Crispy Cookies and French Apple Cake

There are two recipes I’ve recently enjoyed quite a bit that are worth sharing.

The first is for chocolate chip cookies.  I’ve been making the same recipe for years and wanted to try something new, so I consulted the oracle (google) and found “Best Chocolate Chip Cookies”– a very confident name, to be sure.  This particular recipe has you adding the baking soda in a different order than I’m accustomed to seeing, and the results were what someone called “dippers.”  They get very crispy and look quite nice.  Since I’m rarely without a cup of tea or coffee within reach, I think they’re perfect.  They were not so good after 2 days, though, so make what you need and freeze the rest of the dough for a later date with your oven.

Moments ago I pulled a French Apple Cake out of the oven.  It’s been years (has it been that long?!) since I’ve hand-whipped eggs into a foamy state, slowly poured in sugar while whisking and balancing the bowl between my body and the edge of the counter, and then carefully folded in the dry ingredients alternated with melted butter.  Muscle memory is a funny thing.  I used to think of the phrase “go go gadget…” when I had to whip cream or meringues several times a day for lunch and dinner service.  I’m happy to recall that feeling and those memories, but I’m even happier yet that I don’t have to do it all the time anymore.  Either way, David Lebowitz’s blog and Northern Spy apples from the farmers market were the inspiration for this morning’s session in the kitchen.  The cake looks and smells fantastic, though I’ll have to wait until this evening to taste it among friends.

Illustrative cooking

Phaidon publishes beautiful books.  Consistently.  The Silver Spoon for Children is no exception.  It’s an illustrated version of the classic Silver Spoon cookbook but intended for children.  The colorful illustrations make it fun and approachable for kids, though I’ve talked to several adults that say they want to cook from it themselves.

Harriet Russell, the illustrator, has done work for several different publications and projects.  Several years ago she published a book of illustrated envelopes with curious anagrams and visual puzzles that she sent through the mail.  They’re whimsical and smart, but I was sad to read that the content stopped short of the envelope- many of them were empty inside.  Her primary challenge was to see if the Royal Mail would deliver them (they were all address to herself), and more often than not, they arrived.  One was in the form of a crossword, and a postal employee finished filling in the blanks before sending it on.

There is a current challenge out there for artists and illustrators called They Draw and Cook, where you can submit an illustration of a recipe and win a prize (and get some exposure). Every day the update the site with a new submission.

Wardian Cases and the Cultivation of Tea in India

Wardian cases are the precursor to modern-day terrariums- glass enclosed boxes for growing plants.  I saw one yesterday at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan and was surprised to learn about its impact on the agricultural industry.   Those seemingly innocuous boxes that blend into fancy plant displays are actually responsible for the cultivation of the tea industry in India.  And the rubber industry in SouthEast Asia.  And plantations of coffee, bananas, citrus fruits, cocoa beans and vanilla in tropical countries around the world.

1830’s London was a very dirty place.  The air in the city was polluted with coal smoke and sulphuric acid.  London resident Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward had a keen interest in growing ferns (this was back in the day when growing certain species of plants were considered fads), but was having difficulty keeping his ferns healthy.  In addition to botany, he also kept cocoons of moths and other insects in glass jars.  He noticed that a few fern spores that had gotten into the glass jars were germinating in a small amount of soil.  As an experiment, he built a closely fitted glass case with a wooden base and filled it with ferns.  He found that the enclosed plants not only faired better than the ones in the greenhouse, but thrived.  He conducted much further research and wrote several papers on his findings.

During that time in world history, ocean transport of plants had been difficult because of the sea spray and the length of transit.  However, housed within a protective glass case, the plants survived the journey.  He did experiments of sending plants to Australia, and his friend in Australia sent him back some native Australian plants that had never before been seen in England.

Fashionable households adapted the Wardian cases to make impressive indoor plant displays, but the largest (and furthest) impact was made on commercially imported plants.  It started a revolution, breaking down the geographic monopolies on the growth and transport of agricultural goods.

Introducing: Robert Fortune, employed by the Horticultural Society of London.  1842’s Treaty of Nanjing allowed new access to China’s ports, though still heavily restricted by the Chinese government.  Fortune was dispatched to China to study their native plants.  The British East India Company had asked him to acquire tea plants for some newly acquired land in Darjeeling, India.  Traveling under the disguise of a Chinese merchant and breaking the Chinese governments rule of only traveling a day’s journey, he reached provinces as far as Fuijan and Guangdong along the southern coast of China.

Fortune managed to smuggle 20,000 tea plants and seedlings out of Shanghai.  In addition to the agricultural stock, he also brought with him a group of Chinese tea workers to teach the methods of cultivation and production in the new land.  His impact eventually lead to the British establishing successful tea gardens in Darjeeling and Assam, India, thus ending their dependance on China for tea.

Django Reinhardt and Two Hot Clubs

One of the most interesting shows I’ve seen in the past year was a celebration of Django Reinhardt’s music at the Michigan Theatre.  The Hot Club of San Francisco and The Hot Club of Detroit both performed- two gypsy jazz bands from very different towns, both with drawing heavily on the influence of Reinhardt’s music.

Django was the first and arguably still the most famous jazz musician to come from Europe.  Raised in gypsy camps outside of Paris in the 1910’s, he started on the guitjo (a six-string banjo with the neck of a guitar) and eventually moved onto the guitar for his formative recordings in the late 20’s and early 30’s.   Despite loosing his 3rd and 4th fingers on his left hand in a bad accident at the age of 18, he played all of his solos with his remaining two fingers, using the remaining stubs of his 3rd and 4th fingers for cord work.

When I listen to his music I find myself going back to two questions.

1: With jazz being such a quintessentially American music, born out the culture and spirit of black (and eventually white) Americans, what about Django’s culture can you hear in his music that’s different because of where he’s from?  Does his European sensibility flavor the mood of his music?  I don’t know if you can make many comparisons between gypsy-Parisian life and that of the forefathers of American Jazz, but I’d be curious to find out.

2: Is this the sound of music born of poverty?  I find it to be energetic and light at the same time.  To me it evokes the classic definition of the word ‘gay’- lighthearted and carefree; characterized by cheerfulness and pleasure.  I feel at ease when I listen to it.  And yet, Django didn’t arrive at as a hobby- it was a way to make ends meet.  He was fortunate to find a way of expressing himself, making other people happy and get paid for it at the same time.

Growing up in Ann Arbor I owe thanks to the one and only Arwulf Arwulf, radio dj of ‘The Sunday Best’ on WEMU, for introducing me to this style of music.  I never knew any of the performers, but always enjoyed listening.  Happening upon the Hot Clubs of Detroit and San Francisco the other night was a happy accident.

Dowry tea

Ms. Su has been married 18 years to her husband.  At the time they were married, her father gave her and her new husband a special batch of tea from her village.  She’s held on to that tea, and each year  has opened it up, re-fired it to preserve it, and sealed it back up again.

I met Ms. Su when I was in Taiwan.  We tasted several of the teas that she makes: a classic dong ding high mountain oolong, a dark charcoal roasted version, and the famous royal courtesan oolong.  She also had us taste some of her special dowry tea, which was an unexpected treat.  The range of flavors was astounding considering that all of them came from the same type of tea bush grown in the same region.  That she gave each of us a small amount of this tea to take with us was an unexpected surprise.  Drinking it in my kitchen this afternoon, I can’t help but think of her, and her commitment to her craft.

There is a lot of history to many of the names, as Winnie Yu wrote about in The Name Game.  On this most recent trip, I learned that in regards to Taiwanese teas the naming is consistently inconsistent.  For example take “Dong Ding”.  It’s a village in Nantou County, Taiwan that produces a tea by the same name, and also a general name of Taiwanese oolongs that are made with a varietal of tea bush originally from WuYi China.  But, sometimes it’s spelled Tung Ting.  Or Dung Ding.  Another example is the mountain range Shan Lin Xi.  Or San Lin Shi, or San Lin She. Or, if you’re on the road that winds up the mountain and reading the signs that list where you are, it’s “Sun Link Sea”.  I had to put that last one in quotes because it was quite confusing, though the sign makers were just trying to make it easy for tourists to pronounce it.