Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Sentimental Education

I'm a sucker for classic romances. However, when I give a modern romance novel a chance, I get bored to tears within the first few chapters for one of a few reasons.

A typical modern romance usually features a neurotic, spoiled heroine with an incurable shoe addiction that is supposed to be endearing to readers but instead, annoys me to the core. Not all women are brainless creatures who suddenly become helpless at the sight of the latest shiny cut leather on high heels!!! Alternatively, there might be a Fabio-esque character who is raring and ready to sweep a fragile, helpless woman off her feet only to ride into the sunset on a white horse, no less.

I'd like to first state that I'm not a man-hating, bra-burning feminist. I enjoy a trashy novel once in a (great, great) while. I have to be in a very specific brainless mindset to actually be in the mood to enjoy one of these moderm romance novels. It isn't so much the misogynistic, patriarchal portrayal of women that disgusts me (although that doesn't really help their case). It is the assumption that female readers (who are these books' target market) are so mindless that they could enjoy such two-dimensional drivel on a regular basis, that appalls me!

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy romance stories as much as the girl next door, but just because a story features a romance doesn't excuse authors from good writing; y'know, stuff like character development, creation of suspense/action, eliciting an emotional response from the reader, an interesting yet realistic plot, etc, etc. So I often end up going to second-hand bookstores (of which, there are at least two in my neighbourhood) and picking up classic fiction. I recently finished Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece, A Sentimental Education.

Though not widely considered a "romance", everything about it is romantic. Centered in this book, is the main character's, Frederic Moreau's, growing affection for a friend's wife, Madame Marie Arnoux. The development of this romance uses the background of the 1848 French Revolution, where we also witness the political education of Frederic and his contemporaries. The constant tension between Frederic and Marie is mirrored in the upheaval of political events as a background. Flaubert not only took care to describe to us the intricate folds of Marie's chartreuse dress or her curled auburn locks, but also the smell of fire in the Parisian streets after a riot and the beauty of his countryside hometown of Nogent.

I think my favorite heroine (if you can call it that) in the book is the city of Paris. Despite the relative darkness with which Flaubert depicted the general mood and the city, there is a certain strength and beauty about it all. It is ironic that although the book's title means the education of feelings, in the end, Frederic achieves neither education nor feelings (or sentiments), leaving us regretful that he and his contemporaries did not achieve their full potential.

An imperfect character, Frederic leaves a lot to be desired, what with his womanizing ways and spoiled brat attitude of entitlement. However, I suppose I identify with him a little bit. Till the end, Frederic was always be a dreamer, full of longings and desires. There is something familiar about the way he and his pals would hang out over drinks and tidbits, talking about the people they knew and politics. It reminds me a bit like grad school and my friends, knocking back a few together at the end of another hard week. (Spoiler alert! If you're going to read this book, stop reading this blog entry!)

The book ends with Frederic and his oldest friend sitting around, reminiscing of days gone by, loves lost and promises unfulfilled. The ending is a bit on the negative side, with the main characters either dead or having accomplished little to nothing. Nevertheless, it serves as another reminder to me of life's fleeting quality, and that we all should seize the day and live it the fullest.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Treating myself...

There was a little surprise in the mail about a few weeks ago. It was a white envelope addressed to me with no return address. If I was paranoid (like my boss), I would've put on some gloves before opening it. To my (pleasant) surprise, it was a $25 Amazon gift certificate from my friend (you know who you are *virtual hugz*). $25 is very generous, especially by Amazon standards. You can get sooo much on Amazon for $25, considering the prices are usually 30% or more lower than retail prices at bookstores.

It wasn't hard deciding what to get on Amazon because I do keep a few wish lists there myself. The first treat I got for myself was a Daft Punk CD. I've been in the mood for upbeat electronica music lately. I find that it's good music to listen to while doing experiments at work or running outside. I know it's rather Eurotrash of me, but I don't care! :D

The second treat I chose is the one I'm super super excited about. I bought Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets book. If you don't already know (which means you're either an abonimation of Nature or a "normal" non-baker), Dorie Greenspan is the goddess of baking. Seriously, her recipes are awesome and can't be beat! From what I hear, she's very very nice in person too :)

Every day I would peek in my mailbox and ask "Wherefore art thou, Amazon package?" I got the free Super Saver shipping, so I had to suffer for a week before getting my precious treats. The long-awaited package came in the mail today and I immediately tore into the box, extracting the cool CD and my book! My Dorie Greenspan book!

Let me tell you that I read that book from cover to cover within the first few hours of receiving it. I love how the book was organized with little tidbits of Dorie's experiences with the bakers of the best bakeries and patisseries of Paris. Interspersed with the charming stories were recipes that the various pastry artistes shared, ranging from the classic madeleine to the formidable gateau St. Honore. The illustrations of Paris and the pastries were sweet and were evocative of those found in the Roald Dahl books of my childhood. I like that Dorie takes care to give the ingredient measurements in both metric and volume amounts. The suggestions to personalize the creations were fun and it's very helpful to have a list of alternatives to quality French ingredients she found in Paris. If there's any disappointment, it's only the fact that there are no recipes for the French macaroon in the book. Oh well, I guess I'll have to treat myself with another Dorie book soon!

Anyway, I was so excited and I took some time to decide which recipe to try out first. Since there are no big occasions or party in my social landscape in the next week, I picked out a more portable pastry recipe to experiment with. I was immediately taken with the madeleine recipes in the book. Although I'm not French (by a long stretch!), I can identify with Marcel Proust's fond remembrance of these shell-shaped cakes.

Growing up in Singapore, there was a popular French bistro chain (almost equivalent to Au Bon Pain here in the States) called "Delifrance". They sell all sorts of yummy French fare ranging from croissants and quiches to madeleines. Their madeleines were available everywhere, even at a gas station two blocks away from my school. After a long day of classes and extracurricular activities, I would often stop by the gas station to get a box of Delifrance madeleines, savoring one in the bus on the way home. I would share the rest of the box (there were 6 cakes in a box) to my sister and cousins who were living with me at the time. It would often be the highlight of our young, (seemingly) boring, long schooldays.

So, I joyously undertook this challenge to recreate those simple yet sweet memories at home, and here are what I found to be the keys to the perfect madeleines.
Madeleines in pan

Mixing the batter is pretty simple. As long as you follow the directions and don't overmix, it should be allright. Now, most of the useful tips are to be followed after the batter is mixed.

First, to achieve the signature hump of the madeleine, the batter has to be refrigerated for at least 2-3 hours, preferably overnight.

Second, the special shell-shaped madeleine pan has to be generously buttered and floured to ensure that these yummy cakes won't stick and ruin its shell shape.

Last but not least, madeleines are best enjoyed the day they are baked with a cup of coffee (I myself prefer tea). But if you have to save them for another day, store them in an airtight container after they are completely cooled.

Bon appetit!


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