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.
High-quality ingredients elevate the simplest meals to moments of wonder and joy.
We are spoiled for choice here in France, especially on market day, when local growers and artisans bring their goods, all nice and fresh and natural, for sale in the square, as has been done for hundreds and hundreds of years (758, to be precise).We are big fans of chevre–goat cheese–in all its forms. And there are many: from soft to hard and everything in between; from small rounds (called crottin–which also is the word for droppings of animals like sheep and goats!) to big rounds to bûches (logs) to squares and rectangles. They can be pure white, yellowish, ashen gray. Pasteurized or not. Something for everybody.
I am partial to the semi-soft rounds that are encrusted with all kinds of yummy stuff: peppercorns, dried cranberries, herbs… Our kid likes bûches for their chewy crust, but anything with strong flavor will do.
Although I have some favorite vendors at the market, sometimes I can’t pick just one. So it is with cheeses. There are several artisans, with slightly different products, so I buy a couple from each. We know some from having visited their farms during the Ferme en Ferme open houses–the 2018 season opens May 1!Of course, good bread is easy to find. And strawberries, grown in the cool, wet hills of Ariège. If you can’t come here, take yourself on vacation with some really good bread, some juicy strawberries and a real goat cheese that isn’t sealed in plastic from some factory. Every bite will be worth it.
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.
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.We 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.Good 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?According 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. Some 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.So 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.”Imagine 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. And 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.)Keep 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.According 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.Around 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.Very 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.
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.
Living 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.Years 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.
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.
Macarons 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.I 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.Even 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.
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 chinois—un chinois is a strainer, aka passoire; a sifter is unetamise, and to sift is tamiser.)
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.
The meringue is ready when it forms stiff peaks. Hold up the beater and look for the bec–beak.
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!
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.
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.
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).
Distribute 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.Don’t worry about tips sticking up; they will smooth out. Hold 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.
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.
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…”)Put 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. Put 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.If 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).
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)
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.Put 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.Make 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. Macarons are not nearly as hard or mysterious as I’d feared and certainly impressive to serve. Let me know if you try them!