Julia Child sheds light on quality of all-purpose flour in US vs. France in the 1950s-1960s

After watching the first season of Julia on HBO in the last couple of months, my appreciation and admiration of Julia Child has grown immensely. Though I’d always respected her and thought she was fun and quirky, I never realized before exactly how ahead of her time she truly was. So after watching the show, I decided to read her memoir, published shortly after she passed and co-written with her husband’s grand-nephew, called Julia Child: My Life in France.

One interesting thing I’ve learned while reading it that I never really thought much about before was the nutritional value of something as basic as all-purpose white flour across different countries. I suppose at a superficial level, I’d thought about what “wheat” is in the U.S. vs. say, in Italy, because a lot of people who claim to have gluten allergies/problems in the U.S. travel to Italy and find that they can somehow eat copious amounts of pasta there and have zero negative reactions. But I didn’t actually think about the vitamins and minerals and how that composition would be different. Julia brings this up in her memoir as she (based in the U.S.) and her writing partner Simca (based in Paris) are testing out recipes for what would eventually become her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. They are corresponding via phone and snail mail about their endless tests on making bread, and they can never reach the same baked result and are frustrated as to why. But then, they both realize that the reason they cannot get the same result… is that their raw ingredients are just NOT the same in quality.

For one, Julia remembers that while she lived in France, anytime she had flour in the house, it had a very short shelf life and would go rancid within 2-3 months in the pantry, attracting endless maggots, which was actually a sign of pride for the French, she claimed. The reason for this is that it was an indicator of exactly how fresh the flour was. In contrast, the all-purpose flour she used in the U.S. could last years on the shelf, with nothing going “off” about it. The main reason for this is that in the U.S., the focus was less on keeping the ingredient (in this case, wheat flour) in its purest and thus most nutritious form; the primary goal was to keep the shelf life as long as possible. But in order to get to that hyper shelf-stable state, the flour would have to go through intense processing and heat treatments, which would ultimately reduce the nutritional profile of the flour. And that was why French flour was not American flour, and why they could not get the same results from baking using the same recipe in their two countries.

In other words, the majority of all-purpose flour in the U.S. is just empty calories. While it does have some nutrition, such as certain levels of B vitamins, folate, selenium, riboflavin, niacin, manganese, and phosphorus, it pales in comparison to flour you find on the shelves in most of the rest of the world, especially countries in the EU that actually care about what they put into their bodies.

This brief section of her book made me so sad. I mean, who doesn’t want to believe that when they eat chocolate chip cookies in the U.S. that there has to be some redeeming quality to the cookie in the form of some nutritional value from the flour…?

“My Mom is Great” book for Pookster

The other day in our building library, I found a children’s book called My Mom is Great, so I thought Pookster might like it. I brought it to her and showed her the title. When I said the title, she responded, “Mummy book? Mummy book?” And I said, yup! And I asked if she wanted to read it, and she agreed. We read through it once. She asked me to read it “again?” So, I read it a second time. Then, after the second reading, she grabbed it from me and started turning the pages, mumbling things to herself, and then insisted she go to bed with it. I tucked her in, and she made sure the book was lying right next to her, with Peter Rabbit on the other side. She was especially needy that night, insisting I lie down with her, and that I had to be there until she fell asleep. Even when I turned a bit on the bed next to her, she’d panic and think I was leaving, and insist, “Mummy! Lie down! Lie down!”

The next morning, she was fussy when Chris tried to take the book away at breakfast, so he positioned the book so that it was facing her as she ate breakfast. It was too adorable to watch. It made my heart mushy to think about her getting excited over “mummy book.” I hope she always knows I am trying do the best job I possibly can and be the best example to her. It’s one of my greatest goals.

Chocolate peppermint loaf/cookie mix from Trader Joe’s: the verdict is positive!!

A few weeks ago, I was reading about this infamous Trader Joe’s boxed mix for a chocolate peppermint loaf (or chocolate peppermint crackle cookies) that was so popular that it oftentimes would sell out and fully go out of stock by the time December hit. I specifically was drawn by comments from people who said this was a “box mix for people who don’t like mixes,” and I knew I had to get my hands on one box. So I got one, and finally today, I baked it up as crackle cookies topped with powdered sugar for our building staff. In previous years, I always made cookies from scratch, along with pumpkin bread, as a show of appreciation while handing out Christmas tips, but this year, I was pressed for time. So this would have to do. It was super quick to whip up: all I did was add some coconut oil, two eggs, and a little oat milk to thin out the batter since it was too dry without. I rolled the dough into 1-inch balls, dusted them with powdered sugar, and baked them for 12 minutes at 350 F. And they came out amazingly well! The cookies had a beautiful crackle on top and were like a cross between a cookie and a brownie. They also had a nice, rich chocolatey flavor, with just enough peppermint to not be overbearing. I could definitely get behind these!

Next year, assuming this box mix is still available, I might even get two boxes so that I could try it out as a sweet bread loaf, as well!

An expectedly delicious acai bowl at breakfast yesterday

Yesterday, I was invited to breakfast with the president of our company, plus three sales reps who all live in the general northeast region of the U.S. With breakfast work meetings, I am never sure what I will ever order. On weekdays, I usually barely eat anything for breakfast, so indulging in something like poached eggs with bacon always seems far too over the top for me. On the other hand, I generally hate ordering oatmeal in restaurants. Sometimes, I do this, but it’s only when I’ve had heavier meals the previous day and just need something light but nutritious to sustain me. Plus, I know how to make good, creamy oatmeal, and it always feels wrong to pay $15-20 for it, even if I am able to expense it to my company.

So yesterday, I ordered the acai bowl with mixed berries and a skinny latte. I realized that since acai has become all the rage that I’ve actually never ordered an acai bowl ever. I’ve experimented with different versions at home, and I’ve also had it blended into smoothies. I actually loved this acai bowl and couldn’t figure out how it was so creamy and rich… and then I went back to the menu description and realized that they just blended peanut butter into the acai. That was simple and delicious, perhaps something that Pookster might be open to, as she loves peanut butter, but she has yet to warm up to smoothies (she’s only had some homemade mango lassi once, and rejected anything else I’ve blended into that consistency to date). Almond or cashew butter could also work pretty well. So this ended up, unexpectedly, becoming inspiration to me for making at home, as I remember I still have a few frozen packets of acai in our freezer.

The other thing that struck me about this breakfast meeting out was that my portion of breakfast was probably around $30 once you factored in tax and tip. The acai bowl itself cost $18, which is really steep. Some people call it inflation in these times. I just call it price gauging masquerading as “inflation.”

Appam mix in India: just ground rice, lentils, and yeast

What always puzzled me about mixes I’d see that were imported from India was that you would rarely see any artificial colorings or ingredients on the ingredients list the way you do here in the U.S. You would simply see the ingredients you’d expect to see. For example, appam, a rice/lentil based hopper that is popular in the state of Kerala, is traditionally made with ground rice and lentils, fermented with toddy, but in modern times, people use yeast. If you saw a mix like this made in the U.S,, it would probably have all these weird preservatives, artificial colorings and flavor enhancers. But the mix I got for almost nothing at a Hypermarket in Kochi when we were there in June just had three ingredients listed: ground rice, ground lentils, and yeast. Nothing more, nothing less. I also noticed the expiration date meant the shelf life of this mix would be far shorter than anything made here, but maybe that was the point: it’s fine to have mixes in India, but you just have to use them within a shorter period of time to ensure it doesn’t go rancid, plus it doesn’t NEED anything to preserve it to last longer.

So I used it today, simply adding some sugar, a pinch of salt, water, and 1/2 cup of coconut milk. The batter easily rose and grew poofy. I was out of practice making appams, though, and had to add a lot more water to get the right crepe-like consistency of the batter. But when I finally got that right, plus the temperature of the appam pan, the batter sizzled on contact with the pan, plus the nice lacy edges we associate with appams started appearing. I was getting back into practice with this process, and it was so much fun!

So I suppose my vilification of pre-made mixes is really just about American ones with all their gross preservatives and artificial flavorings and ingredients. I can definitely get behind the Indian mixes more fully and more often!

First time making challah in years, and it’s glorious

On Thursday, I tested out the last two of my six dry active yeast packets that I purchased right before Kaia’s birth, and to my delight, they were both still active and very much alive. That means that my success rate was 5 for 6; only one of the six packets I purchased was actually a goner. These last two would be used to make two fat challah loaves. I couldn’t even remember the last time I made challah, but every time I make it, I get so, so happy. I love how the dough poofs up and gets huge and pillowy. I especially love the process of braiding the strands. Doing a double egg wash, then topping with sesame or poppy seeds always makes me feel so satisfied. This time around, I added some whole wheat flour to make the bread a little more nutritious (hopefully that’s not too offensive to any Jews reading this!), and it worked out really well: the loaves baked up super big, puffy, golden brown, and the crumb was extremely soft, tender, and moist. The whole wheat flour gave the bread a nice, subtle nuttiness, not to mention a pale tan sheen to the crumb that I wasn’t quite used to (it’s usually more on the yellowish/beige side because of the eggs in the dough). Chris declared it one of the best loaves I’d made.

You don’t have to be Jewish to love and appreciate challah. You just need to love good food made with TLC.

Tweaked my back while picking up my toddler = PAINFUL

Somehow, I’ve managed to last almost two years of having a child in my house, constantly picking her up and putting her down, twirling her around and around, without ever tweaking my back or pinching any nerves… until today. Yep, today was the fateful day when I finally picked her up to change her diaper, and I immediately felt a tweak in the lower middle part of my back. At first, I thought, aw, that’s okay. It’s just a little nothing. And then, as I started moving and walking around, I realized…. nope. It’s not nothing. It IS something. Every time I sat down and got up from the sitting position, my lower back would twinge, and it was like a nerve was being pinched sharply. We went out to the Columbus Circle holiday market and when I attempted to lift the stroller, that was when I knew: there was absolutely NO way I was going to be able to help carry this stroller up and down the subway with Chris’s help. It was not happening today. So while we had plans to have dinner in Alphabet City with our friends, we asked them to improvise. Instead, we got takeout from a local spot and had them over at our apartment. It also made it easier with things like letting Pookster roam around after she finished eating, getting her to bed, and not rushing our catch-up with them.

Chris helped me with some stretches to work out the kinks in my back and applied and rubbed in some tiger balm. Our friends were gracious and went with the flow (and insisted I take a strong pain killer, which I happily did after we finished eating!). In the end, I felt better than I did earlier in the day. But this made me realize a few things: one, I’d really like to get back into the groove of hosting friends over for meals once again. I miss having big meals to prepare and cook for and more mouths to feed and experiment on. I also love the idea of having people over for dinner on a Saturday because we have no pressure to leave at a certain time to get Pookster to bed. We’re in the comfort of our own home, so we don’t have to think about transport back home. Two, I am thankful for a life partner who helps me with my stretches and tweaked back (and unfortunately, intimately knows what it feels like). Three, I’m also thankful for friends who can change plans with little notice and be sympathetic to ridiculous, unforeseen situations like this. Life is pretty good, even with a tweaked back.

Meeting Pailin from Hot Thai Kitchen here in New York City

I’ve been following Hot Thai Kitchen on YouTube and Instagram for at least the last 7-8 years. Before I “met” Pai on Hot Thai Kitchen, I used to think that Thai food was really complex and too complicated to cook at home despite the fact that I really love it. But when I started watching her YouTube videos, I realized pretty quickly that Thai food was just as approachable as Chinese or Vietnamese cooking, and they actually all have quite a lot in common in terms of methods and techniques. There are certainly differences with certain ingredients and the amount of certain ingredients (ahem, chilies!), but they all share a lot in common. So if I could make Chinese or Vietnamese food easily, I could likely do the same for Thai food.

I especially watched a lot of Pai’s videos during the height of the pandemic. I watched carefully when she discussed technique. She’s the main reason I even own a mortar and pestle, as I always thought about buying one before, but she convinced me that I really DID need to own one. So when I found out she was coming to New York, I thought about going… and of course, Chris pushed me to go. He even bought my ticket for the dinner event she hosted this past Wednesday at Som Tum Der, a northern Thai restaurant down in Alphabet City.

The event was far more packed than I imagined — there were likely over 100 people there, and all were huge fans of hers. Some had traveled all the way from D.C., Virginia, and Philadelphia just to have 90 minutes with her. I got to talk to her for maybe 2-3 minutes, and while time was tight and it did feel rushed, I was happy I went and got to see her in person. She’s just as sweet and friendly in person as she is in her videos – definitely authentic to her brand. I loved how she talked during the main discussion about how her two brothers were the real reason Hot Thai Kitchen even came into existence, and that if it weren’t for her younger brother pushing her (and even naming the channel) back in YouTube’s infancy days, HTK likely would not exist today.

Pai is definitely an inspiration. And I also loved chatting with her fans in person, as they are all people who clearly love food, especially Thai food, and actually cook! I need more friends who cook and are passionate about cooking!

Manner wafer biscuits: the best damn wafer biscuit in the whole world from Austria

Until I was 28 years old, I had no idea why wafer cookies/biscuits were so popular. My grandma had quite a sweet tooth, so we always had all kinds of packaged cookies at home growing up. This vast cookie selection included wafer biscuits, which I never really understood. The ones she used to buy always had a weird, cardboard-like texture, seemed semi-stale, and were rarely satisfying in the least bit. The flavor was always muted, some form of vanilla or chocolate, and I always wondered how anyone could think these things were tasty. They seemed like the kind of cookie you’d eat when you were just hungry and needed something to eat, rather than something you looked forward to eating because of how delicious it was.

Then, while in Vienna, Austria, during our European Thanksgiving trip in November 2014, my outlook of the wafer biscuit changed forever. Every market or grocery store we went into had these Manner wafer biscuits on display in this bright pink packaging that was hard to miss. The packaging was simple: bright pink with a picture of the wafer biscuits along with whole hazelnuts, along with the name “Manner” written in cursive letters, with the Vienna Rathaus in the background. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try them, so I bought a few packages. They were also super cheap — one of the few items in Austria at the time I actually thought WERE cheap.

I opened a package and took one bite… and was wowed. Each layer of the wafer biscuit was super thin, very crispy, and the hazelnut flavor was extremely distinct within the chocolate. There’s no way that if you knew what hazelnut tasted like that you wouldn’t know there was hazelnut in those thin chocolate wafers. And in that moment, I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t like wafer biscuits… it’s that I just never had the opportunity have a REALLY GOOD wafer biscuit. None of the wafer biscuits I’d had to date came even remotely close to how delicious this one was, in both taste and texture. In that moment, I’d had finally had a delicious wafer biscuit — one that I’d be loyal to forever.

Manner has several other flavors for their wafer biscuits, including lemon and coconut, but I’m an originalist with these wafers and prefer the hazelnut. Plus, I just love love all things hazelnut chocolate. I read more about Manner after I had these. While they do distribute to over 50 countries around the world, including the U.S., of course the biscuits cost more elsewhere outside of Austria. To this day, it is still a family-owned company headquartered out of Vienna with another production location in southern Austria. The company is named after Josef Manner, the founder of this delicious version of the wafer biscuit.

So when we did that six-hour side trip to Vienna from Bratislava on Friday, we saw a Manner shop, and I knew we had to go in and check it out. I picked up a few Manner biscuit packages, along with some chocolates you buy by the weight. Although it was a small purchase, it made me so, so happy. Manner made me realize how delicious a wafer biscuit could really be. And that’s really how I see most people’s perspectives on what they like and dislike with food: many times, it’s not that we don’t like X food; it’s actually that we haven’t had the best version of it. That’s my optimistic side when it comes to all things edible.

Quirky statues in Old Town Bratislava

One of the quirky things I learned about Bratislava is that in an era post Communism and after Slovak independence, the local government wanted to change the image of Bratislava to be more welcoming and to bring people back to the old town district. To do that, they decided it would be fun to install a bunch of quirky, thought-provoking sculptures and statues, which included the very famous Cumil the sewage worker. “Cumil” in Slovak means “watcher,” — he is alternatively known as “Cumil the peeper” or “Cumil the Sewage Worker”, as he appears with his head poking out of a sewer just a block away from the main square.

Kaia found Cumil particularly curious. She kept staring at him and walking around him, and even kicked him once or twice, likely to see if he were real. It was a fun, unique sight during our Bratislava trip, and one that was definitely different from most statues we see during our travels.