A Pomegranate, by any other name still a Granat-Apfel is, whilst the Fish resides at the Tail-End.

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Pomegranate (Punica granatum, Lythraceae, subfamily Punicoideae)

Although Eve’s forbidden fruit is often depicted as an apple, ein Apfel in German, it may have been, in my considered opinion, actually ein Granatapfel, a pomegranate. If we could go 5000 years back to the Sumerian town of Uruk, we would come across the temple of the protector of Uruk, the Goddess Inanna*. In the Mesopotamian creation myth called ‘Inanna and the Huluppu Tree’, and in the myth of ‘Inanna and the God of Wisdom’ one finds the earliest known stories relating to the origin of mankind and its thirst for knowledge. The Huluppu which caused the Goddess Inanna quite some trouble was a pomegranate tree and in the intertwined myth, she stole the gifts of knowledge and culture from Enki the God of Wisdom, while he was drunk [maybe on pomegranate wine?] and impuissant against her charms.

As I briefly mentioned in a post of August 25, 2019, our rather unruly little garden is home to not just one but several pomegranate bushes of at least two different varieties.

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Cultivar “Legrelliae” or maybe “Ki Zakuro”

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Cultivar “Provence”

The Provence grenadier was the bush we discovered last year, thanks to its striking bright orange-red flowers.

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June 2019

The others either bloomed extremely discretely or not at all that year. By mid-July, 2019, the flowers on the bush above began to set to fruit, a process that took about a month to complete.

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July 15th

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August 18th

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The first test in late August. Yes, the berry is filled with seeds.

Waiting for the fruit to ripen to learn if our Granatäpfel might be edible took several months. Fortunately, a road trip to Helsinki and the Baltic countries [check it out in my TRAVEL blog] saved me from the nail-biting excitement of watching fruit grow for the entire month of September. But as soon as we were back, I couldn’t resist to open up one of the pomegranates with a split pericarp, its outer shell.

 

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The majority of seeds was still quite pale.

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I cheated and put the reddest ones on top for the photo … 😎

 

Although the appearance of both fruit and seeds was typical for pomegranates, they were quite a bit smaller than the usual commercial varieties and they were very, very astringent. I thought they might need more time to mature, so I gave them another three weeks before I collected a few more of the fruit that had already fallen to the ground – with exactly the same result, inedible sourness.

I used a few as garnishes, but it was just no pleasure to eat something evoking the furry feeling in one’s mouth of biting into an unripe banana. Within the next fortnight, it was time to try the pomegranates one last time. Before the announced arrival of our first November storm, I went out to harvest the last of our berries.

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They hadn’t changed in color or size, but I was hopeful! A few of the prettier ones were allowed to show off in a fruit bowl near the radiator in our dining room on the off chance indoor living might kick-start their sugar metabolism.

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If you think that hulling the seeds from a commercial pomegranate is annoying, you’ve never done it with the tiny seeds in an undersized variety – it took me practically forever!

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But eventually, my kitchen machine and I extracted nearly 0.8 l of pomegranate juice from our home-grown berry seeds. And what a mess it was!

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I like tart fruit, especially my all-time favorite, maracuyá, the Costa Rican passion fruit. There, I would successfully offset the astringent tendencies of maracuyá juice with honey. When I attempted to do that last November with my pomegranate juice, I failed completely. Even after I added sugar syrup, the juice never turned into a product one might like to enjoy with yogurt and cereal, waffles, or, quite frankly, anything else. I tried to use the juice as a flavorful ingredient for sauces and reductions but never achieved any better than so-so results. Once, having made a spicy sauce to dress an Arctic Char filet, my dinner companion remarked that it looked like blood. Not what I had in mind.

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With the onset of pandemic confinement in March, I poured the remaining pomegranate juice done the drain – we needed more space in the fridge for actually usable food. Case closed.

A much more successful preparation turned out to be Saturday’s lemon-butter sauce for some pathetically thin frozen salmon bits. Owing to our continued self-isolation, we buy more frozen than fresh food, including fish. The frozen salmon wasn’t bad at all, just thinner than a lovely slice of fresh-caught wild salmon would be, and therefore it cooked much more quickly. One has to be ever vigilant not to overcook those skinny little filet pieces.

SALMON with CUCURMA-LEMON-BUTTER for two

Select the desired number of Salmon filet [preferably wild-caught salmon, not that terrible farm stuff], season the fish with white pepper, cucurma powder, lemon zest, and dill. Allow the fish to come to room temperature before cooking [at least 10 min]

For the sauce:

  • 60 g butter
  • 160 ml of dry white wine [or court-bouillon if you prefer]
  • 1 Tbl lemon zest
  • 3 Tbl lemon juice
  • 120 ml of heavy cream
  • lots of chopped dill
  • cucurma powder
  • salt

Melt the butter over medium heat without browning it. Turn up the heat a little and immediately and carefully add the salmon filets. If you use skin-on filets, brown the skinless side first. Sear one minute in the butter, turn the filets over and sear another minute on the other side – two minutes for skin-on – while basting with the sizzling butter. Turn down the heat and remove the filets from the pan to keep warm. I had baked a potato-onion gratin as a side dish which I kept warm in the oven, so I put a covered plate with the salmon in the warm oven. To make the sauce, add the wine or the bouillon to the pan, increase the heat, and reduce by roughly one third. Add the zest to the boiling sauce, stir for a minute, add the lemon juice, stir and keep the sauce boiling. Slowly add the cream while stirring and continuing to reduce the volume. As the sauce thickens, finish it with salt, cucurma, and dill to taste, and, if desired, another dollop of butter.

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When you’re satisfied with the creamy consistency of your sauce, turn down the heat to medium-low, adjust the seasoning, and reintroduce the salmon to the pan to reheat.

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If your filets are quite thick, you may have to cover the pan and give them a couple of minutes to finish cooking so that the center turns opaque. Voilá, that’s all!

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For my serving, I compulsively add capers to all egg or fish dishes. Also, I would have added a half-a-teaspoon of anchovy paste to the melting butter, in the beginning, to emphasize the deepsea aroma of the fish – had I thought of it at the time.  The wine, both for cooking and drinking was a UBY Nº3, Côtes de Gascogne, a summer wine composed of ugni blanc and colombard grapes, crisp and refreshing but assertive enough to balance the creamy sauce and the distinctive salmon flavor. Bon Appetit !

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*Inanna material based on:

“Goddesses, Elixirs, and Witches” by John M. Riddle and

“Inanna” by Joshua J. Mark in the Ancient History Encyclopedia

Contentment – Gratitude

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Summer knocked on my window’s ancient, swirly glass with a loud humming sound this morning. A bumblebee’s drone diverted my attention from the computer screen to the outdoors and the bright sunshine therein. A bee had settled on the string of plastic beads with which we raise and lower the insect screens in our windows.

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I opened the window very slowly and quietly – which is silly since bees can’t perceive sound – just wide enough to stick the camera through it.

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Hymenoptera->Apidae->Bombini->Bombus – B. terrestris, the buff-tailed bumblebee. However, I’m just guessing considering the bleach-blond bristles on this girl’s rear end.

In the cladogram for corbiculated bees, bees with pollen baskets on their rear legs, the Bombini tribe branched off earlier than the Euglossini or orchid bees, while the stingless bees formed a branch that split off the Bombinis. If you don’t care for Hymenoptera taxonomy, nevermind these details. I have fun investigating such tidbits because there have been such tremendous advancements since I went to school trying to absorb fascinating minutiae like this.

And how do we know that this is a female bee? Well, male bees forage only for their own sustenance. They don’t contribute to the well-being of the hive community, largely because they get kicked out as soon as they emerge from their pupal state. Therefore only female worker bees store collected pollen in their corbiculae to bring home to the hive. And as one can see below, my visitor had baskets stockpiled with pollen!

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As a matter of fact, it appeared that she had largely landed on those chains to rest somewhere convenient to groom stray pollen as she was very busy sweeping and brushing while hanging onto those plastic beads!

A little while later, I took a stroll through the garden to record the rapid advances in growth and development so far this Spring. It was invigorating to hear the buzzing of such a multitude of insects among the flowering plants.

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A Methuselah of a vine, …

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… still producing fresh, new growth.

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In the afternoon, we enjoyed a Campari on the terrace – in shorts! The thermometer rose to an ambient temperature of 25ºC/77ºF today with dazzlingly bright sunshine and deep blue skies.

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We do feel guilty as we take pleasure in this abundance of good fortune in the midst of a pandemic and a national lock-down. We are indeed very fortunate to be able to step outside and cherish the sights and sounds of nature all around us while we continue to enjoy good health. We can only hope for the same for our far-flung family and friends.

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STAY HOME – STAY SAFE

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Still Self-Isolating

Nearly four weeks into isolation we don’t have any complaints about our confinement. Au contraire, the strict rules which the French government imposes upon the country are designed to keep us safe and for that we are grateful. We have a small garden to enjoy and when we want to exercise a little more, we can walk within a one-kilometer radius around our house. But we have to walk separately, family outings aren’t allowed. This is the form we have to fill out and carry with us every time we leave our premises, even when we just go for a walk. One has to indicate the time of departure, too, because each person is only allowed one hour of exercise per day. As of today, the French government made a smartphone app available which can replace the printed version. Well done!

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I, the undersigned, … You pledge on your honor, but the fines are steep.

We are also appreciative of the fact that we happen to live in a small town in a largely agricultural region in the far southwest of France. The population density is low with only a few industrial activities centered around the distillation of cognac. Cognac, which is, after all, called Eau de Vie! Seriously, the numbers below show that a well-disciplined rural area can be much safer in an epidemic than an urban area. This is a graph published in today’s morning e-edition of our local paper, the “SUD OUEST”.

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Department of Health Data from Sunday, April 05, 2020, for the Region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine. Charente is our department [similar to county]. 

The Gironde department includes the city of Bordeaux which has the most extensive hospital system with the highest number of patients in the region. The city also received patients who were evacuated to Bordeaux from overburdened regions in the North and East of the country. Additionally, the paper mentioned that during the third delivery wave of protective gear for medical professionals and institutions, the region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine received 3.8 million masks, 2.9 mils. of which were surgical masks, the rest FFP2s.

Online food procurement has been, without a doubt, our main preoccupation during this isolation. Because the fulfillment slots were moving further and further out, we started loading our virtual shopping baskets in three different supermarkets on two different computers in an attempt to find active delivery options. By the time we actually put an order in, we had little idea if we had omitted or doubled up on desired articles in this confusion of baskets. Adding further suspense was the question which of the items ordered would ultimately be available. For our one and only delivery, so far, eight days passed between placing the order and our delivery slot. By the time we received our merchandise, the 70% alcohol and protective gloves we had ordered were no longer in stock, nor were three out of five frozen foods. 

On Thursday morning last week, I set out to retrieve an online order from the drive-through of our closest supermarket chain. I carried with me a print-out of the mandatory attestation and the store’s order confirmation with a bar code. Naturally, being German, I arrived a good five minutes ahead of my allotted pick-up slot, the first of the day. The bar code reader at my drive-through lane beeped reassuringly and I settled back into my car seat to wait for my order, which didn’t arrive. Eventually, I found out that I had checked in before the drive-through warehouse officially opened, thus my “beep” hadn’t registered inside. Bummer. My eagerness to be first in line and avoid as much interaction as possible added a 25-minute wait to the errand.

Our house has an attached barn on one end which we use as a garage and catch-all for things that need to be thrown out, eventually. This garage has now become the official receiving bay for everything arriving at our place from the hostile, virulent outside world.

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The garage: first point of entry for possibly contaminated items.

We let new arrivals sit for a while in case of swirling viri. The next stage is The Great Decontamination which requires quite exacting preparations, especially regarding frozen food products. In the laboratory, SARS-CoV-2 seems to lose its infectious capabilities in an environment > 56ºC, while it is pretty much unknown how well the beasties may survive in the cold. We bought frozen foods specifically to have food resources on a longer-term basis thus reducing the need to leave the house. We also know that bleach kills the virus, yet bathing frozen food in hot bleachy water is somewhat counterproductive. To prevent the possible introduction of the virus to our freezer drawers, a special decontamination protocol had to be activated for frozen foodstuffs. The key element was, very simply, to remove and discard all outer packaging. However, storing frozen food nacked as it were, would create a couple of new difficulties, as in identifying the commercially prepared meals and no longer having any associated cooking instructions. Therefore my protocol had to include distinctive stages of preparation.

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First stage: Label freezer bags with the name of each food item and …

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… set up the opened bags.

The door between the garage and this utility room, or l’arrière cuisine, the back kitchen or la buanderie, the laundry room as it would be called around here, is a very old, ill-fitting glass-paned door. The garage itself, being a barn, has no insolation. So we hung this quilted blanket as a temperature barrier, both against icy drafts and the heat of summer.

For the next steps in the protocol, I donned a pair of gloves, grabbed my camera and pushed that blanket fully to one side before opening the door to the garage. There, I laid out all our frozen purchases and took pictures, one by one, first of each front panel, followed by the relevant cooking instructions.

That done, I took each container, again one by one, and cut it open, being very careful not to touch the content with my potentially contaminated gloves. Stepping through the open doorway back into the utility room, I slipped either the inner pack or the loose content, for example, broccoli rosettes, in the pristine freezer bag with the matching label. The outer packaging went straight into the recycle bin in the garage, which won’t be collected for another week, so our dustmen will be safe.

When all frozen goods were processed, I dipped my gloved hands in a bleach solution and also washed them with hot, soapy water. Then I took the gloves off – I have to be very careful with these gloves, we have only six pairs left – and washed my hands again before closing the freezer bags and storing them in the freezer. Now I have a record of instructions on my computer to consult whenever necessary. It goes without saying that the scissors and the camera also needed to be sterilized.

Afterward, it was time to continue the tedious chore of washing whatever can be washed in a hot, bleachy solution.

Ultimately we had two areas with washed articles that had to dry completely first before refrigeration, and two more areas with unwashed dry goods that will stay in the garage in social isolation till the virus shall have died a natural death – or we need a Cheetos fix.

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During this pandemic, we are clearly benefiting from our rustic, semi-dilapidated outbuilding in which one can age chips and cookies to perfection!

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STAY HOME – STAY SAVE

P.S. If you’re short on grated Emmental, ring at the garage door. We have more than we can possibly eat before its date of expiration!

 

A Day in our Lives of Self-Isolation

I was tempted to call this post “A Day in the Life of Iwan Denissowitsches French Sister”, but reconsidered quickly because I didn’t want to be disrespectful to either the millions murdered in the Gulags nor Alexander Solschenizyn. It would’ve been catchy, though.

We have been in self-isolation in our house and small garden since the middle of last week. It was a rapidly evolving decision to shutter ourselves in after I came back from my last physical therapy session à la méthode McKenzie. I had worn gloves to open the doors to my therapist’s building and office, and I used my coat sleeve to open the door to his WC before leaving and I didn’t get close to any of the other patients. Was that enough? I didn’t see my therapist using hand sanitizer, but then, he didn’t actually touch me. He just demonstrated the exercises I was to execute on an upholstered treatment bench covered with a disposable sheet. I then repeated those movements on that very same sheet. Had he changed it after the patient ahead of me? Didn’t it look kind of crumbled? How easy it is to drive yourself nuts!

I washed those gloves as soon as I got home. They are made of beautifully stitched light grey suede and they are quite special to me. My grandmother used to use them for her daily morning exercise on her horse Jassa, roughly 50 years ago when she was the same age as I am now – my grandmother, not Jassa. When I started university, I lived at my grandma’s for the first two semesters. Gradually we developed certain routines in our communal lives. For example, before driving to the stables, she would make a Müsli for her breakfast. It consisted of some diced apple and banana, lemon juice, oat flakes, raisins, hazelnuts, and cream. She would leave a small bowl of Müsli for me on the kitchen counter so I wouldn’t go to classes on an empty stomach. This was also where she would dry her gloves after washing them in the utility sink in the far corner of the kitchen. Washing one’s suede gloves simply mean washing one’s hands in the Age of Corona, while wearing gloves. You diligently soap each finger, the in-between-the-fingers spaces, palms, thumbs, and the back of your hands. Rinse. Repeat. Then dry your gloved hands with a towel to soak up excess moisture and remove the still wet gloves. Take the handle of an old-fashioned wooden cooking spoon, inserting it into all the fingers, one by one, to separate the layers of leather. Finally, dry the gloves dangling from those cooking utensils. Since my grandmother went riding most mornings, there were usually gloves suspended over assorted crocks on the old, wooden draining board in her kitchen, right where she left the Müsli for me.

In order to restock the fridge and pantry after our first full week of seclusion, we had to go shopping. Currently, that is a potentially life-threatening activity for us old folks, but deliveries aren’t part of our lives here in the smalltown hinterlands of provincial France. One of the supermarket chains in Cognac called Auchan offers the next best thing, drive-through shopping. One orders online and picks up the order outside the store. Lately, this has been advertised as No-Touch-Drive-Through where you pull in and open your trunk, they load the purchases into your trunk and you drive off into the sunset.

I set down at the computer in the morning around 9hrs30 in my pajamas to work my way through the virtual Auchan shopping aisles. Three hours later, I was still in my PJs and ready to jump out the window. Owing to the extremely high internet traffic, the website was operating at a snail’s pace, switching again and again to a “we’re doing maintenance and will be back in a few minutes” page randomly alternating with “Oops, page not found” instead of loading the requested pages. Such fun! Some food choices were limited, but basic kinds of pasta and rice were available, and even toilet paper. Since my shopping basket tally reverted to zero several times during this lengthy ordering process, I checked out well before ordering every item on my long list. I just didn’t want to push my luck. My allotted pick-up time was roughly 24 hours later.

En los tiempos del coléra* one has to carefully consider how to emerge into the outside world. Firstly, one has to print and sign the government form in which one pledges on one’s personal honor that this trip to the grocery store is unavoidable. Then the customer and order numbers have to be verified in the Auchan app on one’s phone. Shopping bags have to be loaded, plus an insulated bag for frozen items. The person venturing out has to be outfitted with washable outer clothing, a gaiter** in place of a mask, disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, and courage.

Although I encountered a checkpoint along the way, the Gendarmes waved me through without demanding my paperwork. I suppose a grey-haired old lady in a batterie-powered mini-car posses little thread to the community! The pick-up @AuchanDrive worked very well and was so efficient that I backed into our garage with my load of groceries in no time flat. That’s when the real work began. Since any number of people had touched the groceries and our bags, and we now know that the virus lives happily up to five days on assorted surfaces, everything had to be wiped down with alcohol and then repackaged if at all possible. After that chore, the shopping bags were sanitized as well, and the car door handles, the steering wheel, stick shift, not to forget the little button with which I fold in the side mirrors so that the car fits through the narrow garage door, and the car keys, naturally, everything had to be wiped down, including the table in the utility room were all our groceries had awaited their individual bath. That done, gloves disposed of, I stripped and loaded the washing machine with my potentially contaminated clothing. Next came personal sanitation. Throat gargling with an antiseptic mouthwash which isn’t actually anti-viral, but tastes so bad that it must be a corona killer, how could it not be? I also washed my glasses in hot soapy water followed by a long, hot shower for myself.

I may be paranoid, but the CoVid-19 illness scares me deeply, both for myself and my husband. In Italy, healthcare personnel and facilities have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of seriously ill patients. Protective clothing for nurses and doctors is no longer available in many places so that health care personnel can’t properly care for patients, instead, they succumb to the virus themselves. In Italy, ER doctors are forced to make a dire choice, a life-or-death choice. Who will get the ventilator, who will suffocate in panicked agony in some hospital corridor, alone, utterly alone? To be swiftly and unceremoniously cremated, although, even some crematoria have now reached their operational capacity.

I can not regard any of these issues neutrally because I grew up engaged in discussions of medical and scientific issues. And I spent the majority of my working life as a cellular biologist in three different medical schools. Therefore infectious diseases are neither new nor scary for me. What is scary is the speed with which this new viral fellow spreads its wings among the global population. What is truly scary is the administrative molasses through which our alleged leaders are dragging their feet instead of showing a proactive initiative. China originally denied the existence of a new coronavirus, but anyone paying attention knew by the end of December that something awful was brewing. Yet, for the two following months, there was very little, if any, thought given to preparing for a possible pandemic. Plants could have been retooled to manufacture ventilators and face masks, for example, triage centers could’ve been created, negative-airflow ICU cubicles could have been built, but no, instead, it was called a hoax and scaremongering. I don’t know how many times I responded to Facebook comments which pointed out that tuberculosis is worse, seasonal flu is worse, that there are just a few old people dying. Well, thank you very much, this old woman isn’t quite ready to die yet! And the shame of seeing young adults frolicking on beaches because “this is my time”, “this is spring break”, and “I don’t care what you think” is plain unbearable in light of the thousands that have already died. Where are the parents of these bozos? Why don’t they cut off tuition for cushy student lives and instead let their offspring work as delivery drivers to supply nursing homes with much-needed supplies?

But most of all, I can not regard any of these issues neutrally because I watched helplessly when my sister-in-law Felecia slowly suffocated during the endstage of lung cancer. I’ve seen the panic in her eyes when she couldn’t get the oxygen her brain needed to keep the encroaching madness in check. I remember how she fought us with furious strength to run away from her hospital bed in a desperate quest to find that oxygen that her lungs could no longer process.

I hope to never again have to see that panic in the eyes of someone I love.

*Gabriel García Márquez, paraphrased, original title: El amor en los tiempos del cólera, 1985 or Love in the Time of Cholera, 1988  

**In the frozen North of America a gaiter is not so much protective footwear than a kind of endless scarf protecting one’s neck and lower face against icy winds.                

SylvesterSuppe

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Otherwise known as The Soup of New Year’s Eve. Naturally, the lead photo shows potatoes roasting in duck fat, what else?! To offer an excuse, I have yet to edit so many photos and do so much background research for posts at both this blog and my travel blog that I felt completely overwhelmed yesterday. Therefore, to end the year with a warm and cozy feeling, I decided to postpone my writing to 2020 and cook a rich fish soup for our Saint Sylvestre dinner instead.

Ingredients and proceedings developed pretty much as usual. Celery, fennel, carrot, onion, leek, and potato, the usual suspects, cooked in court bouillon comme d’habitude, as we say around here. This time around, though, I simmered all the ends and trimmings in the bouillon for about an hour, also adding a bundle of dried thyme with laurel leaves and a half an onion with three cloves to the vegetable broth to give it a stronger herbal aroma. For seasoning, I added a teaspoon of umami and some salt to the usual teaspoon of ground coriander seeds.

While the stock was simmering, there was time to watch the last few minutes of the “Great British Bake Off” Christmas special and an installment of “Escape to the Country” on SKY TV while roasting les pommes de terre grenailles aka baby potatoes for 10 min @240ºC and marinating the fish with freshly ground pepper, cucurma powder, and lemon zest.

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I had bought a Lieu noir filet for the soup, a Pollock or Saithe in English, a Köhler in German. The Pollachius virens, Gadidae, is great for soup because it’s heated through in just a couple of minutes and it is very inexpensive. I read that for marketing reasons, the fish is often sold as Seelachs in Germany. Lachs is the German term for salmon, species that belong to the family of Salmonidae which are much more costly than Gadidae or, in German, Dorsch. That renders the designation of “salmon” for a Köhler a big fat lie.

Back in our kitchen, I first strained the stock, then slow-simmered the finely julienned yellow onion in olive oil for about 15 minutes. I wanted them to be really soft, almost as if they were destined for an onion soup, but not browned. Next in line were the carrots,  plus a little liquid from the stockpot to be soaked up by the carrots.

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Before long, the remaining sliced and diced veggies followed,

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eventually to be drowned in more stock.

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Then the potatoes were added to the simmering soup to finish cooking, while I assembled the salad, opened the wine, sliced the bread, and set the table. Since our dining room is currently in use as an office, we eat even festive diners right next to the stove.

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This is a bit of a sentimental picture. The teakwood salt cellar with its miniature shovel and the matching peppermill used to grace my parental dining table when I was a little girl sixty-odd years ago. And those Marimekko design placemats? Well, we’ve been using those for just about 40 seasons now.

Lastly, I added the fish and six big shrimp to the soup and heated a nice dollop of butter in a frying pan for the crowning glory of our New Year’s Eve Fish Soup, six Atlantic Great Scallops, Pecten maximus, not to be confused with the Mediterranean scallops Pecten jacobeus. After two minutes, when the scallops were browned on the bottom, I turned them over and flambéed them in a shot of Ricard. Since I can’t play with fire and take pictures at the same time, sadly, I can’t offer you any pictorial proof of these actions! I can only show you the quite tasty results.

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The dirt specs are actually sumac or sumach, Rhus coriaria, Anacardiaceae. The dried Rhus fruit are crushed into a crimson spice with a tart, citrusy flavor. It is apparently a much-loved spice in the Middle Eastern kitchen of which I am woefully ignorant. We were introduced to the spice recently in Bilbao during our extraordinary anniversary dinner at Extanobe Atelier. They very kindly gave us a quantity of sumac to take home with us.

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Guten Appetit and my heartfelt Good Wishes for a tasty New Year 2020!

Happy Fish with a little Frost

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You have to admit, these codpieces -allow me to rephrase- these pieces of cod do look happy! They are about to be steamed in a deep pot filled with vegetables cooked in broth.

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The night before, I soaked some Tarbais beans and cooked them while the rest of the vegetables received a good wash and dice-and-slice.

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In addition to the beans, there were three more newcomers enhancing my latest version of fish soup, yellow pepper for crunch, algae for ocean saltiness, and freshly grated ginger for punch.

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Soon, the ingredients were sorted, ready to go in the pot.

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As always, my soup began with the dry toasting of crushed coriander seeds, before heating olive oil to receive the first batch of veggies, followed by ginger and lemon zest. Once that was heated through nicely, it was time to add all the remaining, softer vegetables like fennel, yellow pepper, and parsley, all submerged in Court-Bouillon.

The beans joined the party just ahead of the algae which formed a soft bed for the cod. With the lid firmly closed to steam the happy fish, it will be ready to jump onto your plate in about 15 min.

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A glass of peppery Côtes de Gascogne Colombard-Ugni Blanc is a perfect match for this aromatic soup, possibly to be followed by some home-grown sweet and juicy grapes with your cheese course?

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After dinner, your partner, like mine, might read a Robert Frost poem to you as you relax in the salon. Such a lovely closing of summertime in Cognac, France – although it did put Monty the Fox to sleep.

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Late Summer Musing

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As August is winding down, the ambiance all around us is turning a subtle shade of Fall. Nothing as obvious as falling leaves, it is rather more a feeling than a color change, as the trees are no longer quite as vigorously green as we recall their rustling splendor seemingly only hours ago.

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Earlier this week, we finally managed to do something we had planned to do since the first of May when the venue opened. On our way into town for a walk and a drink, we made the sudden decision to pull instead into the parking lot of the Cognac House Martell. The main building of the Martell Headquarters sports a unique drinking spot, a roof terrace bar. By any stretch of the imagination, we are clearly not in NYC as the building has only five floors, but this is exciting enough for us small-town folk here in Cognac!

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A screenshot of a promotional video on the Martell website. It’s an aerial shot of the Indigo by Martell bar overlooking Old Town Cognac.

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The swift is the logo for the cognac house. In French, a swift [Apus apus, Apodidae] is called un martinet which ties a disciplinarian ribbon between Jean Martell [1694 – 1753] the founder of the cognac House Martell and Charles Martel of Herstal [~688 – 741] hero of the battle of Tour, founder of the feudal House of the Carolingian, and grandfather of Charlemagne.

One of the recent cognac creations of the House Martell is called the Blue Swift. It’s a VSOP cognac finished in Kentucky Bourbon casks, very hip and international indeed. At the Indigo by Martell rooftop bar, I had a Blue Swift straight up, while my husband opted for a Sazerac cocktail made with Blue Swift. In the link, you can read all the exciting tidbits about the origin of this quintessential Big Easy cocktail. The Cognac House Sazerac de Forge & Fils of Angoulême, mentioned in the blog post, provided the cognac used to make these cocktails in New Orleans in the 1850s. The House ceased production about 120 years later, although some ancient bottles can still be found at auction for gobsmacking prices. The currently operating successor to Sazerac de Forge & Fils is the Cognac House ABK6. A-B-K-6 is an acronym which, if pronounced in French, forms the family name of the owners of the cognac house, Abécassis. After all that deep immersion into cognac lore and the alphabet, we couldn’t help but recreated a traditional Sazerac cocktail at home yesterday with Meukow VS, our go-to cognac for cocktails.

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What else happened during this very, very hot summer? Some cooking, of course, by both residents. Chinese dishes and the occasional burger, by one of us, while the other one was more focused on salads & grains.

The garden brought us a lot of joy and a little grief, too, when some new plantings were struggling to make it through the extreme heat in July. The juvenile fig tree suffered especially hard. Although it is carrying fruit, its leaves are largely gone, so we don’t know if the figs will ripen, nor if it will make a healthy comeback next year.

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Our blackberries are pretty pathetic as well. They grow so much more plentiful and juicy at our friends’ place in the Pacific NW!

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The garden also presented us with a huge surprise, when we realized we actually had a pomegranate bush right in front of that sad fig tree.

Since I had no idea if these tiny garnet apples are edible, I cut one open to discover it was filled with a plentitude of unripe seeds. I’ve since read up on the creatures and I’m now hoping for a harvest of miniature pomegranates in a couple of month or so.

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Before saying good-bye to you today, a swift addendum.

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Phlegmatic cows, excitable swifts, and one dove as seen from my desk.

À la prochaine, mes amis !

Jardin.August.11-1370076

Of Chocolate and other Sins

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Handmade chocolates & guimauves

My favorite French pastry is a gâteau opéra or opera cake, and my most favorite opera cake comes from the absolutely fabulous “Relais des Gourmandises” pastry shop, where Maître Artisan Chocolatier Maurice Mabillot whips up amazing sweets with his magical fouet.

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Rich cakes with a drop of the finest Premier Cru Grande Fine Champagne Cognac.

The Relais des Gourmandises is located in Matha, Charente-Maritime, roughly a 30-minute drive from our house. We hadn’t been in Matha for a chocolate fix in ages, so I called Mme Mabillot who runs the boutique to place an order for my beloved opera cakes, yes, in the plural, for a next day pick-up. It was a beautiful summer day, so before collecting the sweets, we strolled through Matha to the bistro in the main square where we settled on the patio in the shade of lilac trees for a beer and a glass of local white wine respectively.

At the Relais, madame had already boxed the telephone order and my husband had the tough task of selecting his own pastry choices. This poor, deprived man has never experienced the delight of opera cake because he, well, despises everything with a coffee aroma, imagine that! Fortunately, there is no shortage of baked goods in this country to compensate for his self-imposed culinary limitations.

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It was a fairly quiet afternoon at the pastry shop, and to our surprise and delight, the maître and his wife gave us The Grand Tour through the business end of a pâtisserie boulangerie, a French bakery. The atelier was composed of four sections, each with its own tools and machinery, ovens and/or coolers, work surfaces, supply closets, and so forth. There was one area for bread making, another one for les viennoiseries, those lovely, flaky breakfast pastries like croissants or apple turnovers, followed by the area dedicated to the creation of fancy cakes like the opéra, Paris-Brest, or religieuse*, etc. Lastly, we were introduced to the atelier for “chocolates” as in les pralinés, les bonbons, les truffes, and, of course, the much-loved guimauves or marshmallows. It was amazing to see the workshop and learn a little about the highly specialized and intricate work of a chocolatier. Thank you very much for our tour, Maître et Madame Mabillot.

* With the exception of local baked goods, all French pastries & cakes have names and their ingredients are standardized. The quality of the ingredients and the talent, creativity, and expertise of the pastry chef determine if his or her efforts result in an average or a superb product.

The origin of opera cake is shrouded in the mists of speculation. Many people believe it was the highly respected chocolatier Maître Cyriaque Gavillon who created the multi-tiered rectangular cake in 1955 at the famous Parisian pâtisserie house Dalloyau. Legend has it that the richness of the pastry reminded Madame Andrée Gavillon, the master’s wife, of the sumptuousness of the Baroque-Revival opera house, the Palais Garnier, therefore she named it after the opera house. On the other hand, Maître Gaston Lenôtre, another globally famous Parisian chocolatier, chef, and all-around culinary wizard, claimed to have created the café-flavored cake in 1960, whilst the former daily newspaper “Le Gaulois” advertised a gâteau opéra already in 1899.

If one were so inclined, a subtle connection could be woven between Le Gaulois newspaper and the Palais Garnier, and possibly even the invention of a cake celebrating the opera house. You see, in 1909 and 1910 Le Gaulois published a story as a serial which was destined to become very famous indeed. Its author was one Gaston Louis Alfred Leroux and he called his story Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. The plot thickens! Since its publication as a book in 1910, followed by an English translation in 1911, Gaston’s Fantôme served as the storyline for a great number of films and stage productions, but the music of Andrew Baron Lloyd Webber gave this “Phantom of the Opera” the ultimate push into eternal stardom.

Leroux was a wild and adventurous guy, turning first to journalism and then to writing detective fiction after he had squandered an inherited fortune. He had a neck for finding himself in exotic locations during major historical events. For example, he witnessed the onset of the Russian Revolution on Blood Sunday, January 22, 1905, in St. Petersburg. Another affair Monsieur Leroux observed rather closely was the investigation into a secret prison cell in the basement of the Paris opera house, otherwise known as Palais Garnier which subsequently became the fictional home of his phantom. Who is to say, there wasn’t an entrepreneurially minded pâtisserie chef in Paris during these days of the fledgling Third Republic trying to link his cake to the most beautiful building in Paris and advertising it in the most popular daily paper of his time? Maybe the circle closed when those prominent 20th-century chocolatiers rediscovered the unsung original gâteau opéra, refining and standardizing it.

And while we are contemplating French chocolate creations, let us also remember the most typical and beloved of French chocolaty sins, la Mousse au Chocolat. My late brother Charles learned the art of making chocolate mousse at the tender age of seven at the knee of his maman d’été, his summer mama, in La Baule at the beautiful Côte d’Armour in Brittany. I have carried his recipe around with me through continents and decades, yet I never prepared the dessert until early last Saturday morning, when I decided to pull out the kitchen machine and whip up his mousse for our lunch guests. Not entirely “his” mousse, as I worked in my own little twist by omitting one of the ingredients, heavy cream, while adding a new one.

La Nouvelle Mousse au Chocolat façon Basque

  • 200 g de chocolat noir, soit 70% de cacao de la meilleure qualité (!)
  • 40 g de beurre doux
  • 80 g de sucre en poudre
  • 4 gros œufs très frais, séparés
  • 1/2 cuillère à café de Piment d’Espelette*
  • une pincée de sel

Preparation:

  1. Separate the eggs, then beat the egg whites with the pinch of salt to form very stiff peaks. Put the bowl in the fridge.
  2. Melt the chocolate with the butter and the chili in a microwave – or a bain-marie if you prefer – making sure to use moderate heat so you won’t burn the chocolate. Stir to combine.
  3. Beat the yolks with the sugar until fluffy, very fluffy, one yolk at a time.
  4. Combine the warm chocolate sauce with the sweet yolk cream.
  5. Very gently fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites until all the white “spots” are gone.
  6. Distribute the chocolate mousse into individual serving dishes and cool for several hours.

There are a few principles to consider in this preparation. The bowl in which you beat the egg whites has to be very clean, fat-free and cold to achieve a large volume of foam with stiff peaks. The chocolate has to be fluid but not so hot as to curdle the egg yolks. Sugar takes a long time to dissolve, be patient. Mousse au Chocolat is a heavy dessert. Small portions are just right and won’t overwhelm your guest’s stomachs. The mousse could be decorated with a few crystals of fleur de sel or a whipped cream rosette just before serving. The recipe serves six comfortably.

Charles' Mousse au Chocolat

* The addition of Espelette chili granules to Charles’ recipe was a spontaneous decision last Saturday morning. It added a nice kick to this sweet dessert and I believe my brother would’ve approved. It was, however, not an original idea. Some twenty years ago, I discovered the sweet-and-spicy creations of the chocolatière Katrina Markoff, founder of Haut-Vosges Chocolats, who put her creations on the map pairing them with flavors like wasabi, paprika, Mexican chilis, and more. Besides, the combination of crystalized ginger with dark chocolate has been a traditional favorite among sweet lovers for centuries.

 

 

 

Chili à la Française

 

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Recently, I was overcome by desire for chili. I had neither cooked nor tasted chili since we left behind our ranch in Central Texas to move to France. Thanks to the mail-order supermarket “My American Market” it has, however, become possible to recreate some of those familiar flavors or at least close facsimiles thereof.

CLAUDINHA’s CHILI & CORNBREAD

 

As it turned out, with the exception of the coarse cornmeal and the can of “Rotel” diced tomatoes & green chilies, all ingredients for this recipe came straight out of our local supermarket. The biggest difference between Ranch chili and French chili was the meat I used. In Texas, we only ate flavorful deer meat, mostly Axis deer, raised on our own land. And the meat for my Ranch chilis was not ground but diced, which added a more interesting texture to the stew. Commercially processed ground beef just can’t match that. A word of caution before we proceed with the cooking. Do not, and I mean not ever call this “Texas chili”. Texas chili consists of beef cubes cooked slowly and gently in a sauce of freshly made chili paste. Period. Tomatoes or, heaven forbid, beans are never to be found in a true Texas’ Bowl o’Red. My chilis, on the other hand, have always included tomatoes and red beans, both from cans. That’s the way I like it.

For my first French chili, I began by softening the diced onion and garlic in a goodly slug of olive oil under low-medium heat before adding the ground beef.

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Once the meat was nicely browned, I mixed in most of the can of “Rotel”,

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followed by the content of the envelope of “Mexican spices” and a tablespoon of ground cumin seeds, working in the spices while turning up the heat to medium-high.

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Under high heat, I doused the mix with the dark beer and scraped the pan bottom vigorously while inhaling all that nice hops aroma. After a couple of minutes, I turned down the heat all the way, put a lid on the pot leaving a very small gap on one side for steam to escape. I let the meat simmer in the beer for around fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Then it was time to add the large can of whole, peeled tomatoes with their juice, stir well, put the lid back on and continue to simmer the chili for another hour or so.

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While the chili burps and bubbles contentedly, one could utilize this spare hour to get the cornbread going – but only if the chili is meant for the same day. Cornbread is such a lusciously sweet and crumbly kind of bread that it’s most delicious when eaten still warm from the oven, slathered in soft demi-sel Charentaise butter from the local farmer’s market … nothing could be better! You’ve seen a recipe for cornbread in my April 7 post, this time around I used a straight-up 1:1 mix of white wheat flour and yellow cornmeal.

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For the dry ingredients, I combined

  • 1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ground cumin seeds
  • 10 grinds of a pepper mill filled with white peppercorns
  • 1 tsp Piment d’Espelette [or smoked paprika]

In a separate bowl, I beat the bejeebers out of

  • 2 egg yolks
  • 4 Tbs yogurt [I used sheep milk yogurt, Greek-style should be equivalently tart]
  • 6 generous Tbs creamed corn
  • 2 Tbs fluid honey
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil

In yet another bowl, I beat the two egg whites with a little salt into fluffy soft peaks, which, on second thought, is a superfluous step I shall not repeat. Considering the coarse cornmeal in conjunction with the creamed corn, it’s a bit silly to try to introduce lightness into such a wet and heavy dough, don’t you agree?

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I combined the wet with the dry and folded in the fluffy, pouring the resulting farrago into a baking dish which went into a preheated oven at 200ºC/~400ºF for about 30 min, plus 10 min with the oven turned off.

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To finish the chili, I added both the coke and the well-rinsed beans and let it simmer without a lid to evaporate some liquid and to heat it through thoroughly for serving.

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This kind of chili is extremely benign, suitable for children and spiceophobic adults. It tastes even better reheated and freezes well, so it pays off to make a big batch for easy meals later. If you utilize a chili kit with a separate cayenne pepper envelope, use it sparingly, or not at all if you cook for guests with unknown Scoville scale tolerances. It’s much safer to let the diners heat up their individual portions with Harissa paste. The intensity of the cayenne powder develops through the cooking process and it is difficult to judge the resulting heat level, while the paste is a condiment that you taste immediately. Or set the table with a variety of Tabasco sauce flavors 🌶 Enjoy in good health!

 

 

 

 

 

A Gigantic Gourd

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Our friends Steve and Lorraine gave us a zucchini the other day. Their neighbor tends his potager with great dedication, growing all his vegetables organically, which they seem to appreciate since his produce grow happily to rather impressive sizes. We were presented with a 1.76 Kg or, in Imperial measurements, a three-pound fourteen-ounce zucchini. What do you do with a beast like that?

One finds zucchini or courgettes in the vegetable section of the supermarket, but biologically speaking they are fruits which belong in the Genus Cucurbita, gourds or squashes. C. pepo, our courgettes are one of the oldest known gourds. They were already cultivated 10 000 years ago in Oaxaca, Mexico. Many gourds are commonly used as winter squash, like pumpkins for example, and they can be stored for months. Zucchini, however, fall into the category of summer squash. They are preferably harvested when they are still young and tender, and eaten raw or grilled.

Clearly, our zucchini fell into the winter spectrum. Quite firm, not to call it wooden, with a large core of seeds, it wasn’t at all suitable for raw consumption. I walked past it for a few days looking at it a bit sideways, to tell the truth, but one can’t very well throw out a perfectly healthy vegetable, never you mind it’s actually a fruit. Finally, I decided to make zucchini bread. I’m not sure what came over me, but it seemed to be the only way to process a kilo-and-a-half-plus of aging zucchini.

Many decades ago, when we lived in Michigan and even earlier in Texas, I used to bake bread occasionally. Those were times when it was difficult, sometimes even impossible to buy actual bread, meaning a same-day baked loaf with a crust and a flavorful center as opposed to pre-sliced, plastic-sheathed squishy things languishing on store shelves for weeks on end. Since moving to France, I haven’t baked anything other than a tarte now and then. And cornbread, I forgot about making cornbread. Anyway, that’s not bread, it’s soul food. I gladly leave the creation of true bread to professionals.

On the internet, I found a well-liked recipe, possibly one of Elise Bauer’s “Simply Recipes”, and adapted it according to the content of our pantry. The dry ingredients evolved into:

  • 2 cups/450 g white wheat flour
  • 110 g coarsely ground blanched & skinned almonds*
  • 120 g cornmeal
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • 1 heaped tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cinnamon powder
  • 1 tsp cardamom powder
  • a good lick of freshly grated nutmeg

[* I had processed the almonds a few weeks ago for a different recipe and it was high time for the leftovers to disappear. Ditto for the cornmeal. I would suggest just using 3 cups of flour]

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Combine the dry ingredients and set aside.

My next chore involved processing that unloved mega gourd.

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3 lb 14 oz of gourdness!

Without much fuss, thanks to the kitchen machine, this yielded 1 255 g or roughly 44 oz of squashy flesh.

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Lastly, again in the kitchen machine, I combined the wet ingredients:

  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup of white sugar
  • 1/2 cup of light brown sugar
  • 3 tsp of good quality Bourbon vanilla extract
  • 1 envelop of vanilla sugar
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup of unsweetened apple sauce

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I beat the wet ingredients until fluffy and creamy, before folding the dry into the wet, adding some coarsely chopped walnuts along the way.

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I had no idea how much of the shredded zucchini I should use, so I gradually added three heaped cups, roughly the same amount as the dry ingredients. I should’ve stopped right there. But I didn’t. As there was a goodly amount left, I foolishly incorporated every last bit of the shredded gourd thus tilting the balance of proportion between vegetable matter, or fruit matter as it were, and dough to 2 to 1. Bad move!

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Before

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During

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After

After 60 min at 160ºC Umluft or 320ºF convection, plus 15 minutes with the oven turned off, our zucchini loafs looked quite nice with an evenly browned, crusty top.

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But the zucchini aggregation had overwhelmed the small amount of dough. Alas, as you can see, instead of bread we had sliceable pudding.

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Lesson learned: continue to cook if you must but leave the baking to people who know what they’re doing 😱