31 January 2009

Chocolate-Brie-En-Croute with Walnuts

Some tastes just work together. Which ingredients should be paired with other ingredients is a matter of individual taste.

For me there are some basic rules for pairings in a recipe.
  • The flavors must have something in common.
  • The flavors must balance each other.
  • There must be a counterpoint, a foil.
Brie-en-croute is a favorite dessert we tried a few years back when my husband's incessant channel surfing stopped for five minutes while Emeril Lagassé was kicking it up a notch. Emeril's version, which paired walnuts with brie and brown sugar in a pastry shell, sounded tasty. I flew to the computer (this was long before we had a laptop and an iPad) to locate the site and print out the recipe.

Brie is creamy and earthy and comforting. Bland with a tang. To my palate, a creamy chocolate with a hint of salt seemed a good match for it. See what you think:

Chocolate-Brie-En-Croute with Walnuts
  • 1 package pre-made puff pastry or similar product, thawed
  • 1 8-ounce round of brie cheese
  • 1 large or 2-3 small pieces of high quality milk or dark chocolate
  • 1/4 cup coarsely-chopped walnuts
  • egg wash
  • flour for dusting work surface

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out the pastry on a floured surface to form a round shape, about the size of a pie crust.

Place the round of brie in the middle of the circle. Press the chocolate down into the brie. Fold the puff pastry up so that it encloses the brie, smoothing down seams and trimming off excess dough. (Save the excess and use cookie cutters to create shapes for decoration.) Top with walnuts.

Place ball of filled dough on a parchment lined baking sheet. Coat with egg wash. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until pastry turns golden brown.

My pastry was too cake-y, not flaky enough. But the taste was heavenly. It would even better with homemade pastry dough.

My chocolate was from Jean-Paul Hevin.


28 January 2009

Onion Chip Dip with Creme Fraîche and Boursin

I love potato chips and dip. It is one treat I refuse to give up, so I consume it in small quantities. I prefer to make my own dips, and enjoy experimenting.

This passion has its roots in the Saturday nights of my childhood when my mother and her younger sister would open a bag of chips and dip them into a blend of cream cheese, onions and ketchup while sipping Coca Cola. I still love this basic dip. (My mother loves chips and dip so much, we used to call her The Big Dipper.)

Onions and cream cheese are obviously essential. Fresh onions are best, but minced work, too.

In 2005, my husband and I discovered Brett's Olive-Flavored potato chips on a trip to France. We never found them in the U.S.

For that matter, we have never found them again in France. We've searched high and low. But along the way, we've sampled tomato-and-garlic, rotisserie chicken, and red-pepper chips.

Within the past decade, flavored chips have popped up in the U.S., too and we enjoy sampling them. But nothing beats old-fashioned - and plain - potato chops. We always opt for reduced fat.

This dip, which I first made on a visit to France, is excellent with any type of chip:

Chip Dip with Creme Fraîche and Boursin (serves two)
  • 1 cup creme fraiche (or half cream cheese and sour creme)
  • 1/3 cup boursin with garlic and herbs (or Alouette or similar brand)
  • 1 scant tablespoon mayonnaise 
  • 1 tablespoon (at least) chopped sweet onions
  • dash pepper

Simply blend ingredients and allow flavors to marry for several hours in the refrigerator. Serve at room temperature.

This is my favorite chip dip ever. Creme fraîche is not always easy to find locally, but I do stumble across it from time to time at larger supermarkets. You can make your own, too.

I have also made a simple dip by blending aioli with creme fraîche. A trip to a French grocery store is never complete until we've checked the potato chip offerings.




26 January 2009

Cheddar-Cheese-Beer Dip Just in Time for the Super Bowl

Cheese and beer are two mainstays of the Wisconsin diet.

So it's no wonder that local grocery stores sell cheddar-and-beer dip for pretzels or potato chips this time of year. I succumbed to the lure of this deli delicacy at two different supermarkets. It was a hit.

I'd tasted it before at holiday potlucks, but since we rarely have beer in the house (my husband prefers scotch), I'd never actually made it.

So it was time to learn. Luckily, I had two cans of beer left from last summer's beer bread trials (more on this in the future).

Cheddar Cheese-Beer Dip

1 eight-ounce package cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup beer
1 teaspoon minced onions
dash garlic salt
dash paprika

Blend first three ingredients in bowl. Add onions and garlic salt (I have made this with one minced garlic clove) and blend again. Sprinkle top with paprika.

There are numerous variations to this. A teaspoon of mayo or ketchup adds an extra zing. A pinch of seasoning salt does, too. There's another version made with ranch dressing mix.

Since the holidays ended, we've gone back to our more conservative eating habits. On cold nights (there don't seem to be any other kind this time of year), we've been having popcorn, sometimes sprinkled with a bit of that garlic salt and even cheddar cheese.

18 January 2009

Apricot-Walnut French Toast and a Visit to Albas

Entering Albas on the Lot River from the south.
Growing up in Frenchtown (which felt like home to us in a way our neighborhood on the other side of town did not), we felt closest to our French roots on Sundays. Perhaps it was the crow of the neighbor's rooster at sunrise, or the chatter of old folks in French after mass, or the long family meal at midday, or the feeling of lassitude that came over us in the afternoon.

In France, I find that feeling again, in the quiet of a rural afternoon. Sundays are nearly always the time for a late breakfast, a brief nap and a drive in the country.

One sunny Sunday last September, we set out to follow the meandering River Lot as it made its lazy way west.

First we conquered Douelle with its narrow streets. We have experienced Douelle often enough to know that Sundays are quiet there and we don't have to hold our breaths or cross our fingers or pray that we do not meet any traffic from the opposite direction.

We breezed through and set out for a more open road that took us past prosperous vineyards. Here the land looked more like Wisconsin, save for the houses and barns. We wound our way through Luzech, charmed by the feel of it. The wine country is prosperous, and Luzech seemed so. We stopped along the river, and took photos at the river's edge.

It was Albas that caught my imagination, with its narrow winding streets and its welcoming view. The sight of a village clinging to a cliff above a river is not something I see in my everyday life. My husband stopped the car at a small lookout over the river so I could take the photo above.

Fortunately our hearty breakfast kept us fueled as we explored the Lot River valley to the west of Cahors that afternoon. So many twists and turns!

Apricot-Walnut French Toast is a good use for stale bread.
Apricot-Walnut French Toast

  • 6 slices apricot or cinnamon-raisin bread
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup cream or milk
  • tablespoon brown sugar
  • teaspoon vanilla extract
  • dash cinnamon
  • pinch salt

For the sauce:
  • 1/2 cup apricot preserves
  • tablespoon melted butter
  • 1/3 cup walnuts
Beat eggs, cream or milk, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon in large bowl. Soak bread until it is thoroughly moist, but not falling apart. Place in buttered skillet and brown.

While bread is turning golden brown, heat preserves in a small saucepan over a medium burner. Add butter and walnuts.

Remove bread from skillet and smother in apricot-walnut sauce. This is delicious when served with vanilla yogurt and apricot nectar.

Like any other French toast recipe, this one is a good way to use up bread that is growing stale. Since I cannot resist buying bread while in France, French toast or pain perdu is a pretty typical breakfast for us when we travel.

13 January 2009

France: A Visit to La-Roque-Gageac

We are snuggled under down throws here in Northern Wisconsin tonight, waiting for The Big Chill of 2009, due later this week. They say it could reach a frigid 35 below.

We have mittens, gloves, scarves, Yak Trax, Cuddle Duds, Stormy Kroners, woolen balaclavas, leg warmers, long johns and flannel pajamas to keep us warm and safe no matter where we are and what we are doing. The larder is full, and I'll bake chicken tomorrow and try my hand at cabbage-and-sausage soup later this week. I still have some Calvados left. We are ready so Mother Nature, bring it on!

Would that we lived in a micro climate. La-Roque-Gageac, nestled under a cliff in the Dordogne, is such a place, by our experience about 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding area. While autumn was slowly coloring most of the Lot Valley, at the end of September to the north the Dordogne remained as green as mid-summer. Our trip up there, which involved a dizzying zig-zag drive past goose farms and through small crossroads, was like a trip into the recent past.

Because of the terrain, our 30-mile trip down and then up the mountain took more than an hour. It was after 2 p.m. by the time we finally found La-Roque-Gageac, after taking a wrong turn that sent us hurtling through corn fields toward a foie gras farm behind the cliffs. With help from the Garmin (is that woman inside dictatorial or what?), we crawled down a narrow back road and finally found ourselves there, under the cliffs at last, growing cranky in our search for a parking place.


La-Roque-Gageac was just as I imagined it would be, if a bit more tourist-y than I had hoped. We ordered cassis and mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cones and wandered the main street, a line of cafes and hotels and gift shops highlighting the patés and walnuts and confits of the Dordogne.


We found a place to sit and watch the excursion boat traffic on the river, shedding our jackets as we warmed ourselves in the sun. The boats are gabares, the traditional flat-bottomed boats of the Dordogne. We were tempted to take an excursion, but the trips seemed a bit long, and we'd only put enough euros in the meter for a 90-minute visit.

Inhabited since pre-historic times, La-Roque-Gageac lies under troglodytic forts, which you can visit (although we did not). About 50 years ago, portions of the cliff face fell, killing some village residents. Today, there are exotic gardens tucked away under the cliff, behind the face La-Roque shows visitors, and these intrigued me. Stairways climb up behind buildings to lovely secret places. This is after all, one of the "most beautiful villages" in France.

Too soon and we were on our way back into the green hills and the mountainsides, heading south this time forward into autumn. It seemed odd to drive north to experience a nearly-Mediterranean climate when to the south the days were crisp with the scent of woodsmoke in the air.

But there is always a surreal quality to our too-short time in France.

And always it is tinged with bittersweet.

10 January 2009

The Demise of Magazines

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I would come home at night, bone-weary and mentally exhausted, to find a stack of newly-arrived magazines waiting for my perusal. Victoria, Country Living, Country Home and others were dubbed "lifestyle, shelter or women's magazines," but to me and I suspect many others (and not only women!) they offered escape, inspiration and relaxation.

A red barn surrounded by countryside, a basket of flowers, an old maple bed dressed in lace and soft comforters drew us into the photographs and sent us to attics or antique stores or sheds in search of the perfect props to create that magic in our own lives. Some of the magazines - like Country Living - were born of a renewed interest in our collective past, spurred by America's bicentennial in 1976. I've always been a history buff, a genealogist and a lover of antiques and casual style, so these publications were a boon to my imagination - and my stress level.

I learned yesterday that Country Home is folding. Last week, I read that Cottage Living, a relative newcomer, will stop publication. Victoria magazine, the gracious and genteel creation of a thoughtful editor named Nancy Lindemeyer, folded in 2003 (when I need it most!) and came back last year, a pale shadow of its former literary self, published by another company that just doesn't seem to understand that the presentation must come from broad base of cultural knowledge that perhaps can only be possible with an editorial staff of a certain age and education level.

What will I read at night?

Oh, we've got hundreds of books on our shelves and two lovely libraries to serve us. I've purchased dozens of lovely coffee table books over the years. But the experience of turning a new page to some unexpected loveliness will be gone. I will still have Country Living to sooth me, but that too is a mere copy of its cozy self, the self that it was when the late Jo Northrup wrote "Simple Country Pleasures" (shades of Gladys Taber and Faith Baldwin!) and Bo Niles was on the editorial staff. (Read the magazines long enough and the editors and writers become your friends.)

I'll get by.

I think there is an upside to this. These publications, lovely as the were in their heyday of about 15 years ago, are similar to the glossy, high-fashion mags in that they often create unrealistic expectations of what our lives and homes should be like. I like fresh flowers in my office, but I'm afraid that they only make an appearance in my home two or three times a year. And my kitchen cupboards are never tidy, nor are my countertops. My coffee table and some of the chairs in my dining room are piled high with - what else? - magazines.

Maybe without these pretty friends to page through, I can come up with some lifestyle ideas of my own. Maybe, just maybe, my home will begin to reflect me, not some style editor's idea of who I should be.

Now to be fair, these magazines and others like them are descriptive rather than prescriptive. But really, don't you think they raise the bar just a little too high for the average person? I think they might.

Still, I will miss them. And - perhaps perversely - I miss the person I was when they meant so much to me at the end of a bad day: Eager, bright-eyed and looking for new ideas.

21 December 2008

A Norman Winter: An Apple-y Drink for Dark Days of Winter


From 2008: It began snowing at 9 p.m. last night and did not let up until late morning today. My husband moved the cars, took the snowblower out of the horse barn and began lugging it up and down the hill to create a path around the house, while clearing the driveway and the sidewalk. He took the blower, new last winter, down the street, too, helping our neighbors as they have often helped us.

He needed a stiff drink when he came inside, or so I reasoned. I've been itching since October to create something made from the bottle of Calvados we bought in Paris in 2007 and the cider we always keep on hand during the last three months of the year.

I have some Norman blood, and have always had a weakness for cider, apples and anything related. I was happy to find both pear and apple cider available in the Lot during the two weeks we were there recently (was it three months ago already?) and managed to imbibe a bottle each, along with the legendary dark wine of the area.

When my husband came in from the cold, stomping the snow off his boots, I handed him a newly-concocted drink I call a Norman Winter.

Here's my recipe for a Norman Winter:
  • 5 ounces Calvados or apple brandy
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • generous splash lemon-lime soda or non-alcoholic sparkling cider
  • splash of lime juice
  • 4-5 ice cubes
Pour all the ingredients over ice. Garnish with an apple slice or slip a few slices into the drink. Marashino cherries would be a nice contrast.