27 February, 2011

Lemon springs eternal.

Remember last April, when my daughter and I were candying violets?  The violets are once again everywhere.  The garden doesn't keep a calendar, it feels what it feels, and right now, here, it's all about the warming touch of the sun and a breeze that could be described as nearly balmy.
Seems hardly believable to see the first signs of spring on the tail end of grim February, but the garden appears to be as ready for the close of winter as I am. The leaf buds, beginnings of flowers and general greenness are spreading like a virus.  (I myself have been coughing my way into my third week of a cold. Isn't it lovely how children share everything, even their school-incubated, upper respiratory messes?)
Even if I'm dragging, there is enormous solace in the bright light and lengthening days. I think our rabbit and chickens, who live outdoors, would absolutely agree.  As the hens are still laying, the kids collect three eggs a day, and I'm on permanent watch for good egg recipes. 
Unfortunately, there's otherwise nothing of great interest in my garden or at the farmer's market, if you don't count root vegetables. 

Except.  Nearly forgotten in my little orangeraie, the citrus trees have wintered, and they haven't been idle.  At this very moment, my Meyer lemon treelet is draped in sun-drenched fruit, as is my regular lemon tree. I also happened to have a couple of Bergamot oranges in the fruit bowl...
So here's my quantitative reasoning:
Eggs + lemons + almost spring-like weather = the perfect time to make lemon curd.

I wish I'd known to send a Valentine to David Lebovitz, blogging pastry chef and author extraordinaire.  He so deserves it. You see--thanks to observant reader Nadège--I tried his lemon bar recipe, and I just haven't been able to stop making it.  It involves using the entire lemon, rind and all, to get a lemon bar with a gorgeously complex, mouth-filling pucker and richness.  It is such an excellent way to make a lemon sing.  I've tweaked the recipe a bit: I brown the butter that goes in the crispy crust to really amplify its savor, and I've also upped the lemon factor.  I find one Bergamot orange and one standard lemon work best, though I received praise for the Meyer and regular lemon combo as well.  I know, a lemon bar isn't a traditionally French recipe per se, but really, it's just a "fun-size" tarte au citron, n'est-ce pas?

Just like my kids--and David--I like to share.  I'll keep my cold, but you can have the recipe.
Barres au citron (Lemon Bars, adapted from the recipe by David Lebovitz)

Makes one 20 cm/8 inch pan, or about 16 bars.

140g (1 cup) flour
50g (¼ cup) sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
115g (8 tablespoons) browned butter (a.k.a. beurre noisette)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 lemons, organic (1 regular + 1 Bergamot/Meyer...)
200g (1 cup) sugar, superfine/castor *
4 ¼ teaspoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
45g (3 tablespoons) butter
3 large eggs, room temperature

Powdered/confectioner’s sugar

Begin by making the beurre noisette (the process is described here). Pour from pan into a small, pre-cooled dish and place in refrigerator to cool.

Preheat the oven to 180C (350F). As David recommends: “Overturn an 8-inch square pan on the counter and wrap the outside snugly with foil, shiny side up. Remove the foil, turn the pan over, and fit the foil into the pan, pressing to nudge the foil into the corners”. Set aside.

Combine the flour, 1/4 cup (50g) sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, vanilla and 8 tablespoons beurre noisette in a bowl, stirring until you have a smooth--if sticky--dough. Spread the dough evenly in the foil-lined pan, using your hands or a spatula, filling the corners thoroughly (and being careful not to rip the foil with your fingernail as I did the first time). Bake for 25 minutes, or until a deep-golden brown.

While the crust is baking, melt the 3 tablespoons of butter and set aside to cool. Cut one lemon in half, remove all the seeds, and cut the lemon into chunks. If using a Meyer lemons, note they have lots of teeny sliver-like seeds, be sure you've removed them all before dropping the pieces into the food processor. Juice the remaining lemon, and cut the remaining, empty rind into chunks. Put the chunks of lemon in a food processor along with the extra-fine sugar* and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, and let the processor run until the lemon chunks are pretty tiny. Add the corn starch, salt, and 3 tablespoons (45g) melted butter, and blend until smooth. Lastly, add the 3 eggs and blend until just combined; try to avoid letting the mixture get too foamy.

Remove the crust from the oven once fully baked, reducing the heat of the oven to 150C (300F). Gently pour the lemon mixture over the hot crust and bake for 20-25 minutes or just until the filling is barely set (it should no longer jiggle when shaken). Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely. Place the pan in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to ensure that the curd is fully set. Lift the whole, baked lemon treat out of the pan by carefully pulling the foil. Cut the bars into squares or rectangles. Sift powdered sugar over the top just before serving.

These bars will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for three days.
* Make your own extrafine/castor sugar in seconds: just pulse regular sugar a few times in a food processor before adding the lemon chunks and juice.

22 February, 2011

What I'm reading.

I write about my life in the Cévennes, because I am quite happy here, whether visiting or living here full-time, as I do now. 
I tell little anecdotes, such as the differences between the French and Anglo-Saxons when playing bingo.  Bingo play as I have experienced it here is far more social than in the US, where bingo halls are notable for a certain dusty kind of stillness.  At church bingo in the US, you can hear the glasses of Kool-Aid sweat.  In France, it is apparently normal to have to crane to catch the number over the running commentary and chatter.
Image credit: Kraft foods. 
When someone wins, the remaining Anglo-Saxons clap and smile (writhing and cursing inwardly--I wanted that George Foreman grill!).  The French râlent.  This means they complain, or sound off, or whinge and whine.  Whatever you want to call it, they are usually very good at it.  Someone calls bingo, and there are waves of collective groans, eye-rolling, loud comments about it always being the same people, and then disconsolate, hurried dumping of the pieces back into a pile for the next round.  I watched my own daughter engage in this very French behavior, one square shy of a win.  She is on her way to becoming a râleuse, and is thus integrating quite nicely, thank you.

In French bingo, called loto, the rules are different; only numbers are called.  Our loto reader (caller? officiator?) gave character to every single number.  For example, an eight was a "belted zero".  Seventy-seven was "the tools of my grandfather". Fourteen was the Sun King.  Nineteen was a Renault classic.  Twenty-four was the pays du noix, or land of the walnuts (24 being the departmental number for the Perigord).  Thirty was home (being the departmental number for the Gard, where we live).  There were cultural, historical, musical and pop references I completely missed. All this was ad-libbed, mind you.  I've never experienced that full-entertainment experience in stateside bingo.  Yet anyway.

I've also never before experienced such bawdy humor at a school fundraiser. The hall was simply packed with people ranging from toddlers to the very seniors and everyone in between. The loto reader--who also happens to be the school principal--defined three as the "modern couple".  Sixty-nine? "Ta touffe m'etouffe!"  I'll leave you to translate that one...

At  the drop of a hat, I could rattle off a number of these sorts of experiences, but it's another thing to tackle your various impressions and experiences, then wrestle them into a winning story.   
This is what Rosy Thornton has done to most engaging effect in her latest book, The Tapestry of Love. 

Some of us write online and then graduate to books.  Rosy, also a Cambridge professor, went the other way around, and volunteers on her site that "there must be something pretty special about a place if you spend a fortnight there and, twenty years later, feel inspired to write a book about it."  Indeed.

Her heroine, Catherine Parkstone, does what so many Anglo-Saxons have done--or dreamed of doing: she picked up stakes and headed to the south of France.  Specifically, the Cévennes. And that's where the story begins, and where her life becomes richly complicated.  She becomes a furniture upholsterer, tapestry weaver and all-round seamstress without taking enough account of the vagaries of French bureaucracy.  She gets to know her neighbors through their idiosyncrasies.  She falls in love. (In my opinion, her Cévenols, while reserved, are still less reserved than my Cévenols...)  Deeply woven through this tale are the traditions, places and spaces that make the Cévennes what it is--beautiful, variegated, a little rough, and seemingly timeless.  There is the twice annual ritual of the transhumance, there is the history of the silkworm and silk production, a significant Cévenol industry until the 1850s or so, but the book is also rich in local, earthy detail.  Tapestry of Love is filled with delicate, discerning observation, and it won me over.
For more information you can go to her site, where she even provides a few choice recipes you can download.   

Full disclosure: Rosy Thornton is a La Vie Cévenole reader.

14 February, 2011

The modest madeleine, modified.

By the time the kids were clambering into the schoolbus, the vast fog had already drifted in.  It settled across our little valley and onward toward the next village, imposed a dozen shades of grey and upturned the rest of the color palette.
The routine walk later with the dog took on a certain element of magic.  Dakar's a Weimaraner,  a shimmery, ghostly shadow himself; he disappeared into the wall of fog in half a moment.  Rounding a curve of the road, there he was again, bounding into view, wisps of mist curling away at his mad, laughing, young-dog gallop, so utterly in his skin and in the moment. 

Maybe that should be my plan for 2011; to be more dog-like in the year of the cat.
The neighbor's horses ignored him, or at least they tried to, and we continued our wet rambling.  Today though, I didn't dally overmuch: I had something to hurry home to.
I scored a whole pile of organic blood oranges on sale this morning.  You may know my weakness for blood oranges...but, seriously, what's not to love?
In this damp month, too often dreary, weary, the solid dominion of coughs and sneezes, the spectacularly assertive color of blood oranges and their antioxidant-fueled kick keep us going.  Doesn't the sight alone of that color and sparkle revive you?
Try telling that to the kids, who're happy to look and smile, pleased with a glass of juice, but whose bellies really clamor for an after-school snack. 

I played around with an archetypal (and simple) French treat, adding a subtle citrus twist, and voilà! 
Madeleines aux miel et au orange sanguine (Blood Orange and Honey Madeleines)

Makes 24 madeleines.  You will need two madeleine pans.

120 g (1/3 cup) butter
180 g (1 3/4 cup) flour
2 large pinches of salt
80 g (1 scant cup) finely ground almonds or hazelnuts
250 g (1/2 scant cup) superfine/castor sugar, divided
6 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons orange flower water
2 teaspoons honey
finely grated, minced zest of 3 blood oranges*
juice of one small blood orange* (about 3 1/2 to 4 tablespoons)

Grease the madeleine molds thoroughly, using softened butter; make sure you get into all those little grooves to avoid any sticking later.  Flour and set aside. 

Make a beurre noisette (browned butter):  melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, swirling occasionally. As the butter begins to foam, it will chortle, snap and pop happily; it knows what's coming.  Just as quickly, the little concert will come to a close, to be replaced by a wonderful, deeply nutty scent.  The butter's ready when it takes on a golden-brown tone, and you see a light brownish sediment.  Remove the pan from the heat--don't delay--because the butter can quickly burn at this point, and the sediment then goes from being heavenly to carcinogenic.  Pour the browned butter from the pan into a separate small dish to cool.

Combine the flour, ground almonds, half the sugar and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites to high, soft peaks.  In a third bowl, beat the egg yolks with the remaining half of the sugar until the yolks are pale and ribbony.  Add the browned butter, the flour mixture, the orange flower water, honey, zest and blood orange juice, mixing well.  Mix one fourth of the egg whites into the yolk to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining egg whites, just enough to blend.  Fill the molds two-thirds full, and allow the two pans to rest in the refrigerator.  The madeleines really need to chill at least one hour, preferably three.

Preheat the oven 350F (180C).  Pop one pan in for about fifteen minutes. The little cakes will be ready when the edges are brown and the top springs back gently when touched.  Remove from the heat, allow to rest for a minute, then tap the pan on the counter.  The madeleines should tumble right out of the pan.  Don't forget to pop the remaining pan in the oven...Madeleines are best when eaten the day they're made.  Fully cooled, they will keep for two days in an air-tight container.
* Of course you can always use regular oranges, but add in a touch of lemon or lime for a bit more complexity.  And keep the finished product out of the reach of any dogs...

09 February, 2011

Only this.

My five year old walked by with a poorly suppressed grin.  When I checked my camera later, this image was on it.  Sometimes it takes a small one to see great beauty.

08 February, 2011

Of Vietnamese cats and chocolate bulls.

I've been thinking about writing.  Thinking about it while driving, while showering, while feeding the chickens, without ever actually opening my laptop, let alone putting my fingers to the keyboard.  It's been a bit busy around here. There's the making and the eating of savory and sweet crêpes, for which Jesus invented Candlemas.  Don't quote me, it's only my newest hypothesis.  Point is, all in the name of celebrating entrenched local tradition, we've eaten our way through an awful lot of pancakes...
And then the day after we went Vietnamese. As it was the Lunar New Year, or Tết, Babette, the cook at the village school canteen, made an all-Asian lunch featuring "nems," which is what the French call fried spring rolls.  Afterward, I spent the afternoon with five and six year olds, lighting incense, playing music, and showing some photos of Vietnam.  We talked about new year traditions, we hung lanterns and paper dragons, they colored an image I traced of the charming feline on the latest Vietnamese stamp (while in China it's the year of the rabbit, the Viet like to do it a whisker differently).  The kids were so engaged and we had a blast. As if that wasn't enough of a party, this year Tết landed on my birthday.  So there was that to celebrate...
And then to top it all, there was chocolate and an awful lot of other sweet things because the chocolate show came to town.  To Nimes, to be specific.
There were all the typical permutations of French chocolate, and some less obvious ones, too.

Beyond the making of chocolate macarons, and the covert sampling of chocolate fountains,  there was this sculptor, carving on a fine Nimois bull out of premium dark.
And there was chocolate wine.  Quite a trick. I actually quite liked the white version, a blend of Sauvignon and Semilion, in which chocolate has been steeped in such a way to impart a distinct cocoa scent and flavor while still looking as clear and light-filled as a standard glass of wine.
We all watched Francis Miot do his art. He has previously been crowned France's best confiturier, or jam-maker.  Awarded annually, that title means something here, because there's an awful lot of top shelf jam to be had in this country, and I'm not talking about Bonne Maman.   Here in my small corner of the country, an old-school, well brought-up mother or grandmother wouldn't appear on a neighbor's doorstep without bearing something homemade, usually jam...
There were piles of traditional French sweets, like preserved fruit, salted caramels, soft nougat (flavored with wild blueberries!).
There were darling jars of rum-soaked babas. At each stall, I managed to walk away after a sedate sampling of goods.  Until I tried the handmade guimauves, that is.
Forget anything you ever thought you knew about marshmallows.  Fresh, artisanal marshmallows can be incredible.  I never even realized I liked marshmallows until I tasted them in pastry shops.  At first, it's all airiness, and then the flavor seems to gently 'appear' in your mouth.  It's fairly close to magic.
There was rose, and litchee.  Violet, lavender, grapfruit, bergamot, and did I mention coconut with tiny dark chocolate bits?  Blackberry, green anise, pineapple, salted caramel, banana, wild strawberry, bergamot, oh I could go on...but I think I'll stop, because there's a sachet of them in the kitchen. 
Please don't ask me to share, it's my birthday...week.
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