Home-made pizza
culinary, italy, travel, Uncategorized

Confinement cooking in Pisa

I recently queried my Facebook friends with the following question: What is your takeaway from confinement?

Being confined in our homes for, on average, 2-3 months at a time was such a peculiar, unpredicted, and unexpected experience. I think every person who lived through it will have something to say about what they learned, or took away, from those weeks cooped up inside.

Our experience was so strange because we weren’t in our own home, in our own city, with any of our usual references or comforts to turn to. The comforts here in Pisa are actually more exciting than the usual ones in our Paris suburb: piping hot pizza delivered from the wood-fired oven down the block, the Best Roast Chicken of My Life stuffed with sage leaves doused in butter and salt from the deli around the corner, or artisanal dark chocolate, walnut, and hazelnut gelato delivered in half-kilo Styrofoam containers from one of our two favorite shops in town. We didn’t have a group of friends in Pisa that we had to avoid running into for fear of breaking social distancing rules. Not seeing anyone, especially after our best couple of friends left the region to tend to an ailing father, was in fact quite easy. But at the end of the day, not seeing anyone, in particular, was massively difficult for me. Re-reading through journal entries I wrote just two months ago, I remember the dread that would creep inside me in the late afternoon, as I lay on “the beach” a.k.a. the windowsill of our apartment as the sun shone down, staring down at the empty sidewalk on the Lungarno, and the quiet river reflecting the emptiness of the streets.

Sicilian mini pastries at Vecchio in Pisa

Sicilian mini pastries at Vecchio in Pisa

To keep myself busy, I took to the kitchen. I would have expected to have certain takeaways from these six months in Italy: I wonder, however, how different they are from the takeaways I would have had during a “normal” year.

The things I learned about food here are things that seem like they should have been obvious to me all along. There is something about home cooked food in Italy, isn’t there? The list begins short and gets longer as we go along:

  1. Always have home-made marinara or ragù (meat sauce) in the fridge. This is particularly pertinent since we are young parents.
  2. Any good savory dish begins with three ingredients: onion, celery, and carrot, sautéed in olive oil.
  3. That strange wooden board lying against the wall in the pantry of our furnished apartment is a pasta-making platform, or working board. (If any Italians know the real name, please, tell me.) I realized this one day after watching many episodes of Pasta Grannies.

    Home-made pasta

    Home-made pasta

  4. Food goes bad when it’s exposed to air. Studying the packages of fresh pasta we get at the supermarket, I tried to understand how they could have an expiration date at least a month into the future without any chemical additives… It was the same for the hunks of mortadella (bologna) from the butcher. How could they possibly last for three months in their vacuum package, but go bad a week or so after being opened? Air, my friends. Air. And the arrival of bacteria.
  5. Granita, or Italian ice as it’s sometimes called, is to Italians what ice cream is to the rest of the world: a summertime treat. Ice cream is to Italians what pastries are to the rest of the world: an almost all-the-time treat. A Swiss friend asked me to try to figure out when the “season” was for almond granita, since a place he likes in Genoa once told him that it wasn’t the season. As soon as it started to get very hot in Pisa, I figured out the answer to his question: when the heat rises, the ice cream shops begin selling their granita (and the Italians begin eating it. In droves.)

    Melon granita from De' Coltelli Gelateria in Pisa

    Melon granita with whipped cream from De’ Coltelli Gelateria in Pisa

  6. Yeast is complicated. And trying to bake in a new country is challenging. I knew that already, after over a decade of trying to adapt American baking recipes in France. The ingredients available at hand are never exactly the same as the country you came from, and if you came from another country, they’re probably not the same as the person whose recipe you’re following. In France, I had gotten used to the ingredients and had a certain automatic process in terms of baking. Here in Italy, however, the two different kinds of yeast I purchased had their own sets of (differing) instructions. For the first time ever, I had the bright idea to follow the yeast’s instructions on what to do with it, rather than the recipe instructions. My Europhied brain helped in this process: how many grams of flour, instead of how many cups, and each kind of yeast indicated how many grams of yeast to use for 100 or 500 grams of flour.

    Home-made pizza

    My daughter’s favorite food takeaway from Italy: la pizza

The result was quite magical. Thick, chewy pizza dough, the kind of dough that has its own soul. My daughter was thrilled with all the experimenting I did with pizza dough, and I think we will be bringing the pizza habit back home with us next month.

The year isn’t over yet, and the societal upheavals going on following the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter uprising in the United States have more lessons to bring us, still. Whenever things get overwhelming or frightening, you’ll find me in the kitchen, with a digital scale and a bag of flour, my toddler quickly begging me “voir ! voir !” (see! See!) and pointing to the oven, “pizza! Pizza!”

 

 

 

 

 

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italy

Making peace with Béchamel

Making peace with Béchamel

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Most of the cooks in my family made their lasagna with a ricotta cheese mixture, blended with an egg. Almost no one bothered to slave over the stove stirring béchamel for lasagna. Mom did make a “white sauce” as a base for her macaroni and cheese, but I couldn’t be troubled to learn how to blend the milk into the roux, and generally ignored sauces thickened with flour as an unnecessary part of my culinary education.

Then came along my French husband, who actually hates all things creamy, but learned how to make lasagna from a roommate in college who deemed that the béchamel was absolutely necessary.

For the last five years I have left him completely in charge when it comes to lasagna. But here and now, quarantined in this beautiful apartment in Pisa where we find ourselves riding out the coronavirus crisis, I decided it was time to put a couple new tricks in my back pocket.

Here is my take on béchamel, which I’ve made four times in the last two weeks. May it make your quarantine period a little tastier, a little brighter.

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Béchamel – or White Sauce
Yield: enough for one six-portion lasagna

Ingredients
100g butter
100g flour
700-1000ml milk
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
pinch freshly grated nutmeg

A note on thickness: we like the sauce to be on the thicker side, so we stop adding milk after about 700-750ml. If you want the sauce thinner you may end up adding up to a liter, to your discretion. Feel free to STOP adding milk at any point, stir, and see if the sauce’s thickness is to your liking. If you want it thinner, keep adding milk.

Method
Start by pouring the milk into a medium saucepan over low heat. You want the milk to be warm before you pour it into your béchamel, but not boiling – if at any point you notice it beginning to bubble, turn the heat to the lowest setting or simply turn it off.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir gently with a long-handled wooden spoon. As soon as all of the butter has melted, add the flour and begin stirring, gently but constantly, with the wooden spoon.

The butter/flour mixture should homogenize, and bubble ever so slightly. Do not let it brown. Keep stirring. You want to cook this starter or “roux” long enough so that the flour loses its raw taste, but without browning the mixture. Once it has gotten thicker, elastic-like, begin to add a small pour of milk. Stir generously.

At this point, add the bay leaf to the pot. Stir the mixture continuously and rigorously, so as to eradicate any lumps in the flour. Scrape down any dried bits on the sides of the pot. Keep adding milk bit by bit, letting the mixture completely homogenize in between each pour. You may want to lower the heat on the béchamel if it is bubbling or thickening too quickly. You can also move the pan on and off the heat as you work to prevent it from over-heating.

Add a pinch of salt (start with a half teaspoon,) and a good grate of fresh nutmeg (four or five grates on a small hand grater. Continue to add the milk.

Once you think the sauce has reached your desired thickness, take it off the heat, still stirring. Sample it on a teaspoon to check for seasoning, adding salt and nutmeg if desired.

It will slowly settle into its state of thickness and you can stop stirring, letting it cool down a bit before you use it in your next preparation: lasagna, gratin, or other dish.

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Uncategorized

A Taco Party in Paris

As a white, umpteenth-generation American whose grandparents were all born in New England, I didn’t have much experience cooking Mexican food until recently. I grew up eating ground beef tacos in hard shells with chopped iceberg and jarred salsa (and thanks Mom, it was delicious!) But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a nasty of habit of bringing cans of tomatillos, chipotles in adobo, and jalapeños back every time I go to the states. I hoard them in the cellar and curse myself when the expiration dates glide past unnoticed. I ask traveling friends to sneak packages of dried Ancho peppers in their suitcases, and for a while I ordered delicious homemade tortillas from a little output in the 11th but then they closed. (If anyone has recommendations for a replacement supplier, please, tell me!)

When you live alone it feels silly to make a fuss opening a smuggled can of tomatillos to make homemade green enchiladas for yourself, but since I’ve had a life-mate, I’ve been experimenting more and more with my little Parisian American version of Tex-Mex to rave reviews.

Taco leftover lunch

Taco leftover lunch

To celebrate my most recent revolution around the sun, I decided to orchestrate a taco fiesta for a considerable portion of my social circle. We attacked the buffet like a pack of wolves and the only photo I took of any of this food was of my leftover lunch the following day. NB: the only reason there was any pork leftover is because we ran out of tortillas. I also got a sweet battle wound (oven burn) throwing tortillas out of the oven and onto the table with the help of said life-mate and Ms. Tangerine.

We were thirty people. Everyone was satisfied, but I think everyone could have had one more taco (they were so good!) I planned an average of 3 tacos/person, plus corn chips with guacamole and salsa, and an array of desserts.

What follows here is my game plan.

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Perfect Persimmon Cake

Shiraz hostel

Shiraz hostel

When we were in Shiraz, we languished in the afternoons underneath the persimmon tree in the hostel courtyard. They looked like little orange crowns soaking up the sunshine and synthesizing it into sugar. The persimmons weren’t ripe yet while we were in Shiraz, but no bother – the hostel grandfather Ali came around all afternoon offering tea and fruit to everyone. One day, sweet yellow melons, another day, pomegranates and apples. Late one evening, we were reading the guidebook and writing in journals, and Ali came around with more tea. We talked about people, and cultures, via the instant magic of the Google translate app. He told us Israel was “very, very bad,” and China was “very, very good.” Unsure how to answer, and especially explain that one of us had an entire family in Israel, he quickly typed away and thrust the phone back in our hands. “All people are good, just governments are bad.”

Last weekend at the market, amid the last ruby red tomatoes and shining dark eggplants, the shift in squash proportions like the arms on a clock signaling that zucchini time is finishing and pumpkin time is rolling in, I spied these sweet little trays of deep orange persimmons at the fruit stand. They were almost the same size and shape of those ones in Shiraz – little gems shining under a screen of plastic. They’re from Spain, the seller said, they’re the REAL ones – not those crisp bitter ones you can bite into. They’re really, really ripe – but they’ll last all week in the fridge.

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The persimmon tree

I arrived home to another pile of figs on the dining room table and realized I would probably need to do something with the persimmons, rather than just eat them along with all the other fruit I’d been stockpiling. What follows is a lovely tea cake – or breakfast loaf, or dessert – as you wish! Freeze thick slices of it and defrost them overnight in the fridge for months to come.

 

Perfect Persimmon Cake
Inspired by Rachel Roddy

250 grams white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
150 grams white sugar
200 grams full-fat Greek yogurt
200 ml olive oil
3 eggs
zest of one lemon
a good dusting of freshly grated nutmeg
pinch salt
250 grams of very ripe Persimmon flesh

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Perfect persimmon cake

Preheat oven to 180C/350F. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and white sugar. Add yogurt, mix partially until you have a lumpy wet batter. Pour in olive oil, beat thoroughly with a metal fork until mixed through. Crack eggs into one side of the bowl, whisk roughly to break up the yolks, then mix well with the rest of the batter. Add the lemon zest, nutmeg, salt, and persimmon, mixing well until batter is homogenous.

Grease a nonstick loaf pan with a bit of olive oil, then pour batter and bake on the middle rack of the oven. Begin checking for doneness after 45 minutes, covering with foil once the top begins to turn crispy dark brown. Cake is done once a toothpick comes out clean – mine took two hours.

Best enjoyed once cooled, cut into thick slices and adorned with crème fraîche or ricotta. Perfect for afternoon tea, or even breakfast.

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culinary, iran, travel

Iran, part two: Fesenjan

It should be no surprise that I have a thing for pomegranates.

Pomegranate

Pomegranate

One of the first times I ever organized a dinner party, in a tiny apartment in the 17th where I cohabited with a then-boyfriend, I wanted to make something with pomegranates. This was in 2008, I thought I was so clever when I googled the ingredients I wanted to use in order to find a suitable recipe.

The recipe that I found and ended up making was from a Persian cookbook writer I hadn’t heard of yet, and was for a dish I had never tasted. Khoresh-e-fesenjan, or Pomegranate Khoresh.

The dish was delicious, however the sauce was a bit thin. I would forget about it over time, and years later while preparing for my trip to Iran, I would re-learn about fesenjan: the magical pomegranate and walnut stew.

In Kashan, the mother of one of our CouchSurfing hosts had just finished making her yearly batch of pomegranate molasses, from her husband’s pomegranate trees cultivated on a small farming plot outside the city. She sells most of it to neighbors, keeping a few jars for the family’s yearly consumption.

Upon learning about this, my jaw dropped to the bottom limit of my hijab. “Could I try some?” Of course. Her mother appeared with a dollop of thick burgundy substance on a plate with a coffee spoon.

Thick, homemade pomegranate molasses

Thick, homemade pomegranate molasses

Its taste is unlike anything else I’ve tried – it doesn’t have the same syrupy consistency as most of the Lebanese or Turkish pomegranate molasses I can find here in Paris, and it almost tastes as if it has vinegar added to it. (It doesn’t.) The secret is that she cooks the juice down for six hours, so the liquid evaporates and the natural sugars in the juice act as a thickening agent on the rest.

I sheepishly asked if, perhaps, there was enough leftover for me to purchase a kilo myself – and bring back home to Paris. Of course there was!

Pomegranate molasses

Pomegranate molasses

Her mother was touched that a foreigner was so interested in her cooking, and we had an exciting conversation about recipes translated through patient Fatema. What follows is the word-by-word verbatim, noted down in my journal, about how to make a proper fesenjan.

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Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran
iran, travel

Iran, part one

That first morning in Tehran, we stepped out into the street and I could smell bread. A friend’s father had told me about it: san-gak, sounds just like “saint jacques” (the French term for sea scallops.) I could smell it but I couldn’t find it, so we went to a nearby youth hostel for breakfast.

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

After that first day, spent exploring Tajrish market, I had a better idea of what a bakery should look like. We’d found a few in Tajrish – selling naan-e-barberi, and little cornmeal sesame muffins whose name I never managed to learn.

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

The second morning, I followed my nose and found the bakery, and let my male companion push his way into the Iranian line and claim one san-gak for our breakfast. He flicked the hot stones off the back of the bread as it cooled a bit on the metal rack before collecting his change and, following the local example, folding the bread into thirds and sticking it under his arm like a newspaper. We bought feta cheese and cherry jam from the corner store (“Hi! How are you today!” the shopkeepers recognized us from the day before…) and headed back to our apartment to have breakfast.

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

In Shiraz, we found the city’s best ice cream and I marveled at its elasticity. We met lovely CouchSurfing hosts who gave me the great joy of helping out in the kitchen – to decorate cardamom saffron rice puddings in celebration of Ashura, the holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Decorating in Shiraz

Decorating in Shiraz

At Persepolis, our guide organized a picnic lunch. His wife’s Shirazi salad was the best I had during the whole trip.

Lunch at Persepolis

Lunch at Persepolis

In Yazd, we bought a whole box of baklava and snacked on it for days. The saffron rock sugar (nabat) was starting to work its charm on us, and by our final days in Iran, we’d buy a whole kilo to cart home and share with family and friends.

Baklava in Yazd

Baklava in Yazd

In Kashan, I’d learn how to make fesenjan from the mother of a Couch Surfer, who was just as excited to discuss cooking as I was – translated through the mind of our host. To be continued…

Setting the table in Kashan

Setting the table in Kashan

 

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appetizer, Uncategorized

Eggplant Caviar and Muhammara

Mom’s broccoli casserole.

Grandma’s oatmeal cookies.

My eggplant caviar.

These are the dishes that will, without fail, provoke at least one or two members of the party to come up and ask “Can I puh-leeze have the recipe for that??”

When it comes to my eggplant caviar, well, for a long time I didn’t have a recipe. Or rather, I did, but it wasn’t my recipe. I’d follow different variations of other people’s recipes until I finally just stopped using one. Sesame paste, cumin, salt, garlic, maybe a splash of lemon (or maybe not,) and just keep adjusting until it tastes right. (One time I did try a Greek version: no sesame or cumin, but a dash of red wine vinegar and lots more olive oil. Delicious, but doesn’t hit the same spot on my tongue.)

So after many requests, I finally decided one day to write the whole thing down. My recipe. Here it is:

Eggplant Caviar Prep

Eggplant Caviar Prep

Eggplant caviar
3 small eggplants (330 grams)
2 Tablespoons tahina (sesame paste)
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1 Tablespoon olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 garlic clove, pressed
1 Tablespoon toasted pine nuts, optional

Pre-heat the oven to 190C/375F. Pierce the eggplants a few times with a fork or a sharp knife and place them on to an aluminum lined baking sheet.
Bake them in the oven, turning them over every 20 minutes or so, until the skin is blackened. You’ll know they’re done when the flesh inside feels totally soft and broken down when you prod them with a spoon. This can take anywhere from 50 minutes to 100 minutes, depending on the size and freshness of the eggplant, and the room temperature.

Let the eggplants cool – then, cut them lengthwise in half one by one, and scoop out the flesh into a large bowl. Combine all other ingredients and blend with a hand blender (or transfer to a food processor and mix until fine.)

This is best prepared a few hours in advance so that the flavors can blend together. Refrigerate it while it’s resting, but take it out 30 minutes before you plan to serve. Drizzle some olive oil over the top and, if you’re feeling fancy, some toasted pine nuts. Serve with pita bread or crackers.

The next-most-popular dip I bring to parties is based on a Persian / Middle Eastern dish, Muhammara. The sweet and savory combination of red peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses is a crowd pleaser.

Pomegranate trees in Iran

Muhammara isn’t very photogenic, but this pomegranate trees is.

Muhammara
1.5 cups (120 grams) walnuts
4 roasted red peppers (230 grams) drained
1 teaspoon cumin
3/4 teaspoon salt
dash cayenne
1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 clove garlic, pressed

Toss all ingredients in a blender or in a bowl with a hand mixer. Blend until smooth. Serve at room temperature with pita bread, crackers, or vegetable crudités.

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I scream, you scream…

Given our tiny Parisian apartments and limited storage space, my culinarily inclined friends will often daydream about shared purchases: slow cookers, waffle makers, raclette grills, and most recently – ice cream machines.

When Frances suggested an ice cream machine, I thought long and hard: does it really make sense to lug it uptown and downtown every week, or every time my French lifemate wants more homemade chocolate sorbet? But then a light bulb went off.

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Pumpkin coconut ice cream

Another dear friend, Meta, was leaving town for 11 months – and she is known for commencing her dinner parties with asparagus soup adorned with a scoop of homemade foie gras ice cream.

Meta agreed to lend us her ice cream machine, and so, for the last two months, it has made many trips between the 19th and the 11th in a sturdy shopping bag hung from the handlebars of our bicycles.

We started with the masters: studying techniques and flavor combinations for sorbet and ice cream from Serious Eats, David Lebovitz, and NYT Cooking. Then we started branching out and dreaming up our own combinations: Frances, most notably, for roasted peach / miso / ricotta ice cream, and in my case, for doing a mashup of two recipes from Lebovitz to make a perfect fall flavor: pumpkin ice cream with coconut milk and cardamom.

"Potimarron" - red kuri squash

“Potimarron” – red kuri squash

Lots of websites try to tell you that you CAN make ice cream even without an ice cream maker, but to be honest, if you don’t have one of these frozen turbine machines, just stick to granita. In our case, the cheapest turbine machine is only around 40 euros at Darty, so even when Meta comes back, I think we’ll be investing in some new kitchen appliances.

Pumpkin Coconut Ice Cream

Inspired by two recipes from David Lebovitz: Pumpkin Ice Cream and Coconut Ice Cream with Saffron

Ingredients
400 ml (14 oz) coconut milk
200 ml (7 oz) light cream (18% fat)
95 g (1/3 cup plus 2Tablespoons) granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks
180 g (3/4 cup) pumpkin puree (see note)
60g (1/4 cup) dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon dried ginger
1 heaping Tablespoon cardamom pods, lightly crushed in a mortar and pestle
1 or 2 grinds of pepper

Method

Start by preparing the bowls you’ll need: two medium, one large, plus one large saucepan.

Fill the large bowl halfway with ice cubes and some cold water, and place one of the medium bowls in the ice bath. Pour the cream into said medium bowl and set aside.

Beat the egg yolks in the other medium bowl until well combined.

In the saucepan, heat the coconut milk, granulated sugar, and salt over medium low heat. Once it’s hot and producing steam, but before it bubbles, take it off the heat. Whisk about three spoonfuls of the warm milk, one at a time, into the egg yolks to heat them gently without scrambling them. Once they are lukewarm, pour them into the saucepan with the rest of the warm milk and add the cardamom pods, cooking over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon.

Pour this custard into cream in the ice bath. Add the pumpkin puree, dark brown sugar, vanilla, ginger, and black pepper and mix well.

Cover and set the custard in the fridge overnight. The next day, pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, pushing down on the cardamom pods to extract as much custard as possible, then freeze the mixture in your ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions. Freeze for 4-5 hours before serving.

Pumpkin coconut ice cream with a "cat's tongue" cookie

Pumpkin coconut ice cream with a “cat’s tongue” cookie

Note: pumpkin puree

Living in France, I’ve gotten used to making my own pumpkin puree for soups and pies, since we don’t have handy cans of Libby’s for sale at every supermarket. If you’re using canned pumpkin make sure it is 100% pumpkin. Other options are frozen pumpkin puree, available in France at any Picard store.

To make your own, simply cut your squash into cubes: you can peel it, or not. Squashes with thinner peels don’t need to be peeled (like a small butternut, or a kuri squash,) but bigger ones (like French potiron) are better off peeled.

Steam the squash over boiling water for 5-12 minutes, or until you can easily pierce it with a knife. Allow to cool slightly, then puree in a blender, food processor, or with a hand blender.

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The wax and wane of the cheese plate

Christmas Cheese Plate, 2007

Christmas Cheese Plate, 2007

When I was still somewhat ‘new’ to France, in 2007, I ate a meal at a restaurant along a medium sized port city in Normandy that concluded with an impressive cheese plate. The waiter hauled the thick wooden board over his shoulder and told us what all the different cheeses were, and allowed us to choose.

In awe, I had to discreetly ask my dining partners to repeat the names of some of the cheeses. I had assumed they were all from Normandy, since the French are so attached to their regional cuisine (after all, this was following a meal of fish dishes in cream sauce served with rice and boiled potatoes…) To my surprise the cheeses came from all over the country, although the majority of them were from that dairy-farm-rich state along the sea.

The fact that my dining partners could remember them all was just as impressive as the spread of cheeses itself. The round orange one wrapped in twine? Livarot. The whiter, square one that was being cut into elegant triangles? Pont l’Eveque. And the whitest creamy one that stood higher and firmer than the rest? Coulommiers.

I couldn’t believe they remembered them all. But how? De Gaulle once famously remarked that it was impossible to govern a country with 365 different kinds of cheese, but how did everyone remember their names?

I made a silent vow to myself to start to remember those cheeses, to know what kinds of milk they were made from and whether or not it was common to find raw-milk varieties. The fat contents were less important – except for the triple-cream beauties from Burgandy, like Brillat-Savarin, but the regions were vital in understanding the family tree of French cheeses. Some regions are more famous for their semi-mature aged cheeses with thick crusts that (most people) don’t eat, while others age their cheeses in beer or nut liquor.

There was no clear-cut etiquette about how many cheeses one was expected to ask for off the board at a medium-range restaurant. Weight-minding women took one or two, most people took three, and burly men who had nothing to fear took four. I don’t think anyone had the gall to ask for five. The waiter expertly cut each sliver of cheese in whatever way was custom for that cheese, with whichever shape of knife was most appropriate.

A year later, I celebrated Christmas with the same Norman family. Three days worth of hand-written dinner menus were displayed on the piano downstairs as folks arrived from all over northern France for an extended eating celebration.

By day three, the cheese plate had finally dwindled itself down to one board, having been two fully packed boards on the first night.

These days, the cheese plate in my apartment in Paris is just as much a staple as the board was at those meals. The cheese plate waxes and wanes as the weeks go by – the bag the cheeses are kept in will rotate depending on what cheese shop we went to last, whether or not we (or a friend) brought something creamy and delicious back for us from another region (the best Beaufort from the Alps, 36 month old Comté from the Jura, or ash-coated Sainte Maure de Touraine – which costs half the price in Tours as it does in Paris.) The cheeses shrink and grow, multiply, and sometimes, completely disappear – requiring a total refresh of the cheese plate.

While I have my favorites close to home, sometimes when I’m in a neighborhood I don’t usually frequent, I’ll stop at one of my (other) favorite cheese shops to stock up on something I know they’ll have plenty of. Here below are a list of some favorites, and other Parisian noteworthy fromageries:

La Fermette, rue Montorgueil : specialties from Burgundy like Délice de Bourgogne, Soumaintrain, Brillat Savarin, Ami de Chambertin, and the dried figs stuffed with foie gras in December.

Au Coeur du Marché, rue d’Aligre: the “hall of horrors” with very dried goat cheeses, specialties from various French regions such as that long chevre whose name I always forget, the lightly smoked brebis, and various English and Spanish cheeses.

Autour du Fromage, rue de Charonne: for a St Félicien that is always perfectly ripe.

Beillevaire, various locations around Paris: the Machcoulais, and other house-made productions from their dairy plant in the Vendée.

Laurent Dubois, place Maubert: well known for the fact that he doesn’t only sell the cheeses, but ages them too, in the cellars below Paris’ 5th arrondissement.

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Blueberry Cobbler

This is one of those dishes that missed its final photo shoot. It’s just so good that when you pull it out of the oven, you gaze in awe for a moment, and then immediately leave the room because you know that if you look at it any longer you’ll never have the willpower to give it the 15 minutes or so it needs to solidify and cool off before you should thrust a spoon into it. When you come back to heap a serving onto a small dessert plate, the last thing you could possibly thing about is grabbing your camera before you dig in.

I made this twice this summer, the first time in my mother’s kitchen in Connecticut. While traveling in the States late July, I bought a pint of blueberries almost every day and ate them as snacks while wandering around New York City in the heat, while reading in the Amtrak, and while sitting on a friend’s back porch outside of Boston.

When we got to my mother’s house, I told my French counterpart that I needed to make a blueberry dessert while we were in New England because the blueberries in France cost around twice as much. I nosed through my mother’s cookbooks, eyeing the recipes of my youth, but deciding to make something much simpler – no sour cream, no buttermilk – just blueberries, a bit of sugar, and a touch of topping.

The first weekend we were back in France we were perusing our usual Marché Aligre on a weekend morning, when I spotted a fruit seller on the corner of the square – Les myrtilles, 1 euro les deux ! 

Blueberries - two pints for a euro

Blueberries – two pints for a euro

In disbelief, I approached the plastic pint containers, expecting the berries to be covered in mold. I picked up two, three, four boxes – not moldy. I was sure the berries wouldn’t last very long (since the cheapest fruits at the market are usually waiting to be consumed immediately,) but I bought six boxes to the hefty tune of 3 euros. (Usually, a one-pint box of blueberries will cost 4-6 euros.)

I re-made my cobbler, and found that, unexpectedly, it actually tasted a bit better here in France – thanks to the better quality of our butter (sorry, Americans!)

Preparing the cobbler - before topping

Preparing the cobbler – before topping

Blueberry Cobbler
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s recipe: http://markbittman.com/blueberry-cobbler/

500-600g (5-6 cups) blueberries
200g (1 cup) granulated sugar, divided
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
75g (½ cup) all purpose flour
115 grams of butter (1 US stick) softened, plus scant extra for the dish
pinch salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Rinse the berries and dry them – I do this by letting them sit on the windowsill for an hour or so. Butter an 8 inch (20cm) square ceramic dish, and preheat the oven to 375F/190C.

Gently pour the berries into a large mixing bowl and toss them with 1/2 cup sugar and the cornstarch, mixing carefully but well enough to ensure no lumps of cornstarch remain, then pour them into the baking dish.

Pour the other 1/2 cup of sugar into the mixing bowl along with the flour, salt, and baking powder, and mix well. Cut the butter into thumbnail-sized cubes and incorporate it into the dry mixture along with the egg and vanilla, being careful not to let it get too soft. I mixed it together with my hands, with a bit more force than tossing a salad, pressing the flour and sugar mixture into the butter cubes with my thumbs.

Once you have a mostly uniform, but sticky and thick, batter mixture, spoon it out into heaping tablespoons on top of the blueberries.

Bake for 30-45 minutes, checking after 20 minutes, until it is fully golden and browning at the edges.

Let it sit for at least 15 minutes before you dig in!

 

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