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28 Feb

Fondue and choucroute with the Big Hominid – It’s been over two weeks since my last entry, and once again food is the catalyst to get me writing again. This past Saturday, Kevin of Big Hominid fame lumbered down to our humble abode out here in the sticks bearing large quantities of sausage, ham, bacon, and various other ingredients. He arrived early and we watched Donnie Darko, a film that warrants an entry of its own (if not more). But I’m not going to get into that here—suffice it to say that I’ve seen it four times now and I still don’t fully get it. On the one hand it rewards repeated viewings, but on the other hand it most certainly isn’t escapist cinema.

“Wine and melted cheese—come on, what more could you want from life?”

With Donnie Darko behind us we set about making a mockery of Choucroute Alsacienne, or Alsatian Sauerkraut. The photo below shows an intermediate stage, after the ham, bacon, and garlic sausage have gone into the sauerkraut, wine, and seasonings.

I would include more photos of the cooking process itself, but I must confess that I didn’t take any. It wasn’t all that exciting to watch anyway—most of the time we stood around trying to decide how much of the recipe we were going to follow and how much we were going to throw out the window. Then it was just a matter of preparing other ingredients while waiting for it to cook (it took a few hours).

When the choucroute reached the final stages of cooking, we began the appetizer, a fondue moitié-moitié, or half-and-half fondue. The two cheeses we used were Gruyère and Emmenthaler (Wikipedia calls this a Fondue Neuchâteloise, but I’m not going to pick nits—my guess is that the term half-and-half is applied to any fondue comprised of two cheeses in more or less equal proportions (note: Kevin has looked at a bunch of French-language recipes and informed me that Wikipedia is correct. The end is nigh.)). Before we get to the actual fondue, though, let me wind back the clock to the day before, Friday, when I baked the bread we were going to use for dipping.

I made my usual “baguette” recipe, which usually makes three loaves, but this time I decided to make four loaves (the fourth loaf I left with my parents-in-law as a sort of “oven tax,” since I have to use their oven any time I want to bake anything). I also decided to braid them, partly to increase the surface area (the more crust the better) and partly because I was bored and thought it would be fun—and indeed it was.

This photograph was taken in bright sunlight for a reason—viewed under fluorescent lighting the loaves looked pale. They probably could have stood to bake a little longer, but my impatience got the better of me. So my quest for the perfect baguette continues. I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that I’ll ever succeed in making a true baguette, but it’s an ideal to shoot for. One technique that I have adopted to make the crusts more solid is to steam the bread as it bakes. This is accomplished by putting a pan full of water in the bottom of the oven. It seems counterintuitive—you would think that by steaming the bread it would stay moist, but it actually makes the crusts harder. I think it might be the same principle that is used in making bagels (which are boiled briefly before being baked).

But I haven’t achieved the perfect crust yet, and I think I know at least one reason why. Kevin brought over a loaf of bread he pilfered from the Cordon Bleu at his school, and it had the perfect crust—deep golden/brown and crackly. As we were eating it, Hyunjin and I wondered how they had achieved such a perfect crust (you know, other than being French bakers). Hyunjin speculated that they had used a glaze, but I quickly ruled that out. An egg glaze does make the crust brown, but it also leaves a sheen. A milk glaze has a similar effect without the same sheen, but whatever you use for the glaze, it is limited to the surface of the bread. I looked closely at a cross-section and saw that the brown crust was actually quite thick—at least two millimeters thick. So it’s clear to me that what the bread needs is more baking time. And this is where the steaming technique comes into play again—the steam seems to prevent the bread from browning as quickly, so I could probably bake it longer without having to worry about it burning. I don’t know if I’ll get the same crackly crust or just end up with a really tough crust (although, the crust on the Cordon Blue bread was rather tough itself), but I think it’s the next step.

Anyway, I left the bread out all day Friday and Saturday to make sure that it was solid enough for fondue. By Saturday afternoon you could bang the bread on the counter and get a distinct rapping sound. I started cutting the loaves up and discovered that braiding them had actually been a pretty good idea, considering what we were going to use the bread for. I just made a single cut lengthwise down the middle of each loaf and then tore the halves apart into little curls that turned out to be perfect for scooping up melted cheese.

And this finally brings us back to the fondue. We used a deep earthenware dish on a burner, and the wine went in first. We used a Chardonnay, the same wine that went into the choucroute (silly me, I forgot that we were halving the recipe and added twice as much wine to the choucroute as we needed). Kevin repeated his mantra as we watched the wine heat up—fondue is all about the timing. Timing is so important in fondue that you can actually tear the fabric of the universe if you screw things up. As you can imagine, we were extra careful. Just as little bubbles started to form in the wine around the edge of the dish, Kevin dumped in the cheese and began stirring. The next three photos show the fondue coming together beautifully. (Yes, Kevin’s hand really is that big.)

One important thing to note about the fondue is something you can see in the background of each photo. We didn’t use all the cheese, and if you look at the cheese left in the stainless steel bowl in the background you can see that it is covered in a white powder. That white powder is cornstarch, and it helps everything come together smoothly.

I know it’s hard to tell from a set of still photographs, but everything did come together smoothly and quickly. It only took a couple minutes to reach what you see in that last photograph, and then it was time to start plunging the bread curls into the cheese bath.

I’m sure I’ve had fondue before, but it’s been so long that I can’t remember what it tasted like. Well, if I had known it tasted like this, I would have done it more often. Or maybe I just never had good fondue. But man this stuff was good. Wine and melted cheese—come on, what more could you want from life? You know, other than a few spare arteries?

At the time I was so preoccupied with the cheesy goodness of the fondue that I didn’t have the opportunity to ponder the deeper meaning of what we had achieved. Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, though, I’ve come to see fondue as a metaphor for my life at the moment. Stay with me here and this will make sense, I promise. Some of you may remember a recent entry in which I talked about my new (or should I say latest) efficiency mode. I’ve been doing a good job sticking to my self-imposed regulations, and I’ve been quite efficient when it comes to work lately. The problem is that my creative output has suffered terribly. Yeah, part of the problem is that it’s hard to be efficiently creative (as Gord pointed out in an email), but mostly it’s just the fact that I feel wiped out when I finish my work for the day. I just have no energy. In fondue terms, I have no cornstarch—nothing to hold everything together.

I mentioned this to Kevin on Saturday and he replied that I probably needed to exercise. He’s right, and now that the weather is starting to get warmer I’m going to start climbing the mountain again. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I think I need more than just exercise. I need focus. My days usually start with me checking my email as I eat breakfast, and then I jump into work. But I don’t think I’m giving myself the time I need in the morning to focus my energy and get my soul in order. So in addition to climbing the mountain, I’m going to take some time out for meditation/prayer. Actually, these two birds can be slain with one stone, since one of my favorite activities is to climb the mountain and spend some time sitting on the top. Not the actual top, of course, since that is usually overrun with men and women in frighteningly coordinated hiking outfits doing violent stretching exercises and shouting “Yaho!” off the side of the mountain, but an open grassy area below the summit where I can look down on the valley below. In fact, I used to take my breakfast up with me and eat it there, after which I just took in the stillness.

This is what I need to get back to. I can’t just be spending all my time sitting at this blasted desk in front of this blasted computer—it’s sucking the life out of me. I need to be whole in body and mind. I need my cornstarch. End tangent.

When we finished off the fondue—including the cheese “nurungji” (i.e., the crispy cheese stuck to the bottom, and no, that’s not a Swiss term)—we spent a little time digesting and then brought out the choucroute. I think we had already eaten most of what we were going to eat by the time I thought to take this photograph.

One of the most pleasant surprises about the dish was how incredible the potatoes tasted. I was expecting the sausage and the sauerkraut to be good, but I hadn’t realized that the potatoes were going to suck up all that goodness as well. Those potatoes right there have to be some of the tastiest taters I’ve ever had.

With out stomachs getting fuller, our thoughts turned once again to photography. Kevin has a new camera here, and he’s still trying to get used to it. I know it must be difficult for him, since he’s probably not used to handling something so long and unwieldy. If I didn’t know him any better, I would say he’s compensating for something.

When we had stuffed as much choucroute into our stomachs as possible, we allowed some more time for digestion (and, in my case, finishing up the wine). Then we had dessert. Yes, we are insane. But it was chocolate cake. There is always room for chocolate cake.

Surprisingly enough, none of us exploded. I was pleasantly stuffed, but not uncomfortable. Kevin hung around for a little longer, presumably to make sure that he was not going to explode either, and then I drove him back to the subway station.

It’s a good thing the next day was Sunday, though. I wasn’t ill or anything, but apparently digesting all that food used up more energy than I thought it would (and I’m sure all that food prep was tiring as well), and I was pretty much useless for the entire day. So I ended up taking the weekend off, which didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing. It was definitely worth it. My thanks go out to Kevin, who provided more than his fair share of the ingredients and left behind enough meat to feed a giant rabbit for a week—not to mention an advance copy of his highly anticipated Water from a Skull (more on that when I get a chance to read through it).

That’s it for today’s entry. Tomorrow is a holiday—I’ve got some work to do, but I will be taking time out to use the rest of the cheese making fondue for my sister-in-law and her husband. So if you notice the fabric of the universe tearing in places, well, you’ll know who to blame.

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