Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hot Clafoutis! Bless My soul!

There are two rules I follow in my kitchen: I don't bake. That's the first. And I don't cook anything that I can't pronounce. That's obviously the second. This doesn't mean I won't eat things I have difficulty enunciating, though. As long as the reason for my mangling has everything to do with accents or umlauts - or tricky clicks of the tongue - and nothing to do with multi-syllabic, multi-chemically-based words printed in half-point type on the side of a package. I was taking this last cautionary step long before the Gospel According to Michael (Pollan) was written. 

Where my first rule and my second rule often intersect is at the corner of French and Pastry. This is a shame, too, since anyone who knows me can attest I never met a dessert I didn't like. (Well, rarely.) Also, as most people who've shared a table with me are aware, there was a time when my consumption of cake was so high that it was practically its own food group. 

Like all staunchly held patterns, culinary or otherwise, the rules that dictate my kitchen's output have their roots in my formative years. My mental block about baking was firmly laid when, as a kid, I decided to surprise my parents by making eclairs. They'd gone out shopping one evening, so I went in search of a recipe. I cracked open the copy of the "Joy Of Cooking" that seemed to be the go-to-guide my Mom and Dad used when they couldn't puzzle a recipe together on their own. I figured by the time they returned they'd walk in the door to see their ten year old son offering them the most beautiful confections they'd ever seen, and certainly the most delicious they'd ever tasted. 

Instead they came home, nearly dropping their grocery bags on the floor as they surveyed the damage. An egg beater, several wooden spoons and spatulas, and measuring spoons and cups were scattered about the kitchen counter. Slimy trails of egg whites and powdery speckles of flour dotted the stovetop, the floor, and even the window above the sink. 

And the eclairs themselves? They remained on a baking sheet in the oven. The dough never properly rose. The would-be pastries were nothing more than limp, elongated patches of wet flour with a large hole at each end where the creme would've been piped in. 

"What did you do?" my Mom asked, looking around at the kitchen that had been immaculately in order when she'd left it a few hours before. 

My Dad, who had bent over to look into the oven, was peering inside at my flat, failed creations.

"What the hell are those?"

"Eclairs," I said, somewhat proudly, thinking I'd get an A for effort if nothing else.

Instead, my Dad scowled. 

"They look like slippers," he grumbled. 

Of course at the time I didn't realize that from my parents' point of view my kitchen experiment was not merely a Good Recipe Gone Bad; it was the mid-seventies, a recession had stalled the economy and there was a serious clamp on our household finances. I'd essentially wasted ingredients at a time when my parents were doing everything they could to stretch their budget as well as their pantry's contents. 

I didn't understand the impact inflation was having in our kitchen any more than I understood the intricacies of yeast in my recipe. 

Also, I think it was the first time I tried to follow a recipe that wasn't printed on the back of a Jello box. 

I tried baking again in my mid-twenties, convinced I could surmount any culinary obstacles. I found success in a recipe for a lemon pound cake from the "Great Chefs of the Southwest" cookbook. Unfortunately my triumph was short-lived. I offered to make it as a dessert for a potluck gathering with fellow employees at the time. When everyone began quickly reaching for a beverage after taking their first forkful, I knew something was wrong. Once again, the oven door had hit me in the ass. Instead of the beautifully moist cake that the recipe had delivered on several previous takes, this time I had succeeded in creating a giant ring of yellow styrofoam. 

It took two more decades before I decided to give baking another go. I am proud to admit that I did have recent success with a Lemon Cornmeal Cake from the April issue of Bon Appetit (page 100.) When I read the description of it as "rustic" I figured I couldn't go wrong. If it turned out a little on the dry side I could just say "It's supposed to be that way. It's rustic." Fortunately it was moist and much lighter than I'd anticipated. 

Since I've started making peace with my Inner Baker, I might consider tackling French again sometime in the near future. I would certainly help expand my menu. For now I leave all of the French pronunciations, and most of the baking, to Lon. The Clafoutis that he made this past weekend did indeed live up to Gourmet's assessment of the dessert as being "between custard and cake." The previous weekend's attempt had been undone by a strawberry that had gone bad and that had sneaked into the finished product. Just like the time my coworkers' expressions told me something was wrong with my pound cake, so I could tell by the look on Lon's face that something was amiss with this Clafoutis. I took a forkful and had an immediate flashback, this time to the Boones Farm Strawberry Hill wine that we used to secretly swill in high school. 

For anyone who is as challenged in all things Franco-phile as am I, you can get the proper pronunciation of Clafoutis here:  Even if you know how to pronounce it, it's still so much fun to use sites like this. Ah The Web. How did we ever live without You?

As for my failures in French, and why I had to first turn to Forvo to get the proper enunciation of the dish, I blame it on a freshman semester in college when I was more concerned with dissecting the liberties described in the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" soundtrack. (Hence the homage in the title of this post.)  

The Lemon Cornmeal Cake I described above called for buttermilk, and since I'm all about using up leftovers, and I need a convenient outro to a recipe, I'm including a chicken dish that uses not only the buttermilk but also some of the chick pea flour from the battered cod I made last week. 

In keeping with today's theme of tweaking song titles from the seventies, I'm going back to the first album I ever bought as a kid, Aerosmith's "Get Your Wings" (even though this recipe calls for chicken thighs.) 

Lord of Your (Chicken) Thighs
1 to 2 pounds chicken thighs, boneless if you can find them
2 cups buttermilk (use the 1% fat version - it only has 2.5 grams of fat per cup)
1/4 cup Tabasco sauce
2 cups chickpea flour (plus more if you necessary.)

1. Mix buttermilk and Tabasco together in a large bowl. Whisk thoroughly to keep it from separating. It's doubtful that it will curdle. Place chicken in the mixture and then refrigerate, allowing pieces to marinate for at least two hours. Try to use thighs if you can. This will work well with chicken breast, too, but the dark meat of the thighs is naturally moist. It's also a great buy and horribly undervalued as a dinner alternative.
2. Preheat oven to 400 and place a baking sheet, rubbed with Canola oil, inside to heat as well. Make sure it's large enough to hold the pieces of chicken.
3. Remove chicken from fridge. In a zip-lock bag, pour chickpea flour. Placing two or three thighs at a time in the bag with the flour, shake to coat. Knock excess flour off pieces as you pull them out and place them on the baking sheet. Work quickly. You want to take advantage of the searing that occurs when the chicken hits the hot surface of the baking sheet. Continue with remaining chicken. You might want to add some more of the flour if it's getting gunked up inside the bag. 
4. Place chicken thighs back in oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, depending on your oven's temperature. Serve with lemon wedges. 

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