A Euro For Your Thoughts On The French Macaron
You can’t live in Paris, have a blog dedicated to sweets and not discuss the macaron. It’s like living in Ottawa and failing to mention maple syrup, or something even more sinister that escapes me.
For me –- and I think I speak for many North Americans here –- the word macaroon conjures up small stacks of sugared, shredded coconut. Always incredibly sweet, sometimes rather dry, and often altogether forgettable. So, while I enjoy coconut and its valuable contribution to a number of desserts, I can’t profess a particularly strong attachment to this simple confection.
The French macaron, however, is an entirely different beast, one for which I am quickly developing a fondness. A macaron is in fact a cookiewich: two delicate almond discs with a thin filling -- most often buttercream, but sometimes ganache (for the chocolate ones, primarily) or jam (think fruity, like framboise) -- peeking through.
To begin with, maracrons are visually appealing: neat, tidy and symmetrical in their construction with matching fillings and caps available in a range of colours/flavours. Plus, as if looking good weren’t enough, each bite reveals a surprisingly complex combination of textures and tastes. The initial crunch of the wafer gives way to a chewy interior. As your teeth sink further into the fragrant nut crumb, your tongue meets the smooth and flavourful filling. Sealing the deal in more ways than one.
At 1€ for a mini and 2.50€ for a full-size macaron, these beauties are worth every pretty penny.
Monday, April 30, 2007
A Euro For Your Thoughts On The French Macaron
Sunday, April 22, 2007
For someone who considers brunch her favourite meal, this blog is curiously bereft of classic mid-morning fare. Consider this post a step in the right direction.
Growing up in my house, weekend breakfasts were dictated by a simple set of rules established who knows when for reasons unknown and unquestioned. Saturdays were reserved for W.'s whole wheat pancakes (occasionally with blueberries, when the season permitted) and Sundays we enjoyed cinnamon buns (with icing, when I did the picking).
Once in awhile and without warning, Mom would break the rules. These were my favourite days. On these breaks from the norm, we'd awaken to little baguette rounds of French toast, which we'd slather with homemade maple butter* and then more maple syrup for good measure.
The French version of French toast, pain perdu seems to appear most often on menus as a dessert, dressed up in various creams, sauces and fruits. But old habits die hard, so when I awoke last Sunday to a half-eaten, day-old pain brioche, I knew it wouldn't make it past morning.
There are people in this world who will do their darndest to try and convince you that any old bread will do for French toast. In fact, I too subscribed to this school of thought before tasting firsthand the magical power of brioche to turn simple eggs, milk and sugar into some kind of otherworldly custard.
Once you go brioche, you'll never go back.
Pain Perdu with Strawberries and Lemon-Scented Ricotta
4-5 slices of day-old pain brioche (brioche in the shape of a loaf)
2/3 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
butter for frying
2/3 cup ricotta
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon sugar
Slice the pain brioche into thick slices (about 1-inch).
In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, lemon juice, lemon zest and sugar. Stir until smooth and adjust to taste. Wash and prepare the strawberries
In another small bowl, beat the eggs well with a whisk. Add the sugar and whisk to combine. Add the milk and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Pour this mixture into a small, shallow pan.
Heat a frying pan to medium heat with a small bit of butter. Dip two slices of pain brioche into the batter and flip to ensure that both sides are well-coated. Place battered bread in the hot pan. Brown on both sides and serve immediately with lemon-scented ricotta, strawberries and a sprinkling of icing sugar.
* So simple, it's hardly a recipe. But so tasty, it would be a crime not to share it. Beat together equal parts unsalted butter (at room temperature) and maple syrup until smooth. Store in the fridge and serve cold with hot pancakes, waffles, French toast, you name it. Don't confuse this creation with the maple butter which you sometimes find in little jars (probably mostly in central Canada) and which actually contains no butter at all!
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
An excerpt from Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik:
"A French school term that I have learned to love is leçons des choses, lessons from things. It refers to a whole field of study ... that traces civilization's progress from stuff to things. The wonderful posters in Deyrolle, which Martha and I love and have collected, were made for leçons des choses. They show the passage of coffee from the bean to the porcelain coffeepot, of wine from the vine and soil to the bottle, of sugar from the cane to the clafoutis. They always show the precise costume that the beans and grapes and stuff end up in: the château bottling, the painted coffeepot, the label on the jam jar. The Deyrolle posters simultaneously remind you that even the best things always have some stuff leaking out their edges -- a bit of the barnyard, a stain of soil -- and that even the worst stuff is really OK, because it can all be civilized into things" (p. 174).
I first tasted homemade gnocchi when M. prepared this recipe for one of our book club potluck dinners. As is often the case, I can't seem to recall the book we discussed, but the sweet potato gnocchi apparently made a lasting impression.
Source: Adapted from a recipe posted on Epicurious and originally published in the December 2005 Bon Appétit.
Casual Baker Substitutions: Fresh dill for nutmeg, classic pesto for the proposed browned butter and sage treatment, and simple finger indentations for the more time-consuming fork tine markings.
Labels: Savoury bites
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Addictions (and their more palatable counterpart, cravings) intrigue me. Once you take the first bite and your body/mind establishes a taste for something, there's no turning back. But, if you’d never tried it in the first place, you wouldn’t even miss it. Am I the only one who finds this fascinating?
I remember watching one of the earlier Survivor series, the one in which Heidi and Jenna willingly jeopardized their shot at the $1 million prize all for a bit of peanut butter and some Oreo cookies. I remember being downright disturbed by the way their eyes lit up when host Jeff Probst revealed the peanut butter and cookies. I remember thinking that, placed in the same situation, I would certainly have a heckuva lot more willpower.
Flash ahead 5+ years. Here I am in Paris, surrounded by fabulous, intensely flavoured food and wine, hardly what you would call roughing it. And yet, after just one month, I was willing to do just about anything for even just a smidge of peanut butter. Fortunately, before I went so far as to engage in any political career-ending behaviour, I finally located a jar of pâte d’arachide (alternatively, and somewhat less appealingly, called buerre de cacahuète) during a visit to a Franprix grocery store that I don’t normally frequent.
I absolutely adore peanut butter in desserts and, because I’m reasonably confident in my dealer’s ability to keep me supplied (famous last words), I gambled nearly a whole jar of my newly-discovered peanut gold on a Peanut Butter & Jelly Bar. Having come across several recipes for such a decadence in the past, and of course being unable to locate any of them in my moment of need, I improvised using the previously posted Mrs. Larson’s Bars as a North Star and a basic peanut butter cookie recipe as a map. The result was exactly what I was craving: a dense, stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth peanut butter blondie with the sweet fruity relief of jam in every bite. I used a mixture of strawberry and apricot jams, but I am convinced that grape jelly would be the ultimate expression of childhood comfort food.
With this craving satisfied for the time being, I can turn my attention to uncovering what sort of unsustainable dependencies I may be developing here in France.
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar (I used half white, half cassonade)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup peanut butter (I used smooth, unsweetened)
1 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup jam
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease or line with parchment paper an 8-inch square pan.
In a medium bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. Add the vanilla and egg. Add the peanut butter and mix until smooth.
In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix just until combined. The batter will be quite thick.
Spread about 2/3 of this peanut butter batter in the prepared baking pan. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly even. Carefully spread the jam on top of the peanut butter base. Finally, drop small spoonfuls of the remaining peanut butter mixture randomly on top, leaving some jam showing through.
Bake for about 30 minutes or until a knife inserted in the square comes out only somewhat goopy. (Very scientific, I know, but baking in a toaster oven really throws off the baking times!)
Cool completely before cutting and serving or you will have a big mess and a burnt tongue. Speaking from experience.
Labels: Bars and squares
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Something about living in another country has made me more open to stepping outside my comfort zone, whether out of necessity or proclivity I can’t be sure. So when I came across the following post on Craigslist during our first week in Paris, I found myself reacting somewhat out of character. The internal dialogue went something like this:
Always wanted to be part of a film shoot but never had the required skills?
Well to be honest, I’ve never given it a second’s thought. But now that you mention it, I do like movies.
Here's the chance you've been waiting for! Job: The film crew's official caterer!
Did someone say food? Sign me up.
Two meetings and a week and a half later, in the middle of a grad student's short film thesis project, I found myself...
…commuting clear across Paris to stand in a kitchen for 10 hours each day.
…wheeling shopping carts full of discount groceries between Ed l’Epicier and a stranger’s apartment/the film’s set.
…preparing cheap, cafeteria-style meals in a foreign, poorly equipped kitchen filled with lighting, cords, filming equipment, people or (most often) all of the above.
…pausing mid-slice/dice/bake in response to calls for filming: On va tourner! Silence, s’il vous plaît!
(Did I mention this was a volunteer gig?)
…doing my best to keep 20+ cast and crew fully caffeinated, sugared and salted.
…making baguette sandwiches outdoors on a windy day across the street from the Arc de Triomphe, with only a single camping knife.
...wondering about the food you see in movies and how edible it really is, after being asked by the art director to find something green to put in the soup for the dinner scene.
...getting to know an incredibly neat (and international) cast and crew.
...learning what really goes on behind the scenes.
Several days into the shoot, I faced my biggest test yet: an on-set birthday. A fellow Canadian, no less, was turning 20 and it was unanimously agreed that we should mark the occasion with cake. And so it was that I came to bake my first quatre-quarts, the French equivalent of a pound cake with roughly equal weights of butter, sugar, eggs and flour.
The recipe, dictated by my craft services partner (that’s what they call us in the biz) on her way to work and scribbled frantically by me in franglais on my way out the door, worked like a charm with a few minor *ahem* adjustments. In an effort to boost the festivity factor of the cake (who has pound cake for their birthday?), I added some melted chocolate to half of the batter and made un gâteau marbré. Plus, at the urging of the North Americans and to the chagrin (but ultimate enjoyment) of les français, I whipped up a simple chocolate butter icing.
Basic Quatre-Quarts (More or Less)*
300 grams sugar
250 grams butter
300 grams flour
In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sugar and mix well. Ease the melted butter slowly into the eggs and sugar mixture, stirring as you go. Add the flour and stir to combine.
Pour into a 9-inch (ish) square pan and bake at about 375 degrees Fahrenheit until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. (I’d love to give you a sense of how long this might take, but I couldn’t really say since I had to turn the oven off several times during baking to prevent the sound of the oven's fan from being picked up in the film’s audio!)
*I say more or less since the butter measurement is suspiciously not 300 grams. Because I didn't have my measuring cups along to work out the cup equivalencies, I'm afraid you'll have to pull out that dusty kitchen scale from the back cupboard. C'est la vie!
Labels: Cakes and cupcakes
Saturday, April 07, 2007
Perhaps the single best thing about living in Paris is that now, when I come across references to specific restaurants, boulangeries, pâtisseries and chocolatiers, I can actually visit them. Given my well-documented addiction to food blogs and food writing more generally, I've managed to accumulate quite the list already, athough I hope to make short work of the backlog.
In February 2007, Linda Dannenberg published an article in Travel and Leisure magazine with her picks for the best boulangeries in Paris, by type of pastry. Crowned the king of pain au chocolat, Boulangerie Bechu was my first stop on the list a few weekends ago. I set out from my humble abode on rue Pétrarque with the kind of anticipation that comes only with the prospect of butter and chocolate for breakfast. Just when I thought pain au chocolat couldn't possibly get any better, it went ahead and proved me wrong.
What makes this pain au chocolat orange are the small pieces of candied orange peel sprinkled alongside the sticks of rich dark chocolate. It is possible that there was also a hint of orange glaze to fix the decorative peel on top, but I'd really need another before coming to a firm conclusion on this point. While I'm a huge fan of the dark chocolate and orange combination in all its incarnations (and this was no exception), my official recommendation is to stick to the pure, unadultered pain au chocolat more often than not. Save the pain au chocolat orange (and its equally enticing cousin pain au chocolat coco-banane) for the occasional treat.
Too much of a good thing, and all that.
118 avenue Victor Hugo
Monday, April 02, 2007
If you’ve never seen the 1987 classic film Adventures in Babysitting, you should be ashamed of yourself. Go out and rent it right now, pop up some popcorn (yes, with salt and butter, or salted butter if you prefer, or butter with salt crystals if you’re in Paris), kick back and enjoy.
Now you’ll understand the reference when I say: “Where y'all think we're at, Boise, Idaho?”
Or, more accurately, in my case: in Ottawa with your full-size fridge, oven and *sigh* KitchenAid mixer?
I adore our heatless shoebox of an apartment in the 16eme arrondissement of Paris, I really and truly do. Right down to the little toaster oven, with the doorframe that springs off each time you open the door and the temperature dial marked with those funny little Celsius increments.
Sidenote: I almost feel like a liar for telling a Parisienne, when recently asked, that Canada uses the metric system. True, in the sense that elementary school taught me to estimate in metres and litres and convinced me of the virtues of a measurement system based on 10. False, in the sense that I only know my height in feet and inches, my weight in pounds, and my recipes in cups and teaspoons.
But back to the four électrique (as it was advertised to me by the woman from whom we’re subletting this apartment). You see, it wasn’t yet in the apartment when we first visited in our semi-comatose state, having arrived in Paris at 5:30am that morning on an overnight flight from Toronto. So I was a bit taken aback – to say the least – when we moved in two days later and I found that I could carry our oven under my arm. You know, handy dandy for those days when I feel like baking in the park with a really long extension cord.
What’s that saying: When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade? Well, when life hands you a toaster oven, I say make chocolate chip cookies. With oatmeal, because it adds bulk and is really cheap. Unlike les pépites de chocolat (literally chocolate nuggets, but think mini chocolate chips).
But I digress. More on shopping for baking supplies in Paris later.