Challenge:Accepted!

From the French Kitchen- Lavender Truffles

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When I worked at a chocolate shop in Boston, the number two question we would get, after “How do you work here and not eat everything?” was, “Which is your favorite?” And for me the answer was always the lavender truffle. I would always get a quizzical look, or a “really??” but many people trusted me, and I think many people were converted. A creamy ganache made with 67% dark chocolate infused with lavender, covered with a thin shell of chocolate and painted with a shiny purple luster powder for pizazz. So, so delicious, and made all the more wonderful by the fact that it is unusual (not hazelnut or caramel, which are so obvious) and unexpected (floral flavors tend to be very cloying and perfumey, not so here). When I left the chocolate shop to go to France, visions of creating my own lavender truffle were already dancing in my head.

If you are thinking that this recipe is not exactly from the French Kitchen, you are right. I am cheating a bit, but lavender is so french, right? And so is chocolate, so I’m going with it. I’ve made truffles before, notably as holiday gifts in huge batches of many different flavors, and they are really quite simple, if slightly intense and find-chocolate-in-odd-places-for-months messy. At the shop we didn’t make the chocolates, so I had no recipe to go on, but it turns out that a very basic truffle recipe, with quality ingredients and a touch of real lavender, tasted exactly like my favorites.

Lavender Truffles

  • 8 ounces dark chocolate, chopped (Good quality, in whatever percentage you prefer. I used Scharffen Berger 70% and found it perfect.)
  • 2/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon dried lavender buds (Grow your own, or purchase in a store or online, just make sure they’re organic and edible! I found mine at a natural foods store in the bulk tea and spice section.)
  • 1-2 tablespoons good cocoa powder for rolling (optional if using chocolate coating)
  • 4 ounces dark chocolate for coating (optional if using cocoa for rolling)
  1. Heat heavy cream in a small, heavy saucepan until boiling. Add lavender. Remove from heat and let steep.
  2. In a double boiler (or a makeshift double boiler: a metal bowl or pot over a larger pot of boiling water) melt 6 ounces of chocolate.
  3. Remove from heat and add 2 more ounces of chocolate. Stir until melted.
  4. Place a strainer over the bowl or pot of chocolate and pour the cream mixture over it, catching the little bits of lavender. Discard lavender.
  5. Stir the cream and chocolate mixture slowly with a whisk, working from center to the edge, being careful not to beat any air in, until it is a smooth, creamy ganache.
  6. Let ganache come to room temperature and then refrigerate for about an hour. Check on it periodically; you want it to be perfectly scoopable but not too firm.
  7. Line a baking sheet, tray or pan with parchment or waxed paper.
  8. Using a spoon, scoop a bit of the ganache and roll in your hands to form a loose shape, like the namesake truffles, and set on the tray. Size them how you like, but I think golf-ball sized makes the perfect bite.
  9. Refrigerate formed truffles for at least 15 minutes.
  10. At this point, the truffles should be coated. You can either coat in melted chocolate, or cocoa powder or both. Some people find the cocoa powder too intense, but the chocolate coating can be annoying to get just right. The chocolate coating is recommended if you don’t plan on eating them in a day or two, as it seals the ganache. It is also possible to roll the coated truffles in any other sprinkly material: more lavender, nuts, cocoa nibs, etc.
  11. If you are coating the truffles with melted chocolate, melt 4 ounces of chocolate in a double boiler.
  12. Set up an assembly line with your tray of truffles, your bowl of melted chocolate if using, a bowl of cocoa powder with a fork and a bowl with a sieve if using cocoa, and another empty tray lined in parchment or waxed paper.
  13. Smear some melted chocolate in your hand and roll a truffle in it, coating lightly, but entirely. Let set for a second.
  14. AND/OR Drop into bowl with cocoa powder and turn with fork to coat. Use fork to drop into sieve to get rid of excess powder. Lay onto tray.
  15. Repeat with all truffles.
  16. Refrigerate for one hour before packaging in an air-tight container or something cute for gifts. Store in refrigerator, but enjoy at room temperature.
Chocolate dipped truffles, which you can also sprinkle with lavender before they dry.

In addition to my gigantic, extremely rustic cocoa-coated ones, these are some chocolate-coated truffles, which you can also sprinkle with lavender before it fully dries.

Because my hosts (my parents) are vegan, and it is so rude to bring chocolate into a house that someone can’t eat, I made a cream-free version as well, using coconut oil. It came out well, although the coconut flavor somewhat overpowered the lavender. I might use closer to 2 tablespoons next time.

Vegan Lavender Truffles

  • 8 ounces dark chocolate, chopped (good quality dark chocolate is usually dairy free, some of the other stuff isn’t)
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 1-2 tablespoons dried lavender
  • 1-2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 4 ounces dark chocolate, chopped (optional)

Repeat recipe as above, replacing cream with coconut oil and water. Instead of boiling, heat gently to melt and let lavender steep. Continue from step 2.

 

*Recipes created from Bon Appétit, Robert Linxe’s recipe courtesy of Gourmet, Smitten Kitchen, Whole Living, and my previous experience.

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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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Wanderings

A foggy day in London town

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I read that it’s actually a myth that London is rainier than other places- in reality it is roughly as rainy as most other European cities, with only slightly more days of rain (110 per year) and actually less total inches per year (24 inches) than cities like Rome or Toulouse. However, London did her best to keep up the soggy reputation during our visit. The first week was quite warm for October- and rainy, and the second week shaped up to be pretty frigid for October-and rainy. (We had two gorgeously sunny days the first week which I feel very lucky for.) I ended up doing quite a bit more sightseeing than I did 12 years ago as is usually the case when visiting instead of living in a city. At St. Paul’s Cathedral, after a wander around the lovely gardens, I marveled at the interior, and then began a long, winding trip up three different staircases to the gallery at the very top of the cathedral. Once up to the first gallery, looking down into the cathedral below, you can continue on to two further outdoor galleries. Here, the staircases are single file, and there is no going back, even if you want to! No panicking allowed! I wish I had a photo of the various staircases, so narrow that not only was it single file, but some people wouldn’t fit at all, and so low that even I had to duck, but as I have hints of claustrophobia and fear of heights, it was touch and go for a bit, and there wasn’t a chance of taking my hand off the handrail to use a camera. The views were worth it.

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I walked by the apartment building I lived in, and a few old haunts, which felt remarkably the same, while still being quite changed, toured Selfridge’s for the first time, visited Westminster Abbey, had a good laugh at the much-lauded play “One Man, Two Guvnors”, that had gone from the National Theater to Broadway and back to London. The National Gallery was a worthwhile stop, not least because it is one of the few things in London that is free. We tried to eat every “traditional” British meal we could think of, which included two Indian “curry” dinners, Thai food on Brick Lane, fish and chips, a full English breakfast, sausage and mash at a pub, lots of tea, and at home, beans on toast, and grilled cheese with some great English cheddar. We also had Sunday roast at a local pub. Sunday lunch is a tradition in many European countries, a reason for family to gather and have a meal, usually roasted meat of some kind, on Sunday afternoon. In England, this includes a slice or two of meat, 2 veg, potatoes and a Yorkshire pudding, and most pubs that do food have it on offer. The closest pub to our rental, The Carpenter’s Arms, happens to have been first owned by infamous gangsters in the area, the Kray brothers, whom we first heard about watching the grisly British drama “Whitechapel”. Here, you can see a photo of the pub in the late 60’s, below is the pub now. One of the most exciting things about visiting a city like London is the way such a long and varied history rubs up against the present.

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Now, with new owners, it’s a cozy spot to come in from the cold and have a delicious lunch before repairing home for tea and biscuits.

 

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Tastings

The crêpe

You would have to be crazy to visit France and not eat a crêpe or seven. France does crêpes well and we, the people of the world, respond by eating those crêpes. Until this trip, I didn’t know that crêpes in France originated in Brittany, although it’s true that every culture with some kind of flour and a hot surface has some kind of similar idea. Up until about 100 years ago all crêpes were made with buckwheat (sarrasin, or blé noir) flour, making a dark brown (and gluten-free) pancake and savory crêpes are still usually made with this type of flour. These are more accurately called a galette, which confusingly is also the name given to various cookies and cakes, the only commonality being that anything called a galette seems to be round and edible. Common savory fillings for galettes are mushrooms, cheese, ham, bacon, fish or some combination thereof, sometimes with an egg fried right on top. Sweet crêpes, made with white wheat flour, are accompanied by maybe a dusting of sugar, (powdered or regular), and/or butter, fruit, nutella, melted chocolate. Nantes, being Breton culturally, has no shortage of places to enjoy a nice crêpe with a bowl (yes bowl) of cider or lait ribot, a thick buttermilk-style beverage. We visited one centrally located and recommended crêperie on our visit to Nantes, although there was no shortage of appropriate and busy places to go. When we visited it happened to be the owners birthday and the waitstaff wound their way through the outdoor seating area wearing hot pink wigs and bringing all guests a plate of delicious cake and a glass of champagne, a very nice and unexpected start to the meal.

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Tastings

More moules more problems

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Just the other day I wrote about “mainstay institutions” and how they can sometimes rest on their laurels. Just a few hours after that post, we went off to have moules frites (mussels and fries) at a restaurant that seemed to get decent reviews, Aux Moules du Bouffay. It seemed to get a nice mix of locals, French from the rest of the country, as well as tourists. But more than that, it seemed like a place that had been there for a long time, doing its thing, an idea irresistible to me. Now, moules frites is not a fancy meal, just comfort food, almost fast food. Some believe it to have originated in Belgium (apparently the Belgians were eating French fries as early as the late 1600s) and then became popular in France. Others believe France to be the origin, but the dish is available nearly everywhere, especially by the sea. The general conceit behind this type of mussel dish is that the shellfish are steamed until open in a broth of various liquids and aromatics, possibly including white wine, beer or cream, shallots, parsley, tomatoes, chilies, bacon- so that the mussels are infused with all of the delicious flavors and you also happen to end up with a sauce in which to dip your fries.

At Aux Moules du Bouffay, as we were eating our cold entrées, or appetizers- salmon terrine (very good, bits of onion complementing the flavor of the salmon) and herring salad (extremely salty, even for herring), we kept hearing the sound of a microwave beeping from the kitchen. We looked at each other curiously, wondering what they were microwaving, hoping it wasn’t the mussels. When the mussels arrived, the sauce seemed very hot, while the mussels themselves were just warm. It was quite obvious that the mussels had been steamed separately, while the hot sauce (provençal for me-tomatoes and parsley, and onions and bacon for Guillaume) was applied on top. This was confirmed as we walked back through the restaurant and passed the open kitchen where a man was scooping mussels out of a giant pot and ladling sauce from a steam tray overtop. The mussels weren’t bad at all, but the whole point of this dish from my perspective is that the flavorings are imparted during cooking, not pasted over the top. Each mussel that is sucked from the shell should carry with it that elixir of wine, spices, onions, garlic… For all I know, this is the way they’ve always done it here, and maybe at other restaurants as well, possibly it’s even a tried-and-true restaurant technique, but somehow it smacks of wanting to turn out many plates fast. As a home cook, I know how easy they are to make, and how good they can be if done well.

The building itself is full of ancient charm; very narrow, sandwiched between larger, terraced restaurants on either side, built of stone, mortar, and timber, old stairs winding up to the second floor. Apparently there is a tradition to leave pennies in the large gaps in the walls between stones. This old charm is juxtaposed with new insouciance; a bucket of water for cleaning left on the floor during dinner, broken glass lingering next to a planter on the terrace, ancient lanterns never cleaned. This doesn’t not add to the environment, but I can’t help but think how it would be regarded anywhere else.

 

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Tastings

Berthillon Glacier

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When I began researching, prior to coming last year, where to go and what to do in Paris, there were certain names and places that kept coming up. Among them was Berthillon, a glacier, or ice cream and sorbet maker with a store on Île Saint-Louis. At that point I didn’t put it on the priority list because, although I like ice cream, it’s never quite a must-have. I feel that there is a time and a place for ice cream. That place is your backyard and the time is on a summer evening when the sun is going down and the mosquitos are alllmost, but not quite out yet. That place is your couch, and that time is when you feel emotional and weird and it is accompanied by Aretha Franklin and a friend and/or cat. I had read so many amazing things about this particular ice cream, articles, blogs, guide books, proclaiming that it was the best ice cream in the world! or at least, Paris. If something is THE BEST, I will try it. I feel like  life is too short to not eat (and see, and hear and experience) the best that is out there, particularly if it is right under your nose. It’s also fun because the best is so subjective and it’s fun to compare. I may even have to eat several best ice creams. Hello, Italy. So, I decided that the place to eat ice cream was Paris, and the time was the 4th of July, a day that crept up to quite warm here finally, after going to visit Musée de l’Orangerie. Well, l’Orangerie was closed due to “exceptional circumstances”. So instead we strolled through the Tuileries and along the Seine to Île Saint-Louis, one of the islands in the Seine. 

I had done my research, knowing that the few minutes standing in line is never enough time to decide which one or two (or three or four) flavors you would like on your cone. I went to the website where I found lists of all of the glacees and sorbets in French. Some of these I could read, but in looking for a translation for Agenaise (prune and armagnac), I actually found that someone had translated the entire list of flavors into English. Lavender caught my eye right away, as did Earl Grey. I will always try the thing that seems unusual, different and interesting. Getting vanilla, even if it is the best vanilla in the world, just isn’t an option for me. Wild strawberry sorbet also caught my eye for that reason, and the fact that it had been called out as one of Berthillon’s specialties. And then I thought Pistache (pistachio) would go brilliantly with the strawberry. So it was just about which other flavor might compliment those other two. Salted butter caramel is always a good choice. But, when we got there, three of the five flavors that caught my eye weren’t on the list. I suppose they rotate between the flavors, as well as adding a few seasonal ones (Basil Pineapple Sorbet anyone)? This is not your American ice cream full of chunks and swirls and brownies, (although a few do have chips). Each type is one distinct flavor, or maybe two, distilled to its essence. Berthillon is famous for the intensity and boldness of its flavors, the ice cream or sorbet capturing the true quintessence of chocolate, or coconut, or cinnamon.

I ended up with wild strawberry sorbet and caramel au beurre salé ice cream. And it was good. You know it’s good when begin thinking about the next time while you’re still there.  The salted caramel had the perfect mix of salty and sweet, with a lovely deep caramel flavor. The texture of the ice cream was excellent, utterly creamy without a hint of the icy or cloying nature that other ice creams can have. The sorbet was full of fresh strawberry flavor and even a few of the tiny specimens themselves, pure summer in a cone.
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