The Lazy Man’s Brunch

Deep-Dish Brioche French Toast by David Leite

Although Sansabelt pants, Clapper light switches, and robovacs are looked upon with great fondness by the motivationally challenged (read: lazy) among us, the ne plus ultra for the lounging class is Sunday brunch. You can eat it in bed or at the breakfast table — in flannel, either pink polka-dotted or gray — and any time between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Even the term brunch is the result of quintessential laziness. Instead of racking our brains for a unique name, we simply made an amalgam by scrunching together breakfast and lunch into one poetic term.

The problem, though, with being among the multitudes who consider Sunday morning the next best thing to a national holiday — hence our right to sleep late — is that few of us have the constitution to rouse ourselves to actually cook. The idea of stumbling out of bed clear-headed enough to wield sharp objects and making something that would astound friends is, quite frankly, foreign to us. That’s why there are restaurants.

Still, there are advantages to lazily brunching at home, so I was intrigued when I encountered a particularly appealing deep-dish French toast while loafing at the Black Boar Inn in Ogunquit, Maine. Impressed by its craggy, deeply toasted top, warm chunks of cream cheese, and a strata of nuts and raisins, I requested the recipe.

As with many restaurant recipes, what emerged from the oven bore little resemblance to what we had eaten that crisp autumn morning. Impossible-to-copy chef improvisations, extra steps, and tiring techniques undoubtedly went into the making of the dish. What interested me, though, was the instruction to the cook to let the whole thing sit overnight in the refrigerator. Now this was approaching the land of leisure cooking. It meant that if I set the table the night before, I could get up at a decadently late 10 a.m. and have brunch ready for a tableful of guests by 11:45 a.m. This was almost as luxurious as switching to Daylight Standard Time.

I set about tearing apart the recipe military-style in order to build it up lazy-man-style. First, a brioche loaf would be used instead of plain bread, to offer extra egg richness and flavor. Brown sugar and warm spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, would be added to the beaten eggs to save a step. And when the French toast was baking, a drizzle of melted butter on top would eliminate having to slather it on. My guests would need only warmed maple syrup — 45 seconds in the microwave, max.

The Saturday-night assembly took all of 20 minutes, including cleanup. I put the dish in the fridge and watched “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But all through the show I was consumed by one obsessive thought: Should I use paper plates? Once a lounger, I guess, always a lounger.

Deep-Dish Brioche French Toast

Photo © 2004 Maryellen Baker. All rights reserved.

Confessions of a Hired Belly

Confessions of a Hired Belly

Nothing elicits mock pity at cocktail parties faster than when I complain, “Food writing is a really hard job.” Until the head-on assault of the Food Network a decade ago, food writing made even soft journalism, such as fashion and gardening, look butch. But average Americans now know their chefs and food writers like they know the members of their favorite rock bands or sports teams. The best dish at the dinner table these days is usually the fight that breaks out over the latest restaurant review.

Nonetheless, despite the boost up the food chain, so to speak, I still maintain being a “hired belly,” as James Villas refers to our kind in Between Bites: Memoirs of a Hungry Hedonist, should come with hazard pay. Yes, all of my jealous friends are partly right; I have been invited to my fair share of ultra-chic restaurants. But for every Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse, there are dozens upon dozens of chefs, cooks, and desperately clueless people wielding spatulas who think their creations should be adored by the newly ensconced dining class. Needless to say, acid indigestion is my constant companion. Read more »

Pastéis de Belém: On the Trail of a Portuguese Legend

Confeitaria de Belem

On the fringes of Lisbon, in the picturesque section of Belém, are two shrines that every year draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The more imposing is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the Manueline-style monastery that contains the tombs of venerated kings and queens, Vasco da Gama, and the national poet, Luís de Camões.

Boxes of Pasteis de BelemNearby is a pastry shop called the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, home to what is arguably the Holy Grail of Portuguese sweets: pastéis de Belém, the recipe for which has been a secret for centuries. Having been raised in a Portuguese-Catholic family, I looked at the monastery, then at the confeitaria, and joined my fellow sinners in the happier-looking line in front of the shop.

This adoration of the pastéis is easy to understand after you’ve taken a bite. The confection’s shell is made from massa folhada, Portugal’s equivalent to France’s puff pastry. It spirals up, creating a nest of hundreds of crisp layers. Inside is a luscious, warm custard. Rarely do a dozen make it home intact.

The proximity of the monastery to the bakery is no accident. Until the 19th century, monasteries were Portugal’s research, trade, horticultural, and confectionary epicenters, around which rose small businesses. Originally, lay bakers made the pastéis behind the Jerónimos walls and sold them to the public. A revolution in the early 1800s shuttered the monasteries, which gave Domingo Rafael Alves, an enterprising Portuguese from Brazil, the opportunity to buy the recipe from a desperate out-of-work baker. In 1837, production of the pastéis resumed in Alves’ nearby sundries shop, and soon he scuttled the rest of his inventory to specialize in them.

“It’s still the same recipe,” said Pedro Clarinha, current owner of the confeitaria and a descendant of Alves. “Only three people in the world know it.”

Confeitaria de Belem founded in 1837I was bucking to become the fourth.

Security is tight at Antigua Confeitaria. Master bakers make the custard and dough in a locked room, and not even the women who sit a few feet away tucking spirals of dough into small, flared baking tins know what goes on in that room. As I circled through the kitchen taking pages of mental notes, I backed up to the barred door and gently rattled it.

“Nice try,” said Maria Dulce Roque, the confeitaria’s publicist.

It’s partly this mystery that keeps the confeitaria’s dining rooms filled. Scattered among the prim families who visit every Sunday at teatime and the dusty workers who huddle together knocking back piles of pastéis and demitasses of strong Portuguese coffee at lunch are the sleuths. Primarily tourists, these pastéis lovers are determined to crack the ancient code, an activity Lisboetas gave up long ago. With pens poised, they bite off a tiny piece, confer, and write. And so it goes, picking, nibbling, conferring, and writing— yet according to Roque there have been no dead ringers as a result.

Still, Clarinha’s family registered the name in 1911 to assure that only pastries that come out their ovens can be called pastéis de Belém. Generic, and often anemic, imitations can be had elsewhere under the name pastéis de nata, custard pastries.

Although he’s cagey when it comes to the recipe, Clarinha did let a few preparation secrets slip. “We rest the custard and dough in the refrigerator overnight, and we bake the pastéis for 30 minutes at 400 degrees,” he told me. Then almost as an afterthought he added, “Celsius.” My eyes widened. That’s about 750 degrees Fahrenheit! Granted, a very hot oven is required to create the characteristic mottled brown top, but that’s incinerator hot.

Making Pasteis de BelemBack home I called Shirley Corriher, the doyenne of food science and author of the book Cookwise, to find out if something not much bigger than a Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkin could survive that heat. “Maybe that’s how they keep the secret recipe secret,” she said laughing. It is a foolproof strategy: Discourage nosy writers and curious cooks from ever attempting to duplicate the pastries by throwing them off the scent with impossibly high temperatures.

Stymied in Belém, I turned to Alfama, the upscale Portuguese restaurant in New York’s West Village. There, chef Francisco Rosa, who studied at the Escola de Hotelaria e Turismo de Coimbra north of Lisbon, makes what many Portuguese expats maintain is the next best thing to the original.

“A lot of customers prefer ours,” Rosa told me as we rolled out huge sheets of dough. Unlike Clarinha, who has a dynasty to protect, Rosa was happy to share his take on the popular pastry. “They say they even taste great the next day.” I tried to test his hypothesis, but the longest I could hold out was 30 minutes — proof enough for me that his pastéis are fraternal twins of the Belém version.

Although of slight build and modest height, Rosa turned out 200 perfect pastéis in just under an hour. “Do you think you can do it?” he asked, moving on to prepping sardines.

“Of course,” I lied, “but just in case, I better take a dozen for research.”

It took a second trip to Alfama, three phone calls, and seven attempts at home before I could adapt Rosa’s adaptation of the enigmatic pastéis for the home cook.

To celebrate, I gathered a few friends, some of whom had been to Belém with me. I served the pastéis slightly warm, sprinkled with a blanket of powdered sugar and a tap of cinnamon, just as they do at the confeitaria.

The consensus was six thumbs up. However, I knew that until I could wiggle my way into that secret room and answer the burning question of the 750-degree ovens, my quest would continue.

Alfama’s Pastéis de Nata

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