Open again!

On October 30, 2020, restaurants, bars and cafes all over France had to close their doors to the public as part of another lockdown. At the time, nobody had any idea as to how long they would have to remain closed, but I don’t think that anyone expected the closure to last as long as it did! Finally, on May 19, 2021 – after six and a half months!! – restaurants, bars and cafes were allowed to serve customers once more. To begin with, diners are only allowed to be seated outside, with tables widely spaced, and the 9pm curfew still in place – but it’s a start!

When you think about how important a role food plays in French life and culture, you can imagine what a deprivation it has been not being able to go out for a meal. Even a glass of wine or a coffee on one of the terraces of the cafes was out of bounds!

I visited Cafe de la Paix in Saint-Chinian last Saturday evening to catch up with friends, and to enjoy a meal prepared by someone else!

The bar at Cafe de la Paix

Cafe de la Paix was taken over by David and Eve four years ago, and they’ve been working hard to improve the guest experience. The garden has had a complete makeover, the gravel being replaced with paving. There is new (comfortable) terrace furniture, and the place has had a general sprucing up inside and outside!!

The garden at Cafe de la Paix

The menu has also had a makeover – the focus is now on bistro cooking and appetising presentation!

Here now are photos of the dishes we enjoyed! ūüôā First off, a couple of delicious starters

Pissaladiere onion tart with smoked trout
Vegetable tart with shavings of Spanish ham

The main courses were equally delicious, and it was bliss to just sit there and have someone bring the food to the table!!

Filet of seabream on a bed of pasta with mussels
Rump steak with red wine sauce and potato gratin
Duck with olives

Our desserts arrived as it was slowly getting darker. The weather was perfect and I didn’t need to put on the jacket I had brought in case I got too cold! The desserts were a yummy ending to a lovely meal!!

Chocolate mousse, chocolate granola, and buckwheat ice cream
Strawberry eclair with strawberry sorbet
Cherry creme brulée

Because of the 9pm curfew, the restaurant had opened at 6.30pm to give diners ample time to enjoy a leisurely meal – it worked very well for us! If you have been to France in the past, you may remember that most restaurants don’t start to serve dinner before 7.30pm. I imagine that we’ll go back to this later starting time once the curfew gets abolished altogether later this summer.

As we head into summer, things are looking a lot more upbeat and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’ll continue that way.

Have you visited your favourite restaurant in France yet?

Asparagus time!

Each spring, I await the coming of the asparagus seller to the weekly market with eager anticipation! Asparagus can be had in the supermarkets well before it arrives at the weekly farmers market, but the supermarket offerings have often travelled a fair distance and are not as fresh as they should be. Most vegetables lose some of their quality if stored too long after harvesting, and asparagus is no exception! The sooner it is eaten after being harvested, the better!! I like to eat the first asparagus of the season simply boiled and served with melted butter and some steamed new potatoes. Once I’ve had my fill of it that way, I will prepare it in different ways.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend suggested that I try Jane Grigson’s recipe for Asparagus and Chicken Gratin. The recipe can be found in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, a wonderful collection of delicious recipes for pretty much every kind of vegetable, and one which I just happen to have on my bookshelf! ūüôā . To sum up the recipe, cooked asparagus is layered with cooked chicken, a white sauce is poured over and the whole is topped with grated cheese, breadcrumbs and some melted butter before being baked until golden and bubbly. Sounds simple – and it’s incredibly delicious!!

The ingredients call for 500 g of asparagus and half a large roasted chicken. Since I don’t prepare roasted chicken very often, I bought three chicken leg quarters from the new poultry stand in the market (that’s a story for another article – I promise!) and roasted them.

I cut a thin slice from the end of each stem and peeled the lower parts of the asparagus in order to minimise waste. I cut the prepared asparagus stems into approximately 5 cm pieces before cooking them in boiling salted water.

I drained the asparagus pieces when they were just tender but retained a bit of bite, and refreshed them in cold water. I set the cooking liquid aside as that was to be used for the white sauce. Here are the main ingredients ready to be layered:

For the white sauce I used 1.5 tbsp of butter and 1.5 tbsp of flour, 300 ml of asparagus cooking water, and 150 ml of cream. For extra flavour, I also added the residue left behind in the tin from roasting the chicken!! I seasoned the sauce with salt and pepper and cooked it until it was nice and thick.

While the sauce was cooking, I put a layer of asparagus into my gratin dish from Poterie Not, and topped that with the diced chicken, which I topped with the remaining asparagus. I decided to use the tips for the top layer and to arrange them in a pretty pattern, but you can do it any way you like. I did not want to overfill my gratin dish, so I filled a smaller dish as well.

I poured the white sauce evenly over the filled gratin dishes and sprinkled the tops with breadcrumbs and grated comte cheese. Grigson specified cheddar cheese in her recipe, but alas, it’s not easy to find cheddar in our part of France.

Once the melted butter was drizzled over the gratin, it was ready to go into the oven. The recipe called for a moderate to high temperature – I set the oven to 190 degrees Centigrade and baked it for about half an hour. While the gratin was in the oven, I prepared some tender broad beans which I had picked in my garden that morning. The pods were very young with the beans hardly developed, so I steamed them whole.

Here’s the finished gratin – it was divinely delicious and well worth the effort that went into its preparation!! Do give it a try if you get a chance!

What’s your favourite way of eating asparagus?

Festival foods

Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent. During the Middle Ages, that day meant the start to 40 days of strict religious fasting. Dairy products along with meat and eggs were forbidden foods until 1491, when Pope Julius III allowed Catholics to eat butter/oil, eggs, cheese, and milk during Lent. Until 1491, people had to find ways to use up the ‘forbidden ingredients’ before Ash Wednesday, and thus were born some of the foods which today are still associated with this time of year. In Britain, Shrove Tuesday is synonymous with pancakes, a dish with simple ingredients – flour, eggs, milk, butter. Making pancakes the day before the fasting started was a way to use up all those ingredients rather than throw them out or, perish the thought, risk sinning!!

In Germany, doughnuts or Krapfen are traditionally eaten during the Carnival celebrations which precede Ash Wednesday. The ingredients are pretty much the same as for pancakes, so this is another recipe which uses up ‘forbidden foods’! Following a recent phone call with my parents where we chatted about Carnival and food, I developed a serious craving for doughnuts!! I knew that none of the shop-bought doughnuts would satisfy that craving – they are nice enough, but they just don’t measure up to a freshly-made yeast-raised doughnut!! Bakeries in France don’t tend to make deep fried pastries, so doughnuts are usually bought-in. And more often than not they are made with baking powder rather than yeast.

So, the only way I could satisfy my craving was to make the doughnuts myself – and that’s exactly what I did!! I started my search for a recipe in my grandmother’s old Regensburger Kochbuch – a book which has seen much use over the decades! It is one of those old-fashioned encyclopaedic cookery books where there are no pictures (yes, none whatsoever!! :)) and where the instructions for each recipe are kept to a minimum. In the picture below you have all the ingredients I used, apart from the oil I used for frying. Just so that there is no confusion – I was going to make jam (or jelly) filled doughnuts!

I used 500 g flour, 25 g fresh baker’s yeast, 1/2 tsp fine salt, 250 ml milk, 4 egg yolks, 80 g butter, 50 g icing sugar (you can use regular sugar too), 1 tbsp rum, and the finely grated zest from one lemon. I also used one jar of apricot jam for filling the doughnuts and icing sugar to dust the cooked doughnuts. I compared various other recipes and they all seemed to agree on the flour and egg ratio. The rum was not in the recipe in my grandmother’s book, but I had a little left in the bottle, and I thought it would do no harm. In case you are wondering, it didn’t, quite the opposite in fact!

I warmed the milk to lukewarm and dissolved the yeast in four tablespoons of the warm milk. To the remaining milk I added the butter, sugar, salt, and the egg yolks, and mixed it until blended. I put the flour into the bowl of my stand mixer, made a well in the centre and put in the dissolved yeast. With the mixer running on low speed, I added the milk/egg/etc. mixture, the lemon zest, and the rum, and left the machine to do the work until a soft dough formed. Once that was done, I increased the speed of the mixer a little and let it knead the dough for 10 minutes while I had a cup of tea. ūüôā

Here’s what the finished dough looked like:

I covered the bowl and let the dough rise – the kitchen was not very warm that day, so I heated the oven to 50 degrees centigrade, turned it off and put the covered dough in the oven. It was lovely and cosy in there and in next to no time the dough looked like this:

Looks fabulous, doesn’t it?? I turned the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and deflated it by kneading it a little. I then used a rolling pin to flatten the dough to a thickness of about 2 cm. Using a round cookie cutter (mine was about 8 cm in diameter) I cut out rounds which weighed about 50 g each. I put the rounds on a lightly floured cloth and covered them to rise once more. I formed the dough scraps into balls which also weighed 50 g each.

While the doughnuts were rising, I prepared the oil bath. I used grape-seed oil because of its neutral flavour and also because of it’s fairly high smoke point (420 F / 215 C). I also like using grape-seed oil because it is a byproduct from winemaking! ;). I prepared my cooling racks by lining them with paper towels, and I sieved the apricot jam to remove any bits and skins which might block the nozzle of the filling tube.

And then it was time to start the frying – the doughnuts were beautifully puffed up, and the oil was at the right temperature, 320 F / 160 C.

After three minutes I flipped them over and cooked them for a further 2 minutes.

The oil always bubbled a little more once doughnuts were flipped over, but it was easy cooking without any splattering. I cooked the doughnuts in four batches and left them to cool before I filled them with the apricot jam. Just before serving, I dusted them with icing sugar.

They were beautifully fluffy and the outside had a slight crunch – heavenly! The flavour was fabulous with a hint of lemon and rum. They definitely hit the spot and fulfilled my craving!!

Have you ever made your own doughnuts? How do you like your doughnuts filled? Or do you prefer your doughnuts with a hole in the middle??

Back from the edge!

My last article ended with a bit of a cliff-hanger for many of you. I’d not intended it to be thus, but I felt that continuing the article would have made it too long. For those of you who have not read the previous article, I am on a quest to recreate a recipe for nut braid – a delicious treat during my childhood days. In today’s article I’ll describe how I made my own croissant pastry and how I baked yet another nut braid with it.

Before I embarked on making my own croissant pastry, I checked several of my cookery books to compare the different recipes. Croissant pastry is similar to puff pastry – a basic dough which, to use the technical term, gets ‘laminated’ with fat (butter in this case) to create many separate layers. Croissant pastry differs from puff pastry in that the basic dough has yeast in it, giving it extra rise and a less brittle texture compared to puff pastry.

After reading through the various recipes, I decided to make the version found in Gaston Lenotre’s Desserts and Pastries, a book which I cherish for the precision of its recipes and its clear instructions, and for the fact that the results are always delicious! If you enjoy baking, it is a cookery book which I can highly recommend. It was published in 1981 and is long out of print, but you may be able to find a second-hand copy on the internet.

The ingredients for croissant pastry are very simple: flour, water, yeast, milk, sugar and butter. It’s the proportions of the ingredients and the technique which produce the magical results!

In the picture above you can see all the ingredients for the croissant dough:

18 g baker’s yeast dissolved in 1 1/2 tbsp of warm water, 50 g sugar, 15 g salt, 2 tbsp milk, 40 g butter, 125 ml water, 125 ml milk, 500 g flour, 260 g butter.

These quantities make enough dough for two nut braids or one nut braid and 15 croissants or some danish pastries. The dough is best made in a stand mixer, but you can also make it with a hand mixer or by hand.

Mix the sugar and salt with 2 tbsp of milk in a small bowl. Melt 40 g butter over low heat, add the 125 ml of milk and the water, and heat until lukewarm. Put the flour in your mixing bowl. On low speed add the sugar/milk mixture to the flour, then add the butter/milk/water mixture and beat for about a minute, then add the dissolved yeast and beat until a dough forms. It will be very light and lukewarm.

Cover the bowl (with a towel or lid) and let the dough rise for about an hour or until doubled in size. Can you see the difference in the picture below?

When the dough has “grown” sufficiently, remove it from the bowl and put it into a lightly floured shallow baking dish, patting it into an even thickness. Cover and refrigerate for two to three hours.

Half an hour before you continue to work on the dough, take half the butter (130 g) from the fridge and allow it to soften. When you are ready to start rolling, take the dough from the fridge and place it on a lightly floured work surface. Roll it into a rectangle

Cover two thirds of the dough with the softened butter.

Fold the unbuttered third over the butter…

… then fold the double layer over the buttered part so that you end up with a neat rectangle and no butter showing.

Turn this parcel of dough 90 degrees to the left or right and roll it out again into a rectangle, then repeat the folding into thirds. The dough now consists of 9 layers! Now it’s time to cover the dough and return it to the fridge to rest for 2 hours or overnight. Remember to remove the remaining 130 g of butter from the fridge half an hour before you want to continue to work with the dough. Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface and repeat the buttering, folding and turning again. Roll the dough into a rectangle of 20 x 25 cm, cover it and return it to the fridge for an hour.

And there you have it: the croissant dough is ready!! I’m not sure of the maths, but the dough should now have 81 layers! To begin with, I was daunted by the prospect of all that rolling and folding, but it wasn’t actually that difficult! It was more a question of getting organised and getting the timing right.

With the dough ready and resting, it was time to prepare the filling ingredients for the nut braid: 100 g almonds, 100 g hazelnuts, 3 egg whites, 3 tbsp sugar, 1/4 tsp cinnamon. The egg yolks in the picture below are NOT used in the filling, they are only there to brighten up the picture! ūüôā

I used my trusted old mouli hand grater to grate the nuts – mine has three drums, one for fine, a second one for coarse grating, and a third for slicing. I ground the nuts coarsely as that gives a better texture to the filling. I also turned on the oven to pre-heat at 190 degrees Centigrade.

All the other ingredients were added to the grated nuts and mixed to a paste.

Next, I divided the dough into two halves after it had rested in the fridge. One half was wrapped and put back in the fridge (to be used for a second nut braid). I rolled the other half into a rectangle on a lightly floured surface, until the dough was about as thick as a 1 Euro coin. I spread the nut mixture evenly over the dough, using my fingers – I found that to be easier than using a spatula. Yes, I did wash my hands beforehand, and yes it was a little messy, but I washed my hands again afterwards! ūüôā

I rolled the dough from the short end, swiss-roll fashion, and pinched the seams together. My roll was a little long, so I cut some slices from each end, to make nut pinwheels. Then I cut the roll in half lengthwise…

… and twisted the two strands around one-another, with the cut sides facing upwards. Voila, the braid and the pinwheels ready on the baking sheet:

I baked the braid for approximately 40 minutes (the pinwheels were ready earlier). I left it to cool on a cake rack after it was baked, then iced it with a glaze made with 1 cup icing sugar, a little water and 1/4 tsp cinnamon powder. Here’s what it looked like:

It was really delicious – crispy edges, buttery pastry and a lovely nutty filling! The result was very close to what I remember from my youth!! Perhaps the next one will be perfection?? ūüôā

Are you tempted to bake this?

Experimenting…

The recent cold spell combined with rain and the curfew has meant that I have been less inclined to work in my garden. I put the spare time to good use though – I started to sort through some of the recipes that I had printed out over the years! I’d accumulated quite a stack of pages and it was high time that I went through them. Many ended up in the recycling bin: dishes that had sounded so appealing when I came across them on the internet, but which were never prepared, copies of recipes which I had printed off several times because they were really good, and recipes which I had made once but found not to be great. I now have a pile of recipes which are ‘keepers’ and another pile of recipes which I want to prepare before deciding whether to keep or discard. And there are only so many meals in a week!! ūüôā

Whilst searching for a certain recipe in my collection, I re-discovered another one which was given to my mother by Frau Sturm, a neighbour, 45+ years ago. It was for a nut braid, a sweet yeast dough with a nutty filling, something eaten in the afternoon with tea or coffee. The recipe was fairly rudimentary, a list of ingredients, the oven temperature, and an approximate baking time. I don’t remember if my mother ever made the nut braid, but I immediately remembered the nut braids we sometimes bought at one of the local bakeries when I was growing up – they were a rare treat and totally delicious!

I decided then and there that I would try to recreate those nut braids. I knew that I would never get them to match my memories, but it was worth a try!

For my first try I just went along with Frau Sturm’s recipe, making a yeast dough with 500 g flour, 250 ml milk, 20 g compressed (fresh) bakers’ yeast, 100 g sugar, 125 g butter, 3 egg yolks, a pinch of salt and a packet of vanilla sugar. The filling was made with 100 g almonds, 100 g hazelnuts, 3 tbsp sugar, 3 egg whites, 1 tbsp rum, 1/4 tsp cinnamon powder.

Once the dough had doubled in volume, I rolled it out into a large rectangle, about half a centimetre thick. For the filling, I ground the nuts and mixed all the ingredients together, then spread the filling on the rolled-out dough. Starting at the narrow end, I rolled the dough up jelly-roll fashion and pinched the dough to seal the roll. That done, I cut the roll in half lengthwise and twisted the two halves around one another. My largest baking sheet was barely large enough to accommodate the braid! Here is a picture of it before baking:

I baked it at 200 degrees centigrade for about 40 minutes. Once the braid had cooled, I iced it with a thick glaze made with icing sugar, cinnamon and water. Below is what it looked like when it was all done and ready to eat! ūüôā

The braid was very delicious, but it wasn’t quite like the ones I remembered from the local bakery. Those had a crispiness to them which mine did not have, and somehow the layers were separate where mine had kind of blended together.

I talked to my mother about the experiment and about how to achieve a result which was more like the ones from the bakery. She suggested using croissant dough, which is made more or less like puff pastry, but with yeast in the basic dough before it gets laminated (the technical term) with butter. Our local supermarket stocks croissant pastry – it comes ready rolled in cans! I bought two, unrolled the strips of dough to get my large rectangle, spread the filling over it and did the rolling, cutting and twisting as before. Here’s what it looked like before baking:

And after baking:

I was getting somewhat closer to the bakery result, the pastry was crispy on the surface, and the ratio of pastry to filling was better than in my first attempt. But there was still room for improvement!

I decided to make my own croissant pastry, and I’ll share the process and results with you in a future post!!

The best laid plans…

Sometimes the best intentions get you nowhere and the best laid plans fall apart. ¬†It’s been like that with this week’s blog post!¬† I planned to write a new article about the French custom of eating galette des rois during the month of January. ¬†I’d found a great recipe for a¬†galette au chocolat on the Valrhona website (in French), and I was going to make that and show you the process and the results on the blog. ¬†And then life intervened in the shape of the music festival that I help organise, and the¬†galette never got made.

But to keep with my plan to post an article every other week, here is a re-run of an article from 2014 about¬†¬†regular galette des rois –¬†I hope you’ll enjoy it just as much.

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In France, Twelfth Night is celebrated with the galette des rois Рa wonderful confection of buttery puff pastry, which is filled with almond frangipane.  The galette is usually eaten with friends and/or family, and can be found for sale in French bakeries throughout the month of January.  A small feve (bean or charm) is usually hidden in the filling, and the person who finds the feve in his or her slice is crowned king or queen for the day.  The feve can take all sorts of forms, from a simple dried bean to a porcelain figure such as this:

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If you don’t live anywhere near a bakery where you can buy a ready-made¬†galette des rois, here is how to make your own. ¬†The basic ingredients are very simple, especially if you buy the puff pastry ready-rolled: butter, almonds, sugar, cornflour, eggs. ¬†I’ll be listing quantities at the end of this post as a printable recipe. ¬†I had planned to add some dried yuzu (Japanese citrus) peel to the filling, which is in the yellow packet. ¬†In the end I decided against it.

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To make the frangipane filling, beat the soft butter with the sugar until white and fluffy.

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Add the eggs and beat until incorporated.

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Add the ground almonds, cornflour and amaretto or brandy, and stir until well mixed.

Unroll one sheet of puff pastry and put on a lined baking sheet. ¬†I used the bottom of a cake pan (25cm diam) to cut a neat circle, as the rolled sheets are always slightly oval. ¬†Spread the apricot jam on the base to within 2 cm from the edges…

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…and top with the frangipane mixture.¬† Don’t forget to put the feve into the frangipane filling!

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Unroll the second sheet of puff pastry, and trim again.  Moisten the edges of the base with water and place the second sheet on top.  Press the edges to seal in the filling.

Mark the top of the pastry with a pattern of your choice:  spirals, zigzags or diamonds Рwhatever you like.  Glaze the top with beaten egg, which will give the finished galette a wonderful shiny finish.

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Bake the galette in a pre-heated oven (200C, 185C fan, gas 6) for 25 to 30 minutes.  When it comes out of the oven it should look somewhat like this:

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Leave the galette to cool to lukewarm, before you cut it!

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A few notes on the recipe: ¬†I’m not sure whether I’ll be using the apricot jam the next time I make this. ¬†I thought the tartness would complement the rich filling, but having tasted it, I’m not sure that it does. ¬†You could roast the almonds before grinding them. ¬†If you prefer a more pronounced¬†almond flavour, you could add almond essence to the frangipane. ¬†I brushed on too much of the beaten egg so that it went over the edges of the pastry, which stopped it from rising correctly.

Galette des Rois

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients:
2 rounds of ready rolled puff pastry
2 tbsp apricot jam
100g butter at room temperature
75g caster sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
125g ground almonds
1 1/2 tbsp cornflour
2 tbsp amaretto or brandy
1 beaten egg for glazing

Pre-heat the oven to 200C – fan 185C – gas mark 6

To make the frangipane filling, beat the softened butter with the sugar until white and fluffy.  Add the egg and egg yolk and beat until incorporated.  Add the ground almonds, cornflour and amaretto or brandy, and stir until well mixed.

Unroll one sheet of puff pastry and put on a lined baking sheet.  I used the bottom of a cake pan to cut a neat round (the rolled sheets are always slightly oval).  Spread the apricot jam on the base, to within 2 cm of the edges, and top with the frangipane mixture.

Unroll the second sheet of puff pastry, and trim again.  Moisten the edges of the base with water and place the second sheet on top.  Press the edges to seal in the filling.

Mark the top of the pastry with a pattern of your choice:  spirals, zig-zags or diamonds Рwhatever you like.  Glaze the top with beaten egg, which will give the finished galette a wonderful shiny finish.

Bake the galette in a pre-heated oven for 25 to 30 minutes.  Leave to cool to lukewarm before cutting.