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.

 

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