Monday, April 29, 2013


A Gift in Wood and Cast-Iron

 I hefted the cumbersome object waist high, needing two hands gripped around the handle to lift it off the tabletop. Grabbing it halfway down the interminable length of wood and metal – much too long – and lifting it off the table, arms pressed against my body for leverage, I was stunned at the sheer weight of the thing; this is not merely lifting an object, this is grappling with something inconceivably overweight, staggeringly bulky. But I had fallen in love and knew that from that day forth I would carry it with me, a talisman, no matter how awkward or difficult, wherever I went.

 My first skillet.

 This old orange and black Le Creuset skillet was and would ever be more than simply a cooking utensil. It meant acceptance into my new family. This was a gift – of sorts – from my mother-in-law all of those years ago. Even as I struggled to understand and make myself understood in a language I barely mastered, as I waited for any sign of rejection or discomfort from my very traditional French in-laws because of my differences, as I worried about my every behavior, battling against my very American social impulses, making every effort to not make a dreaded faux pas, embarrassing us all, my lovely mother-in-law somehow succeeded in making me feel welcome and at home. This offer of an old, timeworn, much-used skillet was more profound than she ever realized.

 This skillet, passed on to her from her daughter, was simply too heavy for her to lift. So the skillet lay abandoned and neglected in the back of a cupboard. We were just starting out, poor as church mice, and needed all the help we could get. Cooking was our passion, a strong common bond no matter our cultural differences. My mother-in-law, his maman, rifled through her cabinets and offered us what she could: an old marble surface once used to slice cheese in the shop, worn wooden cutting boards with only the faintest of fissures, and a skillet.

 It is still with us, twenty-five years of cooking up memories.

A Voyage in Wood and Cast-Iron

 Sunday morning. Home. Dad’s pancakes, sizzling butter, a swish of thick creamy batter in imperfect rounds. Eggs over easy, as American as apple pie; the sharp crack of an egg or two on the smooth, dark edge of a skillet. A side of cornbread. Morning as the sun breaks through the window, splashing across stovetop and table. The comfort of home and kitchen.

 Exotic Spanish frittata, whipped up and spicy, golden baked, speckled with festive red and green, onion and mushrooms. Eggs passionate, sexy, with a flick of the wrist, a toss of the skillet. Ambiente festivo!

 Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino ! A twirl around Italy, salty, earthy, hot and steamy. Memories of climbing to the dizzying heights of the Duomo, la Madonnina, the lush green Umbrian countryside, a stroll through rows of Tuscan vines, tiptoeing through ancient stone ruins of the Roman forum. An Italian trattoria in our own kitchen, tossing pasta, heating up an afternoon.

 Flash-fried, seared, charred and flambéed. Sautéed, braised and baked. Mexican tortillas, Indian pulao, shakshooka and blintzes. Kotlety and pierogi. And Swedish plättar.

 Rustic and familiar, the scent of iron, well seasoned, glistening with years of olive oil and butter rubbed lovingly into the cooking surface. Outside, a delicate web of scrapes and scratches.

 Weighty, like an irksome thought or a guilty conscience.

 Sunday evenings around an old wooden table for eight, waxy oilcloth, stained and burned, the pattern faded from so many years of elbow grease, memories of meals past. Too many dishes, the clatter of cutlery, pressed up against one’s neighbor, the joy of eating. My mother-in-law’s boulettes. Purée de pommes de terre, thick, homey mashed potatoes gathered together in spoonfuls, patted into dense balls, lusciously fried in too much margarine. She drops them one by one into the skillet, tossing and turning in the sputtering grease, until a deep, dark golden crust forms, burned in spots, even better. The children’s eyes light up as each boulette is scraped and scooped from the skillet and meted out, dropped on cheap china plates. Pick off the crust to reveal fragrant creamy potatoes. Childhood delight.

When I moved to Italy, my mother gave me a cast-iron plättlagg, a typically Swedish skillet in which one makes mini pancakes called plättar, because it would remind me of Sweden (and her) when I made plättar for my own children. If you are lucky enough to own one, do use it when you make these cinnamon plättar, if not, you can use the recipe to make normal pancakes. I love these topped with a dollop of full-fat yoghurt and a little strawberry jam but sugar or, why not, a little nutella which is not bad either.


150 g/5.3 oz AP flour
400 ml/1,7 cup milk
2 eggs
100 g/3.5 oz butter
2 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt
1 tsp cinnamon

   Melt the butter; I like it when the butter is a little burnt.

   Put half of the milk together with the flour, cinnamon, salt and sugar in a bowl and whisk until smooth, then add the rest of the milk. By doing it this way, it is less likely that you get lumps in the batter.

   Add the eggs and whisk until the batter is smooth. Pour the melted butter into the batter and stir and then fry the plättar on both sides, just like you make pancakes.


  1. As Görel Bylund so aptly said: this is a match made in heaven!

    1 + 1 = 3, I knew it! Love your literary style and poetic photography!

  2. So lovely. :-) I had to leave my cast iron skillets in the States when I moved to Oz, and how I miss them. Thankfully I'm rebuilding my collection now and feel so happy with the heft of those lovely old pans in my hand. Beautiful post.

  3. Ilva as normal , you give us a fabulous story or should I say stories .. So wonderful how your mother-in-law made you feel so welcome, just like my mother-in-law now .. I would love and iron skillet ,, especially one with a history behind it. ♥

    1. Anne, that was my French mother-in-law.... Ilva's own mother gave her a plättlagg while my mother-in-law gave me a skillet. Love in cast iron!

  4. Another splendid post! Both the words and pictures are intensely poetic and beautiful.

    I love skillets and wish I owned one like yours...

    Gorgeous pancakes too. Very addictive, I'm sure!



  5. Cast-iron is the way to go, isn't it? One of our most treasured gifts from my mother is the cast-iron stove-top waffle maker (c.1925) that she rescued from a contents sale. She spent hours scrubbing away the rust spots with steel wool and then seasoning it before giving it to us for Christmas. And very early on in our marriage, my parents-in-law gave us a cast-iron flat grill pan.

    We also have two cast-iron frying pans that we use all the time. The thing I love about them is that they don't have wooden handles so can be put in the oven. We also have a cast iron pestle and mortar like the one in the photos. Isn't it great?

    Until reading this post, I thought we had all the cast-iron utensils we needed. But suddenly, my life is incomplete. Not only do we not have a plättlagg, but to my knowledge, I have never seen before one either. Those plättar look so cute!

    1. In lieu of a plättlagg (I don't have one either!) just make smaller pancakes. About 50 ml of batter in hot pan, don't do anything to the pan until the pancake has set. If you find the batter won't set, add another egg.

  6. A seasoned cast iron pan is a true treasure, but it pales in comparison to the wealth of your combined talents. I'm going to use mine to make those lovely pancakes.

  7. Doesn't 1 teaspoon cinnamon create overkill? I use that amount for 1 litre milk recipe.

    1. It depends on taste and how fresh the cinnamon is. I like it this way but my cinnamon powder isn't super fresh. and we love cinnamon here!

  8. Beautiful words and photos! So lovely!

  9. These words just transported me to a reality I never lived in the flesh. Each description is just so vivid. Beautiful!! And the photos as usual truly magical. I'd love to have some of those pancakes on Sunday morning. I might just do a batch.

  10. I didn't bring a treasured anything with me to Australia so this post speaks to me. My sister is coming from New York next month and is bringing me a china teacup and saucer that belonged to my mother. Now that teacup will mean nothing to anyone else but to me it will recall my roots every time I look at it. I have my grandmother's sterling rosary and now the teacup. I'm good. Maybe one day I'll get a cast iron skillet from my mother-in-law but I'm not holding my breath. :)

  11. Just the thing to make on those cast iron skillets! I had never heard of plattar before, and the spanish tortilla is another perfect recipe. Of the latter I have made too many.

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  13. I love cast iron skillets too! Photos are stunning again and the recipe seems easy and delicious. I'll try it!