Between Books She Cooks

I met Nancy Weber when we both were judging the final exams at the French Culinary Institute, now known as the New International Culinary Center. They are oral exams which means we have to taste many dishes prepared by the graduating students. I know it sounds like fun but not for the reason one might think. For one thing, the dishes come fast and furious and the evaluation sheet has several categories. For another, the judges have to comment directly to the students which is sometimes a little uncomfortable. Mostly the results are highly impressive but we are there to give guidance and help from our perspective of having worked in the food world for several decades not to mention having eaten our way around the world itself. And there was Nancy, (graduate of FCI) offering her honest evaluation and critique with such enchanting charm and warmth it took away the slight sting of truth. I don’t know if I ever encountered eyes so alight with joie de vivre and compassion. At the end of the evening I had to go up to her and compliment her. It turned out that just that very day she had used my book (the Cake Bible) to do a wedding cake. Also, she told me she named her only daughter Rose. We exchanged cards but more often than not good intentions never materialize, especially between writers always on deadline. But some rare things are destined to be despite the odds. We started our friendship by exchanging e-mail notes. Then I came up with the inspired idea that we should exchange books. Nancy chose the Bread Bible and I chose Swapping Lives Yes, she predated the life swap reality shows by many many years. We met at my favorite local Bistro Blue Ribbon Bakery, and over French onion soup (previously posted on the blog) we got to know each other better. The most amazing thing for both of us was to discover that she had written an article 40 years ago that I had read and never forgotten. (It was in Cosmopolitan Magazine and the concept was making oneself attractive by decorating the soles of one’s feet or toes when going into surgery so the surgeon pays more attention that there is an actual human life on the table.) This was just a glimpse into the extraordinarily creative imagination of Nancy Weber. The novel Swapping Lives is the documentation of Nancy’s experience temporarily trading lives with another woman, written both from her perspective and the other woman’s. She wanted to see if it were possible to shed one’s skin and slip into that of another’s. If anyone could manage it Nancy could and did. I realized I would come up way short worrying more about how the other person was treating all my special baking equipment perhaps even more than how she was treating my special husband! It was an extraordinary leap on Nancy’s part and I couldn’t tear myself away from the book. This past month a Canadian documentary was filmed on Nancy and her reflections on the experience. The meaning behind Nancy’s business name www.betweenbooksshecooksis quite literal. Between novels she caters and runs a bed and breakfast in her enchanting 1845 house in Chelsea. I was dying to see her house and get to know Nancy better so I cooked up the idea that we should do a collaborative dinner there as my apartment has been, still is, and probably always will be a warehouse of equipment and ingredients. (Note I’ve never done this before.) Over the course of many e-mails we decided the menu. Nancy gave me the challenge of choosing my favorite thing that I don’t get to have often and offering the best thing I’ve ever made in the dessert department. Fortunately she suggested the possibility of bisteeya which I adore but stipulated it must be made with pigeon. I needn’t have as she had every intention of pigeon plus made a special expedition to Poseidon to get the only fillo she finds acceptable, apologizing for not making varka herself. I assured her I’ve only seen it made once and would never even think of going that far! As for what dessert that was shear torture over which I agonized for weeks. For starters, it had to be something highly transportable and also harmonious with the rest of the meal.

I considered a cloud like coconut cake from the book and Nancy adored that idea but Elliott hates coconut and I had another vision—a dessert one rarely sees that appears the soul of simplicity while being extremely difficult to execute—The Gâteau Basque from The Pastry Bible. I hadn’t made it in years and discovered in the process that there wasn’t quite enough moisture to make rolling out the very fragile dough feasible without cracking. (This has since been corrected on the blog by adding 1 tablespoon of cream to the dough.) One disc of this dough needs to line the cake pan and go up the sides. This is filled with pastry cream and then topped with a second pastry disc which must be the exact size to fit inside the pan because the only way it can be handled without falling apart is to freeze it so it has no flexibility. Then it is baked and the resulting pastry/cake is like a poem—tender, aromatic, with a vanilla imbued layer of cream in the middle. I could probably make a whole dinner in the time it takes to make this deceptively simple little dessert. Oh and luckily I smelled that it was done long before the time listed in the book and realized it should bake at 325˚F/160˚C. It was not quite as tender as I remember it but even imperfect it was extraordinary. I also made a filone (recipe also posted on this blog) which is my favorite bread. And brought Canadian Eiswein for after dessert. We couldn’t decide whom to invite to such a personal dinner other than our significant others but at the last minute I realized that I would love to meet Nancy’s daughter Rose so she and her husband made 6 which I think is the perfect number for a dinner party. [It was a little confusing to me to hear another person called Rose throughout the evening as I rarely encounter another.) Rose, who is also a writer and cook made moist and uniquely delicious brownies that contained fresh pear and crystallized ginger, served in little 3/4”cubes, moist and flavorful with a delightful surprise aftertaste. Nancy made so many fabulous things we all ended the evening having eaten far more than ever we had intended. We decided that the next time we would do something more simple. (I actually stuck to my resolve, inviting Nancy for a hamburger dinner when testing the new rolls for this blog and one last cake for the book. aside from wonderful wine that was ALL I served and believe me it was enough.)

Here is an example of one of Nancy’s delightful planning e-mails:

Dear! Do we have a final menu?? I have laid down a pheasant & a venison pate (pray for them) & a cranberry apricot chutney [it was fantastic] & will make nuts as well for nibblies. Maybe fresh picked scallops, my new obsession on Greenmarket days. A bisteeya then, did we decide? The gateau basque sounds so superb, I wonder if the semifreddo will be excessive? Maybe instead I should make tiny biscotti & thumbnail brownies & wee meringues to have with coffee? For salad, absent watermelon radishes, I thought to do wee greens from Windfall Farms (have you had the astounding corn shoots?) with lots of herbs & olive oil & citrus. As to wine, I am just about to order another case of my ex-sister-in-law's Navarrouge (Navarro Winery in Medicino), which everyone is nuts about. Also know as Rebel red, from old Italian roots. Cherry berry leather, sort of like a good Nero d'Avola or Malbec or juicy Montepulciano. And we can start, why not, with champagne--do you like Gruet, which I have in stock? I like it a lot but know it's too citrus for some tastes. [Nancy added later that it comes from New Mexico.] Do you want to bring a dessert wine? What do you like best with the gateau? As for the filone, I admit to wanting it passionately; I hope to organize a poolish tonight & filone tomorrow, but anyway it won't be as made by you, & besides I will probably get distraite & end up making my usual breadsticks instead. Nancy served the fabulously flavorful chutney on home-made toast. She also offered home-made bread and butter pickles, assortment of olives, sugared nuts, fresh baby corn sautéed on top of a bed of corn sprouts. In addition to her other gifts Nancy has a refined visual sensibility. Not only was her home beautiful but her serving pieces and arrangement of the dishes. The first official course was ceviche of scallops and micro greens. The bisteeya was fantastic and best of all she wrapped a substantial piece to take home that served as the following night’s dinner. Nancy’s unique semi-freddo, which she called a Paul Klee Mosaic---pale orange sweet potato ice cream against pale pistachio ice cream, on a pistachio cake base, the whole covered with Italian meringue. But most unique of the entire evenly was Nancy’s treatment of parsnips which she most generously is sharing with us including the adorable name “SnipSnaps.” I asked her if she wanted to keep the name secret but she said not necessary and I know why. She also confided in my that each morning when she awakes her mind is crowded with new ideas! Another priceless e-mail from Nancy: Parsnips: I share all my kitchen secrets, though I've thought of trying to make SnipSnaps a proprietary title. Cut with a wide, sharp peeler (mandoline seems not to give me what I want) & spread out to dry & crisp in a 200-degree oven on sheet pans lined with Reynolds Release Foil--they stick to anything else. Tossed & re-spread throughout the process, which make take a couple of hours. Helps to start with great organic parsnips from Greenmarket. And finally, a quote from Nancy’s postmortem: But the gateau for me was the life-changing element. I can't stop thinking about it. It's the perfect dessert. Semi-freddo is fun, the Paul Klee mosaic, but it's more for 4 o'clock or just before the cafe closes on a rainy road north of Florence (same trip w/Nick when I ate the paradigmatic bread of Assisi, whose holes you echoed so perfectly, it was like a mathematical theorem solved). With two writers conspiring on this dinner, it was only a matter of time before one of us would immortalize it in print. So I now invite Nancy to post her comments.