A couple of days ago when Stephanie thanked me not to be a food snob, I think she didn’t realise how right she was. The proof lies in the bowl of rice I’ve just had. It was meant to be pilaf, the kind of rice you stir with a little oil then cover with water and let to cook until a perfectly golden crust forms at the bottom of the pan.
But then, minutes turned into seconds, and I ended up with a black crust. Tired and more than hungry, I ate my burnt rice. With seaweed and sesame. And also a couple of sliced spring onions.
This doesn’t call for sophistication, it calls for courage, or – perhaps more accurately – a serious dose of hunger, and chopsticks.
You see, today, I’ve been stuck in bed. Too sick to cook, let alone, to eat. It’s the kind of days where I can spend hours looking at pictures of the outdoors.
The occasional blurry squirrel, the beautiful art of Anish Kapoor at Kensington Gardens, the neat paper towels of the Serpentine cafe. More than pictures, they are moments. Spent in the wind. And the cold. And the rain.
And now, from a bed; layered with a thick duvet cover and a warm blanket.
At times, we have no choice but remain quiet. Words seem bland. Words that can’t say how we feel.
Right now, I’m looking forward. To plenty of things. But mostly, to see this face. My most favourite. The most beautiful.
I miss her so much; more than it’s possible to say out-loud, unless I scream until I can’t breathe anymore. And she’s coming over here. And we’re going to explore Cornwall, and London restaurants. And we will laugh. And we will hug; with or without a reason, at day and night.
Yes, I’m looking forward to see this face, because I love her. Inside-out.
At times – when we’re too tired to eat and too hungry to sleep – only a slice of soggy pizza will do. And the microwave becomes our best friend as we’re heating the fat edge from a store-bought pizza until the mozzarella starts to bubble.
A sprinkle of salt and cayenne pepper, a handful of rocket, and a drizzle of olive oil later, the soft crust gets folded in two and eaten over a plate. Because, the last thing you want is to ruin your pajamas.
It’s an almost instant sandwich for those of you who – like us – seem to choose gooey over crisp, but only in the comfort of our home.
And I do see you coming with blahs and sighs. But most importantly, what’s your very own hidden – not to say, controversial – pleasure?
I wake up to darkness, sleepy faces, and cold winds. I go home to darkness, empty streets, and many thoughts.
In between, there is flour. And sugar. And butter. Lots of each. I spend my time in front of scales. Or plates waiting to be filled. I hear the ovens going off. I smell like chocolate. And I dream of eating something savoury.
I live in a house where we turn the lights on at night, we eat out of chipped Bernardaud dinnerware, we drink cheap red wine, we set the washing machine to the highest temperature, we have full cupboards and an empty fridge.
But somehow, it couldn’t feel more perfect than it is.
And the night has been falling late in the morning; leaving very few hours for the light to turn from golden to blue.
It feels like I’m learning to read the time again. Except, not with numbers, but colours.
I’ve been frying a lot of doughnuts these days.
In a small pan over my gas stove, and in the large deep-fryer of a kitchen made of stainless-steel and bright halogen lamps.
Some were eaten by lunchers along with a chocolate crémeux and a quenelle of banana sorbet. Or like a couple of days ago, on top of a verrine filled with chocolate crème pâtissière, yoghurt foam, and caramelised cinnamon ice-cream.
Others were eaten plain. With a maple syrup glaze and bits of bacon, or just rolled in sugar.
And believe me, warm doughnuts eaten with your fingers are the best kind. They feel like biting lips. The ones that are coated in sugar and belong to your favourite boy.
My way of making doughnuts certainly isn’t right. I knead the dough like I would with brioche – using this technique, which is nicely demonstrated here by Richard Bertinet. Let it rest in the fridge for one day. Then roll, cut, and fry.
Straight away. At 170°C.
Maybe I should let the doughnuts proof. But somehow, the result feels perfect and the dough so much easier to handle.
I guess it’s one of those things that will be discovered with time. And even though, a couple of kilograms of flour have already been turned into plump little doughnuts – whether at home or at work – I’m hoping I’ll find the time to experiment with yeast and sugar again.
So far, I’ve tried a couple of recipes. And this one – adapted from Lara – is my favourite. I think it might be the use of egg yolks only which gives them the perfect texture.
Doughnuts à la vanille
100g plain flour
250g milk, at room temperature
one tsp instant yeast
180g plain flour
40g caster sugar
a pinch of salt
3 egg yolks
seeds from one vanilla bean
70g butter, at room temperature
oil, for frying
caster sugar, to coat
Place 100g of flour in a bowl along with the milk and instant yeast, mixing with a whisk. Cover loosely with a tea towel and allow to proof for 30 minutes.
Mix in all the remaining ingredients, except for the butter. The dough will feel very sticky. Transfer it to a clean work surface – ideally made of marble – and keeping your left hand clean, incorporate the diced butter as if you were digging into earth with your hands.
Then, using a scraper, get the dough back together and start kneading until it feels smooth and no longer sticky.
Lightly flour a container, place the dough inside. Dust some more flour and clingfilm to the contact. Chill overnight, up to two days.
When you’re ready, heat some vegetable oil to 170°C. Flour your work surface and place the dough on it. Punch it gently to get rid of some of the air, then roll out to 2cm. Cut into the desired shape and deep-fry for 2 minutes on each side, or until nicely brown. Drain on paper towel, then coat in caster sugar.
Today, the city woke up as I was slowly falling asleep after a night made of flour, butter and water. Through the cab window, it felt like the time had stopped. To that moment just before the dawn; when it’s still dark, but people are already running late.
My bag barely hid the jackets I was taking home. One of them used to be black, but now looks like it’s been covered in sprinkles. The kind that feels just as starch and gluten bound together with water.
Tomorrow, I will go for a walk. Possibly early in the morning. Mostly because I slept through the whole day and fed myself with clementines. It’s now dark outside once again. Except, this time, night is upon us and not behind.
Many people will tell you that tempering chocolate is easy. Well, I’m afraid I don’t agree.
The theory is easy. The practical side of it? Not so much.
It’s messy. It likes to screw with my brains; and quite possibly with my white jacket too.
It’s something from which I understand the underlying science. And yet, at times – palette knife in one hand, triangle scraper in the other, and thermometer in my teeth – I still manage to spot the fat bloom that we all fear so much.
Other times, when I really need some chocolate decorations because I’ve been procrastinating for a bit too long, I will table the chocolate in less than ten minutes, using my lips as the only temperature sensor.
Luckily for my sanity, shininess is – these days – the fate of pretty much all the kilograms of chocolate I temper.
But this would have probably never happened if I didn’t have to go out from my comfort zone. Because have you had asked my thoughts about working with chocolate in the past, the answer would have included three words: I HATE CHOCOLATE. Or in a French accent, I ATE CHOCOLATE; which makes it sounds totally different, although somewhat accurate.
So today, I’m not telling you that tempering chocolate is easy. But instead, I’m telling you it will become so.
Because in the end, there is no such feeling as the one experienced when you get something right after many failures.
And no matter how cute those little chocolate-covered pretzels look – because, we know that your heart is shaped like a pretzel – they’re really just an excuse for a very unacademic chocolate-tempering-management 101.
Why on earth would you temper chocolate?
On a practical point of view, tempering is essential for the chocolate to set quickly into a glossy and hard form.
How do you temper chocolate?
There are different methods to temper chocolate. However, the basic principle relies on the stabilisation of cocoa butter crystals.
First, all the fat crystals are melted to a somewhat high temperature. Then, the chocolate is cooled down so that both stable and unstable cocoa butter crystals get the chance to form. Finally, the chocolate is reheated just very slightly in order to melt the unstable crystals.
Crystals, crystals? Give me diamonds not cocoa butter.
Cocoa butter fat molecules can take different shapes when they set into solid. They are the crystals.
Some of them are stable. They are the crystals V and VI.
The others – I, II, III and IV – are unstable and since they do not fit together as tightly as the stable crystals, they will result in fat bloom or sugar bloom – read white strikes.
So how to get rid of those unstable crystals?
The good thing is that each crystalline form has a different melting point, the most unstable ones melting at lower temperatures
Practically, it means that – for dark chocolate – you heat it to 55°C, then cool to 27°C, and finally reheat to 31°C.
For milk chocolate, the curve is: 48°C – 26°C – 30°C.
And for white chocolate: 45°C – 26°C – 39°C.
Give me the techniques now!
I will only share the two techniques I use. One at work – the tabling. The other one at home – the seeding.
I’ve found the tabling to be the faster method, but since I’m not lucky enough to have a marble work plan at home, I usually go for the less messy seeding.
Both start by melting the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water until it reaches 55°C (for dark chocolate).
Pour three-quarters of the melted chocolate onto the slab and spread it with a palette knife, then clustering back together with a triangle scraper. Repeat until it thickens slightly and records a temperature of 27°C. Return to the bowl along with the malted chocolate and stir well.
Add solid pistoles – one handful at a time – to cool down the melted chocolate to 31°C. If it even drops to a lower temperature, simply warm it over the bain-marie for a few seconds.
Enough for the I’m-wearing-thick-glasses details.
Just try tempering chocolate. Smear it on your fridge door or your stove – unintentionally. With success or not, I don’t mind.
Then dip some giant pretzels inside, drain carefully using a fork, and leave them to set on baking paper at room temperature.
Now, it doesn’t matter whether the chocolate looks shiny or not, because you’ll have plenty of perfectly sweet and salty hearts to bite into.
This morning, too early for people to be awake and too late for party-bunnies to be asleep, the pavement seemed covered in snow.
Glitters, cigarette ends and confetti that would shine to the subtle glow offered by lamp poles. The ones with the Chanel monograms.
Yes, a new year had begun.
Technically, it started on a night made of loudness and bloody maries. But for us, it really felt like the beginning when we woke up to silence and the smell of rain, with crêpes in mind. We went downstairs – to the kitchen – and had hot chocolates. Not of the instant kind.
And crêpes. My very favourite recipe. The one we made for la chandeleur at pâtisserie Lac. It calls brown-butter and vanilla seeds. And those words will be a reminder: it’s the sort of recipes that should be shared. Soon.
Things seemed so evident. The perfect way to start the year, which I hope will bring us many moonboots happy-dances and laughs so intense, that before we realise it, we already have tears in our eyes.
And I guess it makes sense to welcome you to the party. It will be a nice one. Filled with food to be eaten, places to be discovered, memories to be remembered.
Rather obviously, some time is needed to turn it into a cosy place, but I’m working on it. Slowly, mostly because my hands are covered in the melted chocolate oozing from the crêpes.