The term bitter, when associated with food, has never whet my appetite. Bitter, like sour, leans towards the negative. “She made a sour face.” “He is a “bitter” person. Unlike sweet or savory (unami), I think of bitter as an acquired taste that does not easily enthuse. So when I ran across Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, I was intrigued. And I was not disappointed.
Bitter is one of the most interesting and exciting cookbooks I’ve ever read, with adventurous recipes that show us how to poach fruit in tea custard, boil mussels in beer, roast squab in dark chocolate, simmer pork chops in a coffee black currant sauce, can orange whisky marmalade, and whip up many other exotic dishes with unexpected food combinations. The book explains that not all bitter tastes are alike, and categorizes bitterness in five chapters: Born To Be Bitter, Liquid Bitter, Pungently Bitter, Subtly Bitter, and Dark, Forbidden and Very Bitter. And more than just recipes, this book is loaded with fascinating facts and anecdotes about everything bitter and beyond.
It’s no fun to write about a cookbook without first tackling a recipe, so for this review I turned to the Pungently Bitter chapter and fried up the Brussels Sprouts, Bacon, and Chestnuts dish (shown in cover photo above). With only five ingredients and a few simple steps, I ended up with a multi-flavored delicious lunch in less than 30 minutes. I never knew that brussels sprouts were considered bitter, and realize how unfair I’ve been in my prejudice against the world of bitter food. I now look forward to many more bitter adventures in my kitchen and on my table.
My friend Jen Gardner has co-written a gorgeous recipe book called Meringue, which is all about the featherweight delicacy that turns desserts into works of art. I asked Jen if I could include an excerpt that discusses the history and science of meringue, and she kindly gave me permission.
Egg whites. Sugar. A pinch of cream of tartar or a dash of vinegar. And air.
Meringue. How can something be so simple, so divine, and yet so intimidating at the same time?
We both fell in love with meringue the same way. Though we grew up thousands of miles apart it was the first bite of our mothers’ lemon meringue pie, the fluffy topping still warm from the oven atop sweet lemon curd that made us swoon. But it was years before we fully realized how many different forms meringue could take -- and we were hooked for life. For Linda, it was the addictive meringue gelato at the world famous gelateria Vivoli in Florence; for Jennifer, it was a cloud-light meringue torte, le Vacherin, while living in Paris.
Our paths finally merged at a potluck “feast” at our children’s preschool. We spotted the desserts first -- Linda’s tiny, light-as-cloud meringue cookies flecked with chocolate, and Jennifer’s raspberry meringue tartlets -- amidst the store-bought cakes, cookies and one sad frozen lasagna. As the adults elbowed their toddlers out of the way to get to our desserts, our eyes met, smug smiles in check. It was friendship at first sight.
We always get the same reaction when we serve meringues. It seems that because they are so delicate and look so elegant, everyone -- even our friends who are experienced bakers -- assumes they are difficult to make. Not so. They may look intimidating, but they are actually quite simple to make. Even those with little or no baking experience can quickly master meringue.
Meringue is magical. It is incredibly versatile. It can be spooned onto pies, or piped into any number of beautiful shapes. It can be baked or poached, whipped into silky frostings, or folded into cakes to make them fluffier. It can be combined with ground nuts, chocolate or any number of flavorings. It can be formed into various vessels for Chantilly cream and fresh berries. And that’s just the beginning. We hope that Meringue will encourage you to embrace meringue as we have, and that it inspires you to create heavenly creations of your very own.
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