I’ve been on a memoir kick. My extended commute gives me ample time to read, and without realizing it, books by extraordinary women have floated to the top of the pile. First, it was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet (any other Wrinkle in Time fans out there?); then, Tina Fey’s Bossypants (I cannot get over how fiercely funny and smart this book was); and most recently, Julia Child’s My Life in France.I don’t know about you, but when I picture Julia Child, I picture either the dual tomes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or a tall-but-hunched-over, older lady on PBS. I’ve always understood that she’s legendary, and even perhaps understood why, but never did I imagine I’d be so captivated by a recounting of her life. You know the word “delightful”? That word I never use, because it sounds vaguely Pollyanna-ish, and a bit like you should clap your hands together and beam when you say it? I used it, while reading this book. It did not feel ironic or disingenuous. “I’m reading Julia Child’s My Life in France,” I might say to you, and you might politely respond, “Any good?” “It’s a delight,” I would say seriously.
I enjoyed the book for the whip-smart joie de vivre that shone through in every page, for the fact that it came from an age when Julia could talk about the vendors at her open-air market without once mentioning the word “locavore”, for the politics and history woven throughout. It’s been one particular anecdote, though, that has stuck with me.
During her time in Paris, Julia makes lunch for a friend…and it turns out horribly. But, “I made sure not to apologize,” she writes.
This was a rule of mine. I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one’s hostess starts into self-deprecations….it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Such admissions only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or perceived shortcomings)…Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed—eh bien, tant pis!
That got me. Probably one of my worst traits—in the kitchen and out—is that I am overly-apologetic. Not that it’s not heartfelt! I truly am sorry when that bread I baked was a little bit gummy, when those veggies I roasted got a little dried out and frizzled, I’msosorry. These things are often relatively out of my control, and apologies are completely unnecessary, and, more importantly than your gummy bread, I am so happy that you’re here for dinner. I never get around to that second part, though, and the I’msorry’s slip out all over the place until I’m sure they sound meaningless and uselessly self-deprecating. Yet still they come.
So, I am resolved: I will be unapologetic. Not brashly so. Just a bit more self-assured, a bit more confident that the act of feeding or loving or making is enough. Because that’s enough, it is!, and we all know it, but sometimes you need Julia Child to remind you of these things. We’re having a housewarming party soon and I can already feel the I’msorrys coming on. We won’t have enough chairs, I’msorry, it will be humid probably, I’msosorry, and really, you don’t have to eat the food if you don’t like it. I might be tempted to cater to the common denominator, throwing together good but kinda boring appetizers that will generate little opportunity for criticism.I will fight this. We will eat blini—with beer in the batter!—and when people say that they look like little pancakes, I’ll laugh and say, “Yeah, they do!” They’re good, really good, with nutty, malty notes begging to be offset with a smear of tangy crème fraîche and maybe some just-out-of-the-ground asparagus. Maybe you won’t like them, Party Guest. That’s okay. I’ll look you in the eye, smile, and point you toward the cheese platter.
Beer blini with spring toppings
Adapted liberally from the buckwheat blini recipe in The Martha Stewart Cookbook
I made these twice, trying to get the recipe right. The first time, I topped with a smashed broad bean spread with a little olive oil, tahini, and salt, which was good (that’s what you see in the grainy film photos). The second time, with some asparagus from Ben’s boss’s farm, was more than good. Try it: crème fraîche, blanched asparagus, dill—so good. But really, these are a blank canvas for your spring produce. They’d go wonderfully with the classic radishes and butter on top. They’re also a great vehicle for leftovers and sauces.
You will need
- For the blini batter:
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
Dash of salt
1 1/2 cups malty, round beer (this comes to about 1 1/2 standard bottles of beer; you should drink the second half of the bottle.)
Additional oil or butter for cooking
For the toppings (suggested):
Crème fraîche or sour cream
Various spring veggies, blanched and chopped: asparagus, radishes, etc.
Broad beans, mashed with a bit of olive oil or tahini and salt
- Combine the yeast and warm water in a medium mixing bowl and set aside in a warm place for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, combine whole wheat flour, eggs, oil, salt, and beer. It will be very foamy and lumpy at first, but stir with a whisk or fork until smooth and the bubbles have settled down.
Now, add the all-purpose flour to the yeast and water mixture. Stir well. Then, add the whole wheat flour/beer mixture to the yeasted white flour mixture. Mix very well, scraping lumps off the bottom. Drape the bowl with a towel and set in a warm place for an hour.
After an hour, the mixture should have risen a bit visibly and be frothy.
Heat a griddle or cast iron skillet over medium heat, swiping oil or butter over the surface. Scoop heaping tablespoonfuls of the batter onto the hot griddle. Flip the blini with a spatula when the edges look a bit dry and the surface has fluffed up significantly (similar to pancakes). Cook the other side until deep golden brown.
Blini should be served warm, so keep all of them piled together on a heated plate or in an oven on low until you’ve cooked them all.
Don’t worry about assembling the blini yourself—rather, set up a “blini bar” with all the various toppings in bowls. Bring out the hot blini and allow people to make what they want. Don’t apologize.