Pears, almonds, cocoa… a batter cake for Sunday lunch

October 18th, 2009

Sunday, dessert day, is such a French tradition – wherever you are in the hexagone.  Watch the parade of boxed, glazed gâteaux, fruit tartes and flaky tourteaux streaming from bakeries and pastry shops on Sunday mornings as the family Sunday roast  or ragout is being prepared at home.  But, I wondered, what about baking your own dessert – is that no longer done?  Climbing up the hill after a run to get bread for lunch, I fell into step with perky Mme.C. her silver hair catching glints of morning sunlight. “I’ve climbed this hill for twenty-nine years”, she confided, “and at ninety-one it is steeper than ever!” As we neared her front steps, I saw something on her window sill wrapped in a thick, checked kitchen towell:  the something smelled wonderful.  Knowing that she often baked on Sundays, I queried: ” what is today’s dessert?”  She replied pertly, “It’s a prune clafoutis – and I also made one with golden squash”.  So, simple puddings, stirred up with seasonal fruit and whatever is on hand are still a Sunday tradition in the Périgord.  With that neighborly exchange, the vagabond was inspired to bake a pear batter cake for two – usually I only make  desserts when guests are expected, but why not today?  I hope that Mme C. will catch the aromas of pears and toasted almonds as she takes her usual post prandial Sunday walk past our gate.


Abate pears, a little cocoa added to the batter in honor of the Salon du Chocolate this weekend in Paris, and almonds to insure crunch accent a variation on my favorite batter cake recipe.  This version of James Villas’ recipe is cut in two, but actually makes enough for four small servings. One abate pear, peeled and trimmed, sliced lengthwise into slivers is enough. Preheat oven to 375°f,  butter an open dish or 7″ casserole. Sift together:

1/3 cup flour (or ground almonds) with a pinch of salt + 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 cup sugar mixed with 2 T. cocoa (Dutch processed) + 1 tsp. ginger

Whisk 1 large egg, and add:

1/4 cup whole milk, 2 T. vegetable oil or melted butter + 1/2 tsp almond extract

Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients gradually and stir well. Pour into the buttered dish, arrange the trimmed pear slices evenly on top of the batter. Top with:  1 T. butter chopped into bits, then 2 T. slivered or shaved almonds and sprinkle with 1 generous T. brown sugar. Bake for 30 mintes, test with a toothpick – if it is a little gooey, bake another 8 minutes, test again. The addition of cocoa to the recipe results in a texture somewhat resembling brownies.  Serve warm or at room temperature with a drizzle of custard sauce/crème anglaise – or even a silky chocolate fudge sauce.  It’s Sunday, after all.… C’est dimanche !

James Villas’ French Country Kitchen has long been my standby for clear, authentic French recipes – and a good soupçon of regional background is dished out with each; published in 1992 by Bantam books, U.S.   The above recipe is adapted from his Tarte Picarde.

New crop almonds, ready for munching

October 14th, 2009

If I were in Barcelona today, I would make a bee-line to Casa Gispert for a treat:  Spain’s new crop almonds are in! Just six weeks ago, the oval nuts were being shaken off trees, then dried before delivery to processors. But in spite of weeks under the driers’ whirring fans, the crunchy texture still holds a hint of milky flavor that we tasted in summer’s green almonds.

Imagine the clatter and din of the almond harvest as tractors fitted with a gripper-shaker in an upside-down blue canvas catch all harvesting umbrella. The umbrella opens, a gripper grasps the almond trunk, umbrella closes and in a few seconds of vibration, all almonds have dropped into the umbrella.  After each third tree is shaken, the umbrella is unloaded and the blue canvas moves through the finca orchard in record time. Not days, but hours are now all it takes to harvest the almond crop – a far cry from the past when crews spent weeks tapping the highest branches with long sticks.  When all the marcona almonds are in, makers of sweet Spanish turron (a type of nougat made with honey) have first selection of the finest nuts for making tons of  the traditional Christmas confection.  Sweets lovers, take note:  December will be the time to do some turron gift-shopping, at Casa Gispert, Delinostrum or your favorite source of Spanish products.

To glimpse just a minute or two of the almond harvest in Spain,  turn to a very clearly photographed video posted October 14, 2009 on:


October 8th, 2009


We called it a ground cherry, and grew it in the  sandy Minnesota soil of our vegetable garden when I was about ten.  Much more fun to pick than the green beans, the little paper husks could be pinched open to let the glow-in-the-dark orange fruit pop into my mouth.  Mom would make a light syrup and preserve them to perk up winter meals, as a simple sauce for dessert (sometimes over butter-pecan ice cream), or as a special Sunday jam. The ping of jar caps sealing was a sound of the season.  Now, every time the decorative physalis, as festive as a Chinese lantern, is plated on a restaurant dessert tray of chocolate cake or apricot mousse, I recall our harvests just before frost.  Recently I was tickled to find a tray of this globe-trotting native of Peru (Physalis peruviana in botanic terms) on a vendor’s stall in the Rouffignac Sunday market.  Our local Périgord markets seem to offer more interesting ingredients every year, and the physalis’ long season – one hundred days to maturity – is well suited to this temperate growing zone. The sprawling, handsome plant in the Solanaceae family is related to a tomatillo.  So, why not make a sweet physalis salsa to pair with a smooth panna cotta?  Or, why not stir them into an apple crumble for both color and a sweet-sharp edge? Maybe a few will find their way onto a cheese platter, but to be honest….they are so good just popped out of the husk, savored on the spot. Maybe it’s time to think about a physalis row in next year’s potager.

Planning a potager for 2010? See for more on planting them at home – as local as your own back yard.


October 6th, 2009

Gourmet, the standard-setter for all good things culinary/travel/hot ingredients and inside dining tips, will publish a final issue in November.  It hurts to think about the great team packing up this week, just as the glowing candy-apple red October issue slides through mail slots around the world.  Mine came today.  Sad, stunned, and angry – as many readers are, I am sure – to lose this magazine that we have come to depend on for food and travel insights. Ruth Reichl and her competent team have innovated and kept my old favorite (read: twenty years of issues to devour each month) up to date in both content and style. In the New York Times article today about three Conde Nast magazines closing, it appeared to be a clinical, not emotional decision: all about the bottom line. That’s it now, no mercy.  Let me cool down before tapping another word.

Embrace October…

October 3rd, 2009


As golden and plump as a ripe quince, autumn is here at last.  Something about the fullness of this season, always a mixture of pleasure and melancholy, brings more to do than hours in a day allow. Beyond finishing up some desk work, beyond raking a fresh ton of maple and elm leaves, then pulling out dry tomato plants – it is a season that draws me into la petite cuisine. With a bowl of firm quince at the ready, what is stopping the vagabond from taking a new tack with a pork roast?  And stirring up a pot of duck stock for vegetable soup fits into the week end’s goal: a Sunday lunch with friends. The menu is lined up:  a pork roast has been rubbed with minced rosemary, garlic, sage and a little pepper, then wrapped in jambon de pays/cured country ham to mellow overnight. Quince and sweet onions are ready to sauté in duck fat to accompany the pork.  Sweet potatoes and carrots will roast slowly, drizzled with pan juices for an hour. A ripened bleu de Gex and lait cru/raw milk Camembert are cool, waiting their turn on the table. My master chef/MC has cooked the apple sauce and formed his special pastry dough into a ball to rest overnight – ready to roll in the morning for Tarte aux pommes à la Michel - before slicing firm apples for the garniture/topping. A few recipes will follow after the true test: tasting on Sunday.


Monday’s report adds a few details to the pork roast recipe sketched above. A 3 pound/1.5 kg rolled pork roast for 7 or 8 begins with the seasoning and wrapping in four slices of jambon de pays/cured country ham. Let the seasoned roast rest overnight, then bring to room temperature in the morning. Allowing about 2 hours roasting, preheat oven to 350°f/175°c; a meat thermometer should show 185° f/90°c  when done. Heat a heavy skillet and sear the roast on all sides before putting it into the roasting pan, on top of a bed of sage leaves. Insert meat thermometer. After 40 minutes, add 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into rounds (some may be tucked under the roast). Season with white pepper and nutmeg, drizzle with olive oil or melted butter, return roast to oven – but baste every 30 minutes. Remove from the oven 20 minutes before serving in a heated dish, surrounded with the rounds of sweet potatoes. Garnish with parsley & sage leaves. Serve with a side of brown rice or wild rice. Well balanced wines from our Bergerac region, the Pécharmant, compliment the rich flavors and sweet tones of this menu. Look for the Pécharmant reds of Château Tillerai, Château Terre Vieille – or splash out with a Graves from Château d’Ardennes….to toast the golden season.

Quince in focus: The fruit, the tree, the lore of cydonia oblonga are brought into focus on the site – scroll down to October 27 entry:

Next up: report on the almond harvest, making chèvre at home (at last), and a visit with vintners.