I was going to tell you how excited I was to have my parents and sister over for Christmas this year. We’d made plans to have lunch at Brasserie Chavot, and stroll in the park, hoping for snow to happen. And take as many pictures as I can fit rolls of film in my bag, and make doughnuts and pancakes.
But you see, their flight has been cancelled. So instead of a Christmas with all the trimmings, we’re going for the trimmings only. Our cupboard is stocked up with wine and smoked salmon. And who knows, we might have snow and pancakes for breakfast tomorrow.
To happy accidents! And of course, a wonderful Christmas. Cross your fingers and make wishes, because that how it should be. x
One morning, we woke up to lights through the wooden blinds barely covering never-ending windows. Coffee got made. And we sat on the steps overlooking the garden. Early signs of autumn, drawn to the earth in the shape of dew that made our feet wet as we walked to the apple tree.
Apples as white as snow. His dad said they were called Transparentes blanches. And I really wanted to believe him so I proceeded to do so. I picked a few. Held them in my dress. Peeled them and cored them, with a small knife. Sliced them with the very same knife. And layered them with honey. I whisked eggs into butter and sugar. Eggs paler than the milkyway above our heads the night before. And added wholewheat flour and cinnamon just so. The cake went into the oven and we went fly-fishing by the river. We saw grown-up salmons jump, and tiny frogs too. I was taught how to say liten groda and it meant so much more. We picked blueberries, but you already know that.
So yes, we picked apples and made cider. Cider for in a few months. And I made an apple cake. For dinner that night. It came with vanilla ice-cream from a tub. And I remember how we cut into it with a knife.
I had forgotten about the smell of bonfires and forests; coffee made in a cast-iron pot, with as much water as we put ground beans. I had forgotten how blueberries taint your hands; and your lips. And how small they are meant to be.
I had forgotten how it feels like to gaze at the milky way, when the only lights to be seen are far up in the sky. I had forgotten how to make wishes at every shooting stars we see, and how we can’t help but wish harder for them to happen.
I had forgotten how to dig potatoes with my hands. And pick apples from trees. Carrying them, not unlike treasures, in a made-up bag, more of an upside-down dress, really.
I had forgotten about standing by the shore – with wet stocks, mud on our rolled up work trousers (of the too-large kind) and blueberry juices on our hands, earth under our nails – for hours, waiting for fish to come. They almost never do, but who cares?
I had forgotten how to make a cake batter with a wooden spoon. How to knead without a dough hook. How to bake without a timer. And how to eat with our fingers.
But right there, I’ve remembered. The golden trees at dusk. The gumboots we walk into. The smiles we have and what they mean.
It happened one day, of the recent past kind. A distant memory. Or perhaps, just a dream. But really, I have never been more awake. Eyes wide open. And heart too.
I made those on our last night in Sweden. We’d planned a roadtrip to the river the next day. Just hours before our flight.
I proved the dough as I slept, and early in the morning, when the fog was still surrounding us and coffee hadn’t been made yet, I baked them. Of course, I forgot to put a timer. But really, that afternoon, when we sat on the ground by the bonfire, waiting patiently for the coffee to bubble into the flames, they made a pretty decent goûter, to the sound of streaming water and jumping salmons; wind in the trees and branches cracking under our feet.
The dough itself is really easy to make. Quite sticky which makes kneading by hand fairly difficult, but please, don’t be tempted to add more flour. Just be patient and make a plastic scraper – or in my case an old cheese slicer – your new best friend to keep your bench clean.
makes 10 large buns
for the dough 300 g plain flour
150 g whole-wheat flour
130 g caster sugar
3 tsp instant yeast
1 1/4 tsp salt
240 g whole milk
one egg yolk
125 g butter, softened
for the cinnamon butter 100 g butter, very soft
100 g caster sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cardamom
Mix the flours, sugar, yeast and salt in a large bowl. In a jug, combine the milk, egg and yolk. Pour the liquid over the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon or – my favourite, when it comes to dough – a fork until it forms a rough dough.
Transfer to a clean work surface and knead until smooth. You could also use a stand-mixer fitted with the dough-hook, and trust me, it would make your life so much easier as it’s quite sticky. If you’re kneading by hand – like I did – expect to be at it for 15 to 20 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic, and just tacky.
At this point, add the butter, rubbing it into the dough, then knead for an extra 5 minutes.
Place the dough into a clean bowl and cover with a cloth. Allow to proof at room temperature for a couple of hours, or until doubled in size.
In the meantime, get the cinnamon butter ready. Simply cream the butter, sugar and spices for a minute or two and keep at room temperature until needed.
When the dough has proved, punch to deflate, then transfer to a lightly floured work surface and roll into a 30x40cm rectangle, approximately 8mm thick.
Spread with the cinnamon butter and roll into a tight log. Cut the log into ten 4cm-wide slices using a sharp knife, and arrange into a large baking tray lined with baking paper.
Cover loosely with buttered clingfilm and proof until doubled in size.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 170°C.
When the buns have proved, bake in the preheated oven for around 30 minutes, or until golden-brown.
Allow to cool down slightly, pack your car with rods and gum boots. And please don’t forget that cast-iron pot or the ground coffee.
I want café frappés, the best euphemism of a kind that involves milkshakes for breakfast. I want to wear a sequin top and leopard ballerines from dawn till the next. I want a Bloody Mary in my hands and his lips on mine. And I want to see the stars when we look up. I want to see blossoms at every park too. And perhaps, I want a Pimms and lemonade.
I want to make crazy desserts, after hours. Pete has the best projects ever. I want to walk barefeet on the pavement – still hot from days of sun. I want to listen to the tunes of my teenage dreams. And dance to it too. I want neverending roadtrips from sunrise to sunset. And I want to get lost in the woods.
It’s ten am. The wind is howling through the windowsill. And the rain battering against the glass.
Yes, I’ve told you before, it’s my favourite kind of music.
But right now, it’s been going on for so long that I’ve forgotten the words to this permanent darkness. I’ve forgotten the words to the book I’m writing too. It’s just that scary. A fear only falling in love can match.
Of course some things can all make it better. There is Jiro dreams of sushi playing, not unlike the Neverending Story. And there is a pot of riz au lait bubbling up.
In fact, it smells all kinds of wonderful around here.
There is the smell of rain. And vanilla, tonka beans, and cinnamon. And really, even for just a moment, I thought I was in Fouras with my grand-mère. Blame it on the scent of steaming rice; even though deep-down, we all know it’s just my daydreams taking over.
Riz au lait à la vanille et plus
I’ve shared this recipe with you before. But I’ve been making it so much over the winter – most of the times without scales and with plain old basmati rice – that it was bound to be seen again.
The recipe itself is very versatile. Honey or golden syrup, or even muscovado sugar can be used instead of the caster sugar. And a lot of spices can be added. My favourite combination – right now – is one vanilla pod, two tonka beans, and a cinnamon stick.
Of course, I’ve been adding a few teaspoons of matcha green tea, every now and then, too.
I like to make a double recipe and have a bowlful of steaming riz-au-lait, while I save the rest – in the fridge – for the next day breakfast. And really, you should too.
Riz au lait à la vanille et plus
serves 2 75 g arborio rice
water, to boil the rice
one vanilla pod, scraped
2 tonka beans, finely grated
one cinnamon stick
60 g caster sugar
Put the rice and water in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the temperature and cook, uncovered for 10 minutes.
Drain the rice and set aside.
In the same pan, pour in the milk, sugar and spices. Bring to the boil and stir in the cooked rice.
Reduce the heat and let the mixture simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring from time to time.
Remove the pan from the heat and transfer either into a large bowl or two small ramekins.
Right now, there is a snowstorm happening behind my window. Not unlike London turned into a snow-dome. I used to love them. And really, not much has changed since.
But if there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that by the end of the month, trees will be coated in a snow of blossoms. And days will get longer. And fuller of Pimms and lemonade.
Spring is on the way, or so they say.
We already have rhubarb. Pink and all. And if I close my eyes and go by the calendar, it seems like strawberries are not too far either.
No matter how much I love winter, this one needs to come to an end. It’s been tough. Not enough daylight, not enough mulled wine. And way too many sleepless nights. In fact, I haven’t had flour or sugar in my kitchen cupboard since October. Some things need to change.
The not-so-official March happy list.
1. Making the best baba in London. With enough Mount Gay extra old to make you tipsy. 2. Day-dreaming about days spent with my grand-mère. I miss her so. Hopefully soon, it won’t be a dream anymore. 3. Only one month-ish until this. 4. An almost magical flan. 5. Getting drunk on coffee. 6.A secret project I’m working on. Cross your fingers. 7. All I can say is that there would be a dessert made of avocado custard, dark-dark chocolate ice-cream, horchata foam and red chilli jam. 8. Yes, it’s a dream come true. 9.Snowstorms. Made of snow. Made of flowers. 10. And perhaps, my hair tied into a top-knot, more often than not.
But, really, this place is the dimestore diamond of Chelsea. It’s understated, in the best way possible; especially when all you get around are 12£ lattes (remind me to tell you the story of that Russian café we retreated to, defeated by the winter rain).
There is the back-garden, and the teal chairs and aluminium tables, there are the oreo-filled brownies, and cookies too. There is a counter that will make you hungry even when you’re not. And, yes, there is the Greek iced coffee, one of the many-good-reasons to spend lazy summer afternoons at the terrace.
I received an email. Of a young pastry chef – L. – who was feeling like she didn’t belong to kitchens. We emailed back and forth. To me, there is nothing more magical than getting to do what I blindly love, and couldn’t even dream of a better place to be than in a too-hot, too-fast, too-stressful kitchen.
But it’s only fair to also talk about the other side.
When a daily job relies on boundary-less passion this much, the fine thread that keeps us going, that stretches far beyond strength we didn’t even know we had, can break.
Yes, we’ve all – one day – lost focus. And this is what I told L.: it’s ok. Because deep-inside, you can’t help but have this unreal lovestruck feeling hitting you every morning as you enter the kitchen.
I didn’t write this with the intention to discourage anyone or to bash any restaurant I’ve been lucky enough to work at (in fact, it’s all been just a dream; and if you don’t feel like it is, then maybe, your restaurant is not the one for you, it won’t mean you don’t belong to kitchens, not just to this one); but more as an encouragement. From me to you: shit happens, more often than not. And yet, I can still see you smile when you think you’re not.
Also, please excuse my French – ahem – naughty words. Just consider it a warm-up to the world you’ll soon be breathing.
At times, you’ll wonder why the fuck you’re doing this.
It will be a morning.
You’re setting up your section. Just like any other day. You slept for three hours. Just like any other day. You go in the veg/dairy/you-name-it-fridge and it’s world war seven in there. Just like any other day. You can’t overlook anything. Call it perfectionism, OCD, or care. And really, you don’t have the time. You never have the time, but you make it. Fridge is spotless again. Your never-ending mise-en-place list gets longer. Just like any other day. You have to call every supplier for second deliveries, as a d*ck put through the orders the night before. Just like any other day. Your chef casually rolls in. Just like any other day.
Except it’s not any other day.
Somehow you can’t take it anymore. You will cry. You will swear. You will become bitter.
And you will hate it.
For a second.
Because then, when the check machine starts its merry-go-round, you’re trapped. Willingly or not, desserts are gonna have to leave this pass.
And yes, some merry-go-rounds are scarier, harder, faster than others, but close your eyes and hold tight.
Sometimes, you will feel like it’s unfair. How you’re the first one in and the last out. And no-one seems to give a damn. How you’re the only one to clean the oven or the dry stores. Or worst, doing the stocktake or HACCP.
And really, you can take anything. The fights, the bollockings, the one-too-many joke.
But injustice? No.
And really, you have no choice but keep it quiet. Some things will never be different.
All the time, you will be tired. In fact, you don’t even want to do the maths. But I’ll do it for you.
You wake up at five thirty. Or at least, the first of your many alarms will go off.
You’re at the restaurant by seven. Get changed. Ironed jacket, ironed apron. Need I mention the trousers? One torchon hanging from your hips and another one neatly folded behind your back.
At ten past seven, you’re in the kitchen. A quick look at your mise-en-place list. First delivery comes in and disappears in an army of plastic crates hidden in the fridge. Coffee gets made. And also seems to disappear in a storm.
There is the prep. And the problems. Freezer stopped working. Or perhaps it’s the fridge, or the mixer. Five trays of bread-rolls got burnt. The dairy hasn’t arrived yet and it’s ten. Shit happens. More often than not.
Service happens too. It wakes you up. Makes you feel alive. Makes you connect as a team. As a family. Kitchen is cleaned down. Ready for another service.
You send the last desserts. It’s already half-past midnight.
Hot soapy water, more paper roll than you should use. Sanitiser. Then the floor. You scrub, you squeegee, you mop, you dry. Your turn the lights off. Together.
You get changed. Except this time, forget the iron. Jeans need washing and that t-shirt is more than just wrinkled.
You’re home by late one if you’re lucky. More two.
You stick whites in the machine. Laundry powder. Softener. 60°C. You shower and fall asleep with wet hair. It’s two thirty and your alarm goes off in three hours.
Have a good night.
At least, you have days off to look forward to. Except, you can forget about those too. Someone calls in sick. Someone walks out. Someone is on holidays. Someone, you, need to wake up.
Once a month, you’ll get paid. Don’t make a mistake. No, don’t. Never calculate your hourly wage. Under legal. Not that you care really. Because sooner or later you’ll find the answer to the question that’s been haunting you all day.
Why the fuck are you doing this? You can’t stay away. You learn. You grow up. Perhaps too fast. You love what you do.
I tend to sugar-coat almonds. Not words. You will feel broken. Once in a while. Kitchens are raw. Concentrates of life lessons.
Of course, there is this side. There will always be this side.
But just like there is a hidden world behind puddles, there is also one behind stainless steel. And it’s wonderful, and addictive, and you’ll never get enough of it.
I didn’t take enough pictures. At least not with my favourite camera. In fact, I think I had forgotten how to see the beauty in the unexpected. Some things can’t be forgotten, they say.
I rode my bike through a rainbow of sunsets. Most often than not, with a baguette and a bottle of wine cosily snuggled into the wicker basket. We cooked and ate and drank and laughed. Nothing could ever make me change my mind about her – my grand-mère. I love her. So. So. Much.
I walked in the desert streets of London. At night. Possibly crying. It seems to be a classic. I walked through the very same streets, same early hours of the morning, except there was snow. And people. A lot of them. Getting home that night was on the fun side. If only it weren’t for the following one hour of sleep.
I didn’t sleep a lot. For the record. Perhaps a broken one.
I ate out a lot. For the record. Perhaps a broken one. In fact, definitely a broken one. There was a rhubarb Eton mess, and a demerara sugar soda bread. And figs and basil combined.
I fell in love.
And witnessed the April snow. Two things I can never get enough of.
I left London under a sky made on Union Jacks and the pre-requisite Pimms and lemonade. We had mint tea too. And dim sum. Oh and a rhubarb tart from Yauatcha. I guess, I could add rhubarb to the list of things I can never get enough of.
And then came the south of France. And really, there is no better season down there than late spring. We slept on a canal boat, and drank wine until fireflies stopped their dance. We watched the sun se from that rock we love. And ate sushi, because that’s what we do. We sat at a café terrace and ordered tomato juice. All day long. I wrote a book. And I still do. Because I’m scared as I’ve never been before.
We sat on pebbles. Many times. With a picnic. And the sea. Or the river.
I held Lukie into my arms. And when I saw her again, months later, nothing had changed.
I came back to London and had my desserts on a menu. It was grand.
It took me eight month to realise that – indeed – some things are best left unsaid.
I learnt how to make Greek coffee. And mornings turned magical.
I watched Ben cook at a market stall. And later, I was lucky enough to watch him do his thing on a daily basis. It was magical-er.
I made bread. For what felt like the first time. Yes, because this time, it wasn’t at home. One of them had red wine inside, and I think people liked it. Thank you Ben. For everything.
I drank eggnog lattes. Enough to make it a proper December.
I’ve kissed him. Under mistletoe, under a bridge, under a wool blanket. He tied a golden ribbon in my hair. And his hat had a fluffy pom-pom. We made quite a pair. We walked onto clouds made of dead leaves. And pretended it wasn’t cold. No, not at all.
He made me hot chocolates. With a dash of bourbon. And I made cakes. With mulled wine.
I made mince pies too. And I packed them into a box and sent them away. It felt scary. I had named them: wild turkey in a pear tree.
We opened our eyes to a bigger-than-life snow globe. It’s London by night. And it’s wonderful.
I arrived in France just in time for Christmas. There was a tree. And my parents. And my sister. And foie-gras. And no electricity. But, we had champagne.
It’s probably to late for that. But I’ll close my eyes and make a wish. For 2013. And perhaps, more realistically, for February.
The not-so-official February wish-list.
1. See more of this. 2. Carry my camera in my so-not-Mary-Poppins bag. And get on with the shoulder pain. 3. The watercolours we paint together. 4. Make a foie-gras brioche feuilletée. With duck fat instead of butter, it goes without saying. 5. Feeling so exhausted I can’t stand. Falling asleep in seconds. Dreading the five am alarm. 6. The cosiness of a freshly-made bed. And the hot water-bottle that goes along. 7. Never-ending dinner parties turned late-morning chats. 8. Reading more of this. 9. And this too. 10. Make a rhubarb something – anything really.
I know wishes shouldn’t be said outloud, but well, what are your let’s-not-call-them-wishes-then for the month ahead?
There was the noise our feet made on the ground. There was the darkness. And yet, our world felt like millions of shooting stars were falling around us. On us too. There was a make-believe hanami. Who said trees don’t blossom in winter?
I could have turned this into a follow-up of a favourite feature: how to become a pastry chef? – the days off. But I guess you somehow get it. As a chef, days off are unusual enough. And when they happen, so does a concentrate of life. Sleep, eat, drink, be merry. Fall in love or not. Kiss or more. And at times, recipe organising needs to happen too.
That’s what I’ve been doing today. I cooked some leftover rice with a little milk, a little honey and a lot of vanilla. Breakfast. At twelve pm. I watched the boats go by as I was gazing through the windows. Now, this miniature world has turned black and dotted with lights that I like to imagine as millions of fireflies.
And yet, I’m only on letter B. Of the second notebook. I have thirteen. Yes, I have a French-press-ful of coffee brewing as I’m writing this. And yes, I’m kind of procrastinating right now.
Chef or not, how do you organise your recipes? A favourite software, app, notebook?
On my side, I usually have two moleskines for every job I take.
A plain squared one for mise-en-place lists, notes, ideas, recipe development.
And a repertoire one for finalised recipes.
They’re all a bit messy, with doodles and more traces of chocolate than I’d like to admit. They weigh a ton. But really they’re a treasure.
To make it more workflow-friendly, I’ve started transferring the recipes into an excel spreadsheet. It takes forever but I know I will love it when it’s done.
Aaaah, the life of a pastry chef.
PS. would you be interested in a “How to become a pastry chef? – Organising recipes” article? Please say yes as I need a serious incentive to go through the thousands of scribbles I have in my notebooks?
There was that night made of champagne, flickering candles, crisps and smoked salmon sandwiches, the last of the foie gras smothered onto big fat chunky pieces of baguette, an endless game of trivial pursuit where – as it turned out – the one person who refused to play (my father, apparently stuck to his mots croisés) became the one who knew all the answers, our joker as we called him whenever we got clueless about a question.
Yes, there was no electricity in the house. But we had us. And a dark Christmas tree. And some apple cake.
Something I’d thrown together with things we had.
Too-much-butter, as my mum always buys when she knows I’m coming.
A lot of sugar.
A touch of honey from this beekeeper my grand-mother became very fond of.
And winter apples from M. Riouet’s orchard. And really, I say orchard when it’s more of a tree, but I can’t help it, his potager is the enchanted forest I grew up in.
This cake was meant to be nothing but rustic. A mere snack after a day spent with Bruno and his goats in the mountains.
And yet, that night, this very cake turned into dessert. Of the fancy, champagne-glass matching, kind.
Gâteau aux pommes et au cidre, un peu comme une tarte tatin
While I wouldn’t necessarily force you to have this cake as a dessert, I must say it makes a pretty decent contender. Especially with a scoop of yoghurt ice-cream or a big fat dollop of crème fraiche.
But the way I see it is much more homely. The kind of cakes that’s eaten still warm from the oven, with fingers – but I guess it’s sort of useless for me to remind you how I like to eat my cake – and a side made of tea in a pot. I think a light infusion of tilleul would do wonders here.
It’s really quite simple to make. Slice three apples thinly, a knife and your hand are enough, but you can go with the mandolin too, although I didn’t. Layer them at the bottom of your tin and drizzle with honey. Top with the batter and bake. Oh, and eat too!
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Butter a 24cm cake tin, line with baking paper and set aside.
Thinly slice 3 apples and layer at the bottom of the prepared tin. Drizzle with honey and pack tightly with your hands.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar.
In the meantime, chop the remaining apples into 2cm chunks.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
Then, alternatively add the dry ingredients and cider to the butter mixture in three times, starting with the flour.
Finish the batter by gently folding in the apple chunks.
Pour onto the sliced apples and bake for 45-60 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then invert onto a plate and peel off the baking paper if necessary.
I’ve been trapped into a world made of stainless-steel and ovens going off. A happy – and at times, not so – merry-go-round of services, and gin and tonics. Of course there was an occasional bloody mary too.
And really, I hadn’t realised how long I’d gone for. Not unlike when Sookie spends a day in the land of fairies, only to realise years have gone by in her world.
Yes it’s been too long. So long in fact, that I don’t know where to start. But before I tell you about that apple cake we ate in one day, and that kiss he gave me by a home-alone Christmas tree, and all the trimmings that made 2012 pretty exciting, I’m going to show you a picture.
It was the day before Christmas. And really if it wasn’t for the ice made of lightbulbs that rimmed the houses, I’d have thought we were in early autumn.
No crisp winds. No snow under our feets.
But there was a fireplace and the stories we were told. And a capon bigger than our cat (a rare occurrence I must admit). And most importantly, the people I’m madly in love with.
I hope you had a lovely Christmas. I’ll talk to you very very very soon. x