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. 🙂

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! 🙂

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! 🙂

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?? 🙂

Are you tempted to bake this?

It’s virtually Easter!

We’re in our fourth week of lockdown in France!  With lockdowns in place in numerous countries worldwide, it will mean that many people will be celebrating Easter this year very differently compared to previous years!  The churches will be closed, large family gatherings are out of the question, and even family walks are restricted.  I’ll be taking it in my stride, but I feel for those whose lives are being disrupted by being confined to their homes!

I’ll be following some of my Easter traditions such as dyeing hard-boiled eggs:

baking Hot Cross Buns:

and baking a cake in the shape of a lamb:

I will probably prepare Easter lunch using lamb, though this time I won’t leave the shopping to the last minute, as I did back in 2012!! 🙂  You can read my story of that Easter lunch here.

The town of Perpignan won’t be holding its traditional Good Friday procession, but you can have a look at what you’ll be able to see next time you visit around Easter!

Traditionally, families in our area of France (and perhaps in other areas of France too?) will go for a walk on Easter Monday to pick wild asparagus for the Easter omelette.  This year being different, perhaps the omelette may have to be made with bought asparagus, but I’m sure the traditional omelette will be eaten!!

Do you have any Easter traditions you’d like to share?

It’s time!

This post is long overdue!!  I had wanted to start writing again at the end of August, but with one thing and another it didn’t happen quite as planned.  🙂

It’s been a long and busy summer, and with the weather still balmy it feels as though summer is not over yet!  All kinds of things have happened in Saint-Chinian since I wrote my last blog post: night markets, flea markets, concerts, open air cinema, the music festival, guided visits and …

The garden has also kept me busy — the warm summer weather meant that things did grow very well indeed! But in order for the plants to grow that well, the garden needed to be watered – very regularly!  It was all worth it though – the produce was wonderful: tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, beans, cucumbers, melons, onions, okra, raspberries, strawberries, chilli peppers, potatoes and pears!!  I’m sure there’s stuff I’ve forgotten to list! Apples, kiwis and winter squash are yet to be picked.  Part of that bountiful harvest was canned and put in my store cupboard for the winter months, but most of it was eaten right away or given to friends and neighbours.  The orangeglow watermelon in the picture below weighed a whopping 7.2 kg!!  I felt immensely proud for having grown that from seed! 🙂

The orangeglow melon formed the base for the salad in the picture below: watermelon, tomato, red onion and feta – apart from the feta cheese, all the ingredients came from my garden!

Another favourite dish this summer was a salad made with thinly sliced raw courgettes, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan.  The recipe came from the telegraph website – give it a try if you can find small courgettes!

A friend introduced me to the Glory Bowl salad from Whitewater Cooks – it’s a layered salad that starts with cooked rice, topped with grated carrot, grated beetroot, fresh spinach, fried tofu cubes and toasted almonds.  The dressing that goes with this salad is fantastic!  I’ve made it a good many times since, with some variations in the ingredients:

Another favourite this summer was Thomasina Miers’ Roast Aubergine Salad with chickpeas, tomatoes and summer herbs.  Roasting the aubergines with pomegranate molasses turns them into a delicious vegetable in their own right!

Combined with the other ingredients, the aubergines make a most wonderful salad – unlike any I’ve eaten before!  My dressing looked a little grey as I used black sesame paste, but it was delicious all the same!

The fig harvest was not as abundant as last year, but there were still enough to make a delicious compote of figs with lemon and ginger!

The pear trees were heavily laden this year – a lot of them are slowly ripening in my fridge, the remainder are still on the trees!  There’s nothing nicer than a perfectly ripe and juicy pear!!

Late summer plums made an appearance in one of the farm shops I went to recently – they were perfect for a plum tart!!

I leave it at that for now – just one more thing:  If you are in France (or in Europe for that matter), don’t forget that this weekend is European Heritage Weekend – there will be many places to visit!!  I’ll be exploring some of Beziers’ lesser known places and will report back soon!!

Cherry Celebration

Since the cherry season has started and the cherry festival in Mons-la-Trivalle will be taking place this Sunday, June 2, 2019, I thought it appropriate to share this post from a few years ago.  Details of this year’s cherry festival can be found on the website of the Mairie of Mons-la-Trivalle.  I do hope you’ll enjoy your fill of delicious cherries!!


The cherry harvest is in full swing right now, and to celebrate it, the village of Mons-la-Trivalle holds a cherry festival each year, at the beginning of June.  Cherries are grown all over the Languedoc region, but they seem to especially thrive in some areas.  The upper valley of the River Orb is one of these areas, and if you go for a drive at the right time during spring, you’ll see the most amazing sights of trees, white with cherry blossoms!  Later on you’ll see stalls set up by the roadside, selling cherries :).

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The growing season for cherries is pretty short.  From mid to late May, locally grown cherries start to make an appearance in our weekly farmers market.

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The first of the crop are usually quite expensive, but as the season gets under way the prices drop.  Cherries can never be a cheap fruit though: each cherry has to be carefully picked by hand, and that takes time!

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I arrived at the “Fete de la Cerise” just after lunchtime – parking was well signposted, and the view from the car park (up the hill from where the fete was taking place) was spectacular!

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Walking down the road to the village, the cherry trees I passed were heavy with fruit, and the sun was shining – what could be better??

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When I got to the fete I made a beeline for the flea market; there I found a very good selection of all things bric-a-brac, and fell in love with a bentwood armchair – more on that later :)!

The “cherry market” was great too – although, since I was relatively late, the cherries were not as much in abundance as they had been in the morning. But there were enough for me to snap pictures of, and to buy.  I had it in mind to make a Clafoutis, a dessert traditionally made with cherries.  The selection of stalls was excellent, colourful ceramics vying with equally colourful baskets, and there were plants, and hats and of course food!!  I couldn’t resist the French Fries from the Belgian food stand :)!

Entertainment was provided for all ages:  Donkeys would take children for a ride, there was a gyroscope, a stilt-walker, and then there was a corner where a number of games had been set up!  I decided to try a game called Quarto, where wooden pieces are placed on a board, with the aim of forming a line where either the colour, height, shape, or top of the pieces match.  The interesting part is that you chose the piece which your opponent has to put down on the board.  Can’t be that difficult, I thought, and promptly lost the first two games :(, but then I won the third 😀 !

The cherry theme was in evidence everywhere!  Even the members of the roaming drum band had decorated their drums, and in some cases themselves, with cherries!

After all the exertions in the market, I had an ice cream and a glass of water in the local cafe.  From where I was sitting I had a great view of the bentwood armchair – it just kept calling to me.  In the end I simply had to go and take another look at it, and guess what – I came away with the chair in my hands :).  The seat needs re-caning, but the price was good and the shape just so beautiful!

Once I’d gotten my chair home (luckily it fit into the car!), I made the cherry clafoutis.  It’s a very simple dessert: cherries baked in a kind of pancake batter.  Originally from the Limousin, clafoutis is now popular all over the south.  Over the years I’ve tried a number of different recipes and methods, and I’ve now hit on one which I like best.

Cherry Clafoutis

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

500 g cherries
125 ml milk
60 ml cream (single or whipping)
2 eggs
50 g sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tbsp kirsch
butter for greasing

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.  Butter a round or square oven-proof dish, just large enough to hold your fruit in a single layer;  I used a 23×23 cm sized ceramic dish for this recipe.

Wash your cherries and decide on whether or not you want to stone them – I’m not sure whether cooking the cherries with their stones adds any flavour, so when I have enough time I will stone them.

In a bowl mix the flour and sugar, then add the cream, milk, kirsch and eggs and stir with a wire whisk until combined.  Leave the batter to rest for 10 minutes; stir briefly, then pour over the cherries and bake for 30 – 35 minutes.  The exact cooking time may vary depending on your oven, but the clafoutis is cooked when it starts getting puffed around the edges and is no longer wobbly in the centre.

Serve warm or at room temperature.  If serving to children you can omit the kirsch and add a drop (but only one drop!) of almond essence.  You can make this a day ahead, in which case you cover the dish with clingfilm once it’s cooled enough not to melt the clingfilm, and put it in the fridge right away.  Ensure you let it come to room temperature before serving.

Back again!!

It’s been a long time since my last post – my apologies to all of you who have been wondering what had happened to me!!  To answer that in detail would take a long time (and might not be all that interesting), so I’ll keep it brief! 🙂 What I had thought of as a short summer break turned into a more prolonged vacation!  The summer in Saint-Chinian was busy, filled with visitors, endless days of hot and sunny weather, and lots of work in helping to organise the music festival in July.  As soon as the July festival was over, work started on another series of concerts in September.  The good weather continued until fairly recently, and with it the flow of visitors.

Some of you will have read reports of the devastating floods which hit our area in Languedoc recently.  Saint-Chinian did get a huge amount of rain, but our river did not do any serious damage to the village.  Some of the gardens along the river were completely flattened, and the nursery downstream outside the village suffered some damage and loss to their plant stock, but that was pretty much it.

My heart went out to the people around Carcassonne who lost so much to this devastating flood, and I counted myself to have been very lucky.

Now that things have settled down, I am writing once more.  I thought I would start off with a food post.  I recently taught a couple of friends how to make chocolate mousse and i would like to share that with you.

Making chocolate mousse is not difficult and it requires very few ingredients: good chocolate, eggs, cream and water.  Depending on your taste, the chocolate can be dark, milk or white.  It needs to be of a good quality as the final result depends very much on the chocolate.  It goes without saying that the eggs should be very fresh.  (You’ll find a printable recipe at the end of this post.)

Ingredients for chocolate mousse

Ingredients for chocolate mousse

For my tutorial, I decided to use two different kinds of chocolate, white and dark.  The dark chocolate was 72% cocoa; white chocolate contains no cocoa solids at all.  This way, both of my friends could have some hands-on experience!  🙂

Preparing chcolate mousse - melting the chocolate

Preparing chocolate mousse – melting the chocolate

The chocolate pieces were melted in separate bowls set in bowls filled with hot water.  Melting chocolate takes very little effort – just give it a stir from time to time and wait until it is all melted.  The main thing is to not over-heat the chocolate, which can happen when it is melted in the microwave.  When melting the chocolate, be careful not to splash water into the melted chocolate, as this would cause the chocolate to “seize up” and become granular.

While the chocolate was melting, we separated the egg yolks from the whites.  Once the chocolate had melted, the egg yolks were stirred into the chocolate.  This was easier with white the chocolate than with the dark.  Don’t worry if the chocolate goes granular or gritty to begin with, just keep stirring/beating until it becomes a shiny mass or lump.

The water was added next.  In this recipe, the water is used to make the chocolate and egg yolk mixture a little less stiff, so that the whipped egg whites don’t deflate as you try to fold them in.  For the white chocolate only a very little water was required – about half a tablespoon was enough for 135g of white chocolate.  For the dark chocolate we added about 5 tablespoons to 135g of chocolate.  Every chocolate reacts differently, so you’ll need to use your own discretion with the water.  The finished mixture should have the consistency of softened butter.

All ready for folding in the egg whites

We first whipped the egg whites, taking care not to over-beat them, until they formed soft peaks when the (stationary) whisks were pulled out.  I added a tiny pinch of salt to the egg whites, which improved the flavour of the finished mousse.  Next, we whipped the cream to soft peaks – it remained somewhat “floppy”.

The egg whites being folded in

The whipped egg whites were divided between the two bowls, and folded in gently.  The reason that we added the egg whites first was that they would not have deflated if the chocolate mixture had still been a little warm.  The whipped cream would have gone runny had it been added to a warm mixture.

We added the whipped cream before the egg whites were completely blended in.  Further careful folding helped to keep the mixture as light as possible!

The finished mousse.

The white chocolate mousse turned out to be more runny than the dark, most likely due to the lack of cocoa solids in the white chocolate.  We filled eight bowls and ramekins with some of each colour mousse.

Ready to go in the fridge!

The filled bowls looked very pretty!!  Before they went into the fridge, each bowl was covered with cling film/plastic wrap.

Chocolate mousse needs a minimum of four hours in the fridge, so it is best made the day before you want to eat it, or in the morning if you want to serve it for dinner.

Delicious!!

We ate it the following evening – it was delicious!!

Chocolate Mousse

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A light and airy chocolate mousse, the perfect ending to a meal.

Ingredients

  • 270g chocolate
  • 4 eggs
  • 200ml whipping cream
  • 100ml water

Directions

  1. Chop the chocolate or break it into small pieces.  Separate the egg yolks from the whites
  2. Melt the chocolate in a medium-sized bowl over hot water.
  3. Beat the egg yolks into the melted chocolate until the mixture is glossy and clears the sides of the bowl.
  4. Add water one tablespoon at a time, mixing it in until the chocolate mixture has the consistency of soft butter.  You may not need to add the full amount of water.
  5. Whip the egg whites with a tiny pinch of salt until soft peaks form.
  6. Whip the cream until soft peaks form.
  7. With a spatula or spoon, fold the whipped egg whites into the chocolate mixture, followed by the whipped cream.
  8. Divide the mixture between your individual serving bowls, or use one large serving bowl. Cover with film and refrigerate for a minimum of four hours before serving.