The Mystery of Czar Alexander

Is it really true that Czar Alexander I staged his own death and assumed another identity? Quite a few people believed that, reader Alice, and not just conspiracy nuts. Most Russians of the time believed he was still alive after he was reported dead. Even members of the late Czar’s own family seemed to believe it. But why would they? Possibly because Alexander talked about vanishing and becoming a hermit almost incessantly. He certainly made no secret of his distaste for the trappings of wealth and power and his deep guilt over the death of his father, Czar Paul I, was well known.

Alexander had, shall we say, a troubled relationship with his family. His grandmother, Catherine the Great, hated his father (her own son) and made no secret of it. She considered Paul I to be an unstable tyrant-in-waiting. When Alexander was born Catherine immediately took charge of him (Alexander’s mother was indifferent to him) and educated him in the classical liberal virtues. Despite Paul’s attempts to literally beat some toughness into the boy, Alexander grew up sullen and sensitive. When Catherine died in 1896, Paul ascended the throne. His subjects quickly came to see that Catherine’s instincts were entirely correct and by 1801 a coup plot was hatched. …

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Who invented distillation?

Reader Rikki, that’s a darn good question. All we know for sure is that somewhere around 900 years ago people in and Europe and China started having a lot more fun on Saturday night. Greek alchemists had mastered water distillation long before, in about 100 A.D., but alcohol distillation took longer. It’s likely the technology traveled the Silk Road either East to West or West to East but nobody knows for sure.

Brandy was probably the first hard liquor in the western world, evidently an attempt to create a reconstituted beverage that was easy to transport and sell. Reduce your wine at production point, take it by ox cart to the point of sale, add water and presto — wine. That was the thought anyway. Tasting the first brandy, I can only imagine what that early entrepreneur said to his business partner as he approached with the water jug. Take another step and you’re dead, buzzkill.


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Carême and the Czar

So if Antonin Carême lived in Paris, why did he design a dessert to appeal to Russians? There are two parts to that answer. First, Russian food and manners were all the rage in Paris around 1810. Napoleon and Czar Alexander I of Russia were allies then, and Czar Alexander had dispatched a very dapper and glamorous ambassador to look after Russia’s interests in Paris. His name was Alexander Kurakin, and it was he who not only introduced Russian dishes to Parisian society, but also the single-plate course-after-course dining style known as service à la russe. We employ it in our restaurants, even homes, to this day. …

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What exactly is brandy?

And how is it different from, say, whiskey? Reader Jimmy, thanks for a delightful question. We here in the States drink precious little brandy and a result a lot of us wonder exactly what it is and what relationship it bears to other mysterious Continental spirits like cognac.

The word brandy — and I love this — is actually taken from a Dutch term that means “burning”. It’s nothing more than wine that’s been distilled into something quite a bit stronger. Wine is about 12% alcohol when it’s made. Distilled into brandy it can be up to 60% alcohol (120 proof), and that’s where the burning part comes in. …

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There was curaçao in 1814?

Yes indeed there was, though not the brand name we know now, that didn’t come along in the late 1800′s. Curaçao, originally, was a generic term for orange-infused brandies that were originally produced by the Dutch. The Dutch owned, and indeed still do own, the island of Curaçao which is located in a chain of islands called the “Lesser Antilles” just off the coast of Venezuela. There an odd variety of citrus known as the “laraha” grows. It’s a descendant of the Valencia orange, originally brought to Curaçao by the Spaniards in the 1500′s but which, due to the island’s relatively poor soil, soon evolved (devolved?) into something else. That thing is the laraha, a small, green, bitter and thick-skinned citrus that just happens to be terrible for eating but great for flavoring alcohol.


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Correction

I thought the optional sour cream in the strawberries Romanoff recipe was an attempt to re-create the flavor of whipped cream in the days before refrigeration. I’ve since discovered that Carême made two versions: one with plain whipped cream and one with sour cream added. The former was designed to appeal to French audiences, the latter to appeal to Russian audiences. Americans came along later and added ice cream. I’ll leave it up to you to determine the best fit for your table.

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Who Was Antonin Carême?

Click here to find out!

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Marinate, Macerate: Is there a Difference?

Practically speaking, no. Both involve soaking food in a flavorful liquid for some period of time. The main difference is that “marinating” is a term we apply to meat and vegetables and “macerating” is a term we apply to fruit. If you want to split hairs you could argue that the intended results of each are different. Whereas macerating is all about infusing flavor, marinating is about that and tenderizing as well (marinades are often quite acidic, and the acid help break down meat fibers). Me, I don’t see much difference.

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Strawberries Romanoff Recipe

Those of you who don’t think macerated fruit desserts are impressive, I understand. There are a lot of pretty lame fruit cups out there. However this one was invented by Antonin Carême — the King of Chefs, Chef of Kings himself — and you know that dude never did anything half way. This does not disappoint. All you need is:

about 4 cups best quality small-to medium strawberries, hulled
2 ounces (1/4 cup) curaçao (or Cointreau or Grand Marnier)
2.75 ounces (about 1/3 cup) fresh squeezed orange juice
8 ounces (1 cup) cold heavy cream
2 ounces (generous 1/4 cup) sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream


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Next Up: Strawberries Romanoff

Enough of the technical mumbo-jumbo. My brain is polluted with tensile strength, pseudoplasticity and thermo-reversibility. Time to find relief in some simplicity. Strawberries Romanoff should do the trick. This is one of those preparations you’ve probably seen on a menu but never tried. The hot and gooey death-by-chocolate puddings are always calling, aren’t they? I feel your pain. …

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