The Cook Next Door: a Meme

As my trusted friend the Webster tells us, a meme is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”. In the blogosphere, a meme can be a questionnaire about a particular theme — your tastes in music or books, 100 things about you, etc. — that you reply to on your blog and pass along. Nicky started such a meme just a few weeks ago called the cook next door, giving us all a chance to talk about the hows and the whys behind our food obsessions. The added bonus (made possible by her and Oliver’s impressive web design skills) is that she follows the meme’s progression, thus mapping out our ever-growing food blog neighborhood.

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?
I believe my first cooking adventure was mastering the art of the microwaved oeuf cocotte when I was nine. The first thing I baked on my own was the Gâteau au Chocolat de Csaba when I was about twelve, a classic family recipe given to us by a friend who’s originally from Hungary. My rendition was somewhat undercooked in the center and my friends would only eat the outer rims. In retrospect, I like to think it was a molten chocolate cake and I was simply a misunderstood visionary. Ahem.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?
In order of appearance: 1- my mother, 2- the Internet. My mother is a superb cook and baker, and the countless hours I spent with her in the kitchen — watching, helping, licking the bowls — have undoubtedly laid the foundations for my own cooking. The rest of what I know has been gleaned not so much in books or cooking magazines, but rather on websites, forums and of course, blogs.

Clotilde as a child

Do you have an old photo as “evidence” of an early exposure to the culinary world and would you like to share it?
My parents were kind enough to search through the box of old family pictures, and although we don’t seem to have any of me cooking or baking, they did find a few in which I’m eating. The photo at the top of the post was taken when I was six, eating a plate of salade composée — most likely lunch on a Saturday. On the second one I am three, and I am eating what seems to be a tartine of baguette, spread with (yum) butter and jam.

Mageiricophobia – do you suffer from any cooking phobia, a dish that makes your palms sweat?
I seem to consistently avoid kitchen situations that involve yeast or beating egg whites until stiff. Somehow the chemistry behind these things feels like pure magic and I don’t quite believe I could recreate it in my own kitchen. I often think that I should just throw myself off the cliff, bake some brioche, buy an electric whisk, and conquer both fears, but I still haven’t gotten around to it!

What would be your most valued or used kitchen gadgets and/or what was the biggest letdown?
Just like my stuffed animals when I was little, I am reluctant to name a favorite, for fear that the others will be heartbroken. If you twist my arm (but please don’t), I would probably admit my chef knife to be the tool that most improved the quality of my cooking life. The biggest letdown would have to be the cheap electric grill press that we bought in the US: we used it once, realized what an absolute pain it was to clean — the metal plates weren’t detachable so you couldn’t soak them in the sink, you made a mess on the counter and the whole thing remained sticky with grease — and forever banned it to the back of a kitchen cabinet.

Name some funny or weird food combinations/dishes you really like – and probably no one else!
I probably love ketchup a little more than your average Joe (Jane?) and this has occasionally stirred a few outraged reactions, but apart from that, my tastes don’t seem to shock anyone around me — or maybe they’re too polite to say?

What are the three eatables or dishes you simply don’t want to live without?
That’s easy: chocolate, zucchini and bread. Oh, wait. Can I make it four and throw cheese in there too?

Your favorite ice-cream
As a child I was a die-hard mint chocolate chip fan, but now I like variety and I guess any ice-cream that’s rich and creamy, intensely flavored but not overly sweet, will be my friend. If it has chunks of things in it, it will be my very good friend.

You will probably never eat…
I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t recoil before the actual deed, but if given the opportunity I would gladly taste insects, reptiles, or anything that’s usually considered gross in Western culture but normal and/or a treat in others.

A common ingredient you just can’t bring yourself to stomach
However much I’ve tried, I can’t seem to warm up to spinach or endives: they’re the last vestiges of my childhood dislikes.

Which one culture’s food would you most like to sample on its home turf?
I’ve had a longtime fascination with Japan and its multifaceted cuisine, and it is definitely my #1 most yearned for destination right now.

Any signs that this passion is going slightly over the edge and may need intervention?
Um, let’s say that food and writing have become such an integral part of me and my life now, that I don’t know what would be left if it had to be surgically removed!

Any embarrassing eating habits?
When I eat, the back of my mind is busy organizing the best strategy to eat what’s on my plate, so that the front can enjoy its contents optimally — something I’ve written about here.

Who would you want to come into your kitchen to cook dinner for you?
My grandmother. She used to cook and bake wonderfully for her large family and many friends, but she is now in her nineties and unfortunately her health prevents her from standing for too long in the kitchen. We often talk about cooking, she shares recipes and tips and I try to learn as much as I can, but I wish I had gotten interested in cooking earlier so I could have played with her in the kitchen.

Who’s your favorite food writer
[General food writing] I recently started reading MFK Fisher and deeply admire her work. I am in awe of the atemporal feel that her essays have, and I find her words strangely comforting.
[Restaurant reviews] I really enjoy François Simon’s writing (in French). Amongst other things, he writes for Le Figaro and Le Figaroscope and he’s the kind of writer who has developped a unique writing style and a vocabulary of his own — a pleasure to read. He has also published a few books which I should check out.
[Cookbooks] My favorite cookbook author is Trish Deseine, who writes simple, inventive, reliable recipes — sort of like Nigella, only Irish and living in France.

Three people to pass this along to
I hope I’m not double-tagging anyone, but I’d love to see what these delicious bloggers have to say: Caryn from Delicious! Delicious!, Heidi from 101 Cookbooks, and Debbie from Words to Eat By.

[Many thanks to Louisa for passing me the stick, and to Nicky & Oliver for starting this meme and keeping up with it so well!]

  • One should never fear an eggwhite!

    I like your idea of saving the best stuff for last as you eat. That last mouthful is a good memory.

    My friend has another idea, eat the good stuff first in case you die while you are eating. At least your last meal was your best!

  • Rose

    Clotilde, thank you for sharing with all of us the influences that have led to your incomparable food blog and food favourites. (Awesome to see the photos.) Indeed, your enthusiasm for all things food-related reaches out to all of us here in food-blog sphere; the sometimes ubiquitious meme has become a delight and you give us yet another fine example of your enthusiasm and authenticity.

  • Jay

    Is that you in the picture? You’re adorable!

  • Jay said it…those photos of you are Adorable!

  • Jay

    c’est vrai!

  • Bonny

    I was happy to hear about this new meme. I have just started a blog and am also trying to find the people and stories behind the foods we cook. Please stop by. Thanks for introducing The Cook Next Door.

  • Kárim

    Cheers Clotilde!
    I’m new in here! Was introduced to your site by my sister last week and since then have visited it almost daily. It’s reconforting to acknowledge that there are “others” that, as myself, think about food 23 hours a day and try hard to maximize the ratio calories/pleasure and thus eat the highly worthy gourmandises. I’m a big fan of your country as well. Well, it was very nice meeting your blog. By the way I’m from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
    Take care.

  • quinn

    Thanks Clotilde, for sharing some of your early childhood culinary experiences. Since you have such a great passion for all things culinary, have you ever considered becoming a professional chef?

  • Fleur

    Hi Clotilde,

    Being in NY at the moment (and definetly intending to try one (or two) of your “place to eat” recommandations), I was wandering if you could advise me one of the cookbooks by Trish Deseine you seem to care for.

  • Clotilde – thanks so much. Your thoughts about your grandmother are especially touching. Your are lucky to have her. What is one of her specialities – and have you re-created it yourself? My own grandmother – my mom’s mom, the only one I knew – used to make the most delicious and delicate steamed Chinese sweets. I’ve yet to find them by any pastry chef as good as hers – and I’ve not been able to bring myself to make them – yet. Thanks again.

  • Altaf

    Thanks Clotilde, for sharing some of your childhood culinary experiences. By the way i saw your interview at the food section. very nice photos.(you did not change alot).

  • Quinn – This is something that I’ve thought about and I would love to get some sort of professional training, but I don’t think I would want to actually make it my everyday job — I like being a food writer better!

    Fleur – Since Trish originally writes her books in French, I suggest getting them when you’re back in Paris! And for starters, I would recommend “Petits Plats entre Amis” (translated as “Cooking with Friends” in English) or “Mes Petits Plats Préférés” (“Real Life Cooking”).

    Louisa – She does have a few signature dishes — boeuf strogonoff, navarin d’agneau, soupe au pistou — for which I have recipes, but, like you, I’ve never actually attempted them myself! I should, sooner rather than later…

  • Beryl

    Clothilde: An American cookbook writer (I think it was Jane Brody, and I hope someone will correct me if I have it wrong) once said that yeast knows when you’re afraid of it, which I’ve always thought was funny.

    The only thing to fear with yeast, though, is getting it too warm before you put it in the oven to bake. (More than 115 degrees fahrenheit; 46 celsius.) As long as it doesn’t get too hot, you’re fine, and the dough will rise eventually, even in the refrigerator! In fact, I often let bread rise overnight in the fridge.

    The only other bread tip you need is never to add more flour than the maximum the recipe calls for, or you’ll end up with a brick.

    With egg whites, just keep checking them frequently enough and you won’t overbeat them.

    Go ahead and buy that packet of yeast and electric whisk! I know you can do it! You’ll be immensely proud of yourself when you pull that first beautiful loaf out of the oven.

    My own fear is large cuts of meat.

  • So cute. Don’t be afraid of yeast – it can be so much fun.

  • Joan

    Clotilde ~ THAT smile seems to have been with you forever!

    as for Trish Deseine ~ a copy of her “Cooking with Friends” is on my kitchen what to cook for my father’s 90th?

    golly we’re learning soooooo much about you!

  • Carlo

    Clotilde, you really must go to Japan! The cuisine there is just totally different from anything in the West. It’s much much more than just sushi. The presentation of the dish is just as, if not more important than the taste. Also, where else in the world is it considered NOT impolite to slurp noodle soup with gusto.

  • Just lovely!

    Felicitations pour l’article sur le site web de NPR.

    Swimming Cherries with Hazelnut Rosemary Tuiles

    (That’s a link to an article Clotilde wrote.)

  • Hi, clotilde
    A full bags of happy imagination and happy souvenirs ! I became happy like your smiling face.

  • john

    There’s a wonderful technique for folding egg whites that I learned from Paula Peck’s “Art of Fine Baking.” First, as usual, you stir a fourth or so of the beaten whites into the heavier mixture (béchamel or egg yolk-chocolate mixture or whatever) to lighten the texture. Now add this back into the egg white bowl. Roll up your sleeve. Dip your hand, with the fingers spread apart, into the mix. Lift your hand, let the mix fall back into the bowl (flup-flup-flup is more or less the sound you want to hear), rotate the bowl one-quarter turn, repeat. A few times are almost always enough to get a perfectly homogeneous mix with the least possible deflation of the egg whites.

    This is messy–a friend of mine calls it “egg fondling”–but it works better than any other method I’ve found.

  • hi clotilde,

    do let me know when you are arond here!

  • michel

    honestly, the most shocking thing i’ve read in your blog to date is that you don’t like endive. somehow, in my mind, endive is one of the quintessentially french things. i first had it when i spent a summer studying nice and fell in love with it. have only tried to offer it a few times state-side and it has fallen on deaf ears (palates, as it were). i continue to like it very much, however. at least you aren’t like pim, who apparently is repulsed by beets. can you imagine?!?

  • Jean-Paul

    Coucou Clotilde !
    J’ai trouvé ta photo très sympa, tu n’as pas changé et tu es toujours aussi mignonne. Cela me rappelle le bon vieux temps !

  • Thank you for sharing this with us, Clotilde! I love the 3-year-old girl, so tempting to pinch her cheeks!

  • Tina

    About the banished grill press, if you like panini sandwiches, you might try using it for making those. That way the purchase won’t be a total waste. The cleanup is MUCH easier for panini than the cleanup for, say, grilled steak or chicken. I use mine to make panini, and the worst that typically happens is some melted cheese drips on the grill, which can easily be cleaned up with a soapy sponge.

  • What are you eating in that photo? I’d love to know what mommy made that’s got you grinning so.

  • egads… I mean, what on earth are all of things in your salad composée?

  • csaba

    chère clo,
    j ai beaucoup travaillé en Italie ces temps-ci et pas eu le temps de regarder ton site (dont je suis pourtant un admirateur assidu en temps normal!) et je n’ai appris que lors du we dernier (avec tes parents à la Bresse) que j ai atteint la notoriété mondiale grâce à toi ( et les gâteaux de ma mère)!
    grosses bises et bon anniversaire!

  • Laura

    About the “meme” – where do you think the word “memo” comes from?? Makes sense doesn’t it!

    PS – absolutely love the pictures from your childhood. What a doll!!

  • Thanks Clotilde,
    Your story ir very interesting as your childhood. Now it’s clear when you gained your first culinary experiance.

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