Tastings

Easiest Homemade Bread (Frenchman approved)

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When my husband and I first began dating, it did not take him long to request freshly-baked bread. Being French and having grown up there, he had grown accustomed to having a nice hunk next to his plate. In his non-baker mind, there was not that much difference between bread and the peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies with which I had won his heart (an exaggeration, but by how much, really, knowing what we know about hearts and stomachs?) I explained to him that there was an ocean of difference between most baked goods and YEASTED baked goods, the largest being, so I thought, that they must be kneaded for a long time, a task unwieldy without the most coveted of tools, a stand mixer. After a previous attempt at making my Mom’s pizza dough had required so much mixing and kneading by hand and turned out like cardboard anyway, I put all yeast doughs aside.  

The truth is I had been wishing for a shiny and beautiful KitchenAid Stand Mixer since I had been living on my own, roughly eight years. I wanted to make creamy creamy cheesecake and bread dough and pizza, cinnamon rolls, yeasted breakfast cakes, whole grain sandwich loaves, beautiful, crusty white boules, all kinds of deliciousness. But the dog-eared pages in magazines and cookbooks would have to wait until I was able to knead that dough correctly. I should have known that the promise of freshly baked bread would be too much for my husband (then boyfriend) and sure enough, several Christmases ago a shiny red KitchenAid was presented along with an unspoken request for “I can haz bread now?” And now I could indeed make bread! And cheesecake and cinnamon rolls. And lo, it was good. But not quite perfect, because after making dozens of different bread recipes, they all kind of fell flat, none was a keeper. And now, dear reader, the joke is on me, because we have found a winner, a bread that I now make weekly that is delicious and versatile and craggy and crispy, and gets compliments every time! And it does not require a single knead! It is the easiest thing in the world and has 4 ingredients which you almost probably currently have. The only drawback is that you need a bit of foresight, you have to begin the recipe the day before you want to enjoy it. You may have heard of the recipe, by Jim Lahey from the Sullivan Street Bakery and originally published in the New York Times, and then picked up by all blogs everywhere and Pinterest. In the original recipe, the bread is baked in a pre-heated metal casserole with a lid, like a Le Creuset. Not having one of those (it’s next on my coveted list) I use a pre-heated, lidless cast-iron pan, which works perfectly. I have also baked it on a cold sheet pan, and it was still delicious, if not quite as crusty. If you do have a lidded casserole and want to use it, follow the recipe as is, following the direction of when to remove the lid. 

  • 3 cups all purpose flour (can replace with up to 1 cup whole wheat flour)
  • 1/4 tsp instant yeast or 1/3 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 5/8 cups of water (this is an annoying amount, and I usually fill my pyrex measuring cup to a bit less than 1 2/3 and all is fine)

Rough, craggy dough just after mixing

1. In a large bowl, mix the first three ingredients and then add the water. Mix again, incorporating the ingredients. It will be sticky and not quite fully mixed together, as in the photo above. Don’t worry. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature* for 12-18 hours. I go for the longer side, mixing it up sometime after dinner and continuing the next steps around 1 or 2 the next day. 

Risen, fermenty dough after 18 hours

2. The dough will be now be super wet and bubbly. Flour a silpat or piece of parchment and turn the dough out onto it, using fingers to release the yeasty tentacles. Sprinkle a little more flour, just enough so that it doesn’t stick to everything, and fold it on itself a few times. Cover with plastic wrap (maybe the same that you covered the bowl with) and let it rest for 15 minutes. You can also do this on a floured work surface, but I find putting it on something helps to move it later on.

3. Gently cajole the dough into a roundish shape, placing any seams you might end up with down on the silpat or surface. Dust with flour, cornmeal or wheat bran (I always use flour). Cover with a flour-dusted cotton kitchen towel. Let rise for another 2 hours, or until it has roughly doubled in size and the dough doesn’t spring back when poked.

Turned out and formed

4. Preheat the oven and your 6-8 quart cast-iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic cooking vessel to 450 degrees. Carefully remove the pot or pan. Lift the silpat, parchment or towel and use it to flip the round dough ball into the pot. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like at this point. If you just have a baking sheet, just flip the dough onto that, a little cornmeal would help it not to stick. Cover with a lid if you have one and replace the pot in the oven.

5. Since I don’t have a cover, I create steam in the oven by using a spray bottle filled with water and spraying the bottom of the oven at the beginning and about halfway through cooking. This helps form a nice crust.

6. Bake 30 minutes. Remove the lid, if using, and bake up to 15 more minutes. If not using a lid, I find 5 or 10 extra minutes is perfect for getting a golden brown crust. Bread should also make hollow sound when you knock on it. Cool on a rack before enjoying.

*Lahey recommends 70 degrees, but it is winter and my apartment is significantly not that right now, particularly at night, and the bread is still good! It’s pretty fool-proof.

 

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Tastings

Chocolate and churros

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If I was going to be a good food tourist in Madrid, I got the sense that I would need to seek out chocolate con churros, preferably for breakfast. We went to Chocolatería San Ginés , just off Puerta del Sol, near our apartment. They have been serving hot, thick, rich, melted drinking chocolate along with stacks of crispy, crunchy, fried doughnut-y churros for dipping since 1894, so it seemed a good place to start. Drinking chocolate has been enjoyed in Europe since the 17th century, after the explorer Cortes brought it back from the Americas (and then sweetened it significantly). Churros originated a few centuries before that, almost certainly in Europe, created either by Spanish goatherds or Portuguese travelers who had seen something similar in China, depending on who you ask. When drinking chocolate came around, it seemed as though churros had found their lifelong partners. Chocolatería San Ginés was smallish but airy, with a long marble bar, blue and white tiling, and plenty of small tables indoors and out. We found a seat and then went right to the counter to order. I’m not sure if you could even order something else, but we kept it simple. It was a delicious, if extreeeemely rich breakfast, suitable for the world explorer or Aztec royal in all of us.


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Tastings

Where to lunch in Madrid

I don’t know about you, but when I’m traveling I like to eat delicious, authentic food, and I’m usually on a bit of a budget. I also don’t necessarily want to have a “fancy” dining out experience more than once or twice. The rest of the time, I just want solid, casual food that the local people might enjoy. In Madrid, La Sanabresa, in the Cortes neighborhood, is just that. It ended up being our very favorite restaurant in Madrid, and we ate there no less than three times, but we have no record of ever having visited. We took no photos. This was partly because we were just hungry and the food was so good, and partly because, I’m going to be honest, it didn’t look like much. These are not your carefully plated, elegantly sauced plates. These are everyday, basic, traditional, and affordable foods, very well done.

In Madrid we often ended up having our large meal at lunch, because Guillaume was often very hungry after being in the archives all morning, and a satisfying meal was the perfect way to start an afternoon of sightseeing. Plus, we couldn’t quite adjust to eating dinner at (or after) 9 PM. (I am so, so old.) In the evening we would head back to the apartment, weary and foot-sore, and put together a quick salad, some delicious Spanish cheese and bread. Perfect. This particular restaurant we found doing a little internet search for a good lunch restaurant. And that is exactly what this is, although they are open for dinner as well. We, being hungry Americans, would turn up at 1:30 and there would be maybe one or two tables taken. By 2 it was packed and when we left, satisfied, there was a line of people waiting for a table. The first time we walked in the door and asked for a table for two. The very old-school, slightly harried waiter (who got only more harried as the lunch service went on) spread his arms and nodded his head indicating the lay of the dining room, and went about his business. We chose a nice table near the door, but cozy in a corner. There is one medium-sized dining room, slightly tackily decorated in pastels, with tablecloths and paper covers. The tables are quite close together, but nothing unusual for a big city. The large menu is separated into an à la carte section, and a large section of prix fixe menus, or menú del día, which didn’t really seem to change by the day. These five or so menus, with prices from about 10 euros to just over 20,  come with a starter, main course and dessert, as well as bread and water, juice or wine. The choices are plentiful for a prix fixe, with at least 10 or more in each price category, so there was no problem finding choices that hit the spot. It seemed maybe a bit gimmicky, and I didn’t do the math to see if it actually was a savings, but all the locals were ordering menus, and people seemed to keep coming back.

The first time we went I had a simple grilled asparagus which was heavily drizzled with amazing olive oil, sprinkled with crunchy sea salt and so, so good. For my main course I ordered roasted pork ribs with potatoes and fruit salad for dessert, which was good, but I should have gone with the crescents of fresh cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple that the regulars were getting, as the fruit salad was sitting in a bit too much juice. Guillaume had paella, which was good, but we definitely went in search of better paella elsewhere, and, garnering the instant admiration of the waiter, stewed tripe. He finished with an excellent, lightly sweet cheesecake with blueberry sauce. For our second meal I had the special salad (spoiler alert, not special, and really the only dud of our three meals), a nice, fresh grilled whole white fish and that great cheesecake that I was so jealous about. Guillaume had Russian salad, which is essentially potato salad, the pork ribs that HE was so jealous about, and cheesecake. The third time I got that asparagus again, escalope de jambon (cordon bleu, essentially), and an almond cake that was lovely. Guillaume got paella again, tripe again and you guessed it, cheesecake, again. The man likes what he likes. Simple, filling, authentic, and affordable, made traditionally and with, if not care, then at least love. We left happy, our pockets still full along with our stomachs, ready to explore Madrid.

 

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Tastings

Sólo un poco

I’ve always liked the theory behind tapas, in that you get to try several things, the tastebuds just whetted but never quite satiated. Tapas began as a little savory snack, hot or cold, that would accompany a caña, (a small glass of draft beer) or a glass of wine for free, filling the stomach a bit with the pre-meal drink. Usually a slice of ham, a plate of olives, a scoop of potato salad, or a small fried fish. Gradually, these became more complex and some places eventually started to charge for them, allowing you to choose from a selection that may be laid out on or under a glass bar. They are generally eaten while standing up, although there may be a few token tables. Some establishments though, are more like restaurants, with menus that allow you to choose a few small plates, and some larger plates of more traditional meals like stewed oxtail, and the tapas become more like a meal. If you want to really get crazy, you go out for the evening and eat and drink your way from bar to bar, this is called to tapear. Because Spaniards lunch around 2 and then don’t sit down to dinner until 10, 11 or later, a tapa or two can be a welcome filler.

There are several stories about the origin of tapas, both concerning King Alfonso X. In one, he insisted that tavern owners serve a bit of food with drinks so as to dissuade drunkenness. The other is that he ordered a sherry and, it being a windy day, the tavern owner lay a piece of ham on the glass to prevent dust from getting in. The King liked this “tapa”, or cover, so much that he asked for another. Others say that it simply developed as a way to keep fruit flies out of sweet sherry.

Our first tastes of tapas were these four that we found at the Mercado de San Miguel. A really cool concept, this is an old indoor market that fell into disuse that has been completely renovated into something like a Columbus Circle for food. Centrally located, we discovered it on our first day in Madrid, and had some of the best café con leche I have had in a long time at a stand called Café del Arte (a must after a 6 am flight from Paris). You can wander around the single-level market and purchase typical Spanish delicacies to enjoy right there, including coffee, desserts, wine, sherry and cocktails, sangria, and plenty of tapas. There is also a grocer, I guess for verisimilitude. This is an excellent idea in theory, and indeed the place was packed with tourists, and apparently some locals, enjoying local cuisine. I love the idea of grazing from place to place, picking a few things here, a few things there that entice and then grabbing a glass of something, finding a perch, and digging in and finding favorites. Unfortunately, the food was just not there, quality-wise. IMG_0717 Hello? This is a pickle sandwich. What is not to love? With a pickle filled with marinated tuna and red pepper, and olives and onions and two toothpicks holding it all together, I expected it to be salty, but delicious salty, flavorful salty. And it was just salty. Very disappointing. And hard to eat.IMG_0719When we sidled up to a stand with croquettes, little fried balls filled with cheese (also meat, fish or other things) I thought “What could go wrong?” We even added some little pig-in-blanket type guys. But then the lady put them, on their little plastic plate, in the microwave. Not long enough for them to even get melty in the middle, just long enough to get sad.IMG_0720These are pintxos, a Basque variation on tapas which usually involves things eaten on bread, like a canapé, with a toothpick (pincho) stuck through it. They looked super interesting; little pieces of brown bread with slices of octopus or cheese, pepper and chorizo. They were oh-so bad. They even look like they’ve been sitting around a bit.

DSC03070 This is just for you to see, I was not brave enough to try them. They are angulas, tiny baby eels, a super popular treat in Spain. Apparently they are endangered. Also apparently, these (and the many other versions we saw) may be fake, made out of the same substance as fake crab, since real angulas can be 50 euros a serving. DSC02907 After that fairly terrible experience, we decided to go somewhere they might put a bit more thought into the food. Well hello, dark, Spanish looking tapas bar with bullfighting parephernalia on the walls! You will do!

DSC02900There we enjoyed a traditional tortilla, (delicious) and chorizo on bread (simple and yummy, not pictured).

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The special house tapas, which presumably changes daily, was some kind of mustardy fish paste on bread and smothered with potato sticks. It was very good.

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And then we tried one of their less tapa-y and more small plate-y dishes, braised “bull tile”, which came highly recommended by the waiter, and we assumed was bull tail.

DSC02967This tapa we had at another restaurant where we went to eat octopus. I had been wanting to try baccalao (cod) croquettes, since they are quite traditional, and we had that very bad experience with croquettes. These were great, freshly fried, soft and slightly sweet inside, even with the slightly hipster presentation (a wire “frying” basket lined with faux “New England” newsprint).

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Tastings

Lamb Tajine: A Lesson in Moroccan Cooking

Finished tajine.

Naima, the woman who lives downstairs and who cooks dinner for us most nights is, in addition to being warm, friendly and generous, a wonderful cook. In fact, she tells us she is the main cook in her family, the one who provides meals and pastries for family weddings and events. We asked if she would show us how to make one of her dishes so that we could learn about authentic Moroccan cooking straight from the source. Because she cooks fresh and local, she goes to the market around the corner and buys what looks best to her. On this day, it was lamb, peas, beautiful young purple artichokes, green onions and zucchini, so she showed us how she makes a classic tajine. A tajine (or tagine) is so named because of the cooking vessel in which it’s cooked. The clay pot, with a flat bottom and conical lid, was originally made to go straight into a fire or cooking oven, where the lid protected the dish from ashes and helped funnel all the juicy steam back into the dish. They are now usually cooked on a stovetop. A tajine can be made with pretty much anything: beef, lamb, chicken, kefta (ground meat, or even fish as you saw in a previous dinner) and vegetables. It is really endlessly adaptable and anything that strikes your fancy or is in season would be a perfect addition to the tajine. We noticed when we were up in Northern Morocco, in Tetouan, that tajines were usually either meat, or vegetable, but not both. But Naima says here it’s common to have meat and veg in one tajine, which makes for a perfect one-pot meal. If you don’t have a tajine it is, of course, possible to make it in a pot, in fact, some Moroccans cook it that way.

Three things in particular stood out to me as being unique: the prevalence of lemon, both preserved and fresh. Lemon juice was added to almost everything, even rubbed on some of the vegetables. Acid, any good chef will tell you, gives that all-important pop to other flavors. Second, the various flavoring mixtures, all made separately: the dry mix, the fresh, herby pureed mix, and then the tomato sauce for the top, allowing layers of flavor to develop. And last, I was surprised to see Naima didn’t add any salt. Although arguably the first rule of cooking is “season”, with all the lemon and the three different spice mixtures, (the herby one may have had some salt, although she didn’t mention it), the salt isn’t missed in the final dish.

Lamb and Vegetable Tajine

  • 2-4 pieces of lamb or other meat, bone-in if possible 
  • cumin
  • pepper
  • saffron
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • half an onion
  • olive oil
  • blended fresh herb mix (lima beans, cilantro, lemon)
  • 1 potato, peeled and cut into chunks
  • peas (preferably freshly shelled)
  • 4 small artichokes (or 2 large), cleaned, hulled and sliced into 4 pieces each
  • 1 zucchini, cut into large pieces
  • 1 scallion, coarsely chopped
  • handful of parsley
  • chili pepper
  • Tomato mixture: juice of two tomatoes (or 1 tbsp tomato paste), pepper, saffron, lemon juice and water. She also added a bit of cornstarch to thicken the sauce, I think a personal preference.

 

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Tastings

Dinner in Rabat

We arrived in Rabat, Morocco just in time for some gorgeous spring weather, in time to miss all that air pollution in Paris, and in time for dinner! We are staying in an apartment in a neighborhood on the South-Western side of the city which Guillaume found on AirBnB the first time he visited, back in January. There are four apartments in the building: the older couple who own the building live on the bottom floor and all of the other apartments (probably initially intended for their children and their families, who instead live in France and Spain), are rented out to travelers. The apartment is quite spacious; if you want to know what luxury is, I will tell you: having two bathrooms so that one can be the “toilet seat up” bathroom. The woman who lives downstairs, Naima, offers to provide us with dinner every night. Unfortunately for our laziness and wallets, her cooking is so excellent we have taken her up on the offer nearly every day. The one night we decided to cook for ourselves, she brought us dinner anyway. She communicates with us mostly in French, with a bit of Arabic thrown in, and made sure to tell us that all of her cooking is traditional, local, organic and seasonal and that her homemade bread contains omega trois! She also taught us how to make a traditional tajine, the process and recipe of which I look forward to sharing soon. These are some of the delicious meals she has made for us. One of these days we will get to a restaurant, but I think we might end up being disappointed!

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Tastings

A Tale of Two Cheesecakes

I first came across cheesecake here in France when we were in Nantes. We saw it on the menu at several restaurants (at one, specifically “Virginia cheesecake,” whether this means the State or a lady, I don’t know. Does Virginia have excellent cheesecake?), and it came with the café gourmand at L’Industrie. But I thought it was sort of a fluke: a new trend, popular because of the youth of Nantes, like Brooklyn Brewery beer being popular with certain factions in Paris. In the months since, though, I’ve noticed that it is everywhere. At many restaurants, plenty of cafés and even in grocery stores in several incarnations including frozen and what I like to call “potted” desserts. And they are largely the same as the delicious American-style cheesecake that you make at home/get at Junior’s except for one thing: the crust. Graham crackers, arguably the most common, and definitely the most delicious crust material for cheesecake, are not really known here, and “they” (I don’t know, cheesecake police?) have decided that the closest approximation is something called speculoos. Speculoos cookies, or speculaas in Dutch, are thin, lightly sweet and spiced cookies of Belgian, Dutch and German origin. In English they are sometimes called Belgian Spice or Dutch Windmill cookies. They are traditionally made around Christmas using a springerle mold or rolling pin with shapes cut into it to create a pattern or picture on the dough before baking. Speculoos are now commonly sold in the Biscoff or Lotus brand. Although originally a very spiced cookie (with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamon, even pepper), a quick glance at the ingredients list tells me that, commercially, they are spiced with mostly cinnamon.

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The first time I heard of speculoos was when that waffle truck, Wafels and Dinges, first came to New York and their speculoos spread began getting press. Then Trader Joe’s came out with a speculoos spread which they call “Cookie Butter”. Speculoos is now becoming a recognizable name in the US; some even rate it as a trend. We like novelty. But speculoos cookies are ubiquitous in France, even sometimes arriving in tiny plastic-wrapped form next to your espresso or coffee at a café, which was the way I was first introduced, without even knowing what I was eating. I would describe the flavor as a mix of graham cracker, gingerbread and snickerdoodle. It’s a nice cookie, crisp, not too sweet. And I will tell you that dipping peanut butter pretzels in the spread makes for a certain kind of snack heaven. But what really surprised me is, with a darker color, more caramelized flavor, and hint of spice, I actually think that speculoos makes a better crust for cheesecake than graham crackers. So they’re doing good work with cheesecake, and I might even try to replicate it when I return to the US. But I still don’t know what they are doing to the cookie and the hot dog.

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Tastings

December First

On the first day of December I decided we needed a little treat. In the form of chocolate. Preferably melted and hot chocolate. I just finished a month of French classes that I squeezed in between the trip to London and journeying back to the US for much of December and January. With class over and the sun shining I thought we’d head over to the Marais, get a bit of souvenir/holiday gift shopping done, and then wander our way up to Jacques Genin chocolate shop. I had read about this shop in various spots on the web as being notable for caramels, chocolates and also pastry. I happened to walk by it one day last week and the quiet and relaxed yet chic café set just beyond the vending counters put in my mind the idea of chocolat chaud and it proved to be a tenacious little thought. The shop is large for Paris and though it is spare and mostly cream and  glass, it gives a homey impression, that of being in a salon, or living room. There are a few counters set out with his famous caramels, in different flavors that appear to be seasonal, and a few different chocolate treats in bags, such as mendiants, small discs of chocolate inlaid with nuts and dried fruit. A glass case held a variety of chocolate bon bons in a multitude of flavors: tea, cinnamon, vanilla, etc.  I went looking for lavender, my favorite, but with no luck. They were all shaped the same, as a “palet” which is popular with French chocolatiers in my experience: square and flat with a cocoa butter transfer sheet on top to designate flavor. There seemed to be a plate out for sampling, which is the mark of a good and proud chocolatier. Down a few stairs there is a cluster of large round tables, about 8, surrounded by squashy chairs or sofas. We arrived just before a long line began forming between a set of velvet ropes placed for the purpose, giving a discordant night club air. The menu presented various cold drinks, as well as tea and coffee, but we knew we were after the hot chocolate, which was available as is, with whipped cream, and as a mocha concoction. One could order a selection of caramels, an assortment of chocolates and several pastries of the day. We ordered a vanilla mille‑feuille and a St. Honoré as well as a hot chocolate each. The goodies came from the upstairs kitchen, on a tray carried by a waiter with impressive speed down a wide circular staircase. Continue reading

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Tastings

Cranberry Hazelnut Granola

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I began making granola mostly because it is quite expensive to buy and there were periods of my life where yogurt and granola was a daily meal. I do also believe that if I can make something at home, I should at least try it. I like being able to control what goes in my food, I think it’s interesting to know the methods behind making things, and it’s usually fun. After that first time or two, if I decide that it’s not fun anymore, or that my version isn’t as good, well, the store bought options are always there. I draw the line at ketchup, for example, and, although I know it’s worth it, I have not yet made it to the point where making bread does not feel like a huge chore. But anyway, granola. Granola is perfect to make at home because it can be so much cheaper, is super easy, and is one of those things where the little ingredient tweaks are paramount. My dream granola (what, you do not have a dream granola?) is the perfect combination of:

  • not too many ingredients, all easy to find
  • quick, easy clean up
  • healthy enough to eat for breakfast
  • tastes how I wany my granola to taste (maple-y, probably includes coconut)

In particular, I was looking to replicate a granola with hazelnuts and dried cranberries that I used to get from FreshDirect (how do I love thee FreshDirect, let me count the ways). The fact that it is now Thanksgiving month and I have cranberries on the brain is neither here nor there. I wasn’t able to find an exact recipe that fit my parameters: this recipe from Martha Stewart had the right idea with the maple syrup and olive oil, but I think the brown sugar is too unhealthy for my breakfast parameters, although it will make a crispier granola. This recipe for Cherry Nut Granola from Sprouted Kitchen intrigued me, but in the end was a bit too involved, and didn’t have that maple hit. But by sort of combining the things that I liked about each, taking out what I didn’t and adding a bunch of things that I think should find a home in my granola I think I’ve hit on the ultimate. I’ve been making this recipe a lot here in Paris, because they only have muesli (with raw oats, not bad but doesn’t hit the granola parts of my brain), and I’ve found croustillant (crunchy) granola which is like, break your teeth crunchy and has lots of ingredients that I can’t yet understand. Instead, in five minutes (plus 45 of baking) I can have delicious granola to eat with all the different kinds of yogurt, or almond milk.

I encourage you to change it up and add and subtract whatever floats your granola boat. The only parameters are, for this amount of dry ingredients, to use at least 1/2 cup of total liquids (your stickies and wets: brown sugar, maple syrup, agave, honey, olive oil, other oils, or apple sauce which does both sweetening and moistening duty) and up to 1 ½ if you’d like it sweeter, knowing that more oils will make it more “separate”, whereas more sugars will usually make it crunchier/crisper. Also leave out whatever might burn (coconut, fruit, already roasted nuts) until the last 15 minutes or the end.

  • 3 cups oats*
  • 3 tablespoons raw sesame seeds
  • ½ cup raw sunflower seeds
  • 1 cup hazelnuts
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • ½ cup dried unsweetened coconut flakes
  • ½ cup dried unsweetened cranberries

Preheat oven to 325 Fahrenheit (which is 163 Celsius in case you, like me, need to know). In a large bowl, mix oats, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and hazelnuts. Add cinnamon and salt and mix well. Add maple syrup, olive oil and vanilla. Mix again. Spread evenly onto a baking pan with sides and bake on the center oven rack for 15 minutes. Gently stir granola and bake for 15 more minutes. Add coconut flakes and bake 15 more minutes. Remove from oven and add cranberries. Cool completely before storing. Store in air-tight container or plastic bag for about two weeks, or in the freezer for a few months.

*Some granola bakers prefer old-fashioned oats, while others prefer quick cooking for a looser, possibly clumpier texture. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what kind of oats I use here in France. With my knowledge of the French language I am lucky I end up with oats. I often feel like the man in the children’s book The Little Old Man Who Could Not Read. In it, a man who can’t read is left to shop for himself when his wife is away. He goes to the supermarket and ends up buying soap flakes instead of oatmeal, saran wrap instead of spaghetti, etc. When I was a child it never failed to make me cry.

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Tastings

Dinner in Nantes

When in Paris, we eat at home almost every night. We like to cook, and it’s much cheaper and probably healthier than eating out all the time. But, as a food lover and appreciator of restaurants, it’s fun to eat out sometimes. Nantes offered the perfect opportunity to do this. For the duration of our visit, we stayed in apartments with kitchenettes, decent enough to make simple meals, which we did about half the time. But the rest of the time, we were able to explore the culinary offerings of this cool city. Some high end (the riverside Le 1, which had decent food and an even better location, but was trying a little too hard) some low (Quick, the Belgian fast food chain and crepes), some not so good (the moules that I wrote about here) and some really great (the fantastic birthday meal we had at L’U.Ni). We discovered some of the best Chinese food we’ve ever had at a teeeeny place with a Chinese-French chef. We had very spicy Indian food, and also what Guillaume actually called the best burger he’s ever tasted at a place called L’Industrie.

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As a foodie and a planner, I had done the research about the best restaurants in Nantes, and this place ranked number 2 on a certain online list (L’U.Ni was #1), and happened to be right by our hotel, so we ended up there our very first night in Nantes. A relaxed, small-ish spot housed in the bottom floor of a larger building, we found 6 or 7 tables outside on the sidewalk where people (looked like neighborhood folks) were enjoying L’apero*. L’Industrie features fresh, local food as well as vegetarian options, which is really quite rare in France. In general, menus in France are much smaller than the binder sized documents we are sometimes used to in the US. Often a restaurant will have only two choices each for entrée (appetizer), plat (main course) and dessert. Sometimes they will have one set menu with no choices at all. And at your local café or bistro, they might have a few choices, but more people will probably order the special, whatever that may be. Less offerings allows the chef to do those few things better. At L’Industrie their take on this idea is to have three basic “proteins”-duck, beef and vegetarian and produce them in a few different ways- carpaccio, salad, steak and burger. This cuts down on the supplies they have to order and that may go to waste, and the amount of prep necessary, but still gives the diner several choices for a delicious meal, especially when factoring in a few extra appetizers (a seasonal soup etc.) and yummy desserts. The burger, served with beet pickles, barbecue sauce, nice stinky local cheese and the first really great French fries I’ve eaten in France, was excellent. The cheesecake we ate after was perfect too. Cheesecake is quite popular in France, and for the crust they use Speculoos biscuits, which is comparable to graham cracker, in my opinion. On a different visit, when I decided I had eaten more ham in the last month than I had in my whole life, I went for the vegetarian salad and was served a delicious mixture of greens, lentils, grains, sprouts and the pickled beets that appeared in several dishes. This seems to be a sustainable way to run a restaurant and as long as you don’t eat there every night, you’d be able to find something that hits the spot.

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*L’apero is another one of those things that is just basic, but that I didn’t hear of until my French teacher in Boston mentioned it in class. Also known as l’heure de l’apéro, it’s a pre-dinner drink, almost always with a little nibble. Coming from “aperitif”, the drink is often wine, beer or a cocktail, but just as easily a soda or sparkling water. Grocery stores even have a special l’apero section with nuts, small crackers and potato chips. Much calmer and relaxed and less focused on inebriation than our “happy hour”, it can be enjoyed at a café or restaurant or at home. I just love walking outside in nicer weather and seeing café terraces full of people partaking of this tradition in the rosy glow of the setting sun.

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