30 November 2007

Quelle Fromage! St. Paulin Cheese

Preparing for Christmas always brings to mind Grandma Annie.

Not that I need a holiday to think about my warm and wonderful maternal grandmother.

But, oh, how Annie loved preparing for Christmas! She baked and baked and stashed her cookies in tins stacked inside the big red cupboard in the back kitchen, the room separate from the main kitchen by a long hallway. Classic Christmas cookies, rolled and cut from orange-infused dough and baked and iced with pastel frosting; thumbprints rich with raspberry and apricot jam; and sand tarts, sugar cookies filled with dates.

Annie loved shopping, too, and would have certainly enjoyed the ease of the Internet.

The year I was first on my own, Annie gave me a cheese basket and a cookbook.

Port de Salut was one of the cheeses in that sampler basket. I have loved its creaminess since then, and I equate it with the comfort of Annie, her kitchen and her cooking.

In Paris, one of my first purchases was a hunk of St. Paulin cheese, a sort of sibling to Port de Salut. I bought it in part because of its promised creaminess, but also because St. Paulin, P.Q., was the birthplace of Annie’s mother, Josephine, known in previous posts as Mémere.

St. Paulin, originally made by Trappist monks, was the first cheese made with pasteurized milk, about 80 years ago. It is tender, sweet, and tangy and well suited for soups and macaroni and cheese. Its rind is soft and edible.

I will be cooking with it in a day or two - they say a winter storm is on the way. I'm going to be prepared for it.

29 November 2007

Fleur de Sel

Note: I've noticed an increase in questions from readers recently, just as I did last year at this time. Must be the cold weather or the holidays - everybody is cooking! In order to make French Kitchen in America a bit more reader friendly, I'm beginning a randomly occurring feature that will answer reader questions. Sometimes, as below, some Real Food Expert has already answered the questions, so I'll also post a link.

How do you use fleur de sel?

High-blood pressure runs in my family so I use salt sparingly. A container of Morton's, for example, lasts for years and is usually put to work as gargle when I have a bad sore throat.

On the other hand, I love sea salt, harvested by evaporating sea water until only the salt remains. I use these coarse grains judiciously: A jar lasts forever. (I am still using a container of salt from the Camargue, a gift from Lucy a year or so ago.) It is vastly superior to regular old table salt in every way.

Fleur de sel is a type of sea salt that is hand harvested from the surface cyrstals on a salt evaporation pond. It tastes of the sea.

About four years ago, my local grocery store began stocking fleur de sel. Recently the store added a complete line of sea salts from around the world that come in a variety of colors from salmon to charcoal to white and in an equal array of textures.

One of the best essays on fleur de sel comes from David Lebovitz, perhaps best known for his chocolate and ice cream expertise and his hilarious take on life in Paris. Read it here.

I use sea salt or fleur de sel whenever table salt is called for in a recipe, but I tend to use less. The experts tell you not to use it before cooking, but I have and have not tasted any unwelcome results. But then, as I said earlier, I never use very much.

I also add it to roasted vegetables, scrambled eggs and omelets, and use it as a rub for meats, especially steaks.

You can buy fleur de sel mixed with herbes de Provence. I always use this to remove water from eggplant before making ratatouille.

The salt in the photo below is blended with basil and Parmesan cheese, which gives it an earthy, almost medicinal, flavor. I also have a bottle of fleur de sel that is blended with sea weed; I use a small amount of this when I bake salmon.

For me, it only takes a few grains. Each one is a gift for the taste buds.

26 November 2007

A Traditional Tourtiere

A year ago I was already making tourtiere.

You can make this traditional French Canadian meat pie any time of year, of course, but most of us prepare it for the winter holidays. No Christmas is complete without it, preferably washed down with some Champagne, an incongruous pairing of heavy and rustic with light and sophisticated.

But it works. Perhaps the bubbly is a foil for the hearty meat pie. Why question something that feels so right?

Meat pie, made mostly with pork, is equally tasty paired with merlot or cabernet sauvignon, in my book. I like to pair it with a salad, preferably one with a hint of fruit or tomato.

But I am rambling on here. The real star is the meat pie.

Some recipes call for potatoes, something my aunts, grandmother and great-grandmother never used. I skip them, too, in part top honor the memory of those wonderful women, in part because of the carbs.

Here is my family's take on tourtiere:

Three pounds ground meat: I like a combination of fresh ground pork and ground chuck
One large onion, minced
Dash nutmeg
Dash allspice
Dash freshly-ground pepper
Dash sea salt
1-2 eggs

Prepare your crust. You can use your favorite recipe. My father used to make his with lard, so I have never included it here.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brown the meat and onion in a large skillet. Season with pepper and spices. Set aside; you can make this ahead and keep it refrigerated.

Pat your bottom crust into a greased pie plate. Before adding the meat, blend in an egg or two, depending upon the size of your pie. The eggs keep the pie from crumbling. I also add the salt at the last minute.

Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top is lightly browned. I used an egg wash on the crust.

You may serve tourtiére warm or cold. You can even freeze it.

Here is another version of tourtiere.

Sweet and Salty Roasted-Nut Bars

In the old days, when we lived in the house on Main Street, kitty corner from O’Neill’s little store with the bell over the door and three doors away from the busy dairy, Sunday night was craft night, especially at Christmas time.

We did not call it craft night then, and it was not planned; it usually occurred organically when my mother was driven to make something she wanted but did not have or could not find. Candles, wreaths, tree decorations, stockings, you name it, she made it, starting Thanksgiving weekend. When I was old enough to be useful, I helped.

Why Sunday? I suppose it was because our big dinner was at noon and supper was catch- as-catch-can, or simply fresh bread or blueberry muffins my father made. Or maybe because weekends were busy, and Sunday nights were quiet as we got ready to slip back into our weekday routine.

We’d gather all the supplies and do our work around the kitchen table after supper. It was a small kitchen – this was a 1915-era house – and by the time we were finished at 10 p.m. and tired (or not finished and cranky), the room was a mess. I am quite certain I left cleanup to my mother, selfish as I was at that time.

This Sunday night, the last hours of a glorious four-day weekend, my dining room table was piled high with greenery and ornaments and a glue gun for I am making a centerpiece. Next week it will be auctioned off with about 30 others to raise money for a good cause. I hope someone buys it.

On the kitchen counter, a pan of sweetness was cooling.

Yes! I made my version (photo above) of the gooey sweet and salty nut bar we sampled last spring from a bakery in Paris. It's a blend of nuts and caramel perched upon a dense, crumbly crust. Here’s my version, inspired by a recipe at Epicurious:

Sweet and Salty Nut Bars

For the crust:

  • 1 1/3 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon fleur de sel
  • 1 and ½ sticks cold butter, in pieces
  • 2 eggs

For the topping:

  • 3 cups mixed salted nuts (cashews, pecans, almonds), coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup peanuts, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon melted butter

For the caramel:

  • 2/3 cups honey
  • dash fleur de sel
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons half and half

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Blend flour, baking powder, sugars and salt. Cut in butter and blend with a pastry tool or fork until meal-like in consistency. Blend in eggs. Place dough on floured board and divide into four parts, kneading each piece only once.

Grease and line an 8 by 13-inch glass baking pan with foil, making sure several inches remain above the edge of the pan. Grease the foil and press the dough into the pan, spreading evenly. Line only the bottom of the pan, not the sides.

Bake for 16-20 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool.

Reduce heat in oven to about 200. Place nuts in large bowl. Melt one tablespoon butter and add it to the nuts, coating each nut. Add sugar and cinnamon and blend to ensure each nut is coated. Roast for about 45 minutes at low temperature. Set nuts aside. Return oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Blend honey, brown sugar and salt in saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add butter and half and half and bring to a boil. Remove from burner and add nuts, coating each nut.

Press nut mixture into crust. Bake for about 20 minutes until caramel mix begins to bubble. Cool. Place another sheet of foil over the bars and press down. Refrigerate.

Sweet and salty, of course, with a hint of spice. Very satisfying.

25 November 2007

Spicy Pumpkin Pots de Creme

This time of year when the skies darken early and temperatures suddenly plummet, it is a relief to come in from the cold at dusk.

But driving home from work in a warm car is not the same as walking home in the late autumn chill after a day of school.

In those days, the warmth would hit me like a surprise, even though I knew it waiting was on the other side of the back door. The Arts and Crafts bungalow of my childhood did not have a mudroom, so I entered the cheery kitchen from a back porch, flung my books down and lunged for whatever was on the table.

If my father was at home, it would be gingerbread or maple fudge. My mother preferred making chocolate or peanut butter cookies. No one ventured into more exotic sweets in those days. No pistachio-cranberry tea cakes or dark chocolate fudge with sea salt topping or lemon-lime muffins in tiny tins.

Truthfully, it did not matter what the after-school treat was, for it made the kitchen smell so good and provided a sugar high before supper, which was never as early as it was at my friends’ houses. Graham crackers with peanut butter were as welcome as from-scratch treats.

It was bloody cold here today. I had no intention of leaving the house in the afternoon as the weak sun sunk lower in the sky, having finally braved the crowds in the morning, much to my regret. Instead, I stayed inside and puttered, and by suppertime, my kitchen smelled of Spicy Pumpkin Pots de Crème, adapted from a recipe on the Website of the newly resurrected Victoria magazine.

This was the dessert I meant to make on Thanksgiving. My first taste of it – or something very much like it – was at a local restaurant six or eight weeks ago. I left vowing to try to replicate it.

Spicy Pumpkin Pots de Crème
  • 1 ½ cups whole milk
  • 2/3 cup pumpkin puree
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
  • one tablespoon grated chocolate
  • pinch fleur de sel grains
  • 10 egg yolks

Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.

Using a whisk, blend milk, pumpkin, sugars, vanilla, chocolate, salt and spices in a medium sauce pan over medium heat. Remove from heat just as mixture begins to boil. Set aside.

Separate eggs, and whisk yolks, forcing through a strainer and then adding to the saucepan gradually. When thoroughly blended, pour into six small pots de crème. Set pots de crème into a larger baking dish and add water. Water should reach about halfway up the sides of the pots.

Bake for 40 minutes, until firm. Chill before serving. I grabbed a chocolate morsel and grated it for topping.

I added the grated chocolate to the pumpkin mixture for the same reason I always add a bit of instant coffee and some cinnamon to hot chocolate: To provide richness. There are few dishes that are not enhanced by a bit of chocolate.

These pots de creme would make a lovely winter holiday dessert, but they are far too sweet and rich for frequent consumption.

24 November 2007

Kitchen Tools: Essential for a Kitchen Dominatrix

I bought a new whip in Paris.

Really, it's a ball whisk, a relatively new tool which features weighted, vibrating balls on stainless steel rods. This arrangement promises to provide good results with less effort. (I certainly support the notion of less effort.) So far, it has lived up to its promises. Restraint is key: Don't overdo it with this utensil.

It was during our pilgrimage to E. Dehillerin, that dusty commercial cathedral to the art of the kitchen, that I found my new weapon. Actually, it was Kim, the charming salesman who led me to it, after he found me a copper bowl for egg whites.

The ball whisk is excellent for whipping little clumps of flour into submission in any pan or bowl. The balls allow you to reach the insides of pans, the dark little places where the bottoms and sides meet, a feat that is difficult to perform with a wire whisk. To read more, click here.

(As Kim pointed out, the ball whisk can also be used as a scalp massage tool. It feels pretty good.)

When I packed our suitcases, I carefully wrapped the whisk in its original paper and attached the receipt from Dehillerin. Just in case someone rifling through my luggage thought it was a sex toy. You never know about these things.

The whisk got its first real workout when I made Bearnaise sauce for my Chateaubriand on Thanksgiving. It performed admirably.

You don't have to go to Paris to buy one, although I recommend it. You can buy a ball whisk from many online sources.

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23 November 2007

Paris: Shopping in the Village St. Paul

Each year on the day after Thanksgiving, I congratulate myself on the wisdom of avoiding the hordes of shoppers who throng to the mall, the stand-alone stores, and our charming little downtown. I support shopping locally, I always have, but I am not a masochist. Most years, I've worked on this day, and when I did not work, it was because we were traveling.

This year I am home. In the kitchen. Making sense of leftovers and attending to residual cleaning chores.

In my mind, I am, of course, shopping in Paris. Given any place in that lovely, layered city to schlep from store to store, I am pretty certain it would be the Village St. Paul. Tucked away behind the hulking Baroque church of St. Paul-St. Louis and just west of Rue St. Paul, this labyrinth of small and quiet shops is seldom crowded.

To reach the warren of shops you must enter through small, inviting alleys. Inside are courtyards lined with antique stores, tiny artisan ateliers and gift shops. Nothing shoddy here, no little Eiffel Tower key chains. At one shop owned by a Scandinavian, I purchased a small ceramic bowl for a friend's birthday.

It was quiet the Saturday we visited and quiet again the weekday when we returned. Many of the shops were closed,perhaps because it was only mid-spring or perhaps because they had not flourished here.

Something about the Village St. Paul reminds me of the little country shopping centers of Wisconsin's Door County, nearly abandoned in the off-season but bustling during high tourist season.

But according to the book, Quiet Corners of Paris, St. Paul Village is routinely quiet. How sad, because it is a lovely little place, an oasis just steps from teeming Rue St. Antoine.

There are many other quiet spots in Paris and many places to shop. The Village St. Paul is both.

It is worth a visit, near some wonderful bakeries and cafés and very close to one of my favorite bookstores, The Red Wheelbarrow. My husband and I were quite taken with the place and I think on our next visit, we will spend more time there, perhaps grabbing a ubiquitous sandwiche jambon from a nearby bakery and finding a secluded place to share it. But that is a full 300 days in the future (yes, the next countdown has now begun).

Where are you today? In the kitchen or in a store?