Sunday, January 22, 2012

Guilty Pleasures: Cooking, Reading and Reading about Cooking

This story on cooking according to the women who write the Canal House cookbooks ran on Patch Sunday morning. If you would like to leave a comment or share recipes, please go the Patch site. Thank you!

Home Alone, With Cookbooks for Company

If you’re forced to hide out, take Canal House cookbooks with you.

Some days, you literally can't face the world. That happened to me last week. I had gone to see a dermatologist about a spot on my nose. The dermatologist took out her magnifying glass, reassured me it wasn’t cancerous, and offered to laser it off. She said she'd also remove anything else on my face that might be potentially hazardous. Insurance would pay for it all, she promised. Then she added it would look like I had chicken pox until the skin scabbed over. “But makeup will cover that,” she said cheerfully.

Easy for her to say. Both my kids jumped back when they saw me. “You look like you have a million pimples!” my younger son cried. I decided to go into hiding. Since I wasn't scheduled to teach until the end of January, the kitchen was a good place to do it. Fortunately,Canal House Cooking Volume No. 6: The Grocery Store, a bright green cookbook with a lovely textured cover, had just arrived from Amazon.

This is a gem of a book, the sixth in a series of seven (so far) written by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, two food writers/artists/cooks/stylists who live and work in Lambertville, N.J. They also have a website called Canal House and if you sign up, they will send you luscious descriptions of what they are cooking for lunch, with pictures to make you hungry. Melissa Hamilton is the younger sister of Gabrielle Hamilton, the author of Blood, Bones & Butter, The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef. Gabrielle Hamilton is a bisexual, divorced mother of two boys and the owner of the New York restaurant Prune. She writes beautifully of her parents' divorce and her fractured childhood, folllowed by tales of cooking, marriage, child-rearing and starting a restaurant. Her memoir is a page-turner, and I couldn’t wait to see what her little sister was capable of.

It turns out, Melissa Hamilton and her friend are capable of quite a lot. I carried Canal House Cooking #6around with me for a week, underlining quotes and stories, and jotting down notes about the recipes. The book feels like a diary of the two women’s friendship, as well as a marvelous timeline of their meals together. The women are clearly soul mates who understand each other’s moods and cravings. “We started a tradition three years ago,” they write. “We shop for each other. We can’t remember who started it, and it doesn’t matter anyway. It began as an act of kindness for a busy friend. But as often happens, the giver gets a greater gift...A breast of veal, she’ll like the challenge. A ruffly savoy cabbage and some ground lamb: She’ll figure out what to do with that.” We all need friends like these. Even if you don’t have them, with these two women chatting about how they take care of each other, you’ll feel as if you're on your way to finding them.

Reading this book, I felt the way I did when I first dug into M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, and discovered how addictive and comforting food writing could be. Fisher was the high priestess of food writing and a marvelous story teller. Her topics were food and love and our longing for both, and she had the good sense to occasionally poke fun at herself. Hamilton and Hirsheimer are just as charming and self-aware and their books have the playful, confessional tone of two women sipping tea, and probably something stronger, who have decided to hand you a cup and let you listen in on their conversation. Truthfully, you never even have to cook from these Canal House books. You can just revel in the authors' wry observations and longings.

But since I was trapped in the house, I did want to cook what they were describing. As it turned out, not every recipe was as wonderful as it sounded. I started with the New England Clam Chowder because my younger son loves this and orders it whenever he sees it on a menu. I had never made it before, because my husband doesn’t like clams and I didn’t want to bother shucking them if he wasn't going to eat them. The Canal House recipe calls for canned clams - cheap and easy enough. But the soup came out flat. Turkey bacon or chili powder might have revved it up. The asparagus frittata was also bland. Were this any other book, I probably would have put it down, forever, but the writing was so good and I felt that these women had become dear friends so I decided to give their recipes another chance.

I'm glad I did. Sometimes, my younger son comes home from school, raving about the pound cake from the cafeteria. Hamilton and Hirsheimer have a recipe for pound cake that I figured would be even better. Under the words, “POUND CAKE,” they write, “makes a great big cake!” How can you resist that? Then they add, “this is the simplest cake in the world, made from an old recipe so basic you hardly need to write it down---a pound each of butter, sugar, eggs and flour, all beaten together...” Who knew that pound cake was named for the pounds of ingredients that went into it? This old-fashioned cake is dense and delicious, and doesn’t take long to make. You pour the batter into a tube pan. Just taking out a tube pan summons lovely memories of bake sales, picnic tables and birthday parties. Make sure to grease the tube pan carefully. I didn’t grease ours carefully enough and a few choice pieces stuck to the pan. Of course, I scooped them out with my fingers but if you have company coming or higher standards than I do, make sure to slather a lot of butter around the tube. Or don't and have yourself a cake party. My older son was at acting class; my younger son was in the dining room with his Spanish tutor. I was alone in the kitchen with some sticky pieces of cake. Need I say more?

My quarantine was coming to an end but after the success of the pound cake, I decided to make one more thing: Gingered Chicken in Cream. The Canal House women call this recipe "luxurious" and it is. It makes one of the best roast chicken dishes I've ever tasted. I started it on Thursday, marinated the chicken overnight and cooked it Friday. The recipe calls for garam masala and the authors assume you know what that is.

After decades of eating Indian food but never making it, I had a vague notion of what garam masala was. (A quick search reveals that garam masala is a combination of ground cumin, coriander, cardamom, ginger, cloves, bay leaves, black peppercorns and cinnamon.) You can pick it up at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods but since I wasn’t leaving the house to go shopping, I made it from scratch, borrowing my neighbor’s coffee grinder to finish it off (see recipe below.) If you make it, your house will smell delicious and and the scent of it lingers wonderfully for days. The spices also work to keep the chicken fresh. Five days after I made it, we were still nibbling at it.

One of my favorite quotes about cooking (and life) comes from MFK Fisher's The Gastronomical Me. In it, she writes of cooking with her younger sister Anne. "I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brains and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concoted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world." The Canal House authors make you feel that you can do the same thing.

Pound Cake (adapted from Canal House Cooking, Volume #6)


1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 pound (2 cups) superfine sugar

1 pound (9 large) eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 pound (3 cups) pastry flour (if you don't have pastry flour, use an equal combination of multi purpose flour and cake flour)

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon ground caramom

Preheat oven to 325 degres. Put butter in bowl of standing mixer. Beat until light and fluffy, 8 minutes. Gradually, add sugar to butter as you continue to beat, until batter is creamy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, incorporating each completely before adding the next. Add vanilla and heavy cream.

Sift together flour, salt, cream of tarar and cardamom into a bowl. Wiht mixer on low speed, slowly add sifted dry ingredients while you continue to beat batter until it is all mixed together. Don't overbeat batter.

Pour batter into a lightly greased non stick angel food cake or tube pan. Bake until the top is golden and slightly split, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Lemon or orange syrup: Heat 1/2 cup fresh orange or lemon juice and 1/2 cup superfine sugar together in a small pan over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until sugar dissolves completely and syrup thickens slightly. Remove from heat and allow to cool a few minutes. Use a thin skewer and poke holes all over top of cake and brush with syrup.*

*I like pound cake almost soaking in syrup so I quadrupled the recipe for the syrupThe result was a very moist, rich cake, which lasted a long time.

Gingered Cream Chicken (adapted from Canal House Cooking, Volume #6)


Kosher salt

1 tablespoon garam masala (recipe below)

2 tablespoons ginger garlic paste (To make this: Peel and chop one five-inch finger of fresh ginger. Mash up six cloves of garlic, add a little salt and olive oil. Mix in a food processor. Leftovers keep for a week.)

1 chicken, 3-4 pounds, rinsed, dried

1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced

Extra virgin olive oil

2 cinnamon sticks

1 cup heavy cream

1 small bunch cllantro, finely chopped

Rub 1 tablespoon salt, then the garam masala, then the ginger-garlic paste all over chicken, inside and out. Truss chicken with kitchen string. Put in plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 2 days.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Put onions in bottom of roasting pan. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Add cinnamon sticks and 2 cups wter. Place chicken on onions and roast until bird is golden and thigh registers 155 degrees on meat thermometer, about 1 hour.

Remove pan from oven and transfer chicken to platter. Set the roasting pan on stovetop over medium heat and whisk in the heavy cream. Cut the chicken into serving pieces. Strain the sauce (or not, just discard cinnamon sticks) and pour over the chicken. Garnish with cilantro.

Garam Masala, from Indian Food

This easy-to-make spice blend is the heart of most Indian dishes. A combination of different spices, it probably has as many recipes as there are families in India! Here is a basic one. Once you get a feel for the taste it gives your cooking, experiment and alter it to suit your needs.

Garam masala is best made fresh just before you begin cooking, but if you haven’t got the patience (like me!), make a batch ahead and store for several months in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place.

Prep Time: 10 minutesCook Time: 4 minutesTotal Time: 14 minutes Ingredients:

  • 4 tbsps coriander seeds
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 1 ½ tsps black cumin seeds (shahjeera)
  • 1 ½ tsps dry ginger
  • ¾ tsp black cardamom (3-4 large pods approx)
  • ¾ tsp cloves
  • ¾ tsp cinnamon (2 X 1” pieces)
  • ¾ tsp crushed bay leaves


  • Heat a heavy skillet on a medium flame and gently roast all ingredients (leave cardamom in its pods till later) except the dry ginger, till they turn a few shades darker. Stir occasionally. Do not be tempted to speed up the process by turning up the heat as the spices will burn on the outside and remain raw on the inside.
  • When the spices are roasted turn off the heat and allow them to cool.
  • Once cooled, remove the cardamom seeds from their skins and mix them back with all the other roasted spices.
  • Grind them all together, to a fine powder in a clean, dry coffee grinder.
  • Store in an air-tight container in a cool, dark place.

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