I haven't perused Nathan Myhrvold's four-volume, $600 Modernist Cuisine, but I can envision its vast architecture. I imagine it as the Brasilia of cookbooks, all elegant linearity and sun-bleached vistas of knowledge. Where to find an old bench and a shady tree?
I am ambivalent about laboratory gastronomy, not in practice but in concept, no matter how innovative and clinically perfect the resulting cuisine may be. Like Proust's madeleine, food should reify an era, a culture, a town, a family, one's own past. The sweat and tears of experience must lend their intangible salt.
To my mind, the French bistro remains the eternal symbol of spiritually correct cookery. The bistro is far more than the sum of its parts, but the parts are worth enumerating: a snug nook, a dozen tables, a cast-iron Dutch oven, a few battered baking tins, a sensual impulse fixated on the memory of la cuisine de grand-mère, with its simple splendor of herb, wine and butter and its savor of the surrounding countryside.
In the Triangle, no restaurant evokes the French granny's kitchen as guilelessly as the aptly named Kitchen (www.kitchenchapelhill.com), a year-old bistro at 764 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Chef-owner Dick Barrows and his wife, Sue, honed their craft in a string of Pennsylvania restaurants. After their daughter matriculated at UNC, they succumbed to the Southern charm of Chapel Hill and decided to relocate, opening Kitchen about a year later.
"We wanted to serve the kind of food that we enjoy," says Dick Barrows. "We weren't interested in the whole fine-dining froufrou thing. We're not trying to trick anybody. We're not making pretzels out of foie gras. If you're a top chef and you really know what you're doing, you can get away with that kind of thing. We aim for soundness and simplicity, and we're conscientious about using ingredients we don't have to charge a lot for."
Kitchen serves a sample of bistro classics, including a goat cheese and onion tart, but nothing exemplifies its congenital modesty better than its polenta pound cake: a crunchy, buttered slab topped with brown-sugared sour cream and garnished with wine-poached pears or seasonal berries.
The cake is Barrows' creation, but the sour cream topping is pure grandmère, so to speak: His mother used to serve summer peach slices in this homespun sauce.
In an era of vertical desserts whose dubious aspirations recall the Tower of Babel, the Barrows' pound cake is refreshingly earthy. It deserves a wooden table in a dusky orchard.
Polenta Pound Cake with Wine-Poached Pears
FOR THE POUND CAKE:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal (see note), plus extra for coating the loaf pan
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
4 large eggs, separated
6 oz. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus extra for buttering the loaf pan and for frying the completed pound cake
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups full-fat sour cream
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 tsp. zest of one small lemon
FOR THE POACHED PEARS:
4 Bosc pears, peeled
1/2 cup ruby port
2 tbs. granulated sugar (or to taste)
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. allspice
1/8 tsp. ground clove
FOR THE BROWN SUGAR SAUCE:
1 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
1/3 cup light brown sugar
Generously butter a 9-x-5-x-2.5-inch loaf pan and coat it with cornmeal. Blend the dry ingredients and set aside. Separate the eggs. Beat the egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, about five minutes.
Add the egg yolks, sour cream, vanilla extract and lemon zest to the butter and sugar. Mix at medium-low speed until fully incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and mix at medium-low speed until fully incorporated. Gently fold the whipped egg whites into the batter as for a soufflé, taking care not to brutalize the aerated whites. Spoon the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top. Bake at 325 degrees for 90 minutes.
Dice the pears into half-inch cubes. In a medium saucepan, combine the pears, port, sugar, cinnamon, kosher salt, allspice and ground clove. Simmer over medium heat until the pears have softened (but not become mushy) and the port has become thick and syrupy, about eight minutes.
Whisk the brown sugar into the crème fraîche or sour cream.
Cut the cooled pound cake into inch-thick slices. Panfry each slice in butter until golden brown and crisp. Top with a dollop of brown sugar sauce and a spoonful of diced pears.
Bosc pears are relatively mush-resistant and therefore recommended.
The pivotal ingredient is cornmeal. Finely ground cornmeal or corn flour (i.e., cornmeal ground to a floury softness) will produce a fine crumb, much like that of a conventional pound cake. More granular cornmeal will produce a cake with an appealing crunch. In my opinion, this granularity lends a crucial rustic appeal. Kitchen buys its cornmeal from Byrd Mill in Ashland, Va. (www.byrdmill.com), which has been grinding corn since the mid-18th century. Whole Foods' bulk cornmeal substitutes nicely.
Crème fraîche, which is purchasable at A Southern Season, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, has a more intricate tang than sour cream. It also costs about three times as much. If you belong to the "1%," by all means splurge, though sour cream certainly passes muster.