All Things French

Born Again in Second Language

There must be a moment, however brief, when you cease to be.
– NY Times Haiku

Salted Cod 4

Accras de morue is fritters made from salted cod fish. Originally of Portuguese origin, but also largely eaten in the Caribbean, Martinique, Guadalupe and Barbados. In France, Accras is almost always synonymous to the Caribbean, it is as if the original version is made there. We certainly ate this in Angola and in Mauritius, though I didn’t particularly pay too much attention on their differences.

There isn’t one unanimous recipe when it comes to accras. Opinion differs as to what make a good accras. Some uses eggs, some uses baking powder. Some uses different flour. One thing is clear, parsley is key and if you like it hot, piment antillais (or habanero chili) is added.

Salted Cod Collage
Salted Cod 3

Saying that I have had my fair share of bland accras is an understatement. But when it comes to fritters, I think Asians know a thing or two. They know how to tease the taste buds, playing with the saltiness and sweetness to reach that nice balance where everything just make sense together. And after multiple adjustments and tweaks, I think I found the accras that I really like: smooth and crispy skin, most importantly, far from bland.



Summer Solstice

Fete de la musique 2013

In France, the first day of summer is marked by Fete de La Musique where the amateur musicians poured their heart and soul on the street, playing for free. Literally street by street is full of musicians and crowds, staying as little or as long as they like to hear. All concerts are free as well, though I heard on recent years, there are paid concerts backing on well-known singers.

Without fail, regardless of what day of the week it is, this music festival happens on June 21 and if you are visiting France (or any city), this would be a nice event to see. Bigger cities obviously have more concerts to see. Even in the suburb like where we are staying, there were no less than 6 concerts happening at the same time. For once, there’s no list to cross, no place to be, no must and must not. All you need is a good drink on your hand (or crepes or ice cream) and good walking shoes to wander where your ears bring you. The town is yours to explore.

It’s really nice to see children sitting on the shoulder of their fathers, the little ones dancing to tunes, pets are taken out for a walk and some dancing. From jazz, to rock and roll, to country music, from hip hop to electro and techno, to world music.

Fete de la musique 3

Fete de la musique

Fete de la musique 2013-2

I am grateful every single day for as little or as long I stay in this place.

What’s In A Name?

Rum CakeI heard about Baba Au Rhum for the first time while watching a French documentary about living without electricity. I remember how the french went OOH!! AHHH!! when someone made Baba Au Rhum, literally like a kid with a big tub of ice cream. I’ve never tasted one but essentially it is a cake soaked with rum. All Baba Au Rhum recipes (at least those in french language) call for yeast, including this Alain Ducasse’s. I am a little bit hesitant in using yeast, my track record hasn’t been consistent – occasionally I can smell and taste a trace of yeast in my bread. So when I saw this Mimi Thorisson’s recipe on Baba Au Rhum without yeast, I grabbed it.

Rum Cake 02
It is so very simple, the rum mixture is excellent, my kitchen smells great, the cake is delicious and I like how she whisked the egg white separately from the yolk, like in a mousse, before folding back, resulting in a light cake. C’etait excellent! The adults love it, we love it, the four year old Antoine couldn’t stop eating it. I bet he slept well that night.

Rum Cake 06
The funny thing is I could not call this Baba Au Rhum. (more…)

Just Because I’m Mean

Ok, ok, I’m not a mean person per se, and but I find the wardrobe of LCI presentatrice is just asking for the world to discuss! Especially when people seem to think that French women are the epitome of chic-ness.

Fly Like A Bird
This is from yesterday. I know that Paris is snowing and all, and everybody is saying how cold it is now. But I am not sure what to say about this top.

Carry My Bag
And then this one. “Look mon coeur, she has a backpack with her..”

Sometimes the French TV is really hillarious!

Another Tick on My Kitchen To Dos

For our wedding in Portugal, my mom-in-law arranged for croquembouche as our wedding cake. Croquembouche simply is profiteroles strung with caramel spun sugar, mounted into a structural center piece of a cone shape, typically served in important celebrations in French culture, such as weddings or baptism. I’m sure many of you know what profiterole is, even if you’re not familiar with its french name. It’s also known as cream puff or in Indonesia, kue sus. These days, you can easily find a croquembouche done with macaroons, instead of profiteroles.

My success rate in making profiteroles are 1 out of 3. Not so bad: two grand failures out of three attempts. But at least I think I know where my pain points are now. I think I have figured it all out. And I think four might be my lucky number.

I learned that if my batter, when piped into little mounds, can stand on its own means they are at the right denseness. I learned that the water/butter mixture needs to be really boiling. I learned that profiteroles and pronto are like oxymorons. This is not a recipe for when you are in a rush. But if you have a mixer and the due diligence to follow the recipe, this is extremely easy to do.

Profiteroles and eclairs are done with the same dough, pâte à choux. The difference, according to H, is that eclairs are long, dipped/ covered with chocolate, while profiteroles are typically round and doused with caramel. Both are traditionally filled with cream custard, though it is becoming more common to have profiteroles stuffed with vanilla ice cream in the middle of snowing winter.

If H can conjure up his version of profiterole, this would be it. Thick custard cream and caramel sauce.

Forenote: The dough can be done and baked a day in advance. Kept in a ziplock, it will stay crisp for a day. The custard cream can be done in advance and can stay in fridge up to 3 days. The caramel has to be done on the day. It is said that once filled, the profiteroles stay crisp for up to 4 hours on room temperature, before they turn soggy.

yield 20 profiteroles

(a) The dough: Choux Pastry (pâte à choux)
(source: Joy of Baking)

1/2 C (65 grams) all purpose flour
1/2 tsp white sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 C (57 grams) unsalted butter
1/2 C (120 ml) water
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

  • Preheat oven to 205 C (400 F) and place rack in center of oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • In a bowl sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Set aside.
  • Place the butter and water in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and, with a wooden spoon or spatula, quickly add the flour mixture. Return to heat and stir constantly until the dough comes away from the sides of the pan and forms a thick smooth ball (about a minute or two).
  • Transfer the dough to your electric mixer, and beat on low speed a minute or two to release the steam from the dough.
  • Once the dough is lukewarm start adding the lightly beaten eggs and continue to mix until you have a smooth thick sticky paste.
  • Spoon or pipe to 20 mounds (or 12 mounds for a larger version). Bake for 15 minutes and then reduce the oven temperature to 177 C (350 F). Bake for a further 30 to 40 minutes or until the shells are a nice amber color and when split, are dry inside.
  • Turn the oven off and, with the oven door slightly ajar, let the shells dry out for a further 10 – 15 minutes. Cool before filling.

(b) The Custard Cream
(source: Casa Veneracion)

1/2 C white sugar
2 tbsp corn starch + enough all-purpose flour to make 1/3 C.
a generous pinch of salt
2 C milk
4 egg yolks, beaten
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

  • In a pan, mix together the first four ingredients. Stir until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, reaching all edges and bottom until thickened.
  • In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Once the milk liquid has thickened, ladle some liquid into the egg yolk to temper it.
  • Pour the egg yolk mixture back into the pan, mix, and continue cooking for about 10 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom constantly, until the mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon.
  • Let it cool down and press a cling wrap onto the surface and keep in the fridge up to 3 days.
  • Pipe or scoop onto the cooled choux pastry.

(c) The (Dry) Caramel

120 gr white sugar

  • In a heavy bottom pan, spread out the white sugar to cover all surface and heat it over low heat.
  • Once the edges starts to turn liquid, using spatula to draw a line from the melting edge towards center.
  • Once it turns amber and the sugar has all melted, transfer to a bowl to stop the heating. The caramel is ready to be used.

Note: It took only a split second from ready-to-be used caramel to burnt caramel. You’ll know because they taste and smell burnt. They are darker than normal caramel should be. Making caramel isn’t difficult, but it does take practice and lots of patience. The good news is sugar is cheap!!

I think I’m ready to make coffee eclairs for my dad-in-law 😉

It Was Great To Be Outdoor

My father in law is kind of a walking encyclopedia. His love for nature is evident. He could tell one tree from another and call each by its name. One day after H returned to Angola and I was entrusted in their care, we drove up to St Fereol. He wanted to show me Canal du Midi, the canal that connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterannean Sea. A pride and joy for many french. Apparently long long time ago, it was used as a short cut to commute and avoid (dangerous) long sea travels. From what I could gather in my broken french, there were some historical and engineering importance of this canal.

We went up there for a picnic by the St Fereol Lake, but the wind was too strong. Some brave souls tried, the kids giggled playing catch to whatever is flying. But we tucked ourselves at a nice cafe overlooking the lake. It was great to be outdoor.

Wikipedia is (Maybe Not) Wrong

Why do the French have to invent confusing desserts?!?! Ignore me, that’s a rhetoric question. Nothing about the French is simple and straight forward. Even the wikipedia got it wrong.

Few months ago, I made a classic french dessert: oeufs a la neige (snow eggs). It’s basically a whisked egg white poached in boiling water. Typically served with creme anglaise, but I made mine with chocolate custard, using a recipe from La Tartine Gourmande.

This time round, I made iles flotantes (floating islands) using Antony Bourdain’s recipe from his Les Halles Cookbook. It is basically a whisked egg white that is poached in milk, unlike oeufs a la neige, that is poached in water. The result is a richer meringue of some sort.

We love both, but H has a stronger preference towards iles flotantes. Because he adores creme anglaise and basically drips, drenches, soaks every single cake with it.

(source: Les Halles Cookbook by Anthony Bourdain)
serves 4  (see note below)

8 egg whites
pinch of salt – I used cream of tar tar
280 gr sugar divided into 2: 168 gr for egg white, 112 gr for egg yolk
2 cups milk
1/2 vanilla bean, cut in half length wise
4 egg yolk
28 gr slivered almonds, to garnish – I used pisctahio

  • In a large bowl, place the egg white and salt and whisk on low speed to break them up, then increase the speed and beat until soft peaks.
  • Reduce the speed and slowly add 168 gr sugar. Continue beating until sugar is incorporated and the eggs once again hold soft peaks.
  • Place the milk in a large, shallow pan and bring it to boil. Reduce heat to a simmer.
  • Use large spoons and scoop 12 ‘quenelles’ and gently place them on to the simmering milk to poach. 2 mins per side.
  • Remove the quenelles and place on the plate lined with paper towel. Set aside.
  • Strain the milk onto a small pot, adding milk if necessary so that there is exactly 2 cups.
  • Add the vanilla bean and bring the milk back to boil. Turn off the heat and let it infuse (about 30 mins).
  • Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks and remaining sugar. Bring milk back to boil and while whisking the yolk, add the half of milk little by little to the yolk (to temper). Once this mixture is homogenous, add it back to the pot with remaining milk and whisking constantly.
  • Over low heat, continue to whisk the milk (or use wooden spoon to stir) making sure it reaches all edges of the pot. Continue to stir until the mixture is thick and coats the back of the spoon.
  • Remove from heat, discard the vanilla pod and place into an ice-water bath, making sure the water doesn’t leak into the custard. (see note below)
  • To serve, place 3 quenelles in the center of each of the four soup bowls, ladle creme anglaise into each bowl and garnish with almonds and serve immediately.

~ I didn’t serve the iles flotantes immediately. I made it at home, had 1 hour drive then consumed it about 2 hours after making. Though the egg whites flattened a teeny weeny bit (as compared to right after cooking), they were still very much presentable. Make sure you only mix the egg whites and creme anglaise right before serving.
~ For the same reason, I didn’t place my creme anglaise in an ice-water bath. I filtered it into a tight lid jar and kept it in the fridge until it’s dessert time.
~ I scooped my quenelles using normal tablespoon and hence the size is smaller than Bourdain’s. I made about 16 quenelles with about two-third of the egg whites, which brings me to the next point..   ~ The recipe serves for 4. But I think this is a restaurant’s portion. Or you can have this in absence of any other dessert. There were about 10 of us and I only served 1-2 quenelles each bowl, and that’s more than enough. But again, we had other desserts.
~ I wouldn’t bother making this with skim milk. Full cream please.

Lastly, if you’re looking for a french cookbook, especially french classic dishes: moules marinieres, pot-au-feu, salade d’onglet, steak tartare, blanquette de veau, etc, I would recommend this book from Anthony Bourdain. I have not tried a single recipe and failed (read: the instructions were super clear). And we have not been disappointed with the recipes, meaning I’m really looking forward to making Gigot de sept heures or 7 hours leg of lamb!

Yes, this book also has coq au vin, cassoulet and boeuf bourguignon. But really, you should venture far from the periphery and discover, how not complicated french cooking is. French pastry, well.. that’s a different story altogether.