Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Settlement Cook Book and Apple Roly-Poly

I stood in the deserted Book Exchange yesterday afternoon, sniffing through the old books, when I noticed a battered volume covered in old yellow shelf paper. Shelf paper is always a good sign. Nobody these days has plain wood shelving they want to cover, and a book must be well-loved to merit a homemade jacket. In thin pencil on the spine were the words, "Settlement Cook Book."

Inside, Mrs. Simon Kander smiles placidly at me, "Very Truly Yours," and I recall that she often sits on well-papered shelves with the likes of Irma Rombauer and Fannie Merritt Farmer. But I don't yet discover her real design -- I slip a dollar in the box and run with my treasure. It's only hours later, back in the city, that I slide the shelf-paper jacket from the book and gasp.

Two-by-two, noses in their cookbooks, are a couple dozen cute little cooks, marching towards a large heart on the horizon and the words, "The way to a man's heart." Come, my apron-clad, man-seeking companions, let us take the road laid out before us as it winds its way through our iceboxes and ranges, through our pies and pickles, through the capillaries and arteries of a manly chest to the heart that lies beating within it. It's a hilarious grotesque, a creepy relic of coy humor, and a fabulous treasure for my shelf.

Mrs. Simon Kander, née Lizzie Black, compiled the first edition of her cookbook in 1903, a charity project to benefit a community of Russian Jews in Milwaukee. That edition also bears the subtitle, "The way to a man's heart," but instead of antlike marching cooks, it depicts a lady playing the flute. Mine is the 30th edition, from 1951. The book is falling apart, and I might need to work some curatorial magic to get it in good enough shape for my own shelf. Since Mrs. Kander herself was German, the cookbook includes kuchen and matzos and spritz krapfen -- and, of course, clear signposts pointing its readers to manly hearts. Is it the Apple Roly-Poly? The Wine Syllabub? Rinktum-Dity?

Apple Roly-Poly
p. 345

Make Plain Pie Crust or Biscuit Dough. Roll out 1/2 inch thick. Spread with chopped apples or jam, raisins, sugar and cinnamon; roll like Jelly Roll. Place in a small baking pan, spread butter over all and add 2 cups of cold water, and bake in a hot oven, basting often, with the sauce in the pan, until done. Serve hot.

(Kander, Mrs. Simon. The Settlement Cook Book. Milwaukee: The Settlement Cook Book Co., 30th ed., 1951).

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Kefir Cheese and Dates

I had to leave for a few days to V.'s French kitchen, and so I cleverly stashed my latest batch of kefir in the fridge, hoping the chill would retard the fermenting action of the kefir grains. Unfortunately, there is no stopping the kefir once it gets going, and when I returned home and went to strain out my precious kefir grains, I was left with curds and whey -- the kefir grains, of course, firmly embedded in the curd.

Unfazed, I removed a good bit of curd/grain mixture, wrapped it in cheesecloth, and rinsed it well. I refrigerated the grains in a little glass jar filled with water, and turned to my remaining kefir cheese. I had about a cup of it -- an average cheese yield for a quart of raw milk. I sprinkled it with sea salt, stirred it well, and let it sit. The salt absorbs slowly, so it's good to be cautious. (Ordinarily, kefir is of a creamy, slightly frothy consistency, not much thicker than light cream).

At the Civic Center farmer's market today I bought a pound of honey dates ($2/lb), as well as some on-the-twig fresh dates ($2.50/lb). Fresh dates are crisper than the gooey self-preserved things we find in grocery stores, and taste something like a fuyu persimmon. Sometimes they even have an orange luster to them. For a lovely midafternoon snack, split and pit a large date, dab it with kefir cheese, and pop it in your mouth. The contrasting fibrous sweet goo and creamy salty cheese are rather too addictive.

Friday, April 11, 2008


Yesterday my employer asked his wife why the cheese was in the refrigerator. It might seem an odd question, except V. is French, and habitually breaks food safety recommendations to keep her cheese out on the counter. "Here," she said, "it is too warm. In France we have a cool room next to the kitchen for keeping cheese. Anyway," she added, "in France we eat cheese at every meal, and use it up much more quickly." Her kitchen teems with bacteria -- kombucha and kefir and yogurt fermenting everywhere, raw milk and soft runny cheeses puddling at all sorts of scandalous torrid temperatures.

I made a little promise to myself that I would buy some good cheese when I got back to the city. After stilton and raclette and cave-aged gruyere, one finds oneself snubbing dowdy little annatto-yellow cheddars. Late in the afternoon, my companions paused in a small town to meet somebody. We were patiently sipping pinot noir when one of us said, "If you had to give up either wine or cheese, which would you stick to?" We weren't even eating cheese. It just so happened to be on everyone's mind.

"Wine," said the filmmaker to my left.

"Cheese," said the rapper to my right.

"Where is the boundary," I asked, "between milk and cheese? Leave me something fermented and dairy and I'll give up the cheese." I pictured myself straining a nice yogurt to a tangy custardy thickness and insisting to an arbiter of cultured dairy disputes that it really wasn't "cheese".

Some more pinot and a splash of bourbon later, I found myself on the way to the Tenderknob with a new girl who announced at no provocation, "I promise you, I love cheese more than you do."

Frankly, I'm just a casual cheese philanderer. A dairy dilettente. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. Before I even started this job, I knew cheese way more than anybody. But my boss knew orders of magnitude more than I did, and that was a year ago I started learning from her. I just spent the last week with an ex in Hawaii eating shitty food, and I can't wait to go eat some cheese."

What was the phrase my employer used? Show some neck. "What is it that you do?" I'm a cheese cur showing neck.

"I'm a cheesemonger." I'm a cowering mongrel. Maybe she'll give me a rind of parmesan if I visit her -- which, in fact, I think I just might do.

I do still wonder whether she likes cheese as much as a certain Babette. Babette hefts all her swaying furry bellies to come running when she smells chevre, or triple-cream brie, or a bit of feta still dripping with brine. Her complete abandon to epicurean enthusiasm leaves me a little breathless. How can a cat have such discriminating tastes -- eschewing milk and yogurt and creme fraiche in favor of "cheese" -- if cheese isn't, in fact, a distinct biological entity? It's not like she knows a damned thing about the coagulation of proteins, or the action of bacteria on milk sugars, but her little, little brain can put leathery romano and pickled sheep's milk feta and runny brie in the same category, and discriminate them from creme fraiche. Can she really taste the agedness that (usually) distinguishes cheese from other cultured dairy products?

I know; it's very tedious when people ascribe wonderful intelligence to their pets. But I'm doing just the opposite. Bless her, Babette isn't such a clever one -- leaving me to think it's the cheese that's so very smart. After all, the strangest thing about cheese is that it tastes like cat piss and soiled garments -- eminently nasty things -- but somehow dupes us into enjoying those same fungal flavors. And not without some advantage to itself. Think of the nice treatment we give our favorite cheese cultures (VIP petri dishes, nubile young cheesemongers). Rather a useful leg up in the cutthroat world of bacterial survival, no?

It's a clever cheese, I tell you.