Saturday, July 31, 2010

This Gougère is no Goujat

French vocabulary can get a little tricky.

When is a "g" pronounced like a "j"? When do you pronounce a "t" or "d" at the end of a word? If you're French, chances are you learned all that in school, or never even asked yourself these questions. If you're not French, well, the intricacies of spelling in the "language of love" may seem a little unclear at times.

Here's my tip: if you're having a cocktail or dinner party with people likely to be swayed by great French skills, fake it. The best way to do so? Make them gougères.

Gougères are the masculine, savory version of the extra-cute chouquettes. But as I said in the title, gougères are no goujat. A goujat is a man who acts in a rude manner, especially towards women. This gougère right here does no such thing--trust me. It is small, cute in its own way, and just bite-sized enough to make everyone feel good about having one. But here is the magical side: you can put everything and pretty much anything in or on a gougère. Traditionally, gruyère gets first dibs on topping rights, but feel free to switch things around every now and then.

Last time I had friends over, gougères were the perfect accompaniement to my favorite goat cheese-green fig mix. Feel free to go anywhere with the base recipe for gougères: add some truffle oil, top with poppy seeds or sesame...or stuff them with what you'd like, from an umami-packed tapenade to tomato whipped cream.

Really, girlfriend, this gougère knows his way to a woman's heart. Next time someone quizzes you on some tricky French, stick a gougère in their mouth. They'll shush up and love you for it.

makes approx 40 small puffs

1 cup water
1/3 cup (80g) butter
1 1/4 cup (125g) flour
4 eggs
Optional toppings: gruyère, poppy seeds, sesame seeds...
Optional fillings: goat cheese, tapenade,...

Preheat oven to 200°C / 400°F.

Bring water to a boil, add salt, then add butter.

Once the butter has melted, add all the flour at once and stir until you get a dry dough.

Remove the saucepan from heat, and add eggs one at a time, stirring (your arms might hurt a little) until you end up with a nice dough that's not too liquid.

Pipe dough onto a baking sheet, making little pyramids/cones for each. Sprinkle with topping, if using.
Bake until golden (approx. 20 minutes), opening oven door as little as possible. Let cool on a rack. Slice gougères open to pipe filling inside.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ecce! Chocolate Mint Bars

When I talk about high school school activities I participated in, I often mention soccer. In France, playing soccer isn't an obvious choice for a girl--it's even rather strange. People imagine girls with a manly build, a buzz cut, and a strange fondness for kicking other girls in the knees.

Then, they look at me. As of now--and eight years ago--I am none of that. So, to take their mind off soccer, I add that I was part of Latin club. If I'm really feeling up to it, I'll even go as far as saying that I participated in Illinois Latin Tournaments every year, and really enjoyed "chariot races"... with pieces of carpet serving as the actual "chariots". Somehow, everyone tends to think I'm actually a little weirder after that. Playing soccer is one thing...but staging plays about a frog and an ox in Latin? 

Think what you will, but our Latin teacher had a mysterious aura. Mrs. Newman, of Canadian origin, was the kind of wonderful teacher you don't run into very often--incredibly smart but also funny. Oh, and something else.

She made mean nanaimo and peppermint bars.

The nanaimo bars will be for another day--today is all about the peppermint. 

Mrs. Newman's peppermint bars were out of this world, and I'm pretty sure my whole school could back me up on that assertion. They were creamy and smooth, with just the right amount of peppermint. But here's the catch: Mrs. Newman's recipes were a secret...that is, until graduation. Unfortunately for deserters like myself (not desserters, although I would call myself that too), I was across the Atlantic by the time graduation rolled around. Enter Emily, a friend I met with this Summer, who was kind enough to send the two recipes over.
This was like Christmas in recipeland, and I set out to make the peppermint bars at once. Obviously, like all food memories, the exact taste of Mrs. Newman's bars wasn't there. But I think I came pretty close. So close you might even see me don a helmet and climb up on my carpet chariot. 

Mmm: esculentus.

PS: Mrs. Newman, sorry for giving away your recipe.

Mrs. Newman's Chocolate Mint Bars
makes one 9x9 inch pan of bars

Preheat oven to 350°F / 180°C.
First Layer
1/2 c. butter
2 eggs, beaten
1 scant c. white sugar
1/2 TS peppermint extract
2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1/2 c. flour
Melt butter and chocolate over a double boiler. Remove from heat, add beaten eggs and beat well. 
Add sugar, peppermint,  and flour.  Beat well.  Bake at 350°F / 180°C for 20 minutes in a greased 9x9 pan.

Second Layer
1 c. powdered sugar
2 heaping TB butter
1 TB milk (more)
1 TS peppermint extract
few drops green food coloring (optional)
Mix together until smooth.  Spread on first layer and cool until set.

Third Layer
2 oz. semi-sweet chocolate 
2 TB butter
Melt together, cool and drizzle over second layer.  Chill; cut into 24 pieces.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Crisp Weather

Summertime is made for dresses. And skirts, and tank tops. In general, summertime is made for light clothing.

Consequently, I wore light clothing to work at the beginning of the week. Nothing strange up to here, right?

That's until I realized my office had American-level air conditioning standards--actually, the whole building does. Goodbye dresses, hello jeans and sweaters. But don't worry, I found where the air comes from, and it comes from little slits on the floor. I've got masking tape, and let me tell you I won't let this rebel AC ruin my Summer closet plans. No siree. 

So, crisp weather it is, in my office at least. But that's not really the kind of crisp I was thinking about.

When strawberries come along, I get so excited I eat them all the time: for breakfast, before and after lunch, as a mid-afternoon snack, as a before-dinner get what I mean. One thing I hardly ever think of doing is making a baked good with these lovely red pieces of goodness--but I finally decided to do it. As the French say, j'ai sauté le pas

All you food bloggers aren't innocent in this situation, you know. I've been reading about blueberry buckles, cobblers and summer berry pies. I just couldn't resist any longer. 

After psychologically preparing myself for cooking down all those luscious strawberries, I decided that my berry dessert needed to bring out the flavor of the fruit, so preferably not in cake form. I thought back, remembering all the great crumbles and crisps I've been seeing online, and settled for a strawberry crisp.

Obviously, my 500g of strawberries didn't really make it into the oven--my cereal was begging for some, and my mid-afternoon snack as well. Those that did, however, were accompanied by a fresh fig and a crisp topping made with almonds and almond flour. Any hints of sadness I had (letting the strawberries go in the oven sure was a difficult life decision) evaporated when I opened the oven door. The aroma of the strawberries, mixed in with the almonds and a hint of cinnamon made me want to jump right into the oven itself and eat the crisp before it was even ready. Mind you, I'm not the reckless kind--the story of how I dropped a very sharp paring knife, blade pointed down, onto my toe this week isn't the subject here--so I waited until it cooled a little to give it a taste.

Give this recipe a go if you're a fan of strawberries in any form. In a few words, this is what happened to me: "Strawberry crisp, meet Lucie. Lucie, strawberry crisp." And we became the best of friends. "The End"--said between two mouthfuls of crisp topped with plain yogurt.

Fig-Strawberry Crisp 
serves 3 to 4

1 pound strawberries, rinsed and hulled
1 fresh fig, cut into medium-sized pieces
2 TS cornstarch
1/8 c. granulated sugar
1/2 TS vanilla extract
juice of 1/2 lemon

1/4 c. + 2 TB slivered almonds
1/8 c. almond meal
1/8 c. all-purpose flour
2 TB brown sugar
1 TB granulated sugar
1/8 TS cinnamon
1/8 TS nutmeg
1/8 TS salt
2 TB butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400°F / 200°C.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix granulated sugar and cornstarch. Add strawberries and fig, lemon juice and vanilla, and delicately mix. Put mixture in a baking dish, cover with foil, and bake 25 minutes until strawberries have released their juice.

Meanwhile, pulse almonds, almond meal, flour, sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a food processor until almonds are finely chopped. Drizzle melted butter on top and pulse until a coarse meal forms.

Place mixture in a medium-sized bowl and pinch fingers together to create some pea-sized chunks.

Remove fruit from the oven and give mixture a stir. Sprinkle topping evenly on the fruit. Bake 10 to 15 minutes until topping is golden and fruit is bubbling.

Place baking dish on a wire rack to cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve warm, or cooled with vanilla ice cream or yogurt.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Simple as Ice Cream Muffins

Take a second and look around. What do you see?

I see ice cream. Everywhere: in my freezer, in five different places one block away, and in everybody's hands. If I were to listen to myself, I would bathe in ice cream every single morning. Well, maybe not, because I have to hurry in the mornings and doing that would just take too much time.

Nevertheless, seeing everyone walk around with an ice cream cone has made me realize I may be hungry for fresh salads, but I'm also craving ice cream. All the time. See, I like sorbet, but what I really want these days is something creamy and not particularly light. Every time I hear a truck, I turn around, hoping it's the ice cream man or a Mr. Softee truck. Then, I realize I'm in France.

Toto, we're not in America anymore.

Oddly enough, my first reaction to this summertime craving (I say this because in the winter, I crave peppermint ice cream--different category, right?) wasn't to go out and eat ice cream. My first reaction was to go out and buy ice cream, to make ice cream muffins. Same thing? Hardly. Ice cream muffins are not, contrary to what you might be thinking at this very moment, like ice cream sandwiches. They are something else entirely.

When I was still in Urbana, my neighbor Pat found a recipe that she thought I might be interested in. (thanks Pat!) Sure enough, I couldn't wait to try it. Here's the catch: the recipe has two ingredients. Ice cream, and self-rising flour--which actually becomes a tiny five ingredients if, like me, you don't have self-rising flour. Ice cream in muffins? Sure--the ice cream replaces the traditional fat, eggs, and dairy you would find in traditional muffins.

I gave these a try this weekend, after deciding that the new caramelized almond vanilla ice cream I spotted at the supermarket was the perfect ingredient for these. That's the best part--you could really use any kind of ice cream you want, as long as it isn't anything too low-fat. I had fun with my batch and made one third plain, the other third chocolate-chip, and the last third chocolate-peanut butter-chip.

Verdict? These are pretty impressive. The texture is somewhat dense, but not really in a bad way. They aren't too sweet and might even be a little salty for some, so I reduced the original salt content in the recipe. Not to delve into the sketchy issue of calories here, but the recipe states that (without add-ins, obviously) each muffin boasts an impressively low 118 calories and 3 grams of fat. Take that, Starbucks muffins!

Here's the thing. Picture yourself having a get-together and buying lots of ice cream. You'll obviously--well, maybe, not if you're me though--have some ice cream left. Let it melt out in the sun for a half hour, pull out your flour, and 20 minutes later you'll have tomorrow's breakfast.

Magic? Maybe. I knew the ice cream man had something we didn't.

Ice Cream Muffins
adapted from Midwest Living
makes 6 muffins

1 cup ice cream, melted
1 cup self-rising flour
(or: 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 TS baking powder, 1/4 TS salt, 1/4 TS baking soda)

Optional: 1/3 cup add-ins (chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, nuts, fruit...anything!)

Grease six 2 1/2 inch muffin cups or line with paper baking cups. Preheat oven to 375°F / 180°C.

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and mix until just blended. Fill each cup almost to the top.

Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in muffin cups on a wire rack for 5 minutes.

Note: Midwest Living says to serve them warm, but they were pretty scrumptious at room temperature too.

Note II: I doubled this and it worked out great. The original recipe calls for 1/2 TS of salt, which was a little much to my taste, especially if you double the recipe!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pucker Up : Lemon Bars


Lemon bars are virtually unknown in France. As in, when you bring up the subject of a lemon bar, translating it awkwardly into "barre au citron" or the even less descriptive "gateau au citron", an American lemon bar is the last thing that comes to mind. Usually, French friends will think you're talking about buttery lemon cookies, or a cookie flavored with tasty candied lemon zest.

And then, you add the magic words: 'It's like a tarte au citron, except it has a thicker crust.' There it is: the look of sheer happiness appears, complete with big eyes and a tell-tale "Mmmm!". You see, the tarte au citron is a nation-wide favorite, and lemon curd recipes range from Pierre Hermé's ultra-buttery version to the extra-tart, extra-delicious ones you'll find in use at most traditional cafés and bistros. Lemon bars are like the perfect mini lemon tart for those in love with the crust-curd pairing: creamy tanginess, balanced by a crunchy shortbread on the bottom. Le paradis.

Lemon bars, in my opinion, are a perfect summer treat. A small 4th of July get-together with friends was the perfect occasion to give my French guests a proper introduction to the beauties that are lemon bars. Originally from Cook's Illustrated / America's Test Kitchen, this recipe yields lemon bars that are a vibrant yellow, and (almost) too pretty to eat. Almost, obviously, because who wouldn't eat bright, spunky lemon bars?

As predicted, the lemon bars were a success. I would make these every day if I could, and eat them all day long alongside glasses filled with cold lemonade. Then again, that would mean having to bring pounds of lemon bars and gallons of lemonade to my next internship...starting tomorrow. And I'm not sure my future colleagues would appreciate being left out--lemon bars are, after all, le paradis in small bites. 

P.S.: New internship = less time online and in the kitchen = less posting and commenting, but I'll do my best to keep up with everything!

Lemon Bars
makes 16

1 1/4 c. flour
1/2 c. confectioners sugar
1/2 TS salt
12 TB butter, cut into 12 pieces and softened
7 egg yolks
2 whole eggs
1 c. + 2 TB granulated sugar
2/3 c. fresh lemon juice (from about 4 lemons)
1/4 c. lemon zest (from about 4 lemons)
3 TB heavy cream

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 350. Line a 9" square baking pan with two pieces of aluminum foil at right angles . Lightly coat foil with vegetable oil or cooking spray.

Mix together flour, confectioners sugar and salt. Using a  food processor incorporate 8 tbsp. of the butter until the mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse cornmeal.

Sprinkle the mixture inot the prepared pan and press firmly into an even layer. Bake until the crust starts to brown slightly, about 20 minutes.

While crust is baking, wisk together egg yolks and whole eggs in a medium non-reactive saucepan.

Whisk in granulated sugar until combined, then whisk in lemon juice, lemon zest, and a pinch of salt.

Add remaining 4 tbsp of butter and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens slightly and registers 170 degrees (F) on an instant-read thermometer, about 5 minutes.

Strain the mixture immediately into a non-reactive bowl and stir in cream. Pour the warm curd over the hot crust. Bake until the filing is shiny and opaque and the center jiggles slightly when shaken, 10 to 15 minutes.

Let cool completely on a wire rack, about 2 hours, before removing from the pan using foil and cutting into squares.

Dust with confectioners sugar just before serving.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy 4th of July!

Here is wishing everyone a day filled with sun and delicious food--wherever you are in the world!

Visitandine, American version : see the original recipe here!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Strawberry Charlotte

I'm always under the impression that the taller a cake, the harder it was to make. Take a three tiered wedding cake with three different flavors and various filling and frosting flavors. Not an easy go, right?

Well, you might counter that most two-layer cakes aren't really a big deal to bake--a simple chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, for example, or a spicy carrot cake. Sure, maybe you're right, but I like to think of tall cakes as being all special and fancy, therefore time consuming.
Back in Berlin, where I just spent a week, I was told there would be layer cakes galore. To my surprise, there were more fruit tarts and "simple" cakes than anything else. Notice I say to my surprise and not my disappointment. How would anyone ever be disappointed by a rhubarb crumble cake? Wait, let me add to that: How would anyone ever be disappointed by a rhubarb crumble cake eaten sitting on lounge chairs by a lake in the sun? That's better. And yes, that was a rhetorical question, because even if you didn't like rhubarb you would have loved this cake.

Anyway, tall cakes are a festive treat for me, and I can't find anything better to celebrate than the beginning of summer. France has finally gotten warm again, and a trip to Saint Dié was in order a week ago when I got back from the States. As you may know by now, Saint Dié for me means family, obviously, but also a big kitchen and an array of pans I have absolutely no space for in Paris.

Tall cake craving + cake-specific pan = Charlotte aux Fraises!

Can you keep a secret? A strawberry charlotte is tall, but it isn't really hard to make. Just forget you ever read that now, and pretend it took you a few grueling hours next time you make it.

In many countries, a charlotte is actually made with bread, but in France the ladyfingers--called biscuits à la cuillère over here--take over. Inside the fortification of ladyfingers, a charlotte houses a sweet mousse of any kind of fruit you'd like. Strawberry is a classic, and they are in season, so I went with that. You could definitely make your own ladyfingers for this, but nice ones are easily found in France and buying them made it all that easier.

Paired with some fresh strawberries on the side and a few sprigs of mint, this is a really nice summertime dessert--and just might satisfy your next craving for a tall cake.

Charlotte aux Fraises

Note: You'll need a pan that is round and high for this recipe if you don't have a special charlotte pan--you could even use a bowl with high and relatively straight sides. A fluted brioche pan works just fine, too.

3/4 c. (140g) granulated sugar
1/2 TB raspberry alcohol (or any other fruit that would pair nicely with strawberries)
3/4 TB (10g, or 5 sheets) gelatin
1 pound (500g) strawberries, hulled--save 4 large or 6 medium and cut sideways into slices
1 lemon
1 3/4 c. heavy cream (approx. 45 cl, very cold
1 TB confectioner's sugar
25 ladyfingers

Bring 3/4 c. of water and 1/3 c. + 1 TB of the granulated sugar to a boil in a saucepan. Remove from heat and let cool; add alcohol.

If using sheet gelatin, place in a bowl of cold water for 5 to 10 minutes. (Instructions for powdered gelatin come later.)

Place strawberries (except the sliced ones) in a blender with the juice of one lemon and blend until smooth. Press into a sieve to obtain a smooth puree. Put about one quarter of the coulis in a separate bowl, and sprinkle powdered gelatin on top if using. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes.
Heat the coulis mixed with gelatin on low heat, and mix in remaining granulated sugar. If using sheet gelatin, wring it to remove all excess water and add to mixture. Once gelatin and sugar have dissolved, remove from heat and mix the warm and cold coulis. Let cool at room temperature, and place in freezer for ten minutes to thicken (or refrigerator for thirty minutes).

With a stand or handheld mixer, beat heavy cream to stiff peaks, incorporating confectioner's sugar when soft peaks form. Make sure heavy cream is cold enough--it can be placed in the freezer for 15 minutes prior to beating if necessary. Place whipped cream in refrigerator until use.

In a large bowl, delicately mix whipped cream and strawberry coulis until combined.

Set pan on a workspace. Working one by one, lightly dip each ladyfinger into the prepared syrup and place in pan. For the top of the cake, place smooth side against the pan. For the sides, place ladyfingers rounded side against the pan.

Pour 1/3 of whipped cream mixture into pan, topping with half of the sliced strawberries. Pour another 1/3 on top, followed by strawberries, and the remaining cream. If you have extra cream, leave it in the refrigerator to use for decorating the cake when serving.

Top whipped cream with one last layer of ladyfingers dipped in syrup, to 'close' the cake. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
When serving, gently flip pan over onto a plate. Garnish with reserved whipped cream, strawberries, and mint.