Oct 072012
 

Goat Cheese Tart from bibberche.com

My sister has a hyper-sensitive nose. She makes a face when she spies a wedge of pecorino Romano and she can identify the tiniest amounts of any goat product, no matter how fresh and pristine. “It smells like a musk ox!”, she would yell and that became our war cry, a kind of a goat radar, even though no one we are even acquainted with has come in contact with a musk ox.

Father’s neighbor at the ranch above our town in Serbia has a small herd of goats that she takes for a walk along the dirt road, allowing them to enjoy the overgrown hedges and brambles that flank it, while she walks slowly behind them, her knitting needles clacking and crisscrossing, a ball of yarn clasped firmly between her arm and her ribs. When she milks the goats in the morning, she fills white, reused one-liter plastic bottles with still frothy milk, loads them in canvas bags and dispatches her children on bikes to make rounds. The milk she gets at dusk she uses to make cheese the next day.

Father is one of her regular customers when we are in Serbia and my children have learned to enjoy the exotic, grassy taste of goat products. From time to time I even manage to persuade my sister to take a bite of young, lightly salted, unripened milky-white goat cheese cut in squares and laid in neat rows in a plastic box, or a few crumbs of older, yellow and drier cheese that spent some time developing its mature aroma. But she inevitably scrunches her face after a faintest whiff of goatness, and we all cry out in unison, “It smells like a musk ox!”

Goat Cheese Tart from bibberche.comAlmost two years ago the Internet sprinkled some fairy dust and made me stumble upon Stephanie’s beautiful blog Sale e Pepe. Her photography left me breathless and inspired me to strive for better every time I pick up my camera. When she told me that she has photographed a cookbook, I was not surprised. When she asked me if I wanted to participate in a virtual potluck to promote the cookbook, Tasia’s Table, I was ecstatic.

The author of the cookbook is Tasia Malakasis, a Southern girl of Greek origin, a fellow English major who switched gears a few years back and became a cheesemonger for her native Alabama company Belle Chevre. Most of the recipes in her book feature goat cheese in its many incarnations. Her writing is evocative and soulful, and Stephanie’s images bring forth Tasia’s enchantment with food and her desire to share it with her friends and family while tossing back a glass of red wine, laughing, and leaving all pretense behind.

My kind of cheese, my kind of girl, my kind of entertaining! The only bad thing about this endeavor was that I could not stop browsing the recipes. I wanted to make so many of them that my notebook became useless. I stopped only when I realized that I can make all these recipes in the future whenever I want. For the virtual potluck I chose an easy to prepare dish that would appeal to my girls, with ingredients that I usually have in stock: Tapenade-Olive Tart with Goat Cheese.

The puff pastry rose beautifully and the crust was rustic and imperfect in the best way possible, even though I tried really hard to make the edges even. Creamy, soft goat cheese cut the abrasive notes of capers and complemented the  flowery taste of roughly chopped green Manzanilla olives in my tapenade*, while toasted nuts tossed with fresh thyme added another subtle undertone.

Tasia, you are right: this is a simple, but lovely dish to serve on a weekday with a spring greens salad, but also perfectly suited to grace a table at an informal party, or when guests appear unexpectedly. And my sister was probably dreaming about us nine hours ahead in Germany, as we chimed, as if on cue, “It smells like a musk ox!”

*I made my own tapenade as I joined October Unprocessed started by Andrew Wilder of Eating Rules.

You can order a copy of Tasia’s Table on Tasia Malakasis’s site.

 TAPENADE-WALNUT TART WITH GOAT CHEESE

from Tasia’s Table

Ingredients:

  • 6 ounces goat cheese
  • 1 roll of store-bought puff pastry
  • 4 tablespoons prepared olive tapenade
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
  • ½ cup walnuts, crushed and toasted

Directions:

Roll out the puff pastry into a rectangle about 8 x 12 inches.

Roll up the sides slightly and prick the bottom with a fork.

Cook for 10 minutes at 400 degrees on a nonstick baking sheet.

Remove from oven and cool.

Spread the tapenade on the cooked pastry.

Sprinkle with thyme and walnuts, and cover evenly with goat cheese.

Bake for 15–20 minutes at 400 degrees, until the cheese has melted and started to brown on top.

Goat Cheese Tart from bibberche.com

Tasia is offering a free signed copy of her book to one lucky winner. Simply leave a comment below and feel free to tweet out this contest using the handle @Bibberche and @BelleChevre, and the hashtag #tasiastable. I will leave this giveaway open until Saturday, October 13th, to give Tasia some time to pick a winner.

Several other bloggers are participating in this virtual potluck. I listed their blogs so you can visit them as well and enter again. Each of these bloggers will pick one response and send it to Tasia. She will then choose the winner and send them an autographed copy of Tasia’s Table. Good Luck!

The comments are the official entry, there is no purchase necessary, void where prohibited. US mailing addresses only. One (1) winner will be chosen randomly. Prize will be shipped by Belle Chevre. The contest ends Sunday, October 14th, 2012 at 11:59 pm Eastern time. The winner will be announced on Monday, October 15th, via email and will have 48 hours to respond before a new winner is chosen. Disclaimer: I received a signed copy of Tasia’s Table and no other compensation. Opinions and photography are my own.

Jun 132012
 

Zeljanica from bibberche.com

Mother firmly believed that each member of the family should contribute to the household chores. While she attacked the majority of the monotonous, routine, everyday tasks by herself, she assigned cameo roles to all of us. Father was in charge of lugging home huge sacks of flour and sugar, cartons of oil, and flats of eggs (the “lugging” part was mostly done in his Fiat 1300, later Renault 4 – only in the past few years have I seen him reluctantly leaving his beloved car in front the house and actually walking to the store or the post office).

Beet Greens from bibberche.comHis duties also included procuring vast amounts of animal protein. Nothing can send Serbian adults off to sleep with a smile on their lips better than two box-freezers filled with neatly stacked packages of meat. At any time, we had half of a young cow, a couple of pigs, twenty or so chickens, and a few turkeys chilling out in our deluxe, climate controlled animal sanctuary. Occasionally in spring, a lamb would appear in the yard, tethered to the metal frame of the rectangular carpet-beating contraption which adorns every Serbian yard. We knew better than to love him, pet him, squeeze him, and call him George. The hunting expeditions provided pheasant, quail, and rabbits. Friends going fishing would drop some extra wild trout for Fridays’ lent. No, we did not lack in the meat department.

As for us kids, our duties were light, although we certainly envisioned ourselves as modern-time Cinderellas, having to clean our room, set and clear the table, and the most abominable of all, shine Father’s shoes (we would form an assembly line where one of us scrubbed the dirt off with a bristley hard brush, the next spread the shoe polish with a small, soft brush – and, yes, there was one for black, and one for the brown shoes – and the last polished to a mirror-like shine).

In addition, as each of us turned four, our chores included shopping. There were no heavy trafficked streets to cross, and the store phyllo dough from bibberche.comwhere we bought a loaf of freshly baked bread and a glass bottle of yogurt was just around the corner from the house. Crossing our street and turning around the other corner, would take us to the kiosk which sold newspapers. With only our eyes visible above the display, we would ask for the Ekspres Politika for Deda-Ljubo, and make our way home, dragging the canvas bag with the leather handles, trying not to break the glass nor squish the bread. Drudgery, I am telling you!

After we started school and became experienced walkers and street-crossers, we would be entrusted with buying the phyllo dough. Two Albanian brothers made, stretched, and sold the dough in a store the size of a telephone booth right across the embankment that protected our town from floods. While I abhorred shopping for bread, yogurt, and newspapers, I could not wait to visit the Phyllo-men, as we called them. Inside the little stall it was always warm, and the smell of the dough was intoxicating. Peppered with flour, dressed in immaculate white shirt, pants, and apron, one of the brothers would smile and offer us a torn piece of the raw dough to munch on while he wrapped in cellophane 500gr of the thin baklava phyllo, or one kilogram of the slightly thicker (if you can even call phyllo thick) dough for various “pitas” (cheese, meat, sorrel, or spinach). I would linger, resisting leaving the cozy and comforting cocoon, only to be whipped by the cruel north winds of late November, or greeted by the steady murmur of raindrops pelting me fromrainbow swiss chard from bibberche.com a lead-grey sky.

I was already living in the U.S. when Mother told me the Phyllo-men had left the town during the ugly wars that forever changed the map of South-Eastern Europe. Every time I go back, I look at the spot across the embankment, hoping to steal a glimpse of those flour-covered arms tossing the sheets of phyllo in the air, or catch the scent of fresh dough carried on a random tendril of the wind.

There are other people making phyllo in our town. They make it using machines and sell it at the supermarkets. The sheets are uniform and too regular, wrapped in commercially sealed plastic. Until last summer, Mother still made baklavas, and pitas, and bureks, and strudels, but gone is the warmth and the smell of the tiny kiosk. Gone is the love that our Albanian neighbors poured into the dough with their skilled hands, rendering something no machine can offer.

Beet Greens from bibberche.comNot too long ago my friend Dorothy from Shockingly Delicious asked me if I would like a box of produce from Cut ‘n Clean Greens . I buy spinach in bulk and raid my friend’s garden for Swiss chard a few times a week, so it did not take a lot of arm-twisting to for me to say yes. The UPS guy showed up at my door with a huge box containing everything from organic kale to spinach, to beet greens, to Swiss Chard, and all the combinations imaginable. Even though I have to admit to being a food hoarder, I was overwhelmed at the amount of leafy green vegetables that camped in my fridge and immediately started thinking of various ways to use them.

One of the first things that came to mind was a strudel. In the Balkans, we make it with sorrel or spinach, but I knew that beet greens or chard would be equally delicious. I went to our local Persian store and returned  with commercially made phyllo dough neatly wrapped in plastic, square and perfectly uniform as only a machine can render. Like Mother, I will have to put some extra love into the strudel, hoping to compensate for what those skilled, Albanian hands could do that machines never will.

zeljanica from bibberche.com

zeljanica from bibberche.com

zeljanica from bibberche.com

zeljanica from bibberche.com

PHYLLO DOUGH AND GREENS STRUDEL (ZELJANICA)

I have changed the ingredients from the original recipe as “kajmak” is not available in the U.S. Cream cheese and sour cream make up for it adequately, if not ideally. Also, in the Balkans, this dish is called “pita” or “burek”, depending who you talk to. But whatever you call it, it’s a delightful light dinner or supper, accompanied best by a glass of cold milk, Balkan-style yogurt, or a frosty mug of beer.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb fresh spinach, sorrel, beet greens, or chard
  • 3 large eggs
  • 8 oz cottage cheese or a combination of cottage cheese and crumbled feta
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 2 Tbsp cream cheese
  • ¾ cup milk
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • 1 lb (500gr) phyllo dough
  • ¼ cup sunflower oil
  • 1/4 cup water

Directions:

A day ahead defrost your phyllo dough in the refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Lightly grease a 13×9 pan with sunflower or vegetable oil.

Mix the oil and water in a small bowl.

Heat a large pot filled with water over high heat. When it boils, add your greens and blanch for 1 minute, until wilted and vibrant green. Remove immediately to a strainer (positioned above another pot) and let cool. When sufficiently cool, squeeze the excess liquid and cut into smaller pieces.

Place the greens into a large bowl and add the rest of the ingredients, except for the phyllo dough, oil, and water. Mix to combine. Lay one sheet of dough to cover the bottom of the pan with the other half hanging over the edge. Place another sheet on the top with the other half hanging over the other edge. Sprinkle with the oil and water mix.

Lightly scrunch up a sheet of dough and place on one side of the pan. Scoop a few tablespoons of filling on top. Repeat for two more sheets, scrunching and adding the filling. Sprinkle with some oil/water mix. Continue laying the scrunched sheets until they are all gone. Cover with the overlapping pieces of phyllo and sprinkle with the remaining oil and water.

Place in the oven and bake for 40-50 minutes until golden brown and crispy. Remove and let cool in the pan. Cut into squares and serve with cold milk, plain yogurt, or beer.

A year ago: Shrimp and Scallops Creole

Dec 282011
 

Redondo Beach apartment from bibberche.com

Before I left for college and departed my parents’ nest for good, unaware that the flight away would be final, my family moved three times, which would make us pretty nomadic in Serbian terms. Upon graduating from Medical school, Father started working in Novi Pazar, the city that paid his tuition and reserved his services as the young MD for three years. I was born in March, delivered by an old Muslim midwife who managed the delivery ward with unrelenting confidence on the tail of decades of experience.

We moved to ÄŒačak (pronounced chah-chahk) in June to join Njanja and Deda-Ljubo, Father’s parents. My sister and my brother were born within the next four years and most memories of our early childhood are tied to that stately yellow house with wrought iron gates, the shed that always smelled of smoked meats, a huge mulberry tree with a swing, Deda’s beloved roses, and Njanja’s lush hydrangea bushes.

stara kuca from bibberche.com

When I was eleven, Father got an apartment from the hospital (in socialist times, that was the only way the new family could disengage from the parents and start from the beginning), located only a block away from the yellow house. Our building was brand new, pink with white balconies, architecturally daring and modern, with straight lines and stuccoed walls. Mother finally had a kitchen big enough to spread her culinary wings and she made it into a cozy, warm spot, all orange and brown. It overlooked the city park and was bathed in the soft northern light.

I loved that apartment, but I was at an awkward age when we lived there, and I will always associate it with the anxiety, paranoia, and teen angst that engulfed me and threatened to destroy me at times. My cheerful polka-dotted pull-down curtains were always drawn; my window was always shut for fear of “the people” hearing what I had to say; I prepared for hours every time I had to leave the house and when I was outside, I would look straight ahead of me and rush, rush, rush to the store, convinced that everyone around was just staring at me, laughing, and whispering.

I was in high school for a few months when we moved again, only two blocks from our apartment, a block away from the yellow house. The yellow house was doomed, marked for demolition by the urban planners. In its place there was going to rise a skyscraper, and my grandparents had to move. The city offered several houses in exchange, and they picked the one that Mother and Father still  live in. But the transition was not swift, nor easy, as a smaller house had to be erected in the place of the summer kitchen for Njanja and Deda, and the ceilings in the big house were lowered to make a second floor a possibility. Mother was the main engineer, architect, and designer, along with being the cook who fed the numerous crews who worked on the house for months.

Moja kuca

In the end, it was perfect. The three of us had command of the second floor, my brother in one room, my sister and I in another. There was a huge balcony, a big open living room, a bathroom, a dark room for photography, and a storage room. We loved it, even though we did not understand at the time how fortunate we were. Understandably, every party was held at the house, and it became the hub of activity. To this day, many people remember the days and nights spent at our place, with Mother providing the victuals and Father taxiing the guests home.

I went away to college and came back every two weeks, unable to break the ties with my hometown and my family. That house continued to be the pillar of my security and even now I call it ” my home”, even though it has not been my home for twenty five years. There are memories engraved in every inch of its walls, in every tile, in every corner of our multi-angled, wood-covered second floor ceiling. I spent some of the best days of my life in the house, and it resonates with my friends’ laughter, with my sister’s giggling, with my brother’s 80s music, and my boyfriend’s whispers. The house moved on, gaining new memories and new sounds, but for me, it remained cemented in an age that makes me feel happy and strong.

Kuca

I moved fifteen times since I arrived to America in August of 1986. My sister rolls her eyes when she tells me that there are no lines left in her address book for me anymore. I laugh it off, knowing that she’ll adjust. When we moved from Ohio to California in August of 2008, it was out of desperation and hope. We landed in Orange County because we had Ohioan friends living next door and nobody else. We left our beautiful house on the lake to come and live in a tiny apartment surrounded by hills and people who like to spit on the sidewalk. The girls declared that they hated California. And we were scrambling to prove them wrong.

It took three whole years of me working at a yucky diner and Husband taking whatever work he could find until he finally found a writing job that would enable us to make a leap forward and move away. We are still holding our breaths, but we think we are home. After a couple of weeks of grueling work, back pains, and total exasperation, we are at peace. We found a place we can call home and our girls are going to like California.

Hermosa Beach from bibberche.com

This morning Husband and I walked to the beach. It took us fifteen minutes to get to the Strand and we were in awe of the beauty that surrounded us. We know we can be happy here, once we are free of the boxes. Our spirits are high, our energy is spiking, and our hope is at a new high. We are ushering the New Year in completely loving our new digs and anticipating a future that can only be awesome for us.

It gets harder and harder every time we move. We are growing older and the physical exertion cannot be ignored. I know that we will move again. But we know that the next move will put us into a place of our choice that the girls can call home for decades to come. This interim place is making us happy and letting us breathe with full lungs, adding the ocean air as a bonus.

For the new beginnings and the promises of New Year I have a festive dish that adorns many a Serbian celebratory table. It is a savory roulade made with spinach dough, cheese filling, and roasted red peppers.

FESTIVE SPINACH ROULADE

Ingredients:

Dough:

  • 6 eggs
  • 6 Tbsp flour
  • 6 Tbsp milk
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 500gr (1lb) blanched spinach squeezed of water, chopped (you can use two packages of frozen spinach)

Filling:

  • 250gr (1 cup, ½ lb) crumbled feta (or cottage cheese)
  • 4 Tbsp sour cream
  • 2-3 Tbsp cream cheese
  • 1 tsp salt (if the cheese is not too salty like feta)
  • 1-2 roasted red peppers, peeled and seeded

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Separate the eggs and whip the egg whites into a stiff meringue. Add the yolks, and mix well. Add the milk and mix until combined. Sprinkle with salt and add the flour and baking powder. It should look like the cake batter.

Stir in the spinach until it is combined thoroughly and pour into a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. (If your pan is bigger, the roulade will be thinner and more decorative). Spread the batter evenly with a spoon and shake the pan a few times to get rid of the bubbles.

Bake for twenty minutes, like you would a cake batter. When done, roll the dough into a roulade using the parchment paper and let cool. In the meantime prepare the filling.

Crumble the cheese and combine it with sour cream, cream cheese, and the salt, if necessary. Spread the cheese mixture on top of the green dough and lay pieces of roasted red pepper on top. Roll tightly with the parchment paper and place in the refrigerator to chill for a few hours.

When chilled properly, remove from the fridge and slice into ½ inch thick pieces. Place on a platter and serve.

Spinach Roulade from bibberche.com

I brought Spinach Roulade to our monthly Food Bloggers LA (FBLA) meeting hosted by Erika of In Erika’s Kitchen. For the round-up of all the wonderful recipes visit Dorothy’s website at Shockingly Delicious.

Last year at this time I wrote The Night We Came Home with a great recipe for Mulled Wine.

Nov 192011
 

Cabbage from bibberche.com

I arrived at Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade in the middle of July, after three years of absence, with my heart beating wildly as I stepped outside of the building, enveloped by the fierce summer heat that somehow reaches its peak in this city. Instead of a month, as I initially planned, I stayed for almost four months, ambushed by Mother’s deteriorating health and stumped by the Kafkaesque state of bureaucracy putting up obstacles at every step. My daughters left as planned and arrived safely to Los Angeles, after two days of delayed flights, faulty engines, and London hotel rooms. I stayed behind, torn between worrying about my girls and taking care of Mother, finding solace in talking to friends and eating the familiar comfort food of my childhood.

Before I left on Tuesday, the farmers market was awash with sunshine, as busy as in the summer months. I took a stroll around the stalls one more time, saying goodbye to my favorite vendors, trying to keep the smells and sounds alive in my mind for months to come. I knew that my heart would break the moment I hugged Mother on my way out the door. I was aware that I would have to avert my eyes when I kissed Father goodbye at the bus station. And I realized that I would miss my morning visits to the market that I took for granted the previous four months.

farmers market, Cacak, from bibberche.com

The vibrant colors of summer produce were not there. Instead, the stalls were overflowing with various shades of green,  and it felt as if spring had arrived unexpectedly and ambushed us with another fresh harvest. There were lettuces that I don’t remember seeing in my town even a few years back, as we are very loyal to the Bibb or Boston variety; piles of cabbage heads blocked the farmers from view; broccoli abounded, neatly wrapped in its dark leaves; brussels sprouts shyly peaked from a crate or two; scallions proudly displayed their shiny white bulbs; sorrel, chard, celery greens, beet greens, parsley, and dill, neatly bound in bunches looked almost like decorations; and then there were leeks, slender, gorgeous, elegant in their simplicity, offering the promise of sweet alium crunch.

I did not bring my white and blue checkered canvas bag on wheels and I passed by the produce that called to me biting my lips and making small, sweet oaths vowing that I would return in a few months to my beloveds. I bought only a long piece of prÅ¡uta* and a pound of young, fresh kajmak** collected that morning, that Father pre-ordered couple days ago. I rushed as I weaved through the stalls, thinking of suitcases still waiting to be packed and the impending moment of my departure that I knew would break me in two. Tears were already standing at attention, threatening to appear as I longingly glanced around, taking the scene in cinemascope, aware that the next day, the place would look just the same, only I would not be there.

farmers market, Cacak from bibberche.com

The walk back home was hurried. We did not talk a lot, Father and I. I snapped a few photos, kicked a few big, heart-shaped linden leaves into the grass, breathed in the smell of snow brought by the winds from the northwest. The sky was pretty blue with only a few white clouds disrupting it, and the sun bathed everything with a make-believe glow. My town was saying farewell to me in a subdued way, melancholy and romantic, still clean of mud, still sharp and crisp, as if it needed to see me off dressed in its Sunday best. By the time we reached the white, wrought iron gate of my parents’ yard, I was silently sobbing. Why is it so hard to leave every time?

leek pie from bibberche.com

*Pršuta is cured and smoked pork loin or tenderloin, a delicacy of Serbian cuisine. Cut thinly, it is a great accompaniment to rakija (plum brandy) or a glass of hearty red wine.

**Kajmak is made when fresh milk is simmered and the fat from the top collected. It is placed in layers and salted lightly. When it’s young, it’s mild and sweet, but when aged, it acquires a deeper, more pronounced and developed taste.

PHYLLO DOUGH LEEK PIE (PITA SA PRAZILUKOM)

Ingredients:

  • 500gr (1 lb) phyllo dough
  • 3 medium leeks, white and pale green parts only
  • 250gr (1/2 lb) fresh farmers cheese (cottage cheese works, too)
  • 100gr (3oz) kajmak (nothing can come close, but sour cream or cream cheese will do in a pinch)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp coarse salt
  • 100ml (1/2 cup) sunflower oil, divided

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350F (175C).

Grease the rectangular pan with some sunflower oil.

Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and dice into semi-circles. Place into a colander and wash thoroughly. Drain. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a heavy skillet and add leeks. Cook on medium-low heat until softened, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let the leeks cool off.

In the meantime, beat the eggs and add kajmak and cheese, previously mashed with fork. Stir in the leeks, season with salt, and mix well.

Take one sheet of phyllo dough and spoon some filling evenly and sparingly on top. Place another sheet on top of it, sprinkle with some oil and spoon some filling evenly and sparingly. Continue with four sheets. When done, roll the phyllo dough away from you tightly and place into a pan. Continue with the rest of your phyllo dough. Depending on the number of sheets, you should get five rolls of four to five sheets each. Sprinkle with some more oil and bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown.

Leek Strudel from bibberche.com

 

Last year: So That’s Why They Call It Comfort Food 



Nov 162010
 

It was April of 1987, and I was boldly approaching the entrance of one of the best restaurants in the area, armed only with the innocence and arrogance of my youth. My college degree was safely tucked in the file cabinet, still smelling of fresh ink. I was starting a new life in the land of plenty, and the world was beautiful seen through my rose colored contact lenses.

My American husband’s effort to get me a job as an entrepreneur, when I was an interpreter, went unrecognized, and the opportunity to work for Delta Airlines was squashed because I could not drive. My sister-in-law laughed at me when I asked her to teach me how to process taxes, told me I should start from the beginning like any other American kid, and get a job at Mickey D’s. Tired of grueling work at Huff’s tree farm that tore the skin off my delicate piano-playing fingers, and working as a security guard at a local ski-slope making minimum wage of $4.00 an hour, I was ready to take off in a different direction. Anywhere else would be good.

The owner of Appeteaser was a CIA (no, not that CIA, where they could tell you the recipe, but then have to kill you) trained chef in his early thirties, a good-looking man of Italian and Jewish ancestry. He looked at me and gave me the job on the spot: not because I was a sophisticated European fluent in four languages; not because my college degree produced an ethereal halo around my head; not because I knew the ingredients of all mother sauces; not because my husband was a six-foot-four inch man-beast. I got a job in his restaurant because I was pretty. At the time, it did not occur to me that my looks would be enough to secure me a job in any industry. I did not consider myself particularly beautiful and tried to impress people around me with my intellect only.

The restaurant was a logistical nightmare. It was situated on the main street, spread through three floors: the basement housed the piano bar and the bakery, and first and second floors were delegated to the dining room. I had never carried a tray before, and resting it on my shoulders, with five or six heavy plates on it, trying to negotiate the steep steps winding around, was definitely a challenge. I practiced without grumbling, going up and down, balancing empty trays and yelling “Corner!” I attended wine seminars, and spent hours breaking corks in my clumsy attempts at opening a French red, until I could pull the cork out with confidence, weaving a story to distract my thirsty customers.

A new world was slowly opening in front of my eyes, and I entered it in wonderment. I stood, mesmerized, while the baker swiftly braided lemon-scented ropes of dough for challah. I tasted crunchy matchsticks of jicama carefully laid on top of mixed greens. I inhaled the anise-flavored Pernod as it hit the hot saucepan, splashing over a lobster tail basking in butter. My senses were in a perpetual state of overload, and I fell in love with food all over again.

The restaurant menu was a combination of classic and fusion dishes: Lobster Ravioli, Chicken Livers with Strawberries, Flounder with Bananas and Walnuts, Moules Marinière, Filet Mignon with Hollandaise and Asparagus… and Soufflé.

Oh, the dreaded soufflé! Each night it was a different one, and the guests had to order it when ordering dinner. Timing was crucial because it took forty-five minutes for it to bake, and we had to present it to the table in all its glory, still airy and fluffy, with tendrils of steam rising above the ramekin. We would dip the teaspoon into the sauce served in a delicate silver dish and carefully deposit a dollop of it, while breaking the golden brown skin. Only then could we let out a sigh of relief and move on.

At home, I tried to recreate some of  the dishes that impressed me the most. I fumbled in the beginning, my palate still unaccustomed to the newly-discovered flavors. I tasted the sauces with my eyes closed, trying to isolate the hints of ingredients, one by one. I went back to my stove, and started from the beginning.

I cursed a million times wishing to bring back all the moments in the past when I absent-mindedly stirred whatever was on the burner, when I mechanically added the prepared ingredients, while Mother’s voice droned on in the background, my mind wondering about random inanities like how different my life would have been  had she been named Violeta. I had a superb culinary teacher right next to me for years. And I chose to start learning only after I put the ocean between us.

At work I observed the chefs and tried to imitate their movements in slow-motion. I mastered the kitchen jargon and French culinary phrases. I had my survival skills honed enough not to ask any questions and risk a knife flung in my direction while they were behind the infamous kitchen Maginot line. Instead, I sat at the bar after work and drilled them, as soon as Mr. Hyde departed for the night and only the jovial Dr. Jekyll remained, chain-smoking and throwing back beer after beer.

I listened and I soaked up the knowledge. In time, velouté sauce ceased to intimidate me. I managed to put composed salads on the dinner table, accompanied by home-made dressings. Mussells in white wine and garlic became one of my signature dishes. And my first challah was a thing of beauty, even though my fingers lacked the dexterity of the Appeteaser’s bakers. I moved on to different pursuits of happiness, but my quest for culinary knowledge never stopped.

There remained one elusive dish I did not have the courage to tackle: the soufflé, until a few days ago, when the Daring Cooks Challenge put the fire underneath my feet, and I could not decline. I read recipe after recipe, looking for the line that would scare me, but I encountered only simplicity. I opted for a savory version by Ina Garten and delved in with the passion of the pastry chefs I admired. I whipped my egg whites to their glossy, firm peaks, folded them gently into the cooled blue cheese sauce, and poured the fluffy concotion into the buttered dish sprinkled with Parmesan. I resisted the urge to peek, and let it bake for 30 minutes, breathing in the tantalizing smells from the oven.

As soon as the timer went off, I grabbed the soufflé and took it outside to takes its photo for posterity. I caught it while still high and billowy, but in seconds it started to collapse. We had one more hour before the dinner would be ready and I placed the dish in the middle of the table.  There is nothing like the aroma of melted cheese to drag everybody out of their hidden lairs. By the time I brought out the plates and silverware, the Beasties and Husband were leaning forward in their chairs, uttering mmmmmmhs and aaaaaaahs, breathing in the cheesy steam. We could not agree which parts were tastier: the creamy, soft, yielding center, or the slightly crunchy, golden brown crust. Rubbing their tummies in obvious satisfaction, the tribe went about their usual weekend business, and I sat at the table, looking at the empty Pyrex ramekin, smiling,  ready to cut another notch on the board of my culinary successes. As a matter of fact, I am going to start collecting egg whites: there is a dark chocolate soufflé with a Grand Marnier sauce calling my name all the way from the North Main Street in Milford, Michigan, where once upon a time, Appeteaser restaurant stood.

Dave and Linda from Monkeyshines in the Kitchen chose Soufflés as our November 2010 Daring Cooks’ Challenge! Dave and Linda provided two of their own delicious recipes plus a sinfully decadent chocolate soufflé recipe adapted from Gordon Ramsay’s recipe found at the BBC Good Food website.

This is also my entry for the Real Food Wednesdays, hosted by Kelly the Kitchen Kop

BLUE CHEESE SOUFFLÉ (Ina Garten, Barefoot in Paris)

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup scalded milk
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 4 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 3 ounces good Roquefort cheese, chopped
  • 5 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Butter the inside of an 8-cup souffle dish (7 1/2 inches in diameter and 3 1/4 inches deep) and sprinkle evenly with Parmesan.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. With a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the hot milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, the cayenne, and nutmeg. Cook over low heat, whisking constantly, for 1 minute, until smooth and thick.

Off the heat, while still hot, whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time. Stir in the Roquefort and the 1/4 cup of Parmesan and transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Put the egg whites, cream of tartar, and a pinch of salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on low speed for 1 minute, on medium speed for 1 minute, then finally on high speed until they form firm, glossy peaks.

Whisk 1/4 of the egg whites into the cheese sauce to lighten and then fold in the rest. Pour into the souffle dish, then smooth the top. Draw a large circle on top with the spatula to help the souffle rise evenly, and place in the middle of the oven. Turn the temperature down to 375 degrees F. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes (don’t peek!) until puffed and brown. Serve immediately.