April 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
I wasn’t really planning on posting about Japan. Mainly because whenever something disastrous happens, I sort of clam up and never know what to say. And then I start feeling like there’s nothing I really can say that will actually help, so then I end up saying nothing at all. The suddenness, the shock of it all, the horror of waking up the next morning to tsunami warnings in my own city and then reading in the paper about entire towns and homes being swept away in the water. The idea that one minute you’re on land and the next you’re at sea became terrifyingly real before the world’s eyes. But even people who aren’t the most articulate when it comes to facing natural disasters head on can still lend a hand. For me, it came in the form of baking. And baking comfort food, food that it hasn’t really occurred to me to make since I started writing about food. Batches and batches of brownies came out of my oven, some studded with milk chocolate chips, some swirled with salted caramel and bacon, blondies with coarsely chopped pistachios. Chopped into squares. Packaged up. Tied with a bow. Quiet, peaceful, calming. Put in a cardboard box and delivered to the Bake Sale for Japan at 18 Reasons.
The food community has always struck me as an amazingly cohesive group, despite our vastly varying interests, causes and talents. In it are active, relentless organizers like the lovely Samin Nosrat, and always plenty of people that spring on any request for help or advice. The particular event I am talking about, the Bake Sale for Japan, will take place at locations across the nation tomorrow afternoon, including two in my hometown of San Francisco. There will be simultaneous bake sales in big cities like LA, NYC, Boston, Washington DC, Austin and Chicago among other locations stretching from coast to coast, from Maui to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Donations will go to Peace Winds Japan. They are accepting donations of baked goods from amateur and professional bakers alike. It’s not too late to donate! And it’s certainly not too late to stop by one of our many locations tomorrow and pick up something sweet — and send a sweet gift to relieve those who suddenly find themselves in need of a little help.
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.
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.
November 4, 2010 § 2 Comments
Around 7:30, when I’m in class, you can hear out the window the cries of young adults, students, and their voices carrying up and down the streets, shouts of “A la Concorde!” Then the music begins to play, shortly followed by sirens that seem to last much longer than the demonstrations that have since traversed into another quartier. In the morning, you read in the newspapers about la grève, which has transformed into a social movement, particularly in the universities, against Sarkozy’s government, which many criticized for failing to negotiate on the issue of retirement age and now criticize for failing to represent the French people. In the midst of this social movement, life in Paris seems to roll on: transportation seems to be running more or less by routine — with the exception of the next strike day which is set for this Friday — and tourists can be found clustered around Notre Dame and the Tour Eiffel despite the heightened security alerts issued by the U.S. governments and the bomb recently directed at the French president by mail. That does not mean to imply that the bomb threats are in any way connected to the student movement, but you get the general picture of disorder here.
Indeed, when we were in Marseille, after only 5 days of strikes by the garbage collectors, the city was already strewn with bottles, food wrappers, rotting leftovers. Days later, merchants began taking their garbage to the dump themselves because the rank smells deterred customers from entering their shops. It makes you contemplate, noticing the differences between how citizens demonstrate their displeasure in different countries, why the French loudly take to the streets when they are unhappy and why the Americans simply vote Republican.
But my classes seem to exist in the bubble in which most ex-pats sit at the sidelines of the French movements, criticism and general complaints (which my professor likes to say is the national pastime). We sit at the window and hear the shouts but with nothing at stake ourselves, we do little but ask why. Otherwise we continue about our daily lives, which this weekend, included this marvelous Salon du Chocolat at the Porte de Versailles Expositions. We ran around like crazed children sampling chocolate of every kind and form…mousse and truffles and biscuits and pain d’épices and ganache filled macarons and even chocolate fois gras…I could go on and on and on as you can very well see. There were matcha tea croissants and chocolate butter lotions and even a chocolate statue of a small boy peeing liquid chocolate!
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 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.
September 12, 2010 § Leave a comment
Le pain perdu. I love that name. The lost bread. What a wonderful way of thinking about those last slices of bread, or the end chunks, that sit on the kitchen counter for days on end until someone finally decides to chuck them in the trash. I’ve been eating a lot of bread these days; it is one thing you can always find in France. I eat it mostly alongside salads of arugula, tomatoes and chèvre for dinner and then smeared liberally with Nutella at all times of the day. Long white bagettes with their crunchy exterior, light, eggy yellow circles of brioche bread, perfect for pulling apart piece by piece, and hearty loaves of country pain aux noix from the Saturday marché. Eventually this afternoon, I decided I ought to stop my Nutella consumption and put the remainder of my pain aux noix to a better use. Not the Nutella is not a perfectly acceptable use for any kind of bread. All the time. In fact, it is much better than simply acceptable.
But seeing as I was finally sitting in my apartment and I had finally run out of things to write about, I figured I might as well try out this new toaster oven, which many of you know is now my sole means of baking anything. I have spent the weekend walking around the city without a map and sitting in parks and cafes writing in my travel journal and then blogging about my adventures. I have been seeing a lot of food, though I can’t say I have achieved much variety in my eating habits, which have been hampered by my Nutella obsession (see above). Since I have been out of the kitchen quite a bit and hitting the streets, a lot of my writing and pictures reflect that and can be found over at my new blog Un Je Ne Sais Quoi.
But back to the toaster oven. I bought the cutest little loaf pans the other day and I thought a little bread pudding was the perfect occasion for using them. Kind of like finding and reshaping the bread that has been lost. I consulted a couple recipes for bread pudding, including this one by Deb at Smitten Kitchen for raisin-studded apple bread pudding and one in a new cookbook I bought in Paris, Petites Cocottes. But in the end, I decided to just go with whatever felt right. The result was little loafs of pain perdu, soaked liberally in custard, studded with apples and topped with a little — you guessed it! — Nutella. I guess new habits die hard. I ate one for dinner, with a little coffee spoon, alongside a cup of black current tea.