Monday, December 24, 2007

Bonnes fêtes

Our Christmas menu:

Thrush terrine, from the one and only Franck Cerutti

Poularde with celery stuffing and winter fruits
Potato and celery root purée
Brussels sprouts and chestnuts - because it wouldn't be Christmas without Brussels sprouts
Carrots braised with spices

Christmas pudding with homemade vanilla ice cream

Les 13 desserts - my own interpretation of this Provençal tradition, with fresh, dried and candied fruits, nuts and Quality Street chocolates (la petite touche anglaise)

Bonnes fêtes à tous

Guest artist: Sam, age 5

Friday, December 21, 2007

World Peace Cookies: rejoice!

I'm not the first blogger to discover Dorie Greenspan's all-time favorite World Peace Cookies, but I must add my voice to the chorus of praise from people whose lives have been changed forever by these chocolate sablés.
As Dorie herself points out, this recipe is really a straightforward slice-and-bake cookie. The difference is that it comes from Paris pastry chef Pierre Hermé, who has been described as "having a computer in his mouth." When Pierre tastes a chocolate cookie his computer tells him, "just think how much better this would be with fleur de sel."
It's a simple addition, just half a teaspoon of pure white Atlantic salt crystals, but what a difference it makes. Just about any cake or biscuit is improved by the addition of a little salt, yet here the salt brings a new dimension, one that makes these buttery cookies laced with cocoa and hand-chopped chocolate simply impossible to stop eating.
The name comes from a neighbor of Dorie who believes that if everyone ate these cookies every day there would be no more reason for war. But what I like about the title is that it's open to interpretation. The way I see it, if each of us gives a few bags of these cookies to the people around us at Christmas (or at any other opportunity), the world will be that much more peaceful. If you happen to live in Paris, imagine how the attitude of that bus driver - the one who closes the door on the young mother with the stroller - might change if you handed him a bag of World Peace Cookies (well, it's worth a try).
I've set the example by selflessly giving two bags of these cookies to Sam's teacher and her assistant - something I was able to do only because I hadn't allowed myself to taste them yet. It's a mystery to me how kindergarten teachers maintain any kind of peace in the classroom, so I thought these couldn't be more appropriate.
These sablés mark the beginning of my Christmas baking, which has got off to an awfully late start this year. As I write there are two fruit-laden puddings steaming on the stove, one of which will make my parents very happy on Christmas Day. The other I will give to producer Loulou at the market, who was kind enough to contribute his candied orange rinds to this year's pudding.

Meanwhile, my local grocer Antoine is picking up a 3-kilo block of top-quality chocolate from the wholesale shop for me so that I can continue my bid to spread world peace.
Try Dorie's recipe and you too will rejoice, I promise.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Menu for Hope: Time is running out!

Would you like this chic little book to be yours?
You have only until tomorrow to buy your raffle tickets for Chez Pim's fundraiser Menu for Hope, which this year is supporting a school lunch program in Lesotho. The money raised will help provide two meals a day for 137,000 children, some of them nomadic herd boys as young as seven years old.
The winner of my prize, EU01, will not only receive a signed copy of Gourmet Paris, which shortly after its release last month won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for best culinary travel guide (oops, have I mentioned that before?), but also a one-day Edible Paris custom food itinerary, which includes a personalized written walking tour covering markets, food shops and restaurants plus maps locating each place mentioned.
I've just received my own copies of this classy book with its plain brown cover and find it a delight to hold in my hand. The book covers everything from the best neighborhoods for food shopping to markets, luxury food shops, the finest places to buy and drink wine, and where to you can learn to make macarons, sushi or boeuf en croûte in French or English. In total this compact package contains more than 500 addresses, many of them gorgeously illustrated by Alain Bouldouyre. I especially like the nifty notebook at the back for keeping track of your own finds.
For a minimum donation of $10 this prize could be yours - but tomorrow is the cut-off date! Don't miss the chance to buy tickets for this and other fantastic prizes, some of which I'm hoping to win myself (so don't bid for Wendy's whisky, OK?).

Monday, December 17, 2007

Crisp oatmeal cookies

Sometimes what I want is not fanciful layers of meringue, mousse and ganache but a crisp oatmeal cookie studded with tiny purple-black currants. Raw mascobado sugar, its soft golden crystals speckled with molasses, streaked these cookies with deeply flavored caramel. They are perfect for a child's goûter and with a mug of thick hot chocolate in front of the fire (or, in my case, the oven), far from the madding Christmas crowds.
I had been after a recipe for crisp oatmeal cookies for years, ever since I stupidly lost the one handwritten for me by my ex-boyfriend's grandmother, and finally found it while flipping through The New Basics Cookbook. From the founders of the famed Silver Palate deli in New York, it's a book I had been neglecting for some years without good reason. I'll be coming back to it for the vegetable-packed soup recipes, buttermilk waffles and deliciously retro-sounding Spiced Party Nuts.
These cookies are buttery and crisp with a touch of chewiness, just the way I like them. The organic mascobado sugar from my local Fair Trade shop added so much character that I decided cinnamon wasn't necessary. I also dropped the walnuts, because I think that in a great oatmeal cookie there should be little to distract from the oats themselves. So, tempting as they might be, keep your chocolate chips for another cookie.

Lacy oatmeal cookies
Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook

1 1/2 cups quick-cooking rolled oats
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar (preferably an interesting one like mascobado)
1/2 cup white sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup dried currants

Preheat the oven to 350 F (180 C). Lightly grease 2 baking sheets and line with parchment paper.

Toss the oats, flour and baking soda together in a bowl.

Beat the butter and sugars together in a bowl until fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and mix well. Fold in the dry ingredients and currants.

Drop the batter by rounded teaspoonfuls, 2 inches apart, onto the prepared baking sheets and bake until golden about 10 mins. Leave the cookies on the baking sheets for 2 mins, then transfer them to wire racks to cool.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Menu for Hope: Win an Edible Paris itinerary and a copy of Gourmet Paris! (Prize EU01)

Since I started blogging about eight months ago I've realized how powerful this medium can be. For me, blogs have become a daily source of entertainment, inspiration and knowledge. I'm constantly amazed by the talent and generosity of food bloggers - and never more so than when they team up to help those in need.
Chez Pim's fourth annual Menu for Hope comes at just the right time of year, when I for one need reminding that the luxury foods so beloved of the French during the holiday season are just that: a luxury. Last year this event raised an impressive $60,000 for the UN World Food Programme and this year's proceeds will go to a school lunch program in Lesotho, Africa. If this seems a little abstract, visit Pim's Flickr page to see striking photos taken by the members of this community with disposable cameras that were provided by the Menu for Hope organizers.
My contribution to the incredible list of prizes is an Edible Paris custom food itinerary worth €200. Whether you're visiting Paris for the first time or have lived there for years, I will do my utmost to give you a fresh taste of the city. The itinerary includes a detailed written walking tour for a specific day (including opening hours), maps to help you locate each place mentioned and restaurant recommendations for that day. And heck, I'm feeling so generous that I'll also throw in a signed copy of my newly released book Gourmet Paris, which recently won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for Best Culinary Travel Guide!
The minimum cost of a ticket is $10 and, whether or not you win a prize, you can't lose by taking part in this event. To bid for more European prizes, visit Food Beam where the adorable Fanny is the event's European host. You have until December 21st to mull over the tempting packages and try your luck. Winners will be revealed on January 9th at Chez Pim.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A sour taste

Some women buy jewels. I buy pastries. The luxury I allow myself might be relatively small, but I take huge pleasure in every moment of the experience. That's why nothing depresses me more than dour service in a pâtisserie, which goes against my belief that sharing space with chocolate and cakes all day should imbue people with well-being.
In fairness, I'm the one who provoked the pastry chef's stern disapproval at Pain de Sucre, an ultra-chic Marais pâtisserie whose whimsically named cakes - the Lili, the Rosy Rosa - normally fill me with glee. I made a mistake and I'm deeply sorry for it. Still, I wish I could have left the shop feeling a little less disgraced.
Before dropping into Pain de Sucre (more literally than I expected), I had spent the morning showing a small group the food highlights of Paris. We joined a long queue to try the coal-black truffle macarons at Pierre Hermé, made of the pungent black tuber rather than chocolate. At the deceptively modest-looking Blé Sucré we sampled the famed lemon tart, as well as a fluffy new coconut and pineapple pastry called the Aligre. Though both pâtisseries were at their busiest, the staff could not have been more patient and cordial. On the way back to the Métro, I walked past Pain de Sucre and despite the morning's indulgences decided that a few more pastries couldn't hurt.
I am always fascinated by the shop's innovative éclairs and this time I ordered a raspberry one, plus three macarons, a glossy-topped scone and a praline-filled chocolate bar for Philippe. As I was about to pay, I thought of Sam and said to the cashier, "I'll just take a chocolate lollipop." He made no move to stop me as I took a few steps and pulled out a lollipop from a small stand above the cakes. Unfortunately, the display wasn't as stable as it looked and two of the lollipops fell off — one of them directly onto a €40 cake, creating a dent in the fluffy white icing.
No-one had noticed and I could have got away with sneaking out without a word. Honesty overcame me, though, and full of remorse I pointed out the damage to pastry chef Didier Mathray, who worked with star chef Pierre Gagnaire for 10 years before opening this shop.
"You should not have done that!" he exploded. "You should never touch anything! Look what you've done to that €40 cake!"
I apologized again but he made it clear that my blunder had been unforgiveable. I then paid €19.50 for what I had bought, feeling very very small and suddenly remembering what it's like to be Sam's age. On the way out, I once again tried to convince him of how much I regretted my gaffe. He muttered blackly and shook his head, not looking at me.
Once out of the shop, my remorse started to lift a little. Someone of Mathray's skill would be capable of touching up that icing, I was sure. And lollipops are meant to be touched - aren't they? Why else do they put them in those tempting stands?
The stress must have got to me a little, though, because I didn't manage to photograph the cakes without taking a bite out of each one in the hope that they would lift my spirits. Not surprisingly, they tasted a little sour.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Vanilla: bean there, done that

(Sorry about the bad pun, but there is no editor to restrain me.)
A task I look forward to every month is translating the newsletter of Olivier Roellinger, an inspired chef who is based in the fishing town of Cancale near Mont St-Michel in northern Brittany. I haven't yet found the right excuse to splurge on a meal at his restaurant Le Relais Gourmand Olivier Roellinger, but the easy-to-follow recipes he provides on his website each month provide some consolation.
Roellinger is devoted to his native region, but like anyone who has been lucky enough to grow up near the sea he always has his eye on the horizon. More than other French chefs at this lofty level, he relies on spices from afar to bring out the qualities of the extraordinary local seafood and vegetables (Cancale is where I tasted my first French oysters, an experience that spoiled me for life).
At his boutique L'Entrepôt Epices Roellinger in Cancale - as well as on his website - Roellinger sells a selection of the world's finest spices and his own blends, which have evocative names such as "Neptune Powder" and "Grand Caravan." Just a pinch of spice powder transforms the simplest preparation, giving it an unmistakeable Roellinger touch.
I always learn something from his newsletters and this month's had me so excited that the first thing I did when I finished the translation was order a large amount of the spice in question. The subject was vanilla, a spice whose sultry sweetness has long fascinated the French. Native to Mexico, where it was grown to flavor coffee and chocolate, the seedpod of this climbing orchid came to Spain in the 16th century before conquering the hearts of the French. But it wasn't until the 19th century that a technique was discovered for pollinating the flowers by hand, a task that had previously been accomplished by a bee native to Mexico.
Armed with this discovery, the French set about planting vanilla in Tahiti, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and Comores. Today it also thrives in Papua New Guinea, Uganda, the Congo, Tanzania, India and Indonesia. Like coffee or chocolate, the taste can vary wildly depending on the type of vanilla and its origin. Roellinger describes Papua New Guinea's vanilla as the most sensual, making it the best match for savory dishes, while the powerful vanilla of Comores can stand up to chocolate or sweet root vegetables. You can read more about the qualities of each vanilla here.
Vanilla beans are worth ordering online, as you can easily pay less than you might at the supermarket. The vanilla that is available on Roellinger's website costs less than I would pay at my local spice shop, and there are many affordable sources on the Internet, some of which Melissa provided in her beautiful post on making your own vanilla extract. I decided on Madagascar vanilla, partly because Roellinger describes it as the best for custards, pastries and ice cream but also because I love the acidity of Madagascar chocolate. Sure enough these long, thin Bourbon vanilla beans have some of the same liveliness, which prevents their nutty sweetness from becoming overpowering.
So far I have added the vanilla to my green tomato jam and stirred it into this snow white soup, a recipe whose artful simplicity is typical of Roellinger (even if the food he serves in his Relais Gourmand is far more complex). The diced Granny Smith apple is my addition, borrowed from other French chefs such as Michel Troisgros who use it to counteract sweetness in savory dishes. There was undeniably something dessert-like about this dish, which is a bit reminiscent of semolina pudding, and next time I might serve it in small portions as an appetiser rather than in big bowls. Not that we had any trouble finishing it.

Cauliflower soup with vanilla
from Olivier Roellinger
Serves 4

1 small head cauliflower, chopped (about 400 g or 15 oz)
2 cups water (500 ml)
1 cup milk (250 ml)
1 vanilla bean
1 tsp fine salt
Niora oil and Poudre du Voyage for the garnish (optional)

Chop the cauliflower.
In a saucepan, combine the cauliflower, water, milk and vanilla bean, which has been opened and scraped. Bring to a boil and cook for 20 mins at a simmer, so that the mixture is reduced by about 1/3.
Blend the soup until very smooth, straining if necessary.
Pour the steaming soup into bowls.
For an optional garnish, Poudre du Voyage and Niora oil from Olivier Roellinger make the perfect complements for this dish.

This post is my entry to Weekend Herb Blogging, created by Kalyn and hosted this week by Simona from Briciole.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Green tomato jam with ginger and vanilla

I've been doing my best to forget about tomatoes, loading up at the market on knobbly-skinned winter squash, the tender little broccoli known as brocoletti, and skinny carrots the color of beets courtesy of organic market gardener Joëlle. Oh, and lots of local oranges and lemons too, their leaves still clinging to the stems.
But on Saturday, at Pierre's stand, tomatoes couldn't help but catch my eye one last time. Pierre, you might remember, is the producer who cultivated more than 100 heirloom tomato varieties this summer. His plants continue to produce, even sprouting new seedlings which he has replanted under cover because on the Côte d'Azur there is an off chance that tomatoes could flourish in winter.
Saturday's heat-deprived green tomatoes couldn't compare to the summer's flamboyant display, but they brought to mind an extraordinary green tomato jam I had tasted at Oliviera with the fresh ewe's milk cheese known as brousse de brebis. As luck would have it Nadim, the maker of this jam, was standing next to me and all I had to do was turn to him and ask for the recipe. Armed with his generous advice I picked up two kilos, happy to give tomatoes a last hurrah before winter really sets in.
At home, I was curious to see what recipes might be circulating on the internet and soon came across one from the famed Alsatian jam maker Christine Ferber. Her recipe, although similar to Nadim's in its proportions, involved macerating the fruit overnight and giving it a 10-minute boil the next day before leaving it for another 24 hours and boiling it again. I rejected this method not because I'm against jam that takes three days to make, but because my Saturday expedition to the market had left not an inch of space in my French-sized refrigerator for the luxury of letting fruit macerate.
Ferber also advises carefully deseeding each tomato and removing the white membranes, directions that I took rather lightly as Pierre's heirloom varieties don't have many seeds or membranes. When I did come across a tomato with a lot of seeds, I squeezed them out.
I added ginger to recreate the taste I so loved in Nadim's jam, but also couldn't resist throwing in one of my lively-scented Madagascar vanilla beans that had just arrived in the post. You'll be hearing more about these beans and their uses very soon.
The result, after a relaxing hour and a half of bubbling and occasional stirring, was a beautiful translucent green jam flecked with black dots, its sweetness enhanced by the vanilla and offset by the ginger. You can of course spread it on bread, but I agree with Nadim that it's particularly delicious with fresh cheese or thick yoghurt.

Green tomato jam with ginger and vanilla
Makes about 4 11-oz (300 g) jars

4 1/2 lbs green tomatoes (2 kg)
1/2 the weight in sugar of the tomatoes, once the tomatoes have been deseeded and diced
2-inch chunk ginger, peeled (5 cm)
1 vanilla bean
Juice of 1 lemon, organic if possible

Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally and squeeze out the seeds if they seem to have a lot of seeds. Cut the tomatoes into small dice and weigh them to find out what quantity of sugar you will need. Slice the ginger against the grain and then chop it finely. Slit the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds with a knife, holding each half flat against the board as you scrape.

Place the tomatoes, sugar, ginger, vanilla bean with its seeds and lemon juice in a large saucepan or a copper jam basin if you have one. Bring to a boil, stirring, then reduce the heat and let the jam bubble happily and reduce until thickened. It should look like a thick, syrupy green tomato sauce, which can take up to 2 hours. To test for doneness, drip some of the liquid onto a cold plate. If it sets, the jam is done.

Meanwhile sterilize the pots, either by boiling them in a large pot of water for 10 minutes or washing them well and placing them in the oven at 375 F (180 C) to dry for 20 mins. Fill the pots with the jam while both are still very hot. Seal with very clean lids.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pumpkin pie with perfect pastry

Why pumpkin pie, you might ask, when Thanksgiving is over?
Well, for one thing, this pumpkin pie is good enough to make just for the pleasure of eating it, and not only as part of a harvest ritual that will leave you far to stuffed to appreciate it. And, for another, it gives me an excuse to talk about a method of making pastry that has changed my life - and just might do the same to yours.
I've published this pastry recipe before, as part of July's strawberry tart. But at the time I didn't realize quite how significant a revelation it was.
Over many years of making pastry, I'd come to accept that pâte sucrée, sweet pastry rich with butter and egg yolk, is tricky to work with. Unlike pâte sablée (short pastry), in which the butter is kept cold, pâte sucrée is usually made with butter at room temperature. This means that you have to chill the dough before you can work with it - at least for a couple of hours but preferably overnight. When you remove the dough from the refrigerator it is inevitably too hard to roll out right away, which calls for even more patience (or, in my case, some vigorous banging with a rolling pin to soften the dough). Once you finally roll it out, you have to let it rest again - preferably for an hour or two - so that it doesn't shrink when it bakes.
The soft-butter method, favored by star bakers such as Pierre Hermé and Eric Kayser, is ill-suited to the impulsive baker - what could be better, after all, than realizing that you have a couple of spare hours in front of you and deciding to treat your family and/or friends to a homemade tart? Enter this foolproof recipe, which I came across in the Books for Cooks no. 7 recipe compilation. This is the standard recipe in the Books for Cooks kitchen, which turns out beautiful cakes and tarts every day, and it has fast become my favorite too.
The ingredients are the same as for traditional pâte sucrée, but the butter comes straight out of the fridge and the water is ice-cold. You could make it by hand, but I've had the best results using the food processor, which keeps the ingredients cool. The magic part of the recipe is that once the dough comes together you roll it out right away, skipping a step that can take up to 12 hours in other recipes. Because the ingredients are cold, the dough is soft, silky and a joy to roll out.
You do need to let the rolled-out dough rest for at least an hour in the refrigerator, but that should be easy to do while you prepare the filling. For some recipes - such as my fig tart with almond cream and this pumpkin pie - I bake the pastry directly with the filling, but you can also bake it blind the standard way, by lining it with parchment paper filled with dried beans or rice. If you freeze the pastry before blind-baking it, you shouldn't need to weigh it down - just keep an eye on it and pop any bubbles with the tip of a knife.
Should you want to use this pastry for a savory tart, all you need to do is leave out the sugar. Try this recipe once and you'll wonder why you would ever go to the trouble of buying ready-made pastry.

Pumpkin pie
Serves 6

Canadian Thanksgiving comes several weeks before the American celebration, which means that I'm usually completely unaware of it. By the time American Thanksgiving rolls around, fall has really come to the Côte d'Azur and I'm in the mood to make this pie. It's a hit with the Niçois, who have been making sweet tarts with vegetables for centuries.

6 oz (1 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour (175 g)
5 tbsp confectioner's (icing) sugar (45 g)
Pinch of salt
3 oz very cold butter, in pieces (90 g)
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp ice water (30 ml)

A piece of pumpkin or winter squash weighing a little more than 1 lb (500 g)
A little vegetable oil
2 oz Speculoos biscuits or other spice biscuits
3 eggs
1/2 cup whipping cream (double cream) (125 ml)
4 oz light brown sugar (110 g)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp dried ginger
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
A pinch of salt

For the pastry: Sift the flour and confectioner's sugar and place in the bowl of a food processor with the salt. Pulse once or twice to combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the egg yolk and water and process until the dough forms a loose ball. Be careful not to overmix, but do let the dough come together. Turn the dough out onto a board and form into a ball with your hands. Flatten with the heel of your hand.

Flour the board and roll the pastry out quickly, turning it now and then and lightly flouring the board and rolling pin as necessary. Line a tart tin with this pastry, pressing it well into the corners to prevent shrinkage. Let the excess hang over the sides. Trim the pastry or, if your tin has sharp metal edges, cut off the excess with a rolling pin. Then press the pastry a little above the edge of the tin all the way around. Place the pastry in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

For the filling: Lightly oil the pumpkin or squash and bake in the oven at 375 F (180 C) for about 1 hour, until soft. Peel it and purée in a food processor or, better, though a food mill (mouli-légumes) to remove the fibers. If it seems very wet, drain the purée in a fine strainer for a few minutes.

Blend the spice biscuits to coarse crumbs in a blender or food processor, or place them in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin.

In a bowl, beat the eggs. Add the pumpkin purée, cream, sugar, spices and salt. Sprinkle the spice biscuit crumbs over the uncooked, chilled pastry and top with the pumpkin filling. Bake at 375 F (180 C) for about 45-50 mins, until the filling is set and lightly browned.

This tart tastes best to me when it's cold, and the cream, although pretty, is a rather unnecessary flourish. If you do use cream, you might like to sweeten it with maple syrup.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Kamut flour pizza

Homemade pizza might not seem like a very grand way to celebrate a birthday, but to that I reply: it depends on what you drink with it.
Accompanied by a bottle of velvety Taittinger Prélude made only from premier cru grapes, this humble standby became a feast worthy of a momentous event in Philippe's life. We had at first thought of takeaway pizza but decided instead, for the same price, to splurge on the best ingredients at the Italian deli.
I came home with a wobbly white ball of buffalo mozzarella, silky Parma ham, spicy sausage, marinated artichokes and bright red confit tomatoes, which are a little juicier than the sundried variety. I also made use of a fresh ewe's milk cheese I had bought at the market and baby spinach leaves (the combination pictured here). But what made the pizza really exciting - to me, anyway - was the crust, for which I used a combination of organic bread flour (type 65 in France) and kamut flour.
Last week at the Biocoop I picked up a small bag of this slightly coarse, creamy-yellow flour, which I had previously known only as the base for a dense bread sold in organic shops. I wasn't sure I wanted to make 100 per cent kamut bread at home, but I suspected it could work well in combination with other flours.
When I want to know more about anything from amaranth to quinoa I always turn to Jenni Muir's invaluable book A cook's guide to grains. Here, I was amused to learn that kamut is a made-up brand name, meaning "soul of the earth" in ancient Egyptian. The grain itself does have ancient roots, and one web site claims that its revival began when a Montana farmer planted seeds that may have come from an Egyptian king's tomb (he obtained the seeds from his son, a World War II pilot).
Whatever its origins, kamut has impressive properties. A relative of durum, it can be grown organically more easily than other wheats and is high in protein, lipids, amino acids, vitamins E and B, and minerals such as magnesium, iron and zinc. Interestingly, despite its high gluten content kamut is often tolerated by people with wheat sensitivity.
For my pizza crust I used 20 per cent kamut, resulting in a pale yellow, slightly sweet dough with a lightly crunchy texture. I mixed and kneaded it by hand, but you could of course make this dough in a food processor, mixer with a dough hook or bread machine.
I don't have a baking stone so coopted my socca tin instead, a heavy copper dish in which this Niçois chickpea pancake is traditionally baked. I let the socca tin get very hot in the oven and slid each pizza onto it, keeping the pizza on a piece of parchment paper. You could use a very hot baking tray instead, the heavier the better.

Does it seem strange to you to drink champagne with pizza? I think there are times when a really good wine tastes best with food that doesn't try to upstage it. Or maybe it's just that I would drink champagne with just about anything.

Though kamut is not a herb, it is a plant so this will be my entry for Weekend Herb Blogging, created by Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen and hosted this week by Truffle from What's On My Plate.

Kamut flour pizza
Serves 3 greedy or 4 average people

Apologies to American readers for the lack of cup measures, but the longer I live in France the less I "do" cup measures. Keep in mind that 130 g of flour = 1 cup. If you can't find Kamut flour, feel free to use a small quantity of whole wheat and/or semolina and/or rye flour instead.

The dough:
400 g white bread flour (15 oz)
100 g kamut flour (4 oz)
1 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 packet dried yeast
1 tsp light brown cane sugar (or other sugar)
325 ml warm water (1 1/3 cups)

The sauce:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 big, juicy garlic clove
400 g canned Italian crushed tomatoes (15 oz)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dried oregano
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Pizza 1: Small pieces of buffalo mozzarella, torn by hand, thin slices of spicy cured sausage, sundried or semi-dried tomatoes
Pizza 2: Small pieces of buffalo mozzarella, torn by hand, Parma ham (prosciutto), marinated artichokes
Pizza 3: Fresh ewe's milk or goat's milk cheese, broken into pieces, sundried or semi-dried tomatoes, fresh baby spinach leaves

For the dough:
Combine the two flours and salt in a large bowl. Heat the water (I use spring water or filtered tap water, but by all means use tap water if yours tastes good!) until warm and combine with the yeast and sugar. Pour this mixture into the bowl with the flours and mix until a dough forms. I start off using a plastic pastry scraper and finish with my hands. Add a little more water if necessary to form a dough that's on the sticky side.
Wash your hands, then oil a work surface and your hands. Knead the dough for a few minutes, until smooth and velvety. Return to the bowl, cover with a plastic bag and set aside to rise for about 45 mins.

For the sauce:
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over a medium flame. Before it gets very hot, add the chopped garlic. Stir for 30-45 secs, just until the garlic starts to turn pale golden. Add the tomatoes, bring to a boil and add the oregano and salt. Turn the heat to medium, letting the sauce bubble and reduce until thickened (about 10-15 mins). Season with pepper to taste.

When the dough has nearly doubled in size, punch it down and divide into three balls. Set these aside to rest, covered, for a few minutes so they will be easier to roll out. Heat your oven to its maximum setting, placing the rack near the bottom of the oven. Heat your pizza stone or baking tray at the same time.

Roll out each ball of dough quite thinly on a lightly floured board and place on a sheet of parchment paper. You can pile them up if you need to, lightly flouring the surface of the dough.

Prepare the pizzas one at a time, first coating them with a moderate amount of sauce, then scattering the toppings over the sauce. Finish with a drizzling of good olive oil. Using the paper to lift the pizza, transfer it to the hot pan. Bake until the crust is golden, checking underneath to make sure it's lightly browned.

Serve the pizzas as they emerge from the oven.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Moi, moi, moi

Help! I've been tagged by the lovely Lucy. I'm normally a deeply private person but this blog has changed that. Here are a few little secrets that I hadn't yet revealed.

Four quirky things about the way I eat (and drink):

1. I need to eat at least every two hours or I am impossible to be around. So I am constantly nibbling on fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds (and occasionally pain au chocolat and macarons!).
2. Though I don't cook much meat at home, I like to order really carnivorous dishes in restaurants. I can rarely resist a well-seasoned steak tartare.
3. If I travel to a place where vegetables aren't abundant, I get desperate after a day or two.
4. I don't drink most hard alcohols but I love (very good) rum and (very good) Armagnac.

Four dance forms I have studied, without particular aptitude:

1. Ballet
2. Jazz
3. Flamenco
4. African dance

My four favorite foods:

1. Tomatoes - It's not just that they taste good, it's the way their presence in my kitchen guarantees an effortless meal. Of course I love them best in summer, but I am not above buying cherry tomatoes in winter.
2. Lemons - But the Côte d'Azur has spoiled me, so I will only eat local ones.
3. Strawberries - The dessert equivalent of tomatoes, except that I absolutely will not eat them in winter. Under any circumstances (OK, maybe in jam).
4. Crusty bread - I am French in the sense that bread is the main starch in my diet, but I don't like standard baguettes, only baguette au levain or good wholegrain breads.
Runner-up: Avocadoes - I can't stop eating these at the moment.

Four jobs I've had:

1. Theatre usher - Great job for a teenager. You can watch plays or do your homework, and occasionally flirt with actors.
2. Paper delivery girl - I was paid £6 a week to slog up and down a steep hill every morning with a a sack of newspapers (this was in a seaside town in England).
3. Secretary/receptionist at a country club - Nice boss, no complaints. But the job made me anxious to go to university.
4. Cook/bookseller at a second-hand bookshop/tea room in Paris - The oven was tiny, but I prided myself on turning out puffy, Canadian-style cinnamon buns.

Now it's my turn, so I'd like to tag the Diva, Kate Hill and Dorie Greenspan, three people I admire for their amazing culinary skills and generous characters. Participation is totally optional, of course, but if you would like to play feel free to make up any four categories.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Butternut squash muffins

After the sugary excesses of my trip to England I wanted something sweet but not too sweet, healthy but not too healthy. The answer was these butternut squash muffins, which I came across on the Channel 4 website while looking at Jamie Oliver recipes to compensate for British television withdrawal.
Butternut rivals potimarron as my favorite squash thanks to its sweet yet delicate taste and non-stringy texture. Its smooth surface and elongated shape make it one of the easiest squash to peel, winning it many bonus points in my book. Often I purée it with butter until smooth and top it with sautéed wild mushrooms, but Jamie's recipe looked like the perfect breakfast or after-school treat.
This morning I tested these muffins on the Cours Saleya market vendors, who are often suspicious of anything "foreign" (ie. not originating from within a 15-mile radius around Nice). They accepted them quite readily despite the presence of cinnamon, a spice that rarely makes an appearance in French cakes. "It's like pain d'épice," they said, nodding approvingly and licking their fingers.
I replaced the olive oil in Jamie's recipe with deep yellow sunflower oil from Russia that I bought at the Armenian grocery store. Its taste turned out to be a bit strong, and next time I might try a mild-tasting olive oil. I would also be tempted to replace half the oil with applesauce, a good way to reduce the fat in just about any muffin recipe. Instead of Jamie's soft sour cream icing I topped the muffins with a light sprinkling of cinnamon sugar, which created a crunchy little crust that contrasted nicely with the tender orange-gold crumb.

I'll be submitting this post to November's Sugar High Friday, which in honor of American Thanksgiving is focusing on the beta-carotene harvest. It's hosted by talented fellow Canadian Leslie.

Butternut squash muffins
Makes 18 muffins

Adapted from a Jamie at Home recipe

400 g butternut squash, peeled and cut into chunks (15 oz) (Jamie Oliver uses unpeeled squash, but I didn't notice that until now)
350 g light soft brown sugar (13 oz)
4 large free-range or organic eggs
A pinch of sea salt
300 g plain flour, unsifted (11 oz)
2 heaped tsp baking powder
A handful of walnuts
1 tsp ground cinnamon
175 ml sunflower or olive oil (2/3 cup)

Cinnamon sugar:
2 tbsp light brown cane sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

For the cinnamon sugar, combine the two ingredients in a small bowl.

Place the chopped squash in the bowl of a food processor (I used my Thermomix) and chop finely. Add all the other ingredients and pulse until a smooth batter forms, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Be careful not to overmix. Pour or spoon the batter into greased muffin tins and sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar. Bake at 180 C (375 F) until well risen and cooked through.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

English indulgences

A strange thing has happened.
I have come back from England without having taken a single picture of food.
That doesn't mean that I forgot about food for a few days while riding the tops of double-decker buses with Sam. Far from it. During this trip I made it my mission to introduce him to the things I love best in England: mint Aero, Fry's Peppermint Cream (do you detect a theme here?) and, perhaps best of all, the Crunchie bar*.
I couldn't leave without trying a Wispa, which is making a comeback in England. This airy chocolate bar with a milk chocolate coating was new to me, and I have to say I found it unpalateably sweet (yes, even compared to Crunchie bars).
While not gorging on chocolate, I filled up on food television. I saw Jamie Oliver on screen for the first time in my life - he was mellower than I expected, lying down next to his vegetable patch and plucking out the seedlings - and memorized his recipe for carrot salad with spiced lamb (stay tuned). I caught every minute of Saturday Kitchen and watched Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares in horrified fascination.
During my two days in London, I had to limit myself to what was fast and practical with a child. That meant Prêt à Manger and Wagamama, but also a restaurant called Hummus Bros specialising in bowls of the smooth chick pea purée with meat or vegetable toppings - a brilliant idea that shows how diverse the fast(er) food offerings have become in London.
I also made it to Books for Cooks - foolishly the first time, as it was Monday and the shop was closed. To fit it in on the second day I had to take a taxi there, which cost more than the Sushi book I bought. My only other purchase, in a moment of uncharacteristic restraint, was Simple Indian by Atul Kochhar, chef of the Michelin-starred Benares restaurant. I had seen him on Saturday Kitchen and liked the way he put a contemporary spin on Indian recipes.
If I'd been less traumatized by London prices and had more space in my suitcase, these are the other books I would have bought:Crust by Richard Bertinet - I know I already have some good bread books, but I would buy this book for his baguette recipes alone.
Beaneaters and Bread Soup by Lori de Mori - My kind of cookbook, a series of essays with recipes on food producers in Tuscany.
Arabesque by Claudia Roden - The most recent cookbook by Britain's doyenne of Middle Eastern cooking.
New Flavours of the Lebanese Table by Nada Saleh - Written by a resident cook at Books for Cooks.
What would be on your cookbook wish list?

* In case you're wondering, Sam isn't normally allowed a chocolate bar every day. We were on holiday, after all!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Les vacances

Sam and I are off to England today to visit my sister and his cousins in Norwich, but I couldn't resist adding a couple of days in London to our trip. Guess what's first on my agenda?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fantasy vs reality

The fantasy:

Perfect Mother that I am, baking gingerbread "skeleton" and "pumpkin" cookies with my five-year-old is a breeze, like an episode of Martha Stewart. I assemble the ingredients ahead of time, teaching Sam the importance of mise-en-place. I speak to my son in a sing-song voice, letting him do most of the work as I marvel at his precocious poise and talent in the kitchen. The cookies are, of course, flawless. Helping a small child decorate them poses no challenge to someone who happens to be a cooking instructor in her spare time (when she is not being a Perfect Mother, that is). My camera has a memory card in it and Sam waits patiently while I seek out the most flattering natural lighting for my artful photos.

The reality:

There is flour all over the kitchen. I reach for the ingredients in the cupboard one by one as we go along, forgetting the baking soda and salt. The recipe for gingerbread biscuits in the Rose Bakery cookbook calls for "spice mix," the one thing I don't have in my extensive spice collection, so I substitute Chinese five-spice powder (good enough). Sam is all over the place, dragging his stool from one side of the kitchen to the other. The only words that come out of my mouth are "No, no, no!" The cookies emerge from the oven looking a bit flat (lack of baking soda). The tube of icing that I unearth from my cupboard with a sigh of relief, thinking it will be easy for Sam to use, works like a dream but runs dry after the second cookie. Quickly I throw together some icing sugar and milk to ice the rest of the cookies, but the mixture comes out too runny. Sam eats the two skeleton cookies before I have a chance to photograph them. That's OK: I have no idea where my camera's memory card has got to. I am not the Perfect Mother, but life is too short for superfluous guilt. Sam is happy.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Baking bread again

The nights are growing nippy here and it's dark by 6pm, but I'm not complaining. For me, the official end of the scorching Niçois summer signals the beginning of bread-baking season.
I've been baking bread on and off for most of my life, but it only started to become a real habit last year. Bread baking, like yoga, is most satisfying if you do a little of it every day - which makes sense, since both are forms of meditation. I've used every imaginable machine to mix bread dough, including my new Thermomix (with good results) and a long-since-abandoned bread machine, but I always come back to using my hands. Kneading dough only takes a few minutes, it's therapeutic for the mind and body, and the satisfaction of cutting into a hand-kneaded loaf is incomparable. Besides, who wants to scrape sticky dough off a sharp blade?
My bread baking reached a turning point when I met Dan Lepard last year. You know when you feel an almost spooky affinity with someone you have just met? Dan and I crossed paths on a press trip to Finland, and from the moment we started talking we just kept talking and talking and talking. Always about bread, and how to make it better. When we discovered a mutual passion for babas au rhum, I knew I had found a kind of dough-mate.
One of Britain's leading bakers, food writers and photographers, Dan is on a quest - or perhaps more of a mission - to improve the quality of British bread. While working as a baker in top London restaurants, necessity led him to a new way of working bread dough. Instead of kneading the dough for 10 full minutes and setting it aside, he would work it for a few seconds, ignore it for a few minutes and come back to it. Lo and behold, the gluten continued to work its magic during these rest periods and the resulting loaves were even better than conventionally kneaded bread.
Dan used this method as the basis for his beautiful book The Handmade Loaf. I bought this book soon after meeting him and over the next few weeks and months worked my way through many of the recipes. I made bread so often that the electric radiator in my kitchen became superfluous: my gas oven easily gave off enough heat to keep the room toasty.
The first and most essential step was to make my own leaven, as most of Dan's recipes call for a natural leaven even if some of them combine this with yeast. Following his detailed instructions, I produced a bubbly, friendly starter that sprang to life as soon as I refreshed it with water and flour.
These loaves are some of the best I have ever turned out, particularly the white leaven bread which could rival that of any French baker. Some of the recipes do, however, demand a certain commitment. Even as a freelance writer who works at home, I don't always find it practical to knead dough at 10 and 15-minute intervals over the course of one or two hours, or make a loaf that takes 9 1/2 hours from start to finish. I alternate these artist's loaves with simpler, quicker breads, sometimes using plain old yeast or a combination of yeast and leaven or dough from a previous batch of bread.
Enter Andrew Whitley and his book Bread Matters: The state of modern bread and a definitive guide to baking your own. As the title suggests, this book spends some time criticizing the state of industrial bread in Britain before showing ways to get around it by making your own from whole grain flours.
Having perfected Dan's leaven method I haven't really explored the one in this book, though I am intrigued by Whitley's Russian rye breads. For now I'm having fun with his second-simplest recipe, bread with old dough. Using dough from a previous batch of bread improves the quality of your loaf, and the longer you do this the better your bread will be: the famous bakery Poilâne in Paris has been using old dough since the 1930s.
Baking with old dough makes me feel slightly virtuous, almost as if I were using leaven but without the pampering attention that natural starter requires. What I also like about this recipe is that it will tolerate just about any combination of flours and the addition of seeds, raisins and/or nuts. Often I make it with half wheat and half spelt flour, adding linseed or sunflower seeds.
Dan Lepard and Andrew Whitley disagree on certain points, but I have picked up valuable advice from both that has changed the way I bake bread. These, for me, are the keys to good bread:
- Dough should be stickier than you think it should be.
If the dough is sticking to your hands, resist the urge at first to add extra flour. The wetter the dough (within reason), the moister the finished bread will be and the longer it will keep. Dan recommends oiling the board and your hands, which I often do as it keeps things tidier (and leaves my skin nice and soft). Andrew Whitley says to just keep working the dough until it becomes smooth, adding a little flour towards the end if necessary. I generally find that with French flours and in Nice's dry climate, I need to increase the liquid in British bread recipes.
- The longer dough takes to rise, the better it will be.
If you have to, you can make bread from start to finish in a couple of hours. But bread needs time to develop character, and the more you can draw out the process the better your finished loaf will be in both texture and flavor. If you work in an office all day, consider letting the dough rise slowly in the refrigerator either overnight or during the day.
- Keep the yeast to a minimum.
Dry yeast gives bread a yeasty flavor that can be overpowering, and a large quantity will make it rise too quickly. I sometimes use less yeast than Andrew Whitley calls for in his old dough recipe, with good results. I'm lucky enough to be able to find cakes of fresh yeast, which is preferred by both bakers, but I have no qualms about using dry yeast in small quantities when I have run out of fresh.
- The water temperature doesn't really matter.
My apologies to both authors, neither of whom would agree with this statement, but I don't think the home baker should get too hung up with water temperature. In winter, I use warmer (but not hot) water and in summer I use cooler (but not ice cold) water. That's it - no formulas, no thermometers.
- Protect your dough with a plastic bag.
I was washing an awful lot of tea towels before I started following Whitley's advice and re-using those pesky plastic bags from the market. The plastic shouldn't touch the dough, and you can even blow into the bag to create a kind of balloon that holds in moisture.

You might be wondering why I would even bother to bake my own bread, when I live in France. Well, I'm about to let you in on a little secret: the bread in Nice is not that good. Not compared to the incredible naturally leavened loaves I can find in Paris, anyway. A wonderful exception is the recently opened Boulangerie Lagache at 20, rue Arson, but that's a post in itself. I should note that the recipe below turns out bread that is quite unlike French bread, with its crisp crust and holey crumb.

I'm not publishing a recipe here from The Handmade Loaf because the instructions for making leaven are too long for my purposes, but I heartily recommend that you buy the book.

Basic Bread
adapted from Bread Matters

Makes 1 large or 2 small loaves

600 g flour (Whitley calls for wholemeal/wholewheat, but I usually use half organic unbleached white flour and half wholemeal wheat or spelt flour)
5 g sea salt (about 1 tsp)
400 g water (about 1 2/3 cups)
8 g (1/3 oz) fresh yeast or 1 tsp dry yeast

Measure the flour and salt into a bowl and combine. Measure the total amount of water and dissolve the yeast in about a quarter of the water. Add the yeast mixture and water to the dry ingredients and combine well (I use my trusty plastic pastry scraper from Dehillerin) until a soft dough forms, adding more water if necessary. Do not add more flour at this point.

Turn the dough out onto a large board - I use marble, even if it's a bit cool. If it's very sticky, rub your hands and the board with a little oil first. Knead the dough for 10 minutes, or until smooth and velvety. Set aside 160 g (6 oz) dough to make your next batch with old dough.

Scrape out any dry scraps from the mixing bowl, washing it if necessary, and return the dough to the bowl for its first rising. Cover with a large plastic bag, blowing into the bag if you like to form a kind of balloon. Set aside to rise in a warm place for up to 2 hours, or in the refrigerator for much longer if you wish.

When the dough has doubled in size, scrape it out onto the board and flatten it into a rectangle (if you are baking it in a loaf tin). Use a little flour so that it doesn't stick, but don't get too carried away. Roll it into a long sausage, then flatten this sausage and fold it in three. Press the dough down into a rectangle and roll it up, without tearing the dough, into a loaf shape.

Grease a large loaf tin with butter and place the dough inside, seam side down. Cover again with plastic, being sure not to let it touch the dough. Set aside to rise until it doubles in size. It should still give some resistance when gently pressed with a finger.

Preheat the oven to 230 C (475 F) or its hottest setting. Bake the loaf for 10 mins, then turn the heat down to 200 C (425 F) and bake for another 30-40 mins, until well browned all over. Turn out of the pan and cool on a rack. Try to resist cutting into the bread until it's completely cool.

Bread with old dough

Follow the above recipe, using:

500 g flour(s) of your choice (1 lb 2 oz)
4 g sea salt (slightly less than 1 tsp)
330 g water (1 1/3 cups)
8 g (1/3 oz) fresh yeast or 1 tsp dried yeast
160 g old dough (6 oz)

Knead all the ingredients except the old dough for five minutes, then add the old dough and knead until smooth.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Tian de courge

Sorry tomatoes, we had a great time this summer but you are already no more than a distant memory. Squash have caught my eye, their colors and shapes as varied and fascinating as autumn leaves.
The first to distract me from your plump sweetness was the courge de Nice, an astonishing vegetable (or, technically, fruit) which starts out as tender, deep green trompette zucchini before swelling to monster proportions and finally turning orange. To appreciate its subtle flavor I blend it into a smooth soup, thickening it at the end with a mixture of egg yolk, crème fraîche and olive oil.
Next came the potimarron, a round, pointy-tipped squash whose deep orange flesh is often flecked with green. Its name translates as "chestnut squash" because its dense, not-to-sweet flesh is reminiscent of roasted marrons. The potimarron is a challenge to prepare for a soup (though well worth the effort) but, once roasted, its peel becomes soft and edible.
This morning on the market stands, butternut squash jostled with the round, ridged courge musquée - a meatier French version of the American pumpkin - and beautiful pale blue-green squash from the potimarron family.
I'm never entirely sure when to use the word courge, potiron or citrouille, but it's some consolation that the market vendors seem similarly confused. Courge (winter squash in English) is a more general term that encompasses the potiron and citrouille - the latter of which seems to refer to American-style orange pumpkins.
I bought the pumpkin pictured here - a relative of the courge musquée, I think - to try a recipe for tian de courge. Tians are named after the round, double-handled earthenware dishes in which they are cooked, and I often make these vegetable bakes with Swiss chard, zucchini or tomato and eggplant in summer. Tian de courge is another Provençal classic that I hadn't explored in depth.
In the first recipe I tried, diced raw pumpkin was slowly baked with rice, herbs, garlic and a little flour. With its breadcrumb topping, I could imagine this dish being deliciously caramelized and indeed it did have some toothsome crunchy bits. But the rice and the mace I had used instead of nutmeg took over, leaving the pumpkin in the shadows, and the flour was unnecessary.
The remaining piece of pumpkin wasn't enough for a second attempt, which proved fortunate. When I picked up another chunk from Mme Luciano, a producer based near Villefranche sur Mer, she told me her secrets to making a great tian de courge.
"We produce a lot of squash," she says, "so I need to find many ways to use them. I always precook the squash in a frying pan, never in water, with a minimum of olive oil. Then I mix the cooked squash with rice, parmesan, nutmeg and eggs. You can add a little cream but it's really not necessary. Sometimes, for a change, I bake it in a pie crust."
Using these instructions it was easy to perfect my tian de courges. For extra flavor and color I topped it with Provençal breadcrumbs, which are one of the few things I keep in my freezer (along with a bag of blueberries, homemade chicken stock and little balls of leftover pastry that will probably end up in the bin). But ordinary breadcrumbs would be fine too. Feel free to vary the recipe by adding garlic, different herbs or little pieces of fried bacon.
Tomatoes, in case you think I've abandoned you for good, this pumpkin thing may be just a passing infatuation. I doubt that I'll resist your flamboyant charms next summer.

This is my first entry to Weekend Herb Blogging, an event that I'd heard and read so much about but never got my act together to enter. This week's host is Pille of the fascinating Estonian food blog Nami Nami.

Tian de courge
Serves 6

1 kg pumpkin or squash flesh, peeled and diced (about 2 lbs)
1 tbsp olive oil
50 g short-grain rice, such as arborio (2 oz, 1/4 cup)
50 g freshly grated parmesan cheese (2 oz)
2 large free-range eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg
Provençal breadcrumbs (see recipe)
Olive oil, for drizzling

In a large frying pan, cook the pumpkin in the olive oil with a sprinkling of salt until it softens and starts to disintegrate, about 20-25 mins. If there is a lot of liquid left towards the end, raise the heat to let most of it evaporate, but the pumpkin doesn't need to be very dry.

Meanwhile, precook the rice for 10 mins in boiling salted water, drain and set aside. Whisk the eggs in a small bowl.

Place the cooked pumpkin in a large bowl and combine with the rice, parmesan and salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. When it has cooled slighly, mix in the eggs quickly so that they don't scramble. The mixture might seem on the liquid side, but don't be alarmed. Pour it into an oiled gratin dish, top with the Provençal breadcrumbs and a generous drizzling of olive oil, and bake at 180 C (375 F), preferably on the convection setting, for 35 mins or until set. Serve warm, with a salad or as an accompaniment to meat.

Provencal breadcrumbs

I originally used these for breading rack of lamb, but soon found myself sprinkling the leftovers onto all sorts of baked and roasted vegetables.

1 small bunch flat leaf parsley, the leaves picked from the stalks
Leaves from 4 good size sprigs of thyme or rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled
100 g dried bread, such as baguette (3 1/2 oz)
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the breadcrumbs: In a food processor, blend together all the ingredients except the olive oil. Add the olive oil and blend until the breadcrumbs are soft and green, adding a little more oil if necessary. Season well with salt and pepper. Keep airtight in the refrigerator or freezer (in a plastic bag or jar) until you need them.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Happy to be in Paris

There is no denying that the Métro strike is irritating: how cruel and inhuman to shut down the only line that leads directly to the Salon du Chocolat at Porte de Versailles.
But, somehow or other, Paris always brings a smile to my face.
I walked down this street after chatting with Michel Chaudun, who must be the city's warmest and happiest chocolatier. He isn't taking part in the Salon du Chocolat because he doesn't need to: the crème de la crème of Paris society comes through his glass door each day. His chocolates are expensive at 98 euros a kilo (about $60 a pound) but their exquisite freshness sets them apart, even at the highest level of Paris chocolate.
Michel produces around 300 kg (660 lbs) of chocolates every day in his doll-sized workshop, known in French as a laboratoire, and just about all of this is sold the same day. He insists on filling each box of chocolates to order to prevent the chocolates from "contaminating" each other (his word). Even his display case is designed so that the chocolates are not shut in. "Chocolate needs to breathe," he says. Once you buy them his chocolates keep for up to three weeks, preferably just below room temperature, "but it's up to my customers to eat them as quickly as possible," he chuckles.
That's not to say that Michel Chaudun's loyal customers are stuffing themselves with a pound of chocolates every day. The beauty of enjoying chocolate in Paris is that it's perfectly all right to stroll into a deluxe boutique and order une petite gourmandise, which might be one or two ganache-filled chocolates or a mini-box of Michel's little square truffles. My latest discovery is his Veragua, a simple but extraordinary combination of dark chocolate, praline and caramel.

When chocolate is this finely balanced, a little takes you a very long way - a good thing when your Métro line has shut down and there is no Vel'ib for miles.
Michel Chaudun, 149 rue de l'Université, 7th, 01 47 53 74 40.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Quinces and peppercorns

Not all creatures find raw quinces unbearably hard and astringent. As I finally cut into the golden fruits that had been filling my kitchen with a delicious floral aroma, I discovered a couple of surprise inhabitants that appeared to be thriving in their inhospitable flesh. Not to be put off, I quickly discarded the damaged portions without examining them too closely - were those really mutant ants? - and continued with my recipe.
I've always liked to poach quinces with spices, but had never thought to add peppercorns before overhearing this recipe at the market in Nice. Enthusiasm counts for a lot in the telling of a recipe and this client of fruit seller Loulou made me want to shut myself in the kitchen despite the fact that it's still sunbathing weather here.
The idea of poaching quince with mixed peppercorns comes from French Elle magazine, but as I prepared this recipe I found myself straying from the instructions I had carefully noted in my head. Instead of cooking the quinces just until tender, I let them simmer in the syrup for a good hour and a half to develop their rosy colour. Perhaps because of this, I found that I didn't need to reduce the syrup much once the fruit was cooked.
I also decided to serve the quinces on French toast, romantically known as pain perdu in French. Here, pain perdu is more often served as a dessert than a breakfast dish, and I liked the idea of matching the citrus-blossom character of quinces with an orange flower water-scented brioche. The brioche from the Moulin du Paiou in Nice was perfect for this: dense and eggy, but not too heavy on the butter.
The syrup is pleasantly peppery without being hot, as my five-peppercorn mix (or, more correctly, mélange de cinq baies) contains three spices that are not part of the pepper family: coriander seeds, pink peppercorns and allspice. Don't be afraid to chew a few of the spices as you eat the poached quince. Many French cooks use this mix instead of black peppercorns in their pepper mills, which adds an interesting dimension to ordinary dishes.
I used a minimum of sugar in this recipe, which along with the spice mix and lemon prevented the quinces from becoming cloying. You might like to top the fruit with a big spoonful of slightly sweetened sheep's milk yogurt or fromage blanc. The classic boule de glace vanille would not go amiss, either.

Poached quince with mixed peppercorns and pain perdu
Serves 4-6

For the quinces:
3 quinces (about 2 lbs, 1 kg)
2 - 2 1/2 cups water (500 ml)
1 cup white sugar (200 g)
2 tsp mixed peppercorns
Juice of 1 lemon

For the pain perdu:
4 slices brioche, if possible scented with orange flower water and slightly dry
4 eggs
4 tbsp milk
4 tsp sugar
1 tsp orange flower water*, if your brioche does not contain it
Butter and neutral oil

Wash the downy fuzz off the quinces. Peel and core the fruit and cut each half into four wedges. As you prepare the quinces, bring the water, sugar, peppercorns and lemon juice to a simmer. Add the fruit slices to the syrup as you cut them. Add a little more water if necessary just to cover the fruit.

To keep the quinces immersed, place a plate slightly smaller than the diameter of the saucepan over the quinces, and top this with a small bowl to hold it down. You could also use a round of parchment paper (without the bowl!). Let the quinces simmer over very low heat for 1 1/2 hrs or up to 2 hrs, until they are very soft and pink. The longer they cook, the darker their color will be.

If you would like to reduce the juices, remove the quinces with a slotted spoon to a bowl and boil the syrup until it thickens. Pour this syrup over the fruit and set aside in the refrigerator until cold.

For the pain perdu, combine the eggs, milk, sugar and orange flower water, if using, in a shallow baking dish. Soak the brioche on both sides for a few minutes, until almost all the liquid is absorbed.

Heat a mixture of half butter and half oil (perhaps sunflower or grapeseed) in a heavy frying pan over medium-high heat. Place the bread in the hot butter-oil mixture, lower the heat to medium and cook until browned on both sides.

Serve with the poached quinces and their syrup.

*When buying orange flower water, be sure to check that it is distilled from real flowers. True orange flower water is not much more expensive than the artificial stuff, which tastes truly nasty.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The fruit of love

Buying food couldn't be easier at this time of year, as the market stalls beckon with the voluptuous and bizarre: jet-black trompette de la mort mushrooms, deep-orange, pointy-tipped squash known as potimarrons, fennel with feathery fronds as long as my arm. Finding time to prepare these treasures can be more of a challenge.
That's why the most beautiful quinces have been occupying the bottom drawer of my refrigerator for the past week. Green-golden, cheekily curvaceous and downy skinned, with a delicate, almost lemony scent, they beg to be picked up and caressed or captured in a still life (if only I could paint). But peeling and cutting them is less romantic proposition. Surely the most stubborn and resistant of fruits, quinces - like love - are a pleasure that has to be earned. No wonder they are the symbol of Venus, who is always portrayed holding a quince.
Quinces are too hard and astringent to eat raw, requiring at least 250 grams of sugar per kilo of fruit (or 1 cup of sugar per 2 lbs) before they melt in syrupy sweetness on the tongue. Usually at this time of year I poach them in a syrup with cinnamon and star anise. This week, though, I have been wanting to try something new. Loulou, my source of all local fruit knowledge and grower of these quinces, likes to stew them with duck in a Moroccan tagine. He sells quince paste by the slab, to be eaten as a sweet or matched with cheese, and produces a clear, rose-colored quince jelly that sparkles in the sunlight. Tempting as all of these possibilities are, I happened to visit his stand this morning just as another customer was enthusing about her favorite new recipe for quinces. My ears visibly perked up, as they always do when recipes are discussed and debated at the market.
I haven't quite got around to confronting my quinces yet - it's been a lazy Sunday - but I'm sharpening my paring knife and within a day or two I'll be back with this unusual recipe.

Sunday, October 7, 2007


When I moved to France in my mid-20s I left a life of domesticity behind. I had been playing housewife since I was 19 and it was time to go off on my own, unburdened by the battery of kitchen equipment and glossy food magazines I had accumulated over seven years.
In Paris, it became a game to prove that no dish was unachievable with my minimalist equipment: two temperamental burners, a mini fridge and an oven just big enough to hold one small tin of brownies. I whipped egg whites by hand to make (mini) cheese soufflés and rustled up vegetarian lasagne with fresh artichokes, eggplants and mushrooms from the market when my friends came over. I no longer had a breadmaker or a pizza peel, but in my new location around the corner from some of the world's greatest bakeries, Poilâne among them, this wasn't an issue.
As my life has grown more domestic once again, the appliances have started creeping back into my kitchen: first a lime-green Magimix food processor, then (oh, joy!) a scarlet KitchenAid mixer, my sister's wedding gift to us. But I would still say I've been pretty restrained - until a few weeks ago, when I definitively crossed back into the camp of the appliance-crazed.
It all started with a search for the perfect blender. I was frustrated with the way my green food processor, pretty as it looks, couldn't make a satisfying smoothie or whiz a soup to a creamy purée. I started shopping around and saw that a powerful blender costs €150 and up. Around this time, Ximena wrote alluringly about making homemade Nutella in the Thermomix. The thought of a machine that could grind hazelnuts to a fine powder, melt chocolate without burning it and whip a few ingredients into a smooth paste piqued my interest. The machine's cultish side added a certain mystery: you either have to buy one from a representative, Tupperware-style, or take the risk of ordering an older, perhaps pieced-together model on eBay.
The price difference between the powerful blender and the Thermomix didn't seem that great, until I decided to go for the most recent model available on eBay, the TM21, rather than an orange model from the 1970s (Thermomixes are said to be indestructible, something that I sincerely hope is true). This machine is neither new nor fashionable, though it is catching on with chefs - Philippe grew up with one in his kitchen, and in Spain it's considered a kind of Valium substitute for housewives. My second-hand, 1998-vintage machine cost €415, about the same as a new KitchenAid. Do I regret it? Not for a moment.
It's not the prettiest appliance in my kitchen with its functional black, white and stainless steel design, but the Thermomix is probably the closest thing you could have to a friendly little robot that does the cooking for you. I had to get the Nutella recipe out of my system (total success) before I could start experimenting with the 1,000 or so recipes that came on a computer disk, which incidentally I couldn't open on my Macintosh.
The only disappointment has been smoothies, which were one of the reasons I wanted to buy a blender in the first place. Thrilling as it is to use, the turbo setting really works best with larger quantities of liquid - at least 1 litre (4 cups) is ideal. When I've tried to make smoothies for one or two people, I've ended up with frustrating lumps of fruit.
But the Thermomix's many qualities compensate for this. I know that its possibilities are almost endless - crumbles, stews, cookies, bread, granite - but so far I haven't got much beyond playing with different soups. I love it that I can let the machine do the chopping, heating and stirring, only intervening to press the Turbo button at the end (or not if I want a chunkier texture).
I want to reassure you that I don't plan to dedicate this blog to the Thermomix - devoted as I am to it, I still consider it just one of many tools in my kitchen, the most important of which are my hands. Once in a while, I will include Thermomix instructions alongside the conventional recipe if I think they might be helpful, though most recipes are easy to adapt once you know how to use the machine.
If you don't have a Thermomix - and chances are you don't, as they are really a European phenomenon - don't let that stop you from making this cream-free soup with a vegetable that people, for some reason, don't often think of pureeing. To make it, I used some wonderful young broad beans that one producer at the market had planted late, resulting in spring-like vegetables in early October. You could also use green beans, being sure to remove any strings.

Broad bean soup with bacon and sage
Serves 2-3

2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
13 oz broad beans or green beans (350 g)
1 medium potato
2 cups vegetable stock (I used Marigold bouillon powder)
4 oz bacon (100 g)
A few fresh sage leaves

In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the finely diced onion and a pinch of salt, and stir over medium-low heat for a few minutes until the onions become translucent.

Top and tail the broad beans and chop them quite small. Peel the potato and cut it into small dice. Add the beans and potatoes to the onions, stir well, then add the vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for about 10 mins, or until the beans and potato are tender. Purée the soup in a powerful blender and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, cut the bacon into small pieces and fry until golden (if using French lardons, I think it's worth blanching them for 1 minute first to remove some of the salt). Remove the cooked bacon from the fat with a slotted spoon and fry the sage leaves in the bacon fat until crisp. Top the soup with the bacon and a couple of sage leaves before serving.

Thermomix instructions: Heat the oil for 3 mins at 100 C, speed 2. On speed 6, add the quartered and peeled onion through the hole in the lid and chop for 10 seconds, or until there are no big lumps. Heat for 3 mins at 90C, speed 2. Add the whole, trimmed beans and chop on speed 6 for 10-15 secs. Add the vegetable stock and peeled and diced potato and cook for 10 mins at 100 C, speed 2. Purée on Turbo for 1 min and season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the garnishes, proceed as in the recipe above.

Monday, October 1, 2007

A rustic fruit tart

In France you are either a pastry chef or a baker, rarely both.
Pastry chefs are precise perfectionists who know just how many grams of gelatin it takes to bring structure to an airy raspberry mousse. They are chemists but also artists, who finish off their creations with a single red rose petal or a paper-thin square of white chocolate streaked with gold.
Bakers are more instinctive types who sense the need to adjust the amount of flour in their pain au levain to the humidity outside. They like to make cakes, but chances are you'll never find them fussing with agar-agar.
Much as I love making and eating any kind of pastry, if I had to choose a camp I'd definitely fall into the second. Dough of all kinds comes naturally to me, while I have to kick my lazy side into submission to make the more complex French pâtisseries with their layers of mousse, ganache and sponge cake.
Eric Kayser is my kind of baker. His famed baguette Monge is probably one of the top five baguettes in Paris—it's always hard to judge, since the quality of baguettes can vary from day to day—but what I really love are his rustic fruit tarts. Just as I prefer to make the more rustic cakes, they are also (rather conveniently) what I prefer to eat. They give you something to sink your teeth into, and they don't collapse into a messy heap when you try to share them.
After reading about Les tartes d'Eric Kayser on a few blogs, I found myself ordering it impulsively on Amazon one day. A few days later it arrived, like an early Christmas present with its red and green tart on the cover (redcurrants with matcha tea filling, very intriguing).
Of course, I couldn't wait to try it out and for my first project I settled on the pear and grapefruit tart, which I seem to remember finding irresistible at his bakery in rue Monge. It's the combination of the cream-colored pear and pink grapefruit that does it for me - without the grapefruit, it could easily look boring.
Pâte sablée is not new to me, but it's always interesting to read a baker's tips and probably the wisest words in this book are (my translation): "The only real secret to good tarts is time. You need to let the doughs breathe, allow them to relax, protect them. The ideal is to prepare them the night before."
Indeed, I've noticed that whenever I make a tart at a slow, relaxed pace, allowing the dough to rest in the fridge before and after I roll it out, it doesn't do anything nasty like shrink or tear.
Even though this is a rustic tart and therefore, in principle, easy, it was a two-day project because of the overnight resting time for the dough. I also decided to poach the pears myself rather than use canned pears as Kayser suggests. It's pear season, after all. Honestly, though, I think canned pears would be just fine.

I also spent a little time wondering what to do about pistachio paste, an ingredient I can't easily find in Nice. I was almost ready to use green-tinted almond paste from Auer, which the saleswoman had assured me was made of pistachios (hah!), when I remembered that I still had a few Bronte pistachios from last year's Salone del Gusto in Turin. It wasn't enough to make Pierre Hermé's recipe for pistachio paste, which calls for 500 g (a little more than 1 lb) of pistachios, but I found my own solution to make just enough for my tart.

My dear friend and guru Sylvie thought the bitterness of the grapefruit added nothing to this tart (which she gobbled up anyway), but I love their bright pink color and think that a poor-quality imported grapefruit was to blame. This tart might be best made with canned pears during grapefruit season (around February in France). See what you think.

Pear and grapefruit tart
Serves 6-8

For the pears in syrup:
2 pears, not too ripe
500 ml water (2 cups)
125 g sugar (4 1/2 oz)
1/2 vanilla bean

For the pistachio paste:
15 g pistachios (1/2 oz)
15 g powdered sugar (1/2 oz)
1 egg white (you won't need all of it)

For the pâte sablée (enough for three tarts):
300 g butter at room temperature (11 oz)
60 g white sugar (2 oz)
125 g powdered sugar (4 1/2 oz)
60 g powdered almonds (2 oz)
5 g salt (1 tsp)
2 whole eggs
500 g flour (1 lb 2 oz)

For the filling:
Poached pears (see above)
2-3 pink grapefruits
125 g butter at room temperature (4 1/2 oz)
125 g white sugar (4 1/2 oz)
125 g powdered almonds (4 1/2 oz)
10 g flour (1/3 oz)
3 whole eggs
30 g pistachio paste (1 oz)
2 tbsp apricot jam

For the pears:
Peel the pears, cut them in half and scoop out the cores with a spoon or melon baller. Combine the water, sugar and vanilla bean, scraping out the seeds from the vanilla bean and adding them to the water along with the bean. Bring to a simmer, lower the heat and cook at a simmer for 25-30 mins, until soft when pierced with a knife. Set aside to cool in the syrup, then remove from the syrup and drain on paper towels overnight in a covered container in the refrigerator.

For the pistachio paste:
In a pestle and mortar or small electric grinder, pound or grind the pistachios to a fine powder. Add the icing sugar, then just enough egg white to make a thick paste.

For the pastry:
In a food processor or mixer (I used my Kitchenaid with the paddle), beat the butter until soft. Add the sugars, almond power and salt, mixing well. Add the eggs one by one and combine, scraping the sides of the bowl. Add the flour and mix on low speed just until the dough comes together.
Form the dough into three flat rounds and wrap each one in plastic wrap. Place two in the freezer for future use (they can be defrosted overnight) and one in the fridge.

Finishing the tart:
The next day, remove the pastry from the fridge and let it warm up for at least 20 mins before rolling it out. Use just enough flour so that it doesn't stick to your board, and roll it as thinly as seems feasible, turning it often.
Roll about half the dough around your rolling pin and quickly lift it up and place it in the tin (Kayser likes square tins and so do I). If it tears, you can always squeeze the cracks together. Press the pastry into the corners of the tin, then cut off the overlapping pastry with a sweep of the rolling pin. Press the edges a little higher than the edge of the tin to compensate for any shrinkage.
Let the dough rest in the fridge for another 30 mins at least while you prepare the filling.
Using a sharp knife, peel the grapefruit from top to bottom, removing all the pith. Holding the grapefruit in one hand, cut between the membranes to release the segments.
Cut each piece of pear in half, then cut each quarter into three even pieces.
For the filling, beat the butter in a mixer until soft. Add the sugar, almond powder and flour. Add the eggs one by one, mixing well, then the pistachio paste.
Pour this mixture into the pastry (without blind baking the crust - if Kayser says you can do this, it must be OK!). Top with alternating pieces of pear and grapefruit. Bake at 180 C (375 F) for 35-45 mins, until done. (Kayser's recipe says to bake the tart at 160 C for 35 mins, but I found that it wasn't hot enough or long enough.)
Once the tart has cooled, melt the apricot jam in a small saucepan and brush it over the tart for a glossy finish.