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Sunday in the Kitchen

Last night, M le Neveu came for dinner by himself. (Ms NOLA is still in Paris, making eggplant soup for her hostess.) I was going to fry some chicken and roast sweet potatoes in the way that he's very fond of, and of course I baked him a chocolate cake. But I poured the batter into pans that were too wide from the extremely light sour-cream layers. Too broad and insufficiently thick, one of the layers simply disintegrated when I tried to get it from the cooling rack onto the other layer. The thick ganache frosting widened the cracks instead of sealing them, pushing the layer apart. My desire to continue cooking evaporated, and we decided to go across the street for Mexican.

It seems that I have arrived at a point in my culinary career in which failure is truly unacceptable. How could I have failed to produce a good-looking cake? (It tastes great, but who cares about that. Cakes are about presentation. I don't know why I used to the wrong pans. It may have had something to do with cooking on Sunday, something I'm just not in the mood to do anymore. I cook on Monday. Did I mention that the cake and the frosting consume one entire bar of Scharfenburger chocolate? That's $10.49 right there.

Perhaps I ought to have stayed in the kitchen. I went out onto the balcony - it was a glorious day here in New York, if cool enough to warrant Kathleen's bundling her legs in a fleece blanket - and finished Martha McPhee's L'America. It left me fairly depressed, if in the exalted way that art has of being depressing. The heroine dies in the North Tower on 9/11, but her daughter marries the son of her great love, an Italian banker. That marriage happens weirdly in the future, 2017 or something. Beth (the heroine) and Cesare (the banker from Lombardy) meet on a Greek island when they are very young, and they fall terribly in love. It is the kind of love that causes the rest of the world to cease to exist. But of course the world does continue to exist, and, problematically, there are two worlds to contend with. Cesare and Beth are rooted to their native soil. Cesare cannot deviate from the course that has been plotted for him, and because that course doesn't include an American wife, he never seriously asks her to marry him. So she stays in New York and has a career in food. Beth's dying, although it has nothing to do with Cesare, seems tragic nonetheless, perhaps because it releases Beth from her undying, impossible love.

There are times when L'America seems headed for preciousness, and there are times when one wearies of Beth and Cesare simply because, like all great lovers, they have no sense of humor. But Ms McPhee's highly recursive prose evokes enough intimations of grand passion to assure that we'll forgive her and, what's far more important, believe in her characters. There are times when L'America is thrilling. Sometimes the lovers seem like champions of their very different cultures, meeting on the field of honor to wage a duel. The stylish propriety of Cesare's world, which fascinates Beth at first, when she's a high school exchange student, rebuts everything candid and casual about the unstructured lives of American teenagers.

As for the food writing, of which there's a great deal toward the end, I couldn't help feeling relieved that I've never had to work in a restaurant, either in the kitchen or in the front of house. I don't know how people do it, really; the idea of all that physical work terrifies me. I wouldn't make it through a day. If something didn't come out just right, I'd quit. I'd want to, anyway.

At the same time, I was reminded of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Ms McPhee's restaurant writing did not quite rise to the level of "The Generator," the chapter in Mr Franzen's novel in which Denise Lambert - also bankrolled by a wealthy retriever type - sets up and then loses a top-tier restaurant in Philaldelphia, briefly bumping her head against the clouds of celebrity. Denise is also the one Lambert family member who suffers a maddening love, another link to Beth. I would have to say that Denise is the more fully realized character. But Ms McPhee's tale of Beth and Cesare reads like the rich restatement of an ancient myth.


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Scharffen Berger is excellent chocolate, but I think colossally overpriced for cooking. For baking, I'd recommend pâtissier slabs of Valrhona (one of my favorite chocolates anyway) or Callebaut, if you can find them. If you can't, Trader Joe's has regular 100g bars of Valrhona at a very reasonable price.

The best chocolate bar I have ever had, I think, is Teuscher 77%, which runs about $10 for a 100g bar... This site gives it a mixed review, saying that "the sweet tooth will probably despise it," which is music to my ears.

I think that the majority of people who claim to love chocolate actually just love sweets, and only vaugely enjoy chocolate. When confronted with a full-on chocolate lilke Teuscher 77 or Valrhona Noir Amer, they are repulsed. I personally can't stand overly candyish chocolates, and believe that white chocolate is practically a crime against humanity.

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