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Tag: Médoc

A French Thanksgiving in Médoc

After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives. Oscar Wilde

My family and I are from all over. My mother is French, my father Chinese, my husband is Icelandic and a quarter German, my grandfather was Polish… Une famille bien mélangée as one would say. French is the main language at home, but so is English, followed by Icelandic and Chinese (Mandarin). Whatever works.
Culture defines who we are and enables us to express ourselves. When you have so many different ones within your family, you start combining all sets of beliefs and try to be as open-minded as possible. I call it wisdom.
I have been so inspired lately by the Thanksgiving preparations from my friends and fellow bloggers. Having been invited to a few Thanksgiving events in my life mostly through American amis, I have never had a chance to truly celebrate it at home. So last night, I decided to prepare a little French Thanksgiving repas familial.

We are all so busy, so caught up in our daily lives that any reminder to stop and think ‘What am I thankful for’ is wonderful. It’s a beautiful thought, and there aren’t enough of those these days.

I am so thankful for my family, they are my love and inspiration, my raison d’être. It’s been two years since we embarked on an adventurous move to Médoc. It’s been a sensational world of discoveries, stimulation and revelations. I love the nature that surrounds us, the new friends we have met, the freedom we give to our dogs, the joy we share at the table.

Château Lanessan

One of the perks of living in this part of France is being able to drop by a château to buy wine. I recently went to château Lanessan to get a few good bottles and walk through the vineyards. I always make sure to bring my friends there. We enjoy the wine-tasting and visiting the property surrounded by beautiful horse stables. It’s one of my favourite châteaux in Médoc, so enchanting in its neo-Tudoresque style. There’s something terribly romantic about that place. It certainly stirs one’s imagination. My children call it the Scooby-Doo ghost castle, I call it the ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ château.

Right here, right now, the best place to be is in the vineyards. The golden leaves are dancing away from the autumn wind, soon the trees will be bare leaving me chagrined. For now, I am reflecting on the honeyed caramel hues, so pleasurable to the eye and to the soul. Could these gourmand colours be an appetite opener? I would like to think so.

Honey Bee

So here was the menu for my improvised Thanksgiving. We started with a potage de topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes) with parsnip chips. Just the word topinambour sounds so festive, like a soup with drum beats! We then enjoyed a cocotte de daube de boeuf (beef stew) with autumn vegetables. For dessert, I chose my all-time favourite, a Mont-blanc. It’s my version of a Mont-blanc (classic dessert that looks like snow-capped mountain), a meringue with whipped cream, the all mighty god of all goodies crème de marron, and marrons glacés (chestnuts candied in sugar and glazed). It’s about time I share my love and passion for chestnut vanilla cream from Clément Faugier. I am a huge fan since I was a kid, eating it straight from the pot or mixed with fromage blanc. It’s a cream made of chestnuts, vanilla and sugar. I hope you can all get it, one way or another, for it is my most treasured péché mignon (sweet weakness)!

As if our family tree was not complicated enough, it recently grew a few more branches. Our dog family is as diverse as the human one. We have two new additions, an American and a Hungarian. Miss Honey Bee, (a smooth fox terrier from American lines) and Luc (another smooth born to our two wonderful Hungarian imports Yul and Sky). Now that’s something to be thankful for!

Black pig sausage & Luc

Ingredients: (Serves 4-6)

Topinambours potage
500 g/ 1 pound topinambours-Jerusalem artichokes (peeled and sliced coarsely)
500 ml/ 2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
1 shallot (sliced)
20 ml/ 2 tbsp olive oil
100 ml/ 1/2 cup crème fraîche
A pinch of fresh parsley
Salt and pepper (for seasoning)

Parsnip chips:
4-5 parsnips
Vegetable oil for frying
Salt (for seasoning)
In a large heavy saucepan, fill oil no more than halfway and heat to 180°C/ 350 F. You can test one slice of parsnip, drop it in the oil – if it starts sizzling, the oil is ready. Fry parsnip slices by batches, 2-3 minutes each, or until golden. Set aside to drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt. Set aside.

Peel the Jerusalem artichokes, slice coarsely and set aside. In a large pot, heat olive oil and fry the shallots for 3 minutes. Add the Jerusalem artichokes and continue frying for 3 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper and add chicken stock. Lower heat, cover and cook for 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Mix in food processor until you get a smooth and velvety soup. Return to pot, season more if necessary and add crème fraîche. Serve immediately with sprinkled parsnip chips and parsley.

Daube de boeuf (beef stew – to be prepared the night before)
1 kg/ 2 pounds paleron de boeuf (beef shoulder, or preferred stewing-type beef)
150 g chunk of bacon/ 1/3 pounds (cut in sticks, lardons or sliced)
250 ml/ 1 cup red wine
250 ml/ 1 cup beef stock
2 small parsnips (cut in chunks)
1 carrot (cut in chunks)
5 small topinambours/ Jerusalem artichokes (sliced in semi-thick rondelles)
1 leek (sliced in two pieces)
2 cloves garlic (sliced)
1 large onion (sliced)
1 shallot (sliced)
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tbsp flour
1 bay leaf
A small handful of chopped chives
Salt and pepper (for seasoning)
50 g/ 1/4 cup unsalted butter (for frying)

Place beef with sliced onions, 3 cloves, bay leaf and thyme in a bowl. Pour wine, cover with cling film and marinate overnight in the fridge. You can add a bit of water so the beef is covered. The next day, drain beef and pat dry, reserve wine and herbs, discard cloves. In a large cocotte/ pot, melt the butter, brown beef on all sides and set aside on a plate. In the same pot, add a bit more butter, fry the onions, bacon and shallot for 3 minutes, add the garlic, carrot and beef. Take off the heat, add flour, mix well. Season with salt and pepper. Return to heat, add reserved wine and leave to reduce for a few minutes. Add the stock. Mix all the ingredients with a wooden spoon, add the thyme, bay leaf, parsnips, leek and sliced topinambours/ Jerusalem artichokes. Cover and simmer on a low heat for 2-3 hours, or until beef is tender.

Mont-blanc
6 extra-large egg whites, at room temperature
1 + 1/2 tsp cornflour
A pinch of fine salt
320 g/ 1 1/2 cups sugar
350 ml/ 1 1/2 cups whipping cream
300-400 g/1 1/2 cup crème de marrons/ chestnut cream
6 marrons glacés/glazed candied chestnuts (cut in small chunks)
Icing sugar (for garnishing)

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. The egg whites should form stiff peaks (this usually takes about 10-15 minutes). With the help of two large slotted spoons, spoon the egg whites onto the parchment-lined baking tray. ‘Twirl’ your spoon around and finish off with a spiky peak.
Bake for about 1 hour. Switch off the oven, and leave them to cool inside the oven with the door slightly open for 15 minutes.

To assemble:
Whip the cream, place 2 tbsp on each meringue. Pipe the chestnut cream (pastry bag with a small round tip), add small chunks of marrons glacés on top and sprinkle with icing sugar.

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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.

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).

Bread winner

When you think of France, do you see a béret, a marinière top and a baguette under the arm? To this day, this image has been inked into our minds. I sometimes reflect on the origins of this postal card, souvenir, movie-like ‘cliché’. The characteristics of a baguette remind us of the simplicity and originality of the French way of life. The morning ritual of going to the boulangerie, or in other words the village’s social rendez-vous. You meet everyone there, exchanging stories, saying hellos, overhearing gossip. You can also dive into someone’s life by knowing their bread preferences. And that is how life is all over France. We buy our daily baguettes, hold them under the arms, nibbling the tip out of sheer ‘gourmandise’. The crusty smell of a freshly baked baguette is enchanting.

Baguettes in the making & a charming client buying her baguette tradition

Perfect baguettes.

Baguette ordinaire (left), and a client buying a ficelle.

Baguette is France’s daily bread. Finding a perfect baguette is a sacred quest. Once found, you shall forever be faithful. It’s a family affair.

When we lived in Paris, we found a boulangerie with baguettes just how we like them (Pain D’Epis, 63 Avenue Bosquet, 75007 Paris note I just found out they closed down – Boulanger Thierry Dubois decided to take a year off for a ‘Tour du monde’). Everytime we bought bread there, we were grateful for the excellent quality. When we left Paris, one of the first things I said every morning was: ‘Oh how I miss my boulanger!’ So there we were, discreetly searching for a great baguette. We tried, talked, discussed, searched. After a few months of tasting and comparing (lots of good bread), we discovered ‘Le fournil de J & J’, located in Soulac-sur-Mer (24, Rue Trouche 33780, Soulac-sur-mer). This husband and wife bakery (Jeremy & Jessica) is certainly a bit of a stretch distance wise, but in exchange we get the quality we are looking for. Don’t be fooled by the simple décor. This place is all about excellent bread. It’s as good as any bread I’ve ever had, right up there with the very best, the kind of bread you would expect from a great establishment where the boulanger wears the French flag around his neck. That this bread is made by such a young artisan makes it even more special and bodes well for the future of French gastronomy.

Jeremy only uses flour from Charente-Maritime.

What is a perfect baguette? Golden thin crisp crust, light and airy inside. The bubbles of air keep all the flavours in. Jeremy is the ‘artisan‘ boulanger, a master of his trade. He started when he was fourteen years old and has been perfecting his art ever since. What is the secret to a good baguette, I asked? It’s the ‘action de la levure, la fermentation (the action of the yeast, the fermentation). But what is even more important is the time he lets his bread rise. From 24 to 72 hours. Quality is all about patience. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time, nor the staff, for such dedication. Additionally, Jeremy has a few tricks up his sleeve that make his bread unique. C’est le secret professionel, something he won’t share with anyone.

Fresh baker’s yeast (left), Jessica and boulanger Pierre.

The less yeast , the better the quality. The more water, the thinner the crust, the airier the crumb, therefore the bread tastes better. Jeremy leaves his baguette ‘tradition’ (their bestseller) to rise 48 hours in a cold room of 3 degrees Celsius. He uses ‘mitronette’ mill flour from the Charente-Maritime region. In high season, queues start forming at 7:30 am, clients buying the baguette classique, the ficelle, the céréales, the bio among many others.

I have learnt a great deal from Jeremy’s techniques and will take these very important tips:

● Only use fresh yeast (your baker can sell you some),
● Don’t be shy to let the dough rise for a long time (Jeremy lets his baguette rise 48 hours in a cold room 3 degrees), or at least 3 hours at home at room temperature
● Less yeast = better tasting bread
● While baking the bread at 240°C, use a cast iron skillet filled with 1 large glass of water placed under the baking tray. Traditional baguettes are baked in ovens that produce steam, which delays crust formation so the loaves can fully rise.

Cycling around the charming village of Soulac-sur-mer.

My favourite sandwich: saucissons secs, pickles and butter with baguette bread.

We came back home by lunchtime. I made my favourite sandwich. Baguette, saucissons secs, butter and crunchy pickles. Simplicity at its best.

Le fournil de J & J

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!