The Ulterior Epicure

Last night I searched and searched the dark cave of our basement and realized that I had misplaced my 15 minutes of fame.  In June of 1990 a recipe that has been in my family for years was published in Gourmet Magazine.  I can still remember the cover of the magazine, with its dewey fruit in a glass bowl, sitting I believe on a table on the island of Capri.  So, armed with confidence that I would find this now 17 year old publication, I searched on the web’s largest garage sale, Ebay. Low and behold, a few clicks later, and the magazine, along with 11 other issues from that year, are on their way.

 This morning, I thought I would Google the following, Felix Papadakis Gourmet 1990, to see if there was another source for the magazine–just curious I guess.  And what do you think came up?  A link to one of the most fabulous food blogs I have ever read, www.ulteriorepicure.wordpress.com 

And in a June 2007 entry, 17 years to the month, Mr. Ulterior Epicure writes about my Carrot Cake.  The law of attraction in action my friends.  Here I was searching for the magazine piece about the cake, and was drawn to someone writing about the cake.  Powerful stuff.

 The recipe has since been included in the Gourmet compilation published in 2004 and has been the subject of a prior blog entry (of mine) entitled, Celebration.  I’ve included the Ulterior Epicure in my blogroll……enjoy!

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Basmati

Basmati rice is so amazing. Fragrant and sweet, exotic and nutty…I love it.  I made an Indian inspired pilaf last week that rocked with flavor–so good that it’s making a repeat appearance tonight! After sauteeing some ginger and garlic in olive oil, I added a dash of cardomom, cinnamon and nutmeg–just dashes of each, enough to favor not overpower (1/4 teaspoon of each).  Added the rice and water for four servings and let it simmer covered until just moist, after which I added a 1/4 cup of currants and 1/4 cup of pistachios.  Finally a few gratings of lemon zest and the rice was ready. OMG, the fragrance was just amazing.  I think tonight I am going to make a cross cultural dinner.  On a bed of that Indian Rice I am going to serve my Thai peanut chicken.  I’ll let you all know what Rand thinks!

Yiayia memory

Last night,  while watching the PBS annual donations drive, the programmers there decided to run the classic series, The French Chef hosted by none other than Mdme. Julia Child.  In her  iconic kitchen, she jerked a non stick pan over her electric coil stove in an attempt to form the perfect omelette. 

Flashback to 1976 maybe, when I would savor every episode of The French Chef which was then shown on our local PBS channel 13. I vividly remember watching that epidsode and then later attempting to recreate her technique in the kitchen of our L shaped bi level home built to the exacting standards of the Hovnanian Building Group.  Our home could not have been more post war middle America, finished in 1969 and entered into with optimism and hope.  The appliances were by Norge, in Avocado green, and although they did not approach the power of the Viking and Thermidor appliances in my kitchen today, I did my best to create what I considered magic in that 120 sq. foot space. 

It was then, in 1976, that our grandmother came to visit us from Greece.  Yiayia, as she was known, would shuttle between the three homes of her children within half a mile of each other, staying for periods of one year or more.  We had, in fact, created a Greek commune there in Manalapan, New Jersey (then known as Englishtown), where we lived in the subdivision of Holiday Park. I can almost see the literature which Hovnanian Enterprises printed to entice prospective buyers to move to the “country” and be within 1 hour of New York.    A stylishly dressed mother, kissing her suited husband goodbye as she turns toward their “state of the art” kitchen to percolate a fresh cup of Maxwell House coffee. It could have been Manalapan, New Jersey or Levittown, New York, or even Eastpoint, Michigan.

We lived on Becket Road, my Uncle Felix on Gawain Drive and my Uncle John on Baron Court (do you see a pattern?).  Our grandmother, once situated in her new home for a week or two, would delight us with dishes such as rabbit stew with pearl onions and cinnamon, and kalitsounia, which were little pockets of dough stuffed with cheese or spinach and cheese. To say that food was an integral component of our lives is an understatement.  We earned our living that way, running the Reo Diner in Woodbridge, New Jersey and the McAteer’s Restaurant in Somerset, New Jersey.  A mini empire that supported 5 families. 

Now, back to my omelette.  Attempting to recreate Julia’s technique on the Norge range top (no six burner Viking range top here!), I jerked the pan back and forth while my Yiayia watched (certainly in horror).  “What are you doing?” she asked in Greek.  I responded that I was trying to make an omelette, but did not divulge the  inspiration of Mdme. Child. 

I vividly remember the next thing she said. Yiayia shot back that I was not using the proper technique and then asked me if I had seen Julia Child (the “mayirisa” on TV) make the omelette?  Simultaneously it appears, we had both seen Julia Child make the omelette. Speaking not a word of English, Yiayia understood exactly what Julia Child was doing and filed it exactly where I had.  In a universal language, Mdme. Child had taught both my Yiayia and myself how to make the perfect omelette. 

That is one of my earliest memories of actually working on the line.  LOL.  With my Yiayia sous chef beside me, I began to learn technique and my desire and instinct supplied the rest.  It was to be a lifelong journey of obsession with everything food. 

Celebration

Brian’s cake

I offered to bake the birthday cake for my friend Brian Raynor, who turned 40 last week.  About 40 guests to feed so I knew an 8 inch cake would not do.  And a sheet cake is so well, institutional.  Why not do a three tier I said?  What flavor Brian I asked? Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese icing, my version of which has been watering mouths for years. No coconut he says, “I’m allergic.”

The recipe has been in my family for 30 years but, as is my usual M.O., I used my instinct to improve upon this classic, and turn it into a real show stopper.  After all, aren’t parties part show biz??? Isn’t life part show biz??

By adding melted and cooled white chocolate to the cream cheese frosting, I assured that the frosting would set in the refrigerator firmly, the toasted and chopped pecans pressed into the white sides of the cake ever so gently.  Before the nuts were processed in the Cuisinart (50th Anniversary chrome edition!), I sprinkled them with a little nutmeg and OMG….the scent out of that machine after the nuts were chopped was just unbelievable!

The filling had to be punched up too, so what to do?  I roasted one chopped mango with some butter, cayenne and nutmeg in the oven at 450F (about 30 minutes), added some Grand Marnier for the final 5 minutes of roasting and the chopped the mango into little bits.  When they cooled, I folded them into some of the white chocolate cream cheese icing to make a mango filling and couldn’t have been happier at the result.  Delicious! 

The three tiers were frosted, decorated with rosettes and white chocolate curls and then chilled until delivery time.  I bult the cake at the party and we carried it out to the tune of Happy Birthday Brian! 

He thanked me profusely after he finished his little slice of heaven. “It’s the coconut,” I said, “that’s my secret.”  His look of horror erased after I quickly told him it was a joke. Happy Birthday Brian!

Milkshake

I vividly remember sitting on a counter at perhaps the age of 5 or 6 “assisting” my late Aunt Elaine with a milkshake being whirred in a Waring Beehive Blender.  My memory of that moment includes vanilla ice cream, milk and Bosco chocolate syrup.  My fascination with that machine ignited a lifelong love affair with food, living, travel and the kitchen. 

It’s taken 30 years of living to developed the instinct I think is necessary to cook great food.  Whether I’m hovering over a steaming cauldron of french onion soup or building an 18 inch tower of cream puffs into the French crocquembouche for our Christmas gatherings, my instinct always tells me to taste, adjust, taste, adjust. 

Never christened by any cooking school with a degree, my experience serves as my foundation.  From that counter in Brooklyn, New York, to now, in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, cooking allows me an escape into that world of creation, if only for a few hours.  And when I share it with the people I love, well it’s just an amazing feeling.  Welcome to my new blog, where I will diary my food adventures, musings and observations, with tips and advice along the way.

The last words that my Aunt Elaine said to me that day were four words I will never forget and perhaps programmed me into thinking I could one day cook, if not for a living, at least for the satisfaction of my friends, family and myself.  I see her vividly holding out her right hand and saying, “Compliments to the chef!”