Histoire d’un Festin – Les Fruits et Les FromagesImagine. A house on the square of a quaint little village in the East of France. From the windows on the first floor you see the fountain, the road that lazily slopes towards the river, green beyond. Imagine a house untouched by time for decades, its dust whirled by tiny furry feet only. A house with random trees growing next to a discarded cast iron stove in the courtyard, a bunch of stray cats reigning over this foreign territory. No merry voices that ring through the open windows, no dancing that shakes the old walls. Instead, melancholy bags of wallpaper and plaster coming down when the faintest movement stirs the air. The old marble fireplace a sorry mess of soot and dust and cracked cast iron plates. Which is why we decided to bring back its old glory, a mad endeavour, mad and enticing and ever so inspiring, for we have a vision, the vision of beauty over destruction, and we will celebrate, someday, in this house, celebrate life and love and creativity with a dazzling feast. The way there is L’Histoire d’un Festin. Quite evidently too, it will be a long way. But that’s not the point, for time does not matter. What matters is the joy of creation, of breathing life into something believed dead, finding and restoring the beauty of what was discarded, glamour to what went dim for want of courage. The story unfolds in the dedicated instagram account L’Histoire d’un Festin, where I’ll post the latest works and quirks and a great many photographs of what it looks like to restore a ruined home. And with a feast in mind and a dinner to be cooked I thought of giving you a simple recipe today, simple but quintessential to any proper dîner francais, the French dinner: les fromages et les fruits, cheese and fruits. They go between the viands and the dessert, the moment you pour yourself another glass of that rich spicy red, or even a little glass of golden sauternes. When you relax a little deeper into your puffy chair and catch the happy spark in your neighbour’s eye, at ease and ever so glad to be so, because after all, everything is alright. Les fromages et les fruits, in anticipation of a beautiful festin in a beautiful house with beautiful people, someday:
What you’ll needIt doesn’t so much matter which cheese you serve as long as you choose thoughtfully. Guess your guest’s favourites, and don’t forget to include yours. Look around you, the types of cheeses produced in your region, untravelled food often tastes exquisite. If you find the ones from your region too boring think of twisting them with spices, herbs and aromatic oils. The same goes for the fruit. No need to run for exotic specimens, for seasonal local fruits are so much more delectable. My favourites of the current moment: a matured sheep cheese with quince mustard, along a bowl of muscat raisins, peaches and melons.
How to prepare itTake your most beautiful plate and arrange the cheese and fruit, think of the old masters, catch the light, blend the colours. Light candles and serve your guests a glass of wine, muscular velvety red to balance strong flavours, a dewy floral white to pair young cheeses. And the eternal sauternes that goes so well along fruits.
How to eat itServe yourself, small morsels of cheese and fruit, eat it with knife and fork, a morsel of rye bread and that glass of whatever takes your fancy. And enjoy!
Cherries with Friends – How to Make Chriesitschope
I made a Chriesitschope, isn’t this a glorious Swiss word, it essentially is a cherry cake and translated into English means Cherry Jacket. Now there’s hundreds of ways of making Chriesitschopes apparently, which is why here I give you my own version. And this is how it came about that I made a Chriesitschope:
The other day my neighbour knocked on the front door, making a rather important face, a little conspirational even, and I asked him in so that no one may overhear what dire business he was about to discuss. Would you like some cherries, he asked. Cherries! I said. I love cherries! Listen, he said with a sideway glance, our orchard is full of them, so full you can’t possibly imagine how full it is, and if you’d like some you just go and pick them. You may also come with your friends, he nodded significantly. My father will show you the spot. He turned to leave and I spotted the cigarette he held hidden behind his back as always does, faintly wondering whether it was just a habit of courtesy or whether I somehow reminded him of his late mother or some other said to be straight laced female relative, despite the fact that he has the advantage of a good twenty years’ experience over me.
And so the adorable father drove me up in his methuselah Lada car, regretting that he didn’t feel like cherry picking anymore, to which I replied that perhaps there’s a certain time for everything in life, even sitting down and enjoying the quiet days instead of going up steep ladders and swinging from branch to branch for cherries. And drive old battered Lada cars along bumpy country lanes, but this I only thought to myself.
Come Sunday I gathered my friends and off we went to pick cherries in his orchard and brought him a basket home. In my kitchen, we sorted them all, reds from blacks, and made jam and compote and I set some aside to be frozen so that I could make a Chriesitschope. And this is how it goes:
What you’ll need
Quantities render a small Chriesitschope cake, I used my 17cm diametre mould. Just multiply for larger portions.
- 3 egg yolks
- 3 egg whites, whisked with a pinch of salt to a firm mass suited to pile up a Marie Antoinette coiffure on your head
- 180g sugar
- The content of one half a vanilla bean, scraped
- 180g butter, cut into cubes
- 1dl of half cream and half white wine
- 120g white flour (T45)
- 240g of cherries with the stones in, stems removed
- 1dl of fresh cream, whipped with a bit of sugar and a sip of Kirsch, eau de vie made from cherries
How to cook it
Heat the oven to 200°C no fan. Whisk the yolks with the sugar and vanilla scrape until the sugar is fully dissolved and you end up with a creamy foamy mass. Add the butter and stir in until it amalgamises. Continue with carefully mixing the creamwine under and add the flour. Gently fold in the egg white mass and immediately transfer to a cake mould and add the cherries, gently press in so that they’re just barely covered by batter. Cover with tinfoil, press the rim well.
Bake for 45 min for a melting heart, 55min for a firm heart, remove the tinfoil and bake the top golden for another 10 min. Let cool in the mould and arrange on a nice tray.
How to eat it
With a bowl of sweet crème chantilly spiced with Kirsch, enjoy!
Semelles aux Fraises – Or how to Eat a Shoe Sole
We often had shoe soles for dessert. It’s a local specialty of the town where I partly grew up. One could buy them at the Confiserie, the pastry shop, over the counter two shoe soles please, you would say, and the lady would put them into crisp brown paper bags. Then she’d pick out a little chocolate with a pair of ornate silver tweezers and hand it over. Would you like to try?
Sometimes we would make the shoe soles, mother and I, on a wet afternoon, the kitchen window a little open so the marble table top stayed cool.
Classic shoe soles are filled with vanilla buttercream. Given that barely a week ago it was wonderfully summery and light, and me having just returned from the neighbouring village with the very first strawberries of the season, real strawberries that grow in the soil and taste of sun rays, given all that I decided to give it a little twist and prepared a vanilla parfait instead.
What you’ll need:For the shoe soles
- 250g of quality puff pastry
- One cup of sugar
- 2.5dl sweet cream
- Half a vanilla bean
- One generous tablespoon of sugar (or inverted sugar, if available)
- Two eggs
- Fresh strawberries
How to cook it:
Start on the vanilla parfait, ideally the day before. Separate the yolks from the whites. Slice the vanilla bean and scrape out the dust with a knife, throw everything into a pan, dust and sliced bean, add cream and sugar and put on the stove, whisking in order to avoid burning, until it raises. Take off the heat and let sit for a couple of minutes. Now the mass should be very warm, yet not cooking. Take out the bean and swiftly stir in the egg yolks. You may even use a cutter to this purpose, so that all amalgamates comme il faut. Whisk the egg whites very firm, Marie Antoinette. Then gently fold under the warm vanilla cream. Ideally you end up with a foamy fluffy mass. Pour into a mould, ice cream mould or a discarded yoghurt jar will do too, and freeze. After one hour, shake the mould and put back into the freezer.
The next day, make sure your kitchen is cool. Pre-heat the oven to 220° C and switch on the fan.
Roll out the puff pastry down to about half a centimetre. With an ordinary glass (take a tiny glass my dear American readers) cut out round patches. Then, pour the sugar on the slab and roll out the rounds to form long thin tongues. Or shoe soles for that matter. I usually roll them down to 1mm.
Put the soles on parchment paper, sugar top up, plain top down, on a cold baking tray and bake for seven minutes. Check after five minutes, for the sugar should caramelise yet not burn. You’ll perhaps have to find out for yourself a little, as it depends on your oven and the external conditions. You may have to do several rounds, I usually bake five soles at a time.Take out of the oven and let cool on a cooling rack. Take the parfait out of the freezer one hour before serving. When it starts melting, stir it up, for example with a cutter, to obtain a chilled fluffy cream. Place half of the soles on a large tray and add a dollop of the parfait. Cut the strawberries’ green collars and sandwich them with another sole.
How to enjoy it:Just so, in the kitchen, standing against the counter and making a mess of yourself. Alternatively, on a beautiful day in the garden (or the balcony or at the window, wings wide open, for that matter) with a glass of rosé champagne.
Lockdown Travel Diary – Tarte Meringuée aux Groseilles
Do you remember, she asked, when we stole red currants in that derelict garden, you know where we had this picnic and we all of a sudden noted the roof peeking out behind a maze of brambles and woods and the red currants glinting in the sun and we waded through the high grass and got our legs scratched, don’t you remember, it was near Crozant, and we waded over to the place and picked those red currants, warm and juicy, they never tasted better, never feeling sorry because quite obviously no one had picked red currents from those bushes for ages.
What you’ll need
For the buttercrust you’ll need about 75g of very cold butter, 150g of spelt (or all purpose white, or, given the situation, any) flour, a pinch of salt and a few drops of very cold water, sugar.
For the filling you’ll need a bowl of red currants, four eggs, 250 to 300g sugar (depending on how biting your red currants are) a teaspoon of starch (corn or potato).
How to cook it
Prepare the buttercrust by swiftly mixing butter, flour and salt. Add a few drops of water (as many as needed) to obtain a silky crumbly dough. Let sit in the fridge for at least half an hour. Then roll out in a thin layer of sugar and gently transfer to the mould, sugar side up, and punch a couple of holes with a fork.
Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (no fan). Separate the egg white from the yolk. Add the starch and 150 to 200g sugar to the egg whites and set aside at room temperature. Whisk the yolks with 100g of sugar until creamy and the sugar fully dissolved. Stir in one third of the red currants. Transfer to the mould. Add another third of the red currants on top and put into the oven for 35 min, bottom half. After 25 min, whip up the egg whites Marie Antoinette’s hair style* and add the rest of the currants to obtain a ridiculously pink mass.
Take the tarte out of the oven and cover it with the pink egg whites. Put back into the oven leaving the door open so that the temperature slowly drops to about 80°C and put on the fan. When baking temperature is reached, close the door. Depending on ventilation of your oven, you may stick a ladle in to keep it slightly open. Bake for about 1-2 hours. The meringue is done as soon as it feels crisp to the touch.
How to eat it
With coffee, a classic. However, given the general enthusiasm for being stuck in lockdown, you might very well opt for something more rapturous, such as red currant liqueur. Or champagne with a couple berries in. Or plain gin, for want of the latter two. Enjoy!
*Egg whites are considered whipped to satisfaction whenever they are suited to be towered up on your head like Marie Antoinette’s hair.
Nusstorte is a pie very typical for where I come from and my grandmother, whom we all called Nani, used to make this for coffee or as a dessert. It’s a mixture of walnuts, sugar, honey, eggs and cream baked in velvety buttercrust pastry. The secret is to take your time, stir well and let the pastry sit before processing. This tarte is baked the old farmer’s wife way, which is at rather a low temperature and for a long time, a tribute to good old stovepipe cooking.
For the dough: Take 250g spelt flour (T80), 50g of sugar, 100g of fresh butter, a pinch of salt, half a teaspoon of baking powder and a drizzle of milk and prepare a silky dough. Take care to work as swiftly as possible as the butter should not melt but rather amalgamate with the flour. Let the dough sit in a cool spot for an hour.
For the filling: Take 150g of sugar, 50g of honey and 2 eggs and stir well until creamy. Add 75ml of whole cream and a dash of grated lemon zest, keep on stirring and add 250g of broken walnuts.
Butter a flat tarte mould and roll out 2/3 of the dough to about 3mm. Carefully lay out the mould and add the walnut filling. Roll out the remaining dough, again to about 3mm and cover the mixture. Be sure to press the rim, so that the filling won’t spill while baking.
Heat two large spoons of honey until it’s well liquid and carefully coat the tarte with it. Punch a couple of holes into the cover so that the tarte won’t produce any volcanic eruptions while baking.
Bake at 160°C no fan for about an hour and let cool in the mould. Enjoy with a dollop of double cream and a little glass of pear liqueur.
A French Christmas – Bûche de Noel
Now what a month of December! I broke my camera (which bloke invented these spiky metal thingies for reading memory cards), burnt my hand (very stupidly, things like burning oneself usually happen in the most silly manner, so silly that a disposition for self destructive behaviour should be seriously considered), then the freezer stopped working (I got into hysterics), the stray cat died and came back to life (for which I am immensely grateful) and me, trying to fix everything, first the dead cat (I think we can safely say she’s off the hook, thank God), then the freezer (kudos to our local appliance store) and my camera, luckily it was the body only, and I’ve been able to replace it by now. The burn has mended yet leaving me with another scar, but that’s fine.
When my initial plan was to slow down, a little baking here, a little cooking there, mulled wine with neighbours and a lot of reading with my feet stretched towards the minuscule old green oven in the study. Winding down, making up plans for the next year and otherwise being very happy.
Alas, turns out it was rather late in the evening when I finally got started on this Bûche de Noel, a traditional French Christmas cake, while my book resting untouched by the bedside table. But then, some proper baking works well against the general feeling of being overwhelmed by things happening.
For the filling and the frosting:
Cut 250g of dark chocolate into small pieces, put into a steel bowl, make sure the bowl has room temperature. In a separate pan, bring 250ml of cream and 50g of sugar to boil and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for a couple of minutes until the chocolate has melted and whisk vigourously. Add 50g of butter and continue whisking until you obtain a slick shiny black wobbly mass. Don’t worry if little bubbles surface. Dip your finger in and try. Wash your hands after. Cover and let sit in a cool spot. This is the ganache, it will be used both in the filling and for the frosting.
Whisk 200g of fresh butter and 50g of icing sugar until it gets very creamy and light. It may take a couple of minutes, if you don’t intend on growing an upper arm like a weight lifter I recommend using a kitchen robot. Pour half of the ganache to the buttercream in small dollops while continuing whisking at high speed. This is going to be absolutely fabulous. Cover and let sit in a cool spot.
For the Génoise:
This is the bisquit dough that will be rolled into a log, layered with the buttercream.
Separate four eggs. In a bain marie, which is a pot in a pot of simmering water (simmering, not cooking, mind), whisk the egg yolks with 125g of sugar until you obtain a foamy white fluffy mass. Again, this may take a couple of minutes. Take the bowl to a cool spot as soon as the texture is comme il faut and continue whisking until its cold. You may do this in front of a window slightly open for example. Add 75g of brioche flour, 50g of starch, and a teaspoon of baking powder. In a separate pan, melt 50g of butter, take away the white which will surface as soon as the butter melts. Add the molten butter to the dough and stir well. Whisk up the egg whites with a pinch of salt and carefully fold under. Pour on a baking tray, about a good half a centimetre thick, and as rectangular as possible. Bake at 180°C for 10min.
The tricky bit is the rolling of the Génoise. Therefore, as soon as out of the oven, put the Génoise upside down on an even surface and carefully remove the baking paper. Immediately cover with a wet towel and begin to gently roll. Let it cool in the towel for a good half an hour.
Then gently open the roll and evenly spread out the buttercream. You may very well eat some if you have made too much. Roll the cake and cut off both ends. Cover in the ganache and make little scraps with the knife in order to make it look like a log.
Decorate with whatever your heart desires. I made some fir trees covered in snow, the snow I made with a dollop of whipped egg white and powdered sugar.
Keep in a cool spot for at least four hours, then eat (as) immediately (as possible).
Ps.: Apparently, I completely forgot to photograph the whole procedure, and I’d very much like to apologise for that. Blame it on December. I hope my written instructions make up for the omission and otherwise please just drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oysters Make Good Brackets
I like brackets. Both in light of their orthographical purpose, and of the corresponding implications on real life. Brackets are a way of delineating an entity on its own that remains embedded in and in a way dependent on a larger context. A very good concept. So, to give you an example of kitchen alchemy, you may start a luncheon with oysters and finish it with oysters (the brackets), having a number of separate courses in between (the entity), with the simple aim of enjoying yourself (the larger context). How is that!
The famous R-months are back, the oyster months. It’s an old rule of thumb to have oysters only during months that contain an R. In French. I’ve often wondered why this is. One reason seems to have to do with protecting the oyster banks from overexploitation. But far more likely, in my opinion, is the conditions under which oysters had been transported outside the colder seasons. Which is, after all, the months without an R in French. Big chunks of ice were brought in from ice caves, remnants of the glacial period, methuselah ice spared under peculiar geographic conditions. We once visited one in the Jura, in high summer, it felt like a journey to the arctic, a descent to another world.
Nowadays nothing really speaks against having oysters in summer, except perhaps that they’re too thick. But you just might get them a size smaller, this is what we usually do.
Now, my friends, while oysters as a starter just sound the very thing, you may wonder a little how possibly one could suffer oysters for dessert. Ha. I’ll tell you: it’s meringue oysters! Filled with sweet whipped cream and sip of mirabelle eau de vie. And this is how it goes:For the meringue:
One egg yields about two oysters, say size three. Separate the yolk from the egg white. Take about 30 grams of sugar per egg. Add the sugar to the egg white and let it soak at (a cool) room temperature for a couple of hours. Then whip until you get a very firm mass, Marie Antoinette hairstyle texture etc (for those of you who are not (yet) familiar with my blog, egg whites are whipped to satisfaction whenever they are suited to be towered up on your head like Marie Antoinette’s hair).
Throw an egg shaped dollop on a baking sheet. With a spoon, pull through the mass thus creating an uneven void in the middle, making it look like the bottom of an oyster. For the tops, throw half the quantity and shape them like oyster lids using a spoon.
Bake them, oven door slightly ajar, at about 80°C for at least 2 hours. The meringue is done as soon as they won’t stick to the baking paper. Keep them in a well sealed box when they’ve cooled out to avoid the meringue drawing moisture from the air.For the filling:
Add a teaspoonful of sugar per decilitre of cream, whip until firm and take care not to make butter. Add a sip of eau de vie de mirabelle (you might as well take kirsch, or armagnac liquor) and stir well.Serve with a glass of macvin du Jura.
About that Chocolate Tarte
About that Chocolate Tarte, façon Poissonchat. What gets into it and how and when. I’ve done it countless times, in countless variations. The last tweak I gave it is the one with the damsons or plums. Initially to keep it moist. But then our village vet fell heads over ears for my plum tarte, so I thought it would be worthwhile to repeat the experiment. Damsons dried in their juice, glistening sirupy black toads. I usually dry them in the oven of our wood fired stove. Slowly, at a low temperature, and for a long time. With their hearts left inside. Sometimes I put them in brandy or armagnac to soak. Sometimes not. And then into that tarte. How does it work, that tarte? Well, here is what gets into it, very simple:
4-6 eggs (depending on their size. I get mine from my neighbour who has hens who in all seriousness lay giant eggs. I once asked him whether he’s sure that he didn’t mistake his hens for geese.)
170g of sugar (my baking sugar has a faint perfume of vanilla, as I put the used stems into the sugar pot. You may as well add a little grated vanilla to the sugar but do try that continuous vanilla sugar production, it reduces waste and tastes delicious.)
200g of butter (sweet butter!)
200g of very dark chocolate, the darker the better (you may wish to adjust your sugar quantity based on the sweetness of the dark chocolate you choose)
A few spoonfuls of cocoa powder, the unsweetened one
Even less spoonfuls of flour
The tiniest pinch of salt (I usually use fleur de sel as it’s saltiness is tender, like the balmy air of the sea)
A sip of cointreau or brandy or armagnac (which would be the portion you’d serve your grandfather after dinner. Continental European, not Mexican, perhaps.)
8-10 splendid dried damsons. Heart in or out, depending on your eaters capacity to pay attention to your instructions not to bite on that stone (or the temper of their teeth).
Another couple spoonfuls of cocoa powder, for the final tweak
Now that is all very well, but how is it getting into the pot? Well, if I were you, I’d start with melting that dangerously dark chocolat . Melt it in the bain marie, which is in a pot which is in a pot of water. At a very low temperature, the water should not boil but steam graciously. Put the butter with the chocolate to melt, stir from time to time, benignly.
Take your time. Never ever rush. Be friendly and a little mischievous and have a light heart that leaps with glee when you see the dark oily chocolate melt into the golden yellow butter. You may as well do a little fortune telling now. Or Rorschach test. Smell. While the chocolate butter amalgamation advances, start separating the yolks from the egg whites. Carefully slitting the white thread that holds the yolk to the egg white. Then whip the yolks with 3/4 of the sugar. Whip and whip and whip until it is a creamy white. Or let your kitchen robot do it (which is what I do, there is, after all, glory in progress).
Depending on your oven, perhaps this is the time to start heating it up (mine is very slow, you know). Temperature 7-8 (corresponds to 210°-240°C) and fan. Butter the baking mould, butter it well and powder it with flour. I usually take a 25cm spring clip tin but you may also take a smaller, higher one. That would be a cake then instead of a tarte, works well as well.
And then my favourite part: slowly stir the chocolate butter into the white egg yolks. This I do myself, pot in one hand and wooden ladle in the other. Always stir in the same direction. Look at that colour, the lustruous shiny mass. If you haven’t already, please get yourself a nice little spoon and try. Taste, watch it rolling down your spoon. Relish. If you have seen something spooky in that pot earlier, rest assured that now everything will be alright.
I’m sure your kitchen robot meanwhile would be happy to whip up the rest of the sugar with the egg whites. And that tiny pinch of fleur de sel. Whip it white until the mass could be used to be towered up on your head, you know, like poor late Marie Antoinette’s hair. With sugar flowers sticking out of it. Brilliant.
Pour that sip of cointreau or brandy or armagnac into the black mass. It will give the dough a lift, put it into excellent spirits. Stir. Then slowly add the spoonfuls. Soup spoons, generous ones. I think I’ve given it three of the white flour and six of the black cocoa. In fact, the mass should have the texture of, well, of fresh mortar before you trow it at the wall perhaps. Or of sand the moment when waves recede to the sea, gurgling and bobbling. Heavy and sloggish but moist through and through. You might want to try again now, just in case.
Check that oven. As soon as the temperature is up:
Slowly stir that Marie Antoinette egg whites into this mass. I say really slowly. Carefully. Them white bubbles are very skittish. They hate coarseness, like to be caressed at any rate. No worry if your mass looks a little marbré, like marble. It will amalgamate later in the oven. Pour into the baking mould, put the damsons in, push them a little into the dough, gently. And quick into the oven, don’t waste the heat.
Clean the pot, I do this with a rubber spoon to ensure I get at all the residue. About this time usually, when the bitter sweet chocolate perfume is filling the kitchen, I start thinking about roquefort. Or hammock. After 7 minutes, take away the fan and bake for another 13 to 15 mins. Try whether it is done by sticking a knitting needle into the tin. If the dough sticks, it needs another couple of minutes. If it gets out greasy but tidy, the tarte is cuite, cooked. I usually leave it in the open oven for a while, given that the short time of baking leaves its heart still pulpy and soft. If you take it out too quickly, you risk a volcano crater in your tarte. Let it cool down gently, so that it may gain firmness.
Taking it out of the mould is most probably the most difficult thing about that tarte. Matters a lot when you do it. Because it should be cooled enough to get out easily but warm enough still to make the cocoa powder snow storm topping stay without taking grease. I usually remove the rim first. Then put the tarte on the cooling grid, upside down. Trying, from time to time, whether the bottom is coming off alright.
Put it into a nice plate and then the messy, exuberant bit, letting the black cocoa snow over the tarte. Until it looks like sumptuous velvet. Perhaps put two or three damsons in the middle. Put it in a dry and cool place, for it should be eaten cold.
Serve with lavender tea or port.