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.