November 17th, Fête du beaujolais nouveau !

November 17th, 2007

The world has caught on, as thousands of thirsty visitors are drawn to a Rhône village: Beaujeu. For more than thirty years, this traditional new wine celebration has spilled over into towns and bar terraces across two continents (at least!). I recall being among enthusiastic wine-lovers who gathered annually at the New French Café in Minneapolis to toast the beaujolais nouveau. And now, the Sarmentelles or Fête du beaujolais nouveau is underway in Beaujeu, lighting the village with fireworks at dusk on the eve of November’s third Thursday.

But it isn’t just wine that would draw me all the way to this town in the Rhône hills. It is Beaujeu’s liquid gold in addition to liquid rouge:  autumn is time to press nuts for rich, aromatic oils.   Jean-Marc Montegottero uses a century-old stone press to extract a dozen types of oils at his Huilerie beaujolaise. Pressing is done to such high standards that he is counted in many a chef’s little black book of suppliers. For a whiff of heaven, walk into the shop at 29, rue Echarmeaux on the day he is roasting hazelnuts and pressing the oil. Browse for awhile and choose from their range, a delicate pistachio oil, the hefty walnut oil (superb sprinkled on pumpkin soup or purée with just-shelled and toasted nuts), or refined argan oil. If Beaujeu is not on your itinerary, contact them to ship an order. Their website is “under construction” but the telephone is: 33 (0)4 7469 2800. When in Beaujeu, stop in for a tasting and take a scheduled tour of the mill (2.50 Euros). ‘Tis the season – for new wine and fresh nut oil!

p.s.  This line of nut oils is also available in Paris at La Grande Epicerie de Paris.

A roast goose or bonbons on St. Martin’s Day

November 11th, 2007

As usual, the light of Armistice Day or Veteran’s Day is pale, grey.  A little mist in the air is typical, as I recall previous Veteran’s Days at other latitudes.  The trumpets and drums of Mouleydier’s musical fanfare play the brisk, concluding bars of the national anthem, the Marseilles.   Ceremonies at the village memorial for the fallen in twentieth century wars have come to a close.  Allons enfants, time for Sunday lunch. The November chill stirs appetites, and in homes throughout France relatives will gather round the table, together, having again paid respects to those absent.  The village remembers well, and the ceremonies always bring a lump to my throat, thinking about the sinistre, the day the village was burned in June 1944.   When I return home to scan the valley from my kitchen door, the fields called the champs des martyrs for those who died there, are quiet in the day’s dim light.  One does not forget.

But it is also a day to honor St.Martin, the patron saint of France, who shared his cloak with a freezing beggar in the fourth century. And this day is marked in many corners of Europe with more festive traditions. In northern Europe, a plump goose is roasted for dinner after a parade and bonfire.  Children in Flanders, western Belgium go ’round to neighbor’s doors with paper lanterns, singing special songs. The reward is something sweet and they return home with enough bonbons to last until St. Nicolas (December sixth). This seems to be a tradition in parts of Holland and Austria as well, with processions and songs. For Sao Martinho in Portugal, the day is marked with magustos – gatherings at the fireside to roast chestnuts and drink new wine.  An earlier custom in parts of Europe, in the days when the eleventh of November marked the end of the agricultural and financial year, involved the preparation of a roast goose feast before the six weeks of fasting prior to Noël. Fowl and any cattle that would not be taken through the winter were ready for slaughter, to be salted or preserved.  As times change and traditions evolve further beyond the rural calendar, such observances have been forgotten in most regions. But if you are with friends in Bruges on St. Maarten and hear the doorbell ring at twilight, be sure to have the candy dish filled to overflowing.

Jésuites, the three-cornered hat of the pastry kingdom

November 7th, 2007

My first encounter with a Jésuite left me with a sugar-dusted nose. A tray of the long, triangular pastries in the window of an Île de France bakery-café lured me inside, and a few minutes later I emerged with a floral-printed pack of pastries. Michel and I took a table on the sidewalk, ordered coffee and peered into the box: “How do we eat these?” was my husband’s first query.  The Jésuites cantilevered over the rim of a plate; the server brought spoons, but I was wondering if a steak knife and long-tined fork would be better weapons for approaching this iced, sugar-topped puff-pastry.  The American way, go ahead – use your fingers, would avoid having pastry corners shooting across the table, so that was my last resort:  pick it up, bite off one of the corners.  Flakes of puff pastry drifted across the table, the buttery-crisp corner melted in my mouth and traces of sugar stuck to the nose above my triumphant smile.  I took a good look at the pastry for future reference, wondering who first decided that eighteenth century Jesuit hats would provide a template for an almond-cream filled pastry.

Having conquered question number one – eating it – I moved on to question number two: how can I reproduce the frangipane filling and triangular pastry?  For the Jésuite is a classic pastry-baker’s item, rarely made at home.  You can begin with puff pastry, pâte feuilletée, which can be bought ready to roll.  Or chill a slab of marble, mix flour and chilled butter, (layer dough with butter chips) and fold the sticky pastry several times to ensure flakiness.  My first effort at this type of puff pastry was on a hot August morning, not the ideal timing and overall, a discouraging experience.  But I recently bought a pre-rolled pastry that was a decent substitute, enough for making four Jésuites.

To form the Jésuites, cut the circle (about enough to make a 10″ pie crust) of pastry down the center, then across the center making four equal quarters. Slice each quarter in half and separate. Prepare the frangipane: Cream 50 grams/1/4 cup of soft unsalted butter, add 50 grams/1/4 cup of sugar and 50 grams of ground/powdered almonds, whisking this into a frothy mixture. Beat in 1 egg, 1 teaspoon of almond essence, (add 2 more yolks at this point if you want a richer filling), and 2 tablespoons of rum or brandy. This can be made in advance and chilled. With a small pastry brush (I use a Hungarian feather brush from Williams Sonoma), moisten the edges of 2 triangles, spread with the frangipane, place one triangle on top of the other and seal the edges by pressing gently. Repeat this with the remaining triangles. The fingerprints will disappear as the puff pastry expands in the oven. Heat the oven to 205°c/400°f. Very lightly oil a baking sheet (use almond oil if you have it) and place the 4 pastries with 2″ spacing.  At this point, you can brush with milk and sprinkle flaked almonds on them, or go a step farther with a light meringue of: 1 egg white mixed with 25 grams icing sugar then topped with the flaked almonds (or crushed praline!).  Bake the Jésuites for about 8 minutes, then lower the heat to 160°c/324°f for another 8 to 10 minutes.  Take the golden Jésuites out of the oven and dust with icing sugar.  Some French bakers even add a fine top layer of white frosting – gilding the lily, perhaps.
Next question: Frangipane who?

Mousse Two: Noir et Praliné

November 5th, 2007

Dark and edgy, chocolat noir has a grip on me. Maybe my crush on bitter chocolate started with Marabou, the superb Swedish chocolate that I savored on ferries going from Finland to Sweden years ago. (A Finnish friend just sent the bad news that Marabou dark is no longer available – what a loss for chocolate lovers!) But to cook with bitter chocolate, a balance must be struck between bitter and sweet. This rendition of a dark mousse does just that, with an added crunch of praline. Having tried adding spirits for depth, I found that rum was too strong, so I dash a little cognac or armagnac into the equation. Gently fold in whipping cream, which adds richness but not the volume of whisked whites that lifted mousse I to a lighter texture. And whether almonds or toasted hazelnuts are used for the praline, in the spirit of autumn, don’t forget the nuts.

The praline: In a non-stick frying pan, toast 1/2 cup coarsely slivered (not finely flaked) blanched almonds. Add a scant 1/2 cup powdered/icing sugar, stirring in from the edges as it caramelizes over low heat. Line a pie tin with aluminum foil, and when the almonds are coated with caramel (10 to 15 minutes or less), quickly transfer them into the tin. Cool, cover with foil and break into pieces by hitting it with a mallet. Set aside 1/3 cup of crushed praline for the mousse, which should serve 4 or 5.

The mousse: Melt in a pan set over simmering water (not ON – or it will scorch and spoil the flavor), 100 grams dark chocolate, such as Lindt Excellence, 70% cacao (1 bar/ package) which has been broken/beaten into pieces (to melt faster). Add 2 tablespoons butter, cut into chunks and stir, then add 50 grams of praline-filled milk chocolate, such as Côte d’Or (1/2 package) or Gianduja, broken up, and 1 to 2 spoons of Cognac or strong coffee. Lift the pan off the heat. Separate 3 eggs, and stir the yolks into the chocolate one by one; then stir in the powdered praline, add a twist or two of grated nutmeg. Whip 1/2 cup of thick cream, 1 tablespoon confectioner’s/icing sugar and fold this carefully into the cooled chocolate mixture. The amount of cream can be doubled, and a bit more sugar (sweeten to taste) added. When blended, pour the mousse into a glass bowl or individual cups, sprinkling all with crushed praline.

What to do with the extra egg whites? If you are not in a mood to make meringue, whip up a simple prune mousse. Cook 2 cups of semi-dried prunes in water to cover (with a tea bag to soften the skins); cool them, remove pits, then purée in a blender, add 1/4 cup sugar and a twist of nutmeg (and minced orange zest, or a splash of Cointreau if you have time) to the prunes. Whisk the (3) egg whites (add a pinch of fine salt and a tablespoon of sugar) to form stiff peaks, fold them into the prunes in three stages to hold the volume, pour into an attractive bowl and top with crunchy praline. Ready for dinner: Mousse aux pruneaux – a bonus autumnal treat – can be made a day in advance, to serve six.  Hold the remaining crushed praline in reserve – maybe to sprinkle on Jésuites…..

Five journeys, among five hundred

November 4th, 2007

Journeys of a Lifetime, 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips is National Geographic’s recently published lush and colorful temptation to travelers. Even sitting in a cozy armchair, one can almost smell the aromas of ripe melons emanating from a market photo which introduces the ‘In Gourmet Heaven’ section. True to their high standards, the National Geographic books team has orchestrated words and images evoking places, people, flavors and discoveries. Organized in sections, such as Across Water, By Road, In Search of Culture, this round-the-world whirl takes the reader to distant mountains and market places with the flip of a page. It was a pleasure write five of the destinations for this comprehensive travel book, and the VagabondGourmand is busily preparing more chapters for another in the series, to be published in 2008. Add Journeys of a Lifetime to your Christmas list – for giving, or drop a hint to Santa.

The New York Times listed Journeys of a Lifetime  on it “best sellers” list for three weeks in January 2008.