One of the most sacred moments of the French day comes around 6 p.m. (or 18h, as they say here, because they sensibly use the 24-hour clock). Time for l’apéro, or apéritifs.
It can be simple–a glass of wine and some nuts and olives or a few slices of saucisson (hard sausage), to be nibbled on as one makes dinner. For many people, rushing home from work to throw together dinner for the family, l’apéro is appreciated only on the weekends, an almost sacred rite attached to the evening meal.
Drinks are always accompanied by food, very light, not to ruin the meal. I remember learning about l’apéritif in my French class in New York–that it comes from the Latin word aperire, which means “to open,” and what’s getting opened is your stomach.
The drinks started off as alcoholic beverages made with herbs. Medicinal, of course. However, the most popular apéritifs in our region are simply a glass of wine or un jaune–a glass of pastis, the golden anise-flavored spirit that oxidizes when water is added, turning a milky yellow. If you want to sound like a local, ask for “un p’tit jaune” (a small yellow).
Last weekend was the Fête des Voisins (European Neighbors’ Day), and about 15 of us gathered for dinner en terrace, each bringing a dish. Potlucks are unusual in France. They aren’t unheard-of, but if you’re invited to dinner, you are unlikely to be assigned a dish. However, you can bring flowers, a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates or another thoughtful gift for the hosts.
Homemade gifts are OK, too. Like this one:
Which is not the same as a potluck dish.
But the Fête des Voisins is different. In our neighborhood, it was the Carnivore who took up the mantle of organizing a meal. Tables and chairs were rented (for a ridiculously cheap amount from the village, including delivery and pickup the next day!). Somehow, no matter how hot the preceding days had been, every year as dinnertime approached, clouds would roll in and the temperature would drop.
This is when it’s good to be neighbors with a winery. Several times, the tables were set up amid the huge cuves, or tanks, of wine, with plenty of room, not to mention atmosphere.
This year, the group was smaller, but the intimacy was nice. The weather behaved and we had apéritifs next to the pool before moving to the table. I was assigned to bring appetizers, some of which I wrote about when we hosted a pre-Christmas apéritif dînatoire–basically a cocktail party.
I again made the chorizo cookies and two kinds of croissants (ham and Boursin, and “pizza” with tomato sauce and mozzarella). And I made two new ones that are SO easy: goat cheese mini tarts and savory mini clafoutis.
For the goat cheese mini tarts you need:
A readymade pie crust (feuillété, or flaky, if you have the choice)
A bûche, or log, of goat cheese
Fresh rosemary sprigs
Cut rounds out of the pie crust. I used a small glass. You want the rounds to be slightly bigger than the diameter of the goat cheese. Slice the goat cheese and lay the slices on the rounds. Place a tiny dab of honey on the goat cheese (I used a knife and just dipped the tip into the honey). Top with the rosemary. Bake at 360 F (180 C) for about 10 minutes–until the cheese has melted a little and the crust is cooked.
The clafoutis recipe is similar to the recipe I used for rhubarb clafoutis, but without the sugar. You can put anything you want in them. I had Boursin left over from the croissants, and I thought sliced black olives would be pretty. When I used up the olives, I still had batter left, so I sliced up some more chorizo (the Spanish kind, which is a hard sausage). Both were delicious. You could do bacon, diced peppers, diced sun-dried tomatoes, other cheeses….
1 cup milk or cream or a combination
3/4 cup (30 grams) flour
pinch of salt
butter for greasing the muffin pan
Beat the eggs and milk/cream. Mix the flour and salt in a medium bowl that you can pour from. Add the liquid to the flour little by little, so you don’t get lumps. Let it rest for about half an hour. Pour into a greased mini-muffin pan. Drop your add-ins on top. Bake for 20-30 minutes (I had to turn the pan halfway through). À votre santé!
Whatever got into somebody’s head to cook with the stems of a plant whose leaves are poisonous? Yet rhubarb has a fierce deliciousness–a tartness that grabs you by the tongue and forces you into a duck face. For that, rhubarb (a vegetable!) usually is wrangled to play with nicer, sweeter fruits like strawberries and raspberries that tone down its tendency to make one’s eyes squint, while it pushes the berries out of their sugary comfort zone and into interesting territory.
Indeed, one of my favorite things in the world when I was growing up was my grandma’s raspberry-rhubarb jam, made with what raspberries were left (considering our favorite pastime was picking them and eating them on the spot, but I guess we were short enough that plenty stayed out of reach) and rhubarb that grew in her enormous, weed-free vegetable garden.
And, in what seems like another era, another universe, I used to stop by a favorite café in my hometown to pick up a rhubarb pie (I think it was rhubarb solo), to take back to New York. Those were the days where you could check in 20 minutes before your flight, with pots of grandma’s jam in your carry-on and a still-hot rhubarb pie in a box balanced in your hands, and your entire family of about a dozen people could walk right up to the ramp for last-minute hugs and kisses and your parents could watch you walk down the ramp, right up until you were swallowed up by the airplane and they’d have to wait months to see you again.
Rhubarb has appeared at the market for a few weekends now, and I decided that, sugar be damned, we were going to have dessert. I picked up a big bunch of stalks–I think they were €2.50 a kilo–and then considered my options. I also bought strawberries, but they were inhaled immediately by our kid. Never say no to a kid who wants fruit or vegetables. No matter how old they are.
We also had a dental crisis in the house, and I was investigating easy-to-chew menus. (FYI, we had a Cuban feast–ropa vieja with lots of vegetables, plus yellow rice and black beans (also with lots of vegetables, and, since my family don’t read this, I will admit to chopping up the leaves of some beets in there. Delicious!)) However, I feared that pie crust might be too tooth-challenging. Same with a crumble that was advertised as having “crispy” bits. Then I saw clafoutis–why not?
Usually clafoutis is made with whole cherries. In fact, the pits are supposed to be the key to success–they heat up and cook the dessert from the inside or something. I saw the first cherries of the season on Saturday, but they were from Spain, and I’m holding out for the local ones that will come soon.
The thing about clafoutis recipes is that they are all the same yet all different. In fact, they are quite similar to the recipe for crêpes, but with more sugar and less flour. Some called for thick cream (like sour cream), some for regular cream, some for milk. I had regular cream and used that. They all called for three eggs, but none of them had the same measurements for anything else. How is that even possible? Well, clafoutis is one of those French dishes that you can just whip up without much fuss (the French are so good at this–for all their famed fancy foods, they also have a way of taking four ingredients and turning them into something very yummy. Just look at the humble classic quatre-quart, or pound cake: eggs, sugar, flour and butter, which is just very beaten cream, after all, plus baking powder. Little tweaks and you get something completely different, from crêpes to cake). Seriously, clafoutis takes about 10 minutes of work, and most of that is for chopping the rhubarb.
I will warn you that if you like sweets, you may want more sugar. I keep trying to see how little sugar I can get away with, and I’ve finally gotten used to plain yogurt with fruit and no added sugar. Sugar and salt are two things where the more you have the more you want. I liked the result here because I liked the tartness of the rhubarb contrasting with the eggy, mild clafoutis. You have been warned.
4 medium eggs (or 3 big ones)
3/4 cup (160 g) sugar
1 1/2 cups (35 cl) cream or milk
1 1/4 cups (60 g) flour
pinch of salt
25 oz (700 g) of rhubarb (about four big stalks)
a pat of butter
Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C).
Beat the eggs, then add the sugar and salt, then the flour. Then thin it out with the cream. Mixing in the flour before the cream helps prevent lumps.
Let the batter sit for about 20-30 minutes. (Similar to pancake batter that you let rest. But unlike pancake batter, you want the flour completely mixed in.)While the batter rests, prepare the rhubarb. Cut off the stalks’ ends and strip the long fibers, which is really fun. (Since you surely clicked on the link above about how the leaves are poisonous, I assume you removed them, if that wasn’t already done.) Then cut the rhubarb into sticks of 2 or 3 inches, if you like, or into small chunks (which I did). Butter a 9×12-ish baking dish or a large tart/pie dish and spread the rhubarb in it. When the batter is ready, pour it over the rhubarb. Bake for 20 minutes. You want it to only barely get brown. It can be served hot, warm or cold. If you want to gild the lily, or if it’s too tart for your taste, sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Artichokes are intimidating. Not the meek hearts, already cleaned and cooked and ready to use from the can. Those were the only kind I knew for most of my life, usually as a stand-in for spring in pizza quattro stagioni–four seasons pizza, which, thanks to the artichokes, I thought was the most elegant pizza of all. Artichokes, even those in cans, were exotic and expensive and not something we ate growing up. I eventually experienced a steamed artichoke, which involved pulling off the leaves, dipping them in a lemony, garlicky butter and pulling the leaves between my teeth to scrape off the essence of artichoke. But it seemed to me to be awfully similar to snails and, I hear, frogs’ legs–things that don’t taste that great on their own and are essentially a garlic-butter delivery system. (I can only go on the Carnivore’s word regarding frogs’ legs; when we were dating, the first time I looked into his freezer, I saw a bag of them and nearly fainted and that was the end of amphibians in the kitchen.)At French markets in spring, artichokes accompany asparagus as the first vegetables of spring. Peas appear later. Tomatoes and the rest of the cornucopia don’t make their entrance until June at best. After all, it’s risky to plant a garden before the ice saints.
The market stalls are piled high with pyramids of myriad kinds of artichokes. Purple, green, long, perfectly round….how to choose? As the Carnivore and I finished up our marketing on Saturday, we decided to be daring. (Artichokes are old hat for the Carnivore, but the steamed and bathed in butter version…or hearts, again bathed in butter, and served with lamb.) Seeing a little old lady grab a bouquet of artichokes, then a second bouquet, I decided to follow suit. Market tip: If you aren’t sure whether the produce is good, observe what little old ladies are buying, because they actually know how to cook. But the way to pick artichokes is similar to other produce: they should feel heavy, full and firm–which shows they are fresh and not old and dried out. It was the end of the market, and we were given even more artichokes by the vendor, who didn’t want to be bothered with leftovers. (Another market tip: haggling isn’t done, at least not at the food market, but you’re likely to get extras at the end of the market.)
The next challenge was what to do with our personal pyramid of artichokes. I checked all my go-to French food sources: David Lebovitz, who gives a good step-by-step guide to trimming artichokes down to the hearts. (By the way, I made his asparagus mimosa for Sunday lunch and it was AWESOME.)You can see a good drawing of the anatomy of an artichoke here. In French, the heart is called le fond, which also means the bottom, the crux or the base. And the choke–the fluff that grows out of the heart–is called foin, or straw. Just to make things confusing consider this: the artichoke heart melts in your mouth: le fond d’artichaut fond dans la bouche. Yup, fond also is the third person present tense for fondre, or to melt. I love French.
I decided to do a few whole artichokes à la Mimi Thorisson, with her recipe for stuffed artichokes. I had extra stuffing, which I put on top of some chicken breasts and baked along with the artichokes (on a separate sheet, on the rack above the artichokes for a little steaming action). Delicious! The rest of the artichokes would be mostly sacrificed for their hearts. Following the advice of David Lebovitz, as well as Le Monde’s Chef Simon and Cuisine Actuelle, which wisely suggested wearing gloves–artichokes can turn your hands a surprisingly tenacious color. I wanted to use the recipe by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné in his book “Les Délices de la Table ou les Quatre Saisons Gourmandes.” He has several, and I went for Lyonnaise-style quarters of artichoke hearts.
Montagné suggests cooking the artichoke hearts “à blanc,” which sent me down another rabbit hole. Everybody emphasizes rubbing your artichoke (heart or whole) with lemon juice to keep it from oxidizing and turning unattractively black, the way avocados do. To “cook something white” involves blanching it in a mixture that contains acid (vinegar or lemon juice), fat (oil or butter) and flour. The acid does its anti-oxidizing duties while the flour forms a barrier to light and the fat makes a protective film that seals the artichoke (or other food) from air. Go figure.My buddy Chef Simon gives a good explanation of les blancs, with proportions, kind of. Prosper Montagné also has a mix for unecuisson à blanc: 1.5 cups of water, juice of half a lemon and a spoon (no indication of how big) of oil. I used Simon’s version, which had more water (2 liters) and also a pinch of salt and a spoon of flour. First, mix the flour with a little cold water, adding more little by little to avoid lumps, then the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil.The Lyonnaise style involves cutting the hearts into quarters, cooking finely minced onion in butter until translucent and setting the hearts on top, then adding a cup of white wine. Cook until the liquid is reduced, then add 1.5 cups of veal broth and cook, covered, for 45 minutes. Talk about melt in your mouth.
Macarons are the chic French treat so lusted after these days, especially the ones from Parisian tea salon Ladurée.
You will be happy to learn that they aren’t that hard to make at home. I won’t claim they’re easy; one recipe rated the difficulty as “delicate.” But I’ve made more complicated and more “delicate” recipes than macarons. The recipe itself is simple; this post focuses on the little tricks–astuces–that are key to success.I have recipes for vanilla and chocolate macarons here. All the credit goes to the recipe makers: Béa LG for the vanilla macarons and the excellent French cooking site 750g for the chocolate macarons. I’m just providing translation services.
I highly recommend watching Béa LG’s video. Even if you don’t speak French, she shows the process very clearly, especially the macaronage, which is the term for the delicate (there you go!) mixing of the meringue with the almond powder/sugar mix, to make the appareil, a word that usually means apparatus, but in this setting means the base for the macaron shells.Even though I’ve lived in francophone countries for two decades and speak French fluently, I still discover new terms. I was confused when I saw recipes listing a maryse among the utensils needed (Béa LG also refers to a maryse). I know several women named Maryse–to me it’s a woman’s name, not a thing for stirring. Turns out, Marie-Louise was the brand of a rubber spatula, and people blurred it into maryse. Other adorable French terms for spatula include lèche-tout (lick it all) and lèche-plat (lick the plate). Also: une spatule.
Similarly, I know that serrer means to squeeze, tighten or bring close together, though serrer la main means to shake hands and if the GPS orders me serrer à droite, I have to keep to the right. Un café bien serré is a strong coffee. A sauce is serré when it has thickened (makes sense–it comes together). Une serre is a greenhouse and has nothing to do with the verb. But what in the world is serrer les blancs d’oeufs avec le sucre??? Tighten–or squeeze–the egg whites with sugar? (To add to the delightful terms, beaten egg whites are blancs d’oeufs en neige–snowy egg whites.) Turns out, it means to firm up the egg whites with sugar. When the whites become fluffy, you add the sugar, bit by bit, continuing to beat until they’re stiff.
Such is life in another language. You know a word, you use it many times in a day, and then it surprises you with a hidden meaning in a context where you can’t figure out what is going on.
Back to the recipe. Lots of photos here to explain. Vanilla up first.
Béa LG’s vanilla macarons
For the shells:
125g (1 1/3 cups) almond powder/flour
125g (1 cup) powdered sugar
100g granulated sugar, very fine (about half cup)
100g egg whites (about 3); separated in two bowls: 80g and 20g (20g is about half a white)
For the ganache filling:
150g (5.25 oz.) white chocolate, broken into small pieces
300 ml (1 1/4 cups or 4 fluid oz.) heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
(She also calls for vanilla extract and honey but I thought that was overkill.)
You can see the elegance of the recipe: 125 g each of the dry mix, and 100 g each for the meringue. It’s also so useful to weigh the egg whites, because you don’t have to worry about big or little eggs. Baking is chemistry–turning a liquid into a solid–and unlike, say, a salad or stir-fry, the measurements must be exact. Similarly, you’ll get better results weighing than by using cups, which measure volume. Most electronic kitchen scales have a button to switch between ounces and grams.
Blend the almond powder and powdered sugar. This is important! Then, sift it–also important! Don’t skip these steps. (In the video, she calls it passer au chinois—un chinois is a strainer, aka passoire; a sifter is unetamise, and to sift is tamiser.)
Beat the 80g of egg whites (important: your bowl must be perfectly clean, without a trace of oil). Also, egg whites beat into meringue better on sunny days. I made the chocolate ones on a day of pouring rain, and I see the difference (doesn’t affect the taste, happily). When they are fluffy, add the sugar one spoonful at a time. (My only criticism of the video is that she says she adds spoonful by spoonful, but doesn’t say or show what. Well, I’m here to tell you it’s sugar.) This method is called a meringue française, as opposed to a meringue italienne, which uses a hot syrup. You can find recipes using that method, but I don’t have a candy thermometer, so I go for what’s simple.
The meringue is ready when it forms stiff peaks. Hold up the beater and look for the bec–beak.
Combine the meringue and almond mix by stirring gently in one direction. Scoop all the way to the bottom of the bowl and lift as much of the contents as possible, and turn it. Do this until it’s all mixed and is loose enough to run off the spatula a bit. This is the macaronage. Watch the video! What wrist technique!
Beat the remaining 20g of egg white until it’s frothy. Add a little to the batter and continue to stir in one direction. Notice how it smooths out and gets glossy. When you lift a spatula/maryse of batter, it will run off in a pretty ribbon that’s smooth and supple but not liquid.
Another tip from Béa LG: cut through the batter with the spatula. It should form a line. The halves should start to move back together (if not, you need to add more of the frothy egg white), but very slowly.
Put the batter into a pastry bag with a large tip. (More French: pastry bag is poche à douille, which literally is “cartridge pocket,” but the cartridges can mean for guns, too.) I prefer to use zip-lock bags: Reinforce one corner with 4-6 pieces of tape. Fill the bag. Close tightly. Snip off the corner. This isn’t for decorating, after all (though they work for that, too–reinforce more and cut zigzags into the tip). Brilliant technique for filling a pastry bag in the video (at 5:16).
Distribute the batter on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or a silicone mat. You can buy silicone mats with circles for macarons, but they are not necessary. The batter will spread, so don’t make them too close. You can make any size you like. The first time, we made gigantic ones. Then small. Then medium. They all turned out.Don’t worry about tips sticking up; they will smooth out. Hold each sheet a few inches above the counter and let it drop. This releases air bubbles. Let the uncooked macarons rest for a good hour (to get a crust–croûter). They should lose some of their sheen.
Preheat the oven to 145 Celsius (290 Fahrenheit). Bake the macarons, one sheet at a time in the middle of the oven, for 12-14 minutes for small ones–bigger macarons will take longer. Silicone mats take longer than parchment paper. Open the oven door halfway through the baking to let out steam. If the macarons crack or brown, turn down the oven.
Let the macarons cool before removing them. Carefully peel them off with your fingers; don’t use a spatula.
Make the ganache. Don’t do this ahead or it will get hard. It only takes a minute anyway. I make ganache all the time, and parted ways with Béa LG, who melted the chocolate in a double-boiler on the video for the ganache. (This brings up another funny French term: a stainless steel bowl with a rounded bottom is called a cul de poule–a hen’s butt. Do you see how one’s head can spin when reading a recipe: “put the hen’s butt over a saucepan of boiling water…”)Put the cream in a saucepan (she put in only 75 g to heat; I did all of it). Scrape the inside of the vanilla bean into the cream. Drop the bean into the cream to infuse even more flavor. Boil the cream. It doesn’t have to boil hard–as soon as you see a bubble, shut off the heat and drop in the chocolate. Stir so it melts. If you didn’t put in all the cream, do it now. Stir well and let it cool. Remove the vanilla bean.
Beat the ganache with a mixer until it’s fluffy. Keep an eye on it, because overbeating will turn the cream into butter. Some ganache recipes even call for butter. Put the ganache into a pastry bag (or another reinforced zip-lock bag) and squeeze generous dollops onto half the macaron shells. Top with the other shells.If you prefer chocolate, here’s the recipe for “My First Macarons” from 750g. I doubled it and show the doubled proportions. It made 18 medium macarons (about 2.5 inches in diameter).
190g (2 cups) almond powder/flour
310g (2.5 cups) powdered sugar
30g (1/4 cup) unsweetened cocoa powder
150g egg whites (about 4)
100 g granulated sugar (about 1/2 cup)
100g (3.5 oz.) dark chocolate, broken into small bits
100ml (5/12 cup–between 1/3 and 1/2 cup–3.38 fluid oz.) heavy cream
It’s the same as the vanilla recipe: blend the almond powder with the powdered sugar. Sift the mix with the cocoa powder.
Beat the egg whites (this recipe didn’t hold any on the side and turned out fine), adding the granulated sugar bit by bit until you get stiff peaks.
Do the macaronage, gently mixing the chocolate/almond mix with the meringue.Put into a pastry bag and squeeze onto baking sheets covered with parchment paper or silicone mats.
Tap the baking sheets. Let the macarons dry out for an hour (the recipe says just 30 minutes, but longer is better). Bake at 145 Celsius/290 Fahrenheit for 12/14 minutes for small macarons, longer for bigger ones. Turn halfway through to let steam out of the oven. (750g says 150 Celsius for 20 minutes, but that was too long. Better safe than sorry.)
Let cool before removing from the baking sheet.Make the ganache:
Boil the cream; as soon as it starts to boil, shut off the heat and stir in the chocolate until it’s melted. Let it cool. 750g says you can garnish the macarons like this, but I beat the ganache a little to make it fluffier, and even so found it a little runny. It’s a question of aesthetics, because the ingredients don’t change. Macarons are not nearly as hard or mysterious as I’d feared and certainly impressive to serve. Let me know if you try them!
Valentine’s Day has inextricably linked love and chocolate. If you are among the wise folk who avoid restaurants on Valentine’s Day, you can have your cake and eat it too in the serenity of your home.
Zebra brownies have been a favorite since the ’80s; my hand-written recipe dates to then as well. They are the lovechild of a chewy, dense brownie and a silky, dense cheesecake.
I offer you the original and a half-size version that I make in a round cake pan. These are so rich, even the smaller size will last you a few days.
They don’t need frosting. I just did it for company. I prefer a ganache, which is less sweet than, say, buttercream frosting. If you do the sheet-cake version, just cut squares like regular brownies.Zebra Brownies
1 cup (227 g) butter, softened
2 cups (200 g) sugar
1 cup (85 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup (128 g) flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups (225 g) cream cheese, softened
1 1/2 cup (300 g) sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup (64 g) flour
Brownie part: With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on high speed. Shift to low speed; add the cocoa and eggs and mix thoroughly. Add the flour and vanilla and mix on low.
Cheesecake part: In a separate bowl, whip the cream cheese and sugar on high speed. Add the eggs, mixing on low speed. Add the vanilla and flour, still on low speed.
I used to spread the brownie part, then cover with the cheesecake mix, and swirl them. But now I distribute blobs of the brownie mix around a greased 9X13 cake pan, then pour in the cheesecake mix and swirl the two together. It seems to marble better that way.
Bake at 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius) for 35-45 minutes. It should be moist but not runny.
The half-size option:
1/2 cup (113 g) butter
1 cup (100 g) sugar
1/2 cup (43 g) cocoa powder
1/2 cup (64 g) flour
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cup (12 oz or 113 g) cream cheese
3/4 cup (150 g) sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup (32 g) flour
Same procedure, but test for doneness after 25 minutes.
6 oz (150 g) dark (70%) chocolate, broken into small chips (the smaller the better)
6 oz or 2/3 cup (15 cl) heavy (30% fat) cream
Put the chocolate in a bowl. Heat the cream to almost boiling (OK if it boils, but it doesn’t have to). Pour over the chocolate. Stir to make sure the chocolate bits are all melted. Let it cool a little–it should be warm enough to pour but not so hot that it will run away. To be fancy, I also added out-of-season raspberries.
Leeks are one of those staples you see sticking out of every typical French market basket. Before I moved here, I had never had them. They’re delicious and nutritious! And cheap. And very easy to cook.
With the recent cold spell (-2.5 Celsius/27 Fahrenheit this morning!), something baked in the oven sounded tempting. A pared-down leek gratin to accompany chicken breasts (steak for the Carnivore, who considers chicken to be a vegetable).
Gratins are a French favorite. As online French culinary bible Marmiton says: “The gratin can be sweet or salty, with vegetables or meat…in short, there isn’t A gratin but tons of different gratins, with something to satisfy everybody.” (BTW, if you click through, keep in mind that entrée means starter in French.)A typical gratin uses béchamel sauce. The butter and flour that go into béchamel add a stick-to-the-ribs quality, but I didn’t want the calories. Cream (light) and cheese would suffice for this week-night side dish.
As Marmiton points out, anything can go into a gratin: “You can even use leftovers to make a pasta gratin, for example.” A gratin can easily become a main dish by adding protein (meat–lardons!–or other). You can throw in chopped garlic, onions, shallots, herbs, spices…. You can use any kind of cheese–emmental, parmesan, gruyère, mozzarella, cheddar, blue…. The point is that gratin is a don’t-sweat-it dish that will be delicious no matter what you use.
Gratins are great for entertaining because they go in the oven and don’t need attention. You can even make individual gratins in ramekins. Super-simple leek gratin
Any other cheese you have that you need to use up (we had some cream cheese and I dropped about 1/2 cup of blobs around)
Butter, salt, pepper
Preheat the oven to 220 Celsius (425 Fahrenheit). Set some salted water to boil in a pot big enough for the leeks (I use a deep skillet).Clean the leeks. Strip off the outer layers. Cut off the root tips, but not too high–you want to keep the connection at the bottom. Remove the green tops and set aside. Slice the white part in half lengthwise. Wash well, going between the layers.Boil the leeks for about 10 minutes.While they’re boiling, butter a rectangular baking dish.
Drain the cooked leeks. Press them a little to squeeze out excess moisture. Lay them out in the baking dish while they’re still hot. Season with pepper (no salt–it was in the water), and any other herbs or spices you like. Pour the cream on top. Cover with cheese. (You can sprinkle with bread crumbs, but … calories.) Bake for 20 minutes.As for the green tops, don’t toss them! Just cut them into fine strips and soak them in cold water. Rub them in the water with my hands to work off the dirt. Then rinse and dry them in a salad spinner. They can go into soups–mine went into a ribollita this week; other times they end up in couscous or chili…. anywhere you use onions, leeks can make a home. The green tops are tough, so they’re best used in dishes that cook a long time, like soups.
Sometimes you eat something that transports you to heaven, with angels blowing on trumpets and rays of golden light. This chocolate mousse is so light and fluffy, to call it a cloud of chocolate would be too heavy. It’s a dream about chocolate, set to angelic music.
The ingredients are very simple. The keys to success are all in the process. Don’t worry–it’s still easy. A dessert you can whip up in a few minutes. BUT plan ahead. It should be made at least a day ahead, if not two. The air bubbles grow, making the mousse even lighter.
First, you should know the different Schools of Chocolate Mousse. There are the Whipped Cream School, the Egg White School and the fence-straddling Cream-and-Egg School. An all-chocolate French cookbook (Le Chocolate, from Madame Figaro magazine) has FOUR chocolate mousse recipes, in the Cream and Cream-and-Egg camps. A recipe on Cuisine Larousse, as well as one by Alain Ducasse, uses cream, but both count on the egg whites to make the foam (mousse means foam). The Whipped Cream School basically makes something like chocolate Cool Whip–OK for what it is, but lacking the seemingly contradictory qualities of airiness and creaminess that makes chocolate mousse so special.Some recipes mix cream with the chocolate–like ganache–or butter with the chocolate, or both cream and butter. The point is to increase the fat content, for that creamy quality, rather than to whip the cream. The egg whites are what provide the fluff, which is airier and longer lasting than whipped cream. This recipe uses only butter, which is 82% fat; heavy cream is only 36% fat.
This recipe is squarely in the Egg Camp and comes from the great-grandmother of our friend R., who provided the very important passed-down-through-generations tips that make all the difference. (When I asked him about cream in chocolate mousse, he made a terrible grimace!) Another special point is that this recipe uses the egg yolks (some in the Egg School use only the whites), adding to the creamy factor in the way that some ice cream uses custard–yolks are 27% fat.
Before some of you faint over the idea of eating raw egg whites, even chocolate ones, let me point you to Santé Publique France, which in 2015 counted 141 cases of salmonella, with 20%, or 28 cases, linked to eggs, out of a population of 67 million. On the French government’s National Agency for Health Safety of Food, the Environment and Work’s page about salmonella, it cautions that recipes using raw eggs should be kept cold and eaten within 24 hours. That said, chocolate mousse is even the third day. A risk I’m willing to take (though waiting is hard!).
6 or 7 eggs, depending on their size
200 g (7 oz.) butter, cut into small chunks
200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar
200 g (7 oz or 2/3 cup) dark chocolate (at least 60% cacao, which won’t taste like dark chocolate in the end; if you like darker, up the percentage), broken into small bits
Turn on the oven to just warm (60 Celsius or 140 Fahrenheit). Put the butter and chocolate into an oven-proof pan or dish and let it melt slowly in the oven, until the butter and chocolate are very soft but not liquid. R.’s advice: the oven heats the ingredients more gently than the microwave and more homogenously, without having to stir a lot, than a double-boiler on the stove.
While it’s melting, measure the sugar into a large bowl. Add the egg yolks, separating the whites into a separate mixer bowl for beating. Mix the yolks and sugar by hand (important! otherwise it comes out too “hard”) until the mixture is white.
Stir the butter and chocolate so they are completely integrated, then pour into the yolk/sugar mixture. Mix that well.
Using an electric mixer, beat the whites until they are stiff. You can turn it on while you’re mixing the previous step but keep an eye out that you don’t overbeat the whites or they’ll collapse. Anyway, you want the chocolate mixture to cool down before adding the egg whites, or the heat will deflate the eggs and make the mousse too dense. The chocolate mixture just has to be warm enough that it doesn’t get hard.
Fold the whites into the chocolate mixture in batches. Use a wooden spoon or a spatula, and gently guide the batter from the bottom to the top, in one direction! You want the whites to be integrated into the batter, but it’s more important not to have streaks of chocolate mixture vs. trying to get rid of all the little blobs of whites.
That’s it. You can put it into a large serving bowl or into individual bowls. It makes about 10 half-cup servings (small ramekins). If you want to double the recipe, it’s better to do it twice, because you risk over/under beating the egg whites if the volume is too great.
Refrigerate as long as possible. At least three hours, but better is overnight or up to two days. If you have anything smelly in the fridge, cover the mousse tightly with plastic film.
Here are the recipes I promised for two of the desserts served at our Fête de la Lumière: chocolate crackles and nut bars.Chocolate Crackles
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (not available here; I used a 200 g bar of chocolat patissier–baking chocolate)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup cooking oil (colza, corn, etc.–something without a strong flavor)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
powdered sugar (about half a cup but have more on hand in case you need it)
granulated sugar (same as with the powdered sugar)
Melt the chocolate (I do it in the microwave–just be careful not to overheat it). Stir in the brown sugar and oil, then add the eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, mix the dry ingredients–flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the chocolate and mix well.
Refrigerate at least an hour but you can go longer, like overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325 F/ 160 C (the lower temp keeps them from getting too hard).
Put some powdered sugar in a shallow dish; put granulated sugar in another shallow dish.Use a spoon to scoop out a little dough more or less in ball shape. Roll it through the granulated sugar first, then the powdered sugar. This makes the crackles more pronounced and prettier. The less you handle the dough, the less mess on your hands. The balls don’t have to be perfectly round.
Place the balls on a cookie sheet that’s lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat, leaving room for them to spread. Bake for about 10 minutes.
They freeze very well and defrost to nice and chewy.Nut Bars
This recipe is from the Silver Palate cookbook, one of my favorites. It’s called Pecan Squares, but just try finding pecans in Carcassonne. Walnuts work well, too.
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 cups flour
1/2 pound (2 sticks/225 g)
Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Grease a 9×12-inch sheet pan (or you can line it with parchment paper).
Sift the flour and sugar, then cut in the butter. It will be shaggy but don’t worry. Press it into the pan and back for 20 minutes. (Keep an eye on it, because you don’t want it to brown too much.)
While it’s baking, make the topping:
2/3 cup (150 g) unsweetened butter, melted
1/2 cup (120 ml) honey
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
3.5 cups (about 400 g) coarsely chopped nuts
Mix the butter, honey cream and brown sugar together. Stir in the nuts. Spread over the crust.
Bake again for another 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into squares. They should keep for up to a week (though they are likely to be eaten long before!).
The French apéritif dinatoire–cocktail dinner–is a way to invite a crowd for dinner without having them sit down around the table. More than just cocktails with hors d’oeuvres, it’s a whole dinner but not served in the usual French style with courses, and with everything in small portions that are easy to manage while standing and mingling.
On Saturday, our little house was packed to the gills with friends for the Fête de la Lumière, or the Festival of Light, a tradition started by dear friends who moved away and whom everybody at the party admitted to missing terribly. We picked up the baton because it was such a great way to see people, whereas with dinner parties the number of guests is limited to four or six (with us that makes six or eight around the table, which is about all you can do and still have conversation).
Recipe testing began a few weeks ago, and, despite good intentions to make dishes in advance and freeze them, I made everything in the days before the party. I kept a spreadsheet with dishes, showing how many days ahead they could be done, ingredients and links to the recipes.
The spreadsheet was very useful for assembling the shopping list. I could go through and count, for example, how many eggs and how much butter and flour in total.
I could have cut the number of chicken wings by half; since they were done fresh, we froze the leftovers. The madeleines won raves, but I could have made a single batch (considering we ate the test batch quickly, I was surprised). Happily they freeze well. Also the chorizo cookies–double the recipe would have sufficed. It seemed to me it made such a small batch. Also froze the leftovers. Nothing wasted.
On the other hand, the meatballs and deviled eggs disappeared. The nut cake was nearly gone and a fan happily took the few remains home.
The list above, plus charcuterie, cheese and baguettes, came to about €200 for a guest list of 36. Cheese alone was about €40. The total doesn’t include the wine because we tapped our cellar. Most of the food was on the dining table, with no decorations but a silver tray with candles. We put the charcuterie on a buffet and the cheese board on a small bookcase near the table. We had two conversation areas, but people stood for the first two hours, mingling and eating, before slowing down and migrating to the chairs and sofas. Although everybody was from the village, not all the guests knew each other, though they all knew at least some of the others. The grown daughter of a neighbor had come back to visit her parents; she had been our babysitter back in the day. She came, which I took as a high compliment, since she certainly had other options for socializing on a Saturday night than hanging out with neighbors her parents’ age.
Here are the links to the recipes again:
Zucchini cheese chips (no need for a recipe, since it’s grated zucchini and cheese, dumped in little piles and baked–you can find many similar).
The Thai chicken wings and nut bars are from cookbooks; I’ll share those later. The meatball recipe changed when we couldn’t find the ingredients (no hoisin around here), so I just mixed ground pork with breadcrumbs, eggs, lots of minced onions and herbes de provence and baked them (honestly, the onions made them. OMG). The crinkle cookies and chocolate cake are old family recipes that I also will expand on later.This shouldn’t sound intimidating. It was a lot of work for two days and totally worth it. The advantage of cooking ahead and freezing is that the work gets spread out into small bits; but the advantage of doing everything just before is that it’s all fresh and you can freeze leftovers. A win either way.
Also, don’t overthink. We decorated the tree and put Christmas balls here and there, plus lots of candles. No elaborate centerpieces. The food is the main event. Actually, the conversation is the main event, and the food is just fuel for it.
The countdown to Saturday’s apéritif dinatoire begins. Shopping, decorating, cooking, cleaning, and more cooking.
We put up the tree and added a few decorations. We even strung lights outside.
We did most of the shopping. My favorite sous-chef made a double batch of chocolate crinkle cookies, which passed the freezer test with flying colors. Just as good thawed as fresh.
You can’t see the snowflakes here, but it looked a lot like Christmas.
My do-everything-ahead plan was thrown off by two days spent in Carcassonne at our apartments. Still, it felt like a mini vacation, especially the sauna, and was a nice breather. Our kid had events all day on Saturday, when it snowed. People here panic when it snows. The ones with SUVs drive far too fast, not realizing that big vehicles still slide on ice. Other people creep along at a maddeningly slow crawl, causing backups and then some idiot comes along and decides to pass despite not being able to see whether it’s clear. Some years ago I had to drive to town during a snowstorm. I cut my speed by half–not a crawl but slow enough that I wouldn’t need to brake hard to stop. I counted a dozen cars in the ditch in a 20-minute drive. Rather than take any risks with snow forecast, we decided to stay in at our Carcassonne AirBnB apartments, which was empy between guests. The snow fell as if cued by a movie director, light flakes drifting down cinematically all day. All the kids had their faces turned skyward to catch the fleeting flakes. It was cold for here (low 40s) but too warm for snow, which melted as soon as it touched the ground.
The best-laid plans still go astray, whether due to weather or other reasons.
Here are some of the things that can be made well in advance:
Chocolate crackle cookies. They need to chill for a few hours or overnight. I think that, like chocolate chip cookies, they are better if the dough sits overnight. When they are cool, store them in a plastic container with the layers separated by parchment paper. Freeze.
My handwriting, from 1979. Talk about a keeper recipe! Melt the chocolate, stir in everything, chill, scoop out little balls, roll in regular sugar then in powdered sugar, bake at 350 F for about 10 minutes.
Other things you can freeze:
Chocolate cake–not frosted. Chocolate cake also gets better after a couple of days. I will make it three days ahead.
Depending on how things are going, I might also make a kind of French “cake,” which is a savory loaf with vegetables and meat or fish. I was disappointed with the tuna-zucchini recipe, but might try a different one.
Today I am going to make the nut bars, deep clean and rearrange the furniture. More photos coming Friday!
More Carcassonne Christmas décor. BTW, the bûches de Noël in the top photo are from across the street from here, Noez bakery.