Tarte au Citron with Blackberries

IMG_6386Late 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. mures 3P1080453Picking 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.mures 7mures 6Even 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.

vide grenier blackberries
Seen at a vide grenier

mures 1Tarte 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.IMG_6409Of 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. IMG_63591/2 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

1 egg

Grind the nuts finely (I used almond powder left over from macarons).

IMG_6374
My pastry board, a gift from a great uncle who was a carpenter, made for me when I was born. Now that is a special baby present. The marble rolling pin also was a gift, from my best friend’s mom. It has traveled.

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.IMG_6378When 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.

IMG_6380
Before baking. A spoon makes a nice design.

For the custard:

IMG_6372
I forgot to include the cornstarch in the photo.

4 eggs

3/4 cup (170 g) granulated sugar

2-3 lemons

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).

IMG_6363Grate 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).

IMG_6381
The divot was a lemon pip that I had missed earlier.

Let it cool a bit, then press the blackberries into the custard. IMG_6392

Advertisements

Piñata Cake

IMG_0289There 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.IMG_0279Now, 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.

IMG_0286Piñata Cake

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.IMG_0275Put 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.

 

Life in a French Village

P1100281Yesterday was la rentrée des classes–back to school–though it’s the official end of summer for those without kids, as well. The cars on the roads seem more purposeful, if not exactly rushed. Folks in these parts don’t rush very often.P1100276Although the end of summer and the return to routine marks the passage of time, in the little villages of the south of France, time seems to stand still. Time feels less linear and more like accretion, layers upon layers, with the old still there, forever.P1100274Welcome to the village of Trausse, on the edge of the Black Mountains, not far from Carcassonne. Host of a cherry festival in May and home year-round to excellent Minervois wine. As you can see, it’s bustling.P1100265

P1100284
The beating industrial heart of Trausse….wine, of course.

In that way of small villages, life is both intensely private and lived in public. P1100270

P1100259
Note there are TWO chairs sitting in the street. The better to see you with, my dear.

P1100258There are old stones, remnants of an illustrious past. In the late 1700s, there were more than 800 residents; today there are about 500.

P1100251
The Tour de Trencavel dates to the 12th century. It was a watchtower on the periphery of Carcassonne. The Trencavels pretty much ruled the region back then.
P1100269
Only in a village like Trausse is this not extraordinary but just normal.
P1100262
The church, like the tower, keeps the Christmas lights up all year because it’s nuts to climb up there to put them up, take them down, put them up, take them down.

Nothing is straight. If the walls in the photo above look like they’re leaning in toward the street, well, yes, they are.

People come and go, but the stones remain, sometimes putting up with modernization, like electricity.P1100242

P1100255
Do you see the loudspeaker on the right? That’s for public announcements, like the fishmonger’s truck has arrived, or a vide grenier is scheduled, or so-and-so has died.

P1100250

P1100272
Note the doorbell.

Although fetching water was probably a moment for gossip and camaraderie, I doubt folks regret having indoor plumbing. Somebody told me my village got plumbing in the 1970s!

P1100285
Do you see the scowling face in the middle, saying “turn off the tap!”

P1100273Trausse is overshadowed by its neighbor, Caunes-Minervois, which is undeniably adorable and which attracts many tourists. I heard that J.K. Rowling recently spent time in Caunes. But that might just be bragging. In any case, Caunes is a good place for somebody like her to be incognito, just another British lady renting a holiday home. P1100278

P1100282
Even the mudscraper is cute. Notice the different materials–stones, concrete, red bricks.
P1100268
Faded, but it says “Bike Exit”–often garage doors have “sortie véhicule” to indicate that you’ll be in trouble if you park in front. I found this to be charmingly cheeky.

There are so many cute villages here–I’m hard-pressed to think of any that don’t have at least a picturesque ancient center, even the ones surrounded by ugly subdivisions. It’s easy to skip the subdivisions and stick to the quaint old streets, where elderly residents sit in the shade unperturbed, cats nap in the middle of the road, and time meanders gently.P1100267

 

Citizens of the World

P1080791We don’t get to pick where we’re born. Some of us get lucky but mistakenly think their random chance is skill. Recently events brought home just how lucky we are.

We have some friends, a couple who are both teachers with two kids, one the same age as mine. Four years ago, they went off on an adventure–moving to the Republic of Congo (this is the Congo whose capital is Brazzaville, not the bigger neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which used to be called Zaire). They lived in the oil center of Pointe-Noire and liked it very much.

sunset 1
Random sunrise/sunset shots

When their contract was up, they weren’t ready to move back to France and got a new teaching gig in Bamako, the capital of Mali. This was very different; Mali is at war with Tuareg separatists in the north as well as Islamist terrorists. There’s a ceasefire with the separatists, but our friends aren’t allowed to leave the capital. Their children go to school and come straight home. They can’t go anywhere else–no shopping, no movies, no parks, no sports clubs.

sunset 5
Pyrénées at dusk. How many refugees crossed them to escape Franco and settle here?

It’s really sad; I visited Mali in 1999 (solo–it was before I met the Carnivore) and loved it. I went to Ségou, Djenné (home of the world’s largest mosque built from mud, a true marvel), Mopti (a city of 114,000 that I’d never heard of but loved), the Dogon country (home to animists who live in houses built into the sides of cliffs) and, of course, Timbuktu, which was as spectacular as its name suggests. In two weeks, I saw more of Mali than my friends, who have lived there for a year.P1080958The friends were back this summer to visit friends and family and we caught up. I drove the wife to say hi to some mutual friends. The conversations were interesting–everybody knew somebody who had worked in this country or that country. I also have many friends who think nothing of living in another country, usually sent for work. Even me–France is the fourth country I’ve lived in. We are citizens of the world. Not only can we pick up and move almost anywhere we want, but we actually get welcomed by other countries.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is not the case for everybody. Some people want to move because they’re ambitious and seek a better life somewhere else. Other people don’t want to move but are forced to by war or other problems.IMG_4331Our kid did a photography class recently. It started last year, after I decreed that the summer would not be whiled away on YouTube and Snapchat. This was met with a very negative reaction. “I won’t know anybody!” But I unleashed my inner drill sergeant, and my kid went to photography class. And loved it. And made a bunch of friends–many of the others in the class were refugees from Chechnya.P1080793This year, my kid eagerly signed up for summer photography, hoping to see the guys from Chechnya. However, they weren’t in the class. Other refugees, though, were. Two from Guinea (under military dictatorship) and two from Mali. Yup. While French people go to Mali for work, Malians flee to France for peace. It must blow these kids’ minds to be handed cameras that cost more than their families probably earned in a year.sunset 4My kid said one of the boys would sit in a fetal position and cry at lunch. I learned they were all unaccompanied. They are housed in small groups around Carcassonne, and looked after by counselors. The government covers their expenses. Let me say, I find this an excellent use of the taxes I pay and I am more than happy to pay it.sunset 3I cannot imagine what they must have gone through to travel to France. Alone. You must be desperate to send your child off to a strange land alone. But they’re boys, and the alternative is to risk seeing them kidnapped into an armed group or drafted into the army to fight. War either way. They chose life. At great risk, but everything about life comes at great risk in those countries, where they did not ask to be born.P1080788My grandmother’s family left her home country when World War I started. I had heard stories about how they were on the wrong side of the political fence, and my great-uncle was about to reach the age to have to fight. Instead, they fled to the U.S., and my great-uncle fought in the U.S. Army. It wasn’t a question of fighting or not, but of fighting for what.sunset 2The photography class is built around a changing theme of  historical heritage. This year, it was about the influx of Spanish refugees fleeing Franco’s regime. The class went around town to interview people who had fled Franco’s Spain. Imagine these refugee boys meeting others who also had been refugees. I wonder what was going on in their heads. The elderly people spoke of how it was hard to move to a new land, that they missed Spain, but that eventually they became integrated. I hope that these boys can look out to the day when they, too, will be integrated in the fabric of French life. If I can integrate, why not them?

 

 

Le Jardin Chez Nous

IMG_6186I’ve been in the trenches. Literally.

I’ve been thinking about how to be a better steward of our environment, at least the part I have some control over: our yard. My first thought: Lawns are crazy.P1100308Our grass usually turns golden brown by early July and stays that way until October. We don’t water it because water is a scarce commodity around here. Anyway, much of it is weeds. I pull and pull, but once the ground dries, it’s like concrete and nothing is coming out of it.

IMG_6232
The view from the outdoor dining table. 

What do they say about insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and thinking it will turn out differently? Lawns like that.

IMG_6190
More luck with strawberries in pots, where the ants don’t eat everything.

We don’t have a big lawn, mind you. And there was a period where the bits of grass got plenty of use by our kid and friends. But the swings are gone from the swing set, to be replaced by a hammock, which we have, but since nobody sets foot in the backyard, we haven’t hung it.

IMG_6229
Fruitful palm trees. 

There’s a strip where we grow herbs and cherry tomatoes. It’s next to the swing set, with the idea of being a snacking garden for our kid. We wanted our kid to actually pick food off a vine (we also have raspberries and strawberries). It worked. The tomatoes produce right up until Christmas. Not a ton, but I do find it amazing to pick tomatoes in December.IMG_6189We planted some fruit trees, too–apricot, cherry and fig. The fig actually was growing wild in the yard. The apricot tree gave us huge bounties year after year, but last year and this year have not been good. And the cherries are for the birds. That’s OK.

When the ground was still soft from spring rains, I started digging a trench for compost. The soil here is very argile, or clay, and I wanted to add organic material. I experimented over winter/spring in the tomato bed, and the compost broke down in about a month. I was delighted, and the tomatoes seem similarly happy.

IMG_6231
This part is done. Lots of oleander, that, now that it’s established, is very drought-resistant and full of color all summer long. No grass!

The idea of composting is such a no-brainer. Rather than throw away something that will create climate-destroying methane gas, it’s so much better to turn it into healthy soil. Some places burn municipal trash to generate electricity, but wet food waste can make it burn less efficiently. Plus, how many times had we gone to the garden center to buy huge sacks of decent dirt? Talk about crazy.

P1100310
Note the gigantic rocks.

Now the trench is nearly full. (I took the opportunity to pull some huge stones out of the ground, too–they are getting a new life as a border.) Later, when the human food has turned into plant food, that strip will be filled with drought-resistant perennials that will please the bees and butterflies and birds. Nothing is planted at this time of year–the garden centers are nearly empty. It’s just too hot and dry.

Eventually, I might do another trench on a new area of grass. The goal is to eventually just have parterres with gravel paths and no grass at all. And also, eventually, a potager with more than just cherry tomatoes.

P1100304
More mulch = more blooms.

The trash-collection company offers composters for €15. I need to order one to do regular composting. We have a mounting leaf pile to prepare a stock of brown material to balance out the wet kitchen scraps. I also spread crushed dry leaves as mulch around plants, including in pots, to help retain moisture, and it seems to have helped. I spread leaves around the raspberries to keep the weeds down, which has worked like a charm and has also kept the raspberries from wilting. I then did the same around the fruit trees.   The Carnivore was skeptical at first, but  the leaf mulch didn’t blow away. Now even he is sweeping up the leaves from the terrace and dumping them on the leaf pile. How crazy it was to bag them and dirty the car to haul them to the dump!

P1100291
Garden buddy.

What about you? Do you garden? Do you enjoy it? Do you compost? Any tips?

 

 

Heat Wave

P1100624By the time this is published, the canicule, or heat wave, is over. But for about a week, it was just a tad too hot. And hardly anybody, ourselves included, has air conditioning in the south of France.

june 26
Same candle on June 26…it’s almost gone now.

The word canicule comes from canine, as in the dog days of summer. It’s because Sirius, the brightest star in constellation Big Dog, or Canis Major, rises and sets with the sun in late July–often the hottest period of the year.

P1100512
Fishing on the Aude river…a cool activity.

The south of France is called le Midi, which sounds like middle, but it means middle of the day–noon. It’s the region where it’s always noon. Italy uses the same terminology–the mezzogiorno.

P1100583
Yes, that’s the Eiffel Tower below la Cité.
P1100582
There was an open-air showing of “La La Land.” 

We really shouldn’t complain–the hottest it has gotten was 36 Celsius, or 97 Fahrenheit. However, the nights never really cooled down–sometimes only to 27 C (81 F). This compares to averages for July and August of 27-28 C (81-82 F) for highs and 16 C (71 F) for lows.

P1100585
The wildflowers are going gangbusters.
P1100587
These blue ones are gorgeous.

Despite no precipitation since an incredible rainstorm in mid-July, the moisture has stuck around. We have the first summer dew I’ve seen since moving here and the grass is holding onto an aura of green. Usually it would be dry straw. OTOH, we haven’t seen the firefighting planes this summer either.

P1100622
Dew!

We open all the windows at night to let in the coolish air, then close them when the sun starts to hit the house. The shutters, too, get closed. We hide in the penumbra, not moving too much. On entering the house from the pitiless sunshine, it feels surprisingly cool, but one soon adapts, and even inside it seems too hot.

P1100593
Thank goodness for the woods. Exercise is at dawn or not at all.

My brain melts. I can’t focus. A fan blows straight on me, and I get an earache on the side it’s on. But I can’t take turning it off. My computer melts down a few times, refusing to toil on because it’s too darn hot.P1100588We eat food that doesn’t require cooking: salads, melon with prociutto, tomatoes and peaches stuffed with tuna.

P1100633
Somebody’s garden entrance.

The village looks drained of color, the beige stone and stucco dazzlingly bright and the shadows so sharp and black. Nobody is out. A cat sleeps in the shade under a car. Even the birds seem to be hiding in the shade. Only the cicadas thrum deafeningly, starting as early as 8:30 and continuing until almost 10 p.m. Peak summer torpor.P1100626Finally, some clouds come through, bringing lots of lightning and thunder though the rain is limited to a few drops. It is amazing to feel the suddenly cool, almost cold, air blow in with the storm. Today we’re going to have a high of 27 C and a refreshing low of 17 C, right on the average, and it looks like the rest of the month will be the same–warm enough to feel like summer but not uncomfortable. Thank goodness!

P1100629
I love these dramatic clouds.

How do you beat the heat?

Cookout for a Crowd

P1100608Entertaining 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.

P1100611
A little help from our friends. Seriously, everybody pitched in. Buns on the right.

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.)

P1100606
Batter fried veggies, pâté en croute, calamari, fried ham-and-cheese, breaded fried cheese…

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.

P1100598
I love this. Even better after a day.

And we had a buffet of desserts: Tollhouse cookies, nut bars, a chocolate cake and a carrot cake.

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.

IMG_6253
Once the carrot cake was cut it quickly became an unphotogenic free for all.

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):P1100597Asian-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.P1100604Pasta salad

500 g (1 lb.) pasta of your choice, cooked al dente (don’t overcook, so it holds up)

4 carrots

1 red bell pepper

1 green or yellow bell pepper

1 cucumber

3-4 tomatoes

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.

IMG_6255
My new favorite chocolate cake, with marshmallow frosting. In sheet form, less impressive than a layer cake, but just as delicious.

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.

P1100619
I forgot to take a photo until they were half eaten…

The Tollhouse cookies were the classic recipe, made in a sheet pan as bars to speed things up.

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.

P1100618
Ditto with the nut bars. People came up to me, still eating them, as if they were in a daze from having had a revelation, and asked for the recipe. All hail the Silver Palate.

The Silver Palate’s Pecan (or walnut) Squares

Crust:

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.

Topping:

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.

P1100621
The very dark chocolate cake was gorgeous against the very white marshmallow frosting.

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.

IMG_6259
Prepping the serving table. Dessert-size china plates are an easy size to hold.

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.

IMG_6270
A mini-fridge with beer. Note the hanging bottle opener (decapsuleur) and the container for bottle caps. A crate for empty bottles was under the table holding the cooler.

Do you throw big parties? Tell all! If not, what’s holding you back?

South of France Summer

9:30 a.m. (9h30 as the French would write it), and the cigales already are singing. After a brief rush of cars between 8:30 and 9, only a tractor rumbles through the village. Even the birds, who had been very vocal at 5 a.m., have quieted down, taking shelter in the shade. The only sound is the thrumming of the cigales, like a heartbeat.P1100260There’s a special kind of quiet that descends on villages in the south of France as the temperatures rise. It isn’t all that hot–low 30s Celsius, which is the upper 80s, flirting with 90. It’s summer hot, but not disagreeable. No humidity. Day after day of cerulean skies have dried the ground hard, the grass has gone dormant brown, the hydrangeas (hortensias in French) are wilting. The lavender, however, is happy, exploding like fireworks. Its enormous clouds of flowers are home to some irridescent beetles and many bees. Lavender honey is prized. However numerous, the bees are no match for the racket raised by the cicadas.

IMG_6186
I failed to get a good shot of the bees–they moved faster than I could focus–but I did get a beetle.

P1040826I run around the village before it gets hot, darting from shade to shade, feeling the coolness coming off the stone walls, feeling the heat, like a blanket dropped on me, when I step into the sun. Not a breath of wind. From afar, I spy a mother returning to her car, having deposited her child at the before-school daycare. The school year doesn’t end until Friday. There is no air conditioning in classrooms. Or anywhere. You get used to the heat better that way. The kids undoubtedly will be taken to the now-trickle of a stream to occupy the afternoon. Sometimes the wind carries their munchkin voices all the way to my house. They give their vocal cords a good workout. When our kid was little, I would accompany the class on these outings. Although I love children and spent only a couple of hours at a time with the class, I would need to rest afterward and would always be reminded that elementary teachers are not paid nearly enough for the work they do.

P1100253A dip in the water does a person good, especially after dinner, to cool down before going to bed. In the evenings, the birds come out again. We have a blackbird, whom I call Merle (merle is French for blackbird), who trills away, either in the tree above the table where we dine al fresco or from the peak of the roof, his beak pointed to the sky. He is an accomplished singer and I enjoy his concerts immensely, even at the crack of dawn. I have illusions/delusions about making friends with him, coaxing him closer. He seems unafraid and lets us get to within about a meter before he flies off. He has been a resident for a couple of years; at least I think it’s him. He hops along under the laurel bushes by the clothesline, making a racket on the dry leaves, but seeming to think I don’t notice. It reminds me of when our kid was little and would open the corner cupboards in the kitchen and hide behind them, feathery toddler hair sticking out above. If you can’t see me, I can’t see you, right?P1100252We’ve been promised thunderstorms this afternoon, but the sky is cloudless. Promises of rain at this time of year are rarely kept. A few days ago, the sky darkened in the distance and we heard thunder rumble, and we took in cushions and such just in case. Not a drop fell. It’s the season of kleig-light sunshine, so raw it looks artificial. With it comes sharply cut shadows that are like a world apart, so dark after your pupils have squeezed to pinpricks from the overdose of sunshine that you suddenly are blinded by the comparative blackness. No nuance, especially in the hard-scaped heart of the village, where the streets are too narrow for cars. The ancient houses’ thick stone walls and closed shutters create cool caves of comfort, perfect for la sieste after lunch. Back in the day, winegrowers built refuges, called capitelles, out of stacks of stones. They still dot the vineyards, though I hesitate to enter, because spiders and snakes.IMG_6171IMG_6176Our summer diet of tomatoes has begun, with real, French-grown variétés anciennes finally appearing at the market. Tonight, pasta à la caprese (with mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil, maybe a little green onion, slathered with olive oil, served tepid). The stove and oven are on vacation. And you?121.Fruits market

 

 

What’s at the Market

P1100337Of all the things I love about living in France, buying groceries at the outdoor market is the one that feels most French. I’ve written about it many times, but again on Saturday I was struck by just how gorgeous it all is. The colors, the smells, the artful arrangements that create still lifes wherever you look.

Even better, because they’re edible!P1100340

Flat peaches have arrived, and asparagus is hanging on. The weather has been record-setting wet, which has helped them.P1100333

A mountain of cherries. I thought the flags were a nice touch. And other cherries below–“pigeon heart” and Napoleon, I think.P1100338

Green beans grown locally…they have three kinds: green, “butter” and cocos, which are a kind of flat bean.P1100324

It’s all so pretty…P1100325P1100339P1100328P1100330

There are even zucchini with their flowers.P1100331

The roasted chicken vendor draws a long line.P1100335

The sausage seller promised one kind was “spicy, spicy, no fat, diet!” In English, even!P1100326

Sheep’s cheese from the mountains…P1100327

Everybody was in such a good mood. The World Cup has started, which invigorates the football fans, the weather is gorgeous at last, and summer is here.