Saturday, October 24, 2009

IT'S ALL IN HOW YOU SAY IT

The Petit Bateau set 

Just as American kids learning to mangle French like to say "Mercy buckets" for "Merci beaucoup" or " Bone's yours, mon sewer" for "Bonjour, monsieur," French school children like to get their licks in, too:  "See you next time,"  "See you next week" or maybe even "See you soon,"  can come out, "See you 'Nesquick!'"  French kids can be sly and naughty, too,  deforming "tiger" so that it sounds ever so much like "ta gueule" (shut up) when doing animal flash cards with the English nounou (nanny). That happens when les enfants are feeling "pepsi."


Easy and Quick Goûter (Snack)


There probably isn't a child in France who hasn't come home from school with this fun to make yogurt cake recipe. It makes a one-layer cake for those who can't yet do the math to double the quantities.



The measurements are made from an individual-sized yogurt container or "pot":

1 pot of fruit yogurt of any flavor
3 pots of flour 
2 pots of sugar
1  pot of cooking oil
4 large eggs

2 teaspoons of baking powder
1 teaspoon of vanilla




Preheat oven to 390°F (200°C). Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Pour in buttered and lightly floured cake pan. Bake for 35-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in its center comes out clean. Let cool then remove from pan.



For an easy glaze,  dilute a favorite jam with a little bit of water and spread on the cake.



N.B: If making this recipe here in France, then use one sachet of baking powder (levure chimique or as it's often called, levure alsacienne--which amounts to two teaspoons) and one sachet of vanilla-flavored sugar (sucre vanillé). These small, pre-measured packages are standard and convenient French supermarket items which make the recipe even simpler.




Text & photo ©2009 P.B. Lecron

Thursday, October 22, 2009

THE RIGHT SLICE: UN ART DE VIVRE

More on the hows and whys of cheese cutting rules


Cheese flavor and texture are best at room temperature. Thirty minutes to one hour beforehand set out cheese. Hard cheeses need more time than soft to come to room temperature, and because they have less moisture they should remain wrapped until just before serving so they won't dry out. Other cheeses should be loosely covered so they can breathe; contact with air improves savor and consistency.

To maintain peak quality, avoid exposing cheese to unnecessary temperature changes; set out no more than the amount that will be eaten.


Use more than one knife if serving cheeses with contrasting aromas; residual odor of a spicy blue on a blade can affect the taste of a fresh chèvre (goat cheese).  Purists recommend a separate knife for each variety.






At the dining table, the traditional two-tipped, curved cheese knife cuts semi-soft to semi-hard cheeses; its prongs are used to prick and transfer cheese slice to plate.


Certain manufacturers have redesigned the traditional cheese knife to also cut soft cheeses, giving it either holes in its blade or etched sides to prevent sticking when slicing. Otherwise, a very narrow, fine-bladed knife is recommended for cutting soft cheeses at the table.  If no specialty knives are on hand, use ordinary knives to slice soft to semi-hard cheeses.

The broad, heart-shaped cheese knife with its pointed blade, can cleave hard or aged cheeses and handles well any crumbly cheese, hard or soft.

Strictly a kitchen utensil for some, the Norwegian cheese plane cuts in one, smooth stroke paper-thin slices of hard cheeses. With hard cheeses, the thinner the slice, the more melt-in-the-mouth flavor. Convenient for preparing snacks and hors d'ouevres, the handled cheese plane has found its way out of the kitchen and onto the buffet table alongside the cream cheese spreader for casual entertaining where guests often help themselves. It can leave, however, a broad indentation in the cheese which makes subsequent slicing less than perfect. 

The kitchen tools: Wire cheese slicers, either hand-held or guillotine style, cleanly cut blue and softer cheeses without compacting them as classic knives do. Necessity is the mother of invention and even a tautly held length of dental floss can nicely slice through cheese with a fragile texture.

Wide, bell-shaped knives cut blocks and cubes; double-handled knives multiply cutting force for bricks, blocks and wheels; and cheese cleavers break up hard, aged cheeses into edible pieces.


Sharing drawer space with conventional graters and shredders is the girolle, a hand-cranked circular cheese parer, the funnest gadget since the mechanical apple peeler. A 1982 Swiss invention, it shaves thin, curly ruffles, called cheese rosettes, off the tops of small hard, round cheeses, in particular the mini-sized cylinder of tête-de-moine.

 
The cutting rule: cut portions so that everyone gets a taste of the best part of the cheese.
Share the rind. Cheese should be cut so that each portion has some rind so that the last slice isn't mostly rind. It's impolite to take only from the center, and besides, cheese is more savory near the rind. To achieve a fair and polite distribution, cut round or square, flat cheese in triangles starting from the center going out to the rind.

Cheeses fabricated in large wheels, such as gruyère that are served in wedges or oblong slabs laying flat, should be cut from side to side. 



The exception:
some cheeses are too runny to cut when ripe like mont d'or, as it's known in France or vacherin in Switzerland, or like an advanced époisses. After the upper rind has been pricked and peeled back with a sharp knife, the liquidy cheese is scooped out with a spoon and eaten "à la bonne franquette," simply and without fuss, on pieces of crusty baguette or fresh, country-style bread. These cheeses are left in their original pine boxes  to maintain their form. (The mont d'or pictured here is still fresh, and not yet in a more affiné and runny stage that would come with the passage of a couple of days and warmer ambient temperature.)


The order: keep cheeses well separated on a flat and sturdy platter or board to keep aromas from mingling and to make cutting easier. Arrange them by category and strength. A selection of three or four cheeses makes a respectable platter. Firmer cheeses, more difficult to slice, should be placed toward the outside rim. Crumbly cheeses should be toward the center.

At a dinner, the cheese platter is left in the kitchen until served. If a whole cheese is in the selection, it should be "opened," that is to say presented with a first slice already made, to show ripeness and to relieve guests of the responsibility of being the first to slice it. For example, a small round served in its entirety would have its first slice cut with its point slighty detached from the cheese center. Other than that, cheese should never be pre-sliced in individual portions when it's to be served after the meal's main course. 

Flavor is optimal just after cutting so each guest slices his own, taking small portions of two or three cheese presented in the selection, being careful not to disarrange the platter by inattentive cutting. Cheese is eaten with a fork and knife, and although a bite-sized part may be placed on a small piece of bread, it should never be spread.

When serving cheese as hors d'oeuvres, entrées or accompaniments on brunch platters when cheese is to be sliced beforehand, manage timing so that cheese is not cut or cubed too far in advance, and be sure it's kept well-covered until serving. The smaller the piece of cheese, the faster it dries out. 


For a quick and easy guide to how to slice different cheese forms, see a preceding blog post, The Right Slice: Cheese Cutting Tips.

Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron with the exception of photo of girolle posted with the permission of Interprofession Tête de Moine, www.tetedemoine.ch


 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

LIFE'S LITTLE LUXURIES: LADUREE SUCREE RECIPE BOOK

Gourmets! Gourmands!  
THE dessert and mignardise recipe book of the decade has been released for sale. But hurry, trés prisé and luxuriant, these fashionable and beautifully bound treasures with gilded page edges are almost too pretty to touch, let alone open and work from in the kitchen. Peu importe! A must. Cakes, cookies, pastries, and irresistible macarons...the celebrated Parisian maison de pâtisserie reveals its best-kept secrets. Packaged in a lovely gift box.

©2009  P.B. Lecron

THE RIGHT SLICE: CHEESE CUTTING TIPS

HOW TO CUT CHEESE IRREPROACHABLY
New to France? Here's a quick and easy guide to  serving & cutting cheese at the table.

The temperature: Bring cheese to room temperature 30 minutes to one hour before serving. Set out no more than will be eaten and cover loosely. Remember to quickly refrigerate any unserved cheese.

The knife: A two-tipped, curved blade. Use more than one if serving stronger cheeses with milder ones. When sliced, cheese is pricked with tips to transfer to plate.


 The rule: Share the rind. Cut cheese so that each portion has some rind. The last slice served should not have more rind than cheese. A plus: cheese flavor isn't uniform, it has more tang near the rind.

The order: Mild cheeses first, followed by stronger. Don't mingle aromas, keep different cheeses well apart on platter and plate.


 
The right slice:  
  • Small cheeses, round or square: cut in halves, thirds or quarter 

  • Cylindrical or log cheeses: cut in rounds






  • Flat cheese, round or squares & pyramids:  cut in triangles, just as for a cake, picking knife point in center of cheese

  • Firm cheeses, laid flat: cut slices lengthwise if rind is only on one end, crosswise if rind runs along parallel edges 



  • Blue-veined cheeses: cut in triangles radiating from center of the lower end of the wedge, the first cut will be a corner


The next post: The Right Slice: More on the hows and whys of cheese cutting rules. Un art de vivre.
and
The Right Slice: Cheese Tips


Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron
    

Saturday, October 17, 2009

THE RIGHT SLICE: CHEESE TIPS


Handle with CARE

Each cheese has its best month for tasting and autumn is generally the best season for most French cheeses. But no matter what season or which artisanal cheese you buy, remember the golden rule: last but not least. When shopping, make cheese purchases last, then handle with care. Avoid crushing the cheese with other packages, especially the daintier fromages de chevre or goat cheeses.

  • Store cheese in waxed paper or plastic wrap in upper compartment of refrigerator, separating strong from mild varieties.    
  • Be careful not to expose cheese to repetitive temperature changes. 

  • Always eat cheese within a few days of buying.  
      This is first in a series of cheese handling and serving tips. Next posting: How to cut cheese irreproachably.


      Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron

      Thursday, October 15, 2009

      VERCINGETORIX: HIS STORY


      When the French need a hero, they dig back into their past and resurrect the memory of Vercingétorix.
      Vercingétorix is back in the news. An important find of Gallic battle armor and trophies has stirred up new interest at the Corent archeological site near Puy-de-Dôme, in the Auvergne. The site is just five kilometers from where the Gallic super-star Vercingétorix won a battle against Julius Caesar.

      School children across France can tell you that Vercingétorix was a young chieftan who battled against Roman domination more than 2000 years ago. I first heard his glorious and tragic tale while listening to my French seven-year old recite her history lesson, then got an idea of how he might have looked when visiting Clermont-Ferrand where a monumental equestrian sculpture of the hero dominates the Place Jaude. Sculpted by August Bartholdi of Statue of Liberty fame, Vercingétorix is portrayed in battle with his horse airborn in a galloping charge.

      Bartholdi sculpted the statue in the late 19th century in response to a national need to rally patriotic sentiment after France had gone through a rough political patch: the 1871 Paris Commune revolt-- a revolution that had been provoked by the humiliation of the surrender of Paris to Prussians during the Franco-Prussian war.


      If you want to know a Frenchman, learn his country's deep and colorful history first.
      Today, Clermont-Ferrand is the capital of Auvergne, but in Vercingétorix's time, this region was called Arvernes, and its principal city was Gergovie, on a high basalt plateau located less than four miles away from the modern city.

      Referred to as "Celts" by the ancient Greeks, and "Gauls" by the Romans, the people inhabiting the vast territory of Gaul formed disparate and numerous tribes. Their society, mostly agricultural, had two classes, the nobility, who were also the warriors; and the people, which included the Druides, keepers of Celtic traditions and beliefs.

      Born of nobility about 72 B.C., Vercingétorix was proclaimed in 52 B.C. chief of the Arvernes, one of the more powerful Celtic tribes in central Gaul. His Celtic name means "supreme chief of warriors," a title probably given him after he rallied different tribes into a coalition to resist Julius Caesar, then in the seventh year of the Roman campaign to conquer Gaul.

      After several defeats, Vercingétorix adopted the scorched earth tactic, destroying his own tribal villages and fields to impede the enemy's replenishment. At Gergovie, protected by their fortifications and steep terrain, the Gauls inflicted heavy losses upon the Romans. Caesar and his army, isolated and cut off from supplies in a hostile country, retreated.

      It was a short-lived victory, however. The tables turned when the Gauls made a fatal tactical error and pursued the retreating Romans far into open lands. The Gauls lost their advantage and were pushed back all the way to the fortress of Alésia, not far from present-day Dijon. Closed in the stronghold and lacking provisions, Vercingétorix was defeated after a desperate battle. He surrendered, laying down his arms at Caesar's feet. The event marked the end of the independence of Gaul, and the beginning of the Gallo-Roman civilization.

      Taken to Rome to be displayed as Caesar's personal trophy, Vercingétorix was executed after seven years of treacherous imprisonment.

      A plate-throwing incident
      After being displayed at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, Bartholdi's bronze of Vercingétorix was delivered to Clermont-Ferrand. To find just the right spot for it, a plaster model of the statue was mounted on a cart and wheeled from spot to spot with townspeople following along to give their opinions. They finally picked the Place Jaude, with a breathtaking view of the extinct volcano, the Puy-de-Dome.


      The statue was officially inaugurated with much pomp and circumstance in October 1903 followed by a gigantic banquet for 4,500 persons. According to local historians, so many people showed up that the food ran out and the meal turned into a plate-throwing, fist-fighting brawl.




      Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron


      Sunday, October 11, 2009

      THE CHIC OF A PARISIENNE AUX CHAMPS

      Back to Nature, a vocabulary lesson
      The first time I ever heard the expression "une Parisienne aux champs" I was on a foliage tour in France's sparsely populated Massif Central mountains. We were on a back road that seemed to lead to the middle of nowhere, looking for a place to turn around. On the side of the road was a hand-painted "leçons de guitare" sign nailed to a fence near a small house close to a rapid mountain brook, or torrent.

      "Une Parisienne aux champs," my French friend said. 

      "Where?" 

       "Là-bas." (Over there.) As he was maneuvering the voiture, oh sorry, car, a striking young woman had stepped half-way out of the house to watch what we were doing. 

      "How can you tell?"

      "You know one when you see one," he replied, and I suddenly felt transported to the Ozark Mountains where as a small Oklahoma child I had been on constant lookout for the mythical hillbilly on autumn drives through Arkansas with my parents. 

      Une Parisienne aux champs (a Parisian in the fields) is a lyrical and poetic term for a person who has left Paris, by choice or necessity, to live in the country. Usually a discreet soul, integration with the local population in villages and small towns can be more or less difficult, depending on the extent of the chasm between citadins, city-livers and paysans, country folk. 

      Une Parisienne aux champs can include someone like the lingerie designer Chantal Thomass who discovered a sleepy village in the Perche Département by buying a country home there--causing the real estate prices to sky rocket. Or it can describe the bobo (bourgeois-bohème) who left Paris to grow hydroponic cucumbers and raise lady bugs or coccinelles, while seeking social mixité (mixing) with country cousins in the Eure. Or, it can quite simply be a young city dweller of modest means who is looking for a better existence in the campagne, country.

      Though not as pretty sounding, some say une Parisienne au vert (in the green) instead of aux champs. Another term, néoruraux,  the plural form of néorural,  has been coined recently to also designate city dwellers who have joined the growing exodus to rural zones in France.  Whatever you call these newcomers, for a certain time they have a  je ne sais quoi that makes them easy to spot as they pamper their brand new potagers, or vegetable gardens, and marvel at the first ripe strawberry of the season.
       
      Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron

      Saturday, October 3, 2009

      ACCIDENTAL ENGLISH

      In the French spirit. . .


      Suffice it to say that English words have always had a way of creeping into the French language. Like week-end, e-mail or the less likely white spirit for paint thinner.

      A French friend told me about a charming blooper she made in her younger, more innocent days: while on a balcony having apéritifs before a dinner party, she accidentally brushed her skirt against some wet paint, peinture fraîche. (People are the same everywhere, always sprucing up at the last minute before having guests over.) 

      When her host noticed the smudge on her skirt he asked her if she wanted some white spirit. Voulez-vous du white spirit? Thinking that it was a cocktail, she replied, "Oui, j'en veux bien si vous en prenez."  Yes, if you have one, too. . .


      At apéritif time every Frenchman's grandmother used to serve Guignolet, a sweet cherry liqueur originating in Dijon. Gabriel Boudier, a French reference in fruit liqueurs, is given credit for creating Guignolet in 1874,  which is obtained by macerating the guigne cherry variety. Once a lady's apéritif of choice with its delicate cherry parfum and pretty ruby robe, the old-fashioned Guignolet which has long been relegated to the back of liquor cabinets, is inching its way forward as an inventive ingredient in cocktails and recipes.



      For a very vintage apéritif, serve chilled at 8°C (46°F); or frappé poured over shaved ice. In cooking, lightly sautéed cherries are glazed with Guignolet for dessert toppings and fillings, or to accompany turkey, pheasant or duck.
       

      Dessert idea: I think chilled Guignolet is best served over vanilla ice-cream.


      Recipe for a Guignolo cocktail: 
      In a champagne flute mix 3/10 natural cherry juice, 2/10 Guignolet, and 5/10 Champagne. Decorate with a preserved cherry or une cerise à l'eau de vie.
       


      Apéritif, in French a masculine noun, is a drink taken before lunch or dinner to stimulate the appetite. Attention, there's the adjective form used to say une boisson apéritive. Or for short, the more youthful apéro (masculine noun).

      For another easy cocktail recipe, see Recipe for a Hypocrite

      Text & photos ©2009 P.B. Lecron