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Friday, January 28, 2011

Oh What a Cake!

Our friend Tina moved to Paris in the 1990s to pursue her journalism career, married a handsome Frenchman a few years later, and now has two adorable children. Along the way, she became a first-rate cook. At a recent dinner, she offered guests a first course of thick slices of the family foie gras (prepared annually by her French mother-in-law) accompanied by pear chutney and baguette slices. Next, the hostess arrived at the table with sautéed duck breasts napped in a rich red wine sauce, surrounded by tender haricots verts and golden potatoes. Salad and cheeses followed, but dessert was the evening’s pièce de résistance.

The talented cook served a financier cake. The French adore financiers, those mouthwatering little cakes made with brown butter, sugar, flour, and almonds. These confections are said to have originated in Paris’ financial district, and take their name from the brokers (financiers) who bought them. Tina’s version of this classic was distinctive because it was baked in a single pan rather than in small traditional molds. As everyone swooned over the warm buttery gâteau, she explained that the dessert was so easy to assemble that her 3-year old had helped mix the batter.

When I asked for the recipe, I learned that Tina had gotten it from another American expat in Paris, who had in turn learned how to prepare this confection from a French friend. Tina, having become a true French cook, couldn’t share the recipe without offering some variations. Use the cake as a base, she suggested, and add lemon, chocolate, or green tea (an ingredient the French employ imaginatively) for new flavors. For now, I plan to stick with the delicious Parisian original!

Tina’s Financier Cake
10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter at room temperature
            plus extra for the pan (See note.)
1 cup sliced or slivered almonds
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon fleur de sel or regular salt
4 large egg whites at room temperature, lightly beaten
11/4 teaspoons vanilla
Confectioner’s sugar, optional

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  Butter and flour an 8-inch cake pan. Line the bottom with a piece of parchment cut to fit the pan.  Butter and flour the paper.

Place the butter in a small, heavy saucepan set over medium heat. Whisk often until butter has melted and comes to a boil.  Cook at a gentle boil until butter turns a rich nutty brown, about 4 minutes. Watch carefully as the butter can go from brown to dark quickly. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Process the almonds in a food processor, pulsing the machine, until they are finely ground. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and add the sugar, flour, and fleur de sel. Whisk to combine. Whisk in the egg whites and the vanilla. Gradually whisk in the butter until well incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake until golden, and a tester comes out clean when inserted into the center, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool 5 minutes, and then unmold. Serve, either warm or at room temperature. Dust lightly with confectioner’s sugar if desired.  Serves 6.

Note: In Tina’s recipe the butter is softened to room temperature and simply whisked into the dry ingredients along with the egg whites and vanilla. However, the butter for financiers is typically melted and cooked until it becomes golden brown or what the French call beurre noisette. I followed this classic technique as it deepens the flavor of the cake.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dining in Paris Is Not Always Paradise

Although recommended by both critics and Parisian friends, Bistro Volnay, a restaurant near l’Opéra, was a disappointment. The ambience was certainly chic. Tables were covered with crisp, starched white linens, an attractive banquette ran down the length of one wall, and lighting was subdued and seductive. 

The first indication that the evening might be challenging occurred when our waitress insisted on using English when the four diners at our table all spoke French. Next, an amuse bouche, a little terrine of cooked pork, or rillettes, with toasted baguette slices was set in front of us. The former was tasty, but the croutons were not crisp and had been held too long.

When the first courses arrived, three turned out to be barely warm. My spouse’s foie gras was perfect, but bowls of silky smooth Jerusalem artichoke soup ladled over mounds of spinach, and my poached egg served over a rabbit ragoût were all tepid. This sad trend continued with the main courses when a beautiful slice of cod arranged over a pastry tart had to be returned to the kitchen for reheating.

What happened next was a first for me in Paris dining. We noticed diners around us enjoying interesting dishes that we hadn’t seen on the menu.  When we asked one of the servers where they were listed, we were told that they were specials of the day. Apparently our waitress had “forgotten” to mention them!

Dessert ended on a better note. My tarte tatin, a combo of rich amber-hued caramelized apples resting upon a deep golden puff pastry crust, was excellent. Riz au lait (creamy rice pudding) and a Mont Blanc, a dessert prepared with crispy meringue, chestnut puree, and whipped cream, were tempting enough to help assuage some of our earlier frustrations.

Bistro Volnay
8, rue Volnay
Paris 2

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Spicing Things Up in Paris

Paris is a city of delicious discoveries. At a dinner with friends, someone mentioned that they had been to a new shop called Epices Roellinger, on a narrow street near the Place de l’Opéra. The next day my husband and I found our way to the small boutique, chock full of colorful bottles and containers of aromatic spices. The owner, Olivier Roellinger, travels the globe in search of the best examples. He then concocts his own blends,  packages them, and adds labels that explain the mixture, with suggestions for food pairings. In addition, there’s an incredible selection of more than 20 types of vanilla beans and a case devoted to peppercorns, some quite rare.

Sandrine, the warm and welcoming manager of the Paris store (other boutiques are in Cancale and Saint Malo), is knowledgeable and helpful with selections. I came back to the apartment with beautiful Mexican vanilla beans that had an enticing, slightly smoky bouquet, some Poivre des Mondes (a global peppercorn mix), two blends from India, Retour des Indes and Poudre Grande Caravane (both robust seasonings), and some Vinaigre Celtic Épicé (a small bottle of spiced apple cider vinegar). The spice blends run around eight euros each; the vinegar and my Mexican vanilla beans are in the same price range.

The pepper made an omelet extra special. The Grande Caravane added superb flavor to a winter squash soup, and a few drops of the cider provided a fine accent to a slice of mild Comté cheese.

The store has a website in French, which you can also view in English by pushing the tab for "English" on the lower bar of the home page. Sandrine did mention that they can send parcels Fed Ex." 

51, rue Sainte-Anne
Paris 75002

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Shopping in Paris

Two of my favorite pastimes—shopping and eating—merged perfectly today. I rose early and took off for Bon Marché Department Store, Paris’s famous Left Bank emporium, for the first day of the semi-annual sales. There, at every entrance of this 19th century retail colossus, were men and women in black suits, holding big baskets filled with packets of chocolate chip cookies. As customers arrived, the welcomers smiled and handed each a package with two chocolate chippers inside. This imaginative custom is extended to early-bird shoppers, and I didn’t want to miss it. What a Parisian way to open the winter sales season!

This year the store extended its gustatory generosity to its upper floors as well. By the time I had made all my rounds, I had collected three gifts, totaling six delicious cookies, enough to keep me nourished as I shopped. I left the store with four cookies, two fabulous tops, and a pair of charcoal wool pants!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Hot Chocolate French Style

Last weekend, leaving the marché bio loaded down with purchases, I noticed a vendor selling hot chocolate. A born chocoholic, I could never pass such a concession without trying a sample, so I bought a cup to share with my spouse. Within minutes we had downed the rich, thick, dark liquid, which put us in a state of bliss. As soon as I got back to the apartment, I tried duplicating the recipe with good results, so once again we indulged in this ambrosial beverage.

The following evening at our dinner table, a young Amherst alum in Paris for a few days with his girl friend mentioned that he had tried the hot chocolate at Angelina’s, a Right Bank tea room renowned for their cups of this sumptuous brew. I listened enthralled as this strapping hockey player rhapsodized about the French version of one of his family’s favorite hot drinks. When I told him that I knew how Chocolat Chaud à l’Ancienne was made, you would have thought I’d offered him a contract with the Toronto Redwings. “Please send it to me,” he politely begged.

 Here’s my version, a close facsimile of that delectable Parisian original!  

4 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cacao (See note.)
2 cups milk, either whole or 2 %
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-process style
2 tablespoons sugar plus more if needed

Coarsely chop the chocolate and place it and the milk in a medium, heavy saucepan. Place the pot over low heat. Stir the mixture constantly with a wooden spoon until the chocolate has melted, taking care to scrape any chocolate bits on the bottom of the pan into the liquid. Raise the heat to medium and then gradually, with a whisk, add the cocoa powder and the sugar. Continue to cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture has thickened and reduced to about 2 cups, about 12 minutes. If necessary, lower the heat so that the mixture does not boil.

Taste a spoonful (it will be quite hot so let it cool for a few seconds), and, if desired, add more sugar by 1/2 teaspoon amounts.

Pour the warm chocolate into 2 standard-size coffee cups or mugs or into 4 espresso-size cups.  Serves 2 to 4.

Note: I used Nestlé’s 70 % chocolate. Scharffenberger’s 70% bittersweet bar and Ghiradelli’s  extra bittersweet 70% baking bar are available in many US groceries. Depending on the chocolate you use, you may want to add additional sugar to your hot chocolate as the recipe directions suggest.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cooking from the Marché Bio

Nothing is a bigger thrill for me, even when it’s freezing outside, than to go to Paris’ Marche Bio. (See my detailed description of this outdoor food market under “Out and About” on my website). Even my spouse, an avowed non-cook, finds this French food market fascinating. Sunday, our haul included winter vegetables, great mushrooms, and some delicious prosciutto known as jambon de Parme over here. I used it all for a menu that starred the savory pasta dish that follows. The recipe, which takes about 45 minutes  from start to finish, makes a perfect cold weather main course.

Pappardelle with Cauliflower, Leeks, and Mushrooms

12 ounces shiitake mushrooms  
A 2 1/2 to 3 pound cauliflower
4 tablespoons olive oil
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided  (See note.)
3 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts only
1 pound pappardelle (If these wide pasta strands are unavailable, use fettuccine.)
Kosher salt
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano

Remove the stems from the mushrooms and save for another use or discard. Wipe the mushrooms clean with a dampened paper towel and slice them into 1/2 inch-wide julienne strips.

Remove the base from the cauliflower and cut the head into florets. Cut the florets into 1/4 inch slices to yield 3 cups.

Heat the oil and 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy skillet set over medium heat. When hot, add the mushrooms and leeks, and cook, stirring often, until both are softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove skillet from heat. (Mushrooms and leeks can be prepared 4 hours ahead; leave at room temperature and reheat over medium heat, stirring.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower slices and cook until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a strainer or a slotted spoon to drain. Add the pasta to the pot and cook according to the package directions. Drain well in a colander and return the pasta to the pot. Stir in the remaining butter until it has melted. Then add the leeks and mushrooms and the cauliflower. Toss to mix. Season the mixture well with salt.

Mound the pasta in shallow bowls or on dinner plates, and garnish each serving with a good sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Pass extra cheese separately in a bowl. Serves 4 to 5 generously as a main course.

Note: Don’t skimp on the butter as it provides great flavor and keeps the pasta from being dry.