Late summer brings two wonderful treats: figs and wild blackberries. Both grow in profusion along roadsides and among the brush on the edges of fields and vineyards. One day I realized my hourlong walk had taken almost twice as long because I kept stopping to pick goodies. Picking blackberries is a zen task. Despite the thorns, I enjoy it. The berries are like glistening gems, plump with juice. Usually some birds venture near but not too near, enjoying the biggest berries that are high beyond my reach. The air smells sweet from the dried pines all around and is sweetened further by the overripe fruit that has fallen and is returning to earth.Even sweeter are the blackberries. They have no tang to them at all, the way raspberries do. Just straight sweetness. Almost too much. That’s why I like to pair them with a nice, tart lemon tart.
Tarte au citron is one of those classic French bistro offerings and couldn’t be easier to make. Sure, you can put meringue on top, but if you have wild blackberries, the colors contrast as perfectly as the flavors. I think other very sweet, not too drippy fruits would work, too, like blueberries. Maybe even figs, though I haven’t tried that. Be daring. The worst that can happen is that you won’t do that combination again. But I bet you will make tarte au citron again and again.Of course, you can always use a premade pie crust. If you have a choice, most tarte au citron recipes recommend pâte brisée, a shortcrust dough, rather than pâte feuillétée, which is the flaky kind…unless you’re crazy about flaky piecrust, in which case, you should do as you like. Far be it from me to look down on somebody’s crust preferences.
I made a nutty crust that was not too sweet. 1/2 cup (57 g) chopped nuts (walnuts, pinenuts, almonds–whatever you have. Not peanuts, though)
1 3/4 cup (220 g) flour
12 tablespoons (170 g) of butter, softened but not melted
1/2 cup (57 g) powdered sugar
Grind the nuts finely (I used almond powder left over from macarons).
Beat the butter and powdered sugar until fluffy. Add the egg. When it’s integrated, add the flour, and don’t go crazy about getting it completely mixed in. Then stir in the nuts, just enough that you can gather the dough away from the bowl. Divide it in half. Wrap each half (I flatten them so they are easier to roll out later) in plastic film. One half can go in the freezer for another day. The other one needs to chill for an hour or two.When it’s ready, preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Roll out the dough, set it in a 9 1/2-inch pie pan, and cover it with parchment paper, then with pie weights. Back for 20 minutes, then remove the pie weights and paper and bake for five more minutes so the bottom gets dry and a little brown. Let it cool.
For the custard:
3/4 cup (170 g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120 ml) heavy cream (I was out this time, and as it was a Sunday and nothing was open, I substituted coconut milk, which worked great)
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 cups blackberries (about the size of a liter of ice cream, which is the container I used when picking)
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C).
Grate the lemons. Then squeeze the juice. You should get about 2/3 cup, maybe a bit shy (about 150 ml).
In a small bowl, add the cornstarch. Then work in the lemon juice, little by little, so the cornstarch dissolves without lumps.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sugar, then the lemon juice, grated peel and cream. Pour into the piecrust.
Turn the oven down to 325 F (160 C). Bake for about 25 minutes (check before), until the custard has set (shake it a little to see whether it jiggles).
Let it cool a bit, then press the blackberries into the custard.
There are different ways to impress guests. You can serve the most refined and perfectly prepared dishes. Or, if you’re entertaining 8-year-olds, you can make a piñata cake. Cake AND candy! Two great tastes that taste great together. A guaranteed hit that will first make jaws drop and then mouths open.
I established a reputation in my little village here in the deepest, most lost depths of France profonde as somebody who made very strange gâteaux, but they were mostly good.
There was the carrot cake, at one of our earliest gatherings. A July 4 cookout, and we invited everybody we knew at the time. I had made a bunch of desserts, including a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, sheet-cake format, decorated with strawberries and blueberries to make an American flag.
I was about to cut it, but a friend said, “Oh, wait, I have to show everybody first!” As she carried it around, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I said carrot, she just about dropped the thing. Her face was the picture of shock. And horror. But, being incredibly gracious, she recovered, and turned the conversation to the frosting. Answering that it was made with cheese didn’t help the situation.
The other desserts got eaten in short order, but the carrot cake sat untouched until finally one guest, who hadn’t paid attention to this exchange, took a piece. The others watched warily, and when his face lit up with pleasure, they all had to try this strange carrot cake with cheese on top. It disappeared in minutes.
Just FYI, these days a very branché (literally “plugged in”–hip) café in Carcassonne serves not only carrot cake but also cheesecake and many kinds of cupcakes. And is always crowded.
However, to my knowledge, at least in these parts, to get hold of a piñata cake, you have to DIY or see me. And I am about to spill my secrets.Now, a piñata made of papier mâche (pronounced pap-ee-ay mash, not paper mashay) is extremely uncommon around here. There is no going to Wal-Mart or Target, where you can get a wide selection of Mexican piñatas made in China. In fact, in deepest France, piñatas were quite unknown, even though Dora l’Exploratrice was a hit in a certain demographic on TV.
I made a piñata for the class, and was very proud of myself. It was the image of a popular cartoon character. I was completely unprepared for the reaction: horror. I had brought a tee-ball bat that a dear American uncle had given my kid, wanting my child to have all the benefits of American heritage, even while living in France. However, this uncle was quite aware that my husband is gifted at hitting balls with his feet or his head but not with his hands and that I am a complete and utter ZERO when it comes to anything round. Just forget it. I can’t throw and I can’t catch. (I can’t run or swim or …. well, you get the picture. Not coach material.)
So the piñata full candy and crayons and erasers (hey, not TOO much sugar!) was suspended from a stately plane tree in the school courtyard, but the kids were utterly horrified at the idea of beating a beloved visage into oblivion.
I should have known better. A few years earlier, I had done a Winnie the Pooh theme for a birthday cake and was very proud of my artistry…until it came time to cut the cake, and the children bawled like mad because I had desecrated Winnie. No, dear reader, if you have to cut it, make it something banal.
Of course, and I really should have seen this coming, with the piñata, it was Lord of the Flies. As soon as one child slugged it, then the others tasted blood and were all in.
Things went somewhat better with the cake. However, I warn you that while the first slice or two is utterly impressive, after that the architecture of the thing falls apart and you have a cake/frosting/candy mess. But by then the little devils are so hyped up they don’t even notice.
OK so here we can get into the whole French-vs.-U.S. (or wherever) supermarket supplies. You cannot find confetti cake mix in France. Forget it. In fact, they don’t sell cake mix at all. You can find a mix for flan, for macarons, for fondant (or moelleux–NOT THE SAME) au chocolat, but not for cake/gâteau. That’s because cake mix is a huge rip-off, and the French, being skin-flints in the most admirable way, refuse to buy it. Flour, sugar, leavening, salt…for crying out loud! Plus they have to add a bunch of chemical preservatives (OK, if you’re prudish avert your eyes, because “preservatives” in French means condoms (like for birth control, not like the French town) and the stuff that adds shelf life is called “conservateurs.”) It takes all of one minute to actually measure the dry ingredients, and even with a mix you have to add all the liquid ones.
So back to the recipe. You make a yellow (or white) cake. Chocolate would hide the confetti aspect.
2.5 cups white flour
2 tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
1 cup butter
2 cups granulated sugar
4-5 eggs, separated (4 if big; 5 if not)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1 cup sprinkles (or more!)
Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 C).
Sift the dry ingredients.
Beat the butter until it gets white and fluffy. Add the sugar, then the egg yolks and vanilla.
Beat the whites until they’re stiff.
Mix the butter into the dry ingredients. Stir in about a third of the milk, then another third, and another.
When the batter is well-mixed, carefully integrate the egg whites, stirring in ONE DIRECTION. This is the same advice as for Mousse au Chocolat and Baba au Rhum. Consistency. At the last minute, add the all-important sprinkles.
You need two identical Pyrex bowls, about 6.5 inches (17 cms) in diameter. Butter them and pour in the batter. Bake for about 20 minutes (but check after 15!).
Let it cool. Before you turn out the two halves, scoop out the insides of the cakes. Make sure you have at least 2 inches (5 cms) of cake all the way around, or else it will collapse.
Make the frosting. I just did classic buttercream–equal parts butter and powdered sugar, with a dash of vanilla. Later, I added food coloring.
I used something like M&Ms, which at that time you couldn’t find in France but now they’re everywhere. Nothing too soft or sugary or else it will dissolve with the humidity of the cake. In fact, let the cake get completely cool before assembling. Don’t make more than a day in advance.Put the bottom half of the piñata cake on the serving dish. Then pour the candy into the hollowed-out hole in the bottom half of the cake, carefully creating a talus hill above. Without disturbing the candy, apply some frosting around the flat lip of the bottom half of the cake. Delicately set the top half of the cake on it.
Frost the whole thing. As you can see, I’ve done this more than once. The smooth frosting was much easier than the little stars.
The last bit of advice: Don’t stress about it. Years later, my kid remembers only that I made birthday cakes from scratch (spatula licking was involved), vs. other kids whose parents picked up something random at the supermarket. It really is the thought that counts.
If you visit France, of course you want to take home one of its most famous specialities: wine. Whether for yourself or a gift, you can get some amazing wines in France from wineries that are too small to export, or, even if they do export, that aren’t easy to find.
How do you make sure your treasures get home safely? We have used this method for more than 15 years and have never had a broken bottle. It’s easy and nearly free.
You need one cardboard wine box for every two bottles; scissors or a box cutter; duct tape or some other strong tape. (BTW, I read once that it’s smart to pack a small roll of electrical tape in your carry-on for emergencies. It saved me once when my suitcase appeared on the carousel completely open, with all three latches broken. Of course this wasn’t in any way the airline’s fault. Anyway, the tape let me get the suitcase shut enough to get out of the airport.)
First, cut the box so it opens flat.
Roll the bottle and cut where it goes all the way around.
Wrap tape around the middle.
Bend the bottom like wrapping a present and tape well.
Squeeze the top–the cardboard will pleat around the narrower bottle neck. Tape well.
Tape the whole thing like crazy. It goes through the X-ray machines just fine, and we’ve never had them questioned or opened.Sometimes for good measure we first wrap the bottle in bubble wrap and then do the cardboard. And sometimes we then put the wrapped bottle into a plastic bag so that if, heaven forbid, it breaks, it won’t seep out all over your clothes. At least not as much.
This method has worked well for us, though. Even when we’ve dropped our luggage. Even when we’ve dropped the wrapped bottles.FYI, the wines shown here are beyond excellent, from small wineries that do export. We featured la Tour Boisée earlier; le Château Villerambert Julien also is fantastic. Both are from the Minervois A.O.C. (appellation d’origine contrôlée–the official guarantee it comes from a certain region and meets strict standards). Minervois is just northeast of Carcassonne. Look for it!
Entertaining in summer is so different from winter. As soon as it’s nice out, we eat en terrasse for every meal, and the same applies for dinner parties. While winter dinners are cozy and intimate around a candlelit table, they can only be so big. That also is nice–the conversations are deeper with a smaller group.
But a big party is fun, too. We got in the groove of cooking hamburgers, partly to redeem them from the bad rep of McDonald’s (people here complain about McDonald’s but France is MacDo’s most profitable market outside the U.S., cough, cough). Fan or foe, anybody would admit that a homemade burger cooked on a real grill is a step above.
Burgers are a good option because they offer mass customization: you prepare and cook a ton of them the same way, and everybody can dress theirs up as they like. We learned our lesson and made them rather small and thin, for quicker cooking and because some people eat just one small one and others eat five. (In earlier years, we threw away an awful lot of half-eaten big burgers.)
One friend brought appetizers, so that was taken care of.
We had two salads on the side: a pasta salad with an Italian vibe (lots of fresh basil, olive oil, red wine vinegar) and an Asian-inflected cabbage slaw–no creamy dressings in this heat. They were made one day ahead.
The carrot cake has a history. One of our early such cookouts coincided with July 4. I decorated the carrot cake with blueberries and raspberries to make an American flag. One of our friends thought this was so pretty, it had to be shown to everybody before we cut it to eat. As she walked around with it, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I answered “Carrot,” she stopped as if she’d gotten an electric shock, and nearly dropped the cake. She recovered and then, as if to save me from the horror of the idea of a cake made with carrots, asked about the frosting. “A kind of cheese,” I explained. At that time, Philadelphia cream cheese was found only in expat groceries (where I had paid a small fortune) and I didn’t yet know that Saint-Môret is pretty much the same thing.
That was it. Nobody touched the carrot cake. Finally, somebody who was out of earshot for this came around and took a piece. Biting into it, she exclaimed, “Wow, this pain d’épice is delicious”–pain d’epice (spice bread) being familiar, but usually much drier and without a tangy cream cheese frosting. That gave the others an excuse to satisfy their curiosity and the carrot cake was quickly devoured.
By now, even here in France profonde, trendy tea salons serve carrot cake and cheesecake.
Here are some recipes for feeding a crowd (we had about three dozen people):Asian-influenced cabbage slaw
1 head of red cabbage (green is OK but not as pretty), grated or sliced as finely as you can
1-2 red bell peppers, chopped
4-5 carrots, grated
1 onion, finely chopped
fresh ginger about the size of a thumb, peeled and finely minced
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp soy sauce
Put the liquids in a jar and shake to make the vinaigrette. Toss with the vegetables. If you do it a day earlier, it’s even better, because the vinegar will soften the cabbage. This is a refreshing alternative to traditional coleslaw.Pasta salad
500 g (1 lb.) pasta of your choice, cooked al dente (don’t overcook, so it holds up)
1 red bell pepper
1 green or yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup basil leaves
1 large onion
Chop all the vegetables and toss with the pasta. Because of braces, we chop pretty finely and grate carrots. I peel nothing, just wash–keep those vitamins! The basil I scrunch into a bunch and cut into ribbons, but you also can tear it. Other possible additions: olives (black or green), sun-dried tomatoes, fennel, even fruit like peaches. There is no right or wrong here.
In a jar, combine 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 3/4 cup olive oil, a clove of garlic (minced very finely) and a big spoonful of capers. Shake to mix and toss into the salad.
The carrot cake recipe is from Epicurious–BA’s Best Carrot Cake, from Bon Appétit, May 2016. We didn’t include the rum (actually our kid made all the desserts except for the frostings). For some reason, I didn’t use the frosting recipe there and instead used the Epicurious “Classic Cream Cheese Frosting,” which came out way too runny, perhaps because of the heat here, and I ended up adding a lot of powdered sugar.
The chocolate cake was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. Moist, rich, not cloyingly sweet. It’s from the Violet Bakery, and I found the recipe on the excellent blog 101 Cookbooks. I did the marshmallow frosting, too, which was just like a marshmallow cloud. Didn’t manage to pipe it, though, possible again because of the heat. This one is my new go-to recipe for chocolate cake.
The nut bars are a tried-and-true success from “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” which is an oldie but goodie. Page 256. This cookbook gets constant use, even after decades. A few things seem very ’80s, but the vast majority is classic. And classy.
Here are the nut bars, called Pecan Squares, but, not wanting to take out a second mortgage to buy exotic pecans, I used walnuts, which are delicious.
The Silver Palate’s Pecan (or walnut) Squares
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
1/2 pound butter, softened
Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease a 9×12 sheet pan (or grease and use parchment paper). Sift the sugar and flour together. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until you get fine crumbs. Press into the pan and bake for 20 minutes. Remove and set aside.
2/3 cup melted unsalted butter
1/2 cup honey
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 1/2 cups coarsely chopped nuts
Mix all the ingredients together and drop in dollops onto the crust, spreading it out evenly.
Return to the oven and bake for an additional 20-25 minutes (better to set your timer for less and pull it out when it’s brown and bubbly and not when it’s burned!).
I cut everything into bite-sized squares because plenty of people wanted one of everything, and they could always come back for seconds. Or thirds.
This was not a hugely expensive party to throw, considering how many people we had. Nor was it hugely complicated. The hamburgers themselves involved 9 kilograms (almost 20 pounds) of ground beef, with about 20 eggs, a cup of soy sauce, a cup of Worcestershire sauce and 2 cups of bread crumbs (the eggs and bread crumbs keep them from breaking up). This made about 85 hamburgers.
The best bet is to make the burgers a day or two ahead, and to have three dozen or so in a big container and then to have the rest in a couple of smaller containers. The big container gets cooked first, because everybody will fall on them as fast as they come off the grill as if they hadn’t eaten for a week. The others can stay in the fridge until needed, and, if there are leftovers, you can put them in freezer bags, all ready for a future cookout.
We had everything ready the day before, and the day of, we just had put out the paper “tablecloths” and cushions and the plates (real china dessert plates that have been well-amortized over 20-some years) and silverware (Ikea, again, well worth the investment from 20 years ago). Then we all put our feet up and relaxed for about an hour before guests arrived. Which is as it should be.
Do you throw big parties? Tell all! If not, what’s holding you back?
Coffee: I don’t know about you, but when I was in high school French class, I learned that there was un express and there was un café au lait. However, things are much murkier.
Un express is an espresso, also known as a café court or a short coffee. This is in contrast to un café allongé, or an elongated coffee, which is stretched out with water and which also goes by the name café américain. It’s more like the filtered coffee you might make with a drip coffee maker, although in a café they don’t have drip machines and just add hot water to the espresso.
But you can also order “un espresso.” Or “un café,” because the default setting for coffee is espresso–small, strong, with a frothy foam, and a sugar or two on the side. It is considered correct to drink any time of the day, and at the end of meals, after dessert.
Coffee with milk is a different beast. For one thing, it’s breakfast. You will get a raised eyebrow but no objection if you order a milky coffee after a meal. Probably because it’s often a big bowl of frothy milk, with an espresso dropped in–it’s filling. And if you say, “un café au lait, s’il vous plaît,” they will nod and repeat, “un café crème,” or just “un crème.” (This is a little like how, around here, if you ask for un pain au chocolate they will nod and repeat, “une chocolatine” or “une choco,” which is the regionally preferred term, kind of like the pop/soda split in the U.S., but more heated because it’s about food and it’s in France. The debate even went to Parliament, and you can vote here.) Now, if you paid attention in high school French class, you know that crème is feminine–think la crème de la crème. But, I guess, since in this case it’s short for café, which is masculine, it gets to be masculine.
I caught onto the café crème instead of café au lait thing quickly, but it took me a while to figure out the masculine/feminine part. This will make my husband laugh because I am terrible with genders in French, managing to get them wrong more than half the time, he says, noting that a random guess would come out right 50% of the time.
Another term for confusion: un noisette (that masculine/feminine thing again!) is an espresso with a hazelnut-size dollop of milk. I have seen flavored coffees in some cities, but they are not common.
Also, beware that if you order a cappuccino, you will not get a coffee with frothy milk but a coffee with whipped cream–practically dessert.
Speaking of which, un café gourmand is a coffee served with an assortment of mini pastries or desserts.
The title of this post is an hommage to the song, Le Jazz et le Java, by Claude Nougaro. Check it out here. A classic!
It’s hot. The glare of the sunshine, the sharp shadows, the heat mirages wavering up from the asphalt. I don’t mind, because it’s summer, and summer is always too short. What I do mind is cooking when it’s hot.
Our kid had a friend over for a few days and I made a Moroccan chicken pastilla (yes, I’m on a Moroccan kick after all that yummy food in Casablanca), and the next day we made pizzas. Both pastilla and pizzas are cooked in the oven. And the day before, I had made a cake because a bunch of friends were coming for coffee. Too much oven!
We are back to regular summer programming. That means salad for dinner. When I ask French friends what they do for dinner, they say “soup” in winter and “salad” in summer. While I have seen some French salads that involve cold pasta tossed with raw (or canned) vegetables, more often it’s a salade composée–a composed salad, in which the ingredients sit nicely next to each other, like neighbors, respecting each other’s personal space.
BTW, the word for lettuce is salade, but a salad doesn’t always have salade in it. And there are many kinds of lettuce–laitue, chêne, romaine, batavia, scarole, mâche, cresson, mesclun….There are the famous French composed salads. Salade niçoise, named after the city of Nice, has tuna, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, anchovies and olives, often served on a bed of lettuce.
Another is salade lyonnaise, named after Lyon, with bitter greens like frisée (frizzy!), lardons (bacon chunks), and a poached egg.
And a salad that doesn’t have a special name but is a classic found in many traditional restaurants features cold, cooked green beans, cold boiled potatoes, and either tuna or lardons.
All these would be served with a homemade vinaigrette. Homemade is SO quick and easy, and without all the nasty chemicals. One part vinegar to three parts olive oil, a finely chopped shallot or clove of garlic, a little salt and pepper, and maybe a little Dijon mustard. Put it in a jar with a tight cover and shake. Voilà. Change the kind of vinegar (balsamic instead of red wine, for example) and it’s very different. Sometimes I make it with rice wine vinegar and a mix of sesame and peanut oils. Here’s what we do: clean out the fridge. Anything goes. Fruit, vegetables, cheese, ham or other charcuterie, leftover steak sliced thin. We’ll call it the Salade Composée du Carnivore, because he is the specialist, arranging everything artfully. Either drizzled with vinaigrette or just splashed with olive oil and vinegar.Every few days, I make a big bowl of chopped salad, involving whatever vegetables are in season, plus some kind of vegetarian protein–beans and corn, beans and rice, quinoa, lentils, etc. It is good, but not as pretty as the French variety.
Last time, I showed one of the restaurants we visited in Casablanca, La Sqala. We never had a bad meal in Casablanca, even when it was take-out sandwiches from a tiny shop–there are many of these, sometimes two or three in a row. They have a couple of tables inside, a glass-front counter on the street displaying gorgeous kebabs and sausages, and an open kitchen just behind. Like a tiny diner, Casablanca-style.
The day Morocco played in the World Cup, some friends advised us to take it easy at our AirBnB by the end of the match, because a win would have crazy celebrations in the street, best appreciated from five floors above rather than in the midst of. Although I have to say, at least in Morocco you don’t have to deal with belligerent drunks.
We wanted to explore the Gauthier quarter, which was a bit more chic and modern than Derb Omar, where we were staying. And my kid and I both had found good comments about the Mood Café, so off we went.
Uncharacteristically, we didn’t take photos. It was international modern, the kind of place that could be in Paris or New York or Sydney. The food was excellent but also international modern. The Carnivore had a steak (a steak is a steak is a steak) and the kid and I had tartines, one with salmon the other with chicken. Very nice, with fresh ingredients, but what you would find at a good upscale café anywhere.
On the one hand, I think it’s great that people have choices for eating, and that they aren’t stuck with the same local specialties everywhere they look. Our friends informed us that Casablanca residents don’t eat Moroccan food when they go out–they eat that at home, and they have very high standards. So when they go out, they want something different–Chinese, Lebanese, French, Italian, international modern healthy.
In fact, the most sublime meal we had was at our friends’ home. OMG. We didn’t take photos of that either. Briouats, a big meze of cooked but not hot vegetable dishes, then a tajine that made me want to cry tears of joy.
Back to the Mood Café. It was nearly empty when we arrived. We ordered and watched it fill and fill and fill. Somehow I managed to sit on a banquette right under a big screen TV showing the match against Portugal. That meant EVERYBODY was facing me but, happily paying not one iota of attention because they were all riveted to the screen above my head. And I had the best deal–I got to watch the spectators.
A table just behind the Carnivore added more and more people. A mixed crowd in almost every way–they were all Moroccans but split about 50-50 men and women; the ages seemed to range from early 20s to late 40s; some of the women–the older ones–wore Western clothes and had their hair loose, while some others–including the youngest in the group–covered their hair. The youngest woman wore a tightly pinned headscarf in maroon polyester that matched her loose pants; she had a loose white tunic with that and Converse All Stars. Her face was as round as her oversized, gold rimmed glasses, and, unlike the other women, she didn’t have a speck of makeup. She was the most enthusiastic of the group. She drew her legs up, sitting Indian-style on the chair, sometimes hugging her knees as she stared at the TV, looking as if she was going to burst into tears (Morocco didn’t play well).
We watched everybody react as one, heaving with excitement, jumping up, grabbing each other’s arms so tightly their fingers turned white, their hopeful faces so bright they could compete with the sun, and then…the disappointment as the goal wasn’t scored. Their faces fell. Several men held their heads in their hands.
As it turned out, Morocco lost and there were no celebrations at all.
We also ate at a good restaurant in the Habbous neighborhood. Habbous is a new medina, built in the 1920s, much calmer than the old medina. We were approached by an old woman who was recruiting people for the Zayna restaurant, which happened to be the one we wanted. Delicious food! No website….
Then we went around the corner to Bennis Habous, a bakery, where you buy goodies by weight. Just point, and they’ll put them into a box for you to take away.Another restaurant was l’Etoile Centrale, directly across from the Central Market. Very pretty inside, but no match for Zayna or home cooking.
The New York Times had an article last week about Rick’s Café in Casablanca.
One of the most sacred moments of the French day comes around 6 p.m. (or 18h, as they say here, because they sensibly use the 24-hour clock). Time for l’apéro, or apéritifs.
It can be simple–a glass of wine and some nuts and olives or a few slices of saucisson (hard sausage), to be nibbled on as one makes dinner. For many people, rushing home from work to throw together dinner for the family, l’apéro is appreciated only on the weekends, an almost sacred rite attached to the evening meal.
Drinks are always accompanied by food, very light, not to ruin the meal. I remember learning about l’apéritif in my French class in New York–that it comes from the Latin word aperire, which means “to open,” and what’s getting opened is your stomach.
The drinks started off as alcoholic beverages made with herbs. Medicinal, of course. However, the most popular apéritifs in our region are simply a glass of wine or un jaune–a glass of pastis, the golden anise-flavored spirit that oxidizes when water is added, turning a milky yellow. If you want to sound like a local, ask for “un p’tit jaune” (a small yellow).
Last weekend was the Fête des Voisins (European Neighbors’ Day), and about 15 of us gathered for dinner en terrace, each bringing a dish. Potlucks are unusual in France. They aren’t unheard-of, but if you’re invited to dinner, you are unlikely to be assigned a dish. However, you can bring flowers, a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates or another thoughtful gift for the hosts.
Homemade gifts are OK, too. Like this one:
Which is not the same as a potluck dish.
But the Fête des Voisins is different. In our neighborhood, it was the Carnivore who took up the mantle of organizing a meal. Tables and chairs were rented (for a ridiculously cheap amount from the village, including delivery and pickup the next day!). Somehow, no matter how hot the preceding days had been, every year as dinnertime approached, clouds would roll in and the temperature would drop.
This is when it’s good to be neighbors with a winery. Several times, the tables were set up amid the huge cuves, or tanks, of wine, with plenty of room, not to mention atmosphere.
This year, the group was smaller, but the intimacy was nice. The weather behaved and we had apéritifs next to the pool before moving to the table. I was assigned to bring appetizers, some of which I wrote about when we hosted a pre-Christmas apéritif dînatoire–basically a cocktail party.
I again made the chorizo cookies and two kinds of croissants (ham and Boursin, and “pizza” with tomato sauce and mozzarella). And I made two new ones that are SO easy: goat cheese mini tarts and savory mini clafoutis.
For the goat cheese mini tarts you need:
A readymade pie crust (feuillété, or flaky, if you have the choice)
A bûche, or log, of goat cheese
Fresh rosemary sprigs
Cut rounds out of the pie crust. I used a small glass. You want the rounds to be slightly bigger than the diameter of the goat cheese. Slice the goat cheese and lay the slices on the rounds. Place a tiny dab of honey on the goat cheese (I used a knife and just dipped the tip into the honey). Top with the rosemary. Bake at 360 F (180 C) for about 10 minutes–until the cheese has melted a little and the crust is cooked.
The clafoutis recipe is similar to the recipe I used for rhubarb clafoutis, but without the sugar. You can put anything you want in them. I had Boursin left over from the croissants, and I thought sliced black olives would be pretty. When I used up the olives, I still had batter left, so I sliced up some more chorizo (the Spanish kind, which is a hard sausage). Both were delicious. You could do bacon, diced peppers, diced sun-dried tomatoes, other cheeses….
1 cup milk or cream or a combination
3/4 cup (30 grams) flour
pinch of salt
butter for greasing the muffin pan
Beat the eggs and milk/cream. Mix the flour and salt in a medium bowl that you can pour from. Add the liquid to the flour little by little, so you don’t get lumps. Let it rest for about half an hour. Pour into a greased mini-muffin pan. Drop your add-ins on top. Bake for 20-30 minutes (I had to turn the pan halfway through). À votre santé!
Whatever got into somebody’s head to cook with the stems of a plant whose leaves are poisonous? Yet rhubarb has a fierce deliciousness–a tartness that grabs you by the tongue and forces you into a duck face. For that, rhubarb (a vegetable!) usually is wrangled to play with nicer, sweeter fruits like strawberries and raspberries that tone down its tendency to make one’s eyes squint, while it pushes the berries out of their sugary comfort zone and into interesting territory.
Indeed, one of my favorite things in the world when I was growing up was my grandma’s raspberry-rhubarb jam, made with what raspberries were left (considering our favorite pastime was picking them and eating them on the spot, but I guess we were short enough that plenty stayed out of reach) and rhubarb that grew in her enormous, weed-free vegetable garden.
And, in what seems like another era, another universe, I used to stop by a favorite café in my hometown to pick up a rhubarb pie (I think it was rhubarb solo), to take back to New York. Those were the days where you could check in 20 minutes before your flight, with pots of grandma’s jam in your carry-on and a still-hot rhubarb pie in a box balanced in your hands, and your entire family of about a dozen people could walk right up to the ramp for last-minute hugs and kisses and your parents could watch you walk down the ramp, right up until you were swallowed up by the airplane and they’d have to wait months to see you again.
Rhubarb has appeared at the market for a few weekends now, and I decided that, sugar be damned, we were going to have dessert. I picked up a big bunch of stalks–I think they were €2.50 a kilo–and then considered my options. I also bought strawberries, but they were inhaled immediately by our kid. Never say no to a kid who wants fruit or vegetables. No matter how old they are.
We also had a dental crisis in the house, and I was investigating easy-to-chew menus. (FYI, we had a Cuban feast–ropa vieja with lots of vegetables, plus yellow rice and black beans (also with lots of vegetables, and, since my family don’t read this, I will admit to chopping up the leaves of some beets in there. Delicious!)) However, I feared that pie crust might be too tooth-challenging. Same with a crumble that was advertised as having “crispy” bits. Then I saw clafoutis–why not?
Usually clafoutis is made with whole cherries. In fact, the pits are supposed to be the key to success–they heat up and cook the dessert from the inside or something. I saw the first cherries of the season on Saturday, but they were from Spain, and I’m holding out for the local ones that will come soon.
The thing about clafoutis recipes is that they are all the same yet all different. In fact, they are quite similar to the recipe for crêpes, but with more sugar and less flour. Some called for thick cream (like sour cream), some for regular cream, some for milk. I had regular cream and used that. They all called for three eggs, but none of them had the same measurements for anything else. How is that even possible? Well, clafoutis is one of those French dishes that you can just whip up without much fuss (the French are so good at this–for all their famed fancy foods, they also have a way of taking four ingredients and turning them into something very yummy. Just look at the humble classic quatre-quart, or pound cake: eggs, sugar, flour and butter, which is just very beaten cream, after all, plus baking powder. Little tweaks and you get something completely different, from crêpes to cake). Seriously, clafoutis takes about 10 minutes of work, and most of that is for chopping the rhubarb.
I will warn you that if you like sweets, you may want more sugar. I keep trying to see how little sugar I can get away with, and I’ve finally gotten used to plain yogurt with fruit and no added sugar. Sugar and salt are two things where the more you have the more you want. I liked the result here because I liked the tartness of the rhubarb contrasting with the eggy, mild clafoutis. You have been warned.
4 medium eggs (or 3 big ones)
3/4 cup (160 g) sugar
1 1/2 cups (35 cl) cream or milk
1 1/4 cups (60 g) flour
pinch of salt
25 oz (700 g) of rhubarb (about four big stalks)
a pat of butter
Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C).
Beat the eggs, then add the sugar and salt, then the flour. Then thin it out with the cream. Mixing in the flour before the cream helps prevent lumps.
Let the batter sit for about 20-30 minutes. (Similar to pancake batter that you let rest. But unlike pancake batter, you want the flour completely mixed in.)While the batter rests, prepare the rhubarb. Cut off the stalks’ ends and strip the long fibers, which is really fun. (Since you surely clicked on the link above about how the leaves are poisonous, I assume you removed them, if that wasn’t already done.) Then cut the rhubarb into sticks of 2 or 3 inches, if you like, or into small chunks (which I did). Butter a 9×12-ish baking dish or a large tart/pie dish and spread the rhubarb in it. When the batter is ready, pour it over the rhubarb. Bake for 20 minutes. You want it to only barely get brown. It can be served hot, warm or cold. If you want to gild the lily, or if it’s too tart for your taste, sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Artichokes are intimidating. Not the meek hearts, already cleaned and cooked and ready to use from the can. Those were the only kind I knew for most of my life, usually as a stand-in for spring in pizza quattro stagioni–four seasons pizza, which, thanks to the artichokes, I thought was the most elegant pizza of all. Artichokes, even those in cans, were exotic and expensive and not something we ate growing up. I eventually experienced a steamed artichoke, which involved pulling off the leaves, dipping them in a lemony, garlicky butter and pulling the leaves between my teeth to scrape off the essence of artichoke. But it seemed to me to be awfully similar to snails and, I hear, frogs’ legs–things that don’t taste that great on their own and are essentially a garlic-butter delivery system. (I can only go on the Carnivore’s word regarding frogs’ legs; when we were dating, the first time I looked into his freezer, I saw a bag of them and nearly fainted and that was the end of amphibians in the kitchen.)At French markets in spring, artichokes accompany asparagus as the first vegetables of spring. Peas appear later. Tomatoes and the rest of the cornucopia don’t make their entrance until June at best. After all, it’s risky to plant a garden before the ice saints.
The market stalls are piled high with pyramids of myriad kinds of artichokes. Purple, green, long, perfectly round….how to choose? As the Carnivore and I finished up our marketing on Saturday, we decided to be daring. (Artichokes are old hat for the Carnivore, but the steamed and bathed in butter version…or hearts, again bathed in butter, and served with lamb.) Seeing a little old lady grab a bouquet of artichokes, then a second bouquet, I decided to follow suit. Market tip: If you aren’t sure whether the produce is good, observe what little old ladies are buying, because they actually know how to cook. But the way to pick artichokes is similar to other produce: they should feel heavy, full and firm–which shows they are fresh and not old and dried out. It was the end of the market, and we were given even more artichokes by the vendor, who didn’t want to be bothered with leftovers. (Another market tip: haggling isn’t done, at least not at the food market, but you’re likely to get extras at the end of the market.)
The next challenge was what to do with our personal pyramid of artichokes. I checked all my go-to French food sources: David Lebovitz, who gives a good step-by-step guide to trimming artichokes down to the hearts. (By the way, I made his asparagus mimosa for Sunday lunch and it was AWESOME.)You can see a good drawing of the anatomy of an artichoke here. In French, the heart is called le fond, which also means the bottom, the crux or the base. And the choke–the fluff that grows out of the heart–is called foin, or straw. Just to make things confusing consider this: the artichoke heart melts in your mouth: le fond d’artichaut fond dans la bouche. Yup, fond also is the third person present tense for fondre, or to melt. I love French.
I decided to do a few whole artichokes à la Mimi Thorisson, with her recipe for stuffed artichokes. I had extra stuffing, which I put on top of some chicken breasts and baked along with the artichokes (on a separate sheet, on the rack above the artichokes for a little steaming action). Delicious! The rest of the artichokes would be mostly sacrificed for their hearts. Following the advice of David Lebovitz, as well as Le Monde’s Chef Simon and Cuisine Actuelle, which wisely suggested wearing gloves–artichokes can turn your hands a surprisingly tenacious color. I wanted to use the recipe by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné in his book “Les Délices de la Table ou les Quatre Saisons Gourmandes.” He has several, and I went for Lyonnaise-style quarters of artichoke hearts.
Montagné suggests cooking the artichoke hearts “à blanc,” which sent me down another rabbit hole. Everybody emphasizes rubbing your artichoke (heart or whole) with lemon juice to keep it from oxidizing and turning unattractively black, the way avocados do. To “cook something white” involves blanching it in a mixture that contains acid (vinegar or lemon juice), fat (oil or butter) and flour. The acid does its anti-oxidizing duties while the flour forms a barrier to light and the fat makes a protective film that seals the artichoke (or other food) from air. Go figure.My buddy Chef Simon gives a good explanation of les blancs, with proportions, kind of. Prosper Montagné also has a mix for unecuisson à blanc: 1.5 cups of water, juice of half a lemon and a spoon (no indication of how big) of oil. I used Simon’s version, which had more water (2 liters) and also a pinch of salt and a spoon of flour. First, mix the flour with a little cold water, adding more little by little to avoid lumps, then the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil.The Lyonnaise style involves cutting the hearts into quarters, cooking finely minced onion in butter until translucent and setting the hearts on top, then adding a cup of white wine. Cook until the liquid is reduced, then add 1.5 cups of veal broth and cook, covered, for 45 minutes. Talk about melt in your mouth.