Finding Spice in France

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French food is delectable: rich flavors garnered only from hours of slow roasting or braising, pastries delicately ensconced in butter. There’s the simple alchemy of meat and salt producing paté and sausage and rillettes. And then the decadent milk charcuterie: cheese. However, weeks and weeks of the food had us aching for the fiery and the spicy. For all the beauty of French food, it is undeniably brown in its balance. I craved dramatic highs and lows, punches of red and green. My fellow American students yearned for the same. 

From that desire came forth two dinners cooked in the house we shared: matar paneer and jambalaya. Yes, in the Gascon heartland, we managed to coax fire into our meals. Not without some guilt, I wolfed down bowls and bowls. But French cooking was not wholly left out in the cold- if it were not for the creamy raw milk straight from the farm, I am convinced our paneer would not have been so toothsome. If not for the fresh chickens obtained at Toulouse’s famed market, the jamabalya would not have been so succulent. So, France did have a role to play in our decidedly non-French cooking. 

Jon’s Matar (and Diana’s) Paneer

For the paneer:

Ingredients

  • 1/2 gallon of the highest quality whole milk you can find
  • 1/4c lemon juice
  • 1/2t salt

Method

  1. Set milk over medium heat in saucepan and bring to a low simmer. Stir milk occasionally, scraping the bottom of the pan so that it does not scald. It’s ready when it looks steamy and foamy
  2. Remove milk from the heat and add lemon juice. It should curdle
  3. Cover saucepan and let stand for 10 minutes, allowing the curds to separate from the whey. If separation has not occurred after 10 minutes, add another tablespoon of lemon juice
  4. Strain curds by placing cheesecloth or muslin over a colander and pour in curd; whey can be reserved or discarded 
  5. Squeeze curds to expel remaining whey
  6. Salt curds; taste and add more as necessary
  7. Press curds: still in cheesecloth, place whey on dinner plate. Wrap cheesecloth around curds, forming into rectangular shape. Place another plate on top of curds and weigh down. Press for at least 15 minutes and up to 1 hour 
  8. Use paneer or refrigerate up to two days. Paneer will firm up and be less crumbly if left in the fridge longer

For the curry:

I sadly did not take notes as Jon was making the curry. I’m trying to wrest the steps from him, but my efforts have proven fruitless thus far. Maybe one day I will be able to put a recipe here. 

Ali’s Jambalaya

Ingredients

  • 1 stick of butter
  • Dry cajun seasoning (Ali recommends Slap Ya Mamma)
  • Bell pepper
  • Onions
  • Okra
  • Parsley 
  • Garlic
  • 2lb chunked chicken ( Ali’s notes: I like to break down a chicken myself and get a mix of white and dark)
  • 2lb smoked sausage (Ali’s notes: Andouille is traditional but any form of REAL SMOKED sausage will do)
  • White Rice
  • Bouquet garnis (bay leaf, thyme, peppercorns)
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Hot sauce

Method

In Ali’s words:

  1. Melt half stick of butter in a skillet and saute peppers, onion, garlic, parsley, and a sprinkle of seasoning until mostly cooked. Remove from skillet
  2. Put the rest of your butter in the skillet and add chicken along with a healthy amount of cajun seasoning (at least enough to get a good cover on your chicken,…if you’re trying to have a mild jambalaya this is where you need to take note of seasoning usage)
  3. Cook your chicken over medium heat. It’s important to cook the chicken into the butter it’s a process of making a type of flavored sauce that is going to flavor your rice, and that is a pivotal point in jambalaya. (you want good sized chunks of chicken so they don’t disintegrate while slow cooking)
  4. Add your sausage when the chicken is about halfway done. Low and slow and delicious. Let the juices from the chicken and sausage combine with that butter to make a super tasty juice. 
  5. Use the lid of your skillet to drain out the chicken/sausage juice….measure the amount you have. Factor that amount into your liquid measure for the amount of rice you are going to cook, once measure add the liquid back into the skillet. **this part is optional depending on your skill of cooking. The main point of this step is to refrain from having runny rice (that’s a major faux pax in cajun country) 
  6. Take your chicken sausage mix and put it into an appropriately sized stock pot, add your veggies into the same pot and test your spice/seasoning.
  7. At this point add a touch of worcestershire sauce and the bouquet garnis
  8. Add your rice and the appropriate amount of water. For 4 lbs. of meat 3 cups of rice is usually appropriate. 
  9. Throw a lid on it, keep it on a medium heat and DON”T TOUCH IT! for at least ten minutes. Stirring in not essential. You will want to stir the bottom of the pot every 10-15 minutes at first as to not have anything burn on the bottom, but that’s the only reason you should touch it. You want the rice to cook in all the flavors of all the deliciousness you just created. As it’s going along, I usually test it, throw in some hot sauce if you like heat.
  10. Cook until rice is done and longer if you desire (longer doesn’t hurt, just don’t let it dry out) You want a colored flavorful sticky type rice.
  11. Remove the bouquet garnis and ENJOY! 

I highly suggest pairing this with some cornbread and bourbon 

Eating meat in France

The Meat of Gascony

The best beef I’ve ever eaten was bought in Toulouse, the meat sourced from the region of Limousin not too far away. We ate extremely high quality pork daily, prepared in at least three different ways at each meal. Yet, I feel that duck is most emblematic of Gascony. Certainly, the glut of foie gras is a constant reminder: foie in paté, on salad, on more foie gras. But there is something about the richness and particular saltiness of duck that melds well with with the bounty and the hospitality unique to the region.

The dish that brings this all together is, of course, cassoulet: a meal of various meats, most often duck confit and sausage, baked with beans, broth, and animal fat. Breadcrumbs or patience with the oven will both yield a delicate crunch to balance out the richness of the proteins. Heavy, stick to your ribs fare that will keep you warm well into the next meal- that is Gascony. 

Kate has written beautifully about why she makes cassoulet:

Because it warms the hearth, warms the spirit, and nourishes the body to keep the core warm agains the infernal Tramontana winds. I cook cassoulet to teach the basics of how to cook something simply but perfectly.

I’ve included her recipe below because, really, it’s the best I’ve found.

Kate’s Cassoulet de Gascon

This is the basic, bonafide, easy to prepare, authentic, traditional, real, regional version of cassoulet that I prepare, teach, cook and eat in my French Kitchen. The emphasis is on careful combining of very good ingredients, slow cooking and hearty enjoyment. I use duck confit and sausage de Toulouse, ventrèche ( salt cured pork belly), and pork rind for the meats. This is not gospel but pretty close. As much a state of mind as a recipe, this Cassoulet should feed your spirit as well as your belly. Invite a few friends- make it a party.

This makes a large cassoulet that fills a 4-liter cassole and feeds 8 people easily.

Step 1: the beans

Ingredients:

  • beans -1 kg dried beans (tarbais, coco, lingots, or other plump thin skinned white bean (for dried beans- soak several hours, over night or cover with water, bring to boil and let sit one hour.)
  • 1 onion- peeled
  • one whole carrot
  • 2 cloves
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Thick slice of ventrèche (pancetta), salt pork, bacon or ham ends.
  • Ham bone or hock
  • Fresh pork rind-(couenne) about a 4-by-12 inch strip or about 100gr, rolled and tied with a string
  • Bouquet garni- bay, thyme and parsley stems.
  • black peppercorns- a dozen slighty crushed

Place all of the above ingredients in a large pot, cover with 2 litres of water; because of the addition of the ham bone there is no need to season with salt at this stage. The seasoning can be adjusted when the cassoulet is put together.
Bring the bouillon to a boil then turn down to simmer and let cook gently for 1 hour or until beans are just barely tender. How do you tell if the beans are done?The skins go papery and begin to collapse and the cooking liquid is milky.

Step 2: the meat- prepare while the beans are cooking.

Ingredients: This is where you can be flexible using fresh sausage, preserved duck or goose, ham or cured pork, lamb shanks, etc. We used:

  • Duck- confit de canard- one/half leg per person (note: after slipping off most of the softened congealed fat from the surface of the duck legs, we trimmed any excess skin so as to leave just a covering to protect the meat. We jointed the thigh from the drumstick and then teased the thigh bone out resulting in a neat little package of confit meat that is easier to cut in the plate.)
  • Saucisse de Toulouse- about 500 grams or about 15 cm/6 inches per person. This is a fresh pork sausage made from primarily the shoulder meat and seasoned with salt and pepper. Nothing else.
  • Saucisse de Couenne- I love how these succulent sausages made with lean pork meat and the soft rind taste. They sort of explode with flavour in the cassoulet.

Brown all of the above; the duck confit in a sauté pan and the sausages we cooked over the grill, however, they could have been pan browned as well. You want a nice hot fire to brown the skins and it’s preferable to not cook the sausages 100% at this stage as they will continue to cook in the cassoulet and give their juices to the broth.Note: Because we buy the sausage in one long link we made a pretty spiral that may be browned as a whole on one side then turned over in one piece to cook the other side.We did this on a grill over the hot ashes of the log fire.

Step 3: to assemble the cassoulet

The traditional cassole bottom is just half of the diameter as the top, making a deep slant-sided glazed terracotta pot (see pictures). Remove the bouquet garni, ham bones, onion, carrot and rind from the beans. I chop the onion, carrot and rind into small bean-size pieces and take the tender meat off the ham bone then return all to the beans and gently stir in. USing a slotted spoon, the cassole is then layered with the beans, the confit and pieces of toulouse and rind sausage then finished with a layer of beans. Adjust the seasoning of the broth from the beans; a little salt, some more black pepper and pinch of piment d’esplette. the tweaked bouillon/bean stock is wonderfully savoury. Now add this liquid to the cassoles until the beans are just covered.Any remaining bouillon should be saved for basting if needed or making bean soup with leftovers.

Step 4- To cook the cassoulet

Slip the cassole into a very hot oven (around 450’ F/ 275’C); turn down the oven after 30 minutes to medium heat- 350′ F/175′C and then let the cassoulet bake slowly as long as you can. The cassoulet in the electric oven is nicely browned in about 1-1/2 to 2 hours; ‘break’ the crust by pushing into down into the juices two or three more times. A wonderful crust forms during cooking so there is no need for a sprinkle of breadcrumbs* as the beans and starchy sauce do this by themselves. Cassoulets are not fatty and are nicely done in about 2 hours. If you start preparing the cassoulet at around 3 pm and you’ll be sitting at the table by eight pm. This could be done in advance- all or in part by cooking the beans, and or assembling before baking.

Step 5: to serve

Pour a glass of hearty red wine like a Madiran, Cahors or Zinfandel, break the crust on top at the table, ladle the steaming cassoulet into dishes and prepare to be very full and very warm as stories are told around the kitchen table well into the night!

Late Night Pastry

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve baked late into the night with my sister. Somehow, when Crystal and I get together, we find ourselves huddling around the oven door, willing macaron shells to puff at 1AM, or perhaps filling cream puffs at half past 2. At an hour normally reserved for either rest or debauchery, we are instead discussing sugar ratios and the perfect crumb. 

When I’m with Crystal, I become a more daring baker. With her, complex steps requiring several hours lose any threat of difficulty. This time, we tackled kouign amann. This French pastry has been somewhat of an albatross for me, first capturing my imagination watching Amélie in tenth grade, in which the principal character makes one just before the film’s climax. I remember being hypnotized by the kouign amann being rolled into being; I could smell the melting sugar through the television screen. But at that point, I had no words for the sweet and it slipped away until I chanced upon this. Finally, I had a name for the mesmerizing pastry: kouign amann. But upon reading the recipe, I became overwhelmed by the ratio of butter to every other ingredient and already nursed a healthy fear of laminated pastry dough. Croissants, pain au chocolate, puff pastry- this was the stuff of seemingly unattainable patisserie. 

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But not so with Crystal. On her last visit to San Francisco, we arrived quite quickly on the decision to make kouign amann. We wanted a challenge, to stretch beyond our boundaries. It is embarrassing to admit how excited we were when they came out of the oven, each one so incredibly perfect. You could see the crunchiness of the outer layer before even biting down into the buttered loveliness. We sat down to split one pastry, knowing that the inside of the kouign amann would be the true reflection of our failure or success. And- glory of glories! The crusty outside yielded to layers and layers of flaky dough sweet with caramelized sugar. 

Sometime past midnight, our beautiful kouign amann still steaming from the oven, we split two more. Tomorrow, we would share with family and friends. But for that moment, it was just the two of us and our dessert.

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Kouign Amman

Adapted from Clockwork Lemon and Use Real Butter

Ingredients

  • 1c warm water
  • 2t active dry yeast
  • 2 3/4c all-purpose flour
  • 1t salt
  • 8oz cold salted butter
  • 1/4c sugar

Method

  1. Combine water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let stand until the yeast has bloomed, about 5-10 minutes
  2. Add flour and salt
  3. Mix on low until the dough is shaggy, about 3-4 minutes
  4. Knead the dough with the hook attachment until the dough is smooth and slightly tacky, about 3-4 minutes
  5. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place until dough has doubled in size, about an hour
  6. Roll out the dough into a rough rectangle and refrigerate until the dough has chilled, about 30 minutes
  7. Pound the butter by placing between two pieces of lightly floured plastic wrap and pounding with a rolling plan until it is a 8”x8” square about 1/4” thick. Wrap and refrigerate 
  8. Join dough and butter. When dough is chilled, take out from the refrigerator and roll out to 10”x10”, 1/2” thick square on lightly floured surface. Take out butter block and place offset on top of dough. Fold corners of the dough over butter block like an envelope and seal. Lightly pound the dough with the rolling pin to help set the dough and butter. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 20 minutes. 
  9. Fold the dough in order to create layers. Take out dough and roll out to 14”x10”, 1/2” thick rectangle. Fold into thirds from the shorter side. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
  10. Repeat two more times, lightly flouring the counter and placing the opening of the top flap of the dough to your right at the beginning of each fold cycle.
  11. Fold for the final time, this time dusting surface with sugar. Roll out dough to 10”x14” once more, then dust with 1/4 cup sugar. Proceed with the normal folding into thirds. Wrap in plastic and chill for 20 minutes. 
  12. Grease muffin tin and and coat with sugar
  13. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
  14. Form the kouign amann. Take out dough and roll out to 20”x15”, 1/4” thick rectangle on lightly floured surface. Slice into 12 squares. Fold corners of the square into the center, forming a bundle, then gently press bundle into the muffin tin. Sprinkle tops of kouign amann with sugar
  15. Bake the kouign amann. Place muffin tin on baking sheet to prevent butter from dripping. Bake for 25-40 minutes, until tops are golden and caramelized and the centers are no longer white or wet. 
  16. Remove kouign amann immediately from muffin tin once they are done to prevent them from sticking. Place upside down on a cooling rack to set.  
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.