Tools & Utensils

I Heart My Pressure Cooker

My pressure cooker

I grew up in a household where the hiss and huff of the pressure cooker was a familiar kitchen melody.

My mother owned a large specimen of what the French commonly call une cocotte minute — this is a brand name to the generic, and less endearing, term autocuiseur — and I seem to remember she used it mostly to boil or steam vegetables, such as potatoes and globe artichokes, or the cauliflower for her gratin de chou-fleur.

I myself went without one for a while, until Maxence’s grandparents had to sell their country house and I was offered a few pieces of cooking equipment, including the jumbo pressure cooker that had served to feed a whole generation of grandkids.

I loved it, but it soon turned out to be too large for me: with a ten-liter capacity, it was both too big for the quantities of food I ordinarily cook, and too bulky to fit in my teeny sink when the time came to wash it up.

And so, trapped between these inconveniences and the sentimental attachment to a family heirloom, I let the poor beast collect dust on a shelf.

Until one day, I decided there was something cosmically wrong about this situation: what I needed was a smaller pressure cooker, and this large pressure cooker was no doubt needed by someone else. Who was I to halt the natural flow of the universe?

Once the decision was made, it was easy: within a month, thanks to a popular auction website, I’d purchased a second-hand, 4.5-liter pressure cooker, and found a happy buyer for my own*.

And why am I drawn to the pressure cooker in the first place, you ask? Well, it is among the most energy-efficient cooking vessels out there, that’s why: as you seal the lid tightly then heat the pot, pressure builds up inside, and this causes the boiling point of water to increase** (from ~100°C to ~120°C, or from ~212°F to ~248°F). In this environment, foods cook considerably faster and with less water than in a regular pot boiling on the stove.

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Danish Dough Whisk

Danish Dough Whisks

I recently told someone that I was totally over my phase of buying kitchen stuff all the time. With a straight face, I explained that I was content with my current equipment, and that I needed nothing more, really.

I’m afraid this is true in a distorted version of reality that exists only in my head.

I can delude myself all I want, but the fact remains that, over the past three months, I have acquired a little more than zero utensils. I will readily provide a set of indisputable reasons for buying each and every one of them, but still: a flour sifter, a frosting spatula, a set of madeleine molds (one that fits in my small oven), a bulb baster, a new piping bag with metal tips, a sesame mill, and now this.

This, for those of you who are not wholly acquainted with the perfect little baker’s paraphernalia, this is a dough whisk, designed to succeed where the wire whisk and the wooden spoon fail.

This, for those of you who are not wholly acquainted with the perfect little baker’s paraphernalia, this is a dough whisk, designed to succeed where the wire whisk and the wooden spoon fail.

I was completely unaware that the gods of baking had created such a utensil until I visited Portland last spring, for the release of my Paris book: I was to appear briefly on local television, to demo the recipe for chouquettes. I did no such thing, of course, since cooking on a set usually consists in pointing at various items placed on a counter, while talking the host through the recipe.

Local authors might prepare and bring in their own food, but since I was about 5,000 miles from my own kitchen, it is really Sandra, my media escort* and food stylist extraordinaire, who had prepared the choux pastry and the finished chouquettes for me. (And perhaps we can all remember, next time we watch a cooking segment on television, to mentally acknowledge the work done behind the scenes by food stylists.)

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The Sesame Mill

Sesame Mill

While in New York last month, Maxence and I had lunch at Ippudo, a ramen place that’s the first American outpost of a popular Japanese chain. The decor was super sleek and the ramen excellent, but what really got me excited was the sesame mill that was propped on our table, keeping the shôyu company.

It was a simple thing, really: a plastic see-through container filled with toasted sesame seeds, mounted with a red cranking wheel and an open mouth at the top. To work it, you flipped the mill upside down, you turned the wheel by its tiny handle and, with the most delicate scrunching sound, out came a sprinkle of golden flecks.

It was the first time I’d seen anything like this. It was red, it was adorable, it was Japanese; I had to have one.

We enquired whether the restaurant might sell one to us* but, however amused they seemed to be by this strange case of love at first grind, they said no. My heart lying in shards on the floor, I let Maxence pry the mill from my clenched fingers.

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The Elements of Cooking

If you keep an eye on my book list, you may have noticed I am currently reading Michael Ruhlman‘s recently published, orange book*. In The Elements of Cooking, he proposes to break down and discuss the building blocks of the cooking craft, like William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White did for writers in their classic little volume The Elements of Style, to which the title and format are a homage.

The Elements of Cooking It is an engaging and educational read that retains a strong sense of the author’s voice and idiosyncrasies, unlike other reference books like, say, The Food Lover’s Companion, which I consult regularly but wouldn’t think to read from cover to cover.

The bulk of the book consists in an Acid-to-Zester lexicon of concepts, techniques, preparations, and ingredients, which Ruhlman prefaces with a section in which he lays down his founding principles, addressing such themes as salt, heat, and finesse.

In his essay on tools, he begins by asking the reader to “imagine the kitchen as a white box with nothing more than a stove, fridge, countertop, and sink — not a single other element for cooking in it — and then to pose a hypothetical question: if you were asked to outfit the kitchen with as few items as possible, the absolute minimum you could possibly get away with and still be able to cook most things, what would those items be?”

This question is of particular interest to me as it conjoins two topics I find endlessly stimulating: the desert island question (if you could only bring along five books/CDs/articles of toiletry, what would they be?**) and the neverending battle one has to wage to keep one’s home and life clutter-free.

So I’d like to submit the question to you: if you could only have five tools (pots, utensils, cutlery, and let’s add appliances) in your kitchen, what would they be? Note that we are considering your cooking needs only, setting aside the question of baking equipment. (If you’re the playful type, I suggest you come up with your own list before scrolling down to see Ruhlman’s and mine.)

* The book was sent to me as a review copy.
** Great car game, too!

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Laguiole Pocket Knife

Laguiole Pocket Knife

All right, I’m back! Technically, I have been back from my vacation for ten days, but as soon as I returned, I left again to be a witness at the wedding of two of my favorite people in the world, an honor and a duty that I took very seriously, although they ended up requiring very little work from me — the purchase of a pretty dress, the signing of a registry, and, at one point, the making of a salad dressing.

No sooner had I touched ground after the ceremony and assorted celebrations that I found myself aboard the Eurostar, whooshing my way to London for two booksigning events, a few nice meals, and an elating food shopping session at the new Kensington Whole Foods store, with the best food shopping companion one could hope for, one with the curiosity of a child and the stamina of a marathon runner.

It took me a few days to recover and attempt to catch up with three weeks of unanswered emails — the gods of the Internet are chuckling, presumably at the absurdity of such an ambition — but here I am now, ready to take over the world or, at the very least, refill the gaunt shelves of our fridge and start cooking anew.

And just like every child deserves cool gear to start a fresh school year, I have acquired a new little helper.

Please meet my Laguiole pocket knife!

Eleven centimeters* when folded, twenty when it stands at full height, it has a rosewood handle, a Swedish stainless steel blade, and a hand-forged, hand-etched spring adorned with the signature bee (some say it is a fly; I say feh). It is sharp, it is beautiful, and I haven’t been this knife-proud since my father bought me a tiny opinel when I was eight.

Laguiole Pocket Knife

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