Of Chocolate and other Sins

Chocolats.02-1360907

Chocolats.04-1360916

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.

Chocolats.06-1360932

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.

Chocolats.05-1360927

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

 

Chile.15-1360677

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.

Chile.04-1360632Chile.05-1360633

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

Chile.07-1360639

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.

Chile.06-1360637

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.

Chile.08-1360640

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.

Chile.01-1360653

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?

Chile.10-1360659

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.

Chile.11-1360663

Chile.12-1360669

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.

Chile.14-1360673

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 Canicule and a Can of Fish

WH.June.21-1360218

16. Juni 2019, 21:25:29

WH.June.22-1360222

17. Juni 2019, 21:59:24

Over in my other blog, you know which one I mean, I’ve recently finished posting about our Loire Valley trip. Castles galore, of course, and some wine and food, scenery, and all those precious memories of adventurous times on the road. But you know, one’s home turf can be beautiful, too! Summer has arrived and with it a changing landscape in our small but lush courtyard garden.

WH.June.07-1360286

We’re still in the throes of our bathroom renovation which generates daily mayhem in the form of high pitched sounds from power tools setting nerve endings on edge and powdered sticky stuff seeping through cracks and crevices. From the front door through the entry and up the stairs, bubble-wrap-like plastic protects delicate ancient tiles and old oak steps, while thin plastic sheets billow over doorways, but the dust settles everywhere, protection or not. Our house has currently the air of a chantier, a work site requiring hard hats, it seems. To top off all that fun, the main sewer pipe got plugged up by ingrown roots and we had to call the Roto-Rooter pros with their heavy-duty equipment, cash or check, please. Naturally, all this is happening as we go through the hottest week of the year. A quiet cup of early morning coffee in a shady spot under the pergola is much appreciated indeed!

WH.June.06-1360256

The jasmine shading the pergola is in full bloom, releasing a lovely scent.

WH.June.08-1360297

WH.June.09-1360301

WH.June.10-1360304

WH.June.16-1360314

I love to prepare pies with ready-made dough from the grocery store in the summer. Last week I had a solitary sweet potato lying around, so I made a pie layered with very thinly sliced sweet potato, pre-sliced Emmental that needed to disappear, spinach – first wilted in a large pan with softened diced onion and a dusting of fresh nutmeg – and tomatoes. Light, easy, and tasty with a green salad, just right for warmer temperatures.

Food.June.01-1360213

Yesterday’s Tarte au Thon à Canicule, my Heatwave-Tuna-Pie was even easier.

The ingredients were:

  • 280g net or ~10 oz of tuna packed in water, drained
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
  • 3 Tbl olive oil
  • 1 Tbl white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 Tsp each garlic paste, anchovy paste, harissa paste
  • 1/2 Tsp crushed, dried marjoram
  • salt, freshly ground pepper

mix the above vigorously, cover with saran wrap and refrigerate while you pre-bake the dough, if you wish, and slice the tomatoes in thick slices. Once the dough is ready, toss the cooled tuna mix with 2 Tbl of fresh lemon juice and spread sour cream and sweet mustard generously over the pie bottom. Spread the tuna mix evenly across the pie round and cover it with densely packed tomato slices. I sprinkled some parmigiano bits on it simply because I had them, but cheese is really not necessary for this pie – lots of tomatoes are! Drizzle the pie with olive oil before baking.

Food.June.02-1360360

Bake the Tarte au Thon à Canicule for 45 min. at 200º/180ºC convection [400º/360ºF convection] for ~45 min. Before slicing, let it rest for 10 minutes or so. As a matter of fact, if you’re not too hungry, slide the pie on a rack to cool down without getting soggy, while you clean and slice a crunchy garden cucumber and maybe some radishes. Especially on a hot day, this pie tastes even better at room temperature.

And don’t forget to close the shutters against the heat!

WH.June.19-1360348

 

Tomato Pie

This past weekend gave us a great taste of summer with bright sunshine, cheerful birdsong and a mini-harvest of strawberries from our rather pathetic strawberry bush that lives in a flowerpot on the patio.

Strawberries.May-1360102

Tomatoes are currently a bestseller both in the local produces markets and in the supermarket chains, and they are very well priced. When I went shopping early Saturday morning, two other items caught my eye. Firstly, and especially interesting to me because I like sheep’s milk yogurt, I noticed crème fraîche au lait de brebis, the American equivalent of which would be sour cream made from sheep’s milk. I had never noticed crème fraîche based on anything other than cow’s milk, so naturally, I had to try it. Secondly, there was an excellent special on Italian Mozzarella di Latte di Bufalo. That clinched the deal, we would have a tomato pie for our light and summery dinner!

Being lazy by nature, I used a ready-made, store-bought shortcrust pastry dough for my pie. The only slight effort I invested was a blind-bake with ceramic beads to make the pie a little crisper.

Tomato.Pie.03-1360050

While that was going on, I sat comfortably at the kitchen table slicing a small mountain of ripe tomatoes and letting myself be distracted by a British TV program on home renovations. The tomato slices also had a brief pre-bake in a 110ºC/225ºF oven, seasoned with a few grinds of a pepper mill, some coarse sea salt, plus ground coriander seeds, dried marjoram, a little brown sugar, and a few drops of olive oil.

Tomato.Pie.02-1360051

The purpose of that extra little bit of heat was simply to bring out the tomato aroma more strongly. Meanwhile, the pie assembly commenced on the kitchen counter by spreading the sheeply sour cream all over the bottom of the pre-baked pie case and sprinkling it with lemon zest, salt & pepper, ground coriander, powdered parmesan cheese, and some left-over shredded Emmental cheese. I also distributed teaspoon size dots of tomato pesto here and there. That’s a flavorful base for our Tomato Pie! After the tomato slices were placed in concentric circles, I just added the Mozarallo bits, shredded fresh basil, some yellow cherry tomato-halves, and another dusting of parmesan – we were ready to go in the oven.

Tomato.Pie.05-1360054

Tomato.Pie.06-1360057

This pie would be as easy as, well, pie if you omit the pre-backing altogether. With juicy tomatoes, it will come out soggier than ours, though. Lay the dough in a pie tin, smudge sour cream and some mustard in the bottom, followed by shredded cheese(s), and salt & pepper. Slice a bunch of ripe tomatoes and put them on top of the cheese in overlapping circles. Finish with more seasoning and cheese and the pie is ready to be baked as per package instructions. That’s all there is to it and it’s very tasty on a warm evening, maybe with a glass of chilled white wine. Our dish wasn’t any more difficult, just a little more time-consuming. For once😎, I used mostly store-bought and processed ingredients, for example, the tomato & basil pesto was a commercial item and the grated parmesan cheese came in an envelop. I love freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, of course, who doesn’t? But it’s prohibitively expensive which makes it a rare treat for special occasions. For cooking, I think, the powdered stuff is quite sufficient. I look for the best freshness date and buy the most expensive-by-weight small pouch.

Tomato.Pie.07-1360060

Our dinner included the Tomato Pie with a slice of cold-smoked wild Alaskan salmon from the fish counter in the supermarket, some frisée with fake crab salad from the deli counter, and a cup of yellow pepper and mango gazpacho from the cooled dairy section, where I also found the mozzarella and the sour cream. See, I told you I’m lazy! The wine, by the way, is a chilled Bordeaux Clairet. A dry yet fruity, light red wine mostly based on Merlot grapes. It is a very popular summer wine in the Bordelais region. Have a great week!

P.S. Here’s an update: In response to my Tomato Pie post tonight, my dear friend T. Michael Jackson of Traverse City, Michigan allowed me the use of his recent and completely incidental “Tomatoes in Colander” painting for my little story. Thank you so much, Mike, I love it! So much more apropos than roses!!

IMG_3648

“Tomatoes in Colander” by T. Michael Jackson, 2019

 

 

Fischsuppe, once again

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t cooked much lately, but when I recently received the medical advice to eat less raw vegetables in favor of the cooked variety, I went straight to the market and stocked up on root veggies, greens, and two lovely pieces of dos de cabillaud otherwise known as cod.

Bouillon.01-1350953

After scrubbing everything, I started by separating the “good” parts of the veggies for the soup from the odds and ends to be discarded. Those I collected in a large pot of water with two cubes of Court-Bouillon heating up on the stove.

Bouillon.02-1350957

Adding a handful of cardamom seeds and curly parsley, I let these “aromatics” simmer to extract all of their flavors while I sliced and diced the vegetables for the soup. We had, in order of cooking, potatoes, carrots, shallots, leeks, celery, and fennel.

Bouillon.03-1350959

The dirt bits are coriander seeds

Bouillon.04-1350962Bouillon.05-1350964

As always, I dry-toasted crushed coriander seeds first, before adding oil in which to roast the potatoes for a good five minutes. It took about another five minutes to gently toss and turn all the other gradually added vegetables to release their flavors. Meanwhile, the bouillon was ready to be drained, so I could add it to the veggies roasting in the sauteuse.

Bouillon.06-1350967

Put a lid on it and simmer for about ten more minutes.

When the vegetables were still al dente, I laid the fish on top of the soup, replaced the lid and simmered the concoction for another ten minutes, before checking for doneness. the fish should have just turned opaque and flake easily. I used quite thick pieces of cod that had come to room temperature to cook through more evenly. I flavored the cod with a dusting of white pepper, curcuma [turmeric], and lemon zest, plus a little sea salt. To add a twist to the simple fish soup, I made a shrimp persillade topping for the fish. In a small frying pan, I heated some butter to which I added breadcrumbs, letting them brown carefully. Next came salt, garlic paste, and finely diced curly parsley, all the while mixing the ingredients vigorously before adding tiny, pre-cooked, shelled shrimp to heat up in the persillade.

Bouillon.07-1350968

Fresh parsley & capers add a finishing touch. Guten Appetit!

Bouillon.08-1350970

 

 

 

A lot of Color & a few Beans

Fall Colors

In just a few hours, clocks will go back to standard time here in Europe. A good time, I thought, to celebrate another seasonal change, leaf color. We don’t have majestic maples nor delicate aspen around us, just vines. Vines and assorted evergreens.

Fall Colors

So let’s immerse ourselves in some crazy vines, shall we?

Fall Colors

Fall Colors

 

Autumn.C2L.Cognac.03-1330686

Fall Colors

Fall Colors

Fall Colors

All that color made me hungry. Let’s whip up a quick and nutritious meal. Quick, that is to say, if you remembered to soak the haricots Tarbais for a few hours in the morning. Should you have forgotten, that’s alright, too. Bring the beans to a boil and cook for about 15 minutes. Drain and start again with fresh cold water. To flavor the cooking water, I like to use a small “pot” of vegetable bouillon.

C2L.HomeCooking.01-1330696

In the background, a portion of frozen chunky tomato sauce with yellow onions that I made a while ago for future use.

 

C2L.HomeCooking.02-0708

We still had some dried Espelette chiles laying around, two of which I boiled with the beans to soften them. I could then scrape out the meat to be mixed with salt and olive oil for a spicy condiment to enliven all sorts of tame and boring foods.

C2L.HomeCooking.03-1330699

After about an hour and a half, the beans were done. I separated them into one bucket for some other time and a nice, smallish portion for our dinner. Those I pan-fried in duck fat with a few bacon bits and a lot of Curcuma and white pepper. the Curcuma [an immune system boosting root in the ginger family, also called Turmeric] turned the beans quite yellow. Such a lovely fit with our colorful post!

C2L.HomeCooking.04-1330700

C2L.HomeCooking.05-1330701

Beans, sauce, and fettuccine are ready to go, let’s eat!

C2L.HomeCooking.06-1330720

Happy Autumn, my friends!

Autumn.C2L.Cognac.04-1330690

A Poulpette and an Orchid

BNL.Shrimp.01-0673

As I sit at my desk of a Friday evening, I hear my better half swing his cleaver right below my room. It’s his turn to cook one of his Chinese creations for us. Tomorrow, when he will be more preoccupied with American football, I shall return to our kitchen to wrestle today’s market vegetables into submission, a potimarron, purple carrots, and a Wirsing.

Kohl.01-1330317

What a fascinating critter! The many species of Brassica oleracea, Gemüsekohl or cabbage, come in a multitude of natural and cultured variations. What I bought today was Wirsing (Brassica oleracea var. sabauda L.) otherwise known as savoy cabbage. One can turn this cabbage into a wide range of delicious dishes, from Kimchi to Kohlrouladen. I’m curious to find out what I’ll do with it tomorrow!

But for now, it’s Red Pepper Shrimp with rice à Chef Barry.

BNL.Shrimp.02-0674BNL.Shrimp.03-0677

Delicious!! Thank you!

And in this P.S. I shall now show you the fabulous and seriously creative dishes we enjoyed the other evening at the local restaurant called “Poulpette” – meaning, one hopes, little Octopus. It was our first meal there and we will definitely go back!

Poulpette.01-0662

We shared this entrée of haddock in beetroot cream with fresh almonds

Poulpette.02-0665

Barry’s main dish was beef cheek confit with spinach leaves & celery root velours suspended in a cloud of clam juice foam!

Poulpette.03-0669

Mine consisted of belly of tuna with grilled potimarron in a lobster bisque flavored with salt-cured lemon. All of it simply amazing!

P.P.S. We just discovered that one of the two orchids we inherited with the house has recovered from longterm neglect and is blooming quite prettily.

Zygopetalum.01-1330310

Zygopetalum.02-1330315

Zygopetalum spec., Orchidaceae, I believe.