Saturday, May 21, 2011

Food Network 101

Food Network is the best thing to happen to cable television since the last awesome thing happened to cable television. I watched plenty while at school, but the college student lifestyle isn't really conducive to culinary explorations. Mom and Dad's kitchen, grocery budget, and the extra mouths of frequent dinner guests are.

When I watch Masaharu Morimoto cut fish, Gordon Ramsey make beef wellington, or Buddy Valastro frost a cake (he's actually on TLC, not Food Network, but that's beside the point) I forget that they are highly trained professionals with years of experience. I just get ideas, really big ideas. Then I try to execute them with all the dexterity of my favorite chefs, only to remember halfway into the project that I really have very little idea what I'm doing.

Cupcake Wars and Cake Boss got me through finals, so my first attempt of the summer was of course cake oriented. After a little research and input from hungry family members, I decided to make vanilla/chocolate swirl cupcakes with vanilla buttercream frosting, garnished with chocolate wafer-swirly thingies. Making the cake was fairly straightforward; the real challenge was piping the buttercream on top. Problem #1: this was my first time piping. Problem #2: I couldn't find our pastry bags, so I used a Ziploc bag with the corner cut off instead. Turns out that's not quite the same thing. Problem #3: my buttercream was all wrong, and apparently successful piping depends very much on the texture of the icing. Three problems means three lessons learned for next time.

The chocolate wafer-swirly thingies worked surprisingly well. I melted semi-sweet chocolate chips in a double boiler, put in another ziploc bag with the corner cut off, and drizzled it all over the back of a cookie sheet. I put it in the fridge to set, then used a spatula to break off sections to set in the icing. This is a trick that I'd like to play with more in the future.

Not every foray into the pastry world is as challenging, and every now and then, I hit on success (with a lot of help from my sister, a much better cook than I), and it's oh so tasty. One of our dinner guests requested chocolate cake for dessert, and I immediately thought of the strawberry and ganache filled cakes that Carlo's Bakery turns out for Valentine's Day every year. A little research turned up recipes for both chocolate cake and ganache that seemed easy enough, and much to my amazement, both cake and topping went off without a hitch. The finished product was a two layer chocolate cake with fresh strawberries in the middle, held together and topped with ganache.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Que sais-je?

Well, the grades are in and it's official: I am a BYU graduate, an alumna. Now what do I do with my life? For the moment I'm living at home and working as a receptionist to earn some moolah for whatever that next step will be. In the meantime I'm working on the last of the four aims of a BYU education: lifelong learning and service. Hence the new blog title. "Que sais-je?" is a question that one of the greatest thinkers of the last few centuries, Montaigne, posed to himself. It literally means "What do I know?", and in Montaigne's case the answer would be "a lot". "Que sais-je?", however, is not a question with a quantifiable answer; there is no moment when a human being knows everything, no real measure of complete education. Montaigne could quote any number of classical authors at will; I have a bachelor's degree and two minors. But education never ends. So I'm hoping that this blog and it's new title will help me keep asking myself, long after my diploma arrives in the mail, "What do I know?".

So what's to come? Book, movie, and music reviews; tales of my culinary endeavors; musings (and more than a few rants I'm sure) about current events; and probably (hopefully) some history projects. Basically, whatever I feel like writing about in the hope that I pursue a lifetime of service and learning. Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Julie & Julia - no spoilers, I promise.

I just watched Julie & Julia, although why it took me this long to watch a movie about some of my favorite subjects (food, Paris, food, writing, and Paris. Oh, and Paris.) I will never know. I'll be honest, Julie Powell kind of bugged me. Julia Child, on the other hand, rocks my socks. I hope to goodness that was a reasonably accurate portrayal of her and her husband, because I love them both; my Monday to-do list includes going to the library to check out her autobiography.

What really got me about this movie, though, was the Child's time in Paris, shot on location. All of my own memories of those same places came flooding back, from sitting on green benches under the trees next to Notre Dame de Paris, to buying produce in the open-air market, to going to a baptism in Mairie des Lilas, even learning to cut onions from a French chef (although that wasn't at Le Cordon Bleu). Let's put it this way: I got choked up during all the really emotional segments, but I shut the door and cried at every scene in Paris. Even the little blue street numbers conjured up happy memories. sigh. I've told a few people that I wouldn't want to actually live in Paris again, but that's a lie. I love that city, however pernicious the cigarette smoke and tour groups; as cliché as it sounds, Paris taught me how to live. When I got back Grandpa called me Sabrina Fair, and although I'm no Julia Ormond, that's how I feel. Her words are better than mine:

"It's strange, it's gone by so fast, Gertrude Stine said America is my country and Paris is my hometown, I'll always feel that way about Paris I want so much for you to know what it's meant to me. I cross the street some is playing La Vie En Rose. They do it for the tourists but I'm always suprised at how it moves me. It means seeing life through rose colored glasses. Only in Paris where the light is pink does that song make sense, but I'll have it in my pocket when I get home, and carry it with me where ever I go."

It wasn't so long ago that I lived there! I walked those streets, rode that Metro, ate that food, fell in love with those people. I had ramen for lunch today. Ramen. Two months ago my cheap lunch would have been a demi-baguette. Julia (at least in the movie) seemed to love Paris the way I did, and when she and her husband moved my heart broke all over again. And then I remembered that I have so much more to write about! What about Normandy, and the Loire Valley? What about climbing the towers of Notre Dame and looking down on my dear favorite city? What about the Primary class that I taught? What about that dreadful flight back to Chicago? So it's back to blogging for me, after I order some prints of the gajillion pictures I took in the City of Lights.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Chartres: A Retrospective

By the end of the program I was too busy soaking up every sight, sound, and smell of Paris (and enjoying some British comedy at night) to spend much time blogging. Now that I'm home (whatever home is right now) it's catch up time.

Paris is wonderful, but France has much more to offer than the City of Lights. Back on the 25th of February we took a day trip out to Chartres, a small town a short train ride away from Paris. It was our first experience in France outside of Paris. Although Paris is undeniably French, France is not Parisian. It was nice to see what not-Paris looks like.

We arrived about an hour before our scheduled tour, so we used the time to explore. The main attraction in Chartres is of course the cathedral, but that's not all to see there. We decided to check out an older, smaller church, which we found after wandering through windy cobblestone streets and past an empty market place. The church was quite old, and seemed to be made up of bits and pieces of different centuries: romanesque here, high gothic there, a bit of neo-classical over there. Moss, lichen, and tiny flowers were growing all over the walls.

Inside we were greeted with breathtaking stained glass depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The chapel itself was modest and utterly free from the touristy trappings of Notre Dame de Paris or Sainte Chapelle. It was simply a place of worship, as it was always intended to be.

To show us around the cathedral, Notre Dame de Chartres, we had a wonderful old tour guide named Malcolm Miller. He’s the sort of old British scholar who I think sits by a fireplace at night with a glass of sherry in one hand and the writings of some medieval scholar in the other. He taught us to recognize saints' lives and Bible stories depicted in glass and stone, some obscured behind years of ash and dirt, some recently restored to shining brilliance.

Perhaps the greatest treasures at Chartres are the stained glass windows, many of which date back to the 13th century and are original to the building. We started our tour with a reading lesson: stained glass windows were meant to be read by the worshippers, bottom to top and left to right.

Each window contains scenes from the Bible, saints’ lives, and especially the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. At first glance, and to the untrained eye, the figures are indiscernible one from the other, but dear Mr. Miller taught us how to recognize and understand some of the symbols. The windows ranged from very simple, widely known stories such as the raising of Lazarus, to fairly sophisticated biblical commentaries.

The best example of this was the Good Samaritan window (I don't know if it's actually called that, but that's how I remember it). One set of medallions shows the story of the Good Samaritan; another shows Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden. How do the two connect? It's pretty cool if you ask me (then again, most medieval Christianity is pretty cool to me). Adam and Eve, and all mankind for that matter, are the man who was robbed and left for dead. We are all left for dead, so to speak, in this mortal world (remember that this is a medieval Catholic approach), robbed and beaten by that serpent Satan. The Good Samaritan, who cleans our wounds and provides a safe shelter for us, is of course Jesus Christ. Cool, huh?

Like many old churches I’ve seen here, the structure that now stands at Chartres is not the first place of worship that was there. When the Romans showed up back in the day they found pagans worshipping at a holy spring there. As the locals converted to Christianity they incorporated the sacred site into their new religion, and by around 830ish AD a cathedral was built (a cathedral is the seat of a bishop). Chartres really made it big though in the mid-9th century, when Charles le Chauve (the bald), grandson of Charlemagne, gave a relic to the cathedral: la sainte chemise, or a shirt worn by the Virgin Mary herself. This gift predates the widespread adoration of Mary associated with the Catholic church, but it made the cathedral a major pilgrimage destination (the relic has been carbon dated back to the 1st century AD; I'll let you make of that what you will). After a series of devastating fires followed by renovations, the cathedral at Chartres became the stunning flamboyant Gothic edifice that’s there now.

One of many highlights of the trip was being able to climb one of the towers. It was a long climb up a narrow spiral staircase, but it was worth every step. I’ve seen my fair share of flying buttresses and gargoyles and rose windows, but to be up there with it all, next to the bells and looking down on the whole town was took my breath away. Or maybe that was the dizzying climb up the seemingly endless spiral staircase. Either way, it was a transcendent experience.

On the way back a group of us decided to make a slight detour in the little town of Maintenon to see the Chateau de Maintenon (built for Madame de Maintenon, mistress and later wife to Louis XIV). The sun finally came out and it stopped raining. We didn’t really know where we were going, so we asked people on the street until we found it. Maintenon is a charming town, with a quiet little river and stone bridges and lots of trees. Not to mention the 17th century chateau AND Roman aqueduct. The sun was setting as we waited on the platform, wrapping up an almost ridiculously perfect day.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Eyjafjallajökull and Me

The last few days rank easily among the most bizarre and unexpected of my life. Other contenders are the Christmas in Yuma when we all had a terrible stomach flu (I stopped vomiting long enough to open presents), and the Christmas that my baby sister Phoebe was born and we rushed through Lucia festivities, to the hospital, then I ended up in bed for three weeks with the flu. Such fun. Here's a rundown of how this weekend went:

Thursday: Finally done with every bit of homework! I spent the day at Musée d'Orsay and the Pompidou Center. That evening we all went to a performance of Pierre Boulez's Répons which blew my mind. I went home and packed my suitcases.

Friday: My last day! How sad. By now we knew that airports in the UK were closed because of a cloud of ash from a volcano in Iceland. Seriously? A volcano? In Iceland? Whatever. We went to the Palais Garnier of Phantom of the Opera fame (it was incredible by the way), found the bus Courtney and I would take to the airport, then went home to check on things. The Charles De Gaulle website said they would be open by that afternoon. No problem. So off to say my farewells to Notre Dame and Saint Severin; I caught the tail end of Vespers at Notre Dame, prayed that the ash would clear up at Saint Severin, and shed a few sorrowful tears that I would be leaving this city I love. Then off to the Eiffel Tower to meet up with friends and check out the view from the top. My roommate Angela delivered the news: "Your flight is canceled!" Oh well, the Tower was still pretty sweet and surely this cloud wouldn't last forever. Seriously. This is the 21st century, right?

Saturday: After reading the news and enlisting Dad to help me figure out the rebooking process I finally realized that I might be hanging out here for a while. Hayley, Richard and I spent all day trying to track down phone numbers and non-existent ticket offices. We ended up in a thrift store instead and ate kebabs by a fountain. It was a perfect sunny day. Volcano my eye. We finally got the sweetest, most helpful United ticket agent on the phone who rebooked our flights. New plan: land in Colorado Springs one hour before my cousin's wedding reception starts. I hope I make it in time! On the metro back to my place, I was in a very good mood. I get an extra week in Paris! How great is that?

Sunday: The English sunday school was full of Americans here for business and pleasure who are now stuck for the foreseeable future. Halfway through the lesson the fire alarm went off for a drill. *sigh* What next? We finished off the day with pizza and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Ricks' house. Then I made a terrible mistake: I started thinking about where I would be without good ol' Eyjafjallajökull. I would have been in my home ward, with my family, making crepes and telling stories and playing with our new dog... and then Carolina In My Mind came up on my iPod. I skipped it quickly only to hear Take Me Home Country Roads. Thanks James Taylor and John Denver for the nose dive into homesickness.

But hey! The sun is out again, and I have Paris at my fingertips. Time for a picnic I think. Then art museums, walks, old churches, maybe a free concert or two. I get to live la vie en rose for six extra days. With or without the emotional roller coaster, I guess I owe Eyjafjallajökull one.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Easter at Notre Dame de Paris (Cultural Activity 5)

Notre Dame de Paris is probably, with the possible exception of Sacre-Coeur, Paris’ most well known church. It is always full of tourists from all over the world; the square outside is like a 30 second tour of the United Nations. The inside of the building is torn between tourism and worship and sometimes seems a little confused between the two.
In spite of this conflict some of my favorite experiences have taken place at Notre Dame. My first day in Paris I went in and was dazzled by the rose windows. I’ve attended mass there several times. Climbing to the very top of the towers, seeing the big bell, and looking across the city was a wonderful experience.

Another choice experience at Notre Dame de Paris occurred rather serendipitously on Easter Morning. Angela, Courtney and I arrived at the cathedral early for the Gregorian mass, and it turned out we were just in time for the Lauds service. Lauds is one of the old daily services; the name comes from the Latin verb “to praise”, and that’s exactly what we did.
The texts came from Psalms and hymns; the music consisted of simple melodies and chants. Although the texts were fairly standard for Christian hymns, but the music and the way we sang it were different from the Protestant styles and traditions that I’m used to. Instead of four part harmonies accompanied by an organ, we sang simple melodies in response to a soloist. For several psalms there was only a chant marked out on the handout that was given to the congregation. Texture came from the sound of the words, the contrast between the soloist and the congregation, and the organ which occasionally had solos of its own. The music had an ascending quality to it, and allowed the disparate voices of the motley congregation to be united in singing praises to the heavens.

And it didn’t stop there! As Lauds concluded we were given the words and music for Mass. I could barely contain my excitement at seeing the Gregorian notation and Latin text, even though I’m hardly fluent in either. The Gregorian Ensemble at Notre Dame is incredible, and as their exquisite voices sang the Introït the church filled with the scent of incense. The priest and others (I don’t know the details of who does what and when during Mass) processed in with the Cross, surrounded with the smoke from the censer.

The first thing they did was the Rite de l’aspersion. The celebrant blessed a bowl of water (see Ezekial 47:1-9), then walked up and down the aisles and used an olive branch to sprinkle the holy water on the assembled worshippers.
Mass continued mostly in Latin, although the most important parts (like preparing Communion) were done in French. At the end we sang my favorite Latin text, Agnus Dei. In Latin it goes like this:

Agnus Dei qui tolis peccáta mundi:
Miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei qui tolis peccáta mundi:
Miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei qui tolis peccáta mundiL
Dona nobis pacem.

And in English:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world:
Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world:
Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world:
Give us peace.

The ensemble sang the first part of each stanza, reminding us who the Lamb of God is; we joined at the second halves, pleading for mercy and peace. Intermittently through both services the sounds of the famous bells could be heard resonating through the stone and arches, combining with incense, stained glass, architecture, a profound sense of history, and our music to create a beautiful experience.

As Mass ended we were treated to some organ music. By the time we got home bells were ringing all over Paris to celebrate the Resurrection.

Le ciné (Cultural Activity 4)

Some of my very favorite films are French: Cyrano de Bergerac, Les Choristes, Ponette, and of course Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulin, so when I had the chance to go see the romantic comedy L’Arnacouer I took it. Arnacouer is a pun on the French word arnaqeur, or con-artist. The movie starts with these words of wisdom (to the best of my recollection and translating ability): “There are three kinds of women: those who are happy, those who are unhappy, and those who are unhappy but don’t know it”. The main characters are a crack team of con artists who earn their living breaking up couples, a wealthy young wine critic about to be married to a dolt of Englishman, and her wealthy and rather shady father who doesn’t want the marriage to go through. I’ll give you a hint as to the plot: the wine critic is a hot girl (Johnny Depp’s wife Vanessa Paradis to be precise) and the main con artist is a hot French guy. You can take it from there.

There were a few funny things about this film. First was the leading lady: she had a massive gap between her front teeth that would be a death knell for a career in American cinema. The French seem to be more accepting of human appearances, whether five o’clock shadow, sweat, gap teeth, frizzy hair, you name it.

Another funny thing about the movie was the presence of American pop culture. “Dirty Dancing”, believe it or not, has an important role in the plot. The movie ends with Steve Miller Band’s (pronounced Steve Meeler Band) The Joker. One American thing was notably missing: English subtitles. My host mom was amazed that I braved such a feat; she even tells her family members when they come for dinner. They have a good laugh when I tell them I only understood 60ish % of it. But I got most jokes, and certainly enjoyed the whole experience.