Tuesday, November 30, 2010

If you didn't have a waffle, you didn't go to Belgium

...which is exactly what my friend Claire and I kept repeating to ourselves on our three-day trip to Antwerp, a fashion-forward city in the Flemish part of Belgium.

The only issue was that we were already eating and drinking so many delicious things, that we didn't even have time for a "gaufre de Liège" until we were on our way down to the train station. But we did, in the end, have our waffle: crispy with caramelized sugar on the outside, dense yet airy on the inside. The Belgian waffle isn't your typical waffle--it's much better.
But let's take things from the start. Setting: a Northern European city in November, therefore meaning rain, wind, and low temperatures. The perfect excuse for multiple stops to cafés.

Our first day in Antwerp was a strange one: it was a national holiday, and the streets were eerily empty. We were on our own on the main street, walking against the wind, wondering where everyone had disappeared. We even started to wonder whether Antwerp really existed, or if we were caught in some kind of Truman Show-esque situation where everything was designed around us. It turns out, everyone was hiding out in restaurants. And who wouldn't? The food all around Antwerp was good (homemade soups, dark multigrain bread) and cheap: the aforementioned soup was priced between 3.50 and 5 euros where we went. The restaurants and cafés were cozy and unpretentious, and best of all, they weren't packed like they would be in Paris.

Antwerp is a cultural city: the famed designers collectively called the "Antwerp Six" are representative of the importance the city seems to attach to fashion and design. The museums are diverse and all have something different to offer, and if you're under 26, they're only one euro. If I still haven't managed to convince you, let me add that you can get delicious hot chocolate everywhere. Cheap, delicious hot chocolate.

And like every good tourist, never leave without a souvenir. In my case, it was Belgian chocolate bars from the supermarket. Chocolate...and chocolate sprinkles for toast. And 55% almond paste. And chocolate-covered toffee. I think you get the point.

Antwerp is pretty cool. And definitely cold.

Wet and cold, but always hungry.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Things to be Thankful For

Happy Thanksgiving!

Since I've been living in France, Thanksgiving has unfortunately been a sort of non-event for me. Every year, when late November comes around, my sister travels to Illinois to be with my parents and I...well, I just feel homesick.

Thanksgiving when I was younger meant ten hour-long car rides to Maryland, where all my aunts, uncles, and cousins met up for a feast my grandparents presided over. Honestly, I don't remember what we ate--although I know it was classic Thanksgiving fare--but the multitude of cousins running around the house was something I enjoyed. That, and the scrumptious sticky buns my grandmother made the next morning.

Although my Thanksgiving day was work-filled and I didn't get to share a piece of juicy turkey with my family this year, I still have quite a lot to be thankful for.

Like this, for example:

- Donuts with sprinkles

- A family I wouldn't exchange for a million dollars. Well, maybe a couple million. Just kidding though.

- Oh! More sprinkles! Supermarket sugar cookies. True happiness costs no more than fifty cents.

In Paris, people tend to be grumpy pretty much all the time but deep inside, you can tell they're thankful. Thankful for that delicious, fresh croissant, thankful for a free seat on the subway, or thankful for a square of luscious milk chocolate. As long as you're thankful for all the big and small things surrounding you, I'd say you're on the right track.

And now, that chocolate maple pecan pie is well-deserved!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


When Fall gives way to Winter, leaves disappear...leaving naked branches behind. 

What happens to arms and legs is inversely proportional.  Winter announces the beginning of what I like to call Layer Season. Forget about wearing a t-shirt: now, it's all about long sleeves plus various sweaters, a coat and a scarf. Layer Season comes and goes along its own agenda, depending on the years. And that is exactly why L.S. and I aren't buddy-buddy.

Remember, Layer Season, when you came along in October? I was six years old and I can tell you I still haven't forgotten. Forget being dressed as Snow White for Halloween...I was Snow White-in-a-Turtleneck. 

Nowadays, Layer Season making its appearance a little early isn't such an issue for me--after all, I now get to choose how I dress, and prefer to leave the turtlenecks behind pretty often. However, it seems this particular time of year has left an indelible mark on the way I bake, not the way I dress.

Summertime is all about the fresh berry tarts. Fall? Apple crisps, pumpkin muffins. And then comes a time when you get caught up in the moment, enjoying all the Fall spices and flavors. There you go--you feel like layering.

I've had one bad experience with layering before, and it involved a pumpkin pecan pie mishap. This time around, though, I went a lighter route: pumpkin and apples baked into delicious streusel-topped muffins. I'll admit it, Layer Season can have its benefits. Don't be afraid of overload with this recipe: the resulting muffins are surprisingly light, and easy to enjoy at any time of the day (i.e. you can even munch on them at work without falling asleep afterward).

So, thank you, Layer Season, for the inspiration. Just one last thing: next time I dress up as Cinderella, can you please stay out of the way for a while? Thanks.

Apple-Pumpkin Muffins
makes approximately 14
loosely adapted from Bon Appétit, Oct. 2001

for apples:
3 medium apples, peeled, cored and diced
1 TB butter
2 TB granulated sugar
1 TS cinnamon

for cake:
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. brown sugar
6 TB butter, room temperature
1/2 c. sour cream, light or regular
2 eggs
3/4 c. pumpkin puree
1 TS baking soda
2 TS pumpkin pie spice
1/2 TS cinnamon
1/2 TS salt

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.

Prepare apples: melt butter over medium heat. Add apples and and cook until they begin to brown. Add sugar and cinnamon, stir, and cook another 2 minutes.

In a medium bowl, mix butter, brown sugar, flour and salt together with your hands until a coarse meal forms. Set 1/2 c. of mixture aside for topping.

Add the following ingredients to the remaining flour mixture: pumpkin, sour cream, baking soda, and spices, until just combined. Add eggs one at a time.

Divide batter between greased or lined muffins pans. Top with apples, and sprinkle flour mixture on top.

Bake approximately one hour, until topping is golden. Serve warm with ice cream.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Taste Test: Fall Edition

One of my favorite parts of baking is getting to eat raw dough or batter.

 Ooh! Cookie dough
Oh, don't look at me like that. You know it's your favorite part too. Everyone's get their preferred tastes: I love anything from raw cookie dough to zucchini cake batter. My maman goes crazy for raw yeast, the one you get in cubes at the bakery here in France. I do, however, have a slight problem once Fall comes rolling around. I get the urge to bake with pumpkin (seemingly, as does everyone in the blogosphère, as the French call it) and look forward to having pumpkin muffins spiced with warm cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. 

Thoughts of eating my weight in pumpkin cake batter pop up...and quickly disappear. I don't like cake batter with pumpkin. There. I said it. The taste doesn't really appeal to me, and a few spoonfuls is just enough before I remind myself that no, I don't really like this so yes, I should stop now.

I'm curious, though. Are there bakers out there (or just batter-eaters) who enjoy the taste of pumpkin puree before it gets baked into a lovely, orange loaf of everything autumn baking is supposed to be? Or is something wrong with me?
Not-so-appetizing (empty) bowl of pumpkin batter

Oh, and see that picture right there? That's a testament to the fact that I even eat batter when I don't really love it. My subconscious links the words "cake batter" to "hey, you're right, I am hungry!". 

Now, if only the words "chocolate" and "candy" could be linked to "oh thanks, I've had enough". That doesn't look like it's going to happen any time soon, unfortunately.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tarte Tatin

I've been trying to imagine how someone who has never heard the name "Tarte Tatin" would go about pronouncing it if he or she saw it written somewhere. 

Let's say you're American. Would it be pronounced tar-tee tay-tin? I sometimes feel like going into a restaurant and ordering one with that pronunciation, just to watch the surrounding reactions. Acting funny (if the word stupid is coming to mind, trust me, you're on the wrong path here...maybe) in restaurants is a family thing, I guess. My dad and I have a long-standing tradition of getting a gyro on Saturdays for lunch, and they ask you for your name at the counter. Let's just say that my dad has been a great number of actors and politicians throughout the years for the gyros staff. Oh, and did I mention they call out your name so you can go pick up your order? I must be a weird kid, because I'm twenty three and it still makes me laugh.

If you're not the type to laugh at embarrassing situations in public, you've got two solutions regarding tarte tatin. Actually, three: the first would be never to have tarte tatin in your whole life (and you'd be missing out). The second would be to know that tarte tatin is pronounced "tart tah-tan", or pretty close to that. The third way to go would be to make your own, so you never have to say it out loud. And, you can eat as much as you want. As you can guess, I like the third option.

So what is tarte tatin, exactly? Apples are baked in a skillet with a lot of delicious salted butter caramel, covered with a thick sheet of puff pastry, and placed in the oven to become golden and delicious. That's pretty much all you need to know. And for those of you cringing at the thought of making your own puff pastry, store-bought is fine as long as it's thick enough (otherwise, use two sheets) and made with real butter. For those living in France, the best way to go if you're in a hurry is probably to convince your baker to sell you a block.

And for the record, hearing "apple pie" pronounced by a non-English speaker is pretty nice too. I've heard "a-pell pee"...something worth trying on my next trip to the US.

Tarte Tatin
serves 6 to 8

10 medium baking apples, peeled, cored and halved
7 TB salted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 c. + 2 TB sugar
1 thick sheet puff pastry (thawed if buying frozen)

Heat an oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle sugar into skillet and let it melt until you have an amber-colored caramel, stirring as needed. Add butter and whisk well until melted and homogenous. Remove from heat.

Arrange apple halves in skillet so that they stack up against one another like falling dominos.  Cook over medium-high heat until apples are soft, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C. Cut a thick sheet of puff pastry (or stack two sheets if using a thin version) the size of the skillet. Cover apples and "tuck" the edges of the puff pastry in.

Bake 30 minutes or until puff pastry is nice and golden. Let cool in skillet before inverting onto a plate.

Can be served warm or cool, with cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A New Take on Carrot Cake

Carrot cake is a funny little creature.

It is cherished and loved as a classic of American baking in the United States, yet it surprises more than a few here in France. Just like zucchini cake, when I excitedly mention that it's on the menu for this weekend, I get strange stares.

"You mean... carrot. In a cake? With sugar?" Cue strange looks and eyebrow raises. Just try adding that the frosting is made with cream cheese, and now you really sound weird.

"How can a cake made with vegetables and covered in cheese mixed with sugar actually be good?" The only way to answer that question is to give everyone a taste. Or, you could tone it down a bit and pair a carrot cake with another kind of frosting.

Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting used to be une évidence. I couldn't think of enjoying it with a regular buttercream frosting, let alone some kind of whipped cream. No siree, I needed the lightly sweetened tang of a true cream cheese frosting. However, as I got ready to host a pre-Halloween party this year, images of carrot cake and chocolate sour cream frosting started blossoming in my mind. Why not change things up for once? I'll admit another reason was that none of my other desserts had any chocolate in them. And a party without chocolate, well, it's just not a party.

The sour cream in the frosting imparts a very slight acidic note that, like its cousin cream cheese frosting over there, is a welcome complement to the warm spices in the carrot cake. Sour cream in the cake also guarantees you've got a super moist crumb.

In the form of mini cupcakes, they're the perfect size not to scare anyone away: bite by bite, I'm on a quest to reconcile everyone with vegetables in sweet desserts. Up next: bell peppers? Broccoli? I might just stick with pumpkin.

Carrot Cupcakes and Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting
makes 24 cupcakes

for the cake:

2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 heaping TS baking powder
1 TS baking soda
1/2 TS salt
1 TS ground cinnamon
1 TS pumpkin pie spice
4 eggs
1 1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. packed light brown sugar
1/2 c. vegetable oil
3/4 c. sour cream
1 lb. carrots, grated

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.

Line a muffin pan with liners or grease pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together.

In a large bowl, beat eggs and sugars until mixture is frothy. Slowly add in oil and sour cream; whisk until well combined. Add flour mixture until just incorporated. Stir in carrots.

Fill cupcake liners about 3/4 of the way and bake 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out with a few crumbs attached. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Frost when cool.

for the frosting: right here!