December is made for kissing in the mist, warm nights of magic rush and cold pink dawn, foreseen epiphanies, and perhaps, most importantly, mulled wine.
A short welcome to this new month, because – believe me or not – some things are better left unsaid.
Yes, at times, silence is golden.
So are the blurred roads – barely lit by street poles – that will lead us to Cornish lands for one night of endless lingering.
What will you enjoy in silence?
It’s hard to play favourite with vanilla.
Tahitian vanilla (or for the geeks out there, and that includes me, Vanilla tahitensis) is a bit of a outsider – considered its the only vanilla to contain heliotropin – with its floral burst and nutty undertones.
Due to very volatile components, the flavour can be strong at first only to melt into a kind of happy pot-pourri.
Both Mexican and Bourbon vanilla are Vanilla planifolia. Only the killing method of the beans changes, resulting in either moist or ever-so woody texture.
And also very sublte variations in flavour.
Mexican pods are killed on the ground, under the heat of a noon-kind-of sun. They have a distinct earthiness to them. And caramel notes.
Madagascar beans, also known as Bourbon, keep some moisture after a quick blanching. And if you’re looking for the vanilla flavour of your childhood, then they are your new best friends.
Now, what is your favourite vanilla?
On my side of the world, I like to use a combination of Bourbon and Tahiti vanilla. Somewhere along the lines of six Madagascar beans for three Tahitian ones.
Which is actually the very fundamental of my nine-pod vanilla ice-cream. So speckled with seeds it has the tint of the golden hour.
Cooking does feel like magic at times. Most of the time, in fact.
But when you sink a few used vanilla pods into a sugar syrup, close your eyes and fast-forward to two days later only to discover jewels, it really is. Magic.
I’ve found the recipe in Thierry Marx’s dessert book, which I can’t wait to explore.
Trim a couple of used vanilla pods and push them into the syrup. Forget about it for two days or more. Gently pat dry with a cloth. Use as decoration or as a stirrer for your favourite cup of tea.
An update on the home-made vanilla extract. The jar has been refilled twice. And emptied – every time – in shot glasses, preferably at the very first minutes of dawn. After a night made of laughs, indie music and kisses.
It’s certainly not the best way to use it but damn, it tastes that good.
One time, if I remember right, we even hollowed a watermelon and poured the whole jar inside. Straws were a must back then. And it was deliciously boozy.
Last week, we faced a sad moment when we came to the realisation it was time to clean the jar and start some new extract. Eight weeks to go before we can sing off-key again.
Because the simplest things don’t always seem like it…
To remove the seeds from a vanilla pods, I flatten the bean with a small knife, then slice lengthway and scrape away.
Don’t forget to keep the used beans. Blend them with caster sugar for instant vanilla sugar, or stick them in your home-made vanilla extract, or candy them as above…
Is it just me, or do you also feel like that – more than any other month – tarts belong to November?
It usually happens without a warning. And without a calendar.
A day or so after waiting on the sidewalk – jumping, whistling, screaming – for a cab to have its light on. Oh yes, it is indeed the thirty-first of October, with its thrills taken onto the streets.
Doughs are made; in a music that goes along the lines of pâte brisée, pâte sucrée, pâte feuilletée. Wrapped in clingfilm, and kept in the fridge or in the freezer.
Then they get rolled. And topped with those autumn fruits that taste like nights by the fireplace.
The unofficial November tart-list.
1. Pecan tart. In fact, as I’m writing this, I have this one in the oven. Without the addition of chocolate chips.
2. The perfect tarte tatin. Possibly with a lot of butter and sugar. And maldon sea salt, just so.
3. Pumpkin pie. Because, I can’t really stay away from it.
4. A caramelised garlic focaccia.
5. Christophe Felder‘s chocolate clafoutis. Certainly not a tart, but we’ll pretend it is for the sake of winter leggings and furry boots.
6. A Japanese cheesecake. With matcha.
7. Quiche, and its mushrooms, lard crust and emmental by the kilogram.
8. Triple chocolate tart. Yes, I’m that much of a chocolate lover.
9. An eggless stabiliser-less ice-cream base recipe. Oooh well, I hear tarts and ice-cream belong to each other.
10. Cloud-shaped choux. Because pastry + filling = tart-ish. Noooow, I’m the tart right?
And because no matter how deep we are in the tart-making, we all need a reliable pâte brisée recipe. Mine comes from my grand-mother.
A treasure, by any mean.
Pâte brisée de grand-mère
makes 900g of dough
In a large bowl, combine 500g of plain flour with a heaped teaspoon of salt. Rub in 250g of cold butter until sandy. Mix in 2 egg yolks and enough cold water to bind the flour into a dough (around 70 to 90g). Work until just smooth. Divide into two balls. Clingfilm and chill for at least an hour.
For a sweet pâte brisée, simply add 40g of caster sugar and the seeds from one vanilla pod.
My day started like this. Warm wool leggings, cushy slippers, and a cup of coffee of the burn-your-tongue kind. Only to end up, pretty much the same and with a good read included.
Like a surprise waiting for me on the sofa as I entered our flat after the usual dinner service.
Hope you had a day as lovely as mine! Any surprises?
[On a cloud]
For days when the sky feels like a cloud, of the gigantic kind. And our homes are made warm with gas ovens.
Thank you Nikole for making such beautiful objects that – waiting to be used – sit on my bedside table, as a collection of treasures.
What is your favourite cut-out cookie recipe?
I’m currently writing a series of posts on how to become a pastry chef.
What it involves on a day to day basis, what we do – whether we work in restaurants, pâtisseries, hotels, or even caterers, which paths we took to reach our dreams…
So if you have any questions that need answering, please ask away in the comment section!
[And pieces of tree would fall from the sky – The ultimate quadruple chocolate loaf cake]
I plan to spend this autumn collecting dead leaves and horse-chestnuts, drinking coffees with warm mittens on, drawing the nights away, and day-dreaming about je ne sais quoi.
In fact, if I were to plan anything it would be a forever-autumn.
Its blue skies and ice-cold winds, occasional mists and ensuing falling leaves. And, no matter how old I grow, its slight Christmas air that fills my mind with tings tings.
Of course, chocolate cake would be involved. As it usually is when the first cold decides to make an appearance, happily forcing me into warm winter leggings and furry boots.
Always the same one. With cocoa powder. And chocolate chunks. And chocolate syrup. And grated chocolate to top it all.
I made it for the very first time three years ago. On a cold October afternoon. Perhaps it was a Sunday. And by the next day, it had been devoured.
And somehow, the story repeated itself. And somehow, a plateful of crumbs was all that was left.
Le cake très chocolat
Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s Feast.
One of the things I like the most about this cake is not its melt-in-your mouth texture or the fact that it uses four different kinds of chocolate.
No, is that’s it takes longer to bake than to make; leaving plenty of time to fill the house with its warm chocolate essence, and giving you just the right amount of cosy expectation.
It is in fact a doodle to make. A one-bowl kind of cake. And trust me when I say it is pretty satisfying.
Le cake très chocolat
for the cake
200g plain flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
50g cocoa powder
275g caster sugar
a pinch of maldon sea salt
175g chocolate, melted
80g double cream
125g boiling water
for the syrup
one tsp cocoa powder
100g caster sugar
for the topping
25g dark chocolate, grated
Preheat the oven to 170°C. Generously butter one large loaf tin and line with baking paper, making sure to cut it above the rim.
Put the flour, baking soda, cocoa, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla extract, melted chocolate and double cream into a bowl, and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Slowly incoporate the boiling water and pour the batter into the prepared tin. Now, depemdonding on the size of your tin you might have a bit extra. Just bake it along with the monster cake in a little bowl.
Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until a small knife inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Put the syrup ingredients of cocoa, water and sugar into a small saucepan, and boil for approximately five minutes, until thickened.
When the syrup is ready, pierce the cake a few times using a skewer or a long match, and pour the syrup as evenly as possible over the cake. Let the cake cool down in its tin before removing from the tin (using the excess baking paper as handles) and place it on your serving plate.
Sprinkle with grated chocolate. And slice the cake away.
Hello, it’s 32°C out there.
This morning I went swimming. One last time before the French holidays come to an end.
Oh, this past month has been great. I’ve been enjoying the summer I never got this summer. I’ve been swimming and underwater-somersaulting. I’ve been jumping from reading those words. I’ve been spending long hours redesigning comme un lait fraise. I’ve been making chocolate cakes every other day. And giving more hugs and kisses than I thought I could.
Tonight, I will be in London. Hopefully under a rain coming from the trees – the best kind of rain, if you ask me. And with golden leaves on the pavement.
Yes, I’m looking forward to a proper autumn. In autumn this time, please.
The not-so official October happy-list could actually be very short this month. And perhaps, would go along the lines of: pumpkins and mushrooms and chestnuts. That’s all.
1. Making that garlic bread again.
2. The glow of rain drops under street lights.
3. Michelin guide! And really, I could have written Miiiiiiichelin guide and added a high-pitched voice.
4. Sharing one of my favourite chocolate cake. Nigella called it quadruple chocolate loaf for a reason.
5. Writing about apples and vanilla, for the market. And eating some too!
6. This cookie cutter. I’ve found a spot for it, on my bed-side table.
7. Mushroom soup. For dinners on the sofa.
8. Wearing a white jacket again. And an apron too.
9. Pumpkin risotto. With sage, perhaps.
10. Burning my fingers on roasted chestnuts. The ones held in a newspaper cone. And eaten through a walk at the park.
What are your three words for this October? And, of course, what are you looking forward to?
This is what happens when it’s summer. Or at least when it feels like it.
We swim in the sea, or more accurately, we’re forced by that wave which chose the exact moment we stepped into the water to break into – what feels like – a herd of horses.
It’s cold. For a second.
And then, we decide we could stay there forever. Happily floating on our backs, gazing at the sky, and cliché-edly anthropomorphising the clouds.
And blinking to every ray of sun.
And swallowing a bit too much of the salted water, leaving just enough saltiness on our lips for the vanilla ice-cream we’re about to have to taste just so.
We stay at a café all night. Chatting up and down. A feta and lemon dip comes up. Randomly.
Oh yes, we were talking about the joy of the simplest things.
And Anna-Sarah, the one and only – some would say – my kitchen muse, tells me she’s been making this dip with just feta, lemon, olive oil, garlic, and a little bit of fresh thyme all summer long. She’s found it on a blog. She can’t remember which one though.
Friends she served it to loved it.
Now, I’ll have to admit something, I’m not in awe with feta. But a feta that has a shape of a cube and is lost amongst tomatoes, or in the best case scenario, watermelon dices. Yes, that feta and I aren’t the best friend.
But well, one night, we had crusty bread and roasted vegetables. I then proceeded to blitz feta with the juice and zest of a lemon. And enough garlic and olive oil to make my Italian grand-father Mario proud.
And we called it a dinner. Al fresco. Al fantastico, as a matter of fact.
Feta and lemon dip
Adapted from Paul.
Turns out the blog she took the recipe from is no other than Paul’s. A little beauty on its own. And now the source for my favourite summer secret.
This dip is made in less than two seconds. Espcially since I discovered this method for peeling garlic. It works! (And yes, this totally deserves an exclamation mark, actually I could put three of them!!! Yes, I’m that excited.)
I’m actually thinking about doing a post just for it.
That’s how much I love garlic. And this sweet tattooed guy who is not scared to beat the hell out of a garlic head. Both, I love you.
Just one extra-step Anna-Sarah added is to soak the feta into water twice to get rid of extra saltiness. Of course, you can skip it if you’re a bit short of time, but it is worth it.
Lemon and feta dip
200g feta cheese, crumbled
juice and zest from one lemon
1 clove garlic, chopped
80g olive oil
olive oil, extra for serving
fresh thyme, for sprinkling
Blitz the feta, lemon zest and juice, garlic, and olive oil in a blender until smooth. Scrape into a bowl and drizzle with a olive oil, and sprinkle with thyme.
Serve with grilled vegetables and grilled pita bread. Or even on top of pasta for a fresh sauce.
[The ultimate chocolate fondant]
In London, we’ve had winter in July. Air damp with rain. Kitchens warm with soup on the stove. Oven smelling like chocolate cake.
And now, in the south of France, we’re having summer in September. Walks through the markets. Sirops d’orgeat at the terrace of the village café. Afternoons at the beach. Ice-cream, in a cone, please. Flip-flops at the feet. Deep-fried is a must, especially when it involves fleurs de courgettes. Watermelon; full-stop.
It seems that whenever I come down here it’s summer. A summer of the out-of-season kind.
It also seems that whenever I’m down here, I always return to the same cake. A cake of the homecoming kind.
It certainly is my go-to. Because, let’s be honest, we all need one.
One we make on Mondays. One we slice when still warm and slightly runny for a late afternoon indulgence. One we have for breakfast – the day after – cold from the fridge and dipped into the latte we overlooked as we were flipping through the pages of the newspaper. One we finish on Wednesdays after a dinner made of crusty baguette with a side of sliced tomatoes in their juices; perhaps with a scoop of yoghurt ice-cream.
This cake is dark and dense. The very definition of a fondant.
And since we’re at it, I shall let you know that what we – French – call fondant is somehow different to the fondants I’ve been known to bake à la minute for the restaurant.
In fact, if you’re thinking about small little cakes with a melted chocolate centre, we call them coulants in good old France.
So please, mind your French, will you ;)
Fondant au chocolat
Adapted from Pascal Lac.
I’ve told you about this cake before. It is, as I’ve mentioned above, a keeper. If you’re after a moist chocolate cake, then this is the one.
Plus, it’s damn easy to make. Just chocolate, butter, eggs, sugar, and flour.
Oh yes, ok, eight eggs and 400g of sugar. Just forget about this and bake it in a 28cm pan for thinner wedges.
It is worth it!
When it comes to the chocolate I like to use a slightly bitter, most possibly 70%. And I have to admit Guanaja is especially great for cakes of all kinds.
The only tricky – and when I say tricky, I mean very merely – step is to bring the eggs and sugar mixture to room temperature-ish over the heat.
You can either do it straight over the gas, making sure to mix at all time while turning the bowl to ensure heat distribution. Or do it over a water-bath (which should not stop you from mixing and turning the bowl!).
This step is done, as we say in French, to casser le froid [break the coldness]. And it will incorporate a little air in the eggs.
Fondant au chocolat
for one 24 to 28cm springform pan
200g dark chocolate
Preheat the oven to 170°C, and generously butter a springform pan.
In a bowl, melt the chocolate and butter.
In a heatproof bowl, mix the eggs and sugar – using a whisk – and place over medium heat (or as said above, on a water bath). Keep on mixing until not cold anymore. It shouldn’t be hot either.
Pour the chocolate over the egg mixture, and homogenise. Sprinkle the flour over and using a rubber spatula, gently incoporate it until just smooth.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 40 minutes (if you’re using a smaller pan) until just set.
It might be safe to say that, in a perfect world, this would be my breakfast. Everyday.
That week in Fouras possibly was the closest I could get to perfection. A perfection that tasted damn good. Especially with a sprinkle of vanilla sugar.
Perhaps, it was just a breakfast. But it certainly didn’t feel like a just kind of one.
Have a lovely week-end. And please, do treat yourself with your very favourite breakfast. Which is… (pssss, let me know!)
[Moments, in the kitchen]
Sat at the table for breakfast. A breakfast that smells of toast and salted butter – the one with crisp fleur de sel – and, of course, coffee.
My grand-mère talks too much in the morning, but for all the gold in the world, I wouldn’t want to stop her from doing so. Her stories and her laughters. Our laughters, in fact.
She likes to peel tomatoes with bare hands. And a knife. No boiling water involved here. Add more garlic than you think you could take, a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of sea salt, and the ultimate tomato salad just happened in front of your very eyes.
Not only it tastes how tomato really should; but you get a bonus made of juice and pips. Just enough, in fact, to be soaked with a slice of baguette. Or as I’ve been known to do – back in the good old nineties – drink from my plate, making sure to get all of my outfit, from top to socks tinted red.
And as evident as evident can be, an apple tart closes lunch-time. With its soft yet flaky crust, all about almonds and vanilla and butter, of course. Its mountain of apples: small ones, from the neighbour’s garden, and large ones, from the COOP (that organic supermarket where my grand-mère clearly spends too much time and cash). And enough eggy cream to cover it all.
Dinner, to come…
[Little poundcakes, with chocolate or not]
It smells like the week-end around here. Actually, it’s been smelling like it for a week now.
And boy, week-end does smell good. Just-brewed coffee and toasted baguettes. Roast vegetables and fish caught the night before. Soup and summer tart; perhaps with a handful of late raspberries, or a plum compote.
At times, it even smells of sand, and sea, and sun. Most likely when the sky is just about to turn pink and I jump on my bike for a promenade along the beach.
Tomorrow, we’ll wake-up early. Possibly before the dawn. With the sound of boiling water going through a filterful of freshly ground coffee beans as the only alarm. And the smallest loaf-cakes as the only valid option to dip in our – well mine, since my grand-mère goes black – latte.
Indeed, those little cakes are perfect for this.
Good – if not slightly dry, just as a quatre-quarts should be, really – on their own. They make any cup of coffee a little sweller.
Actually, if I were to list my favourite coffee-dipping material, quatre-quarts would rank first. Perhaps, along with madeleines; but then, the two do taste very similar, especially when still-warm from the oven (in my opinion, the best way to eat quatre-quarts on its own).
And I can’t take this path without mentioning Petit Brun. The very same my dad used to have after lunch with a café au lait. Yes, they do make somewhat delicious coffee-dippers.
Petits quatre-quarts, au chocolat ou pas
Those small loaf-cakes can be made in a pinch. And much to my liking, they are also very versatile. Mix in a handful of chopped dark chocolate, add a sprinkle of cocoa powder in half the batter, then swirl for a marbled effect.
And this is just for the chocolate possibilities.
They are – as mentioned above – very good on their own, although they tend to be slightly dry when cooled down. A quick trip in the microwave or in a cup of coffee will work wonders though.
Because let’s face it, almost every cake tastes better when warm or wet. And no, this is no tease.
As usual with my loaf-cakes, I cannot recommend piping a line of soft butter on top for a neat crack enough. This is – and forever will be – my favourite technique.
And for the baking method, I still go 180°C for 5 minutes, 170°C for 10, 160°C for 15 and 150°C until a knife inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean; usually around 10 to 15 minutes.
This ensures a plump cake with a light crumb.
Of course since those are on the small side, I baked them much less. Perhaps 17 or 20 minutes in total.
But if you’re making a large one, the guideline above is more than wonderful. Trust me.
The secret for the perfect batter is to have the butter and eggs at room temperature. If that’s made easy by microwaving the butter for 30 seconds or until soft, it’s another story when it comes to the eggs. My little trick is to soak them for ten-ish minutes in tap-hot water.
Petits quatre-quarts, au chocolat ou pas
makes a large loaf-cake or ten individual ones
for the cake base
250g butter, at room temperature
250g caster sugar
seeds from one vanilla pod
a tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
for the a chocolate-chip cookie cake
a handful of chopped dark chocolate
a tsp flour
for the chocolate-marble cake
25g cocoa powder
butter, softened, extra for piping on top
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease a loaf tin with butter and line with baking paper.
In the bowl of a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla seeds until light and fluffy; around 5 to 10 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Then fold in the flour, baking powder and salt until just incorporated.
If you’re making the chocolate-chip version, coat the chopped chocolate with flour and gently fold into the batter.
If you’re making the marbled cake, divide the batter into two bowls and fold the cocoa powder in one half of the batter. Then pipe alternatively in the tin (I will make a marble cake 101, one day).
Pipe a thin line of softened butter on top of the cake.
Bake as described above, until golden-brown.
Allow to cool for a few minutes. Then unmould and wrap in clingfilm for a moist cake. Or leave to cool on a rack for a crisp crust.
I got quite a few emails regarding the word maryse. One of you even wrote a kinky poem, because – yes – Maryse, is also a French name. It involved some whipping and folding too…
So well, I’m launching yet another category: le kitchenware. This is what happens when I’ve od’ed on holidays.
A maryse, pronounced MAH-REESE, is – what chefs call – a rubber spatula. It is actually a brand, possibly registered by De Buyer, and somehow along the way we started using the name as a utensil.
There are two kinds. The red ones, which are heat-resistant. In fact, they can take heat up to 260°C. While the white ones – slightly softer and more flexible – are just made for scraping and folding cold preparations.
I love them for:
– cooking crème anglaise and ice-creams
– folding cream or egg whites into a mousse base*
– scraping a bowl, a pan, or a plastic container
* That is when I’m not making 20L of mousse, in which case I will go with the hand-and-scraper way.
rue de la halle, 17450 fouras
I could list the places I belong to. But, at the end, it would just be a meaningless thread of city names, and at times, neighbourhood or county names.
What I find interesting is the very reason why we belong to a place.
A person we love, or many of them. A kind of family; in which people do take care of each others.
A fond memory. Perhaps it was the rain and the drizzle from the sea that hit your face so hard. Or the kiss, on the pavement in front of that busy train station, that lasted so long it got the both of you soaked. Yes, it seems my memories are always somewhat rainy*.
A meal. Often a hungover breakfast, eaten with a side of virgin mary and the right person. A doughnut quickly devoured to escape the rain in a bus with no destination, except for the one you decide. A jonchée, paid with the littlest coins and taken home in the basket of your bike.
Yes, I have told you about the jonchées before. And you probably know that whenever I’m in Fouras, I can’t stay away from them.
The closest I could take you would be along the lines of a long ball of unsalted mozzarella. Of the creamy kind. And with the flavour of fresh almonds.
And soft melt-in-your-mouth inners encased in a slightly firm scalloped-shell. Which happens to be the negative-print of the jonc [reed grass] mat, this cow’s milk cheese** is moulded in.
So yes, I belong to Fouras. Because of my grand-mother. And the hours spent riding our bikes by the ocean. And the jonchées.
* The fact I live in London might have something to do with this ;)
** Although it is – from a technical point of view, rennet and ferments included – a cheese, it is nothing like it.
It was a day at the end of September. A couple of years ago. I put on my pied-de-poule trousers for the first time since the internship I had done the summer before at Pierre Hermé.
I walked up the stairs, to the biggest, most beautiful kitchen I had ever seen, with the aim to make my biggest, most beautiful dream come true.
A dream that apparently involved cooking 12L of crème pâtissière. And when I say 12L, I really mean 12L of milk. So if you had up the other ingredients, it makes around 16kg of silky smooth vanilla goodness.
As a matter of fact, by seven am, the hair, that took me an hour to tame at three in the morning, was wild again. And my cheeks were the colour of bike rides in the wind.
I don’t want anyone to get hurt by making crème pâtissière, so I’ll just give you the half-a-litre recipe. Which happens to be just enough to fill a tart or a handful of choux, plus a couple of tablespoons for personal consumption.
This recipe is a basic crème pâtissière. A very simple cream made of milk, vanilla, egg yolks, cornflour, and caster sugar.
As usual, I can only advise you have all of the ingredients ready and measured before you start. Along with the equipment.
one vanilla pod
3 egg yolks
60g caster sugar
one medium saucepan
two small whisks
a fine chinois or sieve
a small bowl
a shallow plastic container
1. Place the milk and split vanilla pod into a medium saucepan and bring to the boil, whisking every now and then.
2. In a small bowl, mix the egg yolks and sugar with a whisk, until fully combined. This prevents the caster sugar from reacting with the thin skin of the yolks, which would create some small lumps.
Add the cornflour and incorporate.
3. Temper the egg yolk mixture with the strained milk (to get rid of the vanilla pod). Whisking as you do so.
4. Pour back into the pan – off the heat – whisking continuously. Then over soft heat, bring to the boil, whisking at all time.
5. As soon as the mixture reaches the boiling point and starts to thicken, keep on cooking and whisking for a minute or two.
6. Pour and scrape into a plastic container.
And clingfilm to the touch to avoid the formation of a skin. Chill for an hour.