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.