Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée is an appealing title for an interesting book (see giveaway rules ahead) in which the author, Thomas J. Craughwell, tells the story of Jefferson's sojourn in Paris, from 1784 to 1789. Jefferson was there as a commissioner and minister, and during those years, he had one of his slaves, James Hemings, apprentice as a cook so he could learn French cuisine.
As James apprenticed under master French chefs, Jefferson studied the cultivation of French crops (especially grapes for winemaking) so they might be replicated in American agriculture. The two men returned home with such marvels as pasta, French fries, champagne, macaroni and cheese, crème brûlée, and a host of other treats. (source)
Jefferson brought back "86 crates of European kitchen utensils and equipment and hundreds of bottled of wine, cheeses, and ingredients unavailable in America, such as olive oil and Maille mustard." James brought back all he had learned, and he then trained his brother Peter. Once he had accomplished the task, Jefferson freed him in 1796, honoring a contract the two had signed to that effect.
The book describes Jefferson's fascination with French cuisine and table customs, produce and wines. Unfortunately, we don't know James Hemings' perspective about his life in Paris: learning French, working as an apprentice chef, being a slave. On pages 43-47, Craughwell talks about this: "The moment James set foot in France, he would have been able to claim his freedom, and Jefferson could have done nothing to stop him." Hence, Jefferson's offer of freedom if he taught another slave. I think it is really sad that we don't have any historical documents telling Hemings' side of the story. What did he think of Paris? How did he fel about his legal condition, surrounded as he was by people not owned by anybody?
James was not the only Hemings to spend time in France. In 1785, Jefferson's youngest daughter, Polly, arrived in Paris accompanied by Sally Hemings. I knew a certain amount about Thomas Jefferson's life before reading the book, and certainly learned more by reading it. At the same time, I also read a very interesting article on the Smithsonian website, titled The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, which describes life at Monticello, Jefferson's plantation ("a small town in everything but name, not just because of its size, but in its complexity"), and discusses Jefferson's "transformation" on slavery and his perspective of it in the years that followed:
"One cannot question the genuineness of Jefferson’s liberal dreams," writes historian David Brion Davis. "He was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery."
But in the 1790s, Davis continues, "the most remarkable thing about Jefferson’s stand on slavery is his immense silence. And later, Davis finds, Jefferson’s emancipation efforts "virtually ceased."
The same site also mentions the book discussed here in the post Meet Edith and Fanny, Thomas Jefferson’s Enslaved Master Chefs. which talks about Edith Fossett and and Fanny Hern, the two young women Jefferson brought to Washington in 1802.
Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée offers a view of Jefferson's life and also of the historical period, since he spent in Paris the years leading to the French Revolution (he and his family sailed back to the US in November of 1789, after it had started). In the years after his return home, Jefferson processed the information and knowledge he had acquired during his stay in Paris and his travels elsewhere in Europe. One thing that made me smile is the use Jefferson made of excellent dinners he provided at his house for political purposes, as in the case of bringing Alexander Hamilton to compromise on the location of the US capital in 1790.
The book suggests that Jefferson introduced macaroni (general term for pasta) and cheese to the US. In his documents, we see that he got interested in pasta and on pages 116 and 117, there are two interesting documents:
- a note by Jefferson that includes the drawing of a pasta machine and starts with the words: "The best maccaroni in Italy is made with a particular sort of flour called Semola, in Naples..."
- the transcription of a recipe for macaroni noodles (this page has a good reproduction), which uses eggs and milk and explicitly excludes water.
The transcription of both documents is available on this page of the Monticello website. As for the recipe, Craughwell's trascription has "a little salt" as the fourth ingredient and I agree; I disagree with both sources on the amount of flour, which I think is noted as 2 lb (it cannot be 2 tb, as you would not get a pasta dough with that amount, given 6 whole eggs and "2 wine glasses of milk"1).
Jefferson's drawing of the pasta machine is quite intriguing, as is the fact that he obtained a pasta machine:
In February 1789, William Short wrote to Jefferson that he had procured a "mould for making macaroni" at Jefferson's request in Naples, and had it forwarded on to his mentor in Paris. The macaroni mold probably did not reach Paris until after Jefferson had departed. His belongings were shipped to Philadelphia in 1790, and the machine was probably included with those items. We know that Jefferson did have the machine in the United States eventually, as it is listed in a packing list with other household items shipped from Philadelphia to Monticello in 1793. (source)
In my recent pasta shape explorations, I have focused on using my hands to shape pasta. As I have showed in recent months, making pasta with semolina flour (semola di grano duro) is easy and a great introductory exercise to pasta making, a craft that obviously intrigued Jefferson. I wonder if James Hemings invented some shapes of his own. Trofiette is the sixth pasta shape I have explored recently and I did so while reading "Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée," so I am presenting them in the same post.
Book giveaway: I will gladly send a copy of Thomas Jefferson's Crème Brûlée to one of the people who will either comment on the post OR re-tweet the announcement OR like briciole's page on Facebook by the end of Friday, November 15. Update (November 21): 15 people qualified for the random drawing and the random number generator gave me number 11. The 11th name in the list is Cynthia: congratulations to the winner!
Differently from other pasta shapes I have made recently, trofiette come from Liguria, a region in northern Italy. I saw a rendition of them in a video (starting at 3:15) and then went about making them my way. This is another pasta shape for which you don't need any special tool.
To make a trofietta, I roll the short piece of dough with the side of my thumb, at the same time pushing slightly towards the right. I hope the video gives an idea of the hand movement. Note that in making trofiette, you need the working surface to offer a slight resistance, i.e., you don't want the piece of dough to slide on it as the thumb applies pressure. Hence, I recommend that you clean the working surface you are using for shaping the trofiette and don't sprinkle any flour on it. (It is fine to sprinkle flour on the area where you lay out the trofiette to dry.)
The dough I used is the same as described in previous posts on handmade pasta, most recently fusilli al ferro.
Ingredients for the pasta:
- 100 g / 3.5 oz. semolina flour of good quality2
- 50 g / 1.75 oz. warm water (I recommend weighing the water)
- a pinch of salt
Trofiette are great with pesto, but I had a nice fresh batch of my tomato sauce when I made them for the photo-op, so that is what I used.
Ingredients for the tomato sauce:
- olive oil
- a shallot, minced
- leaves of a sprig of thyme
- a small garlic clove, thinly sliced
- 2 cups strained roasted tomatoes (thawed, if frozen)
- sea salt, to taste
- freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste
Make a dough with the three ingredients and knead until nice and smooth. Let the dough rest, covered, for half an hour or so.
Roll the dough into a thick salami and cut it into pieces. Keep them covered while you shape the trofiette. Roll each piece into a thin snake, 1/4 inch / 0.5 cm thick, then cut into pieces about 1 1/2 inch / 4 cm long (I use my three middle fingers to guide the blade).
Shape each piece into a trofietta (see video above and the paragraph underneath it) and lay it out. You may want to dust lightly with flour the surface where you lay the shaped trofiette, to prevent them from sticking.
In a small saucepan, warm up a bit of olive oil, then add shallot and thyme. Cook gently for a few minutes, then add garlic. Cook for a couple of minutes, then add tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook for 7-8 minutes. Adjust salt, to taste. Note that this will make more sauce than you need to dress the trofiette, but once you have the sauce ready, I am sure you'll find ways of using it, like making more handmade pasta.
Bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil, then toss the trofiette in it (what in Italian we call: buttare giù la pasta). The time needed is a bit variable, depending on the size of trofiette, how dry they are, etc. Taste and stop the cooking when the trofiette are ready. Pour a glass of cold water in the pot, stir and drain the trofiette. Place in a bowl, sprinkle a bit of the cheese on top and stir briefly, then distribute some tomato sauce and toss. Finally, sprinkle some cheese on top and serve immediately.
Alternatively, while the pasta is cooking, place a few tablespoons of the sauce in a small skillet and warm it up. Taste the pasta and stop the cooking slightly earlier than usual. Drain the pasta and drop it into the skillet with the sauce. Stir well over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle some of the cheese and stir one last time. Plate and sprinkle a bit more cheese on the top. Serve immediately.
The recipe makes two small portions.
Note: if tomato season is ongoing in your area, you can make tomato sauce using crushed tomatoes, adjusting the cooking time to get a sauce of the right consistency. And if you have fresh basil, you can add a bit of it to the sauce.
1 I wrote a comment about this on the page referenced and it has been published, but I have yet to receive an answer.
2 See the post on orecchiette for details on the various types of ground durum wheat.
This post contains the roundup of the event.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the trofiette audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
FTC disclosure: I have requested a review copy of the book mentioned in this post from the publisher and received it free of charge. I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for discussing the book on my blog. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.