Monday, September 15, 2014

Moka Mocha

Coffee and chocolate—the inventor of mocha should be sainted. - Cherise Sinclair, Hour of the Lion

 Moka Mocha a confusion worth clearing up, I dare say. As both a coffee drinker and a lover of, well, mocha, that divine and near-perfect combination of chocolate and coffee that I hold close to my heart, even I had to find out what it all meant. I imagined they were one and the same, just a different spelling. But no.

 Moka, un grand café, as the French would say, a coffee with a definitely savage bent. Steamed hot and rich, reminiscent of the mysteries of the port city in Yemen after which it was named. Steamed in a tiny metal pot, a moka, stained with seasons, with years of coffee; leave it for just a second too long and that moka sizzles and froths up and over. Splattering moka across the stovetop. Moka blackened with years of sitting atop that flame.

 Mocha, oh mocha, that heavenly, sinful blend of coffee and chocolate! Hot chocolate, thick and creamy, a shot of bitter café serré, strong espresso, quite possibly a moka, a froth of foam and a pile, a swirl of whipped cream. Be still, my heart, is it love or is it sugar and caffeine? Nectar of the gods.

 A birthday cake. Or shall I say The Birthday Cake? Every single year. Mocha. A deep, dark, dense chocolate cake, any liquid required replaced by strong coffee. A creamy frosting, a buttercream rich with cocoa whipped into cream, butter, mascarpone whatever the mood preaches. And sugar, of course. Then add the coffee, moka in powdered form, and beat until the chocolate, the sugar, the espresso create an ambrosial concoction, impossible to resist.

 Aromatic, like the best little café of dark wood paneling, scratched mahogany tabletops, wobbly chairs, the air redolent of coffee, doled out in a continuous stream from the steaming machine behind the bar, coffees sipped one after the other all morning long accompanied by mountain of pains au chocolat.

 I make my own birthday cake every single year and I invariably choose a mocha cake with mocha buttercream. My party, my choice and who agrees can share.

 Tiny little moka pot, innocent, inanimate objet yet somehow terrifying, the bane of my existence. For many years of my life, coffee was instant, granules measured into a mug, drenched with boiling water, stirred until dissolved. What could be easier? Or prepared in great quantities for synagogue buffets or evening cake and coffee in those giant silver urns with the intriguing little spigots; press down on the black plastic pad and coffee comes out, have the cup ready! Wonderful and heady that pervading aroma of coffee! Always in the responsible, capable hands of the ladies in the kitchen.

 Or filtered. Place a white paper filter into the plastic cone, three scoops coffee and boiling water. Pour slowly. Fill the filter twice and the pot is full. Preferred even to an electric coffee machine!

 But a moka, the tiny, virtuous, rudimentary little coffee pot, scares me. There is something too mysterious and uncontrollable about it. Pour the water into the bottom chamber; press the coffee into the center compartment and screw on the top. Invisible, the process is invisible and the pot stands uncertainly, precariously atop the flame. How does one tell? How does the water push itself up, push its way through the grounds and into the top? How does one simply keep from getting burned in the process? I once made a boyfriend quite angry when I let the coffee boil up and over. He gave me the delicate task, the overwhelming responsibility of removing the moka from the flame when the coffee was ready but, I protested, I have never seen one of these contraptions! How will I know? How does one keep it from boiling over and out all over the stovetop? But he left the room, left me to my own devices and, staring hard at that moka, willing it to speak to me, begging, praying for a sign that would let me know when the espresso was ready, not to soon, not too late. But it was.

 La cuillère à moka, the tiny, delicate little moka spoon for stirring tiny little espressos in tiny little demitasses. Or eating ice cream, maybe. Coffee ice cream. Or mocha with a hint of chocolate.

The combination of coffee and chocolate is like a perfect marriage, the flavours complement each other but they still stand out on their own and this cake is the epitome of that! I have to confess that the icing doesn't look perfect but it is so good on this cake that I never really worked on making it visually beautiful;  let's put it this way, it isn't the best looking fruit and vegetables that tastes the best and that goes for this icing as well!


180 g/ 6.3 oz soft butter
170 g/ 6 oz light cane sugar
3 eggs
2 tbs prepared very strong coffee
180g/ 6.3 oz pastry flour
1 tsp baking powder
3 tsp cocoa powder

100 g/ 3.5 oz dark quality chocolate
20 g/ 0.7 oz butter
3 tbs milk
125 g/ 4.4 oz icing sugar

   Cream butter and sugar in a bowl until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time until well blended and then add the coffee and mix well. Sift the flour, baking soda, and cocoa powder into the bowl; stir into the creamed mixture.

  Put the batter in a greased and lightly floured cake tin (approx. 21 cm/ 8.25 in) and bake in a pre-heated oven (175°C/350°F) for 30 minutes. When ready, transfer the cake to a wire rack and let it cool.

When the cake has cooled down, make the icing: melt the chocolate, butter and milk in a water bath (or be daring (lazy?) and do like I do and do it in a small pan over a very low flame). Remove from the heat and sift the icing sugar into the mixture and when it has cooled down a little, spread it out over the cake.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Mustard Yellow

mustard yellow

 He once bought me a beautiful mustard-yellow coat from the Compagnie Française de l'Orient et de la Chine, a stunning wool bouclé coat in the shape of a kimono. To wear in the autumn when the leaves transform from plump, luxurious green to shades of gold and red, violet and chocolate. And mustard yellow. We still refer to it to this day as The Mustard Coat. Later, he offered me a silver ring, thick and chunky almost but not quite like a man's, with three, square stones, citrines, mustard yellow.

 And the gorgeous silk scarf, as large as a shawl, delicate and flowing and the yellow of American mustard! Vibrant and elegant at once, is this how he sees me? I wrap that mustard yellow shawl around my shoulders and as light, as ethereal as is that silk it cloaks me in warmth, the warmth of a yellow sun, the heat of yellow mustard.

 Colonel Mustard in the conservatory with the lead pipe.

mustard yellow props

 Leaves the yellow of mustard indicate autumn, leaves the yellow of mustard spread out across the vineyards, flicking in the cool autumn breeze, imitating the watery mustard yellow of the season's sun. 

 Leaves the yellow of mustard gather around the feet of the statue of Anne de Bretagne, herself the color of a tarnished night sky, striding confidently across the tiny square in front of the city's château, her own château, those autumn leaves unruffled. A golden yellow the color of the paper crown I once found perched atop her regal head. 

 Leaves the yellow of mustard collect atop the trees in the city squares, lining the city avenues, leaves rarely auburn or russet but always mustard yellow. Catching the sun. Those yellow leaves flutter down around our own feet, fill the gutters, collecting there to wait for the rain. 

 Dog wading through carpets of matted yellow leaves, tiptoeing, loath to press his feet into the sopping blanket of wet leaves. Photographs, and I have several, of our two boys lying on their backs against another carpet of leaves, mustard yellow, sepia brown, deep amber, or pushing wheelbarrows filled with the colors of an Italian autumn, another era, another dog dancing around their feet. 

 Mustard yellow number 2 pencils clutched in the hands of school children. Remember?

mustard yellow peppers 

A tale without love is like beef without mustard, an insipid dish. - Anatole France 

 What is more French than mustard? Dijon, of course, strong, nay, powerful! The tiniest spoonful clears the sinuses, quite a bang for one's buck, as they say. Mustard is the condiment par excellence, and no French kitchen is complete without a jar or three. 

 And we do. Have jars of mustards, each serving a particular purpose, each serving someone's taste. Dijon, of course, the color of yellow Champagne, the color of dull straw. A delicate yellow belying its often rabid bite. A dollop in a bowl whisked (always with the tines of a fork) with a capful of red wine vinegar and two portions olive oil, salted and peppered, for a French vinaigrette tossed with mixed greens or spooned over steamed leeks or asparagus. Lapin à la moutarde on a disastrous blind date in a tiny Parisian bistro, tiny wooden table topped with crinkly paper placemats on the sidewalk. Wonderful lapin à la moutarde even if the date turned out to be yellow. 

Mustard's no good without roast beef. - Chico Marx 

 We must have a jar of this! he exclaimed as he handed me a jar of scarily lurid, neon yellow Savora mustard. The mustard of his childhood. Gaudy. And whole grain mustard, my son's favorite, flecks of sepia, speckles of amber amid dull gold, khaki yellow. Mustard for dipping chunks of roasted chicken in. Mustard for smearing on a hot dog. 

 American mustards, so different in aspect, in yellow, than their French cousins! Ah, French's mustard, the mustard of my youth is a bold, vivid yellow, so American. With bite but yet not the heat. Zesty yet judicious. And spicy brown the yellow of goldenrods. 

 Creamed honey the color of dull mustard yellow.

mustard yellow powder-2

 Upon my return to France, a return he only half expected, he welcomed me with a bouquet of tulips, golden and mustard yellow tulips that somehow matched the color of my tattered old silk dressing gown. 

 Fields of colza dazzling in the sun, dazzlingly yellow spread out in blankets of mustard yellow as our car whizzes along the autoroute or through country roads of France. Or fields of sunflowers, their petals a bright, vivid yellow, all staring intently at the sun. Fields of flames. 

 Bananas and squash, shiny yellow peppers, corn on the cob. Early apricots or French butter. And French egg yolks. Mangos? Dried apples and devilled eggs. Ah, macaroni and cheese and cheese soufflé especially when kicked up with a spoonful or two of. Mustard. Cornbread. 

 Yet mustard greens, although with the peppery bite, the heat of mustard, are green. 

 So green. Sponge Bob, Big Bird, Winnie the Pooh. Curious George and the Man with the Mustard Yellow Hat?

mustard yellow recipe

These are the perfect bread to serve with a light meal of soup or salad, a meal of grilled meat or fish and plain vegetables, or a sweet and savory brunch; the cheddar cheese, the mustard and the green onions give these easy-to-make muffins the punch of flavor an otherwise simple meal needs. Serve them warm from the oven with lots of butter to melt onto the tender, moist crumb. 


2 cups (260 g) flour
1 Tbs baking powder
1 Tbs sugar
½ tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
¾ cup (175 ml) milk
¼ cup (4 Tbs, 60 g) butter, melted
3 Tbs Dijon or Dijon-style mustard
1 ½ cups (about 6 oz, 180 g) grated sharp or extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
½ tsp paprika
1 – 2 Tbs thin green onions/scallions, tender green part only, or chives, chopped (I would use some of the white too)

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Prepare a 12-cup muffin tin either by lining the cups with cupcake papers or greasing generously.

 In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and a generous grinding of black pepper. In a separate medium mixing bowl, combine the eggs, milk, melted butter, mustard, grated cheese, paprika and chopped greens. Whisk until well blended.

 Pour the liquid mixture over the dry ingredients in the larger bowl and, using a rubber or silicone spatula, fold just until well combined. Do not over mix! Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, dividing evenly. Bake for 20 minutes or until puffed, golden and set in the centers. Remove from oven, turn out of the tins and serve warm.

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Monday, September 1, 2014


 From Florida to Brittany, one side of the Atlantic to the other, across the pond. Oceanside, beachside, salt water, seafood. Salted butter was a thing of my childhood and I knew no other. Salted butter for eating, dabbing on baked potatoes, plopping on steaming oatmeal, melting onto oven-warm muffins and toaster-warm cherry Poptarts. Tossing into popcorn and making grilled cheese sandwiches. Salted butter for both savory and sweet. I knew nothing of saltless sweet butter until I moved north. My New York cousins swore by sweet, unsalted butter for cooking and baking alike and when I tried it, spread on a piece of bread, I could not understand the passion for something that tasted of nothing.

 Until I got used to it.

 Then I moved to Brittany, or close enough to it both physically and historically, to be confronted once again by the salt-no salt quandary. Our Breton friends swear by salted, come hell or high (sea) water, the ocean in their blood. Little by little I drop my sweet butter desires and focus instead on salt. Salted butter in the preparation of a gâteau nantais, for the local caramel au beurre salé, melted onto a crêpe then dusted with sugar. Beurre blanc nantais.

 A smear of salted butter on a toasted bagel. A smear of salted butter on brown bread, a bite and a slurp of oyster.

 Back to my childhood, salt of the earth.

 Little packets of salt purchased at the market, salt direct from the salt marshes a mere stone's throw from the city. Salt the color of a sandy beach, pale gray, and salt the deep white of pure snow on a bright day. Salt speckled with herbs and spices, thyme, basil, shallots. Salt blended golden with curry powder or ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Flecked with miniscule bits of black truffle.

 "You forgot to add salt," he says. "Again." Food bland, sauce has no flavor, spices fall flat and gravy insipid. "It's not bad," he murmurs with that tiniest bit of reproof hovering around the edges of his words as if not wanting to hurt my feelings.

 Take his criticism with a grain of salt.

 "Salt is the single most important ingredient," he once taught me, and repeats constantly. Pinch of salt, teaspoon of salt, shake of salt. The big blue container of fine table salt sits near the stovetop on the tray next to the canister of coarse sea salt, whiter than white, a hint of transparent. Dust liberally with salt, add generous amounts, don't be afraid. If in doubt, add a bit more rather than a bit less. Pinch of sugar, pinch of salt.

 Any cook worth his or her salt knows that a bit of sugar tames the acid and a bit of salt heightens the sweetness.

 Pass the salt, please.

 Table salt, sea salt, fleur de sel. Smoked salt colored pale brown, feminine pink Himalayan salt. Inky black Cleopatra salt the color of ash. Beautiful deep citrine saffron salt. What to cook? What to cook?

 Tears of joy, tears of sadness. Tears, salty like seawater rushing over me, warm and soothing like hot pretzels eaten on the boardwalk or comforting like a pot full of steaming homemade stew, comforting us on a rainy day. The loss of a loved one, the end of a movie, tears purging the pain. Tears, lick the saltiness with the tip of your tongue, the waves pounding, clouds rushing through the sky, foretelling a storm. We dive below the surface and come up choking on a mouthful of salt water like so many tears, the darkness wrapping around us as we struggle for breath, the salt taste lingering as we paddle towards the shore. But we will forget the whole nightmare once back on the beach, once we light the bonfire, the salty taste of roasting sausages bringing the smiles back, washing away the tears.

 Tears of joy, salt mingling with laughter, a baby born, a wedding, kiss the saltwater away, brush salty tears off of a cheek. Cry out in pain; does sweat contain more salt than tears? A finger pressed against a single rivulet as it glides down his back, stopping the course. Lips pressed against his forehead, his cheek, taste the salt, sweat or tears?

 I was raised in a salty-movie-popcorn culture. I slip my dollars through the slot and receive a ticket in return. I push through the glass doors – always heavy glass doors – and take in the atmosphere, the smells of a movie theater lobby, the oddly bright lights. Carpet – there is always a carpet – littered with bits of popcorn and ticket stubs, stray M & M's and dirt. Charming. The noise and bustle of a movie theater lobby as people push through the throngs and rush off to catch their film, afraid to even miss the twenty minutes – is it only twenty minutes it seems like eternity – of advertisement and trailers. 

 There is something about being in a cinema, a movie theater that makes me crave popcorn. The saltier the better. It always came part and parcel with every movie experience of my younger days and a film, deep velvet chairs and popcorn in a tall cardboard box just seem to go together. It can't be homemade, no, it must come from the large, square glass cage with the contraption inside that turns and turns like a carnival carousel and spits out hot popcorn under the dazzling heat lamps. Big metal scoops tucked into a box exchanged for some coins and I can snuggle down into my seat and… no, my self-control is admirable and I don't begin nibbling on my popcorn until the movie starts. What? Popcorn for the advertisements and movie trailers? I eat my way through that box of popcorn, meting it out so it lasts the length of the film, my lips puckering from the salt, fingers licked over and over again, thirst mounting, but every kernel of popcorn must be salty. 

 So think of my shock and consternation upon arriving in France, stepping up to the popcorn counter at my first French film and being offered… sugared popcorn! Sweet not salted! Oooh la la! Non, merci. Le popcorn salé, s'il vous plaît! 

 Huge pretzels the size of my hand, warm and soft and speckled with coarse salt. The tradition is to squirt on a hearty squiggle of bright yellow mustard but doesn't that just make the salt disappear beneath its overwhelming spice and heat. Grains of salt cracking under the teeth, salt bringing flavor and edge to something delicate and mundane.

There are a few things I could eat until I drop (or should I say explode?) and focaccia is one of them. I definitely prefer the original, simple type without topping or anything inside; if it is good,  nothing beats it. I have been experimenting with different kinds of flours and after years of focaccia baking, I must say that this one made with kamut or khorasan wheat flour is the best of the best! Kamut is more expensive than normal flour but I happily pay a bit extra to have its sweet flavour, and if you make it at home, you still won't pay as much as you would have to pay for a boring standard focaccia in a bakery! Read more about it here.


700 g/25 oz kamut flour (you can use normal flour too but then you will have to use more of it as kamut flour absorbs lots of liquid)
250 ml/ 1+ a little more cup milk
250 ml/ 1+ a little more cup water
5 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 full tbs honey
1 tsp salt

olive oil and salt emulsion
1/2 tbs salt
2 tbs water
4 tbs extra-virgin olive oil

   Crumble the yeast in small bowl, add a little of the finger warm liquid and dissolve the yeast. Add the rest of the liquid, olive oil, honey and salt and stir well. Add the flour, a little at a time and work it until it is nice and elastic. You may need less or more flour than stated. Cover it with a towel and let it rest for an hour or two, depending on how warm your kitchen is. Let it double in size.

   Turn on the oven (200°C/390°F).

   Divide the dough in two if you plan to make bigger focaccias. Grease two baking sheets or baking pans with olive oil and slop the dough into them. I find it easier to flatten out the dough with oily hands but if you want you can roll them out before you put them in. Let the dough rest a little before you begin because it relaxes and is easier to flatten.

   Mix salt, water and olive oil in a jar and shake until you have an emulsion. Get a brush and brush the salt and oil on top of the dough and then slap it all into the oven until the focaccias are golden, it takes about 20 minutes in my oven.

Monday, August 25, 2014


 He found the billfold in our brother's belongings, a gorgeous billfold in chocolate brown crocodile the color of Hershey's Kisses. Slick, shiny leather with those recognizable markings of beast. A billfold tucked away in a drawer and stuffed with a thick fold of bills, curious and incomprehensible considering he was too ill to go out and spend it. The dollars were taken and spent on a glorious meal for us, his closest family, the night of his funeral, a dinner in his honor.

 And the beautiful, exotic chocolate brown crocodile billfold was given to my son as a keepsake.

 Fold, turn, roll. Fold, turn, roll. How many times had I watched the chef pound butter into a thick square, fold it in dough, flour and water, and go through the process of roll, fold, turn, roll and fold again? Before I dared do it myself? Puff pastry.

 "Like a book," he would say, pointing to his perfect folds, his perfectly aligned edges, his perfectly squared corners. "One fold, the right third in towards the center, the second fold over top that one until you have the dough folded into thirds, three layers turned so the top layer opens in front of you like a book."

 I longed to make puff pastry, longed to smooth my hands over the soft, supple dough. I dreamed of rolling it out into a perfect rectangle the length of the table in front of me. I yearned to mentally divide that rectangle into thirds and fold and fold again, turning the square one quarter turn until it opened like a book, edges perfectly aligned, corners perfectly square like a military bed.

 When I finally gathered my courage years later (and don't things you have put off for years for fear of failing because they seem so impossible turn out to be so simple?), what pleasure whacking those blocks of butter into a square, folding them into the pliable packet of dough like arms folded around a lover, rolling back and forth, back and forth into a rectangle albeit rather imperfect, brushing the flour off of the cool, smooth surface poof poof and folding. One fold, two folds, adjust, realign, tug the odd corner in an attempt to recreate what my chef had done all those years before and turn… until lifting the top fold is like opening the leaves of a book.

 Many swear by their stand mixer for everything from whipping egg whites into meringue, blending flour, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla, milk into cake batter, kneading dough into bread. But don't I just prefer doing it by hand. Control freak? Maybe just a little. But it isn't only. My kitchen utensil of choice is a silicone spatula with the gently curved head like a softly cupped hand. I find great joy in using this spatula to fold sugar and almond meal into whipped whites, fold turn fold turn lift and scoop and fold, into a thick concoction to be piped out into macaron shells, or swirls of meringue bites. I love the sensual pleasure of folding chopped nuts into creamy brownie batter, flour into thick, fluid eggs and sugar, cocoa powder into almost anything it all, watching as the dark streaks blend, turning white into chocolate. Folding delicately, lifting, folding and a swoosh of the spatula through a batter, a liquid, a mixture and watch it change color, texture, consistency, the magic of folding resulting in something light and ethereal.

 Kneading dough by hand, while much more difficult and time consuming than using the machine, kneading dough by hand, while using much more muscle power and elbow grease than I often think I own, is a wonderful, earthy exercise connecting me to generations upon generations of bakers. Press one's fingers into the mass, lift and fold and fold again and press, knuckles pushing out air and height, fingers turning it into something smooth and velvety. Fold and tuck the edges under and shape into a loaf.

 Fold dough around filling.

 Sheets folded back, a single chocolate placed atop a plumped up pillow; a perfectly folded handkerchief tucked into a pocket or handbag; a stack of freshly laundered, precisely folded towels, thick, soft and smelling like lavender; the small luxuries of life.

 Dinner napkins carefully folded like origami swans or flowers, a gift wrapped in folds of paper, spiced and seasoned meat folded into tortillas, cheese and mushrooms folded into an omelet, tomato sauce, mozzarella, anything you like folded into dough, calzone. Soft, sweet dough folded round and round a filling of butter, nuts, cinnamon, sugar and chocolate chips, cinnamon buns, rugelach, strudel. Long fine strips of dough folded upon itself makes mighty fine pretzels. 

 Welcomed into the fold.


My love returned a thousand fold.

 I fold my hands in prayer. Or like a good little girl. And I always think of "here is the church… here is the steeple" fingers folded and intertwined.

 "Knowledge is two-fold," someone once claimed, "the affirmation of truth and the negation of what is false." But isn't everything two-fold? Positive-negative. Real-imagined. Love-hate.

 Like little sheep herded into the fold.

 I love making turnovers and triangles, phyllo dough or puff pastry folded around a savory filling and baked until the filling is hot and the dough is puffed and crispy. They are the perfect party or picnic food, appetizer or meal (we love this kind of food served with a big salad and a glass of wine followed by fruit) and are easy and fun to eat. They are also great prepare-ahead foods, just baking or reheating several minutes before serving. A friend of mine, a former chef, brought these to my house for a birthday meal many years ago and I fell in love with the combination of smoked chicken, sweet roasted red peppers and tangy goat cheese. Here is my version: these can be made with roasted chicken but smoked adds a wonderful flavor that cannot be beat. Goat cheese is best but replace with feta if you can't find the goat. I really prefer these made with buttered phyllo dough, but husband loves the filling folded into puff pastry.


2 precooked smoked chicken breasts, about 10 ½ oz or 300 g, diced finely
2 roasted peppers, about 1 cup, peeled and diced finely
A mild goat cheese or feta cheese, crumbled, about 1 cup
2 Tbs chopped fresh rosemary or chopped fresh chives
1 tsp minced garlic
Salt and pepper
About 20 sheets phyllo dough + melted butter to brush – or – 1 ½ lbs (about 690 g) puff pastry + 1 egg white to brush
Coarsely ground cumin & coriander seeds

 Have a couple of baking sheets lined with parchment paper set aside.

 Combine the diced chicken, diced roasted red pepper, crumbled feta, rosemary or chives and garlic, salt and pepper and blend well. Set aside.

 If using phyllo dough, preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Layer 4 sheets of the phyllo, brushing every other sheet with butter. Cut the sheets of buttered, stacked phyllo lengthwise into 4 strips. Place about 1/4 cup of the filling on the end of each strip and fold up until you create a triangle packet. Tuck in the end and place on the lined baking sheet, seem side down. Continue until you have used all of the phyllo and filling. Brush each triangle with butter, dust with the coarsely ground cumin and coriander and bake for 20 minutes or until the triangles are golden brown and crispy.

 If using puff pastry, preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Cut the pastry (rolled very thinly) into any size round you like, I used a 4 ½ inch metal ring (this made about 20 turnovers). Place a heaping teaspoon (maybe a scant ¼ cup) filling in the center of each dough round, brush around the edges with egg white, fold over, press the edges with your fingers to seal then press with the floured tines of a fork. Line up on the baking sheets and continue until you have used all the puff pastry and the filling. Brush the tops of the turnovers with egg white, dust with the coarsely ground cumin and coriander and bake for 20 - 25 minutes or until the triangles are golden brown and crispy.

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Monday, August 18, 2014


Take a Leek

 Fuzzy tops like military crew cuts, great hulking greens spiking out, lush and savage and almost superfluous, fanning out in an attempt at elegance yet somehow, no matter what, retaining that something rustic. The poor country mouse cousin of slender green onions and much desired garlic.

 The hardy leek is a mainstay of every French potager. Grandpas and young city folk head home with bundles of leeks piled in an old rusty wheelbarrow or tucked under an arm, trailing speckles of black earth behind them; leeks stick out from the top of shopping baskets like baseball bats, nowhere to hide. Leeks brought home from the market.

 Leeks in the summer, leeks in the winter, leeks are a staple of every French kitchen.

 Long white cylinders, a sheath of leaves, sliced into coins, cut into slivers and long thin strips. Steamed or braised whole until falling apart, shredding, floating in threads like Ophelia's hair on the surface of the lake, drained and lined up on a serving platter and smothered in tangy mustard vinaigrette, classic. Soups and tarts, stews and braised au gratin

 My mother-in-law, was a simple, homey, old-fashioned woman. Set in her ways and always answering the expectations of those around her, her life was a series of habits and a schedule set in stone. Mealtime was very important to her, the dishes she prepared only important as they fed the family who gathered around her table, sustenance more necessary than gustatory satisfaction. The food she prepared was simple, homey and old fashioned, hardy and good.

 Wrapped in a colorful cotton housedress-style apron buttoned up from knee to neck over her clothing, sensible crepe-soled shoes on her feet, heavy cotton stockings peeping out from between ankle and knee, she spent the greatest part of her days in the kitchen chopping, stirring, cooking, baking. She would prepare delicious, heavy, perfectly orchestrated meals for us, her children and grandchildren, as she had done for all those decades of her life, for her parents, siblings and her husband and children and now us.

 The heavy meal was served at noon, the blanquette, the ragout, the roasted meats, the courses of sauced, braised and simmered. Evening was souper, a light supper of leftovers and cold foods. But always, always, this nightly repast would begin with a bowl of carrot and leek soup. Every single night, consistently, unflinchingly, unfailingly carrot and leek soup. Carrots roughly peeled with a paring knife and cut crudely into thick coins, leeks washed, the greens lopped off and tossed away, the white sliced and added to the pot. Salt, pepper, lots of tap water and then simmered until the vegetables, the carrots and leeks were beyond fork tender, floating in a watery grave. Then out came the emulsion blender and the whole would be liquefied, reheated and served steaming in the same bowls used for coffee in the morning.

 A watery, weak soup, more water than vegetable, more water than flavor, but my mother-in-law's carrot and leek soup quickly became a much-expected habit, a cozy enjoyment, a comforting end to the day, hot and relaxing. Float a plain, crispy biscuit, une biscotte, in it until it just begins to soften and, with the spoon, break off bits, scooping up a piece of biscuit in a puddle of soup and eat. Uncomplicated, homey, familiar, the expected end to a day that otherwise might have been filled with the unexpected, a soothing end to a day that might otherwise have been harried. Carrot and leek soup.

 One day, he came to me and announced, "I am going to make you a real leek and potato soup!" And as he placed a soup plate in front of me a short time later, I realized that once again something so beautiful, something so flavorful, something seen from the outside as the height of elegant and sophisticated dining, emblematic of French cuisine, was inexpensive, nay, frugal and utterly simple and quick to make.

 Cousin to the cock-a-leekie soup, and vichyssoise, less rustic than the one, less elegant and suave as the other, his real leek and potato soup is both bare bones and luxurious. Leeks, potatoes, onions and garlic, staples of every Frenchman and woman's kitchen garden, the inexpensive standbys of every French market, a bit of bacon or lardons and broth is what makes this soup. Chop, slice, simmer.

 Isn't it funny that even the simplest of foods: a pot of steamed mussels, a roasted chicken, a pan-fried steak and a bowl of fries or an omelet is raised up to some dizzying height of sumptuousness as the magical veil of "French" is thrown over it. Even as it is inexpensive, nay, frugal and utterly simple and quick to make. Leek and potato soup.

  Frittata is a true lifesaver when you don't know what to make for lunch or dinner! My favourite is spinach and potato frittata but this leek and bacon frittata is sneaking up as a close number two. I have periods when I use leeks a lot and then I forget about them so I was very happy to rediscover my old friend for this Plated Stories post; I have so many leeks lying around now and I just know what I will be cooking, this and the potato and leek soup Jamie writes about! You don't have to make them in muffin tins or cupcake cups, it works perfectly well the traditional way as well. 

6 small frittatas

4 eggs
4-5 tbs freshly grated parmesan cheese
freshly grated black pepper
100 g/ 3,5 oz bacon cut into small strips
1 small leek

   Start cooking the bacon in a small non-stick pan without any fat, slice the leek and add it to the bacon. keep on cooking on medium heat until the leek is soft and the bacon is crisp.

   With a fork whisk egg, parmesan cheese and pepper quickly and then add the leek and bacon, mix it well.

   Spoon the frittata batter into cupcake cups or into a non-stick muffin tin and bake in a pre-heated oven (200°C/390°F). For 10-15 minutes. Ease the frittatas out of the forms and serve!

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Monday, August 11, 2014


 A pocketknife, as I have discovered and of which he always has one tucked away in a pocket or the car's glove compartment, is quite a useful thing to have on hand. An improvised picnic, slicing cheese or a roasted chicken, popping open a bottle of wine (always have a corkscrew attachment!) or peeling fruit. Opening oysters or cracking the shell of a crab, digging out the meat, slicing a baguette into equal portions and smearing with a bit of butter, a hunk of pâté. Cutting off chunks of salty, fatty saucisson sec. And who needs a fork when one has the blade of a pocketknife?

 String and rope, sticks and stones, a pocketknife is always a must on a father-son adventure, a boys' day out in the wild. Digging holes in the dirt for spikes or searching for worms, cleaning a fish on an expedition. Cutting branches for whips or improvised fishing poles or pirate swords, slicing one's way through the wilds of the Amazon forest, riding high on the imagination of a child. Whittling a tiny toy, a dog or a person, placed into the upturned hands of his son.

 My husband has a thing for knives. I know I should be worried. He pauses outside each coutellerie, each knife shop of which France is resplendent with, a country luxuriating in the abundance of kitchen, carving, hunting, fishing, camping knives, daggers and pocketknives on proud display in vitrines on every other street, he pauses and I see the longing in his eyes as he peruses the offerings. "Would you like one?" I ask, loving wife that I am, acknowledging that he rarely splurges on himself. I am also somewhat astonished at my own fascination with the knives on display, attracted to the smooth, elegant beauty, the cunning mechanics and design of what I see. "No…." he shakes his head and pulls himself away from the window like a kid resisting the urge to grab at an offering of candy.

 Our kitchen knife drawer, rather small considering his passion for the things, contains our meager collection of Wüsthof knives (the entire selection purchased in one shot with a bonus he earned from work), several others I have received as gifts, a motley assembly of our old, cheap, dull knives, of which I am loathe to part with, from our poor-as-church-mice days. And his collection of pocketknives in a variety of material, lovely and soft, red, black and metallic.

 We have roamed through many an old World War battlefield, trenches, woods, in and out of bunkers in the north of France. We have come across rusted old forks, broken bits of metal, the odd thing lost in the dirt, lost in history. Nothing much of interest to scavenge. But fascinating all the same as we stood for several minutes and pondered the lives of the men who once were on this very spot.

 We found an old armoire, if one can call it that, a pieced together, homemade, shabby old wardrobe made from the crude, raw wood of packing crates, in my in-laws' attic. We dragged it home, back to our very first, tiny little home in the Paris suburbs because we needed furniture and hadn't the money to purchase anything much at all. Upon opening it up to give it a clean in preparation for filling it with clothes, we saw the stamp of the US Army. These, as it turned out, as my father-in-law recounted, were made from crates that held ammunition for the US Army during World War II, crates left behind once emptied, grabbed up by the local inhabitants and turned into furniture.

 An old knife, shiny silver steel, on which the letters U.S. and the year 1917 are etched deep and clear, an old knife found at a flea market, picked up for a few euros. An old stainless steel knife, the blade tarnished and dull, a soldier's ID number etched on the flip side of the handle, a knife issue and packed in an American soldier's kit.

 Wars fought, lives come and gone, objects held in awe and reverence, a fork, an armoire, a knife.

 Superstition. To the French, it is bad luck to offer a knife to someone as a gift. No carving knife at a wedding, no pocketknife for a birthday, no hunting knife at Christmas. It is bad luck. One must always buy one's knives for oneself, therefore if you do want to offer someone a knife, a friend or family member, parent, child, sibling, that person must buy it from you, offering at least one penny, one cent if not more, for that knife. Sold not offered, bought not received.

 I have a set of six steak knives in my dining room buffet, a set of six steak knives in a white box no longer white, yellowed and stained, the edges ripped away, torn and frayed. The red and pink rose drawn onto the box is faded but it stirs up so many memories of steak dinners in our home during my childhood. "Regent Sheffield The Greatest Name in Cutlery Steak Knife Set" written in elegant font in the same red and pink followed by the reassuring, the alluring Stainless Blades Forever Sharp. Serrated stainless blades and tapered plastic faux stag antlers, which always stirred up images of Ye Olde Merry England and dark paneled pubs where weary travelers gathered for refreshment. A set of six steak knives purloined from my mother's kitchen drawer ad brought back to France and still used when meat is served at my table. Served with steak knives and memories.

 I brought the steak knives – so American – he brought the cheese knives – so French.

 A beautiful, creamy ricotta spread makes a summery sweet bruschetta when smoothed onto a slice of baguette, your favorite country loaf, pound cake or muffin and topped with fresh or cooked fruit or jam. The addition of goat cheese tempers the cheesy taste of the ricotta while adding just a bit of tang, the honey adding the perfect sweetness. So simple and quick to make – it whips up in no time – and is a really tasty way to serve the sweetest peaches, nectarines or plums of summer. A cool and surprising addition to a light summer meal, an elegant dessert or even a light meal all by itself.

Jamie's Ricotta, Goat Cheese and Honey Spread

5.3 oz (150 g) fresh ricotta cheese, drained if needed
1.8 oz (50 grams) fresh goat cheese, drained if needed
2 tsps runny honey (or to taste - JP found it a bit sweet, I did not)
½ tsp olive oil
1 Tbs finely chopped fresh mint

 Using a fork or a spoon, whip together all of the ingredients until well blended, light and creamy. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Prepare the spread and then add more or less of each ingredient to taste if desired.

 Spread on slices of baguette (my preference), your favorite country loaf or even pound cake, muffins or scone and top with slices of fresh or cooked fruit or jam.

 Try replacing the chopped mint with minced fresh chives, drizzling a bit more olive oil and a tiny grinding of pepper atop the spread before serving. The addition of crumbled gorgonzola will be wonderful topped with slices juicy, sweet autumn pears. Play with it as you like.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014


 Dry pasta, dry rice, boxes of dry cereal. My husband refers to them as staples, a word he learned from me, and I guess they are. Such an old-fashioned word. Dry goods. Such an old-fashioned concept. A once-a-week shopping trip fills our cupboard with edible necessities that can be grabbed when fresh ingredients and inspiration are lacking. Boxes, bags and cans of sundry items crammed in the small, dark spaces of my kitchen, vying for elbowroom in fear of being lost in the netherworld of the bottomless pit that is my cupboard.

 To be left high and dry.

 But we all have a dry spell when we have no morning to spend at the market, when we haven't the spirit to head out in the rain or when no one wants to shop. Coming home from vacation. Or when the well has simply run dry. Shops are shut, energy low, stomachs are growling. Fling open the pantry doors and hunt among the dry for something, anything that tempts. A large pot of water, rolling, bubbling, a handful of coarse salt and a shower of dry pasta, dry rice, dry anything will do. And watch it come to life, watch it become a meal.

 Dry wit, dry humor, deadpan delivery, poker face.

 Do you get it or not?

 Double take.

 You might want to do a dry run before attempting it if not your usual mode of banter.


 Like watching paint dry.

 Not knowing exactly when to take the cake out of the oven when the oven is wonky. I keep my nose pressed to the glass and stare at the surface expecting it to signal me when it is done to perfection, just set. Little elfin arms waving, tiny voice calling "take me out now!"

 I have a horror of dry cake. Undercooked is not ideal but can be dealt with by calling it a fondant or a moelleux, serving it with a spoon. Smothered under clouds of whipped cream. But overcooked turns a cake into ash, dry as dust. A mouthful is impossible to choke down until quickly washed down with cold milk. I stare forlornly at a dry and wasted cake, what was once potentially a beautiful dessert has become fodder for jokes and teasing, with nothing left to do but push it into the trash.

 Dry cake.

 Dry ingredients moistened with wet, eggs and milk, juice and booze. Dry ingredients whipped up into something thick and luscious not deserving to be abandoned in the heat of the oven under the glaring light like an interrogation.

 But dry cake? No thank you, ma'am. What's a girl to do? Crumble it up over top juicy fruit compote, tossed with slivered almonds; slice it in chunks or wedges and soak it in boozy syrup or strong coffee or spiked juice and layer it with something rich and creamy for an improvised Eton Mess, a Tiramisu or an English Trifle. Zuppa Ingelese. Whiz it up in the robot then add melted butter, press it all into a tart pan, cover with whipped mascarpone cream and fruit. Or simply slice and toast under the grill, spoon on jelly, dunk into coffee and enjoy a quiet breakfast.

 Home and dry.

 My mother was the queen of dry food. She would place plump, glistening white snapper filets in a baking pan layered with slices of white onion, dust it generously with chopped fresh parsley, salt and pepper and possibly drizzle with lemon juice. To pop it in the oven and bake the poor fish….for much too long.

 Her fish gave flakey a whole new meaning. Bone dry. Swallow mouthfuls of that fish with gulps of cold milk to wash it down.

 Her pan-fried liver was saved by the tasty fried-until-caramelized onion rounds she made as a condiment for she cooked that liver until it was twice dead, the texture of shoe leather. Bone dry. Smother it in ketchup and push it down as quickly as possible. If possible at all.

 She once, at our urging, asked her own mother (from whom she learned to cook) why she overcooked her meat until it was as dry as desert dry and her mother explained: she cooked meat the way her husband, my own mother's father, demanded it be cooked: so burnt, charred and carbonized that any possible deadly germ or unknown toxic horror living within that piece of meat be killed. This was the way they cooked and ate their meat on the shtetl, the ghetto village in Russia when he was a child, before he immigrated. He grew up being suspicious of the food he ate.

 Maybe my love for crudo and tartare, meat cured, smoked or raw, barely seared to bloody comes from this. I have a horror of dry. Pass the ketchup and pour me a glass of milk, please.

 Dry heat. I had never experienced dry heat of summer, arid, thirsty heat, until the summer of my seventeenth year, which I spent in Israel. Temperatures reached dizzying heights, triple digits Fahrenheit yet the intense humidity I knew from Florida didn't exist. This was the heat of a desert country. Dry.

 And I discovered that dry heat is much more comfortable than humid heat, the moisture of humid seemingly sucking one dry, sucking the life out of me, muggy, oppressive. Dry heat is tolerable, just this side of bearable, even as the mercury inches its scarlet self up and up to a place that it never reached in my hometown outside of an airless high school classroom.

 A trek through the Negev, up to the top of Mount Masada, wandering the streets of Jerusalem to the Old City. A bottle of Coca Cola in hand, condensation slithering down the glass, rubbed across my forehead.

  Dry herbs, tomatoes, grapes to dried.

 We spent our honeymoon in Cyprus tucked away in tiny, out-of-the way auberges, sitting on rocks along the cool, clear water, dipping our feet, dry to wet, wandering ruins and popping into noisy, sweltering cafés bustling with locals (to wet our whistle). We loved to wander through the winding, tiny cobbled streets, a hidden, circuitous route through the afternoon silence in the dry heat of September as people stayed indoors in cool shuttered homes, naptime. Large mesh grills would be stretched out the length of porches, the frames perched atop chairs and tables. Halves of tomatoes would be lined up and down those mesh grills, hundreds of tiny purple grapes picked from bunches and spread out in single layers. Left out in the sun to dry. Shrunken and withered. The water from the fruit evaporated in the dry heat of the day, juices concentrated, flavors intensified. Dry to dried.

 Bunches of grapes that hung above our head on our terrace in Milan, swags of vines offering cool respite and a welcoming touch of green to our city life. The rare bunches of grapes were too precious to pick and so we left them dangling above our heads, picturesque, a kiss of rusticity, a feeling of being close to the land as the city traffic buzzed below. As the summer waned, those grapes would shrivel in the heat and light and dry. Seemingly all skin, once tasted their hidden beauty would appear, juices concentrated, flavors intensified. Dry to dried.

 Herbs enveloped in paper towels and placed in the microwave or spread out on baking sheets and pushed into the oven to dry. Desiccated, brittle but stirred into soup, kneaded into bread, tossed into sauces, dusted over marinating meat, crushed to a fine powder between the fingers, the flavor bursts forth infusing whatever the dry herb is added to with gusto.

Panzanella is a typical Tuscan summer dish, a salad made of dry or stale bread and raw vegetables. Although I'm sure there is an official version of it, I have never eaten two alike because the ingredients vary from province to province, from town to town, from home to home. That is the charm of Italy, a profound respect for the tradition and the basic ingredients but openness to what is in season and the flavours at hand. I made it with what I had at hand: the base ingredients of Tuscan bread, fresh tomatoes, cucumber and basil, to which I added tender celery stalks, zucchini and a little fresh chili peppers. You can add thin slices of sweet onions, radishes or peppers, but I would avoid adding olives and such because that would take away the freshness of this summery salad.


No measures are given as it really is up to you how much you want of each ingredient.

stale rustic bread, I suggest Tuscan bread which is unsalted because it has the perfect texture when humid, but you can of course do it with salted bread instead
tomatoes, cut into pieces
cucumber, thinly sliced
small and firm zucchini, thinly sliced
tender celery stalks, sliced
fresh chili pepper, without seeds and chopped
fresh basil
extra-virgin olive oil

   Cut the bread into cubes and put these in a bowl with water and vinegar, say 250 ml/1 cup of water with 1 tablespoon vinegar, but you can use more or less vinegar according to taste. Leave the bread to soak while you prepare the vegetables.

   Put the sliced and chopped vegetables in a bowl, add salt and olive oil and mix well.

   Squeeze the bread of most of the water; the bread should not be wet but just humid. Crumble it a bit so you have both smaller and bigger chunks and pieces. When you are ready, add the bread to the vegetables, tear a few basil leaves into pieces and mix it well. Ready to serve.

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