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.

French café and American coffee cake

October 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The days here are shortening, it is almost dark by the time I get out of class, and the cold nips at my fingertips yet I have not yet made it around to buying myself a pair of gloves. And I realized, as I hailed a taxi at 5 a.m. on Saturday, that the days of walking home across town in the middle of night are over. The kind lady who pulled over even though I wasn’t at a designated taxi stop had the heat turned all the way up and greeted me in a gentle, sing-song voice, saying that I would be her last passenger of the night before she returned home to take care of the kids while her husband went to work. I woke up three hours later, freezing in my own bed — I didn’t discover the heating system in my apartment until last night —, and dragged myself, bundled in an assortment of workout gear and jackets, onto the Metro to La Defense.

A short walk along the water found me at the boathouse: it was windy, slightly sunny but so, so cold. We took out a rickety pair, the footboards and seats barely attached, and rowed around the 4k loop, struggling and swerving in the stretches against the wind, before docking it a haphazard manner, barely avoiding getting pushed into the shore by the wind. We were glad when our feet hit ground again, grateful for the cup of coffee a British man purchased for us in the café above the boathouse, and then we were trust back out into the cold and the drizzle for the walk back to the Metro. All other plans for Saturday were scarified in favor of my bed.

But Sunday, I got an early start. After a full week of being sick and spending most of my free time lazing around in my loft bed, not fully sleeping but definitely not entirely awake, this weekend was a welcome change of activity. Slow paced activity. I put a bar of creamy, milk chocolate in my purse and set out across the river to the 11eme. A lazy look around Victor Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges. I saw a great depiction of Hugo’s Les Misérables by the Théâtre du Soleil called “Tempête sous un crâne” a few weeks back. Then a short walk to la Bastille, during which I ate a fudgy macaron noisette from Gérdro Mulot (the first macaron I have ever truly loved, but then chocolate-noisette might be my favorite flavor in the world so it hard to go wrong). I stopped at a vendor at Place de la Bastille to buy cinnamon, scooped from a large bin, and dates, for this cake I’ve simply been dying to make, before watching the children run towards in the carnival stands on the Bastille circle — food vendors selling churros and popcorn. There seemed to be much more interest in the food than in the carnival games of shooting hoops and the like, the kind where the prize is one of those huge stuffed animals that, right then, you desire oh-so-much but you never really look at again after that special day you won it.

On the way home from the Bastille, I snapped these pictures of the Sunday dancing at the bottom of Rue Mouffetard. One older woman keep swaying arbitrarily by herself while people coupled up to dance which made taking pictures quite difficult, but I found it hard to fault her for that.

Then just as I was getting settled back into bed for the rainy afternoon, I found myself dashing out the door for an impromptu coffee date with that cute waiter in the Quartier Latin right before his shift started. And somehow, the café went down better than usual without the crème. Hmm maybe I’m getting better at this French thing.

I would swear off cream in my coffee forever if I could have this cake with it every morning. Who needs cream when you have this?

Cinnamon-chocolate chip sour cream coffee cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

The only changes I made were to substitute yogurt for the sour cream, which I haven’t been able to find out here, and add some dates because I ran out of chocolate. Mine didn’t bake up quite as pretty; I’ve been having some problems with my electricity these days, which likes to shut off at inopportune moments, like when my cake is in the toaster oven.

115 grams or 1 stick unsalted butter
300 grams or 1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs, separated
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
225 grams or 16 ounces sour cream/plain yogurt (If using yogurt, add an extra teaspoon of baking soda)
390 grams or 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

225 grams or 12 ounces chocolate chips
100 grams or 1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F.

Cream butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar, then mix in the egg yolks and vanilla. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda and baking powder. Alternately add sour cream and then dry ingredients into butter mixture. Beat eggs whites until stiff, then fold into batter. Mix last 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon together in a separate, small dish.

In a greased 9″x13″ pan, pour in half of the cake batter. Sprinkle the top with half of the cinnamon-sugar mixture and half of the chocolate chips (and any other add-ins you want, such as a dried fruits or nuts). Pour remaining batter on top, sprinkling the top with the remaining cinnamon-sugar and chocolate chips.

Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

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.

The sans-cœur and hazelnut gâteau Breton

September 21, 2010 § 3 Comments

The sans-cœur. How do you explain that you have no heart? We studied a bit of negation last week and a young Japanese man professed that he was sans-cœur. It’s a strange concept to grasp, the idea that you can float (or trudge) through life without feeling, without love, without a heart. Is it a concept that can be laughed off, categorized under people-have-said-stranger-things-and-not-meant-them-at-all? We read a love letter from l’écrivain Victor Hugo to his lover Juliette aloud in class today. At the instruction of our professor, we were forced to emphasize each phrase, as though we really believed such intense love and feeling were possible. Our professor holds fast to the idea that wild, powerful love is possible and so our daily conversations often consist of a dialogue of pessimists with her gasping in romantic despair every time we express such hopelessness.

Maybe when you are finally alone, when you finally have a chance to breathe and take in the world around you, maybe then you realize how lonely many people are. It could be the old woman who walks up to you sitting on a bench and asks if you’re Swedish, hoping to launch into a discussion of the recent election, and then, upon the discovery that you are in fact American, is just as eager to discuss George W. Bush and the war on terror. Or it could be the man sitting next to you on the bench, smoking a cigar, who at first seems totally harmless asking questions about your studies until he starts trying to touch your face.

Or the woman you sit down for lunch with in the office — cheese, bread and wine finished with a small gâteau chocolat fondant — who has just discovered that she may lose what is left of her eyesight in her one eye. At this moment in my life, I don’t think I could imagine —and I hope I shouldn’t imagine — waking up one morning without my eyesight. The very thought makes me want to never go to sleep, to stay forever awake and looking, looking at everything around me. It makes you think that life is short, but when you see all these people in this city looking for someone, anyone, to talk to, you find that life is also long.

Life is those moments that stretch out forever while the plates are being cleared and you are waiting for dessert. Life is those moments when you decide that waiting is not enough, that you will have dessert before you will have anything else.

I made these little cakes for Jennifer’s Sugar High Fridays. The theme of September was bite-sized desserts and you can find the full announcement on My Diverse Kitchen. I have to say this is pretty much the theme of my life these days as everything I bake now can be eaten in a couple bites, provided you don’t eat the entire batch.

Hazelnut Gâteau Breton
Adapted from Bon Appétit

Makes 12 mini muffins

125 g. sugar
30 g. ground hazelnuts
3 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
114 g. salted butter, browned
130 g. flour

1 egg yolk for glaze (you won’t need the whole thing)

Preheat the oven to 325 F/160 C. Butter and flour your mini muffin pans. Combine the egg yolks and hazelnut flour until well blended. Mix in the sugar, then add the vanilla. Gradually whisk in the browned butter. Gradually add the flour to the wet mixture, stirring until just combined in order to avoid a tough cake. Spoon the batter into the prepared pans, filling each about 3/4 full. Using a pastry brush, brush the top of each cake generously with the egg yolk. Using the back of a fork, deeply mark a criss-cross pattern on the top of each cake. Bake cakes until deep golden brown on top and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.

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.

Old-fashioned blueberry cake

August 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

When I made the decision to start eating healthy again, I never imagined what would be the first cake recipe to fall in my lap. It is almost as if fate meant for me to make a diet change right at that very instant, meant for me to sort through our bins of whole grain flours, meant for me to skip right over the white sugar—and even the brown sugar, and land on a jar of unsulfured molasses. It meant for me to be browsing 101 Cookbooks at that very minute and open I recipe I had never thought to open before, despite the many times I have scoured the site for wholesome baked goods and sorted though dinner recipes, even knowing that I would never cook them because, let’s face it, I don’t cook. But at that very moment, I opened up this recipe for Old-Fashioned Blueberry Cake and I knew the palate had changed.

If you do not love molasses, I suggest you stop here. This cake is not for you. It is entirely sweetened with molasses, which lends it a deep, dark color, so dark in fact you would swear it’s chocolate on looking at it. But that first bite, through the crunch of the walnut topping, reveals that that darkness is not chocolate at all. And you are not disappointed at the discovery. Because just when you thought someone so healthy could not be so deeply satisfying, you take another bite of cake and the flavors that were so unexpected in the first bite become wonderfully addicting in the second. It’s rustic, it’s hearty, it’s not for the faint-hearted (in the flavor sense of the idea, not in the butter content) and it’s, dare I say it, pretty quaint. And it’s one of those cakes that you have to cut off three tablespoons of butter from the stick, instead of just throwing the entire stick (or two) in the bowl. Have you ever noticed that most recipes call for either ½ cup or 1 cup of butter, conveniently the size of a stick of butter or two? I wonder who came up with that. Was it the recipe writers or the butter packagers?

But back on subject, you should make this cake. With more blueberries than I used, because blueberries have a habit of disappearing (read: I have a habit of eating them by the handful) when I am baking with them. And with the chopped walnuts on top, though I think many other nuts would do, sprinkled with (okay, I admit it) maybe a teaspoon of brown sugar. And bake it in one of your prettiest pans, because this cake deserves it.

This cake accompanied me to my old high school’s English office, alongside my travel journal, which I have been jamming full of sights, restaurants and many, many bakeries, to visit during the coming year. I have a Paris section (of course) and a Provence section (of course). And then there is Venice and Wales and Barcelona. And so many others that I am afraid I am trying to go everywhere, but I just can’t pick up a travel magazine and not want to go everywhere it writes about. I wonder if the French like molasses. I packed a jar of peanut butter and another of maple syrup, but now I am on the plane wondering if I needed to bring molasses too. I hope not.

Old-Fashioned Blueberry Cake
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup buckwheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt

1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar
5 tablespoons milk (divided)
1/2 cup unsulphered molasses
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, barely melted

1 1/2 cups blueberries, frozen (I freeze fresh berries)
1 teaspoon flour

For the topping:
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar

Preheat your oven to 350F degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan or a small rectangular pan.

In a large bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a small bowl combine the cider vinegar with 3 tablespoons of the milk. In another bowl combine the molasses with the remaining 2 tablespoons of milk. Add the cider vinegar mixture into the molasses mixture, then whisk in the eggs.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir until just barely combined. Stir in the butter. Fold the blueberries, tossed with the small amount of flour, into the batter. Top the batter with the chopped walnuts and sprinkle with the brown sugar.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about thirty minutes or until a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean.

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