps and bruises and together indubitably relay some meaning. Which is why today’s sweet treat is a Blueberry Buckle. Good old fashioned American comfort food at its best. Winter blusters and fusses outside, decisions are being hashed and rehashed inside, boys are giving us the same crazy mélange of satisfaction and frustration and the world seems to want to put all of our plans on hold (with some horrid musak version of a Liberace classic piped in as we wait) and nothing consoles and cheers like a classic confection, nothing rich and fancy, just a plain, delicate cake, light and fluffy, studded with sweet spots of fruit and topped with streusel with a hint of cinnamon. Nothing. Believe me.
An afternoon spent with Dianne wandering around the old French Quarter of New Orleans on a steaming afternoon of August found us in a wonderful shop filled with kitchen goodies, local treats and specialties and, yes, cookbooks. I always purchase one cookbook wherever I travel to, a tradition that brings great pleasure, and I try and find a cookbook of local or regional dishes or baking. This, I find, is a wonderful way to carry the memories and experience of a trip and a special place with me back home. While in that bookstore in New Orleans, I happened upon a book that intrigued: Cooking Up a Storm, Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. This wonderful cookbook is more than just a collection of recipes, the renowned, authentic dishes of this city and a tale of a rich, diverse, fascinating culinary history. You see, The Times-Picayune newspaper became a post-hurricane Katrina swapping place for old recipes that were washed away in the storm. Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker have compiled more than 225 of these delicious, authentic recipes along with the stories of how they came to be and what they mean to those who have searched so hard to find them again. As my son spent a year volunteering in the aftermath of Katrina, helping to rebuild the destroyed Lower Ninth Ward, I feel a personal connection to what happened and how the city is pulling itself together and working to preserve and safeguard their culinary legacy.
And I settled on the Blueberry Buckle for one rainy winter afternoon of hardcore family discussion. I made a few subtle changes: I used frozen blueberries for fresh – blueberries are extremely rare to find in Nantes (thus very expensive not to mention flown in from far away) and impossible in the winter months, and frozen wild blueberries, I find, have more flavor than fresh – and I did not thaw them before using; I had no buttermilk so substituted a blend of 0% low fat fromage frais and lowfat milk, about half and half; I ran out of unsalted butter – believe it or not – and used salted butter for the cake (not the streusel) and so reduced the salt quantity to ¼ teaspoon. Well, the cake is fabulous! Light, fluffy, delicate and flavorful, just as it should be, with tangy sweet berries and just the perfect balance of streusel. I will make this over and over again. And am now looking forward to making many more of the delightful recipes in this cookbook.
From Cooking Up a Storm edited by Marcelle Bienvenu and Judy Walker
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup flour
4 Tbs unsalted butter
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¾ cup sugar
4 Tbs unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
2 tsps baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup buttermilk
2 ½ cups fresh blueberries or 2 cups frozen
Prepare the Streusel Topping:
With a fork or your fingers, combine all the streusel ingredients in a small bowl until the mixture has a crumbly consistency. Set aside. (I put the bowl of streusel in the refrigerator while I prepared the cake batter so the butter wouldn’t get soft which would make it more difficult to crumble over the cake).
Prepare the cake:
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Lightly grease (with butter) a 9-inch square pan.
Beat the sugar and butter together with an electric mixer in a large mixing bowl until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, then the vanilla.
Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt in another bowl. Add this to the sugar and butter alternately with the buttermilk, beating well after each addition. Fold in the blueberries just until evenly distributed then spread the cake batter out in the pan and top with the streusel.
Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
We all fell in love with this Blueberry Buckle and find that it makes the perfect breakfast or snack cake.