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knäckebrot, or cinema crackers

16 Apr

What do chefs eat after work? David Lebovitz says it is popcorn and tortilla chips. When I worked at a bakery, I took home the leftovers, ate half a raspberry-chocolate mousse cake and fell asleep at 8pm.

Now I tend to go for: the beef satay pho from the place on the corner, which can have it ready in four minutes flat. Or: spaghetti with miso and butter. Or: frozen gyoza and frozen edamame reheated in the time it takes to boil a kettle.

Or if I am lucky, my past self filled up the tin of seeded crackers and I can eat those with Comté and sliced fennel. They taste like the really expensive crackers in the organic food aisle – not like the dry, diet ones that are basically cardboard. Good with cheese of course, or with jam for breakfast, or crumbled over savoury dishes for extra crackle.

Best of all, the crackers only take two minutes to mix up, and an hour to bake. They are mostly seeds, held together with a bit of flour and some oats. There is no rolling involved, so it doesn’t feel like work. And they can last forever, or for a fortnight, depending on how many you made and if your flatmate looks in the tin.

Or, since at the end of a long day I don’t always want to cook, talk to anyone or think about anything: I go to the movies by myself, with a paper bag of these seeded crackers, and eat them during the noisy parts.


Knäckebrot, or cinema crackers

recipe from my aunt Patricia

The quantity below is enough for one standard oven tray of 40x25cm – I recommend making as many trays as will fit in the oven at once as the crackers keep for months (ha) but disappear much fast than that. (See the spreadsheet version underneath.) Use a mix of whatever seeds you have around, and up to 10% of spices, like caraway, cumin or fennel.

50g rye flour (T130) or wholewheat flour (T150)

50g rolled oats

85g mixed seeds (any of sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, flax, nigella – and up to 10% spices like caraway, cumin, fennel seeds)

2.5g / 1/2 tsp salt

175g water

5g / 1 tsp olive oil

Heat oven to 130C. Mix everything in a large bowl for a texture like porridge. Line your oven trays with paper or silpats, and weigh 360g onto each. Spread out with a spatula over the whole tray, as thinly and evenly as possible. Pop trays in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove trays one by one and carefully cut the now set mixture into squares, or whatever you want your crackers to look like. Put back in the oven for 1 hour. If they are still a little soft, turn the oven off and leave them inside to dry out. Store in a tin.

Spreadsheet version, all in grams:

[Rye flour recipe, number 1 out of 3]

summer fruit

27 Jun

I haven’t been cooking for myself. I have been buying bags of fruit at the market – cherries and apricots and baby tomatoes –  and eating them straight from the bag. Then I get home, surprised that there are none left.

Lunch today: a few, sad apricots that got squashed under the radishes. Half a baguette, apricots, pickled red onion slices (always useful to have in the fridge) and a too-ripe camembert. Grilled to melt the cheese into total surrender.

Hope June is treating you well.


happy new year

31 Dec


Please accept this very un-seasonal framboisier to put this year to bed. The French like to send cards in January rather than December, which is much easier in the calm after all the parties. Bonne année to all – may the next be full of hopes and adventures.

book jenga

3 Mar


Yesterday a pile of books in my bedroom threatened to engulf me. There aren’t any shelves, only artfully arranged stacks. And the one I wanted was at the bottom.

The cookbooks in the kitchen do not fare much better. They have to share space with our ever-expanding tea collection (black, green, white, cranberry, chai, cardamom, almond) that also threatens an avalanche when one item is removed.

And somehow I seem to forget to use them. Or I open them only at well-loved recipes, creased pages. Some of their spines have never been cracked. For the last month, I have been stuck in a rut, making the same two cakes (upside-pomegranate and orange with coconut); soup, bread and Rachel’s peperonata, which never gets old. (Today it is going in a savoury tart and I cannot wait for lunch.)

books 2

Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries have been demoted to bedtime reading, or worse, laptop stand. Not good enough. The seasons are changing, on the cusp, and the markets have switched their produce from one week to the next. Like in Japan, where the 1st September means off with the air-conditioning, here the first weekend of March means I can’t find any more pomegranates, but artichokes are in abundance. So I am getting out of my rut and opening my books.

If I go rescue the Kitchen Diaries from my bed, let’s see… For the beginning of March, Nigel offers lamb shanks, and passion-fruit creams, like a ray of sunshine. (In fact, the recipe for the latter is remarkably similar to my rosemary creams.) This month, I am going to try at least one new recipe per week, each from a different book. Must include artichokes, since I’ve always avoided preparing them. And I think I know which book they require, The Painter, the Cook and the Art of Cucina …

the language of fromage

7 Oct

camembert cheese

A collection of small notebooks follow me around, hiding in handbags and storage boxes. They contain to-do lists, irresistible quotes and all the deep thoughts I cannot bear to let evaporate into the ether. So, like an old-fashioned Tumblr ?

There is no such thing as untranslatable words really, everything can be explained with more words. But you can tell a lot about a foreign culture by considering the concepts that are considered important enough to have their own wordsIt is the concision that is key, if you can express “the dappled sunlight falling through the trees” in a word, it means that there is a certain care for aesthetics within. (Guess which country that comes from, then click the link above to check your results.) Likewise, missing words mean that those ideas are less relevant to that culture.

As a foreigner discovering a new language, it may be that you just haven’t learned the word yet. It can make you homesick, hunting for your idiom, or give you a feeling of misplaced superiority. Or it can make you laugh. At the very least it makes for a good game of amateur psychologist. This then is the running list I have kept on the exaggerations and the lacunae in French.

Things that bug me about the French language;

  • the poop: Bored, annoyed, or plain grumpy, there is a graphic poop-related swear word or verb construction to fit your mood. (No, I am not listing them.)
  • the normal:  A disclaimer for everything, the linguistic Gallic shrug, normalement means “Of course! As soon as possible! But if it takes six months to hook up your electricity, it’s not my fault, you have been warned!”
  • the lack of anticipation: You can hurry to do something, you can really want to do it, but you cannot achieve that polite English state of “looking forward to”…
  • the false economy: You don’t say cheap but simply pas cher, peu cher, not expensive, as if haute cuisine, haute couture and all that is costly is the gold standard. You can say économique but it’s just not as casually and easily used as pas cher.
  • the appreciation: Miraculously, French boys seem to think they can get away with je t’apprecie as a poor cousin to love. Can you imagine ‘I do appreciate you, my dear,’ in English? Like a slap in the face from Mr Darcy.
  • the cheese: Le fromage, the sacred French food, could never be considered an insult. Therefore to sneer at something as “cheesy” you say mielleux or fleur bleu.

What have I missed? What have I grossly misjudged with my outsider snootiness? (Snooty is an glorious word, how would you convey that in French?)

‘wild foods of britain’ by jason hill

19 Jun



…is the name of my great-grandfather’s book (that I mentioned in Wild Garlic). He also wrote a couple of others under the pseudonym of Jason Hill: ‘Herbs, Salads and Seasonings’ in collaboration with Marcel Boulestin, a French restauranteur in London and inspiration to Elizabeth David; and ‘The Curious Gardener,’ with wonderful pen and ink drawings by John Nash.

He seems to have been quite a character. In cahoots with a whirl of interesting and artistic people, he was a black-suited, umbrella-furled psychiatrist who commuted to London during the week, but spent the weekends in a pair of bright blue Spanish trousers, his bohemian side an intense embarrassment to Granny and her sisters. When he was in charge on the straight-laced nanny’s day off, he would have his four daughters dress in light Japanese yukatta, sit on the floor and eat lychees, a rarity he must have found in the city. I have a shirt of his, embroidered in red and blue with a collar, supposedly a Russian refugee stitched it by hand and gave it to him in thanks. For what, I don’t know.

There are a lot of gaps to fill in… And although I am not at all attracted by gardening, I find myself reading anyway for his elegant turn of phrase. While I do some more research, dig out some lentils from the cupboard and wish I had some herbs, salads or seasonings in the fridge, here is a picture with his eldest daughter, my granny. Isn’t he handsome?

jill and father

kitchen rhythm

7 Mar

strawberry half 2

While googling wildly, I just came across Yumeiro Patishiēru, a manga and anime about a girl named Strawberry, but known as Dream-Coloured Pastry Chef.

I can rest easy – there is already an animated series about a clumsy girl who dreams of opening her own bakery in London and thinks there is a second stomach just for dessert.

On an unrelated note – but one that makes me almost as happy as this discovery – my essay about a year as an apprentice patissière is now online. Do let me know what you think?

french onion and camembert tart

3 Sep

The wind has turned cool and the grey clouds are gathering. Parisian girls  have obediently put on their black tights and thick coats.

It is September 3rd. Autumn has arrived right on schedule. Today is Back to School day,  for children and students, and adults that like an excuse to buy stationery and start with blank resolutions for a new year. The French love la rentrée.

September 3rd marks the two year anniversary of my arrival in France. And for the first time in twenty years (!) I am not going back to school. I am back working in my little bakery, for real this time.

In the metro on the way home, however, I read about the very affordable evening courses (art/language/computer/carpentry…) sponsored by the city council. So as not to make it too easy, I have to carefully fill out forms in triplicate (of course) and post them off within a week. Errors may mean disqualification of the hopeful candidate.

Paris, Paris. What a tease. Culture around every corner, if you know how to jump through the hoops. Filigree balconies and an ominous stench of pee. (It’s true, it is a beautiful but smelly city.)

To honour this weird and contradictory place, I bought onions and cried while slicing them.

I made this tart, in the leafy colours of autumn – caramel, mustard, burnt umber.

It looks like a quiche, but it is less eggy and more savoury. Fully half of it is made up of onions cooked until brown and sweet as toffee. Then Camembert, Bayonne ham and Dijon mustard add miles of flavour and French authenticity.

Actual Parisians wouldn’t dream of making the tart crust themselves, not in their pocket-sized kitchens. You can buy pastry (all-butter, please) as they would, from the supermarket. Or, enveloped by a cosy onion fug, you can make this simple crumbly short crust while you wait for the onions to caramelise.


French onion and Camembert tart

makes enough for 4 in a deep tart dish about 22cm wide

250g flour

100 cold butter

1 tsp salt

3-4 tbs cold water

for the filling:

60g butter

500g onions (2-3 large ones)

80g Camembert (or another smelly cheese)

2 slices Bayonne ham (prosciutto will do as well)

3 large eggs

70ml cream

1 1/2 tsp mustard

a little Gruyère to grate on top, if you have any


Blend flour, salt and 100g cold butter in a food processor. Drizzle in cold water until the dough starts to clump together. Push it into a rough disc with your hands, clingfilm and refrigerate.

Melt 60g butter in a large saucepan. Peel, half and thickly slice the onions into half moons. Cook in the butter, half covered, on a medium heat until soft. Then uncover, turn up the heat and cook until caramelised, stirring every now and then. Takes about 20 minutes.

While onions are cooking, grease a tart pan and heat the oven to 180C. Roll out the pastry and gently press into pan. If it crumbles a little, just patch it up again. Stick it in the freezer this time until onions are ready.

Fill pastry with caramelised onions, then tear up the cheese and ham and sprinkle over. Whisk eggs, cream and mustard and pour it on. Finally top with a little grated Gruyere.

Bake for 30-35 minutes until puffed up, golden and firm. Serve with a green salad and a sharp vinaigrette.

P.S. If you were to be really cunning, you wouldn’t wash the onion saucepan but throw some chopped carrots into it, cover with boiling water and simmer until soft. Add coconut milk, spices, blend and you have a quick soup ready before the tart comes out of the oven.

carrot and sweet potato gnocchi with harissa and sun-dried tomatoes

18 Aug

“What’s your war horse?”

My what now?

“Your cavallo di battaglia. The thing that you do best, that you do to impress. Your speciality.”

Everyone has one. A trick to break the ice at parties, like juggling. An unexpected skill, an academic with a penchant for meticulous embroidery.

Most people also have at least one recipe for company. Even if they can’t cook. Maybe they are proud of their spaghetti carbonara with creme fraiche. (Blasphemy for an Italian, actually.) Maybe they can only make chocolate-banana bread, or breakfast pancakes, but really really well.

I think it would make a unique cookbook, one that was truly useful. A compilation of stand-by, fail-safe war horses.

Mine is almost certainly chicken, roasted or cooked slowly with cider and apples, with a simple dessert containing Nutella and mascarpone. If asked to produce proper patisserie, I would pick choux pastry swans because they are kitsch and cute, because I love the way choux goes PUFF in the oven from eggy liquid to air ball ready to be stuffed with cream and caramel.

Carrot gnocchi are not my specialty, they belong to someone else. They are special because they are vegetarian but interesting, a classic in an unexpected coat. I cheated a little, used sweet potato to make up for a dearth of carrots, tossed in some harissa and sundried tomatoes because they were in the fridge. I was impressed, though I say so myself.

They were a beautiful colour for a start, bright orange dotted with red. They are more like gnudi  – naked ravioli – a delicate filling only just held together by dint of a little egg, a little parmesan. More cheese on top, a generous amount of melted butter and it makes a dish that you will be sad to finish.

Carrot and sweet potato gnocchi with harissa and sundried tomatoes

recipe from Sara, as published by Emiko – serves 4 as main course, 6 for a starter

1kg carrots and/or sweet potato

100g ricotta

100g flour

2 tbs semolina/polenta flour

2 tbs grated parmesan

4 egg yolks

salt, pepper, nutmeg

to serve: 100g butter – 1/4 tsp harissa – handful sundried tomatoes in oil

Peel, cut carrots and sweet potato into chunks. Steam until soft. Mash roughly with a fork, let cool.

Mix all other ingredients, stir in cooled mash. Add salt, pepper and grated nutmeg to taste.

(At this point I like to leave the mixture in the fridge for a couple of hours to firm up a little. But it’s not in the original recipe, so go ahead and make them straightaway if you’re hungry.)

Fill a large shallow pan with water and put on to boil. Heat a large serving dish in the oven with the butter and harissa in it. With two teaspoons, make small quenelles (lozenge shapes) not much bigger than a walnut in its shell and drop them into the water. Only put enough in the pan to make one layer or they won’t cook as well. Put the rest on a floured tea towel. When they float up to the surface after a couple of minutes, remove to heated serving dish. Repeat with the rest of the gnocchi. (Should be about 4 rounds unless you have an enormous pan.)

Gently toss gnocchi in the butter and harissa, sprinkle with sundried tomatoes chopped small.

Serve absolutely immediately. Have everyone waiting at the table, forks in hand. More parmesan is obligatory, extra harissa if you like it spicy.

cappuccino lessons

6 Aug

This is the kind of family I was always looking to adopt on my year abroad: Saturday night we go out and up into the mountains for an icecream supper. Icecream as a main course, mind. In a tall glass dish with swirls of cream, rivers of sauce. Hazelnuts for me, raspberries for them. The adults even seem more excited than the seven-year-old girl, who licks her cone regally.

On the way home, my host asked the little girl how her grandparents were doing.

Non mi ricordo. (I can’t remember.)

Mangiavano e camminavano, parlavano e ridevano? (When you last saw them, were they eating, walking, talking and laughing?)


Allora stanno bene. (Then they must be alright.)

I came to the Italian Alps to learn a little about their desserts, their style of baking. I noticed that Italians like their sweets sweet, full of jam or lemony cream, their crostata sturdy, striped with sweet short pastry. They prefer a small chocolate square with breakfast coffee to full-blown dessert after supper. What they normally order in the morning, a “brioche” (or else “cornetto“) is a more spongy, lighter croissant with much less butter.

I got a free cappuccino lesson thrown in, as I stood behind the stainless steel counter from 6.30 – 8 am. The locals trickled in, sat down, opened the paper. They didn’t order their coffee because they have the same every day. The patron knows. They know. Everyone knows everyone else and their business. Except me, the wandering English girl. I had to ask.

Caffe macchiato freddo. (A drop of cold milk, not cold coffee.)

Caffe corretto. (A generous splash of grappa, even at 7am.)

Macchiatone. (Slightly less milk than a cappuccino, slightly more than a macchiato. For the thrifty types from Turin, apparently.)

Cappuccino senza schiuma. (No foam. So, not actually a cappucino then.)

The milk for the cappuccino should be at just 65C, so it can be drank at once. A proper barista can tell the temperature by touching the metal jug, foaming the milk just the right amount. In any case, there should be enough milk for two small cappuccini at most. Reheated milk is just not as good. Froth the milk first, then do the coffee. Optimal time for the hot water to drip through the beans is 12-13 seconds. (Don’t fill the grinder to the top with beans – they should stay in the fridge to keep fresh.)

More than the coffee order, the barista also ought to know whether his client is left or right handed, in order to correctly position the spoon and cup handle.  I learned a lot, not least from the old school pastry lessons from a grandfather in an apron and  faded dolce and gabbana vest.

I learned most in those first few hours at dawn: how to welcome people in incredibly early, to kickstart their day with a jolt of caffeine and an insulting remark. (I wasn’t very good at this – but the boss knew their weak points off by heart too and his customers loved to be teased.)

You can talk a lot of guff about the Mediterranean lifestyle, a simpler way. A few select ingredients for delicious food, a long life. We love the idea of Italy – yet the Italians were  quick to ask me what on earth I was doing there, in the mountains where most of the young people had already fled to Germany or elsewhere to get work. Not so simple.

Be that as it may, I did learn to appreciate the smallest pleasures, tying on an apron, admiring the evergreen peaks looming. I also learned that if you can  walk and talk, if you are still eating and laughing, you’re probably just fine.

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