Monday, August 30, 2010

Coffee break

While there's always been coffee around it wasn't until I got married that I paid some attention to the brew itself. I had always liked the smell of both the fresh ground beans (from grocery store Manzanares) and the resulting beverage, and I was aware of the social connotations of "having a cup of coffee". However my parents never drank it alone (their morning drink is 1/4 coffee 3/4 milk), and I mostly endured rather than enjoyed my first cups.

I'm not very sure how those cups were made. Probably espressos and Nescafe... I don't know. Those first 5 years of coffee were self guided (or misguided, should I say) and I don't have any recollection of actually understanding what I was drinking. Just smiling and trying to take the rough from my tongue.

But then I got married. And we received four coffee makers, and I almost got a fifth somewhere else. And then I understood that unlike other beverages (tea would be my reference), the way water and dry ground coffee meet is very important. Or for how long the device allows them to be together before splitting them in beverage and wonderful smelling detritus. And the temperature of the water, or better said, the state of the matter (liquid or steam). And it goes on, with the kind of water and the material of the recipient from which it is drank, and the type of ground (finer or coarser) and, well, with coffee itself.

So, you can leave coffee grounds and water mingle for as long as you wish, and then strain the grounds and have clean coffee on your cup. That's what french press coffee makers do.

Or you can put the ground beans in a strainer and let very hot water go through it. Maybe you measured the water and you're pouring it, making sure it falls all over the strainer or just in one point, so what you have is technically just a coffee pot like this one

with a top removable device, but chances are you have the most common electrical coffee maker, dripping every drop in exactly the same spot of the strainer.

I'm really fond of this kind of coffee makers. They look very friendly and unassuming, I think.

However, plenty of people I know prefer the mixture to be born out of steam. I've gathered that when coffee is made that way, it's called espresso. And you'll need something like this to have one cup of it:

You have to be a fool or to have a heart of stone not to like the looks of the Bialetti. Originally designed in the 1930's, it's still around mostly unchanged and probably somebody had one when you were growing up, regardless of when and where such thing happened. The device itself is quite ingenious too, and how it works wasn't evident to me until one arrived to my door with a ribbon and a wishing you happiness note.

With a side feature, the plugged version that pours down the steam instead of sending it up and allows you to heat milk for a capuccino. This maker yields the most fashionable results, but the charms are lost on me... I hate milk in my coffee.

There are two more types of makers I've never been too close to: the percolators and the vacuum systems. Both have glamor of years past and I hold nothing against them, my lack of knowledge stems from, well, the chance never arouse.

If we were to organize the coffee makers by material, we'd see that all glass, some glass and stainless steel go pretty much regardless of the system, while pottery (and pottery like materials) belong to just one category. If we were to use the source of energy to heat the water (included or excluded), and the container to do that (again, included or excluded), it mimics the materials clusters. Easy to clean, design (would you keep it on sight were someone important come to your home?), even how much they weight and how big they are, are other possible options.

But I have to admit that, for all the beauty some of those makers spread to the world of my kitchen, I grade them by how much I like the resulting beverage. Hand dripping is my absolute winner, and electrical dripping is close second. I can't resist the smoothness of the coffee and the expansive wave of great smell invading my home and staying for hours.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Brief list of mundane pleasures

- watching the whimsical curves of smoke from a freshly brewed cup of tea.

- a shady garden where I least expect it.

- the swish of a pair of pants against my waxed legs.

- getting there from here faster by bike.

- homes smelling of coffee dip brewing and slices of bread toasting.

- turning on the radio and catching a favorite tune from the beginning.

- a nap behind a sunny window, in that state of mind neither asleep nor awake.

- an email from a friend.

- (a few) German movies from the past 12 years.

- browsing old pictures.

- random memories from our 8 years together, daydreaming of the years to come.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Beatle (crap) mania

There are (or have been) an amazing lot of crap theories about the Beatles out there. And today, I'm going to collaborate with one of my own.

This is a picture from the film "Yellow Submarine", made by artist Heinz Edelmann. I love the film, and I've had this picture in a large poster hanging from one wall or another for years. When George Harrison died I looked intently at this picture and I think it foretold the future, although nobody paid attention when it was originally released in 1968.

I'm obviously referring to the fact that the characters are depicted (in distance to the front and amount of color) in their order of passing away.

See? John is totally on the back, we can't see his shoulders, and he's wearing only bright shades of color. That's because (ahem) he died first. We can see a lot more of George, but not his whole chest and he's wearing mostly red, with only some details in black. That's because his turn was second. Paul and Ringo are wearing mostly black; that's because they had to attend their friends' funerals.

Now, according to this poster, there should be an answer for a question nobody cares to ask: who comes next? Both remaining musicians are depicted wearing fairly the same amount of black, though it's hard to say who has more. Ringo being on the front is because he's shorter so it makes sense on its own, and we can see fairly enough of Paul as it is.

Risking an answer is too creepy for my taste, but I guess it makes a good Beatle crap theory. Do you have any bogus theory of your own you'd like to share?

Picture from The New York Times.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Holy cakes!

I don't cook as often as I purposely make people believe, and I admit that the most dreaded question in the evenings is "what do we eat tonight?". Sometimes I just can't seem to pick myself up and get down to cook, and there are lots of things I simply don't think I can do. Despite those misgivings I'm a firm believer of the importance of feeding with food made at home, and I'm an avid reader of blogs of people who share recipes and thoughts around it.

One of those blogs is Katie Quinn Davies' What Katie Ate. Despite some cultural differences I feel very much in tune with her because she lives in Sydney Australia (so right now she's cooking hearty food and not complaining about the heat), because she's not afraid of meat and has a penchant for pies and casseroles, and because she likes berries - OK, that's more of nostalgia on my side, berries remind me of our life in Minnesota.

A few weeks ago she asked her readers to send in some recipes and I dared to share one my home staple dishes, one of those "no think" dinners with enough leftovers for lunch. And holy cakes! She liked it, she made it and she featured it on her blog!

(Click on the screenshot to open her post)

The recipe is very simple but also has a lot of room for improvisation and customization. It seems to me that she added a few ingredients of her choice, and created a whole different dish with more texture and probably a more complex taste than my bare original. It certainly looks more appetizing than what's in my lunchbox right now!

Now I wonder... I don't remember seeing this pie anywhere I've been to, but it's also true this is not haute cuisine. How many regions would claim this simple pie made of stacked slices of ham and cheese as their own?

I hope Australians will, soon. ;-)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fausses biographies

Lately I've been noticing a trend, if it can be called so, in movies of fake biographies. I'm referring to films where the main character is a real life writer, the story covers a time from which there is little knowledge, and it's made up from anecdotes of his or her works.

The first case is Shakespeare in love, a lighthearted comedy that made perhaps to much noise - and therefore many people found disappointing, but in my opinion is growing old very well. New audiences, thankfully spared from all the hype, can laugh at the jokes (both the knowledgeable and the sitcom style) and enjoy the antics of William and Viola without thinking about the Oscars it was awarded. The supporting cast is fantastic, especially the British actors (does Geoffrey Rush have a nationality anymore?) and the side humor is as good, or maybe better, than what's going on with the main plot - which I think is good enough.

The second film is Molière, a French production very much after Shakespeare in love's heart. Romain Duris, a surprisingly versatile actor (remember his intensity as a cultivated henchman in De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté and his post teenager musings as an Erasmus French student in Spain in L'auberge espagnole) plays the role of a terribly bad actor who's in jail for unpaid debts, and he's offered a job as an acting coach and turns out to be a great writer.

The people Molière meets during this time, the dialogues he has and the situations he experiences mimic those of his best known plays: Tartuffo, The bourgeois gentleman, The imaginary invalid and others. The twists and turns are very funny, and I really like the French cinema acting school (if there's such thing). The supporting casting in this film is brilliant, with Laura Morante, Fabrice Lucchini and Ludivine Saigner providing excellent performances that enhance Duris' own.

The third film (yes my dear reader, today we have a third example) is Becoming Jane. A young Jane Austen enjoys writing and is applauded within her family circle, but there's something missing in her work she can't put her finger on. Enter a young gentleman of French name who first despises her but then grows fonder, and after some predictable turns (that is, if you're familiar with Austen's biography) the subtle writer of character studies and keen eye for human relationships is born.

The carefully curated sets and wardrobes are very pleasant, and there isn't much humor in this story but there are moment of deep feelings and warmth. Jane Austen's biography doesn't offer the same blanks Shakespeare and Molière's do, but there's a certain dose of mystery in a seemingly plain life that produced novels that are sold and read two centuries later.


I admit I was surprised to see the negative reactions all three pieces received. They thread in dangerous waters: you need to know some about the life and times of the writers, so those who are unfamiliar are left outside without much to grasp. But if you have more than a passing acquaintance with them (as some Literature teachers have pointed out) they seem superficial, even disrespectful. Becoming Jane goes as far as to commit one of the most heinous crimes a cast director could ever attempt: the actress playing Austen is, gasp, American (the controversy surrounding that decision helped me see that there's an unwritten rule that no British actress should ever attempt to play Josephine March, and no American should reciprocate with Elizabeth Bennet).

So I don't think this trend will grow like weed, but for the next installment count me in. I love them.

Picture one
Picture two
Picture three