Homemade Macarons

P1090640Macarons 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.P1090632I 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.P1090625Even 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.

Sift! Do you see those lumps? That was after blending. They must go.
Big difference, eh? Very fine, completely homogenous.

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 chinoisun chinois is a strainer, aka passoire; a sifter is une tamise, and to sift is tamiser.)

An impeccably clean bowl is essential for stiff peaks.

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 will make a beak.

The meringue is ready when it forms stiff peaks. Hold up the beater and look for the bec–beak.

Mix the meringue with the almond/powdered sugar. The macaronage begins.

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!IMG_4587

Much smoother, but not yet there.

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.

Froth up the remaining half an egg white. These little things change everything.

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.

The batter (appareil) forms ribbons and a cut through it slowly reforms.

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).

My unconventional pastry bag method involves tape.


No fuss, no muss.

IMG_4615Distribute 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.IMG_4631Don’t worry about tips sticking up; they will smooth out. IMG_4628Hold 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.

You can see popped air bubbles after the sheets were dropped. They will disappear.
Bubbles gone! Pointy tips gone!

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.

The first sheet had cracks, so I lowered 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…”)IMG_4644Put 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. P1090622Put 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.P1090636If 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).

Chocolate macarons


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.P1090644Put 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.P1090655Make 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. P1090659Macarons are not nearly as hard or mysterious as I’d feared and certainly impressive to serve. Let me know if you try them!


Q: Brownies or Cheesecake? A: Yes.

P1080677Valentine’s Day has inextricably linked love and chocolate. If you are among the wise folk who avoid restaurants on Valentine’s Day, you can have your cake and eat it too in the serenity of your home.

Zebra brownies have been a favorite since the ’80s; my hand-written recipe dates to then as well. They are the lovechild of a chewy, dense brownie and a silky, dense cheesecake.

I offer you the original and a half-size version that I make in a round cake pan. These are so rich, even the smaller size will last you a few days.

They don’t need frosting. I just did it for company. I prefer a ganache, which is less sweet than, say, buttercream frosting. If you do the sheet-cake version, just cut squares like regular brownies.P1060728Zebra Brownies 

Brownie part:

1 cup (227 g) butter, softened

2 cups (200 g) sugar

1 cup (85 g) unsweetened cocoa powder

4 eggs

1 cup (128 g) flour

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cheesecake part:

3 cups (225 g) cream cheese, softened

1 1/2 cup (300 g) sugar

5 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup (64 g) flour

Brownie part: With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on high speed. Shift to low speed; add the cocoa and eggs and mix thoroughly. Add the flour and vanilla and mix on low.

Cheesecake part: In a separate bowl, whip the cream cheese and sugar on high speed. Add the eggs, mixing on low speed. Add the vanilla and flour, still on low speed.

I used to spread the brownie part, then cover with the cheesecake mix, and swirl them. But now I distribute blobs of the brownie mix around a greased 9X13 cake pan, then pour in the cheesecake mix and swirl the two together. It seems to marble better that way.

Bake at 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius) for 35-45 minutes. It should be moist but not runny.

The half-size option:

Brownie part:

1/2 cup (113 g) butter

1 cup (100 g) sugar

1/2 cup (43 g) cocoa powder

2 eggs

1/2 cup (64 g) flour

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Cheesecake part: 

1 1/2 cup (12 oz or 113 g) cream cheese

3/4 cup (150 g) sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup (32 g) flour

Same procedure, but test for doneness after 25 minutes.

For ganache:

6 oz (150 g) dark (70%) chocolate, broken into small chips (the smaller the better)

6 oz or 2/3 cup (15 cl) heavy (30% fat) cream

Put the chocolate in a bowl. Heat the cream to almost boiling (OK if it boils, but it doesn’t have to). Pour over the chocolate. Stir to make sure the chocolate bits are all melted. Let it cool a little–it should be warm enough to pour but not so hot that it will run away. P1080668To be fancy, I also added out-of-season raspberries.


Super-Simple Leek Gratin

P1090451Leeks are one of those staples you see sticking out of every typical French market basket. Before I moved here, I had never had them. They’re delicious and nutritious! And cheap. And very easy to cook.

With the recent cold spell (-2.5 Celsius/27 Fahrenheit this morning!), something baked in the oven sounded tempting. A pared-down leek gratin to accompany chicken breasts (steak for the Carnivore, who considers chicken to be a vegetable).

Gratins are a French favorite. As online French culinary bible Marmiton says: “The gratin can be sweet or salty, with vegetables or meat…in short, there isn’t A gratin but tons of different gratins, with something to satisfy everybody.” (BTW, if you click through, keep in mind that entrée means starter in French.)P1090337A typical gratin uses béchamel sauce. The butter and flour that go into béchamel add a stick-to-the-ribs quality, but I didn’t want the calories. Cream (light) and cheese would suffice for this week-night side dish.

As Marmiton points out, anything can go into a gratin: “You can even use leftovers to make a pasta gratin, for example.” A gratin can easily become a main dish by adding protein (meat–lardons!–or other). You can throw in chopped garlic, onions, shallots, herbs, spices…. You can use any kind of cheese–emmental, parmesan, gruyère, mozzarella, cheddar, blue…. The point is that gratin is a don’t-sweat-it dish that will be delicious no matter what you use.

Gratins are great for entertaining because they go in the oven and don’t need attention. You can even make individual gratins in ramekins. P1090449Super-simple leek gratin

2 leeks per person

25 cl (1 cup) cream (light, heavy, liquid, thick, sour–it all works)

150 g (5 oz) grated cheese

Any other cheese you have that you need to use up (we had some cream cheese and I dropped about 1/2 cup of blobs around)

Butter, salt, pepper

Preheat the oven to 220 Celsius (425 Fahrenheit). Set some salted water to boil in a pot big enough for the leeks (I use a deep skillet).P1090338Clean the leeks. Strip off the outer layers. Cut off the root tips, but not too high–you want to keep the connection at the bottom. Remove the green tops and set aside. Slice the white part in half lengthwise. Wash well, going between the layers.P1090444Boil the leeks for about 10 minutes.P1090445While they’re boiling, butter a rectangular baking dish.

Drain the cooked leeks. Press them a little to squeeze out excess moisture. Lay them out in the baking dish while they’re still hot. Season with pepper (no salt–it was in the water), and any other herbs or spices you like. Pour the cream on top. Cover with cheese. (You can sprinkle with bread crumbs, but … calories.) Bake for 20 minutes.P1090447As for the green tops, don’t toss them! Just cut them into fine strips and soak them in cold water. Rub them in the water with my hands to work off the dirt. Then rinse and dry them in a salad spinner. They can go into soups–mine went into a ribollita this week; other times they end up in couscous or chili…. anywhere you use onions, leeks can make a home. The green tops are tough, so they’re best used in dishes that cook a long time, like soups.P1090339



Secrets for the Best Chocolate Mousse

P1090360Sometimes you eat something that transports you to heaven, with angels blowing on trumpets and rays of golden light. This chocolate mousse is so light and fluffy, to call it a cloud of chocolate would be too heavy. It’s a dream about chocolate, set to angelic music.

The ingredients are very simple. The keys to success are all in the process. Don’t worry–it’s still easy. A dessert you can whip up in a few minutes. BUT plan ahead. It should be made at least a day ahead, if not two. The air bubbles grow, making the mousse even lighter.

First, you should know the different Schools of Chocolate Mousse. There are the Whipped Cream School, the Egg White School and the fence-straddling Cream-and-Egg School. An all-chocolate French cookbook (Le Chocolate, from Madame Figaro magazine) has FOUR chocolate mousse recipes, in the Cream and Cream-and-Egg camps. A recipe on Cuisine Larousse, as well as one by Alain Ducasse, uses cream, but both count on the egg whites to make the foam (mousse means foam). The Whipped Cream School basically makes something like chocolate Cool Whip–OK for what it is, but lacking the seemingly contradictory qualities of airiness and creaminess that makes chocolate mousse so special.P1090345Some recipes mix cream with the chocolate–like ganache–or butter with the chocolate, or both cream and butter. The point is to increase the fat content, for that creamy quality, rather than to whip the cream. The egg whites are what provide the fluff, which is airier and longer lasting than whipped cream. This recipe uses only butter, which is 82% fat; heavy cream is only 36% fat.

This recipe is squarely in the Egg Camp and comes from the great-grandmother of our friend R., who provided the very important passed-down-through-generations tips that make all the difference. (When I asked him about cream in chocolate mousse, he made a terrible grimace!) Another special point is that this recipe uses the egg yolks (some in the Egg School use only the whites), adding to the creamy factor in the way that some ice cream uses custard–yolks are 27% fat.

Before some of you faint over the idea of eating raw egg whites, even chocolate ones, let me point you to Santé Publique France, which in 2015 counted 141 cases of salmonella, with 20%, or 28 cases, linked to eggs, out of a population of 67 million. On the French government’s National Agency for Health Safety of Food, the Environment and Work’s page about salmonella, it cautions that recipes using raw eggs should be kept cold and eaten within 24 hours. That said, chocolate mousse is even the third day. A risk I’m willing to take (though waiting is hard!).


6 or 7 eggs, depending on their size

200 g (7 oz.) butter, cut into small chunks

200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar

200 g (7 oz or 2/3 cup) dark chocolate (at least 60% cacao, which won’t taste like dark chocolate in the end; if you like darker, up the percentage), broken into small bits

Turn on the oven to just warm (60 Celsius or 140 Fahrenheit). Put the butter and chocolate into an oven-proof pan or dish and let it melt slowly in the oven, until the butter and chocolate are very soft but not liquid. R.’s advice: the oven heats the ingredients more gently than the microwave and more homogenously, without having to stir a lot, than a double-boiler on the stove.

The yolks and sugar. It starts out very yellow and gets progressively lighter in color as you mix.

While it’s melting, measure the sugar into a large bowl. Add the egg yolks, separating the whites into a separate mixer bowl for beating. Mix the yolks and sugar by hand (important! otherwise it comes out too “hard”) until the mixture is white.

Stir the butter and chocolate so they are completely integrated, then pour into the yolk/sugar mixture. Mix that well.

Using an electric mixer, beat the whites until they are stiff. You can turn it on while you’re mixing the previous step but keep an eye out that you don’t overbeat the whites or they’ll collapse. Anyway, you want the chocolate mixture to cool down before adding the egg whites, or the heat will deflate the eggs and make the mousse too dense. The chocolate mixture just has to be warm enough that it doesn’t get hard.

Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture in batches. Use a wooden spoon or a spatula, and gently guide the batter from the bottom to the top, in one direction! You want the whites to be integrated into the batter, but it’s more important not to have streaks of chocolate mixture vs. trying to get rid of all the little blobs of whites.

That’s it. You can put it into a large serving bowl or into individual bowls. It makes about 10 half-cup servings (small ramekins). If you want to double the recipe, it’s better to do it twice, because you risk over/under beating the egg whites if the volume is too great.

Refrigerate as long as possible. At least three hours, but better is overnight or up to two days. If you have anything smelly in the fridge, cover the mousse tightly with plastic film.


Recipes, as Promised

IMG_5474Here are the recipes I promised for two of the desserts served at our Fête de la Lumière: chocolate crackles and nut bars.P1090223Chocolate Crackles

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (not available here; I used a 200 g bar of chocolat patissier–baking chocolate)

1 cup packed brown sugar

1/3 cup cooking oil (colza, corn, etc.–something without a strong flavor)

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

powdered sugar (about half a cup but have more on hand in case you need it)

granulated sugar (same as with the powdered sugar)

Melt the chocolate (I do it in the microwave–just be careful not to overheat it). Stir in the brown sugar and oil, then add the eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix the dry ingredients–flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the chocolate and mix well.

Refrigerate at least an hour but you can go longer, like overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325 F/ 160 C (the lower temp keeps them from getting too hard).

Put some powdered sugar in a shallow dish; put granulated sugar in another shallow dish.IMG_4464Use a spoon to scoop out a little dough more or less in ball shape. Roll it through the granulated sugar first, then the powdered sugar. This makes the crackles more pronounced and prettier. The less you handle the dough, the less mess on your hands. The balls don’t have to be perfectly round.

Place the balls on a cookie sheet that’s lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat, leaving room for them to spread. Bake for about 10 minutes.

They freeze very well and defrost to nice and chewy.IMG_4471Nut Bars

This recipe is from the Silver Palate cookbook, one of my favorites. It’s called Pecan Squares, but just try finding pecans in Carcassonne. Walnuts work well, too.


2/3 cup powdered sugar

2 cups flour

1/2 pound (2 sticks/225 g)

Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Grease a 9×12-inch sheet pan (or you can line it with parchment paper).

Sift the flour and sugar, then cut in the butter. It will be shaggy but don’t worry. Press it into the pan and back for 20 minutes. (Keep an eye on it, because you don’t want it to brown too much.)

While it’s baking, make the topping:

2/3 cup (150 g) unsweetened butter, melted

1/2 cup (120 ml) honey

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

3.5 cups (about 400 g) coarsely chopped nuts

Mix the butter, honey cream and brown sugar together. Stir in the nuts. Spread over the crust.

Bake again for another 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into squares. They should keep for up to a week (though they are likely to be eaten long before!).IMG_4528


Big Night

IMG_4511The French apéritif dinatoire–cocktail dinner–is a way to invite a crowd for dinner without having them sit down around the table. More than just cocktails with hors d’oeuvres, it’s a whole dinner but not served in the usual French style with courses, and with everything in small portions that are easy to manage while standing and mingling.

On Saturday, our little house was packed to the gills with friends for the Fête de la Lumière, or the Festival of Light, a tradition started by dear friends who moved away and whom everybody at the party admitted to missing terribly. We picked up the baton because it was such a great way to see people, whereas with dinner parties the number of guests is limited to four or six (with us that makes six or eight around the table, which is about all you can do and still have conversation).

By the morning of, most of the food was made and ready to plate.

Recipe testing began a few weeks ago, and, despite good intentions to make dishes in advance and freeze them, I made everything in the days before the party. I kept a spreadsheet with dishes, showing how many days ahead they could be done, ingredients and links to the recipes. Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 11.50.08 AM

The spreadsheet was very useful for assembling the shopping list. I could go through and count, for example, how many eggs and how much butter and flour in total.

Chorizo “cookies.” Instead of sun-dried tomatoes, we went with black olives. Prettier.

I could have cut the number of chicken wings by half; since they were done fresh, we froze the leftovers. The madeleines won raves, but I could have made a single batch (considering we ate the test batch quickly, I was surprised). Happily they freeze well. Also the chorizo cookies–double the recipe would have sufficed. It seemed to me it made such a small batch. Also froze the leftovers. Nothing wasted.

Nut bars. Easy and yummy. From the Silver Palate cookbook.

On the other hand, the meatballs and deviled eggs disappeared. The nut cake was nearly gone and a fan happily took the few remains home.

For deviled eggs: mix yolks with mayo and mustard (same number of spoonfuls, but use tablespoons for the mayo and teaspoons for the mustard, until you have the consistency you want). Put into a plastic bag whose corner you’ve reinforced with at least six strips of tape. Seal the bag, cut off the tip and you have no-mess filling of the eggs.

The list above, plus charcuterie, cheese and baguettes, came to about €200 for a guest list of 36. Cheese alone was about €40. The total doesn’t include the wine because we tapped our cellar. IMG_4494Most of the food was on the dining table, with no decorations but a silver tray with candles. We put the charcuterie on a buffet and the cheese board on a small bookcase near the table. We had two conversation areas, but people stood for the first two hours, mingling and eating, before slowing down and migrating to the chairs and sofas. IMG_4490Although everybody was from the village, not all the guests knew each other, though they all knew at least some of the others. The grown daughter of a neighbor had come back to visit her parents; she had been our babysitter back in the day. She came, which I took as a high compliment, since she certainly had other options for socializing on a Saturday night than hanging out with neighbors her parents’ age.

Crudités, for something light and fresh amid the carbs. I love that purple cauliflower.

Here are the links to the recipes again:

Zucchini cheese chips (no need for a recipe, since it’s grated zucchini and cheese, dumped in little piles and baked–you can find many similar).

Chorizo cookies (I made them mini)

Salmon croissants

Pizza croissants

Ham and cheese pinwheels

Curry-cheese madeleines

Cheesecake bars

Raspberry mousse bars (if you use frozen berries, thaw them first)

Chocolate cake done as mini cupcakes for easier eating.

The Thai chicken wings and nut bars are from cookbooks; I’ll share those later. The meatball recipe changed when we couldn’t find the ingredients (no hoisin around here), so I just mixed ground pork with breadcrumbs, eggs, lots of minced onions and herbes de provence and baked them (honestly, the onions made them. OMG). The crinkle cookies and chocolate cake are old family recipes that I also will expand on later.IMG_4464This shouldn’t sound intimidating. It was a lot of work for two days and totally worth it. The advantage of cooking ahead and freezing is that the work gets spread out into small bits; but the advantage of doing everything just before is that it’s all fresh and you can freeze leftovers. A win either way.

Also, don’t overthink. We decorated the tree and put Christmas balls here and there, plus lots of candles. No elaborate centerpieces. The food is the main event. Actually, the conversation is the main event, and the food is just fuel for it.IMG_4516





Party Organization

IMG_4431The countdown to Saturday’s apéritif dinatoire begins. Shopping, decorating, cooking, cleaning, and more cooking.

We put up the tree and added a few decorations. We even strung lights outside.

We did most of the shopping. My favorite sous-chef made a double batch of chocolate crinkle cookies, which passed the freezer test with flying colors. Just as good thawed as fresh.

You can’t see the snowflakes here, but it looked a lot like Christmas.

My do-everything-ahead plan was thrown off by two days spent in Carcassonne at our apartments. Still, it felt like a mini vacation, especially the sauna, and was a nice breather. Our kid had events all day on Saturday, when it snowed. People here panic when it snows. The ones with SUVs drive far too fast, not realizing that big vehicles still slide on ice. Other people creep along at a maddeningly slow crawl, causing backups and then some idiot comes along and decides to pass despite not being able to see whether it’s clear. Some years ago I had to drive to town during a snowstorm. I cut my speed by half–not a crawl but slow enough that I wouldn’t need to brake hard to stop. I counted a dozen cars in the ditch in a 20-minute drive. Rather than take any risks with snow forecast, we decided to stay in at our Carcassonne AirBnB apartments, which was empy between guests. The snow fell as if cued by a movie director, light flakes drifting down cinematically all day. All the kids had their faces turned skyward to catch the fleeting flakes. It was cold for here (low 40s) but too warm for snow, which melted as soon as it touched the ground.


The market has been displaced from its usual square, which now is filled by a skating rink.
An unusual dripping tree. I like it.

The best-laid plans still go astray, whether due to weather or other reasons.

Here are some of the things that can be made well in advance:



Chocolate crackle cookies. They need to chill for a few hours or overnight. I think that, like chocolate chip cookies, they are better if the dough sits overnight. When they are cool, store them in a plastic container with the layers separated by parchment paper. Freeze.

My handwriting, from 1979. Talk about a keeper recipe! Melt the chocolate, stir in everything, chill, scoop out little balls, roll in regular sugar then in powdered sugar, bake at 350 F for about 10 minutes. 

Other things you can freeze:


Chocolate cake–not frosted. Chocolate cake also gets better after a couple of days. I will make it three days ahead.

Cheesecake (I’m using the Smitten Kitchen recipe). Also keeps up to three days.

Spanish tortilla (a thick omelette with potatoes). This also keeps fine for up to three days.

Hummus, which can keep for a week in the fridge.

Cheesy curry madeleines. These thawed out nicely in our test, but I must admit the fresh ones were more amazing, even after a couple of days.

Some of the shopping. 90 eggs!!!

Timeline for other items on the menu:


Nut bars, which are like a sheetcake version of pecan pie, from the Silver Palate cookbook. A favorite of one of the guests: up to 7 days ahead.

Chorizo “cookies”: 3 days ahead

Satay chicken wings: 3 days ahead. Will reheat.

Peanut dipping sauce: 3 days ahead.

Meatballs: 3 days ahead.

I bought one of these beauties. No filter! They are really that color!

Crudités: 2 days ahead. Store carrot sticks and radishes in water, which keeps them sweet and crisp. The rest will be cut and put into plastic bags. I’ll blanch the cauliflower and broccoli.


Deviled eggs: 2 days ahead to hard-boil the eggs, cut them in half and separate out the yolks. The whites and yolks will be stored separately and assembled same day, or maybe the night before.

Day ahead:

Puff-pastry rollups

Zucchini-cheese chips (but I’ll grate the zucchini a day before that)

Salmon mousse

Date/olive/goat cheese tart 

Raspberry mousse bars

The little potato gratin stacks I mentioned last time. Delicious but way too fussy for a crowd. Why it’s good to test recipes in advance.

Depending on how things are going, I might also make a kind of French “cake,” which is a savory loaf with vegetables and meat or fish. I was disappointed with the tuna-zucchini recipe, but might try a different one.


Today I am going to make the nut bars, deep clean and rearrange the furniture. More photos coming Friday!

More Carcassonne Christmas décor. BTW, the bûches de Noël in the top photo are from across the street from here, Noez bakery.



Fête de la Lumière

P1090214The French have a fantastic take on the cocktail party. Called un apéritif dinatoire, it’s a dinner made of hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. Like tapas or mezze/meze or antipasti. More than nuts and chips—a meal.

Some beloved friends used to do this every year for the feast of Sainte Lucie, or la Fête de la Lumière, the festival of light. When they moved away, we missed not only them (shout-out to you!) but also their party, which was a chance to chat with people we rarely had opportunity to connect with as much as we’d like.

The Festival of Lights is more of a Scandinavian tradition than a French one, but Lyon does la Fête des Lumières in a big way.

Store-bought pie crust, covered with spaghetti sauce, ham and cheese, then rolled up and cut (OK if they’re loose–the pastry will expand) and baked at 360 F (180 C).

For us, “in a big way” means inviting over 30-some friends for dinner. We usually do a big bash in the summer, around July 4, with hamburgers, but that’s outside, where we have room for plenty of people. Our house is modest, and we have seats for just 16 people. If not everybody can sit, it’s best to have such a crowd that at least as many people are standing as sitting, and no chairs are at the table. The food buffet should be where folks have to get up to get at it, liberating a seat, which gets taken immediately, and which results in people mingling.

We have a big stack of plain white dessert plates from Ikea, as well as real silverware and glasses. No plastic allowed, and only the napkins are paper. People who are standing don’t want to balance a glass, a dish and a knife and fork. Therefore, most of the offerings are finger food. The ante is raised in France, because while Americans are unfazed by dips and foods that require licking one’s fingers (buffalo wings, nachos), the French don’t really do that. To-go French fries are served with tiny forks (charmingly represented by the Belgian luxury leather company Delvaux’s Belgitude collection, which includes a handbag that looks like a sachet of fries, and the keychain has a little red fork, just like the real ones. Check out the surrealist and so-Belgian video). There are people here who eat fruit with a fork and knife. This of course reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George eats a candy bar with a fork and knife.

We want the menu to be varied and to be as satisfying as a dinner. Chips and dip with a cheese tray isn’t going to cut it. And as good as puff pastry baked with various fillings may be, one cannot live by puff pastry alone. This is a cocktail party plus.

No recipe needed: store-bought pie crust cut into triangles and rolled up with Boursin cheese and smoked salmon, sprinkled with mustard seeds and baked.

Catering something like this just isn’t done around here. Maybe in big cities, like Paris, where socialites would not be in the kitchen themselves. Or for a milestone birthday or anniversary party, which, in any case, would take place at the community hall. But for a holiday drinks soirée at home, catering would be gauche. At least in our village.

Another option would be to hit a place like Picard or Thiriet, which have mind-boggling selections of frozen, heat-and-serve dishes, from simple to fancy. But as good as their stuff is, it’s still industrial. And kind of expensive. I’ll buy readymade pie crust but that’s the extent of it.

Other requirements for the food:

—Must be made in advance. It isn’t possible to mingle with guests and cook at the same time. By advance I mean two or three days to a couple of weeks. In looking for ideas, I found far too many for which “advance” meant two hours. That’s fine if you’re inviting four people, but not if you’re expecting three dozen. There are better things than cooking to do the day of party, like resting.

—Must be not just edible but delicious if it gets cold. Some items can be heated in the oven as guests arrive, but last time the grazing went on for six hours. Savory tarts are good. So are tartines.

—Must resemble a well-balanced meal: vegetables, starch, meat, cheese, dessert.

—Must be easy to eat. Salads are great for a crowd, but require more than fingers.

—Must be easy on the budget.

—Must be in season.

Zucchini-cheese chips. Grated zucchini mixed with grated cheese. Put little piles on a cookie sheet and back at 350 F (180 C). 

The party is Dec. 9. I started testing recipes the week of Nov. 20. Somethings look better on Pinterest than in real life. Failures included:

Roasted Brussels sprouts, split and stuffed with prosciutto—too much work, disappointing.

Mini stacks of sliced potato gratin—too much work; didn’t hold together.

Mac and cheese in mini cups of ham—too much work; didn’t hold shape; didn’t like the crackly macaroni on top.

Tuna/zucchini/carrot cake: too wet; didn’t hold shape; fade (bland). Will try another recipe. This is the French “cake,” which is savory, not a sweet gâteau. We will have plenty of those, too.

Cheesy madeleines (also in the top photo). Aren’t they pretty!

I have a few others that worked well. I wanted to make gougères, but they are best straight from the oven. Instead, I found a recipe for savory, cheesy madeleines. Two thumbs up from my taste testers. I froze half the batch to make sure they would not soggy after being thawed. I’m going to make a big batch this weekend to freeze. Here’s the recipe.Ever since I first had chicken satay on a beach in Thailand, I have been hooked. Rather than deal with little skewers, I use chicken wings, with a peanut dipping sauce. Under the broiler in advance, and then heated in the oven, one of the few things I heated last time. Despite their inherent messiness, they disappeared quickly. Will be doing this again. The recipe is from “Cooking Thail Food in American Kitchens,” by Malulee Pinsuvana. I love that one column is written in Thai. Authentic!

I’ve had this cookbook since 1989 and you can see it has gotten plenty of use.

I will come back on Tuesday with more recipes, a proper menu, and the game plan for carrying this out so it isn’t harried. Even the budget–it’s possible to pull off a classy event without breaking the bank.

Are you entertaining during the holidays? Feel free to share your tips!

Peak Zucchini

P1080147September is the season for zucchini–courgettes in French. There are so many kinds, and so many ways to prepare them.

In the raw: Zucchini and chickpea salad

I’ve eaten zoodles (zucchini noodles) all my life. My grandma used to make a wonderful creamy tomato soup with zucchini noodles. No spiralizer for Grandma. She was all about the knife, the wooden spoon and the arm muscles, though I think she did have a mandoline. P1040187Following in her footsteps, use a mandoline to make fettuccini of 3-4 medium-size courgettes, about 6-8 inches long. (Grandma grew everything in her garden to size XXL, but you’d do well to avoid baseball-bat zucchini, with their big seeds.) Salt and let sit a while in a colander to soften them up and become more noodle-like. Rinse and pat off some of the water with a paper towel.

In a large bowl, mix the zoodles with a drained 15 oz. can of chickpeas (you can cook up a batch from dried, but that requires planning, whereas this recipe is quick and dirty), some chopped fresh herbs (parsley, mint, basil–your choice), a swirl of olive oil, a splotch of red-wine vinegar and some pepper. Because the zoodles were salted, taste before adding any more.

I’m usually of the opinion that more is more when it comes to salads, and I tend to include anything and everything that’s in the fridge. But I left this salad simple and it was delicious, the zucchini and chickpeas both being mild and not in combat for dominant flavor. I’ve also done it with halved cherry tomatoes, which add color.zucchini 2 kindsLes courgettes sont cuites

(Actually, the saying is “les carottes sont cuites”–meaning “all is lost” or “the jig is up.” I saw many dubious explanations for the origin of this phrase–dubious, because if one can’t spell correctly in a piece about etymology, well, les carottes sont cuites. Fortunately, the book Légumes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui–Vegetables of yesterday and today–says it’s because in a mix of root vegetables, carrots are the last to be done.)zucchini yellow roundThe first time I ever had French food was in a fancy restaurant in the Midwestern city where I grew up. I was still in high school, being high-falutin’ going there. I remember the white-washed brick walls, which were SO radical in the ’70s, the simple black furniture, and the zucchini. Considering I could peer through the windows and see that interior regularly over the years, I suspect that ALL I really remember about that meal is the zucchini. Simple matchsticks of zucchini, sautéed in butter. Nothing haute about it, but you need to use good butter (NOT margarine). The zucchini caramelize in the browned butter and then melt in your mouth.P1080742Here you have it:

Cut some small zucchini into matchsticks. You want smallish ones so they aren’t full of seeds. Count on at least one per person–they melt down. You can peel them, but that (1) has less nutrition, (2) is more work and (3) is wasteful (a future post is coming on a French cookbook about using peelings and scraps). The easiest way to make matchsticks is to first cut coins and then make little stacks of the coins and cut them into slivers.

Know what this smells like? HEAVEN.

Brown a tablespoon or two of butter in a skillet. If your skillet is big and you have a lot of  zucchini, add more. When the bubbles subside, add the zucchini and stir. It should be hot  enough that the zucchini brown without getting mushy. Almost seared. That’s it. A little salt and pepper. A perfect side to any main.P1080750Yes, you can vary this by sautéeing minced garlic or onions before adding the zucchini. And you can add fresh or dried herbs, whether oregano, basil, parsley or rosemary. But sometimes, the simple version is a revelation, especially when the brown butter makes the zucchini sing.

May I add that the great Prosper Montagné, native of Carcassonne and author of the original Larousse Gastronomique, has a similar recipe in his book Les Delices de la Table that I translate here as closely as possible to word-for-word: cut three peeled zucchini into coins not too thin. Salt them and sauté in a skillet with butter. Let them brown well. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve in a vegetable bowl (légumier).*

He goes on to note: Habitually, one sweats them by lightly sprinkling with salt, and one dredges the courgettes, as well as eggplant, in flour before sautéing them. We discourage this system. Zucchini and eggplant sautéed in oil or butter cook perfectly put into the skillet as they are. zucchini normalFar be it from me to argue. By the way, for those first chilly days of fall, check out this great zucchini soup recipe.

*Do you notice that there’s exactly one measurement in his recipe, and it’s three zucchini? But of indeterminate size. All the old recipes are like this!


Peppers in Paradise

P1080654Our kid has always eaten red peppers as if they were potato chips. Never refuse a kid who wants vegetables. (I guess potato chips are technically vegetables, but you know what I mean.)

While plain, raw peppers are crunchy and juicy and tasty, cooked peppers make for a colorful side dish. And this recipe, from Patricia Wells’ cookbook “Vegetable Harvest,” is a winner for entertaining because it can be made ahead and served hot or at room temperature. As Wells points out, leftovers are good as a sauce on pasta or polenta. They also freeze well, so don’t hesitate to make a lot.P1080653Red Peppers, Tomatoes, Onions, Cumin and Espelette Pepper, from “Vegetable Harvest” by Patricia Wells

2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds

4 red bell peppers (or a mix with yellow and orange–as long as they are the sweet kind)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

2 medium onions, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (I used an enormous red onion, which is pretty)

1 teaspoon ground piment d’Espelette (substitutes: dried Anaheim chilies, ground mild chili pepper or paprika)

2 pounds tomatoes, cored and cubed but not peeled P1080648Toast the cumin in a small, dry skillet, shaking regularly because they can scorch quickly. About two minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.P1080649Cut the cleaned peppers quarters and then into 1/8-inch-thick slices. P1080652Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions, cumin, piment d’Espelette and salt.  Cover and let it sweat over low heat for three to four minutes.

Add the peppers and tomatoes and cook, covered, over low heat until the peppers are soft and tender, about 30 minutes. I’ve made this recipe a lot, and I’ve reduced the tomatoes a little and cooked the peppers with the onions so they soften before adding the tomatoes toward the end. It makes the result a little less juicy/soupy.

By the way, I love, love, love this cookbook. I’ve made many of its recipes, and they are delicious but not difficult. And they all have a French flair.