Finally gave in and bought a Costco-sized bag.

First on the docket with the new flour: bagels.

Finally gave in and bought a Costco-sized bag.

First on the docket with the new flour: bagels.

Tags: flour

Pops of color at the Port Angeles farmer’s market

Elderflower Cordial

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When people ask me what I learned on my trip, I feel that they expect a grand narrative: “Diana went to France and when she returned she realized x about her life.” Or maybe some defining capstone: something concrete, definitive. To satisfy this expectation, I tell them that I can now break down an entire pig carcass. But I think the most valuable learnings from my time in France are much more subtle. I have been met with blank stares when trying to explain this (perhaps I shouldn’t have started with the pig carcass); hopefully I can better put it down in words. I will start with a story. 

I love the taste of elderflowers. Unlike many edible flora, elderflowers have their own distinct flavor and aroma; they do not overwhelm you with thoughts of potpourri and hand soap. They are sweet like lychees, with a lingering hint of pleasant grassiness. However, my consumption of elderflowers has been largely limited to drinking St. Germain and poring over the edlerflower chapter in Nigel Slater’s Ripe. So you can imagine my excitement when Kate, our fiercely delightful teacher, pointed out the blossoming elderflower trees at the Chapolard farmhouse. Once I knew what to look for (greyish brown trunks, thick canopy of yellow-green leaves, dense clusters of tiny white flowers), I spotted elderflower trees everywhere: in fields, alongside the roads, edging the Canal du Midi.
One day, I mentioned my largely unrequited love of elderflowers to Kate. “Well,” she said, “It would be easy enough to make some elderflower cordial. Why don’t you do that? Then we can float it on sparkling water. Or rosé.”

"But I’ve never made anything like that. I don’t know how…"
"Oh, it’s easy. Just go out and pick some. Then steep them in water and add sugar. You can do it."

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Why not? So, with Jon’s help, I collected a basketful of elderflowers. I stuck my nose in them before their hot water bath. The scent is amazing, heady without being overwhelming. They smell creamy. I can’t explain that further, you just have to find some elderflowers and breathe them in for yourself. A few days later, after straining, citrus, sweetening, and simmering, I had three bottles of elderflower cordial. We served it at the start of a feast held in Kate’s beautifully wild garden.
At that point of the trip, I had already cut most parts of the pig, slaughtered, gutted, and butchered ducks, and knew how to make five different kinds of paté. But I felt especially proud of making this floral syrup, proud enough to lug thick glass jars of it home to the States. They are proof that I could go beyond my assumptions of what I am capable of doing, that sometimes I need to get  out of my own head and just do it

Thank you, Kate, for nonchalantly pushing me past my self-imposed limitations.

Elderflower Cordial
Ingredients
  • A basketful of elderflowers
  • 6-7c water, boiled
  • Juice and zest of some citrus (lemons, oranges…)
  • 2lb sugar

Method

  1. Pour boiling water over elderflowers and citrus zest and cover to let infuse overnight
  2. Strain out elderflowers
  3. Pour remaining liquid into a saucepan
  4. Add citrus juice and sugar
  5. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar
  6. Cook for a few minutes, then pour cordial out into sterilized jars

Canelés

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Though much less flamboyant than many of their French brethren, this pastry counts among my favorites. Done right, a canelé should have a wonderfully crunchy, caramelized crust with a gooey soft, custardy inside. When I ate my first (and debatably, best) canelé of the trip in Sarlat-le-Canéda, little did I know that the eggy confection would come to symbolize my time in France. 

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It began with a surprising history lesson in Bordeaux, where we took our first weekend jaunt. The canelés were ubiquitous, cropping up at every Bordelais bakery we frequented. This, of course, prompted a canelé tasting that would last the entire weekend. Some considerations for ranking: texture of exterior versus interior, coloring, alcohol level, presence of additional spices. Anyway, it was at a winery tour that we were told the canelé’s story. Traditionally, egg whites were used to filter Bordeaux’s famous wines.  This left winemakers with several thousands of egg yolks. What to do? Why, turn them into canelés. With that, the Bordelais pastry rose to immortality.

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My second moment came midway through the trip, when I was lamenting to Kate about how I had never made canelés because they were too intimidating. She looked at me incredulously. “But you’re a baker! Also, they’re not that hard to make. I have canelé molds and beeswax, why don’t you just try it.”

That was all it took to slough away my years of canelé anxiety. I mixed up the batter, let it coalesce in the fridge overnight, then baked the canelés a few evenings later. Despite some trepidation (Why aren’t they done yet? Oh shit, they’re rising over the molds!), the canelés turned out beautifully. Nice, crunchy crusts with creamy soft centers. I haven’t been so proud of a dessert in a long while.

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If you can imagine, my relationship with canelés grew even deeper, beyond the lessons of wasting naught and not letting a baked good get the better of me. It began with Christiane Chapolard’s formidable roasted potatoes: perfect, with delicately blistered skins and gooey insides. Wait- like… a canelé!

Over the course of the trip, I came to realize that this caneléian idyll, roughly crunchy on the outside, disarmingly soft on the inside, expands to describe many other great things in life.  Certainly, this includes food: pastries, grilled steak, fried beet greens. But it also works beyond the culinary: at one particularly inspired moment, I likened my travel mate Jon’s personality to a canelé.

I never imagined that such an unassuming sweet would teach so many lessons. 

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Canelés

From the Pariès cookbook

Ingredients:

  • 400ml milk
  • 20g butter
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 egg
  • 180g sugar
  • 120g flour
  • 50ml rum
  • 1 vanilla bean pod
  • Beeswax mixture (instructions follow)

Method:

  1. Whisk together the egg, yolks, sugar, flour, and vanilla scrapings in a large bowl
  2. Bring the milk to a boil, then remove from heat and add butter. Once the milk  mixture is tepid, add to the egg mixture
  3. Stir in rum
  4. Refrigerate the mixture for at least 8 hours
  5. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F
  6. Coat molds generously with warmed oil beeswax mixture*
  7. Place molds inside deep baking dish, to stabilize during baking
  8. Fill each mold about 2/3 full
  9. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the caneles are set**

*The beeswax is what gives the canelé its thick, crackly crust

**The best way to check for doneness is to free a canelé from its mold, then cut it in half to inspect the texture. You’re looking for a set, but still very moist and velvety center

Beeswax mixture:

  1. Melt one part beeswax to one part oil or butter in a saucepan; use a double broiler if you are afraid of burning 
  2. If using oil or clarified butter, leftover mixture can be stored and used for several months (just reheat to liquid form when needed)
Tags: france pastry

Pommes de Terre Rôties

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One seldom thinks of potatoes as particularly glamorous or memorable, but one of the most amazing dishes I had in France was just that. This was again at Christiane Chapolard’s table, where we were served roasted potatoes as a side. Their flesh was golden yellow where it had not blistered and caramelized into a lovely brown. They had been roasted whole; being new potatoes, not many were bigger than a large grape.

How to retell the moment of biting into one of these potatoes. You are greeted with a satisfying crackle, then rewarded by a creamy, almost molten, center. As you chew, the crunchy and the melty become delightfully entangled. Though you can taste the bite of the salt and an unquestionable- though as yet unidentified- smokiness, the potatoes have a flavor of their own. It is what you would hope of for every potato you would ever eat.
I would find again and again throughout my trip that the most transcending dishes were often those that were simplest: no more than three or four ingredients, allowing the raw quality of the food to shine through. With access to California’s bounty of produce and a spice rack taking up an entire pantry shelf, it is much too easy for me to flavor pile. It takes much more discipline and confidence to constrain one’s ingredient list. I saw this expertly done at all levels of cuisine, from Christiane’s home kitchen to Michelin-starred Asador Extebarri.

With eyes slightly glazed and stomachs full, we asked Christiane what she had used, besides salt, to season the potatoes. Where had that smokiness come from? She smiled, walked to her fridge, then came back with a two gallon plastic tub to show us. “J’ajoute du gras de canard!”
Ah, duck fat. It all made sense.

Christiane’s Pommes de Terre Rôties
Ingredients:
  • New Potatoes
  • Salt
  • Duck Fat

Method:
  1. Wash and peel potatoes, then place in baking dish
  2. Salt
  3. Dollop duck fat liberally over potatoes; fat should be lumpy and discrete
  4. Place in cold oven, then set to 350F
  5. Roast for two hours, or until potatoes are creamy when pierced with a fork. If more crunch is desired, place under broiler for a few additional minutes.
Note: I have attempted these potatoes three times now and haven’t gotten them exactly right yet. I think there’s a sweet spot for amount of duck fat and roasting time that I have yet to discover, a reminder that simple does not necessarily mean easy.
Tags: france potato

Fraises avec Fromage Frais


My time in France could be very rightly called a sugared fever dream, fueled by the daze of strawberry season. In the States, strawberries are like bananas: generic, monocultural. French strawberries are a universe apart from their American relatives. When the season is nigh, you will find several different kinds of strawberries, each with a distinctive shape and flavor. There are the Gariguettes, thin and elongated and tart. There are the fraises Clery, fat and globular and so sweet they make you giggly. Then there are Mara des Bois, long-stemmed and almost savory in their richness. These are cousins to the fraises des bois, wild strawberries which are rarely bigger then raspberries. 

Strawberry stalls abounded in the French markets, usually found alongside their considerably less exciting seasonal brethren, white asparagus. Bright red jewels, they nested in wooden baskets and were bought by the pallet. I could rarely resist buying a basket or three. Though I began with daydreams of pies and cakes, the strawberries rarely lasted the car ride home. Besides, they were already so complete in their natural state, it seemed almost blasphemous to bake them (though I could not resist making these shortcakes). 

This thought was underscored when we had our first lunch with the Chapolards, the family who owned the farm where we butchered. Each day we worked on the farm, Christiane Chapolard would prepare a beautiful lunch spread for us. On that first lunch, she closed the meal with strawberries. We each received a small bowlful of Gariguettes, halved, topped with a dollop of fromage frais. So simple, yet transportive. I felt like I was eating spring as it melts into summer.

 

When I Think About France

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I’ve just returned from a six week trip to France. I learned many things, among them butchering pigs and making charcuterie of various types. I ate an inconceivable, quite possibly ludicrous, amount of delicious food. But I would like to start at the end, or an ending of sorts.

Of the panoply of things consumed, there were a handful of dishes that stuck with me. Some of them have stories and sentiments inextricably attached. Others taught me quiet, yet profound, lessons in being a cook. It is remarkable that of the ten things on my list, only two were bought. Even then, one among these two is more of a persistent symbol than one specific instance (it is the cassoulet, and I will elaborate later).  I would very much like to share my list of things and their accompanying stories with you. 

Here they are:

  • Fraises avec fromage frais
  • Pommes de terre rôties
  • Canelés
  • Elderflower Cordial
  • Cassoulet
  • Matar Paneer
  • Chicken Jambalaya
  • Confiture de fraise
  • Cuisse de canard aux Banyuls 
  • Tiramisu de fraise

I’ll try to be good about making my way through this list in a reasonable amount of time. Allons-y, on commence avec les fraises. 

Tags: france lists

Some baked things I missed while I was away from San Francisco:

  • Tartine’s sesame country loaf. I think this is the best bread in the world, in complete seriousness
  • Cafe du Soleil’s canele. Though it is definitely not the best I’ve had, these little French sweets are so rare (and so damned hard to make) that I am quite happy to know that I can get one a block away from home
  • Thorough Bread’s bostock. This is my favorite bakery in the city and this slice of brioche spread with almond paste, encrusted in sliced almonds, and dusted with powdered sugar is a big reason why

Eslava

Though I harbored some resentment from the less-than-perfect Lebanon tour per his recommendation, I could not help but follow David Lebovitz’s path to Eslava. The tapas bar is apparently part of a greater business that also has a restaurant and apartments (?), but I should know from Higashi Yama that the most inspired restaurants are usually not ideas harbored alone.

When DL’s laudations of Eslava were seconded by a Sevillan with no relation, my curiosity was further ignited. So, with fingers crossed that it would be open on Sunday, we set out course for Eslava. At first, the situation seemed dubious: the restaurant was empty and the menu posted outside suggested heftily priced dishes. For a moment, I listened to the siren song of the tavern across the square serving the usual array of fried or grilled tapas. But I stuffed my fingers in my ears and sailed back to Eslava.


We had the pick of the restaurant, choosing to sit in the small dining room back past the long bar counter. First delight: Eslava sold all of their offerings as tapas, opening the door for more variety at a lighter toll to the waller. Second delight: the menu dripped with impossibly delicious things. Over the course of the next few hours, we had the following:

  • Slow-cooked egg on boletus cake with caramelized win reduction
  • Scallops over seaweed puree and kataifi noodles
  • Grilled razor clams with lemon
  • Roasted pork ribs with rosemary honey glaze
  • Stewed tender pork cheeks
  • Slow-cooked leeks with gribiche

Each plate was beautifully presented; it was clear that much care had been put into composing the food. This, of course, comes second to the taste itself, which was through the roof: full flavors, thoughtful combinations, complementary textures. The slow-cooked egg and the squid and camembert cigar had apparently won prizes in an annual tapas competition. This fact, too, takes backseat to the sheer enjoyment experiencing each plate.

By the time we left Eslava, every table was filled, there was no room at the bar, and people stood along the wall. I was not at all surprised. Eslava, you elevate tapas far beyond what I ever imagined possible.

On Tapas

Before this trip, I was a staunch tapas skeptic. For me, the word evoked plates of soggy potatoes and flaccid mushrooms swimming in grease. At its best, bar food.

My reality was turned around upon this visit to Spain. This was due to two things: my greater age and my greater context for tapas. The first is easy to explain: I am no longer a penniless student with no money or cultivated taste for food. The second reveals my own ludditicism about tapas. Though it’s origins are shadowy, the definition of tapas is unbelievably expansive. A tapa can be  virtually any kind of food, so long as it’s served as a small-plate portion. Tapas are renowned in specific regions of Spain (Andalucia thankfully being one of them). Bonus for the impoverished student in me: in Andalucia, drinks are usually accommodated by a complementary tapa.


Even knowing all of this intellectually, I was still repeatedly surprised and delighted with our tapas throughout Spain. In Alpujarra, it was a thick slice of the region’s celebrated jamon on toast. In Barcelona, it was seafood preserves (admittedly less excited about this style of tapas, though the bar redeemed itself with its house-made cava). In Granada, it was a hearty portion of mijas - breadcrumbs fried in chorizo fat - with sautéed vegetables and jamon.

Our best tapas by far, though, were in Seville. There was the afternoon we devoted to La Cantina and 110 Comestibles outside the Feria Market. La Cantina served up fresh fried and grilled seafood whilst 110 boasted chichironnes de Cadiz, a thick cured pork that provided a refreshing (can one use that word to describe meat?) counterpoint to the ubiquitous jamon. There was the transcending experience at Eslava, which I will save for a later musing.



Through these tapas jaunts, I was given a window into the heartbeat of each city. Tapas both stokes the fire and sustains the flames for a fun time, whether with family or friends. They subtly mark time slipping by as you eat, drink, and make merry. It changes a bar from a mere drinking hole to a convivial gathering place. Yes, I am now a believer.

Tags: tapas Spain