Monday, September 10, 2012

Be My Chouquette

We've covered the subject that eating in France is a very communal, group-type experience. 
In the United States, meetings have food as an accessory: hey, grab another donut while we discuss our turnover growth!
In France, well, food has meetings as an accessory. In the workplace, there's always some kind of occasion that justifies breakfast or a goûter. Whenever someone wants to announce a pregnancy, an engagement, or just a general happy mood, chances are they'll stroll into the office with a big bag from the local boulangerie.
If there's a breakfast get-together "just because", chances are any meetings might be delayed by a few - or 5, or 10 - minutes. I mean look, we're talking breakfast here. Flaky, buttery dough. Isn't that enough to put work aside for a while? 

Breakfast get-together food isn't just random cake. If you really want to nail an office breakfast, here's the key. Grab some mini-pastries to make everyone happy. Most of the time, half of your colleagues will reach for the pain au chocolat, or chocolate croissant. Wouldn't you?!?

A minority goes for the raisin roll - given the choice between chocolate and raisins, if you can't have Raisinets, I think you'd go for the same as I would. Now imagine what happens when there's only one of those chocolate croissants left. War?

Nope! Enter the chouquettes. 

Chou-who? Chouquettes. You've heard of the word chou, which means cabbage but is also a tender "honey"-like nickname. The chouquette is something else altogether. This chouquette here is a staple, no wait, a foundation of French breakfast get-togethers. I've made them before, you might remember. They're the most simple pastry ever, it would seem: chou pastry dough and sugar. That's it.

Easy does it, right? Now factor in how many eggs you use to achieve optimal moisture. How the sugar should be sprinkled all over, even around the edges, for the extra crispy, extra caramelized sugary taste that makes a good chouquette so special. Honestly, aside for fun, there's no real reason to make your own chouquettes at home. You can get a dozen golf ball-sized treats for 2 euros, and have the immense privilege of eating them straight from the paper bag. Which means, digging for all the little pieces of sugar that fall off, creating a mound of sugar that's just waiting for you. 

Chouquettes culturally have that special something that makes everyone enjoy them, or at least the idea of them. Cute little mounds of sugar that make everyone around smile - what's better than that? Move over, Mean Girls: chouquettes are what really gives you the cool factor during recess. (Or office breakfast, but you get the point)

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Tart Tradition

Oh, the walk in the woods the day before Christmas. The birthday cake that's become your yearly ritual...and the recurring hope when you blow the candles out that you willa ctually, someday, become a spy...Wait, what? Sorry, that was too much information.

My point being that we all have our special traditions that we link to specific seasons or times of the year. It goes far beyond the ubiquitous Thanksgiving turkey: for some, it's all about apple-picking on that special family weekend, or biting into your first lobster roll of the Summer.

I've created my own traditions of sorts, that accompanies Summer weekends in the Vosges. There's the walk in the woods, that migrated from Winter to Summer this year...

... but there's also the baking of a nice tart. Remember the tarte aux fraises?

This time around, however, there was more of a story behind it. In my last post, I mentioned a special trip to Italy, where Amalfi coast lemons and a ring were involved. The ring has, thankfully and somewhat unsurprisingly, stayed on my finger. The lemons, on the other hand, went from a little shop in the coastal town of Praiano to our fridge in Paris, to my aunt's fridge in the Vosges mountains.

These aren't your run of the mill lemons. Ooooh no. These are more like a cross between what the French call a citron (a lemon) and the english citron, or cédrat in French. They're bumpy and huge, but just one look is enough to make you want to dig your nails into them to let the fragrant oil work its magic. (Don't get me wrong, I don't dig my nails into things that often, in case you might have gotten that idea.)

Wondering whether it's really worth it to lug a bag of lemons back from a trip to the Amalfi coast? Wonder no longer! You can zest them and store the zest in sugar to add taste to anything from a muffin to yogurt. The juice is delicious on its own, too.

Or... start a tart tradition! Not the kind that's going to leave you bitter ("I never wanted that tradition in the first place!" = not the right kind of tart), but the opportunity to indulge in creamy lemon curd and a tasty crust.

If you know Bilingual Butter, you'll recognize the recipes that I used - hey, it's not called a tradition for nothing!

Lemon Tart
serves 6 to 8

for the tart crust (makes extra dough, enough for one or two tartelettes):

250g (1 cup) all-purpose flour
85g (1/3 cup) confectioner's sugar
1 egg
1/2 vanilla pod, scraped
125g (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened and cut into chunks
25g (1 3/4 TB) almond powder
4g (1 TS) salt

Beat butter with a mixer or by hand until fluffly. Add confectioner's sugar, almond powder, salt, vanilla "caviar", egg, and flour, one at a time and mixing well after each addition.

Dough should be pretty sticky but you should still be able to handle it. Roll it into a ball, flatten a little with the palm of your hand, and refrigerate for at least a few hours: overnight is fine. You can also freeze the dough.

When ready to use, preheat oven to 180°C/ 350°F.

Flatten the dough using a rolling pin until it is 3mm thick. Place in a buttered 22cm tart pan (that would be 8.66 inches precisely! 8 or 9-inch is fine). Cover the pan with parchment paper and pie weights. Bake crust for 20 minutes or until golden. Remove parchment paper and weights, and bake for another 10 minutes.

Set tart crust on a wire rack to cool.

for the lemon curd:
makes 2 1/2 cups, or enough for a French-sized tart

4 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
3/4 c. sugar
2/3 c. fresh lemon juice
8g lemon zest (approx. 1 TB)
145g (10 TB) cold butter, cut into pieces

Rub zest and sugar together.
Mix lemon juice, sugar/zest, and eggs together in a heatproof bowl. Place it over a pan of simmering water.
Cook, whisking constantly, until a thermometer reads 75°C.
Remove from heat; when temperature comes back down to 60°C, incorporate butter and mix for 5 minutes.
Cover surface with plastic wrap and set aside to let cool.

Refrigerate up to 2 weeks. When ready to use, pour into baked tart shell, bake for a little under 10 minutes for the curd to firm up, and refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Back again, 5th edition

You've got to get back on the horse that threw you off.

Wait, wrong saying. I think that one was for the time I broke my wrists while snowboarding. This time around, we could just say it's all about getting back on the horse that wasn't anything but nice to you and that you sadly abandoned.

I was ready to think you could summarize that in two words, "growing up", but my dear Bilingual Butter, I've been missing you.

You could look at this non-blogging year in a couple of ways:

1. Milkshakes, Burrata, Amalfi Lemons


2. Travels, a Move, and a Ring.


I realized I couldn't help myself and needed to see both sides of everything - what actually happened, and what I ate every single time.

Some have food diaries, I think I'll stick with having Bilingual Butter. It's a fun write and an interactive cookbook I'm happy to have around. If you decide to stick around, too, I'll try my best to give more meaning to the word "update".

See you soon!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Solo Ciccia: meeting meat in Tuscany

Summer may seem far away, but thinking back to the month of August, I feel like I can head back to Tuscany in a minute.

Tuscany: a region of Italy that has long held the image of one of Europe's most romantic regions. Rolling hills and lush vines make up a beautiful scenery--and are the perfect setting for a terrible copilot like myself.

Oh no, I wouldn't even have the ambition to drive in Tuscany. No vintage Jaguar and scarf-wearing for me--I'd rather stick to gripping onto the map in the passenger seat of a Fiat 500.
Holding onto a map, mind you, is something quite different from helping out with directions. You'll easily understand how a bad copilot and tiny roads lost in the middle of vineyards could lead to major drama.

In our case, we just became a little more hungry with every wrong turn. And when hungry means hungry for meat, there's a place for that in Tuscany: Solo Ciccia.

Those who have read Anthony Bourdain's Heat are no stranger to the star butcher Dario Cecchini. In true Tuscan fashion, Cecchini masters the art of turning any cut of meat--or any part of the animal--into a delectable dish. On Sundays, Cecchini hosts lunches in true 'table d'hôte' style with a thematic you would easily get, even if it wasn't printed on the menu: La Vacca Entera, or the Whole Cow.

Now I'm most definitely the type to shy away--or squirm, or run away--from "strange" cuts of meat. Yes, dissecting a dead cow's internal organs in fun-filled, but eating them? Eh, not so much... until mid-August.

Notice the dessert offering; we weren't very hungry anymore by then (understandably), but since I don't need hunger to enjoy cake, I dove right in.
Olive oil, orange, and pine nuts: Tuscany in a mouthful. The crunch of a fine layer of sugar on top provides a welcome counterpoint to the moist texture of the cake.It's quick and easy to make, and as the weather becomes cooler, it serves as a nice reminder that Summer isn't ever that far away.

As close as I can try to come to the cake I had at Cecchini's, nothing beats having a bite above his shop before taking a walk in the village and heading back out on the road to get lost again, thanks to that terrible copilot I mentioned.

For a much-needed staycation, however, this cake is the way to go--a little Tuscan sun right in your kitchen.

Torta al'Olio
adapted from Italy Cooks by Judy Zeidler
makes 1 large cake

5 eggs
1 c. raw sugar
1/2 c. granulated sugar
2 oranges, finely chopped (whole!)
1/2 c. olive oil, plus 2 tablespoons for top
2 c. all-purpose flour
2 c. whole-wheat flour
2 TS baking powder
pinch salt
Raw sugar, to top cake
1/2 c. pine nuts, toasted

Preheat the oven to 180°C / 350°F.
Oil a springform cake pan and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix flours, baking powder and salt and set aside.

Beat eggs and sugars with an electric mixer until the mixture forms "ribbons". Add oranges and mix.

Add olive oil, alternating with dry ingredients, and mix until smooth without overmixing.

Pour batter into prepared pan, sprinkle with sugar and pine nuts.
Bake approximately 30 to 40 minutes (depending on the size of your pan) until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cool on a rack before serving.