Earlier days: my brother Kenton looks much more interested in Santa than I was (I’m on the right)
Today was my birthday. I was an occasion that my mother didn’t quite live to see: the completion of her own 53rd year. It was a bittersweet day.
I taught the usual two morning classes, preparing my students for their oral exams starting next week, and sitting through an incredibly long student presentation. I let it continue because it was fairly interesting, and it absolved me from any responsibility for filling up the 90-minute time slot.
Pad Thai, Bad Thai
I caught the 49 bus downtown, my first stop a small shop called Coffee Life. As you’d expect, it’s about coffee makers, grinders, cups, and coffee. I don’t buy my coffee here, though, since their inventory sits on the shelf a long time, and is way past fresh.
Isetan, Hongxing Lu, downtown Chengdu (Flickr)
I then took myself out for birthday lunch, to the Parkway Thai Restaurant in the Isetan department store. Bad choice: it was the worst Thai food I’ve ever eaten. My judgment was faulty, my thinking clouded by hunger and allergies. It was airplane food, tasteless, bland, and served in a garish corporate chain atmosphere. I ordered Pad Thai, a basic measuring stick by which you can judge the quality of a Thai restaurant, and spring rolls. The Pad Thai was an abomination: it lacked any contrast of textures, the soft rice noodles balanced against crunchy bean sprouts and peanuts. Come to think of it, I didn’t SEE any peanuts. The chicken pieces were microscopic, there was no seasoning, there were unexplained slivers of hard tofu, and the food just sat in a lump on the plate. The spring rolls were something you could find in the freezer section of the grocery store, only not as good. Thankfully, the tab for this mediocrity wasn’t overly expensive.
I needed to compensate: I was partly consoled by a visit to my favorite department at Isetan: the Calvin Klein bed linen display. These are the sheets and covers of my dream bedroom, and at 7,000 yuan (about $1,000) for a complete set, that’s where they’ll stay. On the fifth floor, I perused sets of espresso cups, coffee grinders, and fine china. Then I headed for the basement grocery store, to look at the coffee selection. They carry a good Chinese brand of coffees, but this time I was looking for Lavazza, the real Italian thing. No luck. I settled on a liter of Spanish olive oil as my birthday gift.
To get the taste and memory of the Thai food out of my mouth, I consumed three Ferrero Rocher chocolates, plus a single espresso at Starbucks. Thus fortified, I bravely continued my shopping excursion, before returning home to rest.
My day was redeemed very simply. After a nap, I made a light dinner out of a slice of pan-fried toast topped with tomato and scrambled egg. I was saving myself for something special, a long-anticipated experiment in creating the perfect, thick hot chocolate drink. Many years ago, in Chicago, I made what I considered the perfect hot drink – a dark bar of German chocolate melted slowly in a pan of warm milk and cream, with a little cinnamon and vanilla extract added at the last moment. It was perfect for a freezing Chicago night, after a mile walk from the el station in deep snow and gale-force winds. Now I wanted something more, a kind of distillation of nothing but dark chocolate and water.
You start with Valor Dark Chocolate (Flickr)
On a friend’s recommendation, I purchased some Valor dark chocolate, 70% cocoa, made in Spain, available locally at Watson’s drug stores. Proceeding by sheer instinct, I broke half the bar (50 g) into a small coffee cup, and poured about the same quantity of boiling water over the chocolate pieces. I popped the cup into the microwave for about 30 seconds to melt the chocolate. You have to be very careful not to let the liquid boil, or to overheat or burn the chocolate. I then stirred the mixture with a small spoon; it got thicker and thicker the more I stirred, coating the spoon, which, of course, I licked clean.
Just anticipating sipping from the small cup of black-brown nectar, with its mist of steam swirling gently heavenward, sent me into a frenzy of lustful craving. It was also a moment to be enjoyed alone – I roughly pushed the dog aside so I could concentrate all my faculties on the task at hand.
Not mine, but close: dark, thick, rich (Flickr)
It was the espresso of chocolate drinks – the liquid essence of chocolate, minus the crema (the foamy surface layer of emulsified coffee oils floating on espresso). It was a candy bar in a cup, a kid’s fantasy of oozing, liquefied chocolate that would coat your mouth, face, and hands; it was a miniature swimming pool in which my inner child could take a plunge and satisfy every craving that I had long suppressed. It was a chocolate orgy, an unctuous molten lava of sensuality. It was over too soon, and left me scraping every last remnant of gooey chocolate sludge off the bottom of the cup with a spoon.
The experience was better than sex, unless maybe it’s chocolate sex. Basking in the afterglow, I forgot my allergies, persistent cough, and the depression of turning 53. It restored my confidence in myself to concoct something exquisite.
A variation on this theme (and my inspiration for the chocolate-water mixture) is this pure chocolate mousse on the blog Kitchen Exhibitionist:
The next dish I will try is something the Kitchen Exhibitionist calls Pizza Eggs, which sounds too good to pass up:
You did what with peanut butter?
I’m going to tell you a secret: grilled peanut butter sandwich. On the teachers’ bus the other day, coming home from class, a colleague and I talked about lunch, then I mentioned peanut butter, then he mentioned grilling the sandwich in butter. It sounded quite decadent. When I got home, I took two slices of whole wheat bread, spread one of them with a thick layer of generic peanut butter from Carrefour, and the other with honey. I put them together, then melted some butter in a pan. After frying the sandwich on both sides until it was toasty and golden, I ate the delicious, sloppy mess. I won’t say it was as good as the hot chocolate, but it was pretty darn satisfying. Did I mention all the trans fats, cholesterol, and sugar? Ah, the good things in life.