Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

This book is hilariously funny, riffing satirically on those chick-lit memoirs from the early 2000s in which a heroine ends up living abroad, usually Italy or France, renovates a house, learns to cook, falls in love, and finds herself, though not necessarily in that order.

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The book Under The Tuscan Sun is referenced often, but the other book I was reminded of was the highly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, that also detailed a woman’s “journey into self.” Gag. It was gushingly made into a film with the also highly annoying Julia Roberts and the absolutely gorgeous Javier Bardem, who is welcome to eat crackers in bed with me at any time.

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In this case, Cooking with Fernet-Branca turns the heroine into a hero, in the character of Gerald Samper, a British expatriate (and as an aside, why do we call Brits and Americans living in foreign countries “expatriates” and yet people who come here to the States or to Great Britain are referred to as “immigrants”? Food for thought……pardon the pun).

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Anyway, Gerald is a dreadful snob who ghostwrites biographies for celebrities, and loves to cook gourmand meals. The problem is, his concept of gourmet cooking is horrible. For example, he is given a bottle of Fernet-Branca by the loquacious Marta, his neighbor on the run from a Mafia crime lord. Fernet-Branca, if you’ve never had it, is a terribly bitter, herb-based liqueur much loved in Italy. Gerald proceeds to create a dessert of garlic and Fernet-Branca flavored ice cream, reveling in his own unique style of cooking.

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What makes this book so funny and satirical is that it takes all of the tropes of this chick-lit genre and holds them up so clearly to show the pure pretentiousness of all of these women who go to Italy and find themselves “under a Tuscan’s son.” (Not that there is anything wrong with finding yourself under a Tuscan’s son.) Gerald and Marta are each other’s intellectual and culinary equals, and the story is told from their dual viewpoints, giving us a glimpse of how ridiculous the other really is.

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Gerald loves to sing, horribly off-key, as he goes about renovating his Italian villa, and Marta, who is actually an Eastern European composer, begins using his dreadful songs in her own music, which is hysterical reading when Gerald also hears it and is horrified, not realizing the music and verse and voice are his own donkey-braying.

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I tried a small shot of Fernet-Branca when in Italy a few years ago, and still recall the shudder that went through me when I swallowed down the bitter, herbal hit of alcohol. It’s probably  something one could acquire a taste for, like Campari and Pernod. But even the bouquet of Fernet-Branca is vile, making one wonder exactly how it would taste in a garlic-flavored ice cream. I’m game to try if you are!

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Anyway, one of the more amusing dishes Gerald whips up are his mussels in chocolate sauce.

Mussels in chocolate. You flinch? But that’s only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.

I had absolutely no intention of making mussels cooked in chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong with making some lovely mussels in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce, and then having a nice, decadent chocolate dessert. So that’s what I made.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous mussels recipe from the New York Times by David Tanis, one of the best cooks out there. The chocolate dessert was based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Chocohotopots from her terrific cookbook Feast, which are little baked chocolate molten cakes eaten hot and oozing chocolatey goodness straight out of the oven. The flavor tweaks in both the mussels and the chocolate pots are straight from me.

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INGREDIENTS
30 mussels
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
Lemon juice
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

METHOD
Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving yourself much manual labor and irritation. Sort and rinse them well, going by that old rule of thumb to throw away any raw mussels that are open.

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Add the garlic, shallot and cayenne in some olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven on your stovetop. Put a sprinkle of sea salt on top, and cook about 10 minutes, until the garlic and shallot are sizzling and have softened.

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Put the cleaned mussels into the pan and stir, to get all the flavors combined. Add the wine, clam juice, and broth, stir again, and put the lid on, so the mussels can steam. Stir after 2 minutes, then cover again and let cook another good 15 minutes.

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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Make sure the mussels have all opened wide in the steam. If any remain closed, throw them away. Remove pan from heat, and then add the beaten egg to the half-and-half, mix together, and stir into the hot mussels in the pan. It makes for a nice, slightly creamy but not heavy, sauce.

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Decant the mussels into bowls, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve with nice, buttered baguette slices, which are useful for soaking up the fantastic mussel sauce.

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If you still have room in your tummy, eat the delectable chocolate pudding cake, which is simply 4 ounces of melted, good-quality dark chocolate and 1 stick of unsalted butter also melted, mixed together with 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of regular flour, then poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 400F for 20 minutes, and eaten hot. Sooooooo good, and nary a a mussel to be found in the chocolate!

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Food in Films – Coco

El Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead in English – is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the spirits of our beloved dead. It is far more complex than that, but who among us can’t relate to having lost a loved one, missing them, and wanting to honor their spirits? I know I do. Having lost both my parents, most of my beloved grandparents including my Nana Jean who raised me and who I loved more than any human on this earth, my first love just a few months back, as well as my sweet pug baby Sparky, I can well understand and relate to the themes in the film Coco.

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Death is part of life. That is an unarguable fact. How death itself is seen, however, and how it is conceptualized, is as varied as the cultures across the world. The concept of El Dia de los Muertos as we understand it currently comes predominantly from Mexico, and has its roots in ancient sun worship by the Aztecs as well as Catholic rituals brought from Spain by the conquistadores, as evidenced by the fact that El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints and All Souls Days on the Catholic calendar. Obviously, this is a very simplified version of the meaning of the day, but I could write 50 blog posts about the meaning of death and the cultural concept and constructs of El Dia de los Muertos, and that isn’t happening. Anyway, the overall idea is to honor the dead by celebrating them with food, drink, music, and parties, since death is considered only another part of life and on this day, the dead come back to celebrate with us.

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Coco embodies this concept so beautifully. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that me, a grown woman, had a major ugly cry at the end of this film, so closely did it hit me in the heart, both when Mama Coco remembers and engages with the world again, and when her spirit is reunited with her father. I loved my grandmother, Nana Jean, so very much and losing her was like losing a limb. I think when you lose someone you love so much that a part of your heart dies along with them. In this case, she was my rock, my security, my mother in every possible way, my source of advice, my teacher, my mentor. So the idea of a grandmother, locked in her own senility and her own memories of loss, and the wonderful journey of Miguel, the main character, who wants to become a musician very badly, really hit home. He is forbidden to pursue his music due to his great-great grandfather (a musician as well) having supposedly abandoned his family when young and turning the family against music.

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Miguel lives with his shoemaker family, including his elderly great-grandmother Mama Coco, who has lost most of her memory and sits in a wheelchair. On El Dia de los Muertos, the family makes an altar with photos of their beloved dead relatives, marigold wreaths, food and drink that the dead loved, candles, and many other items. (This is actually my permanent altar that I keep year-round so it gives you an idea of what they can look like.)

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Miguel accidentally takes a photo of his great-great grandmother and tears it, seeing a torn-off part of the photo that leads him into his next great adventure. He needs a guitar for a music competition so he heads over to the enormous crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz, Mexico’s most famous musician, and whom Miguel believes to be his long-lost dead great-great grandfather, where he takes Ernesto’s iconic guitar and subsequently enters the Land of the Dead. Being that it is right around El Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, November 1, the dead are allowed to visit for the day and see the altars and ofrendas their families make for them. He meets up with Hector, another long-dead musician who offers to show him around the Land of the Dead, and they get into many hilarious scrapes and funny adventures. Of course, if you have any kind of brain at all, you figure out pretty quickly that Hector is really Miguel’s great-great grandfather.

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The most touching part of the film is when Miguel returns from the Land of the Dead with the song that Mama Coco learned from her father and is the only thing she really still remembers. She and Miguel sing it and her memory returns. It is so incredibly beautiful. The entire film is visually stunning, in addition to tugging at your heartstrings, and I particularly loved how respectful of the Mexican culture it really is. In this time of such ugliness and hatred toward those of Mexican background and ethnicity, the joy and beauty and love demonstrated in this film gives me hope.

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Pan de los muertos – bread of the dead – is a dense, orange-flavored cake made each year and set on altars in honor of the dead, who are believed to come back just that one day to visit their families, enjoy offerings made in their honor, and enjoy food and drink of the living for one night. Traditionally it is made in the shape of a skull and crossbones, though I’ve seen in made in the shape of coffins, graveyards, crosses and skeletons, and I think nowadays you could make your pan de los muertos in any shape you desire. I made mine in a skull-shaped cake pan and used it as part of my altar I have every year with photos of my Nana, my parents, and others I have loved and lost.

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INGREDIENTS
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup full-fat milk, room temperature
1/2 cup lukewarm water
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 packages active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons anise extract (you can use anise seeds but I hate them because they get stuck in my teeth)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons orange extract
1/2 cup sugar
Zest of 3 clementines
4 eggs, room temperature

For the orange glaze:
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups grated clementine zest
1/2 cup orange juice

METHOD
Over medium heat, warm the butter, milk and water until the butter melts. Don’t let it burn.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid mixer, combine 1/2 cup of the flour, the yeast, the salt, and the sugar.

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Slowly beat in the warm milk, the orange, vanilla and anise extracts, and orange zest until well mixed.

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Add eggs, one at a time, mixing through.

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Slowly add in another 1 cup of flour, and continue adding flour until you have a soft, but not sticky dough, then turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for at least 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Add a bit of warm water if the dough seems dry. Form the dough into a ball.

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Wrap in plastic, cover with a tea towel, and leave to rise in a warm area until it doubles in size, probably around 2 hours.

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Preheat the oven to 350F, unwrap the dough and push it into your skull pan, pressing so that it fills in all the nooks and crannies. Bake for 30 minutes and remove from oven to cool.

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In another saucepan over medium heat, combine the rest of the sugar, the orange zest and the orange juice until it just boils and the sugar dissolves. Whisk to stir but don’t leave because the sugar burns easily. Remove from heat so it thickens.

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Turn the bread out onto a platter that shows off the skull shape, and brush the orange glaze all over it so it’s glossy and shiny. Decorate with marigolds if you so desire.

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Lay on your altar and eat a slice while remembering those you love who have passed on, knowing that they, too, will be enjoying the sweet bread while they are here visiting.

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