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Tag: France

November rain

I was so delighted to be featured on Sous Style this week. It’s one of my favourite lifestyle sites, filled with great ideas, recipes and stories on interesting people.

We had a lovely lunch at home, with our friends David and Sheyenne and their kids Balkis and Naturel. Don’t you just love their names? As my guests are vegetarians, I came up with a veggie-friendly menu with a French touch. For starters, we had chestnut soup with tapioca pearls and crème fraîche, followed by crêpes sarrasin (buckwheat pancakes) with squash, green cabbage and Roquefort cheese, served with a typical Provençal dish called Tian de légumes (vegetable tian). It looked like a little masterpiece on the table. Finally, I made a luxurious Calvados apple tart, again, served with crème fraîche (yes, I think you must know by now that I am all about cream). The Calvados (apple brandy) soaked apples bring you all the warmth needed on a cool November day. And that almond crust… is heavenly.

It was a lazy rainy afternoon, filled with fun and laughter. The girls were singing and dancing, the boys played with the dogs, the lunch dragged on for hours and hours, just how it should be.

You can view the feature here.

Chestnut soup with tapioca pearls
1/2 pound/ 230 g whole, peeled and cooked chestnuts (for the soup)
1/4 cup/ 60 g cooked peeled chestnuts (chopped, to sprinkle on soup)
3 cups/ 750 ml chicken stock (or vegetable)
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1 onion (sliced)
3 tbsp of small tapioca pearls
Salt & pepper for seasoning
Crème fraîche for serving (1 tbsp per bowl)
A small handful of finely chopped parsley

In a large pot, melt the butter on a medium heat and fry the onions
for 2 minutes. Add the chestnuts, continue frying for 1 minute, then
add stock, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bring to a soft boil and turn down
the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Let the soup cool slightly,
then transfer to a food processor to smooth all the ingredients into a
velvety soup. Return to pot, add the tapioca and cook for 15 minutes
on a low heat (or until the tapioca becomes translucent). Serve in
individual bowls with a teaspoon of chopped chesnuts, a big spoon of
crème fraîche and parsley.

Squash, green cabbage and Roquefort buckwheat pancakes

For the filling:

1 pound/ 450g butternut squash
1/3 cup/ 80ml vegetable stock
1 cup/ 150 g green cabbage (chopped)
1/4 pound/ 100 g Roquefort cheese
Butter or olive oil for frying

Chop squash into small cubes and fry in olive oil until golden for 4-5
minutes. Add stock, cover and simmer for ten minutes until cooked and
tender. Drain any excess liquid and set aside. In a pan, fry in olive
oil the chopped cabbage for 5 minutes on a high heat. Add salt and
pepper. Cabbage must be slightly al dente. Set aside.

Buckwheat pancake batter (sarrasin)
2 cups/ 250 g buckwheat flour
2 eggs
2 tbsp/ 30 grs melted butter
1 pinch salt
2 cups/ 500 ml milk

In a large bowl, mix the buckwheat flour and make a well in the
middle. Add the eggs in the center, slowly combine and stir the milk,
melted butter and salt. Make sure to stir constantly and firmly so you
won’t get lumps in the batter. Cover with a plate and leave to rest
for at least an hour.
Heat your oven on a low heat so you can place your pancakes to keep
warm. When the batter is ready, melt a teaspoon of butter in a frying
pan. Add one ladle of batter to form a pancake. Fry approx 2-3 minutes
on a medium heat until golden. Flip sides and repeat. In one corner of
the pancake, place a enough squash, cabbage and crumbled Roquefort.
Fold pancakes in half and fold again to form a triangle. Leave on heat
30 seconds to gently melt the Roquefort. Serve immediately.

Vegetable tian

4 tomatoes
3 large zucchini
2 aubergines
2 garlic cloves
A handful of finely chopped parsley
3 bay leaves
5 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper for seasoning

Preheat the oven to 210°C/400°F. Clean all vegetables and slice them
finely into equal ‘rondelles’ (round slices). Sprinkle the aubergines
with coarse salt for 20 minutes, then rinse them with boiling hot
water. Drain. Rub garlic all over roasting pan, then align the slices
tightly alternating with each vegetable. Sprinkle sliced garlic all
over, place the sprigs of thyme and bay leaves on top, drizzle with
olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Cook in oven for 30 minutes.
When ready, sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve immediately.

Calvados apple tart
5 apples, peeled, cored and sliced into small chunks
1/4 cup/ 60 ml calvados
5 tbsp/ 60 g brown sugar (cassonade)
3 egg yolks
1 cup/ 250 ml crème fraîche or sour cream
3 tbsp ground almonds
Additional crème fraîche to serve on the side.

For the pastry:
2 cups/ 250 g plain flour
2/3 cups/ 150 g butter (softened at room temperature)
1/4 cup/ 30 g caster sugar
1/2 cup/ 60 g icing confectioner’s sugar
1/2 cup/ 80 g ground almonds
1 egg
A pinch of salt

Chop apples and soak in the calvados for 1 hour.

For the crust:
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together until the mixture
forms a homogenous dough. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film and
place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Take out 30 minutes before
rolling out. On a floured parchment covered surface, roll out the
dough to fit your tart pan. Line tart pan with the pastry dough, and
cut out excess overhang dough approx. ¼ inch/ 1 cm off the rim. Fold
in the excess dough to make a double thick rim. Pierce dough with a
fork all over and place in the freezer for 30 minutes to one hour.
This will prevent your crust to shrink when blind baked.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 210°C/ 400°F.

Blind bake the tart for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 180°C/ 350°C.
Take the tart crust out. Drain apples and keep the remaining calvados.
Sprinkle tart with 2 tbsp sugar and place the drained apples all over
the tart. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. If the crust starts to
brown too much, cover edges with aluminium paper. Take the tart out of
the oven. Increase oven heat again to 400°F. Beat together the egg
yolks, cream, remaining sugar and reserved calvados and pour mixture
into the tart all over the apples. Sprinkle the ground almonds on top
and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Serve warm with a tbsp of crème
fraîche on the side.

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All you need is thyme

Recently, I was given a very original gift. Twelve ‘melons d’Espagne’ (a variety of winter melons) from our farmer neighbours. It was a beautiful jade green sight, as if they were dropped by someone from outer space. These are the last melons of the season, often stored in garages to ripen for use. They are best prepared as jam. So at this time of the year, local Médocains are all preparing the melon d’Espagne jam. I immediately called my aunt for inspiration as she is the confiture (jam) expert. Ever since I was a child, she’s been making the most delicious home-made jams, mixing quince with rosemary and mint, strawberries with roses, rhubarb and raspberries. After our little chat, I hurried to the kitchen and mixed melon with vanilla and sugar in one bowl, and in the other one, ginger, mandarin, melon and sugar leaving them to soak overnight.

I woke up extra-early the next day with only melons on my mind. They had turned into a syrupy fruit mash, ready to be cooked. Just for 45 minutes. It turned out to be so easy, so beautiful to make, and on top of it the house smelt like sugar and spice. I transferred the jam to little glass jars, prepared my scones recipe, which I make for my family several times a week. We had a lovely breakfast, the sun was shining, the jam was delightful with the scones. I’ll be making much more jam this next week, as I think they will be ideal presents for my friends. I am looking forward to finding pretty fabric and ribbons to decorate the jars.

To inaugurate the first holiday week with the children, I planned a good old-fashioned roast lunch, just how my grandmother Séraphine prepared them. My grandmother had a little notebook filled with recipes from her own childhood, along with pretty dried flowers decorating her notes. Mostly violets. Her recipes came from another generation, given to her by family and friends, from Toulouse to Lyon. This recipe is from Augustine, my great-grandmother. The ‘crème de thym’ was her speciality, a Lyonnaise style sauce based on milk, thyme, garlic and egg yolks. It’s a timeless sauce, which can be served with lamb, roast beef or chicken.

Rack of lamb roast with thyme cream sauce (serves 4)

Preheat the oven to 190°C/ 375°F

1-1.5 kg rack of lamb
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

In a large frying pan, heat olive oil and brown the lamb on all sides until golden. Place in a roasting pan, season with salt and pepper and cook in the oven for 20-25 minutes (depending on rack size and cooking preference). Serve meat on a large plate, add steamed potatoes on all sides. Serve with the thyme cream sauce.

Steamed potatoes:

700-1kg new potatoes (depending on portions)

Wash and scrub potatoes if necessary. Place water in a large pot (5 cm/ 1 inch and a half), place potatoes in a steaming basket, drizzle with salt, cover with a lid and steam for approx 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Drain and serve.

For the sauce:
1 garlic clove, minced
70 g fresh thyme
350 ml milk
3 egg yolks
150 g butter, cut in cubes
Salt and pepper for seasoning

In a saucepan, bring the milk to a soft boil and take off the heat. Add the fresh thyme, ground garlic and leave to infuse for 15-20 minutes. Strain milk with a sieve, pressing all the thyme to get as much flavour as possible. Discard stalks. Return thyme infused milk to the heat, add 3 egg yolks, one by one, whisking constantly. When the sauce starts to thicken, lower the heat and add butter pieces, stirring away. Add salt and pepper and set aside.

Melon d’Espagne jam

1 kg melon d’Espagne
450 g granulated sugar
Soak overnight

Flavouring
recipe 1: 1 vanilla pod
Recipe 2: Fine slivers of 1 small mandarine
Thumb-size small piece of ginger, finely sliced

Slice melon into chunks (discard skin), remove all seeds and place in a large bowl. If you want to make different flavoured jam, divide melons into two bowls. Pour sugar on melon and mix well. In one bowl mix melon and sugar, in the other mix melon, sugar and add ingredients from recipe 2. Cover with cling film and leave to macerate overnight. For recipe one, in a large pot, pour soaked melon, slit the vanilla pod along its length, scrape off the seeds using the tip of a knife and mix with melon. For recipe 2, cook in another pot. Cook on a low heat, stirring from time to time, for 40-45 minutes, or until consistency is thick and glossy. Pour jam into glass jars and leave to cool.

Tip: Be careful not to overcook as the jam will become to stiff and pasty.

Serve with home-made scones (see recipe).

Lunch with my husband

Friday was the last day before the Toussaint. It is a Christian holiday to honor and pray for the deceased (All Saints day – November 1st and All Souls day November 2nd), where relatives gather and visit family graves, decorating them with chrysanthemums, which is the official flower for Toussaint. The kids get to have a well-deserved two weeks holiday from school, the best treat they could ever get. This time of the year is all about union and family, celebrating fall with all the pumpkins, squashes, mushrooms, brown ferns, acorns and pomegranates.

My husband and I realized it was the last Friday before a two-week fanfare parade at home with les enfants, so we decided to have late romantic lunch. Our days are filled with non-stop activities, from work, dogs, gardening, cooking and kids, so we really value a bit of quiet time together. We were thinking of going out to a nearby bistrot, but luckily I had a duet of coquelets in the fridge, and lots of squashes on my kitchen table, almost too pretty to eat. As much as I enjoy eating out, I had a great recipe in mind for those little chickens so we just had to stay in. I layed an elegant yet rustic table, opened a bottle of St Julien wine, and we happily savoured coquelets à la moutarde (spring chicken with mustard), roast thyme potatoes and baked squashes with garlic cream. Sometimes simplicity works best. This meal is inspired by all the countless lunches we had in Paris at Yves Camdeborde’s ‘le Relais du Comptoir‘ (9 Carrefour de l’Odéon 75006 Paris). It’s one of our regular (and favourite) places to eat for numerous reasons. The food is excellent, we adore Yves Camdeborde, the terrasse is charming, they have given me the best seats throughout my pregnancies, seen all our kids grow up and you can eat there at any time of the day. The menu is fantastic and we always order the same dishes. ‘Coquelet à la moutarde’ or ‘Joue de boeuf with coquillettes’ (beef cheeks with small shell pasta). When we are back in Paris, it’s one of our first obligatoire stops.

The squash with garlic cream was a little last-minute idea. Baking it nearly naked (only with one garlic clove, salt & pepper) was simple, so I wanted to add crème fraîche for extra density (I just can’t help it, I love cream and butter so much). The cream melts in the squash and does the job all by itself creating a perfect garlic cream mash. It was a real hit!

Roast coquelets à la moutarde (serves 2)

Ingredients:
2 coquelets (spring chickens, or you can roast 1 chicken)
2 garlic cloves
2 tbsp strong classic mustard (I use Maille)
1 tbsp Savora mustard (it’s a special mix of mustard and spices – available at supermarkets – I also love using this for my quiche lorraine)

Preheat oven 180°C/350°F.

In a bowl, mix 3 tbsp of mustard, 2 tbsp of olive oil and 1/2 tsp salt. Place chicken in a roasting pan. Spread the mustard marinade all over the chicken including the cavity. Place one garlic clove in each chicken and a 2-3 small sprigs of thyme. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Halfway in cooking time, pour some of the dripping on the chicken. Repeat if necessary. Bake for 35-40 minutes for a coquelet (spring chicken) or 1 hour-1 hour and a half if you are using a larger chicken.

Baked squash with garlic cream (serves 2)
2 squashes (I used carnival squash, but you can use any small-sized variety)
2 garlic cloves (peeled)
120 ml/ 1/2 cup crème fraîche per squash (alternatively you can use sour cream)
Salt & pepper for seasoning

Preheat oven 180°C/350°F

Slice the top part of the squash (leaving you with a lid), remove the seeds. Season the inside of the squash with salt and pepper, add one peeled garlic clove and close the lid.
Place squash in a roasting pan and bake for 45 minutes, or until soft. When ready, remove the lid and leave to cool on a plate. Scoop out the garlic and 2 tsp of squash and add to the crème fraîche. You can mash it up with a fork or place in a food processor and mix for a few seconds for a creamier sauce. Pour cream back into squash and close the lids. Serve on a plate with a spoon.

Roast thyme potatoes

Preheat oven 180°C/350°F
10-12 small potatoes, roasting types (I count 5-6 small potatoes per person)
Sprigs of fresh thyme (or dried thyme)
Coarse sea salt
60 ml/ 1/4 cup olive oil
Rinse potatoes, slice them in half or quarters depending on size. Place in roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil, sprigs of thyme and coarse sea salt. Mix well and bake for 35-45 minutes (give the potatoes a good stir halfway).

You can roast both the potatoes and the chicken at the same time. I start with the potatoes first for 15 minutes, then add the chicken to the pan – this saves space & time.

The wacky and wonderful world of cèpes

Freshly picked cèpes mushroom and wild cyclamens

After all the excitement build-up since the kids started school, days of searching in vain, we finally found beautiful cèpes. I have been sharing a few moments from my mushroom adventures through Instagram, discovering amazing parts of the forest I never knew. Every morning, I feel like an explorer, entering the woods with my stick, scrambling the leaves, and always looking down. I have lost my trail several times, playing games of twister with the fern, spiky branches and leaves everywhere. Total freedom. If I was in the girls scouts, I think I’d deserve a few brownie points for bravery and eagerness.

Into the wild

It’s rare to meet fellow mushroom pickers where we are, but I have met a few retired farmers holding large cèpes-filled baskets. It is considered very rude and inappropriate to ask where they unearthed their cèpes. Everybody has their secret places and they are not to be shared. Cèpes are most likely to be found by oak trees, but they can really be found everywhere. I heard that grandfathers reveal their lucky cèpes locations on their deathbeds. It’s in the family’s vault. There are also women curiously referred to as mushroom witches. They know where to go and can feel the cèpes from afar. These women go home with thirty kilograms of brown buttons every day. Whatever it is, there is an element of magic in the forest. I believe it is enchanted, filled with secrets and powers. The overwhelming energy makes me feel like a stronger person. The other day, I stumbled across the most fairytale-like view. Thousands of pink and white wild cyclamens glowing in the darkest part of the woods. I don’t think I could have asked for a better movie-set. Now I should really believe in fairies!

My husband took the kids mushroom hunting Sunday morning. It was pouring with rain, but they were all geared up and super excited. They came back home totally drenched, but their faces were brightened with the biggest smiles. They found twenty gorgeous cèpes very near our house. For lunch, I prepared buttered tagliatelle with garlic cèpes (fried in garlic and parsley) for the kids. For us grown-ups, we had cèpes omelette and cèpes carpaccio (sliced raw) with olive oil, salt and pepper. The kids were so proud, and I could see how gratified they felt when we thanked them for ‘providing’ food for the family.

Cleaning cèpes is simple. I use a knife, toothbrush, a damp cloth and a potato peeler. Cut off the tip of the mushroom’s stalk, scrape off as much earth as possible, peel a single layer of the stalk. It is not advised to wash them in water, because they are like sponges. You can wipe them with a damp cloth for a proper final cleaning.

Médoc is immersed in cèpes culture. Here, the cèpe mushroom is the king of the forest and one of the most sought-after delicacies. They are so hearty and flavorful, with the perfect combination of earthy and sweet taste. There are so many ways to enjoy cèpes, this is only the beginning of this fall’s love affair. Here are a few recipes I’ve been cooking this week.

Basic cèpes cooking tips:

● Always season cèpes with salt as soon as you start to cook them.
● Cook mushrooms on a high heat so the water evaporates faster
● If your frying pan is small, cook mushrooms in batches to avoid soggy mushrooms (if there is too much water released at once, the mushrooms won’t brown and cook in its own juice)
● If you want to store cèpes, it is best to wrap them in a cloth and stored in the refrigerator. Never put them in a plastic bag.

Potato and cèpes soup (serves 4)

400 g fresh cèpes, sliced (+ 1 tbsp butter, one garlic and one shallot, finely chopped, for frying)
8 medium potatoes
3 cloves of garlic
A pinch of nutmeg
3 tbsp butter
6 tbsp crème fraîche (or more depending on your taste)
2 tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and pepper for seasoning

Peel and chop potatoes into medium chunks. In a large pot, add potatoes, salt, nutmeg and garlic. Pour water just enough to cover the potatoes. Cover with a lid and cook for 15-20 minutes. Mash soup with a potato masher. Add butter, pepper and crème fraîche. Cover and set aside. Now you can prepare the cèpes, which will take a few minutes. Melt butter in a frying pan, add finely chopped shallots and garlic and fry for a few minutes. Turn heat to high, add sliced cèpes, sprinkle with salt, give the pan a good shake – this should take one minutes. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve soup in large bowls, add a generous amount of cèpes per person, sprinkle with more parsley.

Cèpes en persillade (serves 4)

Should you not have any cèpes, many other seasonal mushrooms works well with persillade.

1 kg fresh cèpes mushrooms, sliced in half if they are small enough (see photo), or sliced.
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic
1 large shallot
3-4 tbsp butter or olive oil, for frying

Peel garlic and shallot and chop them as finely as possible. I use my food processor – quick and easy. Finely chop parsley. Set aside.
In a frying pan, melt butter, add finely chopped shallots and garlic and fry for a 1-2 minutes. Turn heat to high, add sliced cèpes, sprinkle with salt, give the pan a good shake – this should take 2-3 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Cèpes omelette – serves one very generous omelette

4 medium-sized cèpes (sliced)
3 eggs
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp chopped shallots
A handful of chopped parsley
1 tbsp butter or olive oil, for frying

Whisk 3 eggs in a bowl till slighly frothy. Set aside. In a medium-sized frying pan, melt butter (or olive oil) add garlic and shallots and fry for 2 minutes. Add sliced cèpes, season with salt, stir well and cook for 30 seconds on a medium heat. Take a few cèpes and set aside to garnish the omelette. Add beaten eggs, salt and pepper, lower heat and cook for 3 minutes (depending on how you like your omelette cooked). Sprinkle with parsley. Take off from heat, gently roll omelette on each side. Return pan to heat for a few seconds. Place on a plate, plate saved cèpes on top of the omelette, sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately.

Cèpes carpaccio

4 small cèpes per person
Olive oil, salt and black pepper for seasoning

Only choose smaller cèpes for this recipe. Slice cèpes into thin slices. Place on a plate, drizzle some olive oil, salt and pepper.

Plum & fig meringue pie

‘People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy’. Anton Chekhov

As hard as it was letting go of summer, I find the fall season most inspiring of all. We have never been so happy to have rainy days, anxiously waiting for the cèpes mushrooms to appear. Not only do I go to the local village for daily groceries, but I am also expecting to get some useful information. I linger at the newstand longer, at the greengrocer’s and at the boulangerie, in the hope of getting some clues because mushroom hunting gossip has become the talk of the town.
On my way back home through the forest yesterday morning, I parked my bike by an oak tree and went through a meadow filled with ferns. I found one cèpe. Yes, one. Which means that my intuition was right about that location. There shall be more. It’s a matter of days.
I still have an abundance of plums, and plucked the last batch of figs from our tree. I felt I needed to honor this final crop by making something extra-special. Meringues are a considerable part of my domestic happiness, so I decided to treat myself to a plum and fig meringue pie. I prepared my favourite pastry dough (so easy, and I love the subtle ground almond taste) and aligned the fruits. Here’s a wonderful tip on how to avoid a watery pie. Just sprinkle the sliced plums with sugar and instant refined tapioca, and set aside for 15 minutes. You’ll be amazed with the results. I made a medium-sized pie and four little ones, just for fun.
Depending on your mood, this pie can be dressed up with meringue, or dressed down bare. They are both equally delicious. Whatever makes you happy.

Ingredients

For the pastry:
250 g/2 cups plain flour
150 g/ 2/3 cups butter (softened at room temperature)
30 g/ ¼ cup caster sugar
60 g icing/ ½ cup confectioner’s sugar
80 g/ ½ cup ground almonds
1 egg
A pinch of salt

In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together until the mixture forms a homogenous dough. Shape into a ball, wrap in cling film and place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Take out 30 minutes before rolling out. On a floured parchment covered surface, roll out the dough to fit your tart pan. Line tart pan with the pastry dough, and cut out excess overhang dough approx. ¼ inch/ 1 cm off the rim. Fold in the excess dough to make a double thick rim. Pierce dough with a fork all over.

Filling ingredients:
8-9 medium-sized plums – pitted and sliced
4-5 medium-sized figs – sliced
50 g/ 1/4 cup sugar
30 g/ 2 1/2 tbsp instant refined tapioca
2 tbsp plum jam (to glaze plums on pie)

Meringue topping:
4 egg whites
200 g/ 1 cup caster sugar
A pinch of salt
A pinch of cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven 180°C/ 350 F
Step 1) Place sliced plums in a bowl, sprinkle with sugar and tapioca – mix gently. Set aside for 15 minutes. Slice figs, set aside on a plate.
Step 2) Place plums (flesh upwards) and figs inside the pie crust (see photos). With a brush, smooth some jam to glaze the fruits.
Step 3) Bake in oven for 25 minutes (large pie) and 15 minutes (small pies) or until crust is golden. Set aside to cool for 15 minutes.
Turn the heat up to 240°C/ 450 F
Step 4) You can now start preparing the meringue topping. In a large glass bowl, whisk the egg whites until frothy, add cream of tartar, salt and vanilla extract. Continue to whisk and gradually add sugar until egg whites become glossy with stiff peaks. Using a spatula, garnish the pies with the meringue topping in a circular movement. In this recipe, the meringue is 4-5 cm height for the large pie, and 3-4 for the small pies. You can choose the thickness to your liking.
Step 5) Place pies in the top part of the oven for 2 minutes or until meringue browns slightly on top. Check constantly as the browning can happen very fast.

Kouign Amann

One of the best things about the fall season is mushroom picking. Someone had whispered in my ear they had found three large gorgeous cèpes in their garden last week-end. After hearing this, I never leave home without rubber boots and a basket in the hope to bring back a bounty of my own. Since I moved to Médoc, I have discovered reliable mushroom trails close to my house. Where to go, how to pick them, and more importantly what not to pick. It is so revitalizing to go on daily walks in the woods and meadows, filled with untouched wildlife in every corner. I love the different shades of light you see as you walk along, especially when the sunlight sparkles through the trees and fern, bringing its warmth and wonder to everything it touches. As the kids don’t have school on Wednesdays, it seemed like the ideal time to go on a family mushroom picking excursion. So there we were, along with a our dogs (not all of them, but most), on a champignons quest.

We entered the woods, looking all over for shiny brown buttons. The dogs, as usual, managed to find what their hearts desire. A dead bird, a fox skeleton, a deer’s paw. Non merci! After an hour of searching in vain, we were all a bit disappointed, but it wasn’t a total loss. You know it’s still a good day when your daughter says: ‘Maman, this was a real adventure’! Walking back home, we talked about how the moon and the rain affect the mushroom’s growth. Because the secret of nature is patience.

Back home, the kids were longing for the goûter. It’s the tea-time break that is the most important hour in the life of les enfants. On Wednesdays (in France, most kids until the age of 11 don’t have school on that day), they enjoy a little grown-up style tea and cake moment in the playroom. They sit together and, as they are drinking a vervain tisane, they feel very grown-up and discuss important school issues. ‘Did you like the food at the canteen this week, do you like your new teacher, who is your new best friend?’ Mia had requested the butter, sugar and caramel cake, just like the one Amélie Poulain makes in ‘Amélie’.

This old-fashioned Breton cake is called kouign amann. Brittany is all about warmth, coziness, comfort and butter. It’s a caramelized cake made of the most basic ingredients: butter, flour, sugar and yeast. You will need patience (for the dough rising), and a good hand to fold in the butter and sugar in a few layers. The kids adore this caramelized treat, and I think they also find the unusual name mystical. Old Breton words like kouign (cake) and amann (butter) sound like a language from an enchanted forest. It’s a very rich cake, especially in butter. Vive la France!

Later that night, as I slipped into bed, I heard terrifying sounds in the forest. Our mornings are graced by visiting deers, but at night we hear the wild boars at play. I can hear them from afar, their deep grunting echoing in the forest. They are probably on the same trail as we were earlier, eating all the fresh acorns I saw. Will they come to my house? It’s funny, but two years ago, I would have been horrified and up all night. The new ‘country me‘ thought, ‘I hope they won’t eat my precious cèpes’! (the ones that aren’t there yet… perhaps next week?)

Ingredients:
250 g/ 2 cups plain flour
200 g/ 3/4 cup salted butter ‘demi-sel’ (room temperature)
200 g/ 1 cup granulated white sugar + extra for dusting
10 g/ 1 tbsp fresh baker’s yeast
1 good pinch of salt/ fleur de sel
120 ml/ 1/2 cup lukewarm water

In a large bowl, prepare the dough. Dissolve yeast in 3 tbsp lukewarm water and wait till it becomes frothy. Mix flour, salt and add dissolve yeast in center. Gradually add water and start kneading. I do everything by hand, and it usually takes me about 15 minutes of good kneading until I get a soft and supple dough. Shape into a ball, and leave to rise in the bowl covered in a cotton cloth for 3 hours at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 210°C/450F

Step 1: On a floured surface, start rolling the dough to a square shape, about 1 cm thick. Spread 50 g butter, 60 g sugar and fold the dough over the butter/sugar on each side (as if you were wrapping a present in paper – the present being the butter/sugar, the paper being both sides of dough). Fold to form another square.
Step 2: On a floured surface, use a rolling-pin and roll the folded dough into a square shape. Repeat as step one with butter/sugar and folding.
Step 3: Place folded dough in a floured cling film and leave to rest for 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
Step 4: On a floured surface, roll out refrigerated dough one last time. Shape in the form of a square. Place 70 g butter and remaining sugar and fold like in step 1.
Step 5: Place in a buttered round cake tin. Gently press the dough with the palm of your hand to fill in the cake tin. Spread remaining butter on top of dough and sprinkle with a 1 tbsp of sugar. Place in oven and bake for 22-25 minutes, depending on oven strength.
Tip: As this cake is all about caramelization, I would advise to start checking every 2-3 minutes towards the end as it is so easy to over-caramelize or even burn. Starting 17 minutes or so, as soon as it looks slightly golden brown, it’s ready. As I have been making this cake for years, I have learnt from my mistakes.
Step 6: Leave to rest on a rack for 15 minutes before transferring to a plate. Use a round-tipped knife to lift/ unmould the cake. Serve warm.
Tip: Should you want to prepare this cake in advance, I would recommend reheating it by bain-marie (steaming).

Chocolate swirl meringues

Meringues are the most pleasurable desserts to make from start to finish. From separating the eggs, whisking up a sky of fluffy clouds, shaping them into pretty petticoats, these sweet confections are simply magical. When I was small, I always imagined clouds tasted like vanilla meringues. Slightly crisp on the outside, creamy yet airy inside. As intimidating as they may look, meringues are actually very simple to make as long as you follow a few basic rules. Always whisk egg whites at room temperature, add sugar little by little, and try to keep the whisk as horizontal as possible. It is similar to creating foam, which is a collection of bubbles. The cornflour acts as a binding agent, and the sugar stiffens the foam. The best part of these meringues is folding in the cocoa powder. It instantly forms beautiful long ribbon-like swirls. When baked the cocoa somehow melts inside creating a meringue filled with a soft chocolate fondant. I call this culinary art. These chocolate swirl meringues are timeless delights. I love them best served with crème Chantilly (whipped cream) and semi-drenched in a luxurious dark chocolate sauce.

Ingredients:
6 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
1 + 1/2 tsp cornflour (I use maïzana)
2 tbsp good-quality cocoa powder
A pinch of fine salt
320 g caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 140° C. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Meringues:(makes about 5-6 meringues)

In a large glass bowl, whisk the egg whites (I use a pair of electric whisks) and salt on a high-speed until frothy – try to keep the whisk position as horizontal as possible. Add the cornflour and sugar (1-2 tbsp at a time) gradually and continue whisking. You should add the sugar in small quantities until the end of the process. When the egg whites form stiff peaks (this usually takes about 10-15 minutes), gently fold in the cocoa powder. You should create nice swirls in the egg whites. With the help of two large slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites onto the parchment-lined baking tray. The meringues should be about 10-12 cm large and 6 cm high. ‘Twirl’ your spoon around and finish off with a spiky peak. Finally ‘dust’ some cocoa powder on top of each meringue and use a small fork to gently draw a few more swirls.
Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes, switch off the oven, and leave them to cool inside the oven with the door slightly open for 15 minutes.

Chocolate sauce:

40 g good-quality cocoa powder
100 ml water
50 g sugar
40 g golden syrup (or corn syrup)
20 g dark chocolate, broken into small pieces

Mix the cocoa powder, water, sugar, golden syrup in a small saucepan and bring to a soft boil. Remove from heat and add dark chocolate pieces. Stir until the chocolate has melted. Set aside at room temperature for an hour before serving.

These little ‘meringues’ have been out of the oven for 3 weeks!

From quail to quince

The vineyards around Médoc are looking very handsome these days. The grapes have ripened to a velvety dark colour, looking robust and just about ready to be picked. I found out this week harvest dates will be postponed till October. It has been a dry year and the grapes need to mature for a few more weeks. Rumour has it that 2012 will be a good year.

Once in a while, we love going on a little family escapade. We drive through tiny villages, stop by a château and chat with winemakers. By chance, we met M. Gilles Hue, proprietor of Château Haut Garin, located in Prignac-en-Médoc. It’s exactly the kind of small château you want to find, where you can chat with the owner on wine, on the art of enjoying baguette, on the practicality of his old Citroen car and his general remembrance of things past. We bought a bottle of his cru bourgeois 2000 (the bottle cost 8 euros). Since I had previously bought a few quails, I had the idea to cook them wrapped in vine leaves. So I picked a few leaves from the vineyards and hurried home to make another little feast.

M. Hue was not pleased with his baguette delivery this morning – it was too soft. So he left it standing by the kitchen window for a crustier effect.

M. Gilles Hue, proprietor of Château Haut Garin.

On our way home, we saw a beautiful line of trees leading to what it seemed to be another château. And there it was, a hidden gem, a treasure left to its own devices, in the middle of the Médocan nature. A fairy-tale castle built for princes and princesses, tucked away in the bushes, fallen into ruins and reminding us of an elegant past. We were transported on a journey through the history of this abandoned castle where a lot is left to our imagination. The overgrown garden looks like the land time forgot. Could the story behind the castle’s abandonment be of lost fortunes? My daughter Mia suddenly looked like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, grabbing Harry (our little furry Jack Russell) in her arms – he was scared of the big white bull in the garden, she was frightened by the ghostliness of the castle. I am always the hopeful romantic, thinking it was fate that we found this castle and one day it shall be ours.

Back home I cleaned the vine leaves and the quails. I enjoyed wrapping the birds in the leaves and securing each one of them with butcher’s twine. I felt like a determined Babette (from Babette’s feast – a must-see food-lover movie) in the kitchen. My table was glowing thanks to the golden Chasselas grapes from Moissac. They always warm my heart as Moissac is my grandmother’s hometown. It’s a beautiful village, home to the impressive Saint-Pierre Abbey dating back from the 7th century. When you adventure about you will find ancient medieval monasteries, famous for their quince jams and honey. The remote lives of the monks chanting in the hills remain a mystery. It certainly provides a lot of inspiration for a novel.

Talking about quince, we bought several big ones last week. My youngest baby daughter Gaïa loves my home-made quince compote with honey and cinnamon. I try not to buy ready-made baby food anymore (unless I am travelling). I enjoy preparing little meals which I store in old labelled jam jars. To end the quail dinner, I made a quince tarte tatin. Quince have a delightful tangy taste, a mixture between pears and apples. This simple quince tarte tatin recipe is perfect for autumn evenings (and winter too!). The golden caramel melts through the quince, need I say more? I always serve this gourmand dessert warm with a obligatoire dollop of crème fraîche.

Ingredients:(serves 4)
Roast quails with vine leaves
8-10 quails (2 to 3 per person)
8-10 slices bacon
A sprig of fresh thyme
Chasselas grapes, or good-quality smaller grape variety
40 ml cognac
25 g butter (at room temperature)
5 cloves garlic (halved)
Vine leaves (smaller ones are better, 2 leaves per quail)
Butcher’s twine
Salt and pepper

Peel and deseed grapes (you can save a lot of time if you buy seedless grapes!), place in a bowl and soak in cognac for 2 hours. Clean vine leaves and pat dry.
Preheat over to 200 °C.
Wash and dry the quails. Add half a clove of garlic, thyme, 2-3 peeled and deseeded grapes, sprinkle with salt and pepper inside the quail. Rub the quail all over with butter, wrap with bacon. With butcher’s twine, tie the quail around the circumference, turn the quail over and tie the twine around the circumference again. Place a vine leaf on top, and one on the bottom, and secure with a small piece of twine. Sprinkle quails with salt and pepper.
Roast quails, and after 15 minutes, pour the grape mixture with cognac all over. Roast for a further 10 to 15 minutes, depending on how golden the quails look. Turn quails halfway. Make sure to check if the grapes and cognac don’t dry up or burn.

Serve with pan-fried potatoes with garlic and thyme.

Potatoes with garlic and thyme:
10 small potatoes (slice)
3 garlic cloves (sliced)
Olive oil
A sprig of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper for seasoning

Slice potatoes, leave the skin on (6-7mm thick). In a large frying pan, heat olive oil on medium heat, add potatoes, making sure they are all coated in oil. Stir frequently so they don’t stick to the pan. After 10 minutes, add garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Lower heat slightly and continue frying. The potatoes should be cooked after 25-30 minutes.

Quince tart tatin with crème fraîche

Quince tatin

Quick & easy shortcrust pastry:
300 g plain flour (sifted)
150 g butter (diced and at room temperature)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp caster sugar
80 ml lukewarm milk

In a large bowl, mix butter, salt sugar and butter. Mix well with your hands, pour milk gradually and form a soft dough. Shape into a ball. On parchment paper, sprinkle a generous amount of plain flour, roll dough with a rolling-pin. Form a circle slightly larger than the diameter of the cake/tart tin.

Filling
3 large quince (or 5-6 small ones. Peeled, cored and cut into 2 cm thick wedges)
200 g caster sugar
100 g butter (diced and at room temperature)
1 tsp cinnamon
20 g sugar (for sprinkling)

Tip: I would advise to make the caramel in a sturdy pan and pour into the cake tin. Cake tins are usually very thin and somehow my caramel never seems to ‘work’ well.
In a 20 cm large pan, add sugar and melt on a low heat. Do not stir until the sugar has melted and starts to turn ‘golden blond’. At this point, take away from heat and add butter. Stir until butter has melted, and immediately pour into cake tin. It should cover the entire base. Set aside.
Peel, core and cut quince into 2 cm wedges. Carefully arrange the quince in the cake tin, round-side down. You may need to cut some of the quince into smaller pieces to fill in the gaps. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon frequently. Seal the tatin with the rolled shortcrust pastry. Tuck in the edges, gently spike the dough with a fork all over. Bake for about 30 minutes until the pastry is golden, then remove from the oven. Cool for 5 minutes. Serve warm with crème fraîche.