Archive | March, 2012

chevre chaud au bacon (the perfect goat’s cheese salad)

27 Mar

I did it again. I ate my lunch before I could draw it for you nice people. But you have to have a life before a blog. And besides, the false spring has gone to my head.

These few balmy days when the trees are still stripped bare, the warm sunshine and the lone butterfly brave enough to venture out are lulling me into a syrupy stupor. I know that it will rain again in April, that I will have to leave my hideaway in the south of France for self-important Paris, but for the moment I have a diamond patio and a plate empty of anything but radish stalks, so blissful denial is the way forward.

What’s more, I have found the perfect salad, the perfect lunch. I already knew radishes and avocadoes and rocket and fennel were happy partners, but they are made bistrot-worthy by the simplest addition: a pat of soft goat’s cheese fried in bacon. Ours came from a local farmer, ready wrapped.

(I just asked my mother for a suitable simile for the size of the goat’s cheese crottins – which means poop, by the way, confirming my longheld prejudice that the French are obsessed with crap – and she suggested “larger than half a crown, slightly smaller than an Olympic medallion.” Neither of which I have ever seen or will see, in all probability. Thanks, Mum.)

So, take a tub of soft goat’s cheese and form a little fat pancake per person, as much as you can stomach. Wrap it all over in a thin streaky bacon like pancetta so it’s nicely sealed in and fry in a hot frying pan until crisp outside and just warm within. Serve on a bed of rocket and raddichio (bitter to cut the rich cheese flavour)with slivers of fennel, circles of radish and chunks of avocado, lightly dressed. Eat with lots of French bread and pale butter.

(Our favourite local just caught us finishing our lunch, barefoot, at 4pm.  He wished us a bon appetit, but refused a slice of apple tart on the grounds that his top dentures are being repaired at the moment. He is the picture of health for 87, always in the same black beret and wire rimmed sunglasses. The magic of the southern sunshine and the robust Gascon diet.)


paris patisseries: yamazaki

23 Mar

If I tell my Japanese colleagues I have been out to eat Japanese food in Paris, they normally tut, laugh and recommend me somewhere better. Then they go off on a tangent and talk about the best ramen in Tokyo. (I know just enough food vocabulary to understand at least this.) The fact is, the Japanese know about eating. They appreciated high art in culinary design long before we did; consequently they have amassed more Michelin stars than France (for shame).

So, I know that Naritake has the best ramen (as long as you ask for extra broth to dilute the powerful miso.) Jipangue has shabu-shabu to die for: thin strips of marbled beef to wave through a pot of stock until just cooked, then dipped in lemon-soy dressing. What about desserts? For a start there is Yamazaki, an international name.

There are branches all over the world: Tokyo, Malaysia, Paris. Here the shop is an odd mix of high art and the local lunch spot. They have standard sandwiches and packets of financiers, but also bottles of champagne and the ubiquitous coloured rows of macarons. It’s not a cosy tea room: stark lit, functional, with bold red and grey lilies stencilled on the walls.

I tried something different amid the classics, a champagne dessert: a translucid gold bubble, a fine circle of orange-brushed chocolate perched on top, a touch of gold leaf. Break through the bubble and my first thought was Christmas. The delightful headiness of alchol-soaked fruit, envelopped in a light champagne and apricot mousse, hiding a pistachio biscuit and the drunken prunes. Surprisingly, it works: a subtle mix of flavours, different layers of colour.

Worth a visit: though yuzu and matcha are everywhere these days, Yamazaki Aoki carries off the mix of Japanese and French patisserie with aplomb.

Around 5 euros for a small individual dessert, 2 euros for a chou puff.

Yamazaki – 6 Chaussée Muette, 75016 – metro La Muette – open every day

essentials: rum

17 Mar

When she was sick, Emily’s mama used to make her hot honey and lemon, with cinnamon sticks and a glug of rum. It is practically medicinal, rum, it’s so useful in the kitchen. If you can get your friends to smuggle the good stuff back from Martinique, all the better.

  • Marinate bay leaves and cinnamon sticks for a spiced cocktail a la Reunion
  • Add a splash of rum to a plain apple or almond cake instead of vanilla
  • Speculoos – not just for Christmas – excellent with a little dark rum
  • Mash up lime and sugar with white rum for the always cool capirinha

brown sugar brown butter madeleines

13 Mar

Talk about madeleines and you have to mention Proust. Whether you have read the complete works or not. His madeleine moment as revelation of the past – one bite and he is lost in the world of his grandmother – has marked the little shell formed cake as a Poetic Food. Like Hemingway’s oysters.

I don’t understand the appeal of either. I won’t start on oysters, slimy things, but madeleines have never been very exciting. Dry sponge cakes, intended to be dipped in tea to liven them up. (Tilleul tea for Marcel.) We tried once, fresh in our first year enthusiasm for Modern Languages, but were disappointed, underwhelmed. It’s my middle name, I should like them.

So I tried again: butter sizzled until it gives off the scent of hazelnuts, honey melted into milk, eggs and sugar and sifted flour. The raw batter tastes like salted caramel fudge, scraped thick off the spoon.

This doesn’t feel like a madeleine moment. It’s just home: a pot of redbush tea in my favourite green Harrods teapot. The charming flatmate just returned from Mexico, sombreros and tequila flung arround the apartment. Outside it’s raining, inside there is a hyacinth still shut up. Part of the too-modern generation, we are of course on our laptops. Someone will get up to pour more tea, to pinch another nut brown madeleine.

Maybe eventually I will look back on this as peaceful moment: we are rich enough to afford to buy butter and sugar, young enough to worry only about the next day.

But if I do remember this boring Wednesday, these particular madeleines deserve a little limelight. They have lacy edges, tender centres soft with an excess of brown sugar. Straight out of the oven, they are perfect. I made just enough for now so as not to risk sad dry shells tomorrow. In any case, the batter rests well overnight: better to make more, fresh, to enjoy tomorrow. Maybe the sun will shine too.

Brown sugar brown butter madeleines

makes lots

3 eggs

160g brown sugar

70g milk

35g honey

240g plain flour

10g baking powder

240g butter

Melt the butter in a small saucepan: keep an eye on it as it sizzles and foams. When it starts to smell toasty and forms brown specks at the bottom, remove from the heat.

Sift the flour and baking powder together. In a small mug, mix the honey and milk. if the honey is hard, heat briefly in the microwave. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the brown sugar until thick and paler than before. (I like to do this over a pan of simmering water – the eggs thicken and the sugar dissolves quicker.) Stir in the milk mixture and then the flour. Add the hot butter little by little, stirring well.

Leave to rest in the fridge while you heat the oven to 200C and grease some madeleine moulds with more melted butter. Fill the moulds to just below the brim. Bake for 5 minutes then turn the trays around so they cook evenly and cook for another 5 minutes. Mine took 15 total, but it depends on the oven. They are done when puffed up, form to the touch and a skewer stuck in them comes out clean, free of batter.

Cool in the moulds for 10 minutes. Eat the same day, serve with tea. Any remaining batter can be kept in the fridge for 48 hours for another teatime.

paris patisseries: sebastien gaudard vs. cyril lignac

11 Mar

Sooner or later, everyone wants their name up in lights.

Or on cake boxes.

At pastry school, our art lessons consist of squiggly letters, geometric Christmas trees and three dimensional roses. All for decorating cakes. And of course, designing our own monograms for the lucky few that will make it big.

In Paris, most of the new and exciting patisseries are also just names. You have the king, Pierre Herme, the chocolatiers Jacques Genin and Jean-Paul Hevin, and Carl Marletti south of the Seine.

Sooner or later, everyone wants their initials decorating their shiny shop windows, their signature on chocolate tarts.

Two of the latest – and best – of the bunch are Sebastien Gaudard and Cyril Lignac. Both have eponymous patisseries (the latter called “La Patisserie by Cyril Lignac”) in chic quartiers, both sell a subtle twist on the traditional. Both sell quality products on which they can be proud to put their names.

First up, Sebastien, “le petit prince de la patisserie”:

Gaudard’s shop has elbowed its way into a quintessially Parisian crowd: the butcher, the baker, the organic olive oil and specialty jam shops. In Montmartre, with an obligatory glimpse of the Sacre Coeur as you head up the rue des Martyrs. The shopfront is sober – none of the bells and whistles of the local artisan – just dark green, gold letters.

Inside, the antique mirrors and bare marble slabs reflect a neat row of patisseries, all in shades of cream and gold and mahogany. There are cream puffs and eclairs, rum babas and dark forest cakes. An individual dessert wrapped in paper-thin chocolate like a present. The lemon tart is perfectly glossy, with a faint wisp, an imprint of a lemon slice. The chocolate mendiant tart in the window also looks tempting.

Right in the centre is another glass display case, antique or slightly battered. Gazing down at the large raspberry dome inside, it feels like evaluating fine jewellery. Everything is beautiful. Even the handsome chef himself is there, easily spotted from his book covers behind him, to politely wrap your croissant.

I tried the apple tart: a classic with infinite variations. The puff pastry was good, the apples just right. But it was a little underwhelming, especially at 4 euros for a teeny slice. I wished I had picked something more adventurous to better judge.

Next day: La Patisserie by Cyril Lignac

A little further east, not far from Bastille, this new patisserie also picked a prime location on the rue Paul Bert, cosying up to one of my favourite places, Bistrot Paul Bert, and the cute cookbookery shop La Cocotte. It is a smaller shop, less grand perhaps, but still stripped bare in a consciously designed way. Where Gaudard sold chocolates alongside, Lignac has baguettes neatly lined up. And a line of impatient customers, including the ever-exacting neighbourhood Granny, a good sign.

Strikingly enough, both Lignac and Gaudard go for the same colour palette: all caramel, chocolate, lemon, vanilla. They both propose infinitely shiny versions of childhood favourites. No artificial neon inventions, no macarons even. Lignac’s deviation from the norm is to make his individual tart in crisp-cornered squares – and his signature Equinoxe dessert in a startling grey, just bright red circles for decoration. Rather admirable in fact, that there are no strawberries out of season, no hothouse pineapples or fake pistachio colouring. Just slivers of vanilla bean to decorate.

Here, I tried a millefeuille: only two layers of puff pastry instead of the usual three, enclosing a silky pastry cream, topped with a neat wave of vanilla-speckled chantilly. It was beautiful, and tasted beautiful. Just right.

In fact, used to bright colours and an abundance of kitsch, or intimidating designer boutiques, I was rather impressed to see both chefs attempt – and succeed at – the perfection of their craft before the shock of invention. Both stayed with seasonal treats (it will be interesting to see what summer brings) and made smaller, more elegant versions of the classics. No cheaper for being small, of course: count on 4-5 euros per dessert, which is still less than Laduree et al.

My final verdict? Gaudard’s shop was prettier, a temple to patisserie, but Lignac just edged him out on taste. However more extensive testing is definitely required!

Sebastien Gaudard – 22 rue des Martyrs, Paris 75009 – closed on Mondays

La Patisserie by Cyril Lignac –  24 rue Paul Bert Paris 75011 – also closed Mondays

essentials: star anise

10 Mar

Cinnamon sticks are over. Star anise are a better shape, more intriguing.

  • Add one to Swedish pea soup for a mysterious twang
  • Prepare a simple syrup with sugar, water star anise and lemon juice to marinate winter fruit salad
  • Poach pears with white wine and star anise – serve plain with whipped cream or sliced and baked into an almond tart
  • Float them in cocktails just for their pretty star petals

N.B. Do not leave to soak overnight in soup/fruit salad – gives a weird burnt taste – too strong.

fresh tagliatelle with butter, pepper and parmesan

7 Mar

Is there a foodie version of the Gap Yah boy? You know, an incredibly annoying toff that loves to enthuse about jamon iberico, will only eat Pierre Herme macarons, insists that pesto should be made from scratch, darling, right down to having your hunky Italian gardener crush the basil leaves for you.

I think I am that guy.

Darlings, you absolutely must rush out and buy a pasta machine. Seriously. Yah.

No, but…

Fresh pasta. Long squiggly noodles tangling themselves around your fork, laughably long. Eased with butter, hiding pockets of parmesan in their knotty depths. That beautiful stretchy silky quality, the yellow that only comes from real egg yolks.

Fresh. Pasta. (I’m fighting the urge to capitalise all of these letters, so much do I want to impress its genius upon you.) In twenty minutes, seriously, from egg and flour and boiling water to bowl of buttery filaments. Less time than it would take to walk anywhere and buy anything delicious. (Unless you live next door to the falafel place, I’ll allow you that.) In the time it takes to boil a large pan of water.

Simple maths. One egg, one hundred grams of flour per person. Mix, knead, crank it through the pasta machine (like playing with a plasticine maker! or a torture device). Drop the pasta straight in boiling water.

The flatmate laughed at me as I manically wound pasta sheets. I am a better Italian than she is, so ridiculously delighted by the idea of such simple food. She shut up when she tried them. Stamp of approval.

Be amazed. Or not. I don’t care, I like my elitist food bubble. As long I have eggs, flour and butter I may never bother to buy normal food again.

Fresh tagliatelle with butter, pepper and parmesan

serves two, just about

200g flour, type ’00’ (or bread flour would do)

2 large eggs

(a little extra water / flour just in case)

hunk of butter

bigger of hunk of parmesan, grated


salt for the pasta water

Put on a large pot of water to boil. Salt generously.

Make a well in the flour, crack the eggs in it. Mix, knead. Add a drop of water or a touch of flour until it forms a smooth golden ball that won’t stick to your hands. Flatten. Leave to rest for a little while, covered in clingfilm.

Winding the handle (or pressing the button, if you have an electric one) push the pasta through the machine on its widest setting. Fold in half, turn a quarter turn and roll it out again. Repeat. (This activates the gluten, makes it stretchy.) Now roll it through several times, decreasing the thickness each time. You might need a helper to catch the pasta sheet coming out the other side. Or cut in half and carry on. If it sticks, flour the rollers slightly.

When you get to 5 or 6 out of 7, stop. (The finest setting is for the very delicate angel’s hair.) If you haven’t already, cut the sheet into 3 or 4 parts. Attach the cutting device (not sure what it’s called) and push through the fat tagliatelle setting. Make sure to catch the noodles as they come out. Drape them over an open cupboard door or the back of a chair until you are ready to cook, nicely separated or they will stick.

Drop pasta into madly boiling water and cook for 5 minutes, maximum. Drain (reserve a little pasta water) then toss with lots of butter, cheese, pepper. Add a splash of the water if it looks too dry.

Eat straightaway. Really actually.

P.S. Pasta machines only cost about 30 quid on Amazon…

coconut and pineapple muffins with tiny stars

5 Mar

The obsessive compulsive timeline of foodblogging:

00:00 – on sofa in pyjamas (long day cleaning drains, ugh, at work)

00:01 – click on Smitten Kitchen’s double coconut muffins

00:10 – dressed again, arguing with corner shop man about whether coconut oil is suitable for cooking. It’s for your hair, your skin. (He mimes rubbing his scalp, looks worried)

00:30 – sprinkle tiny sugar stars over coconut muffins, hope desperately they do not taste like shampoo

00:50 –  silky coconut muffins with pineapple chunks come out of the oven, taste wonderful.

01:00 – pyjamas on again, all is right with the world.


Notes: To the original recipe, I added just a cup of pineapple chunks, fresh from the tin, and sprinkled stars on top as well as coconut. To melt the coconut oil in its skinny bottle, put it in a saucepan of simmering water for a few minutes.

Indian corner-shops are excellent (at least in Paris) for baking ingredients like nuts, tinned mango, coconut oil, powdered milk that are non-existent / cost an arm and a leg in supermarkets.

so you want to be a pâtissier?

4 Mar

(sung to the tune of “So you wanna be a boxer” from Bugsy Malone)

 Start now. For serious. If you spend your spare time making ever-more elaborate cakes, why not get paid for it? Become a pâtissier (pâtissière for girls) and work for a restaurant, pâtisserie, salon de thé, traiteur (caterer) or hotel. If the idea makes you grin like a loon, why not? Take a year and try it out.

Please note: advice is purely subjective and mostly Paris specific. Do correct me if I’m wrong. These were the three options open to me last year, when I was just an English teacher with no professional experience:

  •      Pay for fancy chef school

For example, the Cordon Bleu has schools in London, Paris, Tokyo. It is particularly prestigious (whatever anyone might say about “standards, not like in my day” etc) and offers a comprehensive course over 9 months, divided into three sections: covering basics, restaurant cooking, chocolate, sugar sculpture… If I had had the money I would have gone like a shot. You get intensive teaching and the safety of a big name to take around the world afterwards.

However it costs 17 900 euros for the whole caboodle, which is a lot, whatever your currency. Other schools, like the Ritz Escoffier, Lenotre, the ENSP at Yssingeaux in central France or more international ones present the same advantages/disadvantages.

(See also: this English girl who went to the Cordon Bleu, London then nabbed a job at the Mandarin Oriental hotel!)

  •      Work as an apprentice, get a CAP diploma

Alternatively, if you are lucky enough to be European and between 16-25, like me, you can do an apprenticeship at a CFA (centre de formation d’apprentissage) paid for by the French state. You divide your time: a week at school, two weeks in a pâtisserie or restaurant. Even better, you get a small salary for your time at work. The course takes a year, with exams to pass in June, both practical and theoretical (science, business, technology and PSE). For those over 25, the same course takes only 4 months (most of which is at school, with only a few weeks at work) but this will cost about 4000 euros.

The giant advantage and disadvantage of this system is the same: you get to work in an acclaimed pâtisserie from the word GO, without necessarily any prior experience. But you have to persuade them to take you on on the basis of your enthusiasm. The school will not necessarily help you with this. If you want to start school in September, start looking for an apprenticeship NOW. I was a little late, still looking in June, and was told that most positions had already been filled for next year. At Angelina, they already had applications for two years hence.

I have learned a huge amount at my pâtisserie. Not just éclairs: how to organise myself in a professional kitchen. My school has a much slower and sometimes very frustrating pace, because the course is for 17-25 year olds, some of which are quite reluctant to learn anything at all. But I will have a CAP (certificat d’aptitude professionnelle) Pâtissier at the end of the year. This is the most basic level: there are many more options after that too. The exams are easy enough, though in French, of course. Uniform obligatory for all classes, even theoretical ones.

The best Parisian CFA is probably Ecole Ferrandi, which is mighty selective. I think applications have to be in before Christmas. After that there is the Ecole de Boulangerie et Patisserie in the centre of Paris, as well as EPMTTH and CEPROC both of which accepted me late in the year without any trouble. (The latter won’t recognise my English school certificates however, it is necessary to resit Maths, History, Geography etc).

Go for a tour of the schools, ask to speak to a teacher or two. The same with the apprenticeship: go for as many trial days as you can and find somewhere that makes you feel both comfortable and challenged.

(See also: this French girl who did her CAP in the south of France)


  •    Claw your way up as a stagiaire (intern)

School is a good option since the French like things inside the box, within the system. But if you are incredibly keen and work hard, you could learn just as much with a stage (internship) and then a job. The big places like Ladurée have a constant turnover of unpaid stagiaires who just want to learn pâtisserie. Again, of course, you have to persuade someone to take you on. Rack up enough internships, be fiercely convincing and you will pick up the skills. If you can’t quit the day job, work in a bakery on the weekend when they always need more help, or a restaurant a few evening a week.

This takes guts. This also might be my position at the end of the year. It is notoriously hard to get hired in France, leading young people in every sector to work as interns for months hoping desperately that a job opens up. Good luck!

(See also: this determined lady who gives excellent advice for anxious novices.)


*As for languages: yes, you should learn French eventually. Because most cookery language is already peppered with French words. But English is a good second best. Most chefs will speak enough to yell at you. It depends on the place! Where I work, Japanese is almost a pre-requisite.

essentials: lemon and grapefruit

3 Mar

Lemons were one of the most precious cooking ingredients during rationing – for their promise of sunnier shores, for the sharp clear flavour from only a few drops. My grandfather supposedly threw out the juice of a lemon, carefully squeezed, patiently waiting to go into a cake. He thought it was cabbage water. That my granny tells the story fifty years later means it must have been special.

Of course, there is nothing nice than her lemon drizzle cake, the sharp juice seeping into the warm sponge, a layer of sequinned sugar left on top.

  • To perk up any drab cake: pour a mix of granulated sugar and lemon juice over a cake just out of the oven, let it absorb the goodness.
  • Blend the zest with more sugar for a fragrant blend to liven up shortbread cookies and scones.

Grapefruit too seems to go with everything – especially because of its brash pink flesh, just sour enough to suck.

  • Make an instant yoghurt sorbet with grapefruit juice, freeze and enjoy. Serve with the famous lemon pudding!
  • Use the grapefruit in a happy winter salad: feta and croutons and endives and prosciutto.
  • Try grapefruit jellies with jewelled pomegranate seeds suspended inside.
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