Valentine’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.Zebra Brownies
1 cup (227 g) butter, softened
2 cups (200 g) sugar
1 cup (85 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup (128 g) flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups (225 g) cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cup (300 g) sugar
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:
1/2 cup (113 g) butter
1 cup (100 g) sugar
1/2 cup (43 g) cocoa powder
1/2 cup (64 g) flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cup (12 oz or 113 g) cream cheese
3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup (32 g) flour
Same procedure, but test for doneness after 25 minutes.
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. To be fancy, I also added out-of-season raspberries.
Leeks 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.)A 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. Super-simple leek gratin
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).Clean 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.Boil the leeks for about 10 minutes.While 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.As 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.
“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….
It’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.”
Sometimes 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.Some 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!).
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.
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.
Everybody 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.
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.But 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). And 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.
Or the herbs sold in pots because cut wouldn’t be as fresh.
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. Eating 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.
Here are the recipes I promised for two of the desserts served at our Fête de la Lumière: chocolate crackles and nut bars.Chocolate 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)
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.Use 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.Nut 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.
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!).
The 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.
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.
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.
Big gathering or small, I have learned things about successful dinner parties, especially from the French.
The food should be made in advance and ready to serve when you move to the table.
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.
Beautifully presented dishes.
Silverware set correctly.
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.
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.
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.
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. One 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!
The French apéritif dinatoire–cocktail dinner–is a way to invite a crowd for dinner without having them sit down around the table. More than just cocktails with hors d’oeuvres, it’s a whole dinner but not served in the usual French style with courses, and with everything in small portions that are easy to manage while standing and mingling.
On Saturday, our little house was packed to the gills with friends for the Fête de la Lumière, or the Festival of Light, a tradition started by dear friends who moved away and whom everybody at the party admitted to missing terribly. We picked up the baton because it was such a great way to see people, whereas with dinner parties the number of guests is limited to four or six (with us that makes six or eight around the table, which is about all you can do and still have conversation).
Recipe testing began a few weeks ago, and, despite good intentions to make dishes in advance and freeze them, I made everything in the days before the party. I kept a spreadsheet with dishes, showing how many days ahead they could be done, ingredients and links to the recipes.
The spreadsheet was very useful for assembling the shopping list. I could go through and count, for example, how many eggs and how much butter and flour in total.
I could have cut the number of chicken wings by half; since they were done fresh, we froze the leftovers. The madeleines won raves, but I could have made a single batch (considering we ate the test batch quickly, I was surprised). Happily they freeze well. Also the chorizo cookies–double the recipe would have sufficed. It seemed to me it made such a small batch. Also froze the leftovers. Nothing wasted.
On the other hand, the meatballs and deviled eggs disappeared. The nut cake was nearly gone and a fan happily took the few remains home.
The list above, plus charcuterie, cheese and baguettes, came to about €200 for a guest list of 36. Cheese alone was about €40. The total doesn’t include the wine because we tapped our cellar. Most of the food was on the dining table, with no decorations but a silver tray with candles. We put the charcuterie on a buffet and the cheese board on a small bookcase near the table. We had two conversation areas, but people stood for the first two hours, mingling and eating, before slowing down and migrating to the chairs and sofas. Although everybody was from the village, not all the guests knew each other, though they all knew at least some of the others. The grown daughter of a neighbor had come back to visit her parents; she had been our babysitter back in the day. She came, which I took as a high compliment, since she certainly had other options for socializing on a Saturday night than hanging out with neighbors her parents’ age.
Here are the links to the recipes again:
Zucchini cheese chips (no need for a recipe, since it’s grated zucchini and cheese, dumped in little piles and baked–you can find many similar).
The Thai chicken wings and nut bars are from cookbooks; I’ll share those later. The meatball recipe changed when we couldn’t find the ingredients (no hoisin around here), so I just mixed ground pork with breadcrumbs, eggs, lots of minced onions and herbes de provence and baked them (honestly, the onions made them. OMG). The crinkle cookies and chocolate cake are old family recipes that I also will expand on later.This shouldn’t sound intimidating. It was a lot of work for two days and totally worth it. The advantage of cooking ahead and freezing is that the work gets spread out into small bits; but the advantage of doing everything just before is that it’s all fresh and you can freeze leftovers. A win either way.
Also, don’t overthink. We decorated the tree and put Christmas balls here and there, plus lots of candles. No elaborate centerpieces. The food is the main event. Actually, the conversation is the main event, and the food is just fuel for it.
The countdown to Saturday’s apéritif dinatoire begins. Shopping, decorating, cooking, cleaning, and more cooking.
We put up the tree and added a few decorations. We even strung lights outside.
We did most of the shopping. My favorite sous-chef made a double batch of chocolate crinkle cookies, which passed the freezer test with flying colors. Just as good thawed as fresh.
You can’t see the snowflakes here, but it looked a lot like Christmas.
My do-everything-ahead plan was thrown off by two days spent in Carcassonne at our apartments. Still, it felt like a mini vacation, especially the sauna, and was a nice breather. Our kid had events all day on Saturday, when it snowed. People here panic when it snows. The ones with SUVs drive far too fast, not realizing that big vehicles still slide on ice. Other people creep along at a maddeningly slow crawl, causing backups and then some idiot comes along and decides to pass despite not being able to see whether it’s clear. Some years ago I had to drive to town during a snowstorm. I cut my speed by half–not a crawl but slow enough that I wouldn’t need to brake hard to stop. I counted a dozen cars in the ditch in a 20-minute drive. Rather than take any risks with snow forecast, we decided to stay in at our Carcassonne AirBnB apartments, which was empy between guests. The snow fell as if cued by a movie director, light flakes drifting down cinematically all day. All the kids had their faces turned skyward to catch the fleeting flakes. It was cold for here (low 40s) but too warm for snow, which melted as soon as it touched the ground.
The best-laid plans still go astray, whether due to weather or other reasons.
Here are some of the things that can be made well in advance:
Chocolate crackle cookies. They need to chill for a few hours or overnight. I think that, like chocolate chip cookies, they are better if the dough sits overnight. When they are cool, store them in a plastic container with the layers separated by parchment paper. Freeze.
My handwriting, from 1979. Talk about a keeper recipe! Melt the chocolate, stir in everything, chill, scoop out little balls, roll in regular sugar then in powdered sugar, bake at 350 F for about 10 minutes.
Other things you can freeze:
Chocolate cake–not frosted. Chocolate cake also gets better after a couple of days. I will make it three days ahead.
Depending on how things are going, I might also make a kind of French “cake,” which is a savory loaf with vegetables and meat or fish. I was disappointed with the tuna-zucchini recipe, but might try a different one.
Today I am going to make the nut bars, deep clean and rearrange the furniture. More photos coming Friday!
More Carcassonne Christmas décor. BTW, the bûches de Noël in the top photo are from across the street from here, Noez bakery.
The French have a fantastic take on the cocktail party. Called un apéritif dinatoire, it’s a dinner made of hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. Like tapas or mezze/meze or antipasti. More than nuts and chips—a meal.
Some beloved friends used to do this every year for the feast of Sainte Lucie, or la Fête de la Lumière, the festival of light. When they moved away, we missed not only them (shout-out to you!) but also their party, which was a chance to chat with people we rarely had opportunity to connect with as much as we’d like.
For us, “in a big way” means inviting over 30-some friends for dinner. We usually do a big bash in the summer, around July 4, with hamburgers, but that’s outside, where we have room for plenty of people. Our house is modest, and we have seats for just 16 people. If not everybody can sit, it’s best to have such a crowd that at least as many people are standing as sitting, and no chairs are at the table. The food buffet should be where folks have to get up to get at it, liberating a seat, which gets taken immediately, and which results in people mingling.
We have a big stack of plain white dessert plates from Ikea, as well as real silverware and glasses. No plastic allowed, and only the napkins are paper. People who are standing don’t want to balance a glass, a dish and a knife and fork. Therefore, most of the offerings are finger food. The ante is raised in France, because while Americans are unfazed by dips and foods that require licking one’s fingers (buffalo wings, nachos), the French don’t really do that. To-go French fries are served with tiny forks (charmingly represented by the Belgian luxury leather company Delvaux’s Belgitude collection, which includes a handbag that looks like a sachet of fries, and the keychain has a little red fork, just like the real ones. Check out the surrealist and so-Belgian video). There are people here who eat fruit with a fork and knife. This of course reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George eats a candy bar with a fork and knife.
We want the menu to be varied and to be as satisfying as a dinner. Chips and dip with a cheese tray isn’t going to cut it. And as good as puff pastry baked with various fillings may be, one cannot live by puff pastry alone. This is a cocktail party plus.
Catering something like this just isn’t done around here. Maybe in big cities, like Paris, where socialites would not be in the kitchen themselves. Or for a milestone birthday or anniversary party, which, in any case, would take place at the community hall. But for a holiday drinks soirée at home, catering would be gauche. At least in our village.
Another option would be to hit a place like Picard or Thiriet, which have mind-boggling selections of frozen, heat-and-serve dishes, from simple to fancy. But as good as their stuff is, it’s still industrial. And kind of expensive. I’ll buy readymade pie crust but that’s the extent of it.
Other requirements for the food:
—Must be made in advance. It isn’t possible to mingle with guests and cook at the same time. By advance I mean two or three days to a couple of weeks. In looking for ideas, I found far too many for which “advance” meant two hours. That’s fine if you’re inviting four people, but not if you’re expecting three dozen. There are better things than cooking to do the day of party, like resting.
—Must be not just edible but delicious if it gets cold. Some items can be heated in the oven as guests arrive, but last time the grazing went on for six hours. Savory tarts are good. So are tartines.
—Must resemble a well-balanced meal: vegetables, starch, meat, cheese, dessert.
—Must be easy to eat. Salads are great for a crowd, but require more than fingers.
—Must be easy on the budget.
—Must be in season.
The party is Dec. 9. I started testing recipes the week of Nov. 20. Somethings look better on Pinterest than in real life. Failures included:
Roasted Brussels sprouts, split and stuffed with prosciutto—too much work, disappointing.
Mini stacks of sliced potato gratin—too much work; didn’t hold together.
Mac and cheese in mini cups of ham—too much work; didn’t hold shape; didn’t like the crackly macaroni on top.
Tuna/zucchini/carrot cake: too wet; didn’t hold shape; fade (bland). Will try another recipe. This is the French “cake,” which is savory, not a sweet gâteau. We will have plenty of those, too.
I have a few others that worked well. I wanted to make gougères, but they are best straight from the oven. Instead, I found a recipe for savory, cheesy madeleines. Two thumbs up from my taste testers. I froze half the batch to make sure they would not soggy after being thawed. I’m going to make a big batch this weekend to freeze. Here’s the recipe.Ever since I first had chicken satay on a beach in Thailand, I have been hooked. Rather than deal with little skewers, I use chicken wings, with a peanut dipping sauce. Under the broiler in advance, and then heated in the oven, one of the few things I heated last time. Despite their inherent messiness, they disappeared quickly. Will be doing this again. The recipe is from “Cooking Thail Food in American Kitchens,” by Malulee Pinsuvana. I love that one column is written in Thai. Authentic!
I will come back on Tuesday with more recipes, a proper menu, and the game plan for carrying this out so it isn’t harried. Even the budget–it’s possible to pull off a classy event without breaking the bank.
Are you entertaining during the holidays? Feel free to share your tips!