Madeleine

IMG_2576When I was ten, my family chose Paris as our big summer vacation destination. After flying to Hong Kong every summer, you think we’d be used to grueling flights and jet lag, but we suffered terribly that first afternoon in Paris.

After arriving, we found ourselves at a small cafe overlooking a river, facing a menu written entirely in French. My dad recognized select words, but not enough to really understand what the dishes were. The waitstaff could not, or would not, speak English. So we just ordered blindly, and of course, some of the dishes were total misses.

I had never really been in a situation where nobody in my family could speak the language of the native population – though my sister and I understood zero words in Hong Kong, my parents had grown up there and navigated the streets and language flawlessly. In Paris, my mom and I tried to find a chocolate shop and even with a map, we soon lost ourselves in the labyrinth of cobblestoned streets. We gesticulated wildly at strangers and they gesticulated back, every person we asked pointing in a different direction. Three hours later, we finally stumbled into the shop.

Our half day of wandering and questionable food left us all crabby and drained. In our cramped, dark hotel room, we quickly fell asleep (then woke up at 4am, and spent the rest of the night fruitlessly tossing and turning).

The next morning, we came down to an airy lobby filled with light. Outside, the bustling sounds of chatter, cars, and mopeds could be heard, and in the center of the lobby was a large, circular table with a platter of madeleines. Our first half day in Paris faded like a nightmare as we sampled our first madeleines, then quickly reached for seconds.

Each morning started with that first madeleine, its light sweetness holding promises of the adventures to come. We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower like good tourists, and wandered the halls of Musée d’Orsay for an entire day, not realizing how sore our feet were until after we had left. We came across a fair in a park close to our hotel, and rode what felt like the biggest Ferris wheel ever. We ate seafood and duck and pigeon, all cooked impeccably, and delicious French pastries that have since haunted my memory.

Since that trip to France over a decade ago, I’ve eaten copious quantities of croissants, brioche, and macarons, and yet, I never returned to the madeleine, perhaps because I had built it up to such an unattainable symbol of unbridled wonder that I had experienced as a child in Paris.

However, I recently flipped through a cookbook that nobody in my family remembers buying, and came across a madeleine recipe. I felt like fate must have intervened just a little, so I ran out and bought a madeleine pan that night. And these little cakes were sweet morsels of sunshine, a perfect start to our mornings in Paris and at home.

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Dreams Come True

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Jiro dreams of sushi. But I dream of something else.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love sushi and really all that Japanese cuisine has to offer, and it might be cuisine that I cook the most. (Or Italian – the number of risotto recipes I’ve racked up is a little alarming.)

But my true passion is baked goods. I once read that gluten has an opiate effect on people, that when you stop eating gluten, you can experience symptoms of withdrawal.

Well let me tell you, I went gluten free for six months and after two months, I simultaneously wanted to cry, hurt something, and stuff my face with bread. When I returned to gluten, I almost cried with happiness. It still gives me a headache (though I think this is more of a food coma effect from overeating every time I’m around sweets), but the tradeoff is (mostly) worth it.

Lately, I’ve been dreaming of biscuits. I never really loved biscuits until I went to Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. (I already wrote about my experience before so I’ll spare you a longwinded repeat.) Immediately afterwards, I tried and failed to recreate them. Since then, I’ve been tormented by my failure, and I resolved to try again. Buoyed by my recent success with re-trying Shakshuka, as well as inundated with boredom on a Friday night (I have friends, I promise), I gave it my best shot.

Guys, I don’t know if I totally nailed it, but if I didn’t, I came pretty darn close. These biscuits are fluffy, with moist layers you could peel apart, and a shiny glazed and slightly crunchy exterior. Now I can finally lay my biscuit nightmare to rest, and move on to dreaming of other sweet things.

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The Battle of the Buttermilk Biscuits

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Biscuit #1: Island Creek Oyster Bar

About a month ago, I took my parents to the highly (over)rated Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston. I’ve never met anyone who loves fish as much as my mom, so the supposed best seafood restaurant in Boston was the obvious choice for dinner. But you know something’s wrong when your favorite parts of the meal involve beef and biscuits…and no seafood.

But oh my god, those biscuits. We ordered one as a side dish and it was large enough for three people to enjoy as much as they wanted (as in, my parents each had maybe two bites and I ate the rest). The layers were delicate and pull-apart buttery, and the entire biscuit had been glazed in a delicious honey-rosemary mixture. After ordering our regrettably dry and chewy strawberry shortcake doughnut dessert (sounds good in theory, but in practice involved us trying to use our spoons as knives and sending doughnut chunks flying across the table), I wished that we had just ordered another biscuit instead.

Of course I had to see if the recipe was online. Immediately. Breaking fancy restaurant/basic human decency etiquette, I whipped out my phone and found the recipe. Saveur had posted a recipe, but looking at the ratio of ingredients, I felt that the ratio of liquid to flour was off, as in, I had no idea how 1 3/4 cup of buttermilk was supposed to hydrate an entire 5 cups of flour and make a cohesive dough. So instead of sleeping like a normal person would at 2am, I decided to do a comparison – Island Creek Oyster Bar’s biscuits (according to Saveur) v.s. Smitten Kitchen’s favorite buttermilk biscuits.

Smitten Kitchen biscuits

Biscuit #2: Smitten Kitchen

The verdict? Well, as predicted, more buttermilk was needed for the ICOB biscuits. I used about 2 cups of buttermilk and still, the dough was dry and did not hold together well. I also found the biscuits to be surprisingly salty. But they ended up looking pretty cool, and with the sweet honey glaze (which ended up getting soaked into the biscuits and not really glazing them), they still edible, but nowhere near amazing (UPDATE: I tinkered a little with the ingredient ratio and now they’re amazing). For the Smitten Kitchen recipe, I used the ICOB method of grating frozen butter, but otherwise followed the recipe to a T. The biscuits did not brown for some reason, but the layers looked beautiful and the biscuit itself was delicately sweet, fluffy, and light. They went perfectly with a dollop of jam.

However, neither recipe came close to the near-religious experience of eating the Island Creek Oyster Bar’s real biscuits. I have a feeling that Jeremy Sewall (the chef at ICOB) probably weighs out his ingredients rather than use cup measurements, and something got lost in translation in the Saveur recipe. Next time I need a fun 4am activity, I’ll experiment again :)

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