December 22, 2010 § Leave a Comment
The metal gates of the passage du Grand Cerf clang open on a late Sunday morning to reveal a red carpeted passageway, off of which we find the apartment which will host our first, and likely only, cooking class in Paris. I should start by saying that baking is something I usually like doing alone, or with my family, or one friend. Several of my best friends can attest to times we have excitedly decided to make gingerbread houses for example, only to have me take over the whole project because I wanted it to look “just so.” Or times when I have refused to hand over the wooden spoon to my little brother because I like being the one mixing for that moment when the cookie dough begins to come together and starts looking like real dough.
I like sitting in front of the oven, peering into the little window, with the oven light on, watching cakes rise, watching the tops of soufflés turn golden brown, watching the edges of cookies crisp in the seconds before you take them out of the oven. I could do this for the entire hour it takes for the bread to finish baking. Or for the fifteen minutes in takes for these little choux pastries to rise and the pastry to puff around little balls of air, making perfect little capsules in which to pipe Chantilly cream or pastry cream, perfumed with vanilla bean and folded with some extra butter (you know for that glossy finish, and because, let’s admit it, it’s France, and a little extra butter goes into everything French).
So I’m afraid I spent much of this Sunday afternoon sitting on the floor in front of the oven window watching the first batch of choux puffs fail miserably as they turned into flat, eggy patties, and then smiling excitedly as the second batch puffed up brilliantly into sugar-crusted balls of hot air. And then I spent the second half of Sunday licking pastry cream off my fingertips, abandoning any semblance of dignified consumption.
December 16, 2010 § 3 Comments
The last time she came to visit, my best friend asked me if I believed Paris was the « city of love, » as people often say. I think I replied to the negative, laughable as it was that this city full of aggressive French men coming at you in every direction could ever hold the keys to my heart. Afterall, this is a city where it is hard to walk out of a restaurant without a waiter’s number, where we have bartenders who have never charged us and take us out to questionable places after they close up the bar. A boring Tuesday night might include bringing home two red roses, my crepe vendor keeps requesting my email so that I can send pictures from America but I keep going back because I swear they’re the best crepes in town. I have now finally learned to avoid eye contact after being followed through several metro changes. One of my very first days here I was shoved into a wall in broad daylight on a busy sidewalk by a guy who wanted to kiss my face, you can hardly walk down the street without having to say, “Désolée, je n’ai pas de numéro de téléphone.” I have sat in smoky bars at night, wishing only for 5:30 to come so the metro would start running again and I could escape the griminess of men sitting uncomfortably close to me.
Where is this, you may ask, surely this is not the beautiful, classy, romantic Paris they show you in the movies. No, this is the Paris of real-life nights that end at 7 a.m., nights of pushing through crowds, dancing to house music that seems to shake your insides, the Paris that hardens you, makes people say “la vie à Paris, c’est dure non?” and then the Paris that, after a long fight, finally lets you breathe, lets your soul take that raspy first breath after hours spent in the smoke and the sweat, pressed against leather jackets and legs propped up in 4-in stilettos. Because it is Paris that has taken my heart afterall, not one of the “friendlier” French cities. And after three months here, when I went out for a Thanksgiving dinner with some Americans here, and the waiter actually thought I was French, I swore I never wanted to leave this country. This country where the espresso shot is not in fact taken as a shot to keep you awake while studying, but actually savored as a way to end a pleasurable meal, and where hazelnut is the only natural accompaniment to milk chocolate. Where strange noises like “Bah” seem to have been adopted into the language as if they were actual words, where one would never dream of being discreet about the giving of extremely critical once-overs on the street, where hugs are replaced by two kisses, even amongst people who have just met.
But despite its eccentricities and its failures — the lack of taxis being one of my main concerns — Paris allowed me to grow in a way no other city has. Being for the first time wholly and completely alone in a new city has forced me to have lunch with people I would never have spoken to in the states and who have ended up surprising me for the better. It has forced me to accept that things are usually — and especially in France — not going to go my way and when it comes down to it, life is about just letting yourself go where you know you want to go and forgetting the rest. For me, it has been about learning certain neighborhoods like the back of my hand so that I only need myself to get out of situations. And for all the times we have stood on street corners waiting for buses and taxis that never came, there have also been times when walking from the 16eme to the 5eme meant seeing the sunrise, times when a smile could get you a brioche from the local boulanger. And when, even though you ditched out on the 850 euro table he bought you at the club, he offers you money for the cab ride home and still wishes you a “bon voyage” the next week, you know you are leaving a lot of good people — and very good-hearted city — behind. And so Paris, even though you may sometimes come off as cold and standoffish, and even though I was sometimes scared and put off and felt like running away, je t’adore. Though I am still struggling to accept that “J’adore” means “I like” and not “I adore.” So when I say je t’adore, I really mean I adore you.
December 15, 2010 § 1 Comment
I arrived in Lyon on the Friday of the fête des lumières in a sleep induced haze brought on from a sleepless night and three early morning hours of dealing with the French bureaucracy getting my visa validated, just days before I leave France for good. I took one look at a metro map which included the entire city’s bus system as well and decided there was no way I could deal with it right then. My cab driver was nowhere near as chatty as I am used to, though it struck me that he was the first French cab driver I have ever seen; he was Lyon-born, while most cab drivers in Paris are recent immigrants, usually from North Africa. My next cab driver was another Lyon-native and I lost track of time — and our route — talking with him about shark hunting in Tahiti.
Once I had checked into my hotel, the situation called for very extended nap, to be woken only by my friend for dinner at Brasserie des Ecoles, a classic brasserie with painted windows for the holidays, where I had a pleasant salade chèvre chaud, which I have been craving and was long overdue. A brief walk around La Croix Rousse, a pint of beer at Sullivans Irish Pub, generous servings of fries with dipping sauces (the mayo given wasn’t a choice) at a random kebab shop and a long walk to Vieux Lyon, I found myself waiting out the night at a late-night bar called the Melting Pub. It would not have been my first choice of hangouts and we quickly made our way to the back, when I staked out a stool—as if on display, one of the guys commented. The bar was one of those places for the people who just can’t let go of the night and for the really tired people who just want to the opening of the metro to come faster. I quickly became part of the second group: after awhile my eyes started to burn from the smoke — the bar allows smoking indoors — and an hour in, I was fighting the urge to itch at my eyes.
But as much as I complain, I love being awake for those early hours of the morning, as the night people and the morning people overlap, men order their last beers at the bar and girls in heels light up their last cigarettes on the walk home while the merchants start to set up their displays, brioches and tarts begin to appear in the storefront windows, but it is still hours before the lines start to form out the door of the famous boulangeries. One such boulangerie in Lyon is the Boulangerie du Palais, where huge lines form for their brioche aux pralines; Lyon has several famous regional candies, one of them being pink pralines which are baked into sweet breads, tarts and croquants. I managed to get my hands on a brioche my last morning in Lyon and once having sufficiently tasted it, gave it to the homeless man I had walked past earlier, who was shivering in a doorstep lighting a cigarette, a pair of ski goggles raised on his head and a rainbow scarf around his neck. When I said “brioche aux pralines” his face light up like a little kid’s and his smile made me forget everything I knew how to say in French.
I had a delicious, fruit and nut packed praline croquant and also sampled other Lyonnais candies: les quenelles, a hazelnut-praline filling covered in a thin layer of white chocolate, and les coussins, a chocolate mousse perfumed with curacao enrobed in sunny yellow or green almond paste and sugar coating.
A trip to the Marché de Noel by the Perrache train station found tartiflette, the traditional Lyonnais potato gratin, slowly cooked with onions, thinly sliced bacon (lardons) and lots of cheese. Stopped to chat with the Quebecois lady selling maple products, and her husband making pancakes with real maple syrup on the crepe skillet, but was disappointed that she didn’t carry my favorite maple sugars, as they are too difficult to transport.
But believe it or not, my days weren’t just filled with eating. We wandered the Parc de la Tete d’Or at night, walking the paths by the lake lined by pots of fire and warming our hands around big balls of fire which shot out sparks, which magically seemed to go out immediately upon hitting the dry leaves on the ground. I took shelter inside at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, where I saw the Louis Cretey-Un Visionnaire entre Lyon et Rome exhibit. I headed up to la Cathédrale Saint Jean at the Fourvière before most of the tourists were out in the morning to take in the city from above. But as the cafes were all closed at the top of the hill and it was clilly out, I headed back down to Bar de la Ficelle for my morning café crème.
December 8, 2010 § 1 Comment
There are few things that make me happier than a group of rail-thin French women cooing with delight and diving into slices of a warm American pecan pie for their petit gouter alongside steaming cups of thé vert. Or when they profess to adore carrot cake, cream cheese frosting and all, and suggest I open up an American style bakery in Paris, because they just know it would be a huge success. Indeed there are several American-style places here, if you want to search out bagels and brownies — which seem to be the main focus — but few places to buy ingredients with which to make your favorite American treats. It’s surprising what Americans seem to feel they need imported — the likes of Betty Crocker icings in all flavors, yellow cake mixes, and colored marshmallows, although I think it was the French girls that were cooing over those in the Etats-Unis aisle of La Grande Epicerie at the Bon Marché.
But it was on that aisle that I finally found Grandma’s molasses and ordinary corn syrup, which are both still practically unheard of here. Actually I take that back. The minute you say corn syrup here, you get a quick intake of breath and a mumbled “c’est pas bon pour la santé” as if the pound of butter dumped in every French dish is bon pour la santé. So needless to say, you don’t see any French women dumping the container of corn syrup into their tarte fillings — because tart is the closest approximation I can find to pie — but they won’t hesitate to eat it when it’s placed in front of them in the form of this gooey-still-warm-from-the-oven tart that the little American girl brought in this morning. Because, eating is, afterall, about indulgence.
This pecan pie — or pecan squares as they go in my house — is a classic on my family’s Thanksgiving table. It has a strong molasses flavor and is packed full of pecans, avoiding that gooey, far-too-sweet layer of sugar and corn syrup that many pecan pies pack in the middle. Nothing horrifies me more than a badly made pecan pie, with a thick layer of cooked sugar and a sprinkling of nuts on top. I may have Frenchified the classic a bit by making a tart crust with a generous amount of sugar and egg, instead of the simple butter-and-flour combo my dad uses, and baking it in a fluted, rectangular tart pan instead of a brownie pan.
But either way, this is the way to go come Thanksgiving (or for me, come breakfast) no matter where you live. A couple of weeks late to the Thanksgiving post, but there you go. Now excuse me while I eat the last piece with my cup of tea for breakfast. Can’t be worse for you than a café crème with a half a baguette, split down the middle and spread liberally with butter right?
Adapted from Jeremiah Tower’s New American Classics
3/4 cup dark brown sugar (or half unsulphered molasses, half corn syrup)
1 cup dark corn syrup
1/2 tsp salt
2 tablespoons bourbon
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups pecan pieces
One recipe of Pasta Frolla pastry dough or simply use your fingers to combine cold butter and flour until you achieve a shortbread-like consistency.
If using a crust made of just butter and flour (combine until crumbly and the dough stips together when you press it with your fingertips), bake pastry shell until golden (about 10-20 minutes) at 350 degrees Farenheit.
If using the Pastra Frolla, there is no need to pre-bake the pastry shell, just follow the directions here and press the rolled-out dough into the tart pan and fill.
Make sure your tart shell has no little holes as the filling with leak and burn in your oven.
Melt butter over the stovetop and set aside. Combine eggs and sugar. Add corn syrup, salt, bourbon, butter, and vanilla. Stir in pecans. Pour the filling into the pastry shell. Bake until mostly set at 350 degrees Farenheit, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Let cool before cutting.