Archive for January, 2010

“‘ST. AGNES’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!”

Well actually it wasn’t bitter chill here in Virginia. It was somewhat balmy. In fact I was whooping about the yard in a T-shirt that morning planting, in a squirrel-like fashion, the bulbs I had failed to plant in the Fall, which was appropriate enough as Agnes is the patron saint of gardeners, but bitter chill…not so much.

And having not fasted the day long nor eaten a boiled egg with its yolk removed and stuffed with salt, nor having danced about my bedroom backward waving twigs of rosemary and thyme , neither did I dream of my future husband, but on her day I did remember Agnes by cooking a dinner that would have tasted familiar to her.

You’ve heard the Agnes riff before. Beautiful girl/ wealthy man. Wealthy man wants to marry beautiful girl. Beautiful girl refuses because she is a Christian and has decided to dedicate her life to Christ. Enraged wealthy man denounces girl to authorities after various forms of beastly treatment girl is eventually killed, another martyr to the cause.

So what differentiates Agnes from Lucia or Agatha or Dorothea or anyone of the purported virgin martyrs who died between 25o and 450 AD? Her age. All of the virgin martyrs were young…but Agnes was the youngest. She was only twelve. As Ambrose of Milan observed,”Girls of her age cannot bear even their parents’ frowns and, pricked by a needle, weep as for a serious wound. Yet she shows no fear of the blood-stained hands of her executioners…A new kind of martyrdom! Too young to be punished, yet old enough for a martyr’s crown; unfitted for the contest, yet effortless in victory, she shows herself a master in valour despite the handicap of youth.”

So tonight we remembered Agnes.

First, thanks to the combined efforts of Mario Batali and Alexander Lenard:

Abbacchio alla Romana: Baby Lamb, Roman-Style


  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 cloves garlic, whole, plus 1 clove, finely chopped
  • 2 to 3 pounds young lamb, from the leg, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 T flour
  • 2 large sprigs rosemary
  • 1 T anchovy paste
  • 1 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 cup white wine


In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the olive oil over high heat and add the butter. When the butter melts, add the 2 garlic cloves and saute until it begins to brown. Remove the garlic and add the lamb. Brown the meat on all sides, working in batches if necessary. In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, anchovies, vinegar, and remaining chopped garlic and mix well to combine.

Season lamb with salt and pepper. Then add the flour. Stir until flour is brown, then add the rosemary mixture to the meat and cook over medium-low heat until the vinegar evaporates and the meat is tender. Moisten occasionally with some of the wine. The meat will take about 1 hour to cook.

Courtesy of Apicius a modified version of



  • 500g soybeans with pod, or green beans
  • 50ml fish sauce, or 1/2 tsp salt with 50ml wine
  • 1 tblsp minced coriander leaves (or 1/2 tblsp ground coriander seed)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1/2 minced branch of leek
  • Instructions:
    Cook beans with fish sauces, leek, and spices. Serve. The original recipe also includes 1-2T of oil…I think you can leave it out.

    I served the lamb over millet, a popular grain in Roman times. And for dessert a decided non-Roman recipe (See that butter! Germanic people have to be involved.) made in honor of Agnes.

    Agnesenplatzchen (From Ernst Schuegraf, Cooking with the Saints)

    1 1/3 c. butter

    1/2 c. sugar

    3 c. flour

    Apricot jam

    Combine first three ingredients and work into a smooth dough. Chill dough for 10 minutes. Roll out to 1/4 in thickness and cut into an even number of 2 in rounds. (The recipe then calls for the rounds to rest 30-60 min, but I found that step unecessary.) Bake at 350 F until golden. Spread jam on one circle and cover with another.

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    The Galette de Rois. Merci beaucoup to Veronique and Celine!

    In France the dish of Epiphany is the Galette des Rois, the Cake of the Kings. Like most things French, it is quite simple, unless you start dealing with the foundational garments in which case it becomes incredibly complex and time consuming and in order to cope you find yourself drinking a bottle of wine, questioning the nature of existence, and wondering why the heck you just didn’t buy this at a patisserie.

    Galettes tend to be flat cakes with a serious amount of crust. (In fact in the US we would call them pastries and not cakes, our conception of cake being more aligned with the French gateaux. Galettes are also sometimes cookies but we’re not going to get into that now.) The Galette des Rois is an almond filling (which varies in elaborateness depending upon the recipe) sandwiched between two layers of puff paste.

    Galettes can be as easy or as hard as you like. Dear Robert Farrar Capon in his ever excellent The Supper of the Lamb insists over and over than making puff paste is not hard, just time consuming. I want to believe him…yet I always find myself buying it in the freezer section. It is indeed preferable, as some recipes point out, to buy ALL BUTTER puff paste, because butter is always better, but really it’s your sanity that’s at issue, and I say you do what you have to do to save it. I must point out though that puff paste on the beautiful galette to the right was made by the charming, talented, and clearly blessedly patient Celine, who apparently was only phased by the amount of butter involved. (We were informed that there were 200 GRAMS PER LAYER! (Emphasis the speakers.) I regret to say that after some of the things I baked this Christmas that seemed rather…moderate.)

    Happily when it comes to the filling, it varies in elaborateness as well. Dorrie Greenspan, following the patisseries of Paris, has you make pastry cream and get all complex like. Julie Andrieu, whose recipe my friend Veronique used for the above cake, skips the pastry cream and just has you whiz a bunch of ingredients together to make the almond filling. (Recipe en Francais. Godspeed.) And if you go out and by a can of Solo almond cake filling and doctor it up a bit with some extract and a tot of rum…your cake will be adequate, and you’ll have more time to focus on the importance of Epiphany and why it is that you are making a cake, hiding a fève in it, and making the youngest articulate member of the assembly go under the table.

    A thoroughly modern fève: A playmobil "Jesus"

    Ah yes the fève. Fève in French means a fava bean and traditionally that’s what it was: a fava bean inserted into the cake before baking. The person who gets the bean is crowned king or queen and gets to choose his or her consort and rules over the party.

    The French though, being French and therefore unable to help themselves, have decided to fancy things up. Fèves come in all shapes and sizes now, so varied are they that some people collect them. What does this mean? This means that you can use whatever you want as a fève so long as it is hideable within the cake and you’re okay with the odds of the risk of consumption. The shape I favor is a traditional one, a baby. Representing as it does the baby Jesus, this fève reminds me why it is I am making a cake, hiding a fève in it, and making the youngest articulate member of the assembly go under the table.

    Ah yes, last point, the youngest articulate member…the French, being a people suspicious of the intentions of their nearest and dearest, have an elaborate galette distribution system. The cake is divided into the required number of pieces. Then the youngest articulate member of the party goes under the table, where he or she can’t see what’s going on. The cake distributor points to a piece and calls out, “Who gets this?”, the child under the table shouts out a name, and so it goes until all the pieces are distributed. This system is supposed to ensure no dirty work in the dealings, but as the youngest articulate member is often barely articulate and must be often and vigorously prompted as to who is attending the party and should get a piece…you can see that this technique involves the exploitation of innocence, which does not surprise me, but half of my people are German and another 3/8 are Ligurian and Piedmontese, so I am genetically predisposed toward suspicion in these matters. I will say though that like most things French (apologies, noble progenitors.), it is a heck of a lot of fun.

    Unless there isn’t enough galette for seconds.

    Franco-American child sulks because there isn't enough galette for seconds.

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    Taking Time

    Once in a Christmas Cantata, I sang a song about the Three Wise Men that contained the line, “What we learn from these three wise men is that we must take time.” Good advice.  So I am going to take my time in this season of Epiphany to work through the Epiphany traditions of different countries as they are many and varied.

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    The Adoration of the Magi, Alessandro Botticelli

    January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, is likely the most important feast in the liturgical calendar of which even those raised in the liturgical calendar are ignorant, which is a pity because as the rector of a local Anglo-Catholic parish likes to point out, unless you are of Jewish descent, Epiphany is your holiday.

    Epiphany means “manifestation.” It is the celebration of the revelation of Jesus as God come to man to the Gentiles. After all, all those who had worshiped him before were Jews. Until Epiphany Jesus was seen the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies–he had come to his people Israel. But Epiphany made clear that he was something else as well, something more than just the Messiah promised to the Jews, he was in, what previously must have seemed the very mysterious words of Simeon, a “light to lighten the Gentiles”. The revelation of Christ to the wisemen, goyim to the man coming as they did from “the East” (likely Persia,present day Iran), and their worship of him showed in a very concrete way that the Messiah of the Jews would also be the Messiah of the Gentiles.

    Epiphany is not the end of Christmas. Christmas ended yesterday on the 5th (well…maybe..discussion later). It is it’s own separate and distinct holiday, and it used to be quite the blowout. More on that in another post. For now a word about the painting I chose to illustrate this day.

    The Adoration of the Magi was a popular topic for Medieval and Renaissance painters and this version was done in 1475 by the supremely gifted Alessandro Botticelli, but fond though I am of the works of Sandro Botticelli ( And I am indeed excessively fond thereof) the reason I chose this painting is that Botticell–perhaps at the request of commissioner of the piece, one Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, perhaps for his own reasons–used real life models as the wisemen and and the retainers: he used the House of Medici. (And possibly himself, the somewhat pop-eyed, wavy-haired blond in the yellow mantle who is looking not at the child but at you is reputed to be a self portrait of Botticelli.) You don’t get much more goyim than the House of Medici; you don’t get much more broken than the House of Medici. Yet there is Cosimo reaching to tenderly cup the feet of the baby Jesus; there’s Piero

    Lorenzo de Medici as Caspar in Gozzoli's "Procession of the Magi"

    sporting a red mantle and the Medici nose front and center, and there’s Lorenzo, looking magnificently disdainful in the front left, though arguably not as not as magnificent as his appearance as Caspar in Gozzoli’s “Procession of the Magi”.

    Putting the powerful in your painting is certainly a good political move for future patronage, and Botticelli was personal friend of Lorenzo as well, but using the ever-so-powerful,ever-so-corrupt, ever-so-enduring, ever-so mortal, ever-so-inspiring, ever-so broken, ever-so human House of Medici as his models, point to the central truth of the incarnation: Christ did not come for the perfect and obedient Jew, he came for the sinner, even the Gentile sinner. He came for the murdering Cosimo (though recent finds may dispute that reputation) and the murdered Giuliano (seen next to his father Piero in the center). He came for the philandering Medici (Giuliano’s illegitimate son, Giulio, became Pope Clement the VII in 1523 and well…best for a Lutheran to not say much more. We don’t think much of the Medici popes. ) and the non-philandering Medici, if there were any of those, which seems unlikely. He came in short for the most imperfect to make them the perfect, and as a bumper sticker I saw yesterday pointed out, “Next time you think you’re perfect, try walking on water.” What joy indeed for a goy!

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