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.
Why go to an air-conditioned supermarket when you can buy most of what you need from local producers under the shade of plane trees, and stop for a coffee or apéritif with friends at a café terrace afterward?
The Saturday morning market is the high point of my week. It’s a sensory cornucopia. It’s practical. It’s social. It’s the heart of la belle vie française. It’s part of the French savoir-vivre–knowing how to live. Because making your errands enjoyable, social moments of beauty and pleasure is the way to live the good life simply.
Many–not all–of the stands are local producers. That means the person who grew the food is standing there selling it to you. They increasingly are going bio, or organic, but it involves lots of paperwork that some don’t want to deal with. As a friend told me when I first arrived in Carcassonne, most of the people in the region are way too cheap to use a drop more fertilizer or pesticide than they absolutely have to and will go without whenever possible. So I don’t sweat the bio label and just stick to the locals.
Although I might have a list of things I need, it’s short–along the lines of don’t forget garlic. Instead, the best way to shop the market is to listen to the market. It will tell you what’s in season.
Earlier this summer, cherries. No more.
The other tip is to go early, which I often am guilty of not doing. You get the best choice, it’s less crowded, and it’s important not to hurry. Take the time to assess the produce, and also to assess the protocol of each stand. Some serve you and get riled if you touch anything. These usually have lines, and cutting will bring the wrath of the regulars down upon you. Others are a jostling jungle requiring you to reach between arms and torsos to get at the pile of produce and then to get the attention of the vendor to weigh it and to pay.
Figs. So delicate. To avoid smashing them, just buy and shove directly into mouth.
First, walk around the entire market. It’s the best way to gauge what is bountiful at the moment. The vendors usually align prices, but you might see that one has particularly good-looking beans, or another has a bumper crop of zucchini for a bargain.If you say hello and smile, and if the stand isn’t too busy, the vendor will likely start up a conversation, or join in one if you initiate. That’s where magic happens, where you get a family recipe or a really good idea for dinner or a restaurant recommendation–sometimes from the vendor but sometimes from other market-goers picking out their produce next to you. And if the vendor likes you, you’ll be rewarded with a bunch of parsley as a gift, or an extra onion, or some such.
Goat versions of popular cheeses. Note the two-month-old tomme on the right; there are different ages, all marked.
Many stands offer samples–taste the melon, the ham, the hard sausage, the cheese. A good way to discover. It’s how I learned that ugly flat peaches are amazing.
Charlottes. Because there are MANY kinds of strawberries, all different.
I have a rollerbag for my purchases; they’re just too heavy to carry in baskets, and the car is parked blocks away. I start at the strawberry stand, because sometimes they sell out before the market ends at noon. Being a regular has its advantages–Bernard, the vendor, will hold my strawberries for me while I do my other shopping.
From Marseillette, a cute village near Carcassonne that had a big etang, or shallow lake. The water was drained in 1851 to reduce mosquitoes, and the land is particularly rich for farming rice and fruit.
Next I try to buy the heavy stuff, like carrots and melons, that can withstand having the other produce piled on top. Then the fruit like nectarines and peaches, which are heavy but risk bruising. Then light but sturdy things like peppers or lettuce. Finally, the delicate items, with the tomatoes and then the strawberries on top. It means I ricochet around the market like a pinball, rather than circling it. Drives the Carnivore nuts.
They taste like they’ve already been buttered.
The other thing to appreciate at the market is the variety. Half a dozen kinds of artichokes. And zucchini. And tomatoes. And eggplant. Sometimes it’s aesthetic, but often there are real taste differences, and the vendor will explain if you ask. White eggplant, I recently learned, is milder and less bitter than the dark purple kind. And don’t get me started on the differences among varieties of tomatoes. Or strawberries.
Prices at the French market tend to be lower than at the supermarket; the farmers’ markets I’ve been to in the U.S. have often been a lot more expensive than the local supermarkets. The market produce isn’t as uniform, and it might still sport dirt or bugs from the field, but to me those are qualities, not faults. They are proof that it was grown without a lot of chemical intervention.
Potted and cut flowers
When I first shopped at an outdoor market, in Africa, I learned to use my senses to pick produce. How does it feel? Firm? Soft? Unripely hard? How does it smell? The strawberry stand is smelled before it’s seen. As it should be. The best way to pick a pineapple (admittedly not grown locally) is to sniff it. I have no idea how to choose produce that’s wrapped–hidden–in plastic.
Every town and many villages have markets, and the days will be posted someplace in town (for example, signs saying no parking on X days for market). They’re always in the morning; you snooze, you lose (OK, some tourist spots have night markets. But forget about afternoon). Carcassonne’s central square, Place Carnot, has a small market on Tuesdays, a bigger one on Thursdays and the big blowout on Saturdays. It’s not just for fruits, vegetables, ham and cheese; there’s an indoor meat/cheese/fish market two blocks away, and a housewares/clothes market two blocks further. See you there.
Ham…just as well it’s wrapped up. But tastings are available.
And I say tomate. They are at the height of their glory here in France these days, and we are enjoying them in so many ways.
A summer tomato bears no resemblance to the winter hothouse versions, which are nothing but ghosts of tomatoes, lacking flesh, with their watery insides dripping from mere skeletons of tomato-ness. A summer tomato is full and fleshy. It’s sweet and juicy and substantial enough to eat alone.
But we do like to gild the lily.
A little onion. A little garlic. A little olive oil. Some parsley. Or basil. Or thyme. A little breadcrumb crust to soak up the olive oil-enhanced juices. So many possibilities. It’s a good thing, because when tomatoes are in season, we eat them a couple of times a week. Same as with asparagus, or strawberries. In season or not at all. So make that season count. And do not refrigerate!
I had promised a while back to include the recipe for Christine’s tomates provençales from our cooking lesson. Here it is, at last.
How many tomatoes you need depends on their size (and what else you’re serving). If you have big ones, you might want just half per person, or one per person. If you have small tomatoes, like the roma variety, you might want one or two per person. We are tomato gluttons, and we like having leftovers, so I figure on a big tomato per person or its equivalent in smaller ones.
Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius).Cut the tomatoes in half. Score them, sprinkle with a little salt, and turn them upside down to drain for 15 minutes or more. You can put them on a cooling rack or a flat strainer or just on paper towels. Chop up a big bunch of parsley. It makes no difference whether it’s flat or curly. Chop up two to eight garlic cloves, depending on how much you love garlic (there is no right or wrong in this recipe). The chopping is greatly aided by a food processor. Christine had a small one–a spice grinder–that she brought to the cooking class. I have only a knife and limited patience, so my parsley here is too big. You want it to be fine so that, when you mix it with the garlic and a generous half cup (15 cl) of olive oil, you end up with a green slurry. It’s good on lots of things–roasted carrots, chicken, potatoes… Persillade is to savory food as diamond studs are to accessories–it goes with almost anything.Place the tomatoes cut-side up in an oiled baking dish. Spoon the persillade over them and roast them for an hour. They should get caramelized but not hard or crusty.You also can cook them faster–20-30 minutes–in a hot oven (400 Fahrenheit/200 Celsius), but they don’t get as caramelized as the low and slow method. Also, the persillade risks browning too much (sometimes called “burning”). On the other hand, sometimes we don’t have an hour to get dinner on the table.
Other tomato alternatives:
I like to slice them, because it’s pretty, and I can tuck thinly sliced onions in between. Top with olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and parsley and olive oil, or with persillade. You have options. This version benefits from low and slow because the sliced tomatoes aren’t drained, and the juices need time to evaporate.
Did you know that if you have burned something in a pot or pan, you can get it off easily by squirting a little ketchup on it? Just let it sit–overnight, maybe a couple of days. It will come off eventually! The acid in the ketchup works off the burned material without scrubbing (or scratching your pan). The wonders of tomatoes never cease.
Pâte feuilletée, or puff pastry, sounds like such a challenge to make–all that rolling, all that butter. It turned out easier than I had thought and far more delicious than readymade pie crust. That is saying something, because store-bought pie crust in France is, honestly, fantastic.
I used the recipe from my 1933 cookbook, “Le Nouveau Livre de Cuisine,” by a so-called Blanche Caramel. I had previously read that you have to beat the cold butter with a rolling pin, and not just any rolling pin but the plain wooden dowel kind. While Blanche specifies using a wooden rolling pin, she says nothing about batting butter. She even says that “in winter, it’s necessary to soften the butter a little by putting it in a bowl warmed by bowling water.”
While I understand the science of it–the “lean” water-based dough is wrapped around cold butter and the air bubbles released during baking are what make this pastry puff–I also am intrigued by the fact that puff pastry predates refrigeration. Only 3% of French homes had frigos (fridges) in 1950. What did Blanche do? Are we depriving ourselves of fresh, preservative-free puff pastry because we are worried about not living up to cold butter standards?
Let me say: Do not be afraid!
Some years ago, I toured the château of Guise (pronounced geez) in northern France and learned that in medieval times, people collected ice, stuck it in the deep cellars beneath the chateau, packed with straw for insulation, and used it to make sweet sorbets during following months. Here are my notes from that trip:
The underground tunnels were very effective at keeping things cool. People would put snow and ice in them and it would keep for several months into the spring, and they would eat fruit sorbets made from the ice. However, it didn’t occur to them to use ice to keep food cool and fresh. One thing they used to do, and our guide said she found a medieval recipe for this, was to take a fresh pheasant and bury it in manure with the head sticking out. When the beak came off gently, it was ready—the meat would be falling off the bones. You’d unearth it, clean off the maggots, and cook it in lots of spices and wine to mask the fact that it was rotten. If people had such lousy teeth back then, they needed the meat falling off the bones so they could just gum it, since they evidently couldn’t chew.
Anyway….Blanche says the dough must rest in a cool place (“au frais”), and I did take that to mean my fridge.
The ingredients are simplicity itself:
200 g (2 cups) flour
4 g (1 tsp) salt
100 g (3.5 oz. or 7/8 cup) water
200 g (a tad over 7 oz. or 7/8 cup) butter
The recipe starts with the flour on a pastry board–just as my grandma seemed to start all of her cooking, from homemade noodles and dumplings to massive batches of cookies. Come to think of it, my grandma was of Blanche’s era, a housewife in the 1930s.
Make a well in the heap of flour. Pour in the salt, and little by little add the water while kneading by hand. The dough will be smooth and soft.
Form it into a ball, cover with a tea towel and let it rest for an hour or two.Sprinkle the pastry board with flour and roll out the dough until it’s 1 cm (less than half an inch) thick. Slather it with all the butter.
Fold the dough in half, then half again, sealing the edges so the butter doesn’t escape.
Roll it out as long as possible without tearing. Fold it in thirds lengthwise and then again in thirds along the width. Let it rest (in a fridge if you have one) for 10 minutes. That’s called “one turn” of the dough.
Roll out the dough again, fold it in quarters. Roll that out and fold it in thirds lengthwise then in thirds along the width. Let it rest (in the fridge!) for 10 minutes. That is the second turn of the dough.
Do another turn of the dough and your puff pastry is ready to use. I cut it in half and put it in two 9-inch pie pans.While it was resting, I prepared quiche innards:
2 cups milk or cream or sour cream or yogurt or a mix of any or all of them
some leftover ham
any other leftovers in the fridge
The only thing I measure with quiche is the number of eggs. Three fills one 9-inch pie pan. I had enough crust for two, so I used six eggs. Quiche is a good place to use up egg whites or yolks left from some other recipe. Beat the eggs with a fork. Add the milk /cream/yogurt, which makes the quiche less dense and more fluffy. Add whatever else you want in your quiche. Don’t forget salt and pepper, and maybe some herbs if you feel like it.
Stab the bottom of the crust with a fork a few times. Pour in the quiche filling. Bake in a preheated oven at 190 degrees Celsius/375 degrees Fahrenheit. I considered pre-baking the crust and then went without and it was fine–no soggy bottom at all.
A very simple tarte à l’oignon is a great starter for a dinner party–it’s good hot or at room temperature, so you can pop it out of the oven or make it ahead.
I routinely make a couple of different savory tarte tatins–a French kind of upside-down pie. A favorite that I often serve as a starter, is tomato tarte tatin.
For our cooking class, my cuistot-par-excellence Christine suggested her onion tart as the entrée (starter in French). It’s flavorful and rich, but not so rich that you can’t eat the main course. Perfect.Christine’s Onion Tart
1 flaky pie crust (you can make your own–recipe from Blanche Caramel coming soon–but the ready-made version here is really good. It even has its own sheet of parchment paper.)
4 big onions, cut in half and sliced thinly
1 1/3 cups (33 cl) crème fraîche semi-épaisse, or half-thick sour cream. Does such a thing exist outside France, with its gazillion kinds of crème fraîche? You can mix sour cream with liquid cream, or just use sour cream. When I remade the tart, I had bought thick cream by mistake. The tart turned out great anyway.
Salt, pepper, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit (180 Celsius).Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan and cook the onions on high heat, stirring constantly so they don’t stick or burn. It should take only a couple of minutes for them to soften up.
Mix the onions with the other ingredients in a mixing bowl.Spread the pie crust on its parchment paper in a tart pan. You can use a pie pan, but it will be smaller and deeper, and the portions will seem smaller.Stab the pie crust a few times with a fork. Spread the onion mixture onto the crust. Fold the edges toward the middle if necessary (Christine’s tart pan was bigger than mine and didn’t need folding).Bake for 25-30 minutes. Serve hot or at room temp.
A classic dish of the south of France is ratatouille niçoise. It’s summer on a plate. It’s also a great dish for entertaining because it’s even better the second day, so it’s ideal to make ahead. Nice gets credit for its creation but it’s a dish common to all of Occitanie, the broad swath of southern France.
My friend Christine put it on the menu for our cooking class, along with grilled thyme lamb chops, which I’ll also include here.Remember, for a same-day dinner, we made the desserts first, starting with the crème catalan, then the baba au rhum. Once the baba was cooling, we tackled the ratatouille, or rata, as the French like to say. It’s very French to cut off words to two syllables: Coca-Cola becomes Coca (not Coke); McDonald’s is known as “MacDo”; spaghetti bolognaise is called “bolo”; Carcassonne is called “Carca”….
Even first names get shortened to two syllables (often one syllable repeated twice) to form a nickname: Laurence is Lolo; Louis is Loulou; Alphonse is Fonfon; Georges or Joseph becomes Jojo; Julien is Juju. Now that I think about it, all those are male names. Though I know a Brigitte who goes by Bibi. Female names often get -ou at the end: Michelle becomes Michou (sounds like mishoo); Giselle is Gisou. And there are another range of nicknames that also use the repeated two-syllable style: uncle (officially it’s oncle, but familiarly it’s tonton); I know a Tintin… But there are exceptions: a son (fils) may be affectionally referred to as fiston. Aunt (tante) becomes tatie. Grandmother (grand-mère) is more likely called mamie.Back to the rata.
Here’s what you need (easy to remember, it’s 3 of everything):
3 onions, minced
3 small eggplants, (large) dice. Purple ones should be peeled; white ones have a thinner, milder skin that can be left on.
3 zucchini, peeled and diced
3 tomatoes, peeled (blanche first) and cut into large chunks
1 green pepper, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 yellow pepper, diced
salt, pepper, thyme, and a bay leaf or two
Cover the bottom of a large, heavy pan with a coat of olive oil. Cook the onions over medium heat, stirring often, until they soften.
Add the eggplant, and continue to stir until it softens.Add the zucchini. Then the peppers. Then the tomato and spices.
Let it cook until everything has softened up. Don’t put on the lid or you will end up with a lot of juice.
Serve hot, cold or lukewarm.What I like about rata is that there are no mistakes (unless you really burn it or you overcook the vegetables into mush–one of the Carnivore’s sharpest insults for a mix of overcooked food is “ratatouille”) and lots of room for variation.
To reduce the juice, I like to cook everything quickly and separately over high heat, so the outsides of the zucchini and eggplants, especially, brown, but the vegetables aren’t too cooked. They get added in turn to a mixing bowl and then heated together before serving. Or not heated. I learned, while writing this, that cooking the vegetables separately is the method that the French bible of cuisine, Larousse Gastronomique, suggests, though it says to cook the mix about 20 minutes in the oven. Putting the dish in the oven is a good way to avoid scorching the bottom, but I’d rather just keep it stovetop and not heat up the kitchen.I rarely peel vegetables–out of laziness and also for the added nutrition. I also add plenty of garlic–three or four cloves. Sometimes I use herbes de provence, a mix of thyme, marjoram, rosemary, basil and savory, which we tend to put into almost everything. Other times, I use fresh herbs from the garden–thyme, rosemary, basil. Rata is a good way to eat the rainbow. Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables gives you different nutrients, since the colors are linked to different disease-fighting chemicals, called phytochemicals.
Another plus for ratatouille: leftovers are great, and you can even put it on pasta or rice for a vegetarian meal.
We served it with provençale tomatoes (recipe coming soon) and thyme lamb chops.For the lamb chops:
Cut off the egregious hunks of fat. They will just cause your grill to flame up.
Brush both sides with a little olive oil so the thyme sticks to the chops and so the chops don’t stick to the grill. Sprinkle with thyme, salt and pepper on both sides.
Cook to taste on your grill. The Carnivore swears by wood charcoal, but we won’t get judgy if you use gas.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was such a gourmande that he not only has a dessert named after him but a cheese as well. Even better, it’s an especially rich version of Brie (75% fat!!!), a soft cheese with a soft, white rind. My mouth is watering just typing this. It previously was called Délice des gourmets (Gourmets’ delight) before being renamed after the king of gourmets. (Note to self: get into cheese, too?)
Brillat-Savarin officially was a lawyer and politician, but he is best known as a food writer. This is no small feat, considering he was politicking (small-town mayor) during the French Revolution. Things soured, as they tend to during revolutions, and with a bounty on his head Brillat-Savarin fled to Switzerland, then the Netherlands, then the U.S.
Exceptionally for a refugee from war, he still managed to eat well and to write about it. His masterpiece, “Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l’ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusiers sociétés littéraires et savantes.” Translation: “Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendantal Gastronomy; a work that is theoretical, historical and on the agenda, dedicated to Parisian gastronomes by a professor and member of numerous literary and wise societies.”I want to be a member of numerous literary and wise societies, especially those that seriously discuss cheese and dessert and that meditate on transcendental gastronomy.
Renowned francophile-California foodie M.F.K. Fisher translated Physiology of Taste to English, and she doesn’t let many chapters of her own memoirs go by without raving about the genius of Brillat-Savarin. However, despite M.F.K.’s voluptuous praise of him, until I started to write this I wasn’t sure what Brillat-Savarin had accomplished, just that it was great.
Brillat-Savarin set out to deliver a scientific analysis of food, eating and pleasure. However, his most famous quotes are more sociological, still current considering he died in 1826, and very tweetable:
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being as long as they are under our roofs.
The fate of a nation depends on the way that they eat.
The science which feeds men is worth at least as much as the one which teaches how to kill them.
The way in which meals are enjoyed is very important to the happiness of life.
Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.
Those who have been too long at their labor, who have drunk too long at the cup of voluptuousness, who feel they have become temporarily inhumane, who are tormented by their families, who find life sad and love ephemeral……they should all eat chocolate and they will be comforted.I totally understand why M.F.K. Fisher named him one of the two or three men she couldn’t live without (though to be clear, he died almost a century before she was born).
Before we get to the dessert, let’s dig into the metaphorical meat of the recipe. As the Brillat-Savarin cheese is a kind of Brie, so, too, the savarin dessert is a kind of baba, which is a kind of babka. (Cue the Seinfeld scene with Jerry and Elaine in the bakery, intending to buy a chocolate babka but ending up with a lesser babka in cinnamon). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xasrVIZQ4AE
Babka is a kind of Polish yeast cake or brioche (hah! the circle comes back around to France! and hah again for my unintentional pun, because the savarin/baba bakes in a circular form), introduced to France by Stanislaus I, who had been king of Poland until he was exiled to France in 1709. Yet another refugee.
Stan was pretty tight with the French. He married off his daughter to Louis XV and regained the Polish throne in 1733 thanks to French help. He was deposed again in 1736, this time by the Russians. Some things never change.Stanislaw headed back to France and had a good gig as Duke of Lorraine until he died. At some point, the story goes, he brought along a babka for the road. It was a little dry, so he—more likely his chef—added a little booze to soften it up. As one does.
The boozy babka became a baba. This is understandable, as “baba” rolls off the tongue more smoothly without that K, and everything rolls off the tongue when alcohol is added. However, Larousse Gastronomique, authored by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, says that Stanislaw named the dessert after his favorite character in “1001 Arabian Nights”–Ali Baba. The baba contained raisins or dried fruits, was soaked in a liqueury syrup and topped with patisserie cream (like vanilla pudding but better) or whipped cream.
The savarin, invented by a pair of Parisian pâtissiers in 1844, ditched the dried fruits, a move I totally approve of, and gave the dessert its wreath shape (it used to be a long cylinder). So really, the recipe I’m going to share is technically for a savarin, rather than a baba, though in restaurants, the two are interchangeable (that is to say, if you see baba au rhum on a dessert menu, you can order it without fear of confrontation with dried fruit). Although I adore saying “baba,” now that I have learned more about Brillat-Savarin, beyond M.F.K. Fisher’s gushings in her memoirs, I like giving him the credit, even though, as far as I can tell, he appreciated food strictly from a consumption point of view and didn’t cook himself.
However, the best part about cooking is that you can make things exactly the way you like them. For example, with whipped cream and without dried fruit. As my (and undoubtedly your) mother always said, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
This is a great dessert for entertaining because (1) you make it ahead (the better for it to drink up its booze–you even can make it without the booze if that’s important to you–but making ahead is always key to successful entertaining) (2) anything with lots of whipped cream looks awesome (3) you certainly can make individual babas but when you make one big dessert that is cut into servings, the gourmands sometimes get a chance for seconds. And that is always nice.Baba au Rhum aka Savarin
120 g (1 cup) flour
50 g (a big half stick or 1/4 cup) butter
150 g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
1 package (11 g = 2 big teaspoons) baking powder (yes, not yeast. but it turns out great)
3 tablespoons whole milk
3 eggs, separated
1/4 liter (1 cup) water
1/4 liter (1 cup) cane sugar syrup (you can use corn syrup; here, corn syrup is nearly impossible to find, but cane sugar syrup is in the cocktails aisle)
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture is very white.
Mix the flour and baking powder.
Warm the milk and melt the butter. Add to the egg/sugar mix. Add that to the flour mixture.Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks (in French, this is beautifully expressed as beating them into snow). Fold them delicately into the batter. GENTLY STIR IN ONE DIRECTION! Chef Christine insisted on this!
Pour the batter into a buttered crown/wreath-shaped mold (a bundt pan will do).
Don’t overdo the butter on the mold, or the batter will make bubbles.
Bake for 25 minutes. When it’s done (a toothpick or knife comes out clean), let the cake COOL IN THE MOLD.
You must let the baba cool before adding the syrup!
Make the syrup:Mix the water, cane sugar syrup and rum and bring to a boil. Pour the WARM syrup evenly over the baba. It will stand on top; don’t worry—it will soak in after a couple of hours.
Just before serving:
Make the whipped cream by beating the cream and sugar (sugar to taste). If you use a stand mixer, check often lest you end up with sweet butter (voice of experience). Turn the baba onto a plate. Either fill the hole or frost the baba with the whipped cream. Serve with optional extra rum (to taste).
One of the highlights of last week was a cooking class for guests at one of our vacation apartments in Carcassonne. The teacher was my dear friend and excellent cook, Christine.
The idea sprang from an article some years ago in in a French magazine. The hilarious columnist often conducted various tests, and one of my favorites was one that asked whether a man could cook as well as a woman. She chose a well-known professional chef to get the answer.
The rules of the game were that the chef had to do what any French woman does daily: cook a well-balanced family meal of starter, main course and dessert. And he had a limited time to do it—because most French women work, they spend an average of just 36 minutes cooking a week night meal.
That meal turned out OK, although the chef managed to make a fool of himself (not least by turning over vegetable prep to a sous-chef, who was banished by the columnist on the argument that French home cooks don’t have such a luxury).In this spirit, I wanted to offer classes on French cuisine, not from a chef’s perspective, but from the experience of truly great home cooks. My role is translator and dishwasher. I understand that non-French speakers might be tempted by cooking classes offered in English, but they often are given by non-French cooks. What’s the point of that?
Christine is almost a sterotypical française. She is always, always chic. Even when she’s gardening, she dresses with flair. It’s ingrained. Her makeup is always tasteful, her shoulder-length blonde hair often swept up in a twist. She’s a grandmother, but in the style of Catherine Deneuve, whose younger self she resembles quite a bit.
And when she cooks, those of us invited to her table swoon.Our menu was for a dinner party, more elaborate than a weeknight meal, but with plenty of things that can be done ahead so the host/hostess can be devoted to the guests and enjoy the actual moment of the dinner.
Here’s the menu:
Hors-d’oeuvre: toasts with choice of foie gras, green or black tapenade and eggplant caviar.
Entrée (starter): onion tart
Main dish: grilled lamb chops, roasted tomatoes with persillade and ratatouille niçoise
Dessert: crème catalan and baba au rhum (Christine often serves two or three desserts. Miam!)
Egg yolks with sugar for the crème catalan. The leftover whites went into quiche a few days later and the egg shells into the garden to ward off snails.
Everything but the toasts and meat could be done ahead, either entirely or partly. In fact, some things, like ratatouille, actually are better the second day.
The weather was unusually hot and sticky. It often gets hot here, but such humidity is rare. It’s one reason why we sent the meat outside to the grill.
We’ll examine the dishes in separate posts. If you’re cooking the same day as serving, as we did, here’s the order for preparation:
First the crème catalan, which is similar to crème brulée. Reason: it needs to chill for a few hours before getting its sugar crust.
Second: the baba au rhum. Reason: it needs time to drink up the rum syrup.
Third: the tart. Reason: the oven was still hot from the baba. And the tart is good cold. Also, it’s better to cook oniony/garlicky dishes AFTER the dessert, not before!Fourth: the tomatoes: Reason: While the tart was cooking, the tomatoes were degorged. By the time the tart was done, we turned over the tomatoes, added the persillade and popped them in the oven.
Fifth: the ratatouille.
Last: the lamb chops.
Here’s the first recipe: for Crème catalane:
3 cups (75 cl) whole milk
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup (150 g) white sugar
1 stick of cinnamon
2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup (75 g) brown sugar
Wash and dry the lemon, then grate half the peel.
Milk, lemon zest and cinnamon bark.
In a saucepan, put the milk, the cinnamon stick and the grated peel. Bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover and let the mixture infuse for 5-10 minutes before removing the cinnamon and zest (she poured it through a sieve).
In a mixing bowl, beat the yolks with 2/3 cup of sugar for about half a minute. Add the corn starch little by little. Thin the paste with the warm milk.Pour the mixture into a clean saucepan. (Tip from Christine: if you use the same saucepan, the milk sticking to the sides will burn). Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon (Another tip from Christine: make sure you’re using a spoon that doesn’t smell like garlic—keep one of your wooden spoons for desserts only.) Let the mixture thicken so it covers the spoon—if you swipe your finger, the line shouldn’t disappear. It takes about seven minutes to thicken.
Strain before cooking to thicken.
Pour the thickened mixture into ramekins and refrigerate for at least two hours. Again, make sure there isn’t anything that smells strongly in the fridge, or the crème will absorb it.Just before serving, sprinkle with brown sugar. Christine has wonderful old-fashioned irons that are just the size of the ramekins—you set the irons in the coals and then press them on the sugar to make a crust. Otherwise, you can put the ramekins under a broiler for a minute or two.
All winter long, the hunters end their Sunday morning sorties with coffee at the community hall, dead beasts strapped to the hoods of their vehicles parked outside. In spring, they return, this time to eat.
On the menu: sanglier (wild boar) and chevreuil (roe deer, a small breed, 25-70 pounds). Of course, the Carnivore wanted to go.
Early in the morning, under the bridge next to the community hall, a fire was started with pieds de vigne (stumps of grape vines). A huge rotisserie (clearly jury-rigged) started turning, two sangliers and one chevreuil. Like many of the diners, I went down the river bank to take pictures of the skewered hulks. A knot of retirees with well-endowed abdomens discussed the scene, as the head cook used a huge dipper (also jury-rigged) to collect the drippings and pour them over the turning meat. “Mmmmm,” one groaned with pleasure. “Ça, c’est bon.” (That’s good.)
“Oui,” moaned another, adding a bit plaintively, “Pour le cholestérol aussi.” (For the cholesterol, too.)
“Bah, j’ai déjà fait un infarc,” says yet another. (Oh, I already had a heart attack.)
“Moi, deux.” (I had two.)
Then they went into details about how many arteries and stents and hospitals and I had to flee before my appetite was ruined.
The apéritif started as usual, outside under the porch of the community hall. A long table with pitchers of white and rosé wine, and bottles of Ricard. Don’t even think about any other brand of pastis around here. Although nobody orders a Ricard or even a pastis. They say “un jaune”–a yellow–because the alcohol oxidizes with water and turns a milky yellow.
The hunters’ gathering was different from others we have attended. Besides the extreme paucity of women and absence of children (just one boy), the demographic was decidedly older, heavier and had many more smokers. It didn’t seem that they didn’t care; instead it seemed that they DID care, especially about giving a big middle finger to rules and “shoulds” about healthy eating and moderation. On the other hand, I never saw so many people for whom the first description would be “jolly.” The cooks, especially. Big guys, their sagging, faded T-shirts stained with smoke and sweat, beaming with pride, their nonstop chuckles occasionally bubbling up into raucous belly laughs. Just recalling them makes me smile.
Anyway, they know how to cook. The first course was a salad, topped with walnuts, warm duck gizzards and a slice of foie gras. Then, after a leisurely pause, came trays groaning with sanglier. It was so heavy, our tray bent and landed on the table (without damage). There was a huge tray for every 10 people or so.The boar was served with potatoes that had roasted in the juices of the meat, and sliced onions also cooked in the meat juices. OMG.The meat itself was perfectly seasoned. With what? The cooks played coy (not just with me; a woman at the next table also tried, unsuccessfully, to wheedle the secret out of them). This led to a big discussion of what each diner detected: mustard, thyme, harissa….and of course the cloves of garlic stuck into the meat all over.
The trays were refilled with more sanglier. As if we weren’t all stuffed.
Next, they came around with the chevreuil. I passed, but the Carnivore was in heaven.
This was followed, in its sweet time, by cheese–a wedge of brie and a chunk of roquefort. The dessert was crème brulée. Then coffee.
There were three huge trays of meat left over. The meal, which started around 1:30, after the apéro, wound up around 5:30. We were all invited to come back for dinner at 8, though most of our fellow diners planned to go home and nap and to skip dinner altogether. We could hear them continue with Part II well into the night.
Oh, and the price? €13 per person, drinks included.
As with the Easter omelette and the fêtes du village, you can get in on these communal dinners. Just look at the notices at the local grocery stores and bakeries, which usually are also where you buy tickets. You need to bring your own cutlery, plates, glasses and napkins.
Seasonal produce is a moving target in spring. At first, there’s little difference with winter, except for the asparagus. But then other treats start to appear: fava, peas.
The weather is unstable, too. It can be warm enough for a dip in the pool in March, but the heat kicks on during the Ice Saints in May. Those rainy days are perfect for soup, especially a soup that celebrates the lively new flavors of the season: soupe au pistou. It was on a dark and chilly day that I decided we needed soup, one that used the big bunch of basil I’d bought–the first of the season.
There is no “recipe” for pistou. There are a few key ingredients that make it pistou and not, say, minestrone or bouillabaise or bisque. Any pistou soup needs pistou–a mix of basil, olive oil and garlic, like pesto without the nuts. And beans. And pasta. After that, you can add what’s in season at that moment. Because pistou soup is garden soup.I recently heard an excellent interview with the cookbook author Julia Turshen, who says she “never, ever follows recipes.” Her new book, “Small Victories,” aims to get people more at ease with cooking from scratch and reassuring them that they don’t have to follow recipes to the letter.
So here is one recipe for soupe au pistou. You can add/subtract depending on your tastes and what you find at the market.
Cocos, or flat beans, with green beans above.
Fresh sweet peas
Mange-tout–eat the whole thing–aka snow peas.
Soupe au Pistou
First the pistou:
A huge bunch of basil—imagine the leaves pressed into balls the size of each fist.
1 clove of garlic (I often imitate Guy Fieri and up the amount, but when I used two it got complaints for being too strong)
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
The soup (all the vegetables are diced into bite size):
1 onion (but if you have leftover greens of leeks, this is a good place to use them)
2 tomatoes (we used canned because it’s too early for garden tomatoes)
A large can of white beans (the cans here are 400 g, or 14 oz.)
1 cup peas (frozen are OK)
1 cup green beans (frozen are OK—it’s what I used. Lazy, I didn’t cut them up and regretted it)
1/2 cup elbow macaroni, called coquillettes
salt and pepper
olive oil for cooking
Also worth considering:
cocos (broad, flat beans very popular here)
fresh fava beans
thyme or herbes de Provence
You can start with dried beans, of course. We tend not to plan far enough ahead and are grateful for cans.
You can use a mix of beans—white, red, striped, whatever.
You can leave out the pasta; the beans are hearty enough
In a Dutch oven, sauté the onion/leek in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pot. Throw in the other vegetables, the beans (if you are using dried beans, cook them ahead), then add enough water to cover everything. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. You can make it ahead to this point and heat it up later. Remember to stir in the pasta so it has long enough to cook, but not so long that it disintegrates; check the cooking time on the package.
While the soup simmers, make the pistou. Traditionalists use a mortar and pestle to turn it into a pungent green slurry. I tried that, chopping the leaves down first, but mine was too minuscule; I tried a bigger bowl but that wasn’t better. I transferred it all to a blender, which wasn’t much of an improvement. I don’t have a food processor; that might have worked. But who cares? The basil and garlic were reduced enough to make a kind of paste anyway. On the side, I sliced a baguette and topped it with grated Parmesan (fresh–not the powder in a can!). Two minutes under the broiler, and voilà. It probably seemed balanced because we had left out the pasta. Pasta + beans + bread seems like overkill. But to each his own.