A gluten for pain and other banalities

P1020582

I prepared this post last week. Today, we are in shock. Crazies again. In a little, old-fashioned supermarket. In a town where little old ladies walk around with a cane in one hand and their handbags dangling from the other. The picture of safe.

I will certainly have something to say about it later. I am glad I gave blood again this morning.

Back to the previously scheduled post:

Our local bakery is awful. Shocking, but true. For years, we went to a bakery in the next village, tucked away on a barely one-way street (I say “barely” because it was practically a tunnel, lined by houses that were erected when traffic was exclusively on foot, whose walls are well-scraped by passing vehicles). The oven was wood-fired, and the baker’s wife would wear big mitts to bring out hot pain de campagne. The baker was crowded with people waiting to buy it—you snooze, you lose. While waiting (in a huddle, never in a line), they discussed the weather, and their forecasts were 100% accurate. This is not surprising in a crowd of winegrowers and other farmers and gardeners. Stooped pensioners showed up wearing their plaid flannel bedroom slippers. In winter, the heat from the oven and the people would steam the windows on the bakery, and, when I got my lumpy loaf, holding it with my sleeves because it was still too hot to handle, it would steam up the windows of my car.

P1080765
All the bread here, except for the last photo, is from Noez, an institution in Carcassonne, with a location near our vacation rentals in the city center and another on the edge of town.

Sometimes the Carnivore and I would eat the entire loaf while it was still hot enough to melt the butter, which we applied copiously. But our beloved bakers got tired of the early mornings six days a week and sold the bakery. The young guy who bought the place had his own ideas about things, and the bread wasn’t as good. He went out of business after two years.P1050823We tried other bakeries, but the problem with village bakeries is that you show up early, yet are informed that the hunters have passed by even earlier and have bought everything but a couple of éclairs, which aren’t very good for sandwiches. Or that the baker had a party the night before and is running late and so come back in an hour.P1020578Good French bread is a revelation, but disappointing bread is practically criminal.

Though most of my friends are cook-at-home-from-scratch experts, they don’t make bread. Restaurants might pride themselves on their elaborate patisseries for dessert, but they won’t make their own bread. For bread, one goes to the boulangerie. Every day.

I had noticed this French habit long before I heard of the four banal—the banal oven, which probably played a role.

What does the word “banal” have to do with ovens? Or “banalities”? Did you know these words are related to bread?P1080764According to the French Federation of Baking Enterprises, around 50 B.C., the Romans introduced (unleavened) bread to France, having adopted it from the Greeks.

Keep in mind that people cooked over a fire, and it isn’t all that easy to translate into an oven. I did it when I lived in Africa: I made an “oven” out of a very large covered pot that I lined with pebbles, and into which I placed a smaller pot that held the bread. Necessity is the mother of invention. It was delicious, BTW. P1020577Some people put ovens into the walls near the kitchen fireplace. Except that all these fires, including candles and lamps for light, meant that houses were burning down rather frequently. With houses sandwiched against each other, one person’s faulty chimney could quickly destroy an entire village. I saw a communal oven, with loaves waiting their turn, in Timbuktu, where not only is it safer to have a communal oven, but you wouldn’t want any extra heat in the kitchen, and wood is so scarce that it makes sense not to use fuel for individual ovens.P1080767So the seigneurs—lords—started building separate ovens for bread, and charging the locals to use them; meanwhile they banned home ovens.

Un ban in French originally meant a public proclamation—for example les bans de mariage, the official pronouncement of a wedding engagement. As official proclamations tended to come from the lords of the château, and as lords tended to proclaim what locals could NOT do more than what was permitted, the word “ban” assumed more of its current connotation of “forbid.”P1020580Imagine you’re living in your medieval village, you’ve made your bread, you’ve marked it with a B (seriously, everybody had to mark their bread to keep the loaves from being mixed up) and now you have to schlep over to the lord’s oven—le four banal—to throw it in the oven (for a fee). Plus, you had to bring a log to add to the fire. You might have to wait your turn. Other villagers will be there, waiting for their bread to come out. Of course, you all chat—about the weather (some things never change) and little things that happened. You see each other all the time and there’s little news to share nor is there time for delving into intellectual discussions. And thus, the word “banal” acquires its connotation of that which is idle, trivial, common or boring. Le four banal is where banalités—banalities—or fees for use of the oven (usually in kind, not in money) are exchanged.  P1020579And so you have the very bad pun of my title. I am not the only one to riff on glutton/gluten. And pain is not pain but bread, and rhymes not with rain but with hand, if you left off the nd. Kind of. Listen here. (My best title pun, if I may say so, was this one.)P1020581Keep in mind that until quite recently, all bread was whole-wheat bread and quite healthy. It wasn’t even salted until the 18th century, when the tax was lifted on on salt, which is related to the word salary, but that’s another monopoly and another story.

The job of baker originally started as le tamisier—the one who makes or sells sifters. Around 1200, King Philippe Auguste let the tamisiers build their own ovens, and around 1250—close to the same time the “new” city of Carcassonne was built—Saint-Louis ended the seigneurs’ rights to oven fees in cities, but these ovens continued for a few more centuries out in the countryside. The bakers joined together to control the supply of flour and bread, and it was forbidden to bake one’s bread at home.P1080768According to the FEB, it was in 1665 that a Parisian baker added some beer yeast into a light bread, making it taste better and producing a lighter bread. This was very controversial, and the medical faculty in Paris and the government itself came out against using beer yeast. However, taste won the day, because consumers demanded yeasty bread, and the ban was lifted in 1670.P1020536Around the same time, in the 17th century, bread in a long form started to appear in Paris: le baguette, which literally means “little stick.” Baguette also refers to chopsticks, an orchestra director’s baton, and, in the case of la baguette magique, a magic wand. This symbol of France didn’t take off outside the cities until the 20th century, according to the Center for Research and Study of Bakery and Its Companions. Maybe that’s why the lumpy roundish loaf is called pain de campagne.P1020538Very important advice: when you order a baguette in France, be sure to ask for “baguette tradition,” with a slight sour-dough taste and a chewy interior beneath a golden, bumpy crust. Do not save a couple of centimes by getting the plain old baguette, with a uniform crust and inside that resembles the foam in a mattress and that will be as hard as a rock in a couple of hours.

According to the Balladur Decree of 1993 (another decree! another bread ban!), the pain de tradition français may contain only these ingredients: wheat flour, potable water, salt and yeast, although it also can have small amounts of flour of broad beans, soybeans or wheat malt. It means that all the goodness of a baguette depends on the quality of the flour and the expertise of the baker.

P1090270
Supermarket bread section. You’re supposed to use the plastic sachet to take out the bread.

The patron saint of bakers is Saint Honoré, whose feast day is May 16 (saints’ feast days are announced on TV daily with the weather report). Mark your calendar and celebrate accordingly.

Advertisements

Unpackaged

IMG_5906Living in France has changed my cooking and eating habits. Sure, the French have amazing packaged, ready-to-eat foods lining the aisles of the hypermarchés. And somebody is buying all that stuff–according to the Ministry of Agriculture, the French in 2010 (latest figures) spent 53 minutes a day preparing meals, vs. 71 minutes a day in 1986, while le snacking (seriously, they used that term) increased almost 11% between 2014 and 2015.

Our kid has remarked on the predominance of ready-made dishes at friends’ homes. Admittedly, it’s challenging to whip up a meal from scratch in under half an hour. Challenging but not impossible. It requires planning, and if your bandwidth is taken up by things like work, then maybe home cooking is a thought too much.

On the other hand, cooking from scratch doesn’t always take that much more time than using prepared packages. Cakes and moelleux au chocolat (aka brownies) are a prime example. And cooking from scratch is cheaper and healthier.P1090709Years ago, I took a guided hiking tour in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières. I was the only non-French person. Our equipment and food traveled separately from us, on donkey-back, with tents set up and meals ready when we’d arrive at the next campsite. We sat cross-legged in a circle on the ground, and the cook would serve up the first course, always soup. We’d pass the bowls around until everyone had one, then would taste. One day I was at the far end, and got my bowl of soup first. I did what I’d seen the others do each day: I drew in a long breath over my bowl, then reflected aloud, “Quelles épices?”(which spices), which drew much laughter. The composition of every dish was the launching point of every dinnertime conversation, branching out from minute analysis of the spices to the ingredients and methods of preparation, and sometimes spinning into arguments about which region of France had the best butter or whether one region’s salt was superior to another’s. I had never heard so much intense discussion and debate about food. Every. Single. Day.

I loved it.

Our kid has absorbed this French obsession about food and is a talented and opinionated cook, declaring the other day, “When I have my own place, I’ll know I’ve succeeded if nothing I buy has labels.” Think about it–vegetables from farmers; cheese from cheesemongers or cheesemakers; bread from the baker; meat from the butcher, trimmed before your eyes; fish with the head still on from the fishmonger (OK, I will skip that one. I can’t eat anything that looks at me). We already mostly eat that way, except the fancy cheese is a special treat, not a regular habit. Even milk can come without packaging.

106.Market3
He grows what he sells (this was from early fall–no tomatoes yet!).

Much of our produce comes from local farmers, but we do buy some imports–oranges, pineapples, off-season vegetables….I just read that the U.S. imports 53% of fresh fruit and 31% of fresh vegetables. The figures for France are similar: 40% of fruits and vegetables are imported, notably produce that doesn’t grow here, such as bananas and avocados. However, the French article notes that domestic production has dropped. I do wonder about that, with all the housing developments and shopping centers taking over prime farmland. Once paved over, it will produce food no more.

P1090707
Last Saturday’s market loot shoot: Kiwi does grow here. That’s spinach in the top right, with the roots still on. And apologies for the tomatoes–they were for hamburgers. Thank goodness for imports, sometimes.

 

Homemade Macarons

P1090640Macarons are the chic French treat so lusted after these days, especially the ones from Parisian tea salon Ladurée.

You will be happy to learn that they aren’t that hard to make at home. I won’t claim they’re easy; one recipe rated the difficulty as “delicate.” But I’ve made more complicated and more “delicate” recipes than macarons. The recipe itself is simple; this post focuses on the little tricks–astuces–that are key to success.P1090632I have recipes for vanilla and chocolate macarons here. All the credit goes to the recipe makers: Béa LG for the vanilla macarons and the excellent French cooking site 750g for the chocolate macarons. I’m just providing translation services.

I highly recommend watching Béa LG’s video. Even if you don’t speak French, she shows the process very clearly, especially the macaronage, which is the term for the delicate (there you go!) mixing of the meringue with the almond powder/sugar mix, to make the appareil, a word that usually means apparatus, but in this setting means the base for the macaron shells.P1090625Even though I’ve lived in francophone countries for two decades and speak French fluently, I still discover new terms. I was confused when I saw recipes listing a maryse among the utensils needed (Béa LG also refers to a maryse). I know several women named Maryse–to me it’s a woman’s name, not a thing for stirring. Turns out, Marie-Louise was the brand of a rubber spatula, and people blurred it into maryse. Other adorable French terms for spatula include lèche-tout (lick it all) and lèche-plat (lick the plate). Also: une spatule.

Similarly, I know that serrer means to squeeze, tighten or bring close together, though serrer la main means to shake hands and if the GPS orders me serrer à droite, I have to keep to the right. Un café bien serré is a strong coffee. A sauce is serré when it has thickened (makes sense–it comes together). Une serre is a greenhouse and has nothing to do with the verb. But what in the world is serrer les blancs d’oeufs avec le sucre??? Tighten–or squeeze–the egg whites with sugar? (To add to the delightful terms, beaten egg whites are blancs d’oeufs en neige–snowy egg whites.) Turns out, it means to firm up the egg whites with sugar. When the whites become fluffy, you add the sugar, bit by bit, continuing to beat until they’re stiff.

Such is life in another language. You know a word, you use it many times in a day, and then it surprises you with a hidden meaning in a context where you can’t figure out what is going on.

Back to the recipe. Lots of photos here to explain. Vanilla up first.

Béa LG’s vanilla macarons

For the shells:

125g (1 1/3 cups) almond powder/flour

125g (1 cup) powdered sugar

100g granulated sugar, very fine (about half  cup)

100g egg whites (about 3); separated in two bowls: 80g and 20g (20g is about half a white)

For the ganache filling:

150g (5.25 oz.) white chocolate, broken into small pieces

300 ml (1 1/4 cups or 4 fluid oz.) heavy cream

1 vanilla bean

(She also calls for vanilla extract and honey but I thought that was overkill.)

You can see the elegance of the recipe: 125 g each of the dry mix, and 100 g each for the meringue. It’s also so useful to weigh the egg whites, because you don’t have to worry about big or little eggs. Baking is chemistry–turning a liquid into a solid–and unlike, say, a salad or stir-fry, the measurements must be exact. Similarly, you’ll get better results weighing than by using cups, which measure volume. Most electronic kitchen scales have a button to switch between ounces and grams.

IMG_4567
Blend!
IMG_4570
Sift! Do you see those lumps? That was after blending. They must go.
IMG_4578
Big difference, eh? Very fine, completely homogenous.

Blend the almond powder and powdered sugar. This is important! Then, sift it–also important! Don’t skip these steps. (In the video, she calls it passer au chinoisun chinois is a strainer, aka passoire; a sifter is une tamise, and to sift is tamiser.)

IMG_4584
An impeccably clean bowl is essential for stiff peaks.

Beat the 80g of egg whites (important: your bowl must be perfectly clean, without a trace of oil). Also, egg whites beat into meringue better on sunny days. I made the chocolate ones on a day of pouring rain, and I see the difference (doesn’t affect the taste, happily). When they are fluffy, add the sugar one spoonful at a time. (My only criticism of the video is that she says she adds spoonful by spoonful, but doesn’t say or show what. Well, I’m here to tell you it’s sugar.) This method is called a meringue française, as opposed to a meringue italienne, which uses a hot syrup. You can find recipes using that method, but I don’t have a candy thermometer, so I go for what’s simple.

IMG_4581
The meringue will make a beak.

The meringue is ready when it forms stiff peaks. Hold up the beater and look for the bec–beak.

IMG_4586
Mix the meringue with the almond/powdered sugar. The macaronage begins.

Combine the meringue and almond mix by stirring gently in one direction. Scoop all the way to the bottom of the bowl and lift as much of the contents as possible, and turn it. Do this until it’s all mixed and is loose enough to run off the spatula a bit. This is the macaronage. Watch the video! What wrist technique!IMG_4587

IMG_4589
Much smoother, but not yet there.

Beat the remaining 20g of egg white until it’s frothy. Add a little to the batter and continue to stir in one direction. Notice how it smooths out and gets glossy. When you lift a spatula/maryse of batter, it will run off in a pretty ribbon that’s smooth and supple but not liquid.

IMG_4593
Froth up the remaining half an egg white. These little things change everything.

Another tip from Béa LG: cut through the batter with the spatula. It should form a line. The halves should start to move back together (if not, you need to add more of the frothy egg white), but very slowly.

IMG_4604
The batter (appareil) forms ribbons and a cut through it slowly reforms.

Put the batter into a pastry bag with a large tip. (More French: pastry bag is poche à douille, which literally is “cartridge pocket,” but the cartridges can mean for guns, too.) I prefer to use zip-lock bags: Reinforce one corner with 4-6 pieces of tape. Fill the bag. Close tightly. Snip off the corner. This isn’t for decorating, after all (though they work for that, too–reinforce more and cut zigzags into the tip). Brilliant technique for filling a pastry bag in the video (at 5:16).

IMG_4600
My unconventional pastry bag method involves tape.

IMG_4608

IMG_4614
No fuss, no muss.

IMG_4615Distribute the batter on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a silicone mat. You can buy silicone mats with circles for macarons, but they are not necessary. The batter will spread, so don’t make them too close. You can make any size you like. The first time, we made gigantic ones. Then small. Then medium. They all turned out.IMG_4631Don’t worry about tips sticking up; they will smooth out. IMG_4628Hold each sheet a few inches above the counter and let it drop. This releases air bubbles. Let the uncooked macarons rest for a good hour (to get a crust–croûter). They should lose some of their sheen.

IMG_4634
You can see popped air bubbles after the sheets were dropped. They will disappear.
P1090613
Bubbles gone! Pointy tips gone!

Preheat the oven to  145 Celsius (290 Fahrenheit). Bake the macarons, one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven, for 12-14 minutes for small ones–bigger macarons will take longer. Silicone mats take longer than parchment paper. Open the oven door halfway through the baking to let out steam. If the macarons crack or brown, turn down the oven.

P1090615
The first sheet had cracks, so I lowered the oven.

Let the macarons cool before removing them. Carefully peel them off with your fingers; don’t use a spatula.

Make the ganache. Don’t do this ahead or it will get hard. It only takes a minute anyway. I make ganache all the time, and parted ways with Béa LG, who melted the chocolate in a double-boiler on the video for the ganache. (This brings up another funny French term: a stainless steel bowl with a rounded bottom is called a cul de poule–a hen’s butt. Do you see how one’s head can spin when reading a recipe: “put the hen’s butt over a saucepan of boiling water…”)IMG_4644Put the cream in a saucepan (she put in only 75 g to heat; I did all of it). Scrape the inside of the vanilla bean into the cream. Drop the bean into the cream to infuse even more flavor. Boil the cream. It doesn’t have to boil hard–as soon as you see a bubble, shut off the heat and drop in the chocolate. Stir so it melts. If you didn’t put in all the cream, do it now. Stir well and let it cool. Remove the vanilla bean.

Beat the ganache with a mixer until it’s fluffy. Keep an eye on it, because overbeating will turn the cream into butter. Some ganache recipes even call for butter. P1090622Put the ganache into a pastry bag (or another reinforced zip-lock bag) and squeeze generous dollops onto half the macaron shells. Top with the other shells.P1090636If you prefer chocolate, here’s the recipe for “My First Macarons” from 750g. I doubled it and show the doubled proportions. It made 18 medium macarons (about 2.5 inches in diameter).

Chocolate macarons

Shells:

190g (2 cups) almond powder/flour

310g (2.5 cups) powdered sugar

30g (1/4 cup) unsweetened cocoa powder

150g egg whites (about 4)

100 g granulated sugar (about 1/2 cup)

Ganache:

100g (3.5 oz.) dark chocolate, broken into small bits

100ml (5/12 cup–between 1/3 and 1/2 cup–3.38 fluid oz.) heavy cream

It’s the same as the vanilla recipe: blend the almond powder with the powdered sugar. Sift the mix with the cocoa powder.

Beat the egg whites (this recipe didn’t hold any on the side and turned out fine), adding the granulated sugar bit by bit until you get stiff peaks.

Do the macaronage, gently mixing the chocolate/almond mix with the meringue.P1090644Put into a pastry bag and squeeze onto baking sheets covered with parchment paper or silicone mats.

Tap the baking sheets. Let the macarons dry out for an hour (the recipe says just 30 minutes, but longer is better). Bake at 145 Celsius/290 Fahrenheit for 12/14 minutes for small macarons, longer for bigger ones. Turn halfway through to let steam out of the oven. (750g says 150 Celsius for 20 minutes, but that was too long. Better safe than sorry.)

Let cool before removing from the baking sheet.P1090655Make the ganache:

Boil the cream; as soon as it starts to boil, shut off the heat and stir in the chocolate until it’s melted. Let it cool. 750g says you can garnish the macarons like this, but I beat the ganache a little to make it fluffier, and even so found it a little runny. It’s a question of aesthetics, because the ingredients don’t change. P1090659Macarons are not nearly as hard or mysterious as I’d feared and certainly impressive to serve. Let me know if you try them!

Q: Brownies or Cheesecake? A: Yes.

P1080677Valentine’s Day has inextricably linked love and chocolate. If you are among the wise folk who avoid restaurants on Valentine’s Day, you can have your cake and eat it too in the serenity of your home.

Zebra brownies have been a favorite since the ’80s; my hand-written recipe dates to then as well. They are the lovechild of a chewy, dense brownie and a silky, dense cheesecake.

I offer you the original and a half-size version that I make in a round cake pan. These are so rich, even the smaller size will last you a few days.

They don’t need frosting. I just did it for company. I prefer a ganache, which is less sweet than, say, buttercream frosting. If you do the sheet-cake version, just cut squares like regular brownies.P1060728Zebra Brownies 

Brownie part:

1 cup (227 g) butter, softened

2 cups (200 g) sugar

1 cup (85 g) unsweetened cocoa powder

4 eggs

1 cup (128 g) flour

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cheesecake part:

3 cups (225 g) cream cheese, softened

1 1/2 cup (300 g) sugar

5 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup (64 g) flour

Brownie part: With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on high speed. Shift to low speed; add the cocoa and eggs and mix thoroughly. Add the flour and vanilla and mix on low.

Cheesecake part: In a separate bowl, whip the cream cheese and sugar on high speed. Add the eggs, mixing on low speed. Add the vanilla and flour, still on low speed.

I used to spread the brownie part, then cover with the cheesecake mix, and swirl them. But now I distribute blobs of the brownie mix around a greased 9X13 cake pan, then pour in the cheesecake mix and swirl the two together. It seems to marble better that way.

Bake at 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius) for 35-45 minutes. It should be moist but not runny.

The half-size option:

Brownie part:

1/2 cup (113 g) butter

1 cup (100 g) sugar

1/2 cup (43 g) cocoa powder

2 eggs

1/2 cup (64 g) flour

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Cheesecake part: 

1 1/2 cup (12 oz or 113 g) cream cheese

3/4 cup (150 g) sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup (32 g) flour

Same procedure, but test for doneness after 25 minutes.

For ganache:

6 oz (150 g) dark (70%) chocolate, broken into small chips (the smaller the better)

6 oz or 2/3 cup (15 cl) heavy (30% fat) cream

Put the chocolate in a bowl. Heat the cream to almost boiling (OK if it boils, but it doesn’t have to). Pour over the chocolate. Stir to make sure the chocolate bits are all melted. Let it cool a little–it should be warm enough to pour but not so hot that it will run away. P1080668To be fancy, I also added out-of-season raspberries.

 

Super-Simple Leek Gratin

P1090451Leeks are one of those staples you see sticking out of every typical French market basket. Before I moved here, I had never had them. They’re delicious and nutritious! And cheap. And very easy to cook.

With the recent cold spell (-2.5 Celsius/27 Fahrenheit this morning!), something baked in the oven sounded tempting. A pared-down leek gratin to accompany chicken breasts (steak for the Carnivore, who considers chicken to be a vegetable).

Gratins are a French favorite. As online French culinary bible Marmiton says: “The gratin can be sweet or salty, with vegetables or meat…in short, there isn’t A gratin but tons of different gratins, with something to satisfy everybody.” (BTW, if you click through, keep in mind that entrée means starter in French.)P1090337A typical gratin uses béchamel sauce. The butter and flour that go into béchamel add a stick-to-the-ribs quality, but I didn’t want the calories. Cream (light) and cheese would suffice for this week-night side dish.

As Marmiton points out, anything can go into a gratin: “You can even use leftovers to make a pasta gratin, for example.” A gratin can easily become a main dish by adding protein (meat–lardons!–or other). You can throw in chopped garlic, onions, shallots, herbs, spices…. You can use any kind of cheese–emmental, parmesan, gruyère, mozzarella, cheddar, blue…. The point is that gratin is a don’t-sweat-it dish that will be delicious no matter what you use.

Gratins are great for entertaining because they go in the oven and don’t need attention. You can even make individual gratins in ramekins. P1090449Super-simple leek gratin

2 leeks per person

25 cl (1 cup) cream (light, heavy, liquid, thick, sour–it all works)

150 g (5 oz) grated cheese

Any other cheese you have that you need to use up (we had some cream cheese and I dropped about 1/2 cup of blobs around)

Butter, salt, pepper

Preheat the oven to 220 Celsius (425 Fahrenheit). Set some salted water to boil in a pot big enough for the leeks (I use a deep skillet).P1090338Clean the leeks. Strip off the outer layers. Cut off the root tips, but not too high–you want to keep the connection at the bottom. Remove the green tops and set aside. Slice the white part in half lengthwise. Wash well, going between the layers.P1090444Boil the leeks for about 10 minutes.P1090445While they’re boiling, butter a rectangular baking dish.

Drain the cooked leeks. Press them a little to squeeze out excess moisture. Lay them out in the baking dish while they’re still hot. Season with pepper (no salt–it was in the water), and any other herbs or spices you like. Pour the cream on top. Cover with cheese. (You can sprinkle with bread crumbs, but … calories.) Bake for 20 minutes.P1090447As for the green tops, don’t toss them! Just cut them into fine strips and soak them in cold water. Rub them in the water with my hands to work off the dirt. Then rinse and dry them in a salad spinner. They can go into soups–mine went into a ribollita this week; other times they end up in couscous or chili…. anywhere you use onions, leeks can make a home. The green tops are tough, so they’re best used in dishes that cook a long time, like soups.P1090339

 

 

Butter, Cream and Wine

Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 5.41.33 PM“I like butter, cream and wine,” and not “peas cut in four,” wrote Paul Bocuse, the French “pope of gastronomy,” who died Saturday, just shy of his 92st birthday.

The father of Nouvelle Cuisine, Bocuse influenced how most of us eat today. Despite his penchant for butter, cream and wine, he gave dishes a lighter twist that is now taken for granted. Lighter doesn’t need to mean bland; he also said that good cuisine isn’t about fancy products but about seasonings, which should be added using one’s fingertips: “Touch is fundamental.”

The story about the birth of Nouvelle Cuisine (New Cooking) is that Henri Gault et Christian Millau, of the restaurant guide that carries their name, had dined–very well–at lunch at his restaurant and it was so good they came back for dinner, asking for something light. Bocuse served them a salad of green beans, cooked but still crunchy, with shallots and olive oil, followed by lightly cooked rock mullet. Gault and Millau were smitten, and declared Bocuse’s style of cooking “Nouvelle Cuisine.”

While the world’s press has given honors to Bocuse’s obituary, the French are, understandably, even more detailed. Here are some nuggets you might appreciate:

Nouvelle Cuisine was one thing, molecular cuisine was too far. Asked in this excellent interview from 2007 what modern thing he refused, he said, “Nitrogen. I don’t see the point. All this foreign food where you have to explain what’s in the dish to the point of indicating in which order it should be eaten: it’s not my thing.” SLAM! Which is kind of too bad, because I’ve talked to Ferran Adrià and he is completely charming.

He added that he liked to cook by instinct, smelling when the meat is done rather than using a thermometer.

Bocuse learned to cook from his father, who taught him to make veal kidneys when he was nine. After serving in the French army during World War II (where he got the tattoo of the coq gaulois on his shoulder, something he liked to show off), he took on several apprenticeships before returning to his family’s inn, l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, in a suburb of Lyon. It was owned by his maternal grandfather, and where he was born Feb. 11, 1926.

He got his first Michelin star in 1958, his second in 1962 and his third in 1965, which he always maintained. He eventually renamed the restaurant “Paul Bocuse.”

He was a showman who appeared on television as early as 1976. In 1987, he created the “Olympics of Gastronomy,” the Bocuse d’Or, an international cooking competition that was televised from the start. He was one of the first French chefs to expand overseas: to Japan in 1979 and Disneyworld in Orlando in 1982, followed by many more.

He was out as a trigamist–that’s bigamy plus one. He met his wife, Raymonde, before the war when she was 16; they married in 1946 and had a daughter. Raymonde runs the original restaurant. He added another partner, Raymone, who bore him a son in 1969; the son, Jérôme, has headed the family empire since last year. All I can say about the names is: ?!?!?!? How did he keep that straight? Or maybe it simplified life.

In 1971, he brought in companion No. 3, Patricia, who had a daughter with him. Patricia runs Paul Bocuse Products and handles his image.

It is not clear how he juggled all the restaurants, not to mention women. Although his companions (? partners? lovers?) had serious business roles with him, he had a reputation as a male chauvinist, with a raft of appalling quotes.

One of his signature dishes is Soupe V.G.E. Bocuse made it in 1975 for President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing–VGE–for the dinner celebrating Bocuse’s award of the Legion of Honor; how about that–win an award and you have to cook the dinner! You could call it a chicken pot pie, BUT….

Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 5.40.44 PMIt’s a chicken and beef soup, with foie gras and black truffles replacing potatoes, covered with puff pastry. I found a number of recipes for it:

This one uses 60 grams of truffles, whereas this one uses 80 grams. That’s a difference of €14 euros just for the truffles. This one also uses 80 grams, but I doubt Bocuse used bouillon cubes. You can watch the master himself make his Soupe V.G.E. here.

It is extremely rare that I use any photos but those I took myself. However, I don’t have any of Bocuse; these are from the press packet on his corporate Web site.

Parting words from the master chef: “Classic or modern, there’s only one cuisine: the good one.”

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.

P1090346
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.

 

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.

P1020536
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.

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

 

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.

IMG_1013
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.

IMG_1010
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.

IMG_0256
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.

IMG_0769
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.

IMG_1015
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.

IMG_0259
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

Home