Sunday, May 3, 2009

Unexpected Gifts

In this uncertain climate, we have a tendency to eliminate things we deem extraneous or inessential. What constitutes luxury versus necessity? Over the past twenty years, our nation has not developed a sense of restraint or moderation, or, indeed any kind of delay of gratification. We want something, we immediately obtain it, regardless of whether or not we can afford--or even need--the obscure object of desire.

I'm not a financial analyst. In truth, my grasp of economics is about as robust as my understanding of nuclear physics or the rules of American football. But I
do believe that the collapse of global banking institutions was greatly influenced by the fact that banks were throwing loans at people who had no business asking for loans in the first place. People wanted homes, regardless of consequence, and banks indulged their adolescent demands.

Do I have numbers and statistics to prove this? No. This is a baking blog, not The Huffington Post.

All this is to say that generally, Z. and I conduct our financial affairs very moderately. We're pretty good about delaying or even abstaining gratification when it comes to purchasing things. (Though Z. has been known to develop crushes on jackets, knives and camera equipment, and I'm always prowling the sale section of Anthropologie and Banana Republic Petites, not to mention constantly putting books on my Amazon wish list. We're wishful consumers.)

Some time ago, Z. received a free subscription to Food & Wine magazine. Both he and I would thumb through it whenever it showed up and idly remark, "That looks good," then set the magazine aside to collect dust.

But, in part of our general ambition to expand our culinary repertoire, we both found recipes in some issues of the magazine that caught our attention. Our usual modus operandi of idle remarks gave way to asking ourselves, "Why the hell not?" Just admiring a recipe benefited no one, least of all our stomachs. So we invited some friends over and had ourselves A Very Food & Wine dinner.

Z. made Vaca Frita (Cuban Crispy Beef), gougères (taken from the Tartine cookbook), and I attempted the F&W Milk Chocolate Tart with Pretzel Crust. Z.'s dishes were fantastic, and between the four of us, we decimated the gougères like the clearance rack at Loehmann's. And when dinner was devoured, it was time for dessert.

Just for laffs, I smeared the crust with the remainder of the sea salt caramel from last week's cheesecake (which, incidentally, should be some band's name: Last Week's Cheesecake, opening for Burnt Toast at the Whiskey), then poured the milk chocolate ganache over all that. Again, I returned to that age-old combination of salty and sweet, which pleases my palate more than unexpurgated sweetness. My favorite Muppets were always the adults: Bert, Kermit, Rowlf. Unlike their juvenille counterparts (Ernie, Big Bird, and later, Elmo), the grown-up Muppets were always kind of pissed off and exasperated by the ridiculous shenanigans going on around them. Save the cutsey schtick for some other sap. I've got bottle caps to collect.

The end result was an exceptionally crispy crust that had to be chiseled apart, topped with a very silky and rich ganache. Oddly, the caramel largely disappeared beneath the chocolate filling, but it contributed a warm undercurrent to the whole dish. I abstained from sprinkling the top of the tart with more sea salt, as advocated by the recipe, thinking that the caramel would provide enough salt, but if I were to make the tart again, I'd definitely add an additional bit of salt. Not only was the tart delicious, though, I was also able to cross "tart" off my personal challenge list.

Wending our way back to the state of the economy, Z. and I had initially thought we'd not renew our subscription to F&W. After this unexpected bounty, both gustatory and skill-enhancing, I renewed the subscription as an early birthday gift to Z. Perhaps, too, the dying print medium can eke by for just a little longer, thanks to my measly $12. Everyone wins.


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