French choco-concentrated cakes…and brownies

October 25th, 2010

Gâteau by the slice

In anticipation of the Salon du Chocolat* and its attendant media blitz, it seems the right moment to set aside seasonal vegetables and fruit for a minute to focus on le chocolat.  And how the French love their chocolate !  It’s hard to imagine a classic éclair, a profiterole or poire belle hélène without a dark drizzle of chocolate.  So it’s not surprising that the sweet, dark and fudgy American brownie has been enthusiastically embraced by French pâtissiers and star chefs over the last ten years.  The basic brownie, a sweet butter-chocolate-sugar concoction, can vary with whims and what is available.  A handful of hazel nuts? A touch of chili pepper, candied ginger, orange peel or glazed chestnuts? Toss in whatever you fancy, but not all at once! And although the fragile crust is part of a brownie’s charm, why not spread a glossy glaze/glaçage of white or milk chocolate over all, to simply gild the lily?

Crispy top, fudgy interior...

It was more than ten years ago that the vagabond baked her first French chocolate cake, à la Julia Child, a sinfully rich Reine de Saba/Queen of Sheba cake.  No leavening (like a brownie), dense and yet moist in the center (like a brownie), it opened my eyes to the special character of European cakes using ground almonds instead of flour.  Last week, I tried a recipe from l’Express magazine for “Brownies” and found it altogether too gooey in the center, not a brownie success story.  Remembering the Queen of Sheba, I incorporated almond flour instead of white flour and separated the egg yolks – the second batch of brownies turned out better with the help of whisked egg whites.  The characteristic crisp, tan top and dark interior were true to brownie tradition.  Although the l’Express recipe called for 42% bittersweet chocolate, I used 70 % chocolate for an extra edge, and incorporated a tablespoon or two of strong coffee for a Moka version.  If you have no square baking pans, a pie tin (27 cm/11″) works just as well and brownies can be cut in sliver-wedges.  Serve this with a buttermilk panna cotta, crème fraïche ice cream or a dollop of smetana to soften the chocolate’s bittersweet edge.  It goes together easily in an hour, start to finish. Let cool before cutting…

Heat oven to 160°c/325°f. and set the oven rack just below mid-oven. Butter a 9″ square pan or 11″ pie tin (smaller pan =  thicker brownies, but allow a few more minutes baking time); bring a saucepan of water to simmer under a bowl to melt the butter and chocolate.

170 g./3/4  cup  sweet butter, cut into bits

90 g/1 tablet minus 1 square of bittersweet (Bio/organic)French chocolate

3 eggs, (62 to 66 g. each), separated

120 g./1/2 cup + 2 T light brown sugar

120 g/1/2 cup + 2 T. sugar

40 g./1/3 cup ground almonds + 1 tsp. grated nutmeg

10 g./ 1 T. cocoa (Dutch process)

1 T. strong coffee

2 T. chopped almonds

In a metal bowl set over (not touching) simmering water, melt the chocolate & butter, stirring often.  Set aside when almost all melted; stir, let cool.  Separate the eggs and using electric beaters, beat the yolks, add gradually the brown then white sugar, until thick and glossy. Stir in the chocolate mixture, cocoa & coffee; fold in the ground almonds (and any chopped nuts or peel if using) – at this point add another spoonful of almonds if the batter seems thin. Whisk the egg whites to soft, firm peaks and fold this carefully into the batter. Pour into the greased pan, scatter chopped almonds over the top and bake for 20 minutes (for gooey center) or 30 minutes (for more cake-like center), but test at 20 minutes to see if toothpick comes out gooey or dry.  Let cool on a rack, cut and serve at room temperature with something creamy alongside….and sprinkle with cinnamon.

*From October 28th to November 1st, the Salon du Chocolate fills the Porte de Versailles in Paris 15th arrondissement with professionals and chocolate fans. See:  No time to travel to Paris?  Go to New York’s Chocolate extravaganza at the Metropolitan Pavilion, November 11th to 14th.  See the above site for these and many other salons.

Versailles pastry shop window, chocolate inside and out...

Note: Watch for November’s chocolate feature: a butterless chocolate cake.

Soup for supper, #1 golden

October 19th, 2010

Squash for soup...

Nightly temperatures hover around freezing, chilly enough to shock broad  leaves that have hidden pumpkins and squash in fields across the southwest.  From the car or the train window, I watch for these beams of orange and yellow piercing the morning fog, a signal:  wake up, new season! I am prompted to make additions to the market list, a potiron for soup-fixings, along with branches of celery, firm golden onions and new carrots.  This week in the market, I see familiar members  of the squash family, the thick-skinned butternut, hubbard and ribbed acorn that I grew up with on the other side of the Atlantic.  In this large famille, the bulky, round citrouille – the pumpkins once used only as animal fodder – ranging from pale orange to faded brassy grey-green in color, are usually pre-cut into wedges for shoppers.  Potirons are bright orange, with a sweet flavor but smaller than the potimarron – a close cousin with a hint of  chestnut (marron).  Besides the color and thickening potential of squash in soup, the potiron’s flavor easily works with other vegetable components in your soup pot.  So, take your cues from whatever you find interesting! This week’s soup for four took about an hour to chop and cook, and went something like this:  In a heavy-bottomed soup pan or pot, cook/add the vegetables in this order….

1 1/2/250 g.  golden onion, peeled and chopped

1 or 2 Tablespoons duck fat or cooking oil

1 tsp. cumin (jeera) seeds (optional)

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

2 large cloves garlic, trimmed and minced

1 squash/potiron, 600 g., a little over a pound, quartered & peeled & seeded, then chopped

1 bay leaf & 3 sprigs thyme, tied together

1 tsp. turmeric, a grating of nutmeg & small red pepper (if you go for piquant)

your choice of other vegetables:  2 peeled & chopped carrots, 1 peeled & chopped sweet potato, 1/2 a large zucchini or marrow squash, the core of a cauliflower or broccoli (no flowers, please), even a cup of freshly shelled chestnuts can add an energy-boosting element.

1 liter/4  3/8 c. water, coarse sea salt to taste

As garnish:  croutons or triangles of freshly crisped tortilla, yogurt or lemon juice (or even slices of peeled golden tomato to float on top).

Heat the fat, toast the cumin seeds if using, then add the onion & garlic and cook until transparent (do not let it brown), add the celery, etc. and stir for 5 minutes, add remaining ingredients & herbs, then pour the water over all. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and let it simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning (at this point you can add a bouillon cube if you wish – I didn’t), let it cook longer.  Remove the herbs, mix with an immersion blending wand and prepare to serve in heated soup plates. Garnish can be a drizzle of yogurt, a scattering of croutons or just-toasted tortilla points; a dash of lemon juice if you wish. The adaptable squash not only thickens the soup (some might add potatoes to this, or cream – your choice), but brings autumn colors to the table.

à  la soupe!

Next week’s soup, #2: Red

Sunny autumn morning, organic market…

October 13th, 2010

Somehow, organic markets don’t always show up on official listings and tourism internet sites, so the vagabond is adding a Bio Marché category to help you find them in regions of France. On this bright Tuesday morning, we drove to Bergerac in the Périgord, where biologique producers and artisans set up to sell their seasonal and organic products on a square facing the Mairie /City Hall.  Only a few weeks ago the surge of summer crowds filled this riverside city’s old town with visiting shoppers.  Now, back to autumn rhythms, the market has wound down to four stalwart vendors. I recognized the chèvre cheese vendor, a regular at Issigeac’s market on Sunday mornings. While buying a peppered chèvre, I admired a box of at least four varieties of apples, just-gathered walnuts and a tray of tempting chèvre mini-tartes.  Another regular vendor, Marie-Thé Martin, offers bread to go with any cheese, a range of small to large loaves blended made of wheat and spelt flour.   I remember  (can it be ten years ago?) when her husband was building the ovens in their barn near Molières, planting fields of épautre/spelt on land that had to be chemical-free (i.e. waiting four years before the wheat could be considered biologique/organic), and setting up a grist mill to grind the spelt into flour.  The family has worked hard, planting, grinding, baking and selling in markets to develop a loyal following for their breads and flour.  And a new item has been added to their stall, a seasoning sauce based on épautre (spelt), the ancient and nourishing grain so cherished by the Romans.  In response to my questions about this addition to her nutritious products, she suggested:  “… use Socepotre as you would soy sauce – and add a dash of lemon juice”. And so I will.

Anne-Sophie Martin creates healing and scented soaps

A new face at the bio market was a young woman selling soap.  This is her first year in business, selling her soaps through bio shops, boutiques and at markets. After working as a research chemist in the skin care pharmaceutics industry, she made soaps at home for six years before launching her own line.  She showed me the range of soaps based on essential oils as well as those without perfume. All are  simply cut into uniform squares.  How could I resist the soap for gardeners?

Soaps with poppy seeds or coffee grains serve as exfoliants...

She held up one of the apricot kernel soaps and noted…” I used a little coconut milk with this one for a nice foamy lather”.  The all-natural ingredients in her soaps include calendula and argan oil, avocado and honey, and donkey milk for very sensitive skin.  MC reached for a shaving soap of camomille and white clay scented with mint and lavender, while I couldn’t resist the wheat germ and coffee soap for dry hands.  Pleased with this discovery, we slipped soaps into the basket already bulging with onions, cheese and bread.  As we walked into Bergerac’s medieval quarter for a coffee pause before driving home, one of my old marketing principles came to mind:  bigger is not always better…seek out more relaxed, smaller markets.

Soaps:  For more on the Savonnerie En Douce Heure, send her a message at or visit her site for points of sale:

Note: Contribute an organic market discovery/comment to our list as you travel in France!

Heads up, pickle fans !

October 6th, 2010

Beets, onion slices and spices...

If you *love* pickles and happen to be in New York this month, devote a day to all manner of brined veg: The International Pickle Festival brings connoisseurs of condiments together on a busy intersection in the Lower East Side. Before I get to the pickle recipe, here are the details: Sunday, October 17th is the day to circle, from 11 to 4:30 (don’t dilly-dally, or it will all be over), between Orchard and Ludlow – extending onto Broome Street, follow your nose. Besides garlic infused Polish dill pickles, you’ll sample pickles from Asia (kimchi salsa anyone?) to savory French and Italian brined specialties. Chopped, sliced, in chunks or pickles on a stick – this is the place to explore the realm of pickles, a culinary subculture unto itself. Bring a bag, buy a few bottles to spice up chilly autumn week ends. Not just for fun, but (as you will learn there) pickles are good for you – after all, it seems that Cleopatra believed in pickles as one of her beauty secrets. Artisans such as Brooklyn Brine bring their best, and watch for Wong’s Thunder Pickles. This, the 10th annual Pickle Day, is sponsored by the New York Food Museum (visit their Pickle Wing sometime), Umani Food, and New York City Greenmarkets. Bring the kids for a day of tastings, music, demonstrations and book signings on the Lower East Side – a culinary crossroads of the world (of pickles).

For more, check:

Recipe #1, an old favorite:  Beet Pickles

Pickling is about conserving flavor in times of plenty, when we all know less plentiful times lie just around the corner. That goes for color as well, so begin with ruby red beets.  Boil the beets until just tender*, peel and quarter them and pack in hot jars. You will need:

1 quart beets, cooked peeled and quartered or cut in slices (no not overcook or use pre-cooked beets: result will be flabby pickles)

3/4 cup light brown sugar + 1 tsp. kosher salt

1 cup cider vinegar + 1/2 cup spring water

1 tsp. toasted  cumin seeds + 12 cloves + cinnamon stick + 6 whole allspice (optional)

Bring the liquids, sugar and spices to a boil, pour over the beets in hot jars and seal with sterilized lids. Great with a winter lunch of cold roast pork or poached fish – and a must with pork sausages.

Recipe #2: Mixed vegetable pickles – two ways

Cauliflorets, onions and peppers...

There are more ways to pickle a cucumber (or most any vegetable) than I imagined:  raw in a brine, raw in hot jars with hot vinegar, cooked for a few minutes in vinegar or soaked in vodka. To pickle in brine, I checked Michael Ruhlman’s essential guide, Ratio, for advice. This is the classic tried and true crock method, soaking (all parts submerged) vegetables in a brine of 2  1/2 cups/20 oz. spring water with 2 tablespoons/1 oz. coarse salt. Dissolve the salt in the water in a non-reactive pan over high heat, stir it, turn off the heat and let it cool. This basic brine, poured over a jar or crock of sliced carrots, onions, peppers, wax beans, cucumbers (and dill heads) or a mix of whatever is heaped in the market, will produce crisp and tangy pickles in a week or two. Use compatible herbs, such as tarragon or dill and garlic if you wish.  Be sure to put a plate (with a stone or brick) to weigh it down and cover the top with cling-film. Then they are ready for the table or to be bottled.

For a recent batch of cooked cauliflower pickles, a basic ratio of 2 cups sugar to 1 quart vinegar got me started on a series of pickle-packing sessions. First, while the cauliflower and onions refresh in an ice bath for 2 hours, get out the pans, bottles, tongs and heat the vinegar mixture. This works well for a mix of golden peppers, carrots, and red onions – whatever you have in quantity. Heat water in a large soup pot and when boiling, submerge jars – wait to scald the lids until just before sealing the jars. You will need tongs, a long-handled ladle and a large soup spoon, and a cloth placed on the countertop next to the stove or cook-top.

1 quart/900 ml. white wine vinegar

2 cups/225 g.  sugar

1/4 cup/43 g. coarse (Kosher) salt

2  T. whole mustard seeds

1 T. whole celery seed + 1 tsp. ground turmeric

Heat the above ingredients in a large pot, bring to a boil, then add the following vegetables (cut them up smaller for smaller jars, chunky for larger jars):

1 large head cauliflower, broken into small florets (refreshed in an ice bath for 2 hours)

1 large yellow bell pepper, trimmed & cut in strips

2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced in vertical strips

3 medium carrots/270 g. peeled and sliced into thick coins

slivers of hot chili pepper, 1 or 2 for each pot (if desired)

Drain the iced vegetables well and plunge them into the bubbling vinegar mixture, lower heat to a simmer to cook for 8 minutes, then reduce heat to minimum as you scoop the pickled veg into sterile jars.  Wipe the rims of each jar before putting a hot cap on, twist tightly and set on the kitchen towel to cool; place another towel over all jars as they cool overnight. This makes about 5 pints or 6 large jam jars. When cool, store in a dark, chilly place.  If concerned about keeping the pickles for many months, after capping, plunge them back into the pot of hot water to process for about 10 minutes.  This recipe is inspired by a recipe on CDkitchen.

Variation by color: Keep the carrot coins separate, pickle the cauliflower mix first, then cook the carrots & 1 more red onion for 6 minutes in the remaining vinegar bath before bottling (add a few allspice berries or cloves to each jar).

Note: Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman (published in 2009 by Scribner) is an essential resource when puzzled about a process or basic proportion of ingredients.  Good for advice on anything from cream puffs to, well….pickles.