Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Blog Award for You!

The other day, I went along reading my daily blogs when I came along an award to me from ParisPastry--thank you, Danielle! 

If I could award it back to you, I would! In the meantime, I'll just wish I could spring into your kitchen when you make that old-fashioned chocolate cake.

Here's the way it goes: I get to send the award out to seven other blogs I really enjoy, and share seven things about me.

One - I am a compulsive raw-dough eater.
Two - I am finally out of school and looking for a job! Anyone searching for someone to fill a marketing position in Paris?
Three - When I was really young, I dressed up as a tiger. By putting streaks of black an orange marker all over myself.
Four - My sister and I go crazy over tiny dogs.
Five - I wish I had a green thumb, but unfortunately I have a lot of trouble keeping a plant alive.
Six - My favorite book is Aurélien by Louis Aragon.
Seven - I used to collect plastic bags. Yes, plastic bags. We've already gone over the fact that I was a strange kid.

And without further ado, I'm passing it along to seven blogs out of the dozens I truly enjoy reading every day:

One Perfect Bite - Great stories and a plethora of recipes from Mary
Cake, Batter and Bowl - Funny anecdotes and great food!
Bake in Paris - If I could buy myself photography skills, I would ask Kris if I could copy his.
Cinnamon Spice & Everything Nice - Reeni's multicultural recipes are definitely keepers.
3B's - A great tale of family life, baking, and having fun throughout it all.
La Cuisine de Mercotte - Fabulous French recipes, perfectly detailed and completely innovative.
A Southern Grace - Cinnamon and alluring close-ups of cake; what else?

Thank you all for making my mornings filled with great stories, recipes, and also for making my stomach rumble even right after breakfast!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Vietnam's Sweet Tooth

I'm always hungry when it comes to having something sweet--before a meal, afterwards, or anytime in between. I guess the Vietnamese are, too: and here we embark on our last leg of this trip through Vietnamese cuisine.

If I tried summing up sweet foods and drinks in Vietnam, I would limit myself to two ingredients: beans and sweetened condensed milk. Then again, that would be like saying French desserts are butter and eggs, which is pretty uninformative. Here's my try at explaining what desserts I did have, and those that were pretty much everywhere and which I didn't indulge in:

First, let's start out with cakes. It seems French colonization left a hefty mark on pastry shops around the country. If you're on a trip to Vietnam and looking for a celebratory cake, say, for your non-birthday (which is an occasion I quite enjoying celebrating), one of your options is bound to be an Opéra. The Opéra is a classic French cake, which we've discussed before. It's filled with delicious buttercream, and it's quite easy to understand why when the French left, the Opéra stayed behind. Keep the best and toss the rest!

Amongst the fancy cakes lie a great number of sweet breads, fluffy and yeasty like a nice brioche. Keep digging a little further...and you just might end up with my favorite of all desserts: the bean-filled cake. I suspect these are more widely available in the North, where bean cakes are a specialty. Would you believe me if I said that these were so good we went back three times? Does that even surprise you coming from me? Probably not, seeing as that I also eat chocolate about four times a day. 

If you're a fan of Japanese treats filled with red bean paste, this is for you. See that crisp outer shell? A very thin layer of sturdy yet tender dough is topped with sesame seeds and an egg wash for the appealing shine. The treasure lies inside... whether you choose red bean or lotus seed paste (although it could have been white bean paste too, to be honest), you're in for a treat. Although these looked nothing like moon cakes, which typically have an intricate design on the top and are sold throughout the Fall in Vietnam and China, the basic construction and ingredients were the same. If you're in Hanoi, don't miss this: find the bakery nearly opposite Cha Ca La Vong, on Cha Ca Street.

More often than snacking on food, it seems that many Vietnamese locals snack on drinks, and the Vietnamese coffee in particular. I'm not a coffee drinker in the slightest, but my sweet tooth took over and dictated that I should have at least one a day during our last days in Con Dao. Picture the tiniest amount of coffee, poured into a tall glass--I'd say around 1/8 of a cup, no more. Now, open a small can of sweetened condensed milk. Simply pour the contents into a glass. What's that you're thinking? A whole (albeit small) can, into one single glass? For one person? That's exactly it. 

Top it off with ice cubes and here you have it: the Vietnamese iced coffee. After one glass, you might come to understand why people aren't munching on cakes in the street. Even for a sweet tooth monster like myself, it can get pretty filling. I didn't try iced cocoa in Vietnam, but I have some form of longing regret in the back of my mind. What if they added sweetened condensed milk to that, too? Oh, the joys I'll never know of. I guess I have to go back.

And on my way back there, I'll have to stop by the candy stands. Candy. Everywhere. In all different shapes and sizes, colors and flavors. I felt like diving into the barrels of individually-wrapped candy, but I don't believe that's an acceptable way to act in Vietnam. Although I suspect nobody would have noticed if I just hid inside a barrel, chomping down on candy until my head poked through the pile. 

There you go. Yet another reason to fly back. Anyone care to come along?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fishing for True Vietnamese Food

Vietnam is a country with nearly 3,500 km of coastline, which entails quite a number of things. 

First off, you can go swimming in a lot of different places. Also, you can take a picture of the sunset on the water and pretend to be reenacting the cover of a Nicholas Sparks book in many places as well. Most importantly, though, is that fresh fish and seafood is nearly always readily available.

The best part is, the variety is astounding. Everywhere we went, we had different types of fish, cooked in various ways. In Halong Bay, on the Northern coast, we spent two days on a boat, kayaking and eating. Eating was necessary, to take our mind off the pretty cold temperatures considering we didn't even have a coat, but the food was unforgettable. Each meal was like a showcase of ultra-fresh seafood: clams, mussels, fresh shrimp and prawns, and amazing fish. I wouldn't be able to tell you more exactly about what kind of fish we were served: I believe it was local white fish (there are a great number of fish farms in the bay),  and perfectly cooked with tomatoes and a few spices--we didn't need any other seasoning or side dish.

Back in Hanoi, another great fish experience lies behind the non-descript facade on Cha Ca Street. Cha Ca La Vong is a legendary establishment, known to have actually invented the dish known as (unsurprisingly) Cha Ca throughout Vietnam: catfish simmers in a hotpot of oil and herbs, and is eaten with fish sauce, rice vermicelli, peanuts, and some fresh basil and mint. Customers put together the whole dish themselves, and the sauce created by the mix of pungent nuoc mam with herb-infused oil is incredible. 

Best of all, as famous as Cha Ca La Vong may be, there aren't just tourists--locals enjoy this Hanoi specialty as well. We even went back twice--that's how good it was.

Last stop on the fish train: Con Dao island. If anybody here watched the most recent season of French Survivor, called Koh-Lanta, it took place in Con Dao. I'm not here to tell you about that time we had to eat spiders and centipedes because we were stranded in the middle of the jungle, though. I'll keep that for another time--or maybe you'll never hear about it again.

Con Dao is another fishing paradise, and the food we had is good proof of that. At Try Ky, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the island--and I say this literally, because they were renovating the place at the same time--you pick your fish before eating it. We had squid grilled with Vietnamese satay, which was perfectly cooked and not too rubbery, as squid can unfortunately get. Vietnamese satay is pretty spicy, and although we got strange looks when we asked for a side of rice, I'll admit it was more than welcome. 

The next evening, we were at a loss for places to eat: Con Son, the main island, is pretty small, and we weren't really keen on having dinner at one of the three government-owned hotels. Our snorkeling guide (is this starting to seem less like a Survivor experience than it should?) actually recommended the restaurant at our hotel. Funny thing is, we didn't know there was an actual restaurant as the place was made up of bungalows and a center platform where we had breakfast. Anyhow, much the adventurers that we are, we tried the hotel restaurant--and what a great surprise it was! 

If you want amazing mackerel with fresh tomato sauce and garlic, look no further. Jump on the next plane / helicopter / boat to Con Dao island; the flesh was incredibly moist and tasty, and even the skin was deliciously crispy. It was truly worth a trip in itself.

Who's ready for dessert now? See you next time!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Xin cam on: Thank you, Vietnam!

Let me tell you one thing: if you need a change of mind, if you feel like forgetting about it all, head straight to Vietnam for as long as you can. You could also head to your local pool, but Vietnam is actually more fun.

A "short" twelve-hour flight away from Paris lies everything you might be in the mood for: beautiful scenery, happy and respectful people, and the most important: unbelievable food. I used to say that I could eat Vietamese food all day, every day, and that is precisely what I did for a full ten days (well, apart from that odd bag of crispy M&Ms). I would gladly eat only Vietnamese food for the next ten days too.

Food in Vietnam shines by its simplicity. Fresh herbs, vegetables, fish sauce, and meat or fish somehow come together to create a vast array of dishes that all taste different. With simplicity comes balance: no one ingredient overpowers the dish, and they all seem to be playing an equal role in the final taste explosion going on right there in your mouth.

What do we, in Europe and America, know about Vietnamese food? There are pretty large Vietnamese communities in both France and the United States, so some dishes are quite readily available. In the US, for example, pho and banh mi (forgive the lack of accents) have become popular in recent years, and even pretty trendy in larger cities. Although I didn't have any banh mi in Vietnam--a fluffy baguette filled with pork, pork paté and vegetables--I did indulge in pho. Pho is made of broth, flavored with star anise and cinnamon, in which thin pieces of beef and rice noodles are cooked. Add some fresh herbs, and you've got the breakfast of champions, Vietnamese-style. I'll admit I'm more of a sweet breakfast type of girl, but that didn't stop me from having a few pho in the early mornings.

In France, Vietnamese cuisine is known extensively through what we call "nems" and bo bun.
Nems are fried spring rolls, and can be found in pretty much any pan-Asian restaurant here. I've had some pretty good nems in France, but nothing can beat the incredible version we had a Quan An Ngon, in Saigon. The person who came up with the concept of Quan An Ngon rounded up his favorite street food vendors and put them in one place--a dazzling tree-filled courtyard, with an impressive selection of all-around great street food. And most importantly, you don't feel like you've stepped into a tourist trap: large tables of locals quickly fill up the massive restaurant. 

The nems were large in size, and perfectly crispy on the outside, without a hint of unappealing greasiness on the palate. What about the inside? Well, perfect: a melt-in-your-mouth blend of rice vermicelli, carrots, ground pork, and spices. Ooh, I would go back to Quan An Ngon just for the fried spring roll, called Cha Gio in Southern Vietnam.

While we're at it, let me let you in on another amazing dish from our new favorite place: Ban Xeo, pictured below. Once again, simplicity reigns: a large crêpe-like disk is made from rice flour and turmeric, and stuffed with pork, bean sprouts and shrimp. For those looking for a little crunch, shrimp in Vietnam is often eaten unshelled--I got used to it! 
To make your ban xeo experience perfect, the pancake is cut into three or four pieces. They are then wrapped in rice paper or a lettuce leaf, with fresh mint and Thai basil, and dipped into a sauce of shredded carrots, fish sauce, and chili peppers. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I could have eaten this all day...but with so much to try and so little time, I had to go on to the next dish. The flavors are fresh, and there is a contrast in the textures that makes it a real enjoyment to eat. 

Now that I've made myself hungry all over again, I think it's time for a snack. Vietnamese fish dishes and desserts to come--meanwhile, are you familiar with cuisine from Vietnam? Let me know about your favorite dishes!

Quan An Ngon: 160 Pasteur, Ho Chi Minh City

Friday, January 14, 2011

Chestnuts a Chocolate Cake

Some foods seem to be a family thing.

Take chestnuts, for example. I love them candied, my Maman enjoys them plain or roasted, and my French grandmother was a chestnut-lover as well. Chestnut-loving could very well be hereditary, and that's not something to overlook.

If you've got a handed-down love for a type of food, then it might just be your duty to make everyone else around you love it as well. It started out pretty well for us: my aunt Mimi, not a huge fan of chestnuts, made her own candied chestnuts this year. Then again, that might have something to do with the fact that she's my Maman's sister. I suspect a hidden appreciation for chestnuts somewhere.

A few days before the New Year, Maman came across a recipe in French Saveurs magazine that is honestly irresistible for the chestnut aficionado out there: chocolate-chestnut layer cake. Fluffly layers of chocolate génoise sandwich a rich, luscious chestnut cream sprinkled with candied chestnuts. Oh, and there's a dark chocolate ganache frosting in there too.

You might be thinking January is definitely not the time for this over-indulgence, but the cake is surprisingly light due to the airiness of the génoise. A year-long way of celebrating hereditary love of chestnuts: I'm in. Are you?

Chocolate-Chestnut Cake
adapted from French Saveurs
serves 8 to 10

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Taste of Things to Come

Happy New Year, everyone!

I'm headed off to Vietnam for ten days--if you have any recommendations for things to do / eat in Saigon and Hanoi, I'd be more than happy to hear them.

Meanwhile, here's a little taste of what's to come on Bilingual Butter...I told you there would be more mother-daughter cakes!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Sweet Mouthful of Praliné


It wasn't just the first mouthful of praliné that made an impression: it was every single one.

I've mentioned the chocolates from Carl in Saint Dié and how everyone, seemingly, counts them amongst their favorites. Carl chocolates have always been packaged the same ever since I can remember: a shiny bag of dark pink color tinged with purple, with a telltale crunching sound that gives you away whenever you reach in for an extra chocolate.

Seeing the metallic pink creates a sort of Pavlovian reaction in my brain, much like the strange thought of cold chocolate milk whenever I see a violet. I'll admit that food-related associations are rife in Lucie-land, but still. Whenever I see the shiny pink, I think praliné.

Praliné paste is made by grinding hazelnuts, almonds, and sugar. Pretty great, right? Mix some chocolate in, and cover that with another layer of chocolate to trap it in a delicious envelope. Tah-dah! You've got my favorite chocolate ever. One bite and I'm back in Urbana, opening up a huge box filled with doll clothes, sweaters from France, and Carl chocolates. The creaminess of the praliné is a perfect complement to the underlying nutiness, melded with the lusciousness of milk chocolate--my favorite for praliné.

Now, picture praliné macaron form. A praliné ganache, sandwiched between two fluffly cookies made of hazelnut powder instead of the usual almond powder. Sure, they may not look like your traditional macaron, but I can assure you that one bite and you'll forget all about it. The outer layers of the macaron have a satisfying crunch, followed by a moist crumb that leads up to a creamy, ultra-rich ganache.

Now that's a sweet mouthful that can only lead up to...a second one. Package them in a shiny turquoise bag, and you'll see that creating Pavlovian responses isn't magic. It's all about baking.

Praliné Macarons
makes approximately 72 macarons

The macaron base used in this recipe is the classic, which you'll find right here. Simply use finely ground hazelnuts instead of almond powder, or use half and half. Also, omit the food coloring.

Praliné Ganache

Note: Praliné chocolate for baking may prove difficult to find in the United States, but it's worth the search! Poulain and Nestlé Dessert both make it here in France, but the Poulain version, called Pralinoise, has a higher proportion of actual praliné.

3/4 c. heavy cream
2 TB unsalted butter
9 oz. praliné baking chocolate

Chop chocolate and place in a medium bowl.

Bring cream to a boil, and pour over chocolate. Let stand for a minute before mixing delicately, without incorporating any extra air.

Once mixture is warm, add butter cut into small pieces and mix until blended. Refrigerate until cold.

When ready to use, beat ganache like you would whipped cream. It will get lighter in color and should feel whipped.

Pipe onto macaron shells. Refrigerate 24 hours before serving.