Conquering the Monet exhibit

November 24, 2010 § 1 Comment

Early Saturday afternoon found me scurrying across to the 16eme arrondissement to the Grand Palais to see the special Monet exhibition. I was meeting a couple of friends from class and as Monet is one of the few painters whose work I enjoy looking at in large quantities, I was quite excited. It was a brisk but sunny morning and the Christmas market stands were already set up along the Champs d’Elysées as I joined my friends in line outside the Palais.

Two hours later we were still standing there and contemplated for the first time, giving up and heading to a more accessible museum. And then the line moved a couple feet and we decided to stay. I had my hands wrapped up in my scarf and my feet seemed frozen at the soles but still, we stayed. Another hour later and we were finally in the final quarter of the line; I now had my scarf wrapped around my head, covering my ears and mouth. The old French ladies behind us had started sharing hard candies with those around them, the French couple in front of us had long abandoned the line and everyone was trying to make conversation in an attempt to distract themselves from the fact that they could no longer feel their toes. For my part, my teeth had started chattering and when we eventually made it to the very front of the line, I was huddled up in a ball on the bottom stairs of the Palais. It was only then that the stern French guard took pity on me and beckoned us inside.

The exhibit has had a grand amount of success, with tickets selling out in the middle of the week through the weekend; even those with pre-purchased tickets must wait in a significant line before being allowed entrance. Once inside, the first few rooms are packed with people, but the crowds slowly thin out as the exhibit progresses. It is surprising walking through the rooms, how many of his oeuvres have made it out of France to the United States, though somewhat understandable given the cold reception Monet’s style of painting originally received in France. I especially enjoyed the fact that we were able to view his works on lightplay — paintings of the exact same spot painted at different times of the day, under different lighting such as the two Le Pont du Chemin de Fer at Argenteuil, one of which is at the Musée d’Orsay and the other of which is in Philadelphia— side by side, as they might have been intended, and not separated by oceans of water between two museums.

As we pushed ourselves back into the cold, into the midst of the Marché de Noel along the Champs d’Elysées, we said it was a visit well-spent. Though perhaps it could have been a bit better organized, so as to avoid such long lines, as I have never before seen a French person abandon a line before getting what he wants. And perhaps we should have been better prepared to wait as well — I should have brought these little cakes, which are here by popular demand by several women in my class. Only in France would banana bread be a new, novel idea!

Banana Bread
Adapted from Joy of Baking

1 cup (115 grams) walnuts or pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped (optional)
1 3/4 cups (230 grams) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated white sugar
1 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, browned and cooled
2 ripe large bananas, mashed well (about 1-1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Combine the butter, bananas, sugar and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda and baking powder, cinnamon and salt. Gentry fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, making sure not to overmix. Bake at 350 degrees F or 180 degrees C in a 9 x 5 x 3 inch loaf pan for about 55 minutes or until the top is golden brown and knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

The family secret

November 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

I didn’t realize how much I had settled into a routine in this strange foreign country until I left it for an even stranger foreign country and returned, very early one Sunday morning to a light rain, misty skies and wet streets. Quite soon after I returned, I was forced to bundle myself up and run a couple blocks to the closest convenience store because my shelves were empty and it being Sunday, every grocery store in the area was closed. As I walked out of the door, in a sleep-deprived educed haze, I stumbled into stands and stands of furniture vendors, French women selling vintage hats and men trying on classic suit jackets in the middle of the street. I thought for a moment I had turned down the wrong street, and wondered if I had forgotten my neighborhood that easily, until I spotted the couples dancing at the fountain at the base of rue Mouffetard, clustered together tighter than normal under a white awning, and I knew I was home.

Since my return, I have been trying to force myself outdoors but find it increasingly harder to leave the warmth of my bed and my apartment’s heater, which may or may not work consistently. Walks home from work are enjoyed only with the first gingerbread cookies of the season, but even then with the longing for the gingerbread men I used to make in my kitchen in San Francisco — the French boulangeries it seems, are not champions of the baked goods not requiring pounds of quality butter. But the spice, even if the cookie is a bit too hard, is much appreciated, as is the simple sugar glaze that never ceases to make me quite content.

And then I’ve been baking some things as necessity arises. For instance, I made my mother’s famous chocolate torte for a class party, which resulted from no one knowing what they were supposed to bring to accompany wine tasting and thus bringing whatever they could think of. My mother makes this quite a few times a year, for family birthdays, for dinner parties with close friends. This is the cake I would invariably wake up to sitting on the kitchen counter a couple times every year whenever the family had somewhere important to be or someone important to celebrate. It has never been perfectly smooth on top (and I confess my ganache-making that morning left much to be desired), but it never ceases to impress. As a child, I found it much too strong and chased it properly with an exorbitant amount of whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. But now I can enjoy it as is, with its simple chocolate ganache on top. I am convinced that French alcohol is much stronger than its American counterparts as this cake tasted decidedly of rum this time I made it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as my (French) professor declared it the best chocolate dessert she had ever tasted.

Chocolate Torte

6 tablespoons or 75 grams butter
6 oz. or 150 grams semi-sweet or dark chocolate
4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup or 120 ml sugar
1/4 cup or 60 ml flour
6 T or 90 ml ground almonds
1/4 cup or 60 ml rum

Preheat the oven to 190/375 degrees (C/F). Butter and flour (I use cocoa powder for the “flouring”) a 8-inch pan. Melt the chocolate over the stovetop. Cream together butter and sugar. Add the melted chocolate and run. Beat in egg yolks. Fold in flour.
Beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks.
Fold the egg whites into the batter, minimizing stirring. Some egg whites can remain unmixed.
Bake for 30 minutes.

Inside my window

October 9, 2010 § 1 Comment



I made something today (smiles). I don’t really know what to call it. I think that is the reason I am having such a hard time starting the paragraph. You see, I took the kilo of apples à cuire, which I purchased at the market for 1 euro, peeled them, loving how the skin came off easily in long curls, and tossed them in the stove pot. I took a couple spoonfuls of my leftover dulce de leche and a couple more of butter and added them to the pot. And hovered over it, smelling the air above it anxiously, as the mixture simmered and bubbled and boiled. I ate a cup of stewed apples then, just plain and simple, and set aside the pot while I prepared the shortbread.

I stood by the open window, looking out at the courtyard through the lacey curtains, my hands in the metal bowl, gently crumbling the cold butter into ground hazelnuts. When I felt the need for sweetness, I added an arbitrary cupful of sugar and a light drizzle of maple syrup. And then I padded the dough into a fluted tart shell, setting aside a quarter of it for the topping, brushed the top with the stewed apples and crumbled the remaining dough on top of it all. I had no idea, putting my creation in the oven, what it would result in. Would the apples soak through the shortbread? Would it cook through? Did I add enough flour? I had no idea beyond the feel of the dough in my hands.

It browned, to a crispy, golden hue. The apples turned to jam — a thick, tart layer with a hint of cream from the dulce de leche — between two layers of nutty, buttery shortbread. Except it’s less like shortbread and more like those little nutty cookies you make at Christmas-time, covered in powdered sugar. The crumble top crunches when you bite into a slice and then the soft texture of the apples takes over. The bottom holds up, but just barely, as you lift a slice from the pan. And for a moment, I feel like I have achieved something today.

And then I am taking a slice back to bed, where I am working on a million projects at once, trying to straighten out applications, travel plans and my life after Paris.

Ils disent qu’ils sont perdus

September 17, 2010 § 1 Comment



My little apartment gets pretty cold in the morning. There is a little gap under the door and when I creep (or clamber) down the ladder in the morning and my feet hit the stone floor, I shiver a little. But I like waking up early, seeing the morning sun light up the little courtyard outside my window, through the lacey curtains, making myself a cup of tea and checking my email before heading out the door.

Lately, I have been getting some questions about my true happiness, whether life really is like I tell it in the blogs, whether I am really doing okay. What is life like, living alone, people ask. Well I am finding that I really do enjoy living all alone. I like coming home late at night to an empty room and puttering around in the morning without ever having to make conversation. For many people, Paris is a place where you come to find yourself. I don’t know how many people are actually successful in that endeavor, but that is their original reason for coming anyway. They end up staying a month, half a year, sometimes decades. People in my classes, ils disent qu’ils sont perdus. Some don’t like talking about the future for fear that their dreams won’t come true, some all they want to talk about is the future. Some say that they are currently sans-abri — indeed there are many, many homeless people in Paris, mostly old men curled up on stairways and in Metro stations. Most aren’t dangerous, indeed many will wish you a very pleasant day. One man sleeps on a stairway near my building, the same place every night, and he offers a smile every time I walk by.

But he wasn’t there this morning when I set out around 7 a.m. to walk to a metal bridge on the Seine, on which lovers have affixed locks engraved with their names. I chose not to run there, as I usually would, knowing there were some errands I needed to run later, and running errands (or being seen anywhere in public really) in workout clothes is franchement inadmissible in Paris. It was chilly this morning, the beginning of fall, and I had forgotten that Paris merchants get a slow start in the morning and most stores don’t open until 10 or later. I gave in and ordered the 4 euro café to sit instead of the 2 euro café you take at the bar, drifted through the pews at Notre Dame, which I have been meaning to do since my first days in Paris, and generally took my sweet time in order to arrive exactly as the doors opened at 10 a.m. As I walked, I munched on one of these little cakes.

I made two of these late last night, when I had been getting ready to go out and then decided against it. The pears are delicious fresh from the market, poached, served warm or chilled, or in these little chocolate cakes. I remain always surprised when my creations come out of the toaster oven looking just right.

Chocolate Pear Cake
Adapted from Confessions of a Tart


2 oz unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 oz dark chocolate, melted
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, or Dutch process cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
2 pears, poached

Poach the pears: peel, cut in half and core the pears. Combine 1-2 cups of water and 1/4 cup of sugar in a sauce pan on medium-high heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add the pears (add more water if needed to cover the pears), bring to a low boil and cook for 15-20 min or until tender. Drain and set aside.

Make the cake: Preheat oven to 350⁰F. Butter 2 cake pans (4-inch diameter)

Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time. Melt the chocolate in the microwave, being sure to check on it often. Add the melted chocolate to the sugar-butter-egg mixture and mixture thoroughly. In a separate bowl, combine the flour cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. Combine the dry ingredients with the wet ingredients and mix until just barely combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans. Arrange the sliced pears in a circle on each cake. Bake for about 20 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs.

The Daring Bakers: Ice cream petit fours

August 27, 2010 § 4 Comments



The August 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Elissa of 17 and Baking. For the first time, The Daring Bakers partnered with Sugar High Fridays for a co-event and Elissa was the gracious hostess of both. Using the theme of beurre noisette, or browned butter, Elissa chose to challenge Daring Bakers to make a pound cake to be used in either a Baked Alaska or in Ice Cream Petit Fours. The sources for Elissa’s challenge were Gourmet magazine and David Lebovitz’s “The Perfect Scoop”.

I made the browned butter pound cake and a batch of milk chocolate and black pepper ice cream from David Lebovitz. You can see all the details of the challenge and all the recipes we used on Elissa’s blog here. I had some trouble assembling the petit fours. When I tried to glaze them, the ice cream just started melting so I had to put them back in the freezer and try to frost them later, instead of pouring on the glaze. But the ice cream was truly delicious! Since my ice cream maker is still in boxes being shipped home from DC, I made it the low-tech way. David Lebovitz has great instructions for making ice cream without an ice cream maker.

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