I’m a Fast Reader, but This is Ridiculous.

Somehow, I borrowed twenty-four books from the library last night.

Ever since we decided we needed to purge our house of non-favorite literature, I’ve been putting the Boston Public Library system to work, asking it to reach its long arms into all of its stacks and pull title after titled out and send them to my local branch.  I’ve got my account set up so that I receive emails whenever my books arrive, but the automated process still has some kinks in it — which I why I showed up only expecting five titles and walking out with twenty-four.  I mean, what was I supposed to do, leave some behind and risk hurting their feelings?  I’m not that cruel.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

The thing is, I only get to keep these guys until the twentieth, so I’ve got to get reading.

Five Things About Me: 21 22 23 24 25.

(As promised, zombies.)

21. I love zombies.  Well, love isn’t the right word, because, when you think about it, zombies are totally gross.  They’re also utterly fascinating.  And scary.  And I can’t get enough of them.

22. I know I’ve mentioned my vivid dreams before but what I may not have mentioned is that I dream very frequently of zombies.  Sometimes I jerk myself awake in the middle of the night absolutely swimming in a pool of my own sweat, my heart beating like a hummingbird’s.  Those nights, I lie there trying to convince myself that zombies aren’t real, and then I wake Keith up to reassure me.  Other times, I wake up smiling and cheerful after a good zombie dream.

23. Yes, I do believe there is such a thing as a good zombie dream.  Here’s an example: it’s the end of the world, we’re all dead but we’ve come back as zombies and live happily in this nice zombie civilization.  I’ve got a live cooking show à la Emeril Lagasse, except I’m more like the zombie Martha Stewart and I’m teaching my audience where the best cuts of meat are on a person.  And I’ve a cage of free-range humans in the studio.  It’s a very informative show and I have very high ratings.

24. Most of my zombie dreams are bad dreams.  Here’s an example: it’s the end of the world, almost everyone is dead and I’m fighting for my life with two other survivors.  They’re heavily armed with guns and machetes, but for some reason all I’ve got is the hardcover edition of Harry Potter number five, which I’ve been swinging at zombies’ heads with surprising success.  (It’s a big book.)   Then, over the crest of a hill, we see a zombie swarm coming towards us, and leading the pack is a zombie Conan O’BrienHarry Potter number five is no match for his massive zombie head, and I wake up panicking just as zombie Conan O’Brien is about to take a chunk out of my neck.

25. I have a really hard time watching The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien because sometimes he makes this one expression that looks just like zombie Conan O’Brien did before he ate my neck and it really freaks me out.

Book Club + Julia.

I am, amongst other things, a sentimentalist, a writer, a reader, a traveler and a cook, so it makes perfect sense that I would absolutely love My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme, her step-grandson, considering that it:

  • is a memoir (which, by nature, must be a bit sentimental, though Julia Child* is not);
  • was written, and makes references to letters written to and by Julia Child;
  • was read by me;
  • is about Ms. Child’s life abroad — and in more places than just France, for the record; and
  • focuses on food.

It sounds like a pretty good match, right?

My Life in FranceI wanted to get my hands on a copy immediately when it was published in 2006; at the time, Keith and I were about to part with a massive down-payment on a house, and I had cut back on the purchasing of items, particularly and unfortunately hardcover books.  For my birthday that year, because he knew how much I wanted to read it, Keith gave it to me this as a part of my gift.  It was one of the best books I’d read in a long while — which is really saying something, considering how much I read**.  I remember thinking it was honest, and witty, and personal, and full of little anecdotes that made me want to laugh out loud.  There’s lost-in-translation stories about communicating with the French, Germans, Norwegians, and family; there’s detailed accounts of the endless hours spent researching recipes; there’s touching glimpses of Child’s love life; and of course, there’s the food.  Seriously: the food, which is reason alone to run out and buy the book.  Or at least borrow it from your local library.

And that is pretty much what I said when my book club decided they wanted to read it.

So we did, planning a Mastering the Art of French Cooking-themed dinner at Stephanie’s apartment in Jamaica Plain, where we discussed the book last Sunday night.  Or, we at least tried to, considering we were busy stuffing ourselves absolutely silly with a truly disgusting amount of food… the majority of which was made with massive amounts of butter.  Julia Child Dinner, 1(The morning after dinner, on the phone, I asked Stephanie how much butter she thought we had eaten.  “A pound,” she replied.  “Let’s not think about it.”)

Because we wanted to be a little organized — our book club is a little free-form, but around food we are not — we coordinated what dishes we would bring to Stephanie’s.  Amanda, Heather and Sarah each baked various gratins (potato, Brussels sprouts and zucchini, respectively); Melissa made her own puff pastry, which she filled with anchovies and cheese; Stephanie made Hollandaise and artichokes, as well as a bouillabaisse so delicious I stupidly almost asked for the recipe; and I ended up making (at Melissa’s suggestion) chocolate mousse.

Julia Child Dinner, chocolate mousseI love chocolate mousse, always have, and so was a bit irritated with myself for not being clever enough to think of making it on my own.  My friend Kelly is French, and one of his terribly chic sisters (also French) once served me homemade mousse at their parents’ table in the little stone village of Nissan-lez-Enserune.  Not once had it ever occurred to me that I — little ol’ curly-haired me — would ever be able to make something as luscious and lusty as chocolate mousse, but it turns out that this is precisely why we have Julia Child, to get us out of our chairs and into our kitchens to make luscious and lusty things like bouillabaisse and Hollandaise and puff pastry.  And thank goodness for that, because this mousse was dee-vine, as they say and if I do say so myself.

I can’t take any of the credit though.  It was all Julia.  I just was the girl holding the mixer.

Chocolate Mousse, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child
Makes about five cups, which is enough for six to eight portions

4 eggs, separated
¾ cup granulated sugar plus one tablespoon, separated
¼ cup orange liqueur
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
4 tablespoons strong coffee
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup finely chopped candied orange zest (recipe following)
Pinch of salt

A pan of not-quite-simmering water
A basin of ice water

  1. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together until mixture is thick, pale yellow and falls back upon itself, forming a slowly dissolving ribbon.  Beat in the orange liqueur, then set the mixing bowl over the not-quite-simmering water.  Continue beating for three to four minutes until the mixture is foamy and too hot for your finger.  Then set the mixing bowl in the basin of ice water and continue to beat for another three to four minutes until the mixture is cool and again forms the ribbon.  It will have the consistency of mayonnaise.  (It really will.  It’s a little freaky.)  Set aside.
  2. Place another clean mixing bowl over the basin of not-quite-simmering water, creating a double-boiler.  Inside, melt chocolate with coffee, then remove from heat and beat in the butter a bit at a time to make a smooth cream.  Beat the chocolate into the egg yolks and sugar, then beat in the orange zest.
  3. In yet another clean mixing bowl, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks form.  Sprinkle in the sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.  Stir one-fourth of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then gently fold in the rest.
  4. Turn into a serving dish, dessert cups or petits pots.  Refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight.

Glazed Orange or Lemon Zest
Makes about half a cup

5 lemons of 3 bright-skinned oranges
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Remove the colored part of the lemon or orange skin with a vegetable peeler.  Julienne into strip 1 ½ inches long and 1/16 inches wide.  Simmer in one quart water for ten to twelve minutes, or until just tender when bitten.  Drain and refresh in cold water.  Dry on paper towels.
  2. Boil sugar and 1/3 cup water in a small saucepan to the thread stage (230°).  Remove from heat.  Stir in the drained peel and vanilla.  Let the peel stand in the syrup for at least thirty empty.  Drain when ready to use.  Under refrigeration, the peel will keep in the syrup for several weeks.
* I cannot, for the life of me, bring myself to call Julia Child anything by Julia Child.  I don’t know why.
**But you know what they say about quality and quantity, and I have been known to indulge in more than one guilty literary pleasure.

On Tomme Crayeuse.

There are times where I think I’m more of an old man than a young woman.  I can be very set in my ways and often display a ridiculous level of brand loyalty.  For example, I’ve been using Johnson’s Baby Shampoo since my mother first washed my hair (though, as an adult, I’ve upgraded to the lavender), and I want all pickles in the world to taste like Ba-Tampte Half-Sours.

Sometimes though, and I hate to break it to you, old set-in-their-ways men like the kind I often think I am — sometimes we stray.  The flip of a skirt or the curl of a ponytail catches our eyes, and before we know it we’re goners.

Tomme CrayeuseSuch was the case with me and a wedge of cheese called Tomme Crayeuse.

I’m normally a hard-cheese kinda gal (or old man, I suppose) so when a cheesemonger at Formaggio passed me a small plastic tasting spoon of this soft cow’s milk tomme, I wasn’t prepared for my body’s reaction.  My eyes popped open, then slit shut in sheer pleasure.  I think I even moaned.

This was all highly unusual behavior, and I knew right then and there, in front of the charcuterie case, that this cheese was coming home with me.

Don’t be fooled by Tomme Crayeuse’s vaguely masculine-sounding name; this cheese is, as they say, all woman.  And she’s not messing around with flirting or any sort of coquettish behavior.  She’s the type that — in the movies, anyway — takes hold of men by their neckties and leads them out of a crowded room to one that is far more intimate.

Texturally, Tomme Crayeuse is soft and creamy; if left at room temperature, it will eventually spill out of itself, exactly like a woman’s breasts will swell up over a corset.  I’m telling you, this is a sexy cheese, and one that tastes bold and rich and creamy, with a teasingly brief hint of citrus.  It’s absolutely amazing smeared liberally across a crusty baguette, and eaten on the sofa with your bare feet in the lap of a person you love.  In an ideal situation, you’d also have a bottle of wine nearby too, but it’s surprisingly not necessary.  All you really need is cheese.

Five Things About Me: 16 17 18 19 20.

16. I will always think of myself as a New Yorker.

17. English is my second language, though now I speak so little Armenian the point is pretty moot.

18. I think moot is a great word.

19. I can be very impatient.  This is a flaw, and I’m working on it.

20. I can’t help but mentally redecorate or renovate almost every room I walk into.  I also immediately look for the exits, in case of an emergency like a fire or zombie attack.  (Have I mentioned yet that I’m obsessed with zombies?  No?  Next week then…)

Beers Keith Drank in Europe, Listed.

Though we both drank loads of beer on our trip (I mostly stuck with my beloved lambics), Keith was on a self-imposed mission to consume all of the Belgian Trappists.  Did he succeed?  Scroll down to find out.

* Timmerman’s

One Week in Amsterdam.

We had originally planned to do day trips out of Amsterdam, same as we had in Brussels, but Keith and I soon came to realize that we didn’t want to wake up early to catch any more trains.  Instead, we leisurely made our way around the city each day.

View of Amsterdam from the Movenpick Hotel, early morning.Monday
Had breakfast at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels.  Three trains later — whoever said there were nonstops running from Bruxelles Nord is a liar — checked into Amsterdam’s Mövenpick Hotel overlooking the IJ, Centraal Station and the city.  After lying facedown on the bed for a while, roused ourselves to find dinner because apparently the Dutch don’t eat late.  Wandered down through the Old Centre, which was overflowing with drunken American, English, German and Irish tourists reeking of pot, and ended up at Brasserie De Roode Leeuw on the New Side, where I ate the most amazing piece of fish and Keith devoured veal meatballs, potatoes and these gorgeous little peas into which he mixed curries and compotes.  Finished the night with beers at Gollem, a tiny bar only slightly larger than my apartment’s bathroom.

Kees de Jongenbrug, Amsterdam.Tuesday
Slept in a bit then found some lunch at Festina Lente in the Jordaan: taleggio, tomatoes and salami on a toasted wheat* ciabatta.  (If I lived here, I would come to Festina Lente once a week just to eat through their sandwich menu.)  Admired the café’s cat.  Commented how much the Dutch seem to love sandwiches… like me.  Drifted around the Jordaan.  Watched candy get made at Papabubble, then bought several Euro’s worth.  Checked out the clothes sold at Sprmrkt, all of which made me feel very fat and very uncool.  Smelled soaps at La Savonnerie and realized Amsterdam is quite beautiful once you get away from the sleazy bits.  Beer break at Café Brakke, where non-patrons have to pay €0.50 to use the toilet but petting the cat is free.  Hopped a tram to the Pijp for dinner at District V.  Happened to be “National Restaurant Week,” so ate the set menu of salmon wrapped in pasta with a tomato cream sauce; “friander kalfsoester” with potatoes, ratatouille and a delicious marsala potato gratin studded with rosemary; and a citron ice cream with lemon sauce and a brownie full of ground almonds.  (If you come here, check out the not-as-cheesy-as-it-sounds chandelier made of cutlery, sieves and serving spoons.)  Trammed back to the hotel.

Breakfast from Bagels + Coffee outside the Anne Frank HuisWednesday
Had prebooked tickets to the Anne Frank House; showed up fifteen minutes early so we could grab ham-and-cheese croissants and coffee next door**.  Wrestled between depression, interest and anger while going through the house.  Ignored Keith completely afterwards at Broodje Bert, where I ate a toasted salami, onion and cheese sandwich (for barely over €5.oo) while I scribbled in my journal.  Shopped the Nine Streets.  Bought a rad bag at Margareth Mackenzie on Oude Spiegelstraat.  Helped Keith pick out a wallet at Hester Van Eeghen on Hartenstraat.  Scribbled more at Café de Pels while Keith drank beer.  Chilled out at the hotel for an hour or two before a dinner of snacks at Van Dobben, where the friendliest people work and recommend crazy-amazing things to eat like kroket sandwiches and a stack of salted beef and liver piled in between bread.  Ogled two  customers’ two massive dogs, then walked back to the hotel.

On a canal, AmsterdamThursday
Caught the water taxi to city hall, then walked to De Tokoman for some sensational Surinamese sandwiches and mango juice.  Still couldn’t believe how much the Dutch love sandwiches, and how much I love the Dutch for loving them.  Walked over to the Dutch Resistance Museum, also known as the coolest museum in the city and where we spent three hours.  Poked through Rembrandt’s house, which is set up to appear as though the artist just popped out for a sandwich (he was Dutch, you know).  Quick detour in the Bloemenmarkt, the flower market.  Beers at Café van Leeuwen.  Heard the weather was going to turn for the cold and windy, so conned Keith into shopping for a jacket.  More beers at Gollem, where I met the bar’s cat, then a traditional Dutch dinner at Moeders before catching our last tram of the night.  Beer at the hotel bar, then bed.

Morning Star, AmsterdamFriday
More awesome sandwiches and frites, this time at Morning Star, which just might be the cutest place ever.  Windy windy windy cold weather, so I wore my new jacket.  Visited the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, where Keith had to tear me away from the computer-generated map of the city’s growth over the past eight hundred years.  After cookies (koekjes) and appelflaps (kind of like  an apple turnover) at Lanskroon, trammed to the Pijp for beers at the other branch of Gollem with another cat before walking to the Van Gogh Museum, which is open late on Friday nights for film screenings, concerts and lectures.  Dinner at Burgermeester.   In spite of torrential rain, all the local bars were packed so we headed to the hotel bar for one last beer.

Flowers on Engelantiersstraat, AmsterdamSaturday
Glumly trekked through the sunny morning and the Red Light District to get to the Museum Amstelkring and its spectacular church hidden in the attic, then to the Oude Kerk, the only cathedral I’ve ever seen with a wooden ceiling.  Trammed to the Albert Cuypmarkt in the Pijp.  Spent hours exploring the miscellaneous stalls and eating more Surinamese food, frites, cookies and an astounding raw herring sandwich.  Beers at Kingfisher before walking to the in-the-process-of-renovation Rijksmuseum, home to works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Bruegel.  Indonesian dinner at Bojo, before beers at ‘t Arendsnest.  Trammed in the pouring rain back to the hotel to pack and sleep.

* The Dutch call wheat bread brown bread. I don’t think I can pull it off.
**Getting advance tickets online is a must. If you aren’t able to, plan on buying a snack next door at Bagels and Coffee; customers can use their computer and printer gratis, and therefore avoid the hours-long line at the Anne Frank House.

Five Things About Me: 11 12 13 14 15.

11. Julie Andrews might just be one of my favorites ever.  (Favorite what?  Favorite anything.)  The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins are up there in my list of top ten films for sure.

12. Others in my Top Ten Films list include Magic in the Water, Walk Don’t Run, The Iron Giant, 28 Days Later, The Lives of Others, La Jetée, Shallow Grave and Battle Royale.

13. I’m addicted to The Battle of the Berrics, and I’m not even a skateboarder, or know much about skateboarding.

14. My favorite thing about a skateboard video is during a slo-mo sequence, after a skateboarder lands a trick and the crew watching cheers.  In slo-mo audio, it sounds like a herd of dairy cows, or one of those mooing toys, and I like that.

15. I rarely buy into trends, no matter how comfortable they look. I don’t want to go through pictures, years from now, and shudder over what I’m wearing. I’ll be too busy shuddering over how I look weight-wise anyway.