Friday, April 30, 2010

Springtime in the French Vosges

Have you ever heard of the Vosges region in France? Maybe you've had Vosges chocolate before, if you live in the United States, which actually doesn't come from France at all--although I would never say no to white chocolate with spicy black pepper.

Les Vosges is a little-known region in the East of the country, right next to Alsace and not so far away from Germany. It's a mountainous region, with medium-sized mountains perfect for breezy hiking. It was well-known for its textile industry in the 19th and early 20th century, which has unfortunately gone downhill since, and many towns were bombed during World War II. My French side of the family lives there--my papi, or grandfather, was from a small village called Nompatelize.

To celebrate my 100th post (already! thank you to the two people who read this!), I thought a few pictures of how beautiful the Spring is in the Vosges were in order. If you're thinking of visiting France, don't leave this region out--it's got great food as well. You can have wonderful cured meats and strong cheese, and the regional fruit is the super-plumpy mirabelle: a great addition to summer tarts. Oh, and let's not forget ice cream and candies made with pine sap, which are a great treat.

My favorite part? Looking out the window as my train rolls in, when the sun shines down on the dark green of the mountains and I just know a weekend spent lounging in the garden is in order. 

I would be saying Happy Spring, but the weather just dropped down a good 10° Celsius and it's hopefully this will remind you of what a perfect Spring should be like!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Classic French: The Tarte aux Fraises

Summer is just around the corner!

Hold on! Let's not get too carried away here. It's late April and for the past few years, temperatures have been in the 20s--Celsius, not Fahrenheit obviously, otherwise I would be hiding under a blanket and not writing this in the sun. Everytime this happens, we all start getting excited: picnicking in parks! Spending the day lounging around in the garden or at a café terrace! Not doing anything at all!

And then, all of a sudden, June comes along. Visions of warm summers drinking lemonade and selling it for a dollar disappear, replaced by sweaters. I'm not saying I would still have a lemonade stand, because I'm not sure how well that would go along with people in the street in Paris, or anywhere, really. A six year-old selling lemonade is cute. A 23 year-old selling lemonade is just plain weird. In any case, June in France sometimes doesn't call for lemonade, or any other refreshing drink. You'd be more likely to reach for tea or hot chocolate. Just when you thought all those dresses you bought in April would last throughout the summer, you realize you need to buy another pair of warm pants. 

In reaction to this fear of the cold summer, I've decided to pretend like I'm seventy years old and declare that my joint pain can only mean the summer will be really hot. I mean, my wrists hurt every morning, so it can only be that, right? Or the fact that I broke them in January. Right...I forgot about that. 

We'll see how Summer turns out--for now, Spring is pretty delightful. Surrounded by flowers and fruit trees in bloom in Saint Dié, where I'm spending a few days, I couldn't ask for more. Lounging in the sun and eating strawberries can't get any better...unless you add a strawberry tart. The tarte aux fraises is a true French classic; simple enough to make pretty quickly, yet with enough elegance to serve for company. The freshness from the strawberries comes together with the silky feel of the vanilla-flecked pastry cream for a great moment. Add a buttery, crunchy tart crust and you've got the perfect springtime dessert.

Every French family has its own recipe for strawberry tart, but most of them include a vanilla crème pâtissière and a pâte sablée. This recipe is pretty much the same, although I strayed away from family tradition and made a pâte sucrée, where confectioner's sugar replaces granulated sugar. I also added one little thing, which may or may not give the strawberries a little extra something: black pepper. 

Try it on your next strawberry tart, but don't forget: save some pastry cream on the edges of the bowl. You'll thank me for that when you're sitting out in the sun, vanilla-laden cream all over your fingers. Don't worry, nobody's looking: everyone is too busy doing the same thing.

Tarte aux Fraises
serves 4 to 6

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 pastry cream

15g (1 TB) cornstarch
40g (3 scant TB) granulated sugar
18cl (3/4 cups) whole milk
2 egg yolks
18g unsalted butter (1 1/4 TB), room temperature
1 vanilla pod, scraped (or use what you have left from the crust recipe)

Bring milk and vanilla to a boil in a medium saucepan, and remove from heat. Add cornstarch and half of the sugar.

In a small bowl, beat yolks and remaining sugar until lightened in color, about 3 minutes. Add a little of the milk beat to combine.

Place egg mixture in saucepan; beat regularly on medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and remove from heat.

Keep beating until pastry cream achieves a thick but silky consistency. When the cream reaches 50°C / 120°F , add butter and keep beating until incorporated.

Let cool and spread onto cooled tart crust.

for the topping

500g (1 lb) strawberries, sliced
1 TB strawberry or currant jam
1 (tiny) pinch black pepper

Place sliced strawberries on top of the pastry cream, following the edges of the tart crust to make a circular design. Top with a pinch of black pepper.

Heat jam until liquid, and brush onto tart.

Refrigerate or keep in a cool place until serving. Tart should be served the day it is made, otherwise it might get soggy and the pastry cream won't be as good.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Satisfying Soups: Lentil and Caramelized Onion

Sometimes, between all those cookies and muffins, you have to take a break.

Taking my hands off anything sweet is pretty difficult in my case. Actually, if I had no willpower, I would probably be eating sweets all day long, with one-hour breaks to have something salty. Because, you know, eating only sweet things ends up making you feel weird to your stomach--eating a little salty something is the only way to put things back into place before going back for a few hours of cake. Unfortunately (well, fortunately for my health and longevity) I can't stuff my face all day long, and I actually do appreciate eating savory dishes. 

My real problem is that I often go into fads, and fix the same thing over and over again, especially when I'm cooking for one--a fancy way of saying that I make something to go along with my obsessive TV show-watching. Take brussels sprouts, for example: after discovering I really enjoyed them, especially with some brown sugar, pecans and tofu, I made the dish for four days straight. And burrito bowls? Make that two weeks. 

The past few weeks have been all about soup. I don't have the kind of blender that enjoys blending vegetables in soup, apparently (that is exactly how my blender fell into the cold hands of Death), so I've been pretty reluctant to make any winter soups. Pumpkin soup, count me out! Oh well. When my eyes fell on a recipe for lentil soup in a recent issue of Martha Stewart Everyday Food, however, my mind lit up like it does when I look at a chocolate layer cake--and that's saying a lot. Inspired by the recipe, I realized I had everything I needed, and made soup.

And made it again, and again. And again? Let's just say I'm fully embracing the fact that Spring nights in Paris are still pretty cool, temperature-wise. You could also say that I'm a little weird for enjoying the same thing for days on end, but I wouldn't do that if I were you. You never know what soup might catch your fancy next.

Caramelized Onion and Lentil Soup
adapted from Martha Stewart
serves 4

1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 TB olive oil
1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked green lentils (canned can work as well!)
5 cups chicken broth
1/4 c. crème fraîche (or sour cream), for serving
1/4 c. fresh chervil, or any other fresh herb
2 dried bay leaves
salt and pepper

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring frequently, until edges start to brown and onion is very soft. Stirring often helps ensure the onion won't burn.

Add chicken broth, lentils, and bay leaves, raising heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes, crushing lentils along sides of the pan to thicken soup. Season with salt and pepper, tasting to adjust seasoning.

Ladle soup into plates; garnish with fresh herbs and a tablespoon of cream. Serve immediately.

Note: If you're starting out with dried lentils, you can proceed like this: Place 1 and 1/2 cups dried lentils in a saucepan, cover with water (it should come up about a half inch higher than the lentils), add a little salt and some dried bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat. Let everything simmer until lentils are soft but not mushy, which takes around 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies : A Classic

Oh, poor oatmeal cookie. You never were my favorite...until now.

Whenever I had the choice, I always picked the chocolate chip cookie. Silky and smooth, with just enough semisweet chocolate to make you swoon...none of that thick "oatiness" (yes, I just made that ridiculous word up). And raisins? Who needs raisins when you can have chocolate? Seriously. My sister always went for oatmeal raisin, and I never really understood why. I'm not a huge fan of oatmeal, and oats in general weren't really my thing.
That is, until I discovered, oatmeal scotchies a while ago. And as they say, "Once you go oat, you can't leave the boat". Or something along those lines. 

I also have to factor in the fact that I had the hugest, most amazing cookie ever when I lived in New York at a café called Grey Dog--eating one cookie would probably make you full for at least a good half of the day. But it's one of those treats where you can't stop even though you know you've gone way past what your stomach can tolerate. I started to see where my sister was coming from, choosing to have the oatmeal raisin cookie. However, I'd never taken it a step further and made them myself. If you can have butterscotch chips instead of raisins, why bother?

I had a suitcase full of such excuses, but a weekend trip out to Normandy made me change my mind. Wanting to bake a batch of cookies to bring along for the car ride, I settled on oatmeal cookies, thinking they would be sturdier than chewy chocolate chip cookies. The next question that came up was which extra something I should add. Chocolate chips? Butterscotch chips? The tradition seeker in me came right out and voted for raisins. Raisins it was, and with my trusty ATK cookbook in hand (or under my arm, seeing how big it is), I was off to the land of raisins in cookies.

Will I ever look back? No way. I'm a chocolate chip cookie kind of girl, but oatmeal raisin is right up there alongside it. I guess every girl wants to end up like her older sister.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
adapted from the America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book
makes about 24 large cookies

1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 TS baking powder
1/2 TS salt
1/4 TS ground nutmeg
1 TS cinnamon (not in the original recipe)
16 TB (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 c. packed light brown sugar
1 c. granulated sugar
2 large eggs
3 c. old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 c. raisins (I plumped them a little first by steeping them in hot water)

Preheat oven to 325°F / 160°C. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon together in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugars together with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 6 minutes (I did this by hand). Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until combined, about 30 seconds.

Reduce mixer speed to low and slowly add flour mixture until combined, about 30 seconds. Mix in the oats and raisins until just incorporated.

Working with about 3 TB of dough at a time, roll the dough into balls and lay them on the prepared baking sheets, spaced about 2 inches apart. Flatten to a 3/4-inch thickness using your palm.

Bake cookies until edges are set and beginning to brown but centers are still soft and puffy, 22 to 25 minutes, switching and rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking.

Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 10 minutes, then serve warm or transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sour-Cream Sugar Cookies

I'm always in awe whenever I page through Betty Crocker's old-school "cooky" book. Sure, the pictures are pretty retro, but that's not what amazes me. What I love is how quaint everything looks: you feel like hosting some kind of a cookie tea party just to arrange huge plates of thumbprint and spritz cookies everywhere in the house. Someone's walking through the hall? Let him choose between five different kinds! Someone else has decided to step out onto the patio? Have a chocolate crinkle!

To be a bit more realistic, I don't think I would be able to find more than ten kinds of cookies in my apartment, and I don't really have a hallway...or a patio for that matter. But a girl can dream, right?

I was invited for dinner at JB's for Easter. Now, before I get into the details, you have to know that his parents are sort of...intimidating. Let's just say I've seen his dad twice in over five years--the second time being this particular Easter. I wanted to bring some kind of gift, something nice and oh-hello-would-you-like-a-quaint-cookie-sounding. JB suggested I bake "something we can have with some tea after dinner", and I took that as my cue to envision my Betty Crocker fantasy. I paged through the book, settling on some sour-cream sugar cookies that I wanted to top with some cute Easter-colored sanding sugar. The recipe was for a rolled cookie, but I figured making drop cookies would be nice and quick without sacrificing the yummy taste.

I could hardly keep my hands off them when they came out of the oven: they were soft, tasty, and really adorable-looking. But I didn't want to start Easter dinner off on a wrong note, so I didn't eat all thirty of them. Twenty went straight into a plastic favor bag, and off to dinner we went. Everyone was basically very very full by the time dinner was over, so JB assured they would taste the cookies tomorrow. He sure did. I got a call on Monday morning, along the lines of "Did you actually taste your cookies??? I couldn't even eat one." So apparently, they got a "plastic-y" taste from the bag, but he made such a deal about it: imagine hearing "I actually had to hide these from my parents". Yeah. Nice, right? 

I couldn't really understand why the ones I had tasted were so good and his were "awful", so I asked him to bring some to class on Tuesday. He handed one over to me, waiting for some kind of dramatic Heimlich-maneuver-inducing reaction on my part. Well, he sure was disappointed. They tasted just fine, maybe a little too moist from being in that plastic bag for so long, but nothing to kick and scream about. Turns out the slight taste from the nutmeg threw him and family off, or something. Weird. 

Then came the revelation: "I don't understand why you made these tiny cookies and not some huge chewy cookies with chopped Snickers or something." I guess he won't be invited to my Betty Crocker Cooky Blowout. I'll save the Plantation Fruit Bars for the real cookie lovers on the patio.

Old-Fashioned Sour Cream Cookies
adapted from Betty Crocker's Cooky Book
makes 4 to 5 dozen 2-inch cookies

Note: I halved the recipe and they turned out fine! (Well, as long as you like sugar cookies, I guess, which some people apparently do not!)

1/2 c. butter, softened
1 c. sugar
1 egg
1 TS vanilla
2 2/3 c. all-purpose flour
1 TS baking powder
1/2 TS baking soda
1/2 TS salt
1/4 TS nutmeg
1/2 c. sour cream
sanding sugar

Preheat oven to 425°F.

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add egg and vanilla, and mix thoroughly.

In a medium bowl, blend dry ingredients together. Add to sugar mixture alternately with sour cream.

Refrigerate dough at least 20 minutes.

Drop tablespoon-sized dollops of dough onto a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Flatten with palm and top with sanding sugar.

Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned on the edges.

Cool on wire rack. Can be stored for a few days in an airtight container, but these are best eaten fresh.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins - Again.

The nice thing about favorite childhood treats is that they remain stuck in your mind like brick. The not so nice part is that sometimes, you realize that you no longer have the same tastes as you did when you were six years old.

Take bread, for example. Whenever we came to France for the summer or for Christmas, I never went for the "good bread". You know, the crunchy crust that hides a soft and fragrant crumb. The type of baguette you look at and dream of breaking in half, before eating it all up. For most people, that is good bread. The strange thing is, I never enjoyed it. Before you ask, I didn't grow up on Wonder Bread or any type of sandwich bread. I've always loved sourdough and bread with grains. But when it came down to a baguette, I only wanted one type: the baguette from Champion. Not the sports equipment brand: my baguette was not a hooded sweatshirt in disguise, or a boxing glove for that matter. Champion was a local grocery store in Saint Dié, and I sure loved the bread there. 

Picture it: undercooked, a soft crust, absolutely not golden in the least. Oh, and I should mention it had this special industrial-like taste that you never find in real bread from a boulangerie. I don't know why, but I loved it. Especially when it was "fresh" (or should I say defrosted) and still warm, I could eat the whole thing up in mere minutes, always to the amazement of my maman. I think she never really understood why I didn't enjoy the real baguettes we had in the house. I wouldn't eat the crust and just pick at the crumb until the baguette was just a hollow tube. Geez, what an annoying kid.

Now that I live on my own, I don't buy bread all that often--the main reason being that I would eat it all day long, and my stomach wouldn't have any space left for yummy fruits and vegetables. However, I was grocery shopping this morning and spotted a mini-baguette, also called déjeunette at my local Champion. I looked it over, and turned it on all its underbaked sides. After some debating, I went ahead and got it, pretty sure it would give me the industrial bread jolt I needed. And guess what? It didn't. I bit into it and immediately regretted not getting a "demi-baguette" from the bakery next door. I wanted the crunch, I wanted the freshly baked taste. And this little déjeunette gave me none of that. 

Now, there's one thing undercooked baguette is good with: milk chocolate. The instructions are pretty simple: bar of chocolate slipped into bread, eaten like a sandwich. Try it.

Staying on the subject of treats, I haven't outgrown lemon poppy seed muffins yet. If you remember, I can get pretty obsessive: here, and here. This time around, I tried out a Dorie Greenspan recipe with sour cream for the nice moist touch, and a nice amount of lemon. I left out the lemon glaze at the end, and ended up with a delicious muffin that could have benefited from an extra sugar jolt. It was really good on its own and would be fitting for a breakfast treat, but for a teatime snack, the glaze would have been nice as well.

In other words, if you--like me--are still on the lookout for the best lemon poppy seed muffin recipe out there, give this one a try. This isn't underbaked industrial bread--I promise you won't grow out of it.

Lemon Poppy-Seed Muffins
makes 12 - I made 6 jumbo and 12 mini

adapted from Baking From My Home to Yours, by Dorie Greenspan

For the Muffins:
2/3 c. sugar
Grated zest and juice of 2 organic or untreated lemons
2 c. all-purpose flour
2 TS baking powder
1/4TS  baking soda
1/4 TS salt
3/4 c. sour cream
2 eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 stick (8 tablespoons or 113g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 TB poppy seeds

For the Icing:
1 c. confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2-3 TB fresh lemon juice

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400° F / 200°C.  Butter or spray the 12 molds in a regular-size muffin pan or fit the molds with paper muffin cups.

In a large bowl, rub the sugar and lemon zest together with your fingertips until the sugar is moist and the fragrance of lemon strong.

Whisk in the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  In another bowl, whisk the sour cream, eggs, vanilla, lemon juice and melted butter together until well blended.

Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and, with the whisk or a rubber spatula, gently but quickly stir to blend.  Stir in the poppy seeds--a few lumps in the batter is fine.

Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a thin knife inserted into the center of the muffins comes out clean

Transfer the pan to a rack and cool for 5 minutes. Remove muffins from pan and cool completely on rack before icing.

To make the icing: Put the confectioners’ sugar in a small bowl and add about 1 1/2 TB of the lemon juice.  Stir with a spoon to moisten the sugar, then add enough lemon juice to get an icing that is thin enough to drizzle from the tip of the spoon.  Coat muffins or drizzle with icing.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hi, Facebook!

Well, this is going to sound a little strange, but if you're ever on Facebook feel free to follow me!

No, I'm not looking for any impromptu stalkers, but I had a little too much spare time tonight and created a page for Bilingual Butter--a place to share thoughts on cooking, baking, and all these yummy things that make life so great.

Just look up "Bilingual Butter", and let's have fun!

This is me saying "Come on in!", except that would mean I value a Facebook page as much as the royal palace in Istanbul. And trust me, I don't: that would be even more pretentious than actually creating a Facebook page in the first place!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Burger Mania

A post in French, with a recipe I created for the website Do It In Paris!

Si on vous parle de burger, que pensez-vous? Trop gras, bon mais culpabilisant, voire "malbouffe"? 

Comme on dit aux pays des cowboys, "Think again". Outre-Atlantique, le burger est tout autre: il s'agit d'une véritable icône culturelle, qui a accompagné le pays dans ses transformations sociétales au vingtième siècle et qui révèle les spécificités régionales. Parler d'un burger à table, c'est comme parler de politique: ça fait débat. Prenons le sujet épineux du ketchup. Pour certains, un bon burger ne se conçoit même pas sans, alors que pour d'autres, la simple suggestion éveille les soupçons. Et la cuisson de la viande? N'abordez pas le sujet sans armure adéquate. Entre les partisans du "single flip" et ceux qui la retournent plusieurs fois pendant la cuisson, c'est la bataille assurée.  

Pour mettre tout le monde d'accord, rien de tel qu'on burger façon rétro, comme on en servait dans les drive-ins des années 60 et qui refont surface au plus grand bonheur de tous. Son secret? Une sauce ultra-crémeuse, qui fera taire les mauvaises langues. Elles n'auront même plus envie de parler, tellement c'est bon. 

Retro Cheeseburger
pour 4

4 gâches ou brioches individuelles pur beurre, tranchées en deux
500g de viande de boeuf hachée
4 larges rondelles de tomate
4 grandes feuilles de laitue
4 tranches de cheddar
2 noisettes de beurre
sel et poivre 

Pour la sauce:
2 cuillères à soupe de mayonnaise
1 cuillère à soupe de ketchup
1 cuillère à café de cornichons aigre-doux râpés ou hachés
1/2 cuillère à café de sucre
1/2 cuillère à café de vinaigre blanc
pincée de poivre. 

Préparer la sauce: Mélanger tous les ingrédients et mettre de côté.
Répartir la viande hachée en quatre et former des steaks de 2 cm d'épaisseur environ. Les poivrer et saler. 
Faire fondre une petite noisette de beurre dans une poêle. Lorsqu'il mousse, faire griller les tranches de brioche une petite minute. Placer sur une assiette et garder au chaud sous une feuille d'aluminium. 
Dans la même poêle, rajouter du beurre si nécessaire et faire chauffer. Placer les steaks dans la poêle et laisser cuire d'un côté environ 4 minutes. Les retourner et cuire encore 2 minutes, puis placer les tranches de fromage sur chaque steak. Laisser fondre environ une minute.
Badigeonner l'intérieur de chaque pain de sauce. Garnir avec la viande, une rondelle de tomate et une feuille de laitue. Déguster avec du coleslaw ou bien des frites, cuites dans la graisse de canard pour la 'gourmet touch'!

Astuce: Vous souhaitez transformer votre retro-burger en bacon cheese? Toujours faire revenir le bacon à feu très doux dans une poêle au départ froide, et vider la graisse au fur et à mesure de la cuisson pour ne pas le braiser. Crispy bacon garanti!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter!

Here's wishing everyone a lovely food-filled Easter!

Coming up this week: yet another lemon poppy seed muffin recipe, and old-fashioned sour cream sugar cookies...Stay tuned!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter Chocolates

What better way to celebrate Easter than chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate?

If you've ever lived in France, you know what a big deal chocolates are this time of the year. Everywhere you look, huge chocolate eggs are filled with smaller ones, bunnies, chicks, and fish. Fish? Yes!

Well, chocolate fish, obviously. I don't really know where or when this tradition originated, but fritures are a common Easter treat in France. You usually buy a mix of dark, milk, and white chocolate fritures to hide in big eggs or chocolate hens; "friture" means something that's been fried. I can see you scrunching your nose, thinking how strange it is that people would actually want to buy sardine and lobster-shaped chocolates that seem like they're fried, name-wise anyways. Take one look at cute chocolate seahorses and I can bet you'll become a fan of fritures, too.

Usually, for Easter, I always do the same thing: I eat amazing chocolate. I just might be a little on the spoiled side. My parents send me all the American Easter chocolate I can't find over here--think Cadbury Mini Eggs--and my aunt Mimi goes the deluxe route. Let me explain: in the East of France, where my French family lives, there is a chocolate shop that exerts some kind of strange attraction on everyone I know. You step into the shop and the strong chocolate smell just hits you like a baseball bat and you forget about everything else. I'm not kidding. Some people have been known to miss flights, trains, and weddings because of Carl Chocolates. (Alright, maybe not. But maybe!) It's pricey, but so absolutely amazing that a 10-inch high chocolate hen, stocked with melt-in-your mouth chocolate eggs, disappears in less than a day in my hands. Never mind the stomach ache later on--another whiff of the chocolate smell makes you forget about it pretty fast.

Anyway, Carl chocolates have been one of my favorite treats since I can remember. This year, instead of being the passive, chocolate-devouring little girl everyone knows me as, I decided to go ahead and make my own. Yep, I made my own chocolate. I didn't really go and pick out the cocoa beans, but I still consider these "mine". After some internal debating, I settled on a few flavors: 70% dark cocoa with crystallized ginger bits, 61% semisweet cocoa with chopped almonds and golden raisins, and "Bounty" chocolate, milk chocolate with a coconut filling (made by mixing sweetened condensed milk with desiccated coconut). 

One thing you need when making your own chocolates is a good thermometer: you're going to need it. Tempering chocolate is one fun activity (I say this with a little bit of irony): up and down, up and down. Your mind will be swirling with temperature charts! A quick search on Google gives you tempering charts for most types of chocolate, which is useful. But it's still a complicated task, and one that I would recommend only if you love licking chocolate-covered spoons for hours on end. I do!

There isn't a specific recipe for making your own chocolates: let your creativity run wild. Once your chocolate is tempered, mix it with everything and anything you want. Place it in little chocolate molds--I'll understand if the lobster isn't your favorite--place them in the refrigerator to set, and tada! If you hear a little crackling sound when you bend the molds around, your chocolates are ready!

Now go ahead and spoil someone. Happy Easter!