Monday, February 24, 2014


Beans, beans, the musical fruit
The more you eat, the more you toot
The more you toot, the better you feel
So we have beans at every meal!

 Ah, kids songs. And ah, the magic of beans. Who didn't chant this rhyme in that kid's taunting, teasing, sing-songy voice whenever a friend or classmate, well, let one loose, so to speak? And who dreaded being the one towards whom the arrows were pointed?

 We lived in fear.

 But didn't we love beans? Baked beans in tomato sauce served with hotdogs? Be a lttle daring and get the baked beans made with bacon or ham hock… forbidden fruit! Or refried beans slathered on a tortilla, wrapped up tight, topped with salsa and what a treat!

Today is Monday
Monday -- string beans
All you hungry children, come and eat it up!

 This was my sister's favorite song and she could sing it from Monday through Sunday, much to our wonder and amusement. She knew all the best songs. Goober Pease. On Top of Spaghetti. Camp Granada ("'Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh"). Do Your Ears Hang Low. I Know an Old Lady.

 Strings beans, spaghetti, soup, roast beef. Fresh fish and chicken and all the children come and eat it up. As a very happy (obsessive) eater, this song never ceased to fascinate me. I, in turn, sang it occasionally to my sons, but somehow it never had quite the same ring to it as when my sister sang it.

 And remember Mexican jumping beans? A kid's delight! Hold the tiny capsules in your hand scrunched into a fist and wait… bouncing off the table, jumping from the floor between legs spread wide. Fascinated!

Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear. - Aesop

 I always longed for a beanbag chair. * sigh * Didn't all the coolest kids have beanbag chairs? There was something so decadent about owning a beanbag, something so on the edge. Beanbag chairs went with listening to the coolest music, joint stuck between lips, bellbottom jeans and Hang Ten t-shirts. Flop onto a beanbag chair, slouch down deep and get lost. Lava lamps and FM radio, 8-track tapes, black light posters and platform shoes.

“Thunderation,” roared Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois. “I had my mouth set for bean soup! From now on, hot or cold, rain, snow, or shine, I want it on the menu every day.” - 1904

 Bean Soup. Something so Italian. A poor man's feast is bean soup.

 Simple, comforting, soothing; sustaining body and soul. Heart and soul.

 I would buy packets of clear cellophane, packets filled with a variety of beans in gorgeous colors of spring, summer and autumn, creamy white, dusty brown, pale green, packets like bean bags for juggling squeezed gently between fingers for that satisfying squish, the faint crackle of the cellophane, the muffled yet relaxing scrunch of the beans, like one of those gadgets meant to relieve stress.

 Begin with a soffritto, tiny cubes of carrot, celery, onion sizzling in olive oil. Pour the beans into a pot. Toss on a branch or two of fresh rosemary, a scattering of thyme leaves, a soft leaf of sage straight from the plants on the balcony. A bouillon cube, if you will. Add the rind of an old chunk of Parmesan that has long been scraped clean, imparting a subtle, delicate scent. Cover with water and cook, simmer, skim away any and all impurities. Salt and pepper.

 Zuppa del Contadino, bean soup, saw us through many a winter evening in Italy. Large soup bowls, tender beans, chewy grains and fragrant broth ladled up, dressed with a drizzle of olive oil and a generous dusting of Parmesan. Farro, lentils, fava beans, chickpeas, white beans, pinto beans, kidney beans.

 Zuppa pasta e fagioli was reserved for restaurant meals. Creamy beige borlotti beans, meltingly tender, and ditalini, tiny mezzi tubetti, mini half tubes of pasta offering a delicate bite. Pasta e fagioli eaten in a Roman restaurant.

You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by the way he eats jelly beans. – Ronald Reagan

 Jelly beans have always been irrevocably linked in my mind to Easter. And I did not celebrate Easter. Pastel colors of pink, green, orange, yellow and blue. Sweet and sugary, crunchy, chewy, fruity and wonderful. Jelly beans were simply magical. All the tastier for being forbidden fruit.

 Since moving to france, I have been, for the most part, jelly-bean-less. Mostly. Remember the Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans? My sons were small when the Harry Potter books and films came out and we would sit and read the stories together, go to see the movies together, joyously. And, of course, we tried the candy. And Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans were surely on our list of must-tries.

 We tried to pick out the chocolate, peppermint, and marmalade, tried to avoid the ones like spinach, liver, and tripe and woe be he (or she) who bit into farm dirt, vomit, earwax, paper or bogeys. It was like a lottery, Russian Roulette of jelly beans. One box split three ways and it was all we needed. We would go back to traditional jelly beans, thank you very much.

 A carton in the mail, a USA label. Pounds upon pounds of Jelly Belly jelly beans from a friend back home, more jelly beans than a girl can eat in a year. Husband sighs, eyes rolling in something halfway between dismay and disgust. More candy. No. Jelly beans.

This dish fulfills all my wishes for textures and flavours; the beans are sweet and soft, the breadcrumbs and anchovy topping is salty and crunchy and the parsley adds freshness. And it is a great way to use stale bread; the best breadcrumbs are the ones you make yourself out of leftover bread although you can use store bought ones as well. The topping won't be as crunchy with store-bought crumbs but the taste is more or less the same. You can increase or decrease the amount of topping depending on how much you like it.

4 servings

350 g/12 oz trimmed green beans
250 ml/1 cup homemade breadcrumbs (you pick out the soft, stale inside of the bread and divide it into smaller crumbs with your fingers)
5-6 tbs store-bought breadcrumbs (smaller amount because the crumbs are so much finer)
4-5 anchovy fillets in oil
2-3 tbs chopped parsley
extra-virgin olive oil

   Heat up about 3 tbs of olive oil in a skillet together with the anchovy fillets over medium heat, stir the anchovy around and you will see it dissolve, at which point you add the breadcrumbs and continue stirring until the breadcrumbs are golden. Add the parsley and take the skillet off the heat.  

   Cook the beans in lightly salted water for around 8 minutes or as long as you prefer. Drain the water and put the beans on a serving dish, add the topping and serve.

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Monday, February 17, 2014


Stir Crazy

 It’s the weather. While the United States is under siege, under snow, under a frigid polar blanket of white, we have been wet. The rivers across Brittany rise, seething and angry, well up and spill over their banks, defy their restraints and swallow up roads, cars, shops, bridges and buildings. The rain, the tempestuous rain, fills our days and our nights, beating against the windows, wind rattling the panes like ghosts come aknocking, threatening us the same retribution. For what?

 We are stir crazy. Locked in the house, day after day, month after interminable month (how long has it been raining?), and though it is most cozy and comfy and despite that we have loads of work and looming deadlines and need to stay inside in front of computers, we are most definitely going stir crazy. The occasional burst of sunshine, the intermittent spots of light, a change in the weather has us looking longingly out the window (once we realize, in our sudden surprise and disbelief, that yes the rain has momentarily stopped) and we briefly discuss the possibility of digging out our rubber boots, packing a snack, leashing up the dog and heading out to the vineyards for a walk. Break the boredom, stretch our legs, clear our heads.

 And then it starts again. Spattering across the window ledge, speckling the panes, the watery yellow sunlight slipping back behind the steel gray clouds, the sky, once again, a smear of haze.

 Sigh. Stir crazy.


 Standing at the stove, stirring rice in the big pot with an aged, weathered, worn wooden spoon, one of many sticking up out of the canister like so many lollipops, I think of Nonna Anna. I had been making risotto for a couple years before I met her, recipes taken from a small, thin cookbook filled with a dozen variations on the theme, yet does one really understand risotto before seeing someone like this matriarch, a woman who has been making risotto for decades, a woman who has stood in front of a stove stirring a big pot of rice more times than I can even imagine?

 She instructed me, woman to woman, mother to mother, to stir, stir, stir. She showed me that risotto must be creamy and smooth, not dry. She let me in on the secret that the grains of rice should melt in the mouth, not be al dente. Risotto, I learned, should be comforting as it is filling.

 Risotto. White or yellow in the winter, lemon in the summer. Topped with mussels or paired with osso buco. Sweet rice pudding, much the same thing, all that stirring of rice, this in milk and sugar and vanilla, stirring, stirring, stirring, rich and velvety, comforting and soulful.

 Rice and a wooden spoon. Stirred.

Stir me up

 I adored winter in Florida. On school days, we would wake before dawn, the skies outside still an inky black, frost hovering around the edges of the plate glass window, and dash to the tv to watch the clocks. A wall of “clocks” like the clocks on a schoolroom wall above the chalkboard, big white-faced clock ringed in a black plastic case, were lined up elbow to elbow: time, temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and who knew what else. Dad would have the tv already switched on, the mesmerizing dance of those clocks already tuned in. The camera would span the clocks in a slow sweep… time, temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and the rest, from left to right and back again, right to left, and so on and do forth forever. I would scurry through a cold breakfast, poptarts or a bowl of cereal, get dressed snugly, warmly for a chilly Florida winter, ready for school. Air blown from my mouth, wisps of white, the air visible in the cold, hop on my bike and pedal to school.

 But winter weekends, I would wake and scamper to the kitchen for I know that I would find my mother stirring a tremendous quantity of oatmeal in an old aluminum double boiler.

 Stir. Stir. Stir. Do you want some oatmeal? I would grab a bowl and spoon what was left of the oatmeal into that bowl then place a pat of salted butter squarely in the center, watching as the heat melted the butter into a small neon puddle. A dusting of brown sugar, a splatter of cold milk, a handful of raisins and I would stir.


 Not a creature was stirring? I often am. Béchamel, pastry cream, cake batter, stir, stir, stir. I seem to do a lot of stirring in this house, in my kitchen. By hand. Stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk, stirring sweet, creamy concoctions until they thicken, stirring wet into dry until blended and homogenous. Stirring oil in a steady stream into yolks or stirring hot milk into eggs to warm. Stirring onions until they caramelize and stirring big pots of this or that into sauces or stews.

 I don’t mean to cause a stir. I actually love stirring. Long, slow and rhythmic or quick and vigorous, I love the magic of watching elements change, evolve, transform over time just through the simple action of stirring. Mayonnaise, vinaigrette, panna cotta, choux dough, polenta. Standing at the stove or leaning in towards the counter, bowl pulled in close, I stir, at once concentrated and absentmindedly. My mind can wander, words spring to mind and I write in my head as I stir.

 Eggs, flour, oil, butter, sugar, spices, cans of this, a shower of that.

 Now and then I have to call in my husband to kick something up, stir in the right amount of spices, stir in more salt, stir in some love. He often adds the flavor, the piquancy, the gusto, stirring in what I have left out. And while he is the better cook and I am the baker, he bows down to my expertise, my fluency in béchamel – stirring until thick and velvety, seasoned just right, which he then pours over a baking dish of steamed vegetables or endives wrapped in thin slices of smoky ham – and risotto, stirring until luscious and rich, his favorite thing.

I love making béchamel, standing at the stove and stirring is soothing and allows me time to block out the rest of the world and think. And béchamel, so simple, so rich, is so versatile and used in so many different dishes. This gratin is an absolute favorite dish in our home; inexpensive to make, a snap to put together once you have understood how to make a béchamel, the perfect side dish for grilled or roasted meats or a simple meal served with a salad. And so warming and comforting in the cold-weather months. This gratin is perfect using almost any vegetable or combination of vegetables; we particularly love cauliflower and add the potatoes so it is a bit easier on the palate and the tummy.


1 head cauliflower, trimmed and broken into large flowerets *
Several potatoes that stay firm while boiling **
About 1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
About 2 or 3 cups grated Gruyère or Comté cheese

* Flowerets broken into small, bite-sized pieces will fall apart or crumble when being blanched or steamed. Pre-cook them in larger pieces and cut into smaller bites before tossing in the béchamel.

** How many potatoes, you ask? maybe about half to ¾ the quantity of cauliflower you use. Combined, the vegetables blended with the béchamel should fill a 13 x 9-inch baking dish or slightly bigger

4 Tbs (60 g) butter
4 Tbs flour
3 cups (700 ml) whole milk
1 small to medium onion trimmed and finely chopped
1 bay leaf
½ tsp dried thyme or 1 tsp fresh leaves
Large pinch nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the vegetables by simply cleaning and trimming the cauliflower and cutting into large sections and steaming or simmering in salted water until tender but not too soft or mushy; they will continue to cook in the oven, and peeling the potatoes and simmering in salted water until tender but not too soft. Drain. Once well drained, cut into smaller pieces and toss together.

Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Butter a large baking dish.

Prepare the Béchamel: Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat until bubbly. Add the chopped onion and toss to coat. Lower the heat slightly and cook, stirring, for about 3 or 4 minutes until the onion is soft and transparent and just beginning to turn golden on the edges.

Add the flour all at once and stir or whisk until the flour is well blended into the butter. Cook, stirring, for a 2 to 3 minutes. Then begin adding the milk, a little at a time, whisking to blend and allow each addition to thicken. As it thickens, add more milk and repeat until all the milk has been added and the sauce is beginning to thicken. Add the herbs, salt and pepper generously and allow to simmer very gently, stirring continuously, for about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Remove the bay leaf.

Pour the hot béchamel over the prepared cauliflower and potatoes and gently toss until the sauce is evenly distributed. Pour into the buttered gratin or baking dish and spread out evenly. Sprinkle the Parmesan and then the Gruyère/Comté evenly over the top of the vegetables all the way to the edge of the dish. 

Bake in the hot oven for about 20 minutes or until bubbly and the cheese is a deep golden and browning as you like.

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Monday, February 10, 2014


Spice Route

 There is a stall at our market place that sells Indian food; curries, dal, samossa, tandori, nan, biryani, dishes both spiced and mild. Aluminum warming trays display the dishes side by side, too hard to refuse as we scurry by. 6 chicken tandoori brochettes, dal for three, nan, two plain, two with cheese, throw in a serving each of chutney and raita please. The woman behind the counter with her accented French and her gentle voice, her kind smile and graceful gestures, scoops up ladlefuls of everything I desire, spoons each into tiny plastic tubs and seals them.

 To the right of the cash register lie the spices, more than I could ever need, although that never stops me from wanting all of them. Spices by the dozens in little clear plastic packets, so beautiful, so seductive. Spices ground and spices whole. Cardamom pods in pale green, lovely star anise, mustard seeds in black and gold, peppercorns in white, black and pink. Turmeric and ginger, cinnamon sticks elegantly, intriguingly curled into themselves, whole nutmeg like odd, rough nuts. And the colors! The cayenne, the deep desert red threads of saffron, the deep blue of the poppy seeds. This is an Ali Baba’s cavern of treasures, these spices tell stories of One Thousand and One Nights, of gold and gems and secrets of peoples and cultures. For only 2€ a packet.

 I think of baskets of perfect pyramids of spices in markets across the Dark Continent from Morocco to Nigeria, of spices sold in souks in the Middle East, in markets in India. Fantastic tales of traders, ships upon wild seas, camels gliding across desert continents. An imagination spiced and seasoned, poignant and perfumed.


 Many men have wooed me with food. With the unbridled enthusiasm of a child bringing a handful of pollywogs to his mom, they placed platters of freshly steamed asparagus or shimmering gold boxes of Godiva chocolate before me; they ushered me gallantly to elegant restaurants or stood in the kitchen sliding baking dishes of parsleyed trout from the oven, served me hamburgers in Nigeria and oysters in Paris. They wooed and pursued, urgently offering me dishes and treats, the way to my heart most apparently over my tastebuds.

 An elegant, soft-spoken man, one for whom the word gentleman fit so perfectly, would stop to chat with me whenever our paths crossed on campus. A visiting professor, he spoke passionately of his home country Ethiopia, longing to impart the heat of the sun, the colors of the culture to me, a simple, untraveled, wide-eyed young woman. His dark face, pure white shirt buttoned up to the collar, his plain black trousers, his stiff, upright posture and his quiet, rhythmic voice were intriguing indeed; he was very formal, very polite in a respectful and old-fashioned way.

 He desired nothing more than to cook for me, invite me to his humble abode and share traditional Ethiopian dishes with me. We set a date and I arrived in time for lunch, curious, intrigued, trying to imagine what his cuisine was like. We sat on cushions on the floor and he served us rice topped with meat in a tomato-based sauce. A spiced sauce. An incredibly hot, fiery hot spicy sauce. He had tamed it just for me, he claimed, for my western tastebuds, tamed it as he knew his American guests could not bear the spicy heat. Try as I might, I could not eat any of it. The disappointment on his face, the apologies that tumbled from his lips and my utter embarrassment and the friendship seemed to fade away.

 A neighbor, young and handsome; no, more than handsome… outrageously gorgeous, a neighbor and I fell into step, desiring to get to know each other. As shy as I, the steps were tentative, a slow, quiet mating dance. He asked me to dinner and I accepted. “I know a marvelous Thai restaurant that serves traditional Thai food… I lived in Thailand for a couple of years, fell in love with the cuisine and I want nothing more than to share it with you,” he explained, love and desire burning deep in his eyes, in his soul. He was head over heals. We stared at each other nervously across the table, he ordered for two. “Make it mild for her,” he begged the waitress, even as he explained that traditionally Thai is a spicy cuisine.

 Once again, I let a man down, no turning back, hurt him to his very soul. Food heavily spiced, hot, searing, burning beyond my own desire for the man. Spiced food cooled the heat between us.

Highly Seasoned

 I brought the cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. The chili powder and smoky paprika. The cloves. Not to mention the Old Bay and the gumbo filé. Sweet and spicy pumpkin pies, apples kicked up, earthy and warm. The big pots of seafood creole and steamed this and that. Thanksgiving dinners and winter desserts, Christmas puddings and stunning Bundt cakes. Crisps and crumbles and cobblers, Buckles and Brown Betties. A dusting of this one, a sprinkle of that and the fruit that he had known forever was suddenly transformed into something all-American.

 He brought the cumin and coriander, the turmeric and saffron. He brought the hot and the sizzling, the exotic; colors and heat, visions of spice markets and voyages in a far off land. Fragrant and heady, couscous and tagine, Yassa and Maafe, Cari and curries, he spiced up my life when I walked into his. 

 Like brides and grooms of old, like Magi carrying frankincense, and myrrh, we each brought our own spices to the marriage. Just to spice things up a bit. A little bit of piquancy, a little bit of tang, a whole lot of gusto, a marriage to relish.

Spice Girls

 It was a silly thing for five grown women to do, but there was nothing to stop us, either. We decided to dub ourselves the Spice Girls. We might not have been as sleek and sexy as those others, but we certainly had the pep, and most definitely we had the bite. Sweet and fiery. Spiced.

 Sporty Spice was a willowy, waiflike creature, bubbly and spirited, spicy indeed. Her sneakered feet were ever moving, she was always full of energy and full of pep. Zesty Spice was dark and exotic, yet snappy, peppery… definitely effervescent. Then there were Snarky and Sweary Spice, just for the hell of it. Words sizzling hot, humor pungent and piquant.

 And I was Sassy Spice. Yeah. Sassy. I can certainly be. Cheeky, just a bit, I was the gentle fragrance instead of the hot spiciness, the hint of cinnamon or nutmeg to their blazing chili.

Spiced Wine

 Cranberries strung on string, stained fingers pushing the needle through each bright red orb then gliding the berry down to its place snug next to its kin. Popcorn, one for the mouth, two for the garland, sliding it the long distance to its place gently without breaking it, snapping it into a million little crumbs.

 Strings of cranberries, ruby red, and strings of popcorn, ivory white, looped gracefully through the boughs and branches, coiled around the evergreen in elegant swags.

 Sitting at the table poking whole cloves, heady fragrance, a spicy nip to the senses, poking cloves into oranges, around and around, a dizzy circle of cloves like a whirpool. Or stab the cloves, pop into the skin of the fruit, up and down in perfectly parallel lines, then tied with a pretty ribbon and hung on the tree.

 Winter oranges pierced with cloves perched on the radiator, lined up to dry. Orange and cloves, a Christmas ritual, a fine spray of citrus oil, an exquisite scent of orange and a seductive, teasing perfume of spiced cloves like some exotic incense.

I often make my own herb and, as in this case, spice salts. There is nothing easier if you own a small electric blender; just drop the spices into it together with coarse salt, whizz and there you have it! If you haven't done it before, try this one out and then start experimenting on your own. Herb and spice salts are great in salads, on meat, with vegetables, really on everything, in my opinion.


125 ml/ 0,5 cup coarse salt
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp pink peppercorns
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
4 bay leaves, preferably fresh

   Put all ingredients in a small electrical blender and whizz until you are happy with the blend. Store in airtight container.

Monday, February 3, 2014


Here is bread, which strengthens man's heart, and therefore is called the staff of Life.
- Matthew Henry (1662 – 1714) 

 Bread is considered the Staff of Life, Manna from Heaven, something holy, important to both body and soul. Yet what is bread, after all? Just flour, yeast and water really, maybe a tad of salt and sugar tossed in. You cannot get more elemental, more earthy than that. Some may call bread bland, some may call it insipid, yet as simple and pure as it is, bread is truly a basic necessity, a staple of our diet whatever our culture, whole and complete, rip off a chunk and stuff it in your mouth, earthy and good. And bread is the perfect blank slate for all the rest that we eat: bread for sandwiches, bread to sop up gravy and sauce, bread for dunking in hot cocoa, bread turned into croutons floating in soup, bread sweetened for puddings or tossed into salads. I am always amazed at how something so plain and simple can be turned into something so succulent, so exotic, so rich. Yet bread still remains the best in its plainest, simplest, barest most natural of form. Just bread. Indispensible.

 Manna poured down from the heavens and our fate was sealed. We became a bread-loving people. Rye, plain, marbled or studded with aromatic cumin seeds, piled high with salami or pastrami or corned beef. Challah sweet and elegant, lovingly braided once a week to celebrate the Sabbath or sweetened with honey and almonds and formed into round loaves to be eaten at the New Year, a round sweet year. Tall, airy Kugelhof or warm, flat mufleta depending on our origins, our culinary culture, and of course pita stuffed with hummus and falafel balls.

 A bagel and a schmear.

 Bread has always been an important staple on our Jewish table. Sacred meaning braided into loaves, twined into our festivals and celebrations. Bread filled with folklore and wrapped around traditions, studded and brushed with symbolism.

 Challah, lovely Challah, symbol of love, the braids like intertwined arms. Shaped into circles, the New Year Challah represents a sweet, round year, beginning to end and back to the beginning again; no beginning and no end.

 Challah, soft, tender chunks ripped off, pulled apart tress by tress, dunked in honey, dunked in milky café au lait, dunked in cherry jam. Challah cut into thick slices, adding a subtle sweetness to an egg salad sandwich, to chopped liver between two wedges. Soaked in egg and fried up just to crispy, drizzled with a shimmering thread of maple syrup for a very special French toast.

 I baked my first Challah in an old fifth-floor walkup in Brooklyn a cool November day. Two even loaves, ostensibly perfect, risen with a deep golden crust. My first yeast breads, a clumsy start, an awkward, unrefined attempt, those beautiful loaves came out dry and hard, dust in the mouth, a texture less bread than board. My own pride and self-contentment was mixed with embarrassment, yet I had overcome my fear of baking bread.

 Years later, I would come to understand the secrets of yeast with its earthy scent and mysterious ways. And years later, I would carry on the old traditions of kneading, shaping, braiding and baking homemade Challah once a week to welcome in the Shabbat, much to the delight of husband and sons. They loved nothing better than coming home Friday afternoon to the site of a plump Challah on the table between the long, tapered white candles in their holders, the table set for festivities.

 Matzoh, in my book, is a much-maligned delicacy.

 Matzoh is flat, crispy, flavorless unleavened bread eaten by Jews the world over during the eight days of Passover. Non-Jews everywhere recoil in horror at the thought of it, bland and dry, and my husband, for one, cannot fathom my love for the stuff, symbolism and holiday aside. He shakes his head in dismay as I slather plain matzoh eagerly, joyously with peanut butter or hummus, thin slices of tart kosher dills lined up and down, side by side, salty to accompany the nutty hummus, and relish every mouthful. A smear of tart, sweet cherry jam on creamier egg matzoh (with its pale yellow hue and gentle trace of sweetness) makes a wonderful snack when cake and cookies are out of the question. The flavor of childhood.

 One must need do without bread for those eight days of holiday, and I have always been able to switch my focus on matzoh, love it, adore it, eat it for eight days without regret, without loathing. But Passover is the most difficult of the Jewish holidays for a non-Jewish spouse. Hanukkah is fine, candles and prayers offering a beautiful ambiance, quickly followed by gifts, excited children, chocolate coins and hot, crispy potato pancakes eaten right off the griddle, smothered in applesauce.

 Shabbat, the Sabbath, is welcome indeed, Friday night, the calm oasis at the end of a harsh working week. He walks in the house, TGIF, to the glow of the warm candles on a beautifully set table laden with a special meal and a still-warm-from-the-oven Challah. No work, just a tranquil family-oriented evening.

 But Passover means clearing out the house of bread, cake, cookies and all the good stuff as he knows it; no rice, no pasta, no flour or yeast. And no bread. No run downstairs to the corner boulangerie for the lunchtime baguette or that once-a-week homemade pizza night. No bread, my Frenchman, no bread. By the sixth night he cannot take it anymore! No bread for his cheese? He sees me pull the box of matzoh from the cupboard and place it on the lunchtime table and he revolts. « I cannot take it anymore! » he cries, exhorting that there is no way he can go the entire holiday, those seemingly endless eight days, eight lunches, eight dinners, without bread. And he bolts from the house, dashes to the boulangerie and comes home proudly bearing a glorious baguette.

Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with (chocolate*), greatest of feasts. - James Beard (1903 – 1985) (*change is mine)

 A pain au chocolat was my very first taste of France, standing in the Home Ec room watching my very elegant 8th-grade French teacher roll up chunks of deep, dark chocolate in pale, moist, out-of-the-can biscuit dough, pushing myself up on tippy toes trying to capture each and every movement of her hands as she created that special treat for a roomful of impatient students anxious to savor what to us defined that far-away sophisticated culture. Or the memories of that first flaky, crisp pain au chocolat on my first voyage to Paris, standing on a street corner, rather stunned that I was finally there. I so clearly remember stumbling into the nearest corner boulangerie from where we were staying, my college friend and I, and pointing, grinning, even my basic schoolgirl French having abandoned me, at the plump, golden pastry, just a teasing hint of the chocolate peeping out between the folds.

 Bread and chocolate stirs up visions of tow-headed children on Parisian streets, elegant little children in shiny Mary Janes or black brogues dressed in pleated navy skirts and Loden coats, their excited after-school chatter filling the void between honking cars and city sounds, each enfant clutching a hunk of baguette, dense, warm from the boulangerie, a long, narrow bar of chocolate sticking out for all the world to see. Watch them as they bite into the crispy crust, crumbs hurriedly brushed away, joyously ripping into the tender center, *crack* into the slender bar of chocolate Maman or nourrice has so lovingly tucked inside and all thoughts of sharing a crêpe and a glass of wine with a chic young parisien fall aside: this is picture-perfect French romance itself.

Tiens-toi à distance de celui qui n'aime pas le pain ou la voix d'un enfant.
- Proverbe suisse

 Half a lifetime ago, uniform slices of packaged white sandwich bread, chewy bagels and loaves swirled with traces of cinnamon, dotted with raisins were traded in for baguettes, croissants, brioche and pain de campagne. Lunch no longer consists of heaps of baloney smeared with mustard or peanut butter and jelly clapped between two slices, bread simply making that lunchtime appearance in brown papers sacks carried to school or while sitting in the front yard, sandwich clutched in one hand, book in the other. Bread became an important element of every meal, a chunk of baguette ripped from the loaf or sliced up and handed round the table, to push meat and vegetables onto a fork or to sop up sauce from the plate at the end of the main course; a thick wedge of miche or pain de campagne eaten with a thick wedge of camembert or comté, spread with tangy goat cheese or stinky maroilles, a basic element of every French meal.

 Fresh bread bought every day.

 White papers sacks carried home from the boulangerie on weekend mornings bearing buttery croissants and pain aux raisins (leaving greasy traces on the bag, greasy traces on fingers) was a habit I quickly adapted to. A French home without fresh bread was no home at all; a Frenchman without his bread at every meal, I discovered, was miserable indeed, the meal simply being incomplete. Croissants, something so special, so rare, so sophisticated back home were almost, but not quite, run of the mill, something sold as commonly as a loaf, baskets full in every corner bakery case. Bread back home was either the meal itself or simply an afterthought; here, in my new country, bread was heart and soul of the kitchen, of the home.

Stale bread dipped in egg and fried up, pain perdu.

This is actually my sister's recipe, one she got from a friend of hers. The tradition of turning stale bread into pudding is both American and French, though the result might be slightly different - Americans will make pudding with chunks of bread while the French pudding is often made with the stale bread ground fine like breadcrumbs and used to bind the pudding like flour - but either way, what a sweet way to use up leftover bread! I love this chocolate version which tastes much like a candy bar, especially when made with a sweet bread like Challah or brioche, my preference.


1 ½ squares (1 ½ oz/ 45 g) unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 ½ cups (600 ml) whole milk
2 large eggs
½ cup (110 g) sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
2 – 4 cups stale bread cubes (less bread will give you more custard, more bread will give you a denser, chewer pudding)

 Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter a 1 ½ quart (1 ½ litres) baking dish.

 Heat the chopped chocolate and the milk together in a large, heatproof bowl over a pot of simmering water, stirring, until all of the chocolate is melted.

 Beat the eggs just until they are foamy then beat in the sugar and the salt. 

 Add the chocolate/milk mixture to the eggs gradually, stirring vigorously. Stir in the vanilla. Add the cubes of bread and press them down, stirring, until all of the bread is soaked in the chocolate mixture. Allow the bread pudding batter to stand for 10 minutes, stirring and pressing down the bread cubes occasionally.

 Grease a 1 ½ quart (1 ½ litres) baking dish of any shape. Pour the pudding into the baking dish and place in a water bath and bake 50 minutes until slightly puffed and the pudding is firm.

 Serve warm with freshly whipped cream or ice cream. Keep any leftover pudding in the refrigerator; the pudding gets denser and more satisfying, the flavor evolving into something like a wonderfully elegant candy bar.

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