Secrets for the Best Chocolate Mousse

P1090360Sometimes you eat something that transports you to heaven, with angels blowing on trumpets and rays of golden light. This chocolate mousse is so light and fluffy, to call it a cloud of chocolate would be too heavy. It’s a dream about chocolate, set to angelic music.

The ingredients are very simple. The keys to success are all in the process. Don’t worry–it’s still easy. A dessert you can whip up in a few minutes. BUT plan ahead. It should be made at least a day ahead, if not two. The air bubbles grow, making the mousse even lighter.

First, you should know the different Schools of Chocolate Mousse. There are the Whipped Cream School, the Egg White School and the fence-straddling Cream-and-Egg School. An all-chocolate French cookbook (Le Chocolate, from Madame Figaro magazine) has FOUR chocolate mousse recipes, in the Cream and Cream-and-Egg camps. A recipe on Cuisine Larousse, as well as one by Alain Ducasse, uses cream, but both count on the egg whites to make the foam (mousse means foam). The Whipped Cream School basically makes something like chocolate Cool Whip–OK for what it is, but lacking the seemingly contradictory qualities of airiness and creaminess that makes chocolate mousse so special.P1090345Some recipes mix cream with the chocolate–like ganache–or butter with the chocolate, or both cream and butter. The point is to increase the fat content, for that creamy quality, rather than to whip the cream. The egg whites are what provide the fluff, which is airier and longer lasting than whipped cream. This recipe uses only butter, which is 82% fat; heavy cream is only 36% fat.

This recipe is squarely in the Egg Camp and comes from the great-grandmother of our friend R., who provided the very important passed-down-through-generations tips that make all the difference. (When I asked him about cream in chocolate mousse, he made a terrible grimace!) Another special point is that this recipe uses the egg yolks (some in the Egg School use only the whites), adding to the creamy factor in the way that some ice cream uses custard–yolks are 27% fat.

Before some of you faint over the idea of eating raw egg whites, even chocolate ones, let me point you to Santé Publique France, which in 2015 counted 141 cases of salmonella, with 20%, or 28 cases, linked to eggs, out of a population of 67 million. On the French government’s National Agency for Health Safety of Food, the Environment and Work’s page about salmonella, it cautions that recipes using raw eggs should be kept cold and eaten within 24 hours. That said, chocolate mousse is even the third day. A risk I’m willing to take (though waiting is hard!).

Ingredients:

6 or 7 eggs, depending on their size

200 g (7 oz.) butter, cut into small chunks

200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar

200 g (7 oz or 2/3 cup) dark chocolate (at least 60% cacao, which won’t taste like dark chocolate in the end; if you like darker, up the percentage), broken into small bits

Turn on the oven to just warm (60 Celsius or 140 Fahrenheit). Put the butter and chocolate into an oven-proof pan or dish and let it melt slowly in the oven, until the butter and chocolate are very soft but not liquid. R.’s advice: the oven heats the ingredients more gently than the microwave and more homogenously, without having to stir a lot, than a double-boiler on the stove.

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The yolks and sugar. It starts out very yellow and gets progressively lighter in color as you mix.

While it’s melting, measure the sugar into a large bowl. Add the egg yolks, separating the whites into a separate mixer bowl for beating. Mix the yolks and sugar by hand (important! otherwise it comes out too “hard”) until the mixture is white.

Stir the butter and chocolate so they are completely integrated, then pour into the yolk/sugar mixture. Mix that well.

Using an electric mixer, beat the whites until they are stiff. You can turn it on while you’re mixing the previous step but keep an eye out that you don’t overbeat the whites or they’ll collapse. Anyway, you want the chocolate mixture to cool down before adding the egg whites, or the heat will deflate the eggs and make the mousse too dense. The chocolate mixture just has to be warm enough that it doesn’t get hard.

Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture in batches. Use a wooden spoon or a spatula, and gently guide the batter from the bottom to the top, in one direction! You want the whites to be integrated into the batter, but it’s more important not to have streaks of chocolate mixture vs. trying to get rid of all the little blobs of whites.

That’s it. You can put it into a large serving bowl or into individual bowls. It makes about 10 half-cup servings (small ramekins). If you want to double the recipe, it’s better to do it twice, because you risk over/under beating the egg whites if the volume is too great.

Refrigerate as long as possible. At least three hours, but better is overnight or up to two days. If you have anything smelly in the fridge, cover the mousse tightly with plastic film.

 

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Umoja

kilimanjaroThe group “By Invitation Only” has chosen Unity for today’s theme. I had planned to write about a few of the many successes of the European Union, but something came up that struck near to my heart. So bear with me.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeWhen my kid was in preschool, the extraordinary teacher, Mme. L., decided to structure the year as a trip around the world. All the lessons—learning the alphabet, colors, counting—would relate to different countries. Some parents thought it was too much for four-year-olds to learn geography and concepts about other cultures when they should be getting drilled on writing S and E in the correct direction. Maybe even learning how to add. But Mme. L. persisted.

The children made “passports.” They “visited” China, India, Mexico, Senegal and the U.S., and they also talked about other countries. They learned songs, were read stories and ate food from those countries. They learned phrases in other languages. They made musical instruments and miniature houses of the countries’ style.

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Real huts, in the foreground.

One day my kid came home with red clay all over. “We made huts today,” my kid explained, going on to describe how the clay walls kept the interiors cool in the warm climate. (BTW, a teacher friend informed me that young kids should always come home from school dirty, as it shows they did things and didn’t just sit like zombies at a desk.)

Mme. L. opened the world to these kids right at the moment when they were curious and not yet inculcated with negative stereotypes. Our village isn’t exactly diverse. Carcassonne is a little better, but it’s a sleepy town with no industry and limited economic opportunities.

One day, I was at a shopping center with my kid when a black man wearing a colorful, beautifully embellished robe walked by. My kid was curious: Which country do you think he’s from? Do you think he likes the weather? The food? Do you think he misses his country?

I was most struck by the fact that my kid’s reaction was not fear or rejection of someone different but interest. Also that my kid knew, at age four, that Africa was a continent with many countries, and that in those countries live individuals who might eat different food or live in different kinds of houses, but who are basically the same as us.

Another time, my kid, surveying the bounty of toys on the bedroom floor, declared gravely, “I am spoiled rotten. Some kids don’t even have one toy.”

Not everybody is lucky enough to have had a preschool teacher like Mme. L.

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Jacaranda trees in bloom in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
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Downtown Nairobi is much fancier than in this “archive” shot.

The title of this post is “Umoja,” which is “unity” in Swahili, the national language of Kenya and of Tanzania.

I have not been to all 54 countries in Africa, but I have visited five and lived in one. They were all beautiful, but beyond the natural beauty what I loved most was the beauty of the people, the culture. How many people have gone on safari and swooned over the animals while shunning the people?

I landed in Kenya in October 1985, as the drought that ravaged Ethiopia was still going strong. That was the famine that killed a million people and that inspired Michael Jackson to write “We Are the World,” which you can listen to here, and the lyrics are here. It’s time to read them again.

I saw many things in Kenya. Lions so close I could hear them crack the bones of the wildebeest they were feeding on. Giraffes grazing with cows. Majestic mountains (the top photo is of the Kibo peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is in Tanzania, right on the border). Exotic flowers. Scan 18Scan 16I saw incredibly hard-working people, many of whom did back-breaking labor for all 12 hours of sunlight. I saw very devout Christians who didn’t just attend church every Sunday in their best clothes but who walked the walk, taking care of each other though they themselves had so little. I saw very devout Muslims unloading sacks of cement at the port in hot and sticky Lamu, sweating profusely but not drinking a drop because it was Ramadan. I saw a culture where children were revered. Where education was paramount, worth every sacrifice.

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My house. I had the right half. It was nice. Except for the bats. And the fist-size spiders.
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The view from my porch. I wish you could also smell it. Delicious.

I also saw starving children, especially in the north, their empty stomachs distended, their hair orange from malnutrition, their energy too sapped to swat away flies from their faces. I saw their parents, in no better shape, working desperately to save them.

Once, when leaving “Hoggers,” a hamburger joint in Nairobi so devoted to America that it played tapes of a U.S. radio station, complete with the D.J.’s banter and weather and traffic reports between songs, I saw a young man, barely clothed, filthy, ravaging through the trash in the alley outside Hoggers, and stuffing jettisoned food into his mouth. That image will never leave me.

On a trip back many years later, taking the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, I was booked into a sleeping car with two other women, both Kenyans. They were businesswomen; we were all about the same age, and we drank Tusker beer and talked about life. At that time, I was just visiting from New York; their lives and mine differed only in the details; the vast majority of our experiences were the same to an extent that startled me. Life is life. Around the world.

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Editor, holding her baby daughter, in front of her house. Her husband is in white. Notice how neatly pressed his suit is–washed by hand and ironed with a coal iron. That’s her mother in the blue sweater. Notice the flower planted in front. The dirt is swept clean. 

Every trip, I visited a former student. Her Christian name was Editor, which her mother, who didn’t speak English, had thought was pretty. Editor was always my favorite. Not my best student, but hard-working and honest and ambitious. She had a coffee and tea farm not far from where she’d grown up. Married, with two kids. She named her daughter after me.

Editor introduced me to her “big sister,” who wasn’t a blood relative at all but a mentor. In an area with no banks, women formed savings clubs, pooling their money and giving the pool to one member. The member would repay it and the pool would go to the next member. Often they would use it to buy a cow, which was not just a kind of savings account but which provided milk that could be consumed and sold, and each year would produce a calf, which also could be sold. Dividends, basically. New women would be brought in, sponsored by established members who were on the hook for their recruits’ repayment. As a result, the older women kept close tabs on their mentorees, helping them work through difficulties.

The “sister” also had two kids. She had a farm, as everybody did or tried to, because growing your own food means you won’t go hungry, whatever else may happen. She also had a job, and so did her husband, so they not only had a car but their house was made of bricks and had electricity and a TV. I lived for two years without electricity and I can attest that having it or not doesn’t make one a good or bad person, but it most certainly makes a person more efficient. The same with running water.

Over dinner, we talked and talked, and I kept thinking that they would have fit right in with my friends in my Midwestern hometown.

Scan 13
Some of my students in front of a classroom.

My school had about 450 kids. No electricity. No running water—they had to go to a stream at the foot of the hill to get it by the bucket (not easy because it wasn’t very deep). No glass in the windows. About 40 kids per class. Three kids sitting on two chairs at one desk with one book (yes, the poor middle kid had to straddle two chairs, but had the best view of the book). You could hear a pin drop in class–they were there to learn. It was a boarding school. They got up at 6, dressed into their uniforms, cleaned the classrooms (sweeping, then mopping not with mops but with buckets of water wiped up with big rags, on their hands and knees), studied, had breakfast (always a millet/sorghum porridge called uji). Then class. Lunch and dinner were always githeri, a maize-and-bean soup with vegetables, served with ugali (polenta).  they got a little meat stew with potatoes or more ugali at lunch on Sundays. They had a little free time after school, spent doing sports or clubs like drama, and then studied again after dinner. There was one kerosene pressure lamp per classroom, and they arrayed their desks for a sliver of light.

I loved them. Even the naughty ones. Especially the good ones. They had many questions about the U.S. They thought it was hilarious that I would go jogging, bizarre that my hair was smooth and my feet soft and that it was crazy that there were people who did so little physical work and who had so much to eat that they had to exercise or they would be fat.

I had a bottle of fresh milk delivered every morning, still warm from the cow, with cream at the top. I had to use it all each day because I didn’t have a refrigerator (that electricity thing again). One day, next to my milk were a pair of flipflops I’d thrown away when the thong ripped a hole in the sole, so they wouldn’t stay on any more. They had been repaired, by hand, by the young man who delivered my milk. Such good flipflops shouldn’t be tossed because of such a small problem.

We’re spoiled rotten.

We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. We have such abundance that we are choking the planet with our waste. We are terrible stewards but we have the arrogance to tell everyone what to do.

With a little humility, we can see that we’re all in this life game together.

We are the world.

Scan 14
My little neighbor, Muriithi, who would sit in front of my door until I opened it to get my milk, then would leap up to dance and sing my name. His life is worth as much as anyone’s.

You can find the other contributions to “By Invitation Only” at Daily Plate of Crazy. Please read them all–very different approaches to the same topic.

Four-star rental again!

kitchen fireplaceWe don’t do things by half measures. We have two vacation rental apartments, and both have earned four-star ratings. We featured la Suite Barbès on Tuesday. Today is the turn of l’Ancienne Tannerie. On AirBnB, you can find la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here.

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Mostly antiques. The hand-carved coffee table is from Lamu, Kenya. Not antique, but it fits in.
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Look at that marble mantle!

Logo 4 étoiles 2017The star rating was given by the ministry for tourism’s department for furnished tourism rentals.

The apartment’s name comes from the fact that, back in medieval times, the inner courtyard was a tannery. The tiny alley behind the building is called ruelle des Tanneurs–Tanners’ Lane. Our apartments are in the “new” town of Carcassonne, which was built around 1260 under the orders of King Louis IX, aka St. Louis, to house the refugees expelled from la Cité after the Albigensian Crusade of 1209. Our building, however, must have replaced an older one (that likely burned down–fires were a big problem), because the high ceilings (13 feet) and large windows are in later architecture.

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View from the living room (and kitchen, and small bedroom, and bathroom).

cour toward doorBTW, here’s a list of the residents in our building in 1624. You can see several were tanners, well into the Renaissance. (There’s also a captain, “called Captain Galaton of Pezens,” although Carcassonne isn’t on the coast.)

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The floor plan is the very definition of “n’importe quoi.”

As with the other apartment, we preserved the historical details while adding modern conveniences (sauna, anyone?). And, to make sure visitors know they’re in France, it’s furnished with locally sourced antiques. Like this marvelous crystal chandelier that we drove to a little village to the south of here to buy.

living fireplaceWe kept the old piano with ivory keys. I love the sconces on it, though I imagine that one would have had to play carefully if candles were burning.

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The stereo was a criteria for the stars.

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Many old books!

What’s new: all the wiring, double-paned windows, plumbing…. plus the original terra-cotta tomettes were cleaned and treated.

The apartment sleeps up to five. There’s a spacious bedroom, a small bedroom, and a sofabed.bedroom 1

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The crazy, lop-sided niche in the bedroom.
small bedroom
A bedroom for one, au cas où.
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The sofa opens to a double bed.

The kitchen is my favorite room. The fireplace is big enough to stand in. I love having the table in the middle.kitchen to fridgekitchen lightkitchen to stove

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First, note the thickness of the walls. Talk about insulated. Second, note the clock and the painting….

Among the paintings we found was one of the kitchen. It shows the clock and the fireplace.clock paintingAnother painting we found in the apartment depicts Square Gambetta, which is two blocks away, before World War II. During the war, German troops destroyed the pool and its fountain, pictured.gambetta paintingThe square was redone a few years ago for construction of an underground parking garage. First, it was completely covered with gravel, and everybody hated it. So it was done over, with squares of formal gardens, a small restaurant, the old carousel and a fountain where kids can play in the water in summer. The same allée of plane trees still stands.

Visitors always ooh and ahh over the bathroom. It has a giant glass shower that doesn’t photograph well at all, being clear. The sauna always brings smiles, too.bathroombathroom mirror

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Choice of overhead rainfall or handheld shower. The little niche was there originally. Check out the before posts!

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The sauna. Such an indulgence.
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The WC is separate.

It has been such a pleasure to hunt for pretty furnishings and accessories that establish an ambience of French tradition and authenticity. And it has been an even greater pleasure to meet people who appreciate it all as much as we do.mantel decorationA quick reminder of the main draw of Carcassonne, the majestic Cité, just a few minutes’ walk away from the apartments:la cite from bridgela cite peekla cite sunsetla cite trivalleWe’d love to welcome you and your friends!

Four Stars at la Suite Barbès

living to mirrorOur vacation rental apartments in Carcassonne received four stars in an official inspection recently.

Logo 4 étoiles 2017We are doing everything strictly by the rules, from the renovation to the rental, and are focusing on the highest quality. The ministry for tourism’s department for furnished tourism rentals set the criteria.

We’re very pleased with the results. Five stars weren’t possible—no possibility of a swimming pool in an apartment in the center of town, nor, for a historically classified building could we have an elevator or air conditioning. The renovation was under the supervision of the Bâtiments de France–our apartment is historically classed not just for the façade but also the interior.

Our apartments are listed on AirBnB, with la Suite Barbès here and l’Ancienne Tannerie here. Let’s take a look again at la Suite Barbès; the next post will look at l’Ancienne Tannerie.

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A little reminder of the local draw: la Cité of Carcassonne, shown here at sunset recently, just a short walk from the apartments.

Not to repeat previous posts too much, this one will zoom in on a few favorite details. You can find other posts with pictures and stories about the apartments and their renovation via the tab Our Vacation Apartments above. The post about being featured on Desire to Inspire shows broader shots of the rooms.

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A detail of one of the antique gilded mirrors. The previous owner included them in the sale because they were too perfectly matched to the motives (a basket of flowers on this one) to separate them.
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Full view of the mirror.

living to fireplaceliving to paintingsEach painting has a story.painting citeWe bought this watercolor at the Toques et Clocher event in Cépie. The painter looked familiar–it turned out we had met at a dinner party some months before, plus she’s the sister of the apartment’s neighbor. Is that karma or what?

painting bridge
The old bridge in Carcassonne.

We found the other three paintings in a storage closet in the apartment. They all feature local scenes. You’ll see almost the exact shot of the one below in this post about the Canal du Midi (the photo captioned “Black Mountains in the background).

painting canal
The Canal du Midi.
painting aude
The Aude River.

The stars are based on a long list of criteria, including the quality of furnishings and decor, modern conveniences like washing machine and hair dryer plus all the usuals in the kitchen, how well the kitchen is stocked with everything needed to prepare meals, the space, etc.

 

La Suite Barbès has a large living room and a crazy big bedroom (35 square meters, or 375 square feet), plus two marble fireplaces, and elaborate moldings. The furniture is almost entirely antiques sourced from local brocantes or bought from the previous owner.

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Queen-size mattress and antique embroidered sheets, which, considering they predate cotton growing, are organic.
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A sweet engraving found at an antique shop.

bed detail

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This painting is by my mother. I always thought it was gigantic–it’s almost 3 feet tall–but it looks tiny in this room.
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Armchairs face the bed; the bathroom has a washing machine.
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I love this Venetian mirror. The silver sconces were tough to find (usually they’re gold-colored).

key

bedroom fireplace
The bedroom fireplace. A chandelier in every room.
chandelier
This is the chandelier in the living room. It’s enormous–before we put it up, it was on the floor and came up to my waist. With real crystals.
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The roly-poly cherub is worthy of a smile.
dining table
This dining set has been in this spot for generations.
dining table detail
The table has four different animals at its base. This is a sanglier, or boar.
balcony
The bedroom and living room each have a small balcony.
kitchen stove
The kitchen has an induction stovetop. Induction is wonderful–what we have at home.
kitchen cannisters
Cannisters with coffee, tea…

We have enjoyed meeting the people from all over the world who stay in our apartment. They like the décor–you know you’re in France. They also like the location, just a block from the central square, so it’s close but without the noise. La Cité is about a 10-minute walk away, making it easy to get to without actually staying all the time in the touristy area. The Canal du Midi is also about a 10-minute walk away, as is the train station.

We hope to welcome you and/or your friends in 2018!

 

 

Very Fresh, Very French

endivesEverybody likes fresh food but sometimes the French take it to another level.

When I first moved here, I noticed the utter chaos at the supermarkets on the day before a long holiday weekend. Shops at that time closed on Sunday and holidays (the custom is starting to chip away, but still, most stores stay closed). A friend explained that people waited until the last minute to shop so the food would be fresh.

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Actually, this is a flute, which is a bit bigger than a baguette.

Baguettes are bought daily, and most bakeries make them throughout the morning if not all day, so they’re fresh. Bread that’s straight from the oven is a different thing than something that’s been made off-site, packaged in plastic, and trucked to the store. If the baguettes are still hot, you have to buy two, because one is sure to be consumed before it gets home.P1090064But the thing I find most charming are the vegetables. Most of the local vendors at the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday market pick the day before. They’ll even tell you that the asparagus, for example, was cut the night before (that’s in spring, when it’s in season, not now). P1090207And then there are things that come to market still alive. Like the endives, growing in pallets, and customers pick themselves.

Or the snails and chickens.125.Eggs market

P1090267Or the herbs sold in pots because cut wouldn’t be as fresh.P1090266

There are orchards and berry farms where you can pick your own, too.

Unlike some parts of the globe, we are not under a thick blanket of snow. In fact, we are having unseasonably warm temperatures in the 60s (usually winter temperatures are in the 30s to the 50s), along with buckets of rain from storms Carmen and Eleanor (in a week!). So we get fresh local vegetables throughout the winter–a million kinds of squash; root vegetables like carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, celery root; brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard. P1090064P1090208P1090068P1050619Eating what’s seasonal is best for nutritional value as well as for the environment. And it ensures we eat a constantly changing variety of foods. Depending on where one lives, it isn’t always possible–when the ground is frozen and covered with snow, nothing is growing. But where the climate allows, such as in France and much of southern Europe, the garden produces all year.

Roadside Attractions et Bonne Année

P1090318One of the things that never fails to astonish me in France is driving along the autoroute–mostly just as soul-sapping as the U.S. Interstate–and then spotting a château, or at least the fairytale towers of one, in the distance.

Despite nearly two decades in Europe, my jaw still drops every time. The A61 autoroute has a great lookout point for admiring la Cité of Carcassonne, too.P1090320I apologize for the spottiness of posts over the holidays; I had prepared photos so I could write while we were visiting the Carnivore’s family, and then I went and paid attention to the people in front of me instead of to my screen. It was all very nice, with obscene amounts of rich food. I’ll share some highlights later.

We drove across France through the last dregs of Storm Carmen, although the rain didn’t get ugly until we turned east. At times, through Dordogne, it was so foggy we could barely see the taillights of the car ahead of us. Roadside broom bushes were already covered with yellow flowers because of the unseasonable warmth. It was 16 degrees Celsius (61 Fahrenheit) at 7 this morning. On Jan. 3!!!!

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And there were others that didn’t turn out.

At this time of the year, it’s customary to bestow best wishes on one’s friends and family. Usually Jan. 1 is the day the young pay visits to their elders, although at a certain age that gets tricky. One relative was juggling visits from grown children with visits to some aged aunts. Who is “elder” is a moving target.

One can extend wishes throughout the month of January, and cartes de voeux, or “best wishes” cards, are as big if not bigger than Christmas cards. In person, everyone recites the same formula, like a national mantra for good luck: “Meilleurs voeux, et surtout la santé!” or “best wishes, and above all good health!” And they distribute two or three or four kisses then look you straight in the eye while insisting on the good health part. Because not everybody in the world is cynical; plenty of people–even most, I’d bet–have good hearts and sincerely care.

So if you were here, I would take you by the shoulders and distribute, left/right/left, la bise, and then hold your hand in mine and tell you, sincerely, that I wish you all the best for 2018, and, above all, good health. You’ll have to make do with the virtual version.

 

Recipes, as Promised

IMG_5474Here are the recipes I promised for two of the desserts served at our Fête de la Lumière: chocolate crackles and nut bars.P1090223Chocolate Crackles

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (not available here; I used a 200 g bar of chocolat patissier–baking chocolate)

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/3 cup cooking oil (colza, corn, etc.–something without a strong flavor)

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

powdered sugar (about half a cup but have more on hand in case you need it)

granulated sugar (same as with the powdered sugar)

Melt the chocolate (I do it in the microwave–just be careful not to overheat it). Stir in the brown sugar and oil, then add the eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix the dry ingredients–flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the chocolate and mix well.

Refrigerate at least an hour but you can go longer, like overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325 F/ 160 C (the lower temp keeps them from getting too hard).

Put some powdered sugar in a shallow dish; put granulated sugar in another shallow dish.IMG_4464Use a spoon to scoop out a little dough more or less in ball shape. Roll it through the granulated sugar first, then the powdered sugar. This makes the crackles more pronounced and prettier. The less you handle the dough, the less mess on your hands. The balls don’t have to be perfectly round.

Place the balls on a cookie sheet that’s lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat, leaving room for them to spread. Bake for about 10 minutes.

They freeze very well and defrost to nice and chewy.IMG_4471Nut Bars

This recipe is from the Silver Palate cookbook, one of my favorites. It’s called Pecan Squares, but just try finding pecans in Carcassonne. Walnuts work well, too.

Crust:

2/3 cup powdered sugar

2 cups flour

1/2 pound (2 sticks/225 g)

Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Grease a 9×12-inch sheet pan (or you can line it with parchment paper).

Sift the flour and sugar, then cut in the butter. It will be shaggy but don’t worry. Press it into the pan and back for 20 minutes. (Keep an eye on it, because you don’t want it to brown too much.)

While it’s baking, make the topping:

2/3 cup (150 g) unsweetened butter, melted

1/2 cup (120 ml) honey

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

3.5 cups (about 400 g) coarsely chopped nuts

Mix the butter, honey cream and brown sugar together. Stir in the nuts. Spread over the crust.

Bake again for another 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into squares. They should keep for up to a week (though they are likely to be eaten long before!).IMG_4528

 

Lights! Christmas! Action!

IMG_5633Christmas spirit is in full force around Carcassonne. The skating rink in the central square is resisting melting away (it’s 11 Celsius or 52 Fahrenheit as I write this). Even more lights are up, including new, illuminated Santas. Many grandparents were out with their grandchildren–there’s only a half day of school on Wednesdays (some schools have gone back to a four-day week with Wednesday off), and grandparents often babysit. I much enjoyed eavesdropping on a talkative girl of about eight who was ambling around la Cité with her obviously besotted grandfather. IMG_5658

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A municipal worker sweeping the streets with a festive touch.
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Rides for the kids. There’s a styrofoam “hill” for “sledding”–no snow here. 

The shops were welcoming beacons in the dark, looking all cozy inside, with little holiday touches and shoppers collecting presents. Year-round, French shopkeepers generally ask whether a purchase is a gift and will either put it in a pretty bag with a ribbon or will wrap it for you. They almost never charge, except when there’s a charity group doing the wrapping as a fund-raiser.IMG_5521A Christmas market encircles the skating rink. It isn’t a big market and more than half of it is devoted to food. It bustles with people having a drink with friends and snacking on delicacies like oysters or aligot (a cheesy potato dish).

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Merchandise side.
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Food side. Much more crowded!
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The skating rink was privy to a light show of garish intensity. 
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A former church that now houses art exhibits. Currently featuring a really lovely collection of photographs.
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Plaid blankets draped over the chairs at this terrace café.

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The Porte Monumentale des Jacobins, built in 1779, named after a nearby convent, not after the revolutionary political club, which came later.

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The giant snowballs that loom over the pedestrian shopping street are much prettier by night.IMG_5665IMG_5629

Village lights are more modest, but charming in their own way.P1090226P1090228

Carcassonne added some classy chandelier-style lights this year.P1090253P1090254

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Carcassonne’s city hall looking regal.

One of the most charming things I saw was this sign at a café/restaurant:IMG_5501

“For those who are alone on the evening of the 24th, come spend the evening at Ô Deliz Café”…”Party meal and musical ambiance. A warm welcome…”

That’s the spirit of Christmas! Regardless whether you celebrate Christmas, I hope the lights where you are bring as much magic as I found in the display here. Wishing you the happiest of holidays.IMG_5619

Let Me Entertain You

IMG_1011The French are masters of the dinner party. One of the best ways to share meaningful moments with family and friends is around a meal. Preparing dishes they will enjoy is part of it, but nourishment comes not just from the food but also from the conversation.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeThe “By Invitation Only” group of bloggers is discussing our ideal dinner party. Mine would be a mash-up of “Babette’s Feast” and the warm gatherings depicted in “Eat, Pray, Love.

It’s curious that when I was looking for titles of movies to give, I came across a wealth of bad examples. The dinner party seems to have gotten a reputation as a moment for Type-A, class-conscious stress. For example, in the 1998 French movie “Le Dîner de Cons,” fancy-pants Parisians have a dinner in which they must bring along an idiot for the others to ridicule, with the dumbest one winning. Or the recent Salma Hayek movie, “Beatriz at Dinner,” in which a Mexican-born masseuse is invited to stay for dinner with her rich, nasty client.

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The breakfast bar set up with aperitifs and hors d’oeuvres.

And then there’s “La Grande Bouffe,” a 1973 comedy in which a group of friends rents out a country house with the intention of committing suicide from overeating and which is a lot more hilarious than it sounds.

At holiday time, I think mostly about bigger soirées, like the one we had last week, a cocktail party with a supercharged buffet. Like any/all the Andy Williams Christmas specials, with more to eat (and no singing, alas). Or the New Year’s Eve bash that Meg Ryan goes to in “When Harry Met Sally.” 

Big gathering or small, I have learned things about successful dinner parties, especially from the French.

What matters:

The food should be made in advance and ready to serve when you move to the table.

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I spy two plastic tumblers for kids. 

Everybody should be seated around the same table; consider assigning seats. Small children can be exiled to a separate table if there are several of them, but whenever possible they should sit with the adults and participate in the conversation.

Comfortable seats for everyone. Nobody over age 30 should ever be forced to sit on a backless bench, no matter how good you think benches look.

Soft lighting, soft music.

What doesn’t matter (all these things are nice but not by any means necessary):

Matching plates, glasses, or matching anything.

Pretty place settings.

Fancy centerpieces.

Beautifully presented dishes.

Silverware set correctly.

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No idea why I have so many dessert photos.

Our dining table seats eight with a leaf, although we can squeeze up to 10. Even with eight, the conversation tends to split into two. That’s OK, but it can be wonderful to have just six at the table and have everybody in the same discussion.

Some years ago, the Carnivore and I cooked a French dinner for my family when we were staying with one of my siblings in the U.S. The entire family came, including aunts and a dear friend of mine. With extra leaves and a card table we got everybody around the same table—21 people if I counted correctly. Usually at family gatherings, there’s a big buffet in the kitchen and everybody grazes at will, finding a spot at the table or in the living room, drawn to the inevitable sports game on TV, with plate perched upon one’s knees.

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Chocolate cups filled with vanilla mascarpone and strawberries. Looks fancy but easy to do ahead.

For our French dinner, the TV was off and the living room was empty. It was a tight squeeze but we were together. The Carnivore and I “plated” the dishes and distributed them. We got a few serving dishes on the table for passing, but there wasn’t much room. We also served seconds. The benefit of an open kitchen is that the cooks are still present.

Wine flowed. I said it was a French dinner.

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Magnums are good for a crowd.

The main entertainment was the story-telling by my siblings, who are not only masters of the art but excellent at playing off each other, and playing off our father. Many tears were shed—of laughter.

As everybody finished eating, we collected the plates…but, next came the cheese course. So they stayed put instead of wandering away to check the game (to me, seeing them but once a year was special, whereas they get together quite often, so of course then the style is more relaxed). And after the cheese came dessert. I don’t think they had ever been at the table for such a long time.

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Cocktail station getting prepped for a different party.

That taught me an important lesson—if you want to break the magic, move. It can be nice to stand up after a long stretch of sitting, but the point of courses is that there is a reason to come back to the table after your break. If you are doing a buffet, the fast eaters will be on dessert while the slow eaters are still on the starter. A dinner party is enjoyed slowly, with plenty of pauses.

One of our friends here suffers from rheumatism and usually is the first to go home. But at one dinner party the conversation was particularly lively. Eventually nature called, which led someone to check the time. It was 4 a.m.! The amazing powers of a comfortable chair and scintillating chatter. IMG_4540One last French tip: in season (like now), have a big bowl of mandarines or clementines. Easy to peel, small, refreshing after a big meal, they are more something to do with one’s hands, to prolong the moment, rather than extra food. I’d say they have taken the place of the after-dinner cigarette, since none of our friends smoke. At most dinners we attend–or give–a big bowl of them comes out after the dessert and coffee.

Do check out the other participants in By Invitation Only!

Daily Plate of Crazy

Materfamilias Writes

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Eccentrics

IMG_4379One of the first things I noticed when we moved to our little village in very rural southern France: the elderly residents would go to the bakery for their daily baguette while wearing bedroom slippers. Always plaid flannel ones. How charmingly eccentric, I thought.
But far and away the weirdest tale in the village concerns the pornographer parents.
At the time our kid was small—maybe two years old—there was quite a group of mothers who would show up at the park for about an hour before lunch and again after the afternoon nap. A very young woman came one day with her child—new to the village—and we welcomed them into the group.

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A hive of activity.

She was a little odd, but we attributed it to her age. We were all older—I was a late starter, another had teenagers and then decided to have one more baby, two others also had teens and were foster parents to toddlers. The new arrival didn’t work, and her husband was a security guard, she said. They were from Bordeaux. She wore her hair tied up, no makeup, baggy clothes.
One day, we were at the park when her husband came by, panicked. Where were they? Were any strangers around? They might have been kidnapped! Calm down, they just left, we told him, wondering why he was acting so strangely.

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Traffic.

We had playdates and birthday parties in addition to our park outings. The new mother gave a birthday party for her kid, and we all showed up. The house was indistinguishable from everybody else’s, with a kitchen opening to a dining area, with a Winnie-the-Pooh playhouse, and then to the living room. A high shelf ran all the way around the living room and held all kinds of movie cameras. They collected them, she said.
P1060892About a month later, one of the moms came to the park with big news. The young mother was a porn star, along with her husband. Another mom and her husband had been to the Salon de l’érotisme in Toulouse and had recognized them—they lived a couple of houses apart and hadn’t known until then.
WTF?!?!?!
I looked up the porn star’s site. There was a photo of her in a French maid outfit, leaning over the kitchen sink that I recognized, and I realized the photo must have been shot from next to the Winnie-the-Pooh house. There also was a film shot in the park!

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Sexy, no?

The foster mothers were livid that the young woman hadn’t told them about her real occupation. They could have lost their jobs or faced a lot of headaches.
Two things made me furious: The porn site had lots of photos of their child—not sexual ones but it was still creepy, with captions like “if you love me, send presents to my little girl.” The other thing that made me mad was that the address for sending stuff was in the village. They didn’t even bother to get a post office box in town. No wonder the husband was worried about kidnappers.
I felt really bad for their daughter. She was very nervous and didn’t talk much. On school outings, she wouldn’t eat. She would hide her food and pretend she ate it. I remember putting her hair into a ponytail for her—it was very long but so terribly thin.
The parents divorced; he was abusive and the porn star often had bruises. They moved away—I don’t know where to—after a few years.
P1080570Not to end on such a low note, I’ll go even lower with the tale of another resident.
There’s an older guy, very tall and and thin and gaunt, and with a stiff gait. He must have looked older than his age at first, because almost 15 years later he still looks the same, and I’d still guess him to be about 70. He was one of the regulars we would greet on our way to school in the mornings. I always thought, “Aw, he’s going to tend graves at the cemetery, how touching,” because the only things in that direction are the cemetery, some vineyards and the garrigue. He didn’t carry tools for pruning vines or fixing wires, so the cemetery was the logical destination.
I recently learned that he doesn’t go to the cemetery but to the woods to do his business! Even in bad weather! Does the man not have indoor plumbing? Another villager surprised him in the act one day. And chewed him out. But it didn’t have any effect on him—he still heads for the woods every morning. Now when I pass him, I wince. And I stay away from the woods!
No wonder he has such a weird walk.

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Not the well-fertilized woods, but close.

Share your tales of local color.