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The Joy of Books (April 1, 2013)

A Gratin of Leeks
Sole with Wine and Mushrooms
Burnt Cream or Crème Brûlée

Books, books, books! I had found the secret of a garret-room piled high with cases in my father's name; piled high, packed large, —where, creeping in and out among the giant fossils of my past, like some small nimble mouse between the ribs of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there at this or that box, pulling through the gap, in heats of terror, haste, victorious joy, the first books first. And how I felt it beat under my pillow, in the morning's dark. An hour before the sun would let me read! My books!
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Oh, the pleasures of reading, you know just how Elizabeth Browning felt! It's snowing outside, you're warm and toasty inside with a roaring fire and a favourite book! Ah, what more to life is there? Perhaps a lovely meal between chapters...

The Jane Austen Cookbook

And what we add, if that lovely meal had been served by no other than Jane Austen! It's possible, for authors Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye have given us the means to do just that... in The Jane Austen Cookbook. Austen wrote her novels in the midst of a large and sociable family; brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, friends and acquaintances were always coming and going, which offered numerous occasions for convivial eating and drinking. One of Jane's dearest friends, Martha Lloyd, lived with the family for many years and recorded in her "Household Book" over 100 recipes enjoyed by the Austens. Black and Le Faye have selected, tested and modernized these dishes which Jane and her characters would have enjoyed at balls, picnics and supper parties. Love Jane Austen? Who doesn't, including Nigella Lawson, who says, "Has to be the best present, although this riveting book is far more than just that." A must-have!

So what are you serving at your next Book Group meeting? Surprise and please (not to mention impress!) everyone with a recipe mentioned in your favourite novels and works of non-fiction.

The Book Lover's Cookbook contains over 200 selections including salads, breads and soul-warming soups to appetizers, entrées and a dazzling array of desserts inspired by celebrated works of literature and the passages that feature them. How about Innocent Sweet Bread from The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison, Queen Nacha's Tamales from Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate or our personal favourite, Daddy's Rich Chocolate Cake from the irrepressible Bill Cosby's charming Fatherhood.

Beef stew from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath is a better bet but no less fascinating than the recipe for Gruel from Dicken's Oliver Twist; it's all here, some porn and some poignant, but all delicious!

Authors Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen are well published, award winning writers who also love food! Their delightfully fascinating biographies include the information that Jensen, a speech-language pathologist, has taught creative writing to jail inmates and Wenger regards her monthly book club meeting as one of life's essential ingredients!

Book Group will never be the same!

Now for something different! In 1962 President John F. Kennedy welcomed a gathering of Nobel Prize winners and other international dignitaries to the White House, saying "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." Jefferson was indeed one of the greatest minds ever; a statesman who oversaw the vast Louisiana Purchase, a leader in the Enlightenment and was a polymath who spoke five languages fluently. He was deeply interested in science, invention, architecture, religion and philosophy, interests that led him to the founding of the University of Virginia after his presidency.

In Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée, historian Thomas J. Craughwell (Stealing Lincoln's Body) has given us the fascinating story of Jefferson and one of his slaves, 19-year-old James Hemings, and their 1784 trip to Paris for "the particular purpose" of James mastering the art of French Cooking; in exchange, Jefferson would grant Hemings his freedom! As Hemings apprenticed under master French chefs, Jefferson studied the cultivation of French crops, especially grapes, so they might be replicated in American agriculture. The two men returned home with such marvels as pasta, French fries, Champagne, macaroni and cheese, crème brûlée and a host of other treats.

And did Jefferson dine alone? Probably many evenings his favourite companion was Sally Hemings, James's daughter, who accompanied the now widower Jefferson and his daughter Mary to Paris in 1787, as Jefferson had been appointed Ambassador to France... and Sally became Jefferson's mistress. Miss Sally had six children, four of whom survived, and all with a remarkable resemblance to Jefferson! Sadly, James Hemings committed suicide, but thanks to his training in France founded a culinary dynasty in America as his techniques and recipes were passed on to other slaves at Monticello, including Edith Fossett and her son Peter Fossett, who, after purchasing his freedom in 1850, moved to Cincinnati, where he opened a catering business and went on to become one of the most successful caterers in the city. No, this is not a cookbook, but a fascinating and utterly satisfying narrative worth reading again and again! Perhaps your next book group?

On today's menu:

Download this article in printable form as an Adobe Acrobat PDF (140 KB)



A Gratin of Leeks

A Gratin of Leeks

Warning. You simply cannot put The Book Lover's Cookbook down. Every recipes comes with a passage from the book that inspired the recipe, and each one juicier than the last... Do not lend this out to anyone. You'll never see it again.

Leeks was inspired by this passage from Marlena de Blasi's A Thousand Days in Venice:

There is a white oval dish of braised leeks tossed in crème fraîche, spritzed with vodka, bubbling, golden under a cruise of Emmenthaler and Parmesan. I don't know how to say "leek" in Italian, and so I have to get up to find my dictionary. "Ah, porri," he says. "I don't like porri." I quickly rifle the pages again, pretending to have made an error.

"No, they're not porri, these are scalogni," I lie to the stranger. "I've never tasted them," he says, taking a bite. As it turns out, the stranger very much likes leeks as long as they are called shallots.

Yields 6 servings

  • 12 medium-to-large leeks (approx. 3 pounds), green parts trimmed off, white part split, thoroughly rinsed and sliced thinly into rounds (or 2 pounds of onions or scallions – try a mixture of sweet onions such as Vidalia, Walla Walla or Texas Sweet with some big, strongly flavoured yellow Spanish varieties)
  • 2 cups mascarpone
  • 1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp freshly cracked pepper
  • 1½ tsp fine sea salt
  • 1/2 cup grappa or vodka
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbsp unsalted butter

Place the prepped leeks into a large mixing bowl; in a smaller bowl combine all the remaining ingredients except the Parmesan and butter, and mix well. Scrape the mascarpone mixture into the bowl with the leeks and, using two forks, evenly coat the looks with the mixture. Spoon the leeks into a buttered oven safe oval dish 12 to 14 inches long, spreading the mixture evenly, or into six individual buttered oval dishes. Scatter the Parmesan over all, and bake at 400°F for 30 minutes or until a deep golden crust forms (10 minutes less for smaller gratins).

Tony's wine recommendation:
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc



Sole with Wine and Mushrooms

Sole with Wine and Mushrooms

From The Jane Austen Cookbook, whose authors are noted scholars. Maggie Black was a food historian and author of numerous book. including The Medieval Cookbook. Deirdre Le Faye is an Austenian scholar, author of the biography, Jane Austen: A Family Record and an edited collection of Jane Austen's letters. This classic remains a favourite today; the authors have given us the original recipe and the modern, chef-tested version to make it easier. Thank you Jane!

Serves 4–6

Skin, gut and wash your soles very clean; cut off their heads and dry your fish in a cloth. Then very carefully cut the flesh from the bones and fins on both sides, and cut the flesh long ways and then across, so that each sole may be in eight pieces. ...There is much more detail in the original, including boiling the heads, straining the bits, adding... and here's the version you'll want to use!

  • 2 lb/1 kg lemon sole fillets
  • Heads, bones, skin and trimmings of fish
  • A bundle of sweet herbs (i.e. tarragon, dill, marjoram, thyme, parsley)
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and halved
  • 4 black peppercorns
  • 3 pieces of blade mace*
  • 1 strip of lemon peel
  • 1 curst stale bread
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • About 3 oz beurre manié made with 1½ oz each softened butter and flour**
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 4 oz button mushrooms, quartered
  • A few drops of lemon juice
  • Pinch of grated nutmeg
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • Lemon wedges

Each fish should yield 2 fillets, one from each side if small. Large fish may yield 2 fillets per side. Cut large fillets in half lengthways and all fillets in half across. Then make a fish stock. Put the fish heads, bones skin and trimmings into a pan with 3¾ cups water, the herb bundle and onion. Add the peppercorns, mace and lemon peel tied in a muslin bag and the bread crust. Season the stock to your taste, the cover the pan and cook until the contents are reduced to just under 2 cups, half the original volume.

Strain the stock into a frying pan, which will hold all the fish. Off the heat, add 2 oz of the beurre manié in small portions and stir them in. Add the wine, mushrooms. Lemon juice and nutmeg and stir round again. Place the pan over medium heat and simmer until the sauce is slightly thickened. Then add the fish fillets, and simmer again, shaking the pan gently, until they are cooked through. They should take only a few minutes.

With a perforated fish slice (spatula), lift the fish fillets and mushrooms into a warmed serving dish. If you wish, thicken the sauce a little more with the rest of the beurre manié. Pour some of the sauce over the fish and put the rest in a sauce-boat. Sprinkle the fish with the parsley and garnish it with lemon wedges before serving.

*Mace blades: The membrane that surrounds nutmeg. The web-like structure breaks apart into slivers called blades. The dried blades can be ground and used as a spice; can be purchased at specialty spice shops.

** Beurre manié: A paste prepared with equal quantities of flour and butter that are kneaded together. It is used as a thickener that can be stirred into a hot sauce or soup. Unlike a roux, in which the flour and butter are cooked first before adding hot liquid to create a sauce, beurre manié is not cooked first and is added to the sauce or soup at the end of the cooking time in order to adjust the thickness. The beurre manié is added in small increments to the sauce or soup so that it can be well incorporated before adding more to achieve the desired consistency. Unused beurre manié can be stored in a covered dish or jar for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

Tony's wine recommendation:
white Burgundy, Ontario oaked Chardonnay



Burnt Cream or Crème Brûlée

Burnt Cream or Crème Brûlée

The subtitle of Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée is "How a Founding Father and his Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America," and we can all thank them for bringing back Crème Brûlée! This recipe is attributed to Honoré Julien by Jefferson's granddaughter Virginia Randolph Trist in her manuscript cookbook of Monticello recipes.

Quite simply, here's the original version:

Boil 2 quarts of milk with a large piece of orange peel; when it is cook take ½ pound of sugar, the yolks of 7 eggs and whites of 2 well beaten and stir them into the boiled milk with 2 or 3 handsful of flour. Pass the mixture through a sieve, put it on the fire and stir it till it thickens; add an ounce of fresh butter, pour it into a deep dish and when it cools and drips on the surface a little, sprinkle it over with sugar and glaze it with a hot shovel. Flavour it with essence of lemon or anything you like.

Preferring a torch to a "hot shovel" and a few more details, we've given you the classic below, courtesy Alton Brown and The Food Network.

Serves 6

  • 1 quart heavy cream
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
  • 1 cup vanilla sugar, divided
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 2 quarts hot water
  • Preheat the oven to 325°F.
  • Place the cream, vanilla bean and its pulp into a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat, cover and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Remove the vanilla bean and reserve for another use.
  • In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup sugar and the egg yolks until well blended and it just starts to lighten in color. Add the cream a little at a time, stirring continually. Pour the liquid into 6 (7- to 8-ounce) ramekins. Place the ramekins into a large cake pan or roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake just until the crème brûlée is set, but still trembling in the center, approximately 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the roasting pan and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.
  • Remove the crème brûlée from the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes prior to browning the sugar on top. Divide the remaining 1/2 cup vanilla sugar equally among the 6 dishes and spread evenly on top. Using a torch, melt the sugar and form a crispy top. Allow the crème brûlée to sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Tony's wine recommendation:
Muscat Beaumes-de-Venise, Sauternes, Pineau des Charentes



We wish to thank the following for permission to publish material and photographs:

Quirk Books, Philadelphia, and Random House Canada for Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée, by Thomas J. Craughwell. © 2012 Thomas J. Craughwell.

Ballantine Books and Random House Canada for The Book Lover's Cookbook, by Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen. © 2003 Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen.

McClelland & Stewart, Ltd, and Random House Canada for The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye. Recipes © 1995 by Maggie Black. Introduction © Deirdre le Faye. for the photograph of leeks au gratin.

Alton Brown and The Food Network for the crème brûlée recipe.


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Happily enjoyed by Helen Hatton and Ron Morris.

Helen Hatton and Ron Morris at Le Caveau des Gourmets in Gigondas




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