Sunday, July 24, 2011

Food is Love

In case you haven’t caught on by now, let me be clear about one thing:

I really love food. 

As a younger child, Rainbow Sherbet and I had a long-standing and (I thought) mutual love for each other, but when I was 8, my cold, cold heart was stolen by another ice cream: Coffee with a Bailey’s Swirl.  I was positively taken by it, whisked off my innocent young feet. It made such an impact on my young palate that I can still show you today where the Baskin Robbins was where said ice cream was procured, although I'm sure the store is no longer still there. Coffee with a Bailey’s Swirl was so sophisticated and worldly and adult, and let’s be honest – a little naughty. It had Bailey’s in it. Like so many love affairs, it wasn’t good for me, but it was good. 

In junior high school, I had a committed two-year relationship with a particular Gourmet recipe for Oatmeal-Walnut-Chocolate Chip muffins, which quickly moved from infatuation to an established breakfast relationship. Those muffins were simultaneously delightful and a bit too much, like a boyfriend who is wonderfully kind and generous but overly doting. I wanted those muffins passionately for a long while and then I suddenly, without notice, got completely sick of them. They were really too much, too rich, too dense, like lead in my stomach. They were also a bit...dry. 

And then there are the foods I think of fondly, not so much because of my wild passion for them, but because they are so comforting and kind, like the boyfriends who were really good to me (in spite of myself). Great guys but guys who were never really going to push back. Like homemade egg salad sandwiches on wheat toast. I’ll never be in love with egg salad sandwiches, but I will always think of them fondly. They have, at times, satisfied me at my hungriest.  

Just as with non-food love, it’s not all commitment and stability and long-term relationships. There are also the brief entanglements and one-night stands, the ones that spark the mind and the heart, for better or worse. They are like time capsules in my mind – this smell, that light, this feeling – all united in a single moment.  Naturally, they’re not all good.  The gorgonzola gnocchi in Rome eaten al fresco in the Piazza Pasquino was a rocky affair I’d rather not repeat. Like a truly bad relationship, that one hurt physically, if not psychically.

But the affairs that were really, really good, those that pulled at my heart and at the same time, opened my mind in a way that taught me something new about food and myself, they are the memories I come back to, that I fantasize about.

There aren’t many of those, the really, really good ones. It takes a mysterious combination of environment, experience, and emotion to create one, and as in romantic love, not something you can predict or plan for. It just happens. You just have to be open to it.

Thirteen years ago, I had duck pappardelle in Florence, at Trattoria Cammillo. I say this without irony: that meal changed my life. It was in that moment that I became a “foodie,” before I even knew what a “foodie” was. It was in that moment that I became an adult (insofar as food was concerned, at least). I remember that pappardelle like it was yesterday, the tender but toothsome chunks of duck breast and thigh, the ribbons of homemade pasta just barely sauced in duck gravy and the slightest bit of tomato. I can, to this day, see the plate in my mind’s eye. This simple dish was quite possibly the very best thing I’ve ever eaten. I am hard pressed to think of another that can compare. It was an epiphany.

A trip to Spain and Portugal a few years ago elicited another food love affair, this one sparked in Barcelona. While not as monumental an experience as the pappardelle, this one has also stuck with me, in the back of my mind. It’s the one that got away.

There’s a little chocolate shop not far from the Picasso Museum (which has a fantastic collection, incidentally) called Xocoa. And at Xocoa, they sell Basil Chocolate Chip Cookies.

It was love at first bite.

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

These marvels of earthly delight were like Toll House cookies, except with a curious depth of flavor and earthiness from the bits of basil in the batter. They absolutely blew my mind.

In the five days we were in Barcelona, I went back to Xocoa multiple times to get more. I was infatuated, a woman obsessed. I brought a box home on the plane but they didn’t even make it all the way over the Atlantic Ocean before I’d eaten every last one. I could not get enough.

And then the affair was over. I got back to the States, to my regular life, my regular food routine, and kind of forgot about them. They were a vestige of another time, another place, perhaps a dream.

I’m not sure what made me think of them again, earlier this month, all these years later. It may have been during an evening out, when my date and I were trading stories of our mutual love for Barcelona. It may have been when I saw the big bunches of fresh, summer basil at Whole Foods. Whatever it was, it happened.  I just knew I had to revisit the Basil Chocolate-Chip cookie.

It’s funny, because I do this in love relationships, too. Boyfriend #3 was also boyfriend #5 and #8. Boyfriend #10 was also #12.

Yes, I also like Greatest Hits albums.

It was time to bring this food memory home. Obviously, flying to Barcelona on a moment’s notice was not in the cards (but oh how I would love it if it was).  My other (real life) option was to try to make them.

I can make cookies. I have access to basil. And I had memorized the ingredients of those magical cookies: flour, sugar, egg, butter, salt, baking soda, basil, chocolate chips.

How hard could this be?

Harder than you might think.

Here is my second attempt, with some notes. The first attempt was actually a couple of years ago in my annual Christmas Cookie blitz. I used milk chocolate chips which was way wrong. So I like to pretend that attempt never happened because it was terrible.

I cannot consider this recipe complete yet because (cue Bono) I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. 

I set about preparing the basil first. It was almost imperceptible in the original cookies so I elected to chiffonade it and then chop it into tiny bits. To do this, you first stack the basil leaves.

Then you roll up the leaves, like a basil cigar. 

And slice thinly, making pretty basil ribbons.

I used a full cup of basil this go-round. Perhaps a bit less next time. I'm not sure. 

The cookies proceed as usual from here. Cream butter and sugar. 

I added the eggs and vanilla and after a quick mixing, added the basil. Should I add the basil at this stage or with the chocolate chips? Maybe next time I'll try adding it at the end. 

The flour mixture gets added, then the chips get thrown in. And here's our dough. 

I ate more of this dough than I would like to admit. It was addictive.

And here is the finished product. I give it a C+. The cookies spread entirely too much and were not puffed and crispy but flat and kind of chewy. The basil flavor was good but overall these were disappointing, much in the same way a bad kiss can be. Full of so much promise and potential. Until it happens. And then it's kind of a bummer. 

People loved these but they weren't what I had in mind. But I'm nothing if not an optimist. To borrow from Cinderella, "someday, my prince will come." 

And by "prince", I mean "perfect basil chocolate chip cookie recipe."

Just so we're clear. 


Jennifer J said...

Going to have to try this recipe, for sure.

As I was reading this, I realized that I totally went to Xocoa in Barcelona too, in 2006, and loved it! I didn't have a cookie, but I did enjoy this deluxe treat:

Oh yes, that was good chocolate

Kate said...

OMG, Jenn! This picture from your flickr has my favorite chocolate bar from Xocoa in it: Jamaican Pepper (all the way on the upper left).

It is incredible!

Jennifer J said...

And, now I'm officially craving good chocolate! :)