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Week of December 9, 2002

Lovin' Spoonbread
It used to be that if you wanted to savor spoonbread, you had to head uptown to Harlem (Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too and its spinoff, Miss Maude's, are sure bets) or down to Kentucky or Virginia, where they hold festivals complete with banjo-picking and spoonbread-eating contests the way we have street fairs. Well, maybe it's anti-Atkins backlash, but whatever the reason, chefs are gussying up the humble cornmeal side dish and serving it all over town: At Guastavino's, Daniel Orr seasons it with sage and goat cheese and serves it alongside his Thursday-night special, Texas beef brisket; downtown at Kloe, chef Erica Miller gives the dish a southwestern spin by using Taos blue cornmeal and pairing it with Norwegian salmon and chanterelles. You can even learn how to make it as part of a Kwanzaa cooking class given at the New School's Culinary Arts Division this December 20. The city's foremost spoonbread spooner, though, might be Scott Barton, the chef at the new West Village restaurant Voyage, whose version is more traditional (less stuffing-like, more soufflé-like) and whose spoonbread mantra is cornmeal: "That's the single most important factor, because it adds the right texture," he says. "I get mine fresh from the gristmill, from Arkansas or Tennessee, every two weeks." Served as an appetizer with a crayfish-and-rock-shrimp ragout, or just as a side with a touch of grana padano, his light and fluffy version tastes like a popover that's undergone a flavor transfusion and bought a pickup truck. —ROB PATRONITE

Icing on the Cake
François Payard has created just the thing for pint-size pastry chefs this holiday season: With his cake-decorating kit for kids ($25), Easy-Bake Oven specialists can dress up dessert with tiny colored and frosted meringues shaped like Christmas trees and—somewhat inexplicably, unless you're French—"Santa Claus booties" and toadstools, plus chocolate-ganache-and-vanilla-filled chocolate balls. (Sorry, kids: "No liqueur," says the chef.) Leave a few of the meringues, which are also sold for $3.50 apiece at Payard Patisserie & Bistro, out by the hearth on Christmas Eve and you're sure to score bonus points with Santa.
Payard Patisserie & Bistro
1032 Lexington Avenue, near 73rd Street

best of the week
D'Artagnan's Armagnac Tasting
A French master pours the ancient brandy —which is, strangely, also a plot point in this season's Sopranos— every Friday in December.
$15 per seminar.
152 East 46th Street

Success Is Sweet
When Jacques Torres opened his chocolate factory in Dumbo, he didn't expect many retail customers—and last month, he had to double the size of his adjacent shop to accommodate the crowds. The new, improved Jacques Torres Chocolate has twice as much display space for his expanding product line, and a marble-topped hot-cocoa bar where he'll soon add a few new flavors to his beloved repertory (hazelnut and coffee are strong contenders). Still, it's doubtful the extra square footage will suffice—especially on Saturdays, when hordes descend for a taste of whatever Torres is inspired to bake that day. A clique of crafty customers has even figured out exactly what time the pithiviers emerge from the oven and how long they take to cool, and arrives accordingly, proving just how cutthroat the confectionery world can be.
Jacques Torres Chocolate
66 Water Street, Brooklyn

Ask Gael
Can one ever have too many cookbooks?
You've asked the wrong person. I get bruised bumping into the skyscraper pile overflowing my shelves, and still I want more. I'll use Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking (William Morrow) and Anissa Helou's Mediterranean Street Food (HarperCollins) as gospel on my travels. I doubt I'll start baking again soon (it's underappreciated now that Manhattan's gone carbophobic). Still, Dorie Greenspan's charmingly illustrated Paris Sweets (Broadway Books) is a keeper, for the fantasy that I'll be so svelte next time I hit Paris that I can sample all the goodies in the pastry shops she stalked. I plan to fall asleep winter nights trying to absorb everything there is to know in Jill Norman's Herbs & Spices (DK) with its lush photographs. As for Eric Ripert and Michael Ruhlman's A Return to Cooking (Artisan), Ripert's simple tomato-water consommé or the barely cooked salmon might nudge me back to my rarely used kitchen, but the book—surprisingly whimsical and intimate—is too big and beautiful to cook beside (I want it anyway). I've already won cheers for chicken braised with figs, honey, and vinegar, as well as the bread salad in Judy Rodgers's down-to-earthly delicious Zuni Cafe Cookbook (W. W. Norton & Company), reviewed here in recent weeks—an energizer for cooks both active and lapsed. And I'm buying Barrie Kerper's anthology Venice: The Collected Traveler (Three Rivers Press) for all my Venice-smitten pals. And not just because it recycles my own musings.

Bites & Buzz Archive

Week of December 2
Hungarian delights; chocolate stocking stuffer; Monday night dinner at Inside; devilish diavola; oodles of noodles at Soba Nippon.
Week of November 25
Upscale lunching on the west side; thanksgiving dinner with Daniel Boulud; thali heaven at Hampton Chutney; Stone Soup delivers this holiday season.
Week of November 18
Serious cider for holiday celebration; affordable lunch luxury at Lutece.

and more ...

Photos: Bruce Katz, Carina Salvi (2nd & 3rd), Aimee Herring.

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