Lighting candles, whipping up croquettes

December 8th, 2010

Festival of Lights

While this uniformly gray December day draws toward dusk, the vagabond lights an Advent candle and begins to stir up a batch of croquettes.  My many friends of the Jewish faith are probably doing the same in observance of their last night of Hanukkah.  It is almost sundown on the eighth night of Hanukkah, and within half an hour, the last Menorah candle will be lighted in Jewish homes around the world.  A puffy or crispy fried food is always on the menu, with Latkes, crunchy galettes of shredded potatoes, the most common.  Interpretations of “fried” have expanded to include all sorts of savory fritters, croquettes and beignets to commemorate Hebrew history when the Macabees’ miraculous eight days of oil was supplied from a small flask that would normally last just one day.  In Portuguese Jewish homes, salt cod croquetas might be served, while on Italian Hanukkah tables a diamond shaped sweet Frittelle di Hanukkah will be studded with raisins and anise seeds.  My fascination with food traditions of many faiths led me to stir up a variation on croquettes, but rather than deep fried, I found that a moist vegetable croquette was better lightly browned in oil (to qualify on a Hanukkah menu), then baked to finish. This variation on sweet potatoes might suit your Holiday of Lights as a side dish – or even as a nibble with apéros.

Crispy sweet potato croquettes

This recipe for Croquettes de patate douce was tested with baked rather than boiled sweet potatoes, and the baked potato needed a tablespoon or two of boiling water to be mashed, as they dried slightly while baking. They can be made several hours ahead, then finish the baking & crisping before serving. But it is a very moist interior – the baking step is necessary. Shaped with two tablespoons they make an oval, relatively uniform shape and will serve four as a vegetable or beside the starter, while lots of small round ones will be enough to serve eight with cocktails.

3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled, rinsed and cut up (300ml/1 1/3 cup mashed)

100 g/3/4 cup + 1Tablespoons plain flour; 1/4 tsp salt, white pepper , nutmeg

50 g/1/2 cup +2 Tablespoons ground almonds

50 g/1/2 cup + 3 Tablespoons freshly grated parmesan or grana pradano cheese

1 egg

flaked almonds, toasted as a finishing garnish + sea salt

oil for frying

Cook the sweet potatoes for 20 minutes in boiling water, drain and mash them or put into a food processor.  Stir in the egg and mix well, then the flour, seasonings, ground almonds & cheese. Mix all together (if you like the odd chunk of sweet potato , don’t blend it too smooth). Set the oven at 180°c/350°f; line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Heat the oil to cover the bottom of a cast iron skillet or deep fry pan. Have a plate lined with absorbent paper towels for the fried croquettes, with a skimmer or slotted spoon ready. Using 2 tablespoons, shape the croquettes and plunge them (no more than 5 or 6 at a time) into the hot oil, turning with a spoon or tongs as each side browns – which will be quickly; they burn easily. Turn gently til all are browned and ready to bake.  Transfer the hot croquettes to the baking sheet and bake for ten to twenty minutes (depending on size), shift them into a basket for appetizers or onto a platter with your main dish….lovely with duck or brisket of beef.

Versatile croquettes - with duck breast and seared peppers

Whether your candles are lit for Hanukkah, for Advent or for the Winter Solstice, the vagabond wishes you warm and wonderful holidays!

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.

Velouté…smooth, cool white eggplant soup

August 16th, 2010

Longer white eggplant, more delicate than its purple sisters

A short recipe from an old stack of Elle à Table (#59) magazines  caught my eye some months ago and it was added to my “watch-for” list.  So, when I spotted white aubergines on a market stall last week, I nabbed the last two left in the basket.  We swung by the health food shop/Bio marché to pick up a jar of purée d’amandes/almond cream. The simplicity of this soup, its “seize the moment” ingredients and unusual combination spoke to the vagabond’s imagination. Make it a day or two in advance to let the velouté d’aubergines blanches mellow and thoroughly chill.  A sprinkling of curry powder or smoky Spanish paprika and lightly toasted shaved almonds is all it needs as garnish. Serve in little sherry glasses as a rich amuse-gueule for 6 or in cups or glasses to begin a summer supper.

Cool & thick - late summer soup

Recipe for Velouté of white eggplant with almonds (serves 4)

2 perfect white eggplants, peeled, trimmed and cubed

1 garlic clove, peeled & crushed

2 heaping Tablespoons whole-milk Greek yogurt

4 Tablespoons almond cream/purée d’amandes (stirred to completely combine oils and thick almond cream)

a twist of white pepper & fine sea salt

toasted shaved almonds & Spanish paprika & fleur de sel as garnish

Lucky shopper:  if you find 4 white eggplants in the market, double the recipe to serve 8 !

Very quickly cube the eggplant, as it is fragile and tends to brown within ten minutes of contact with the air. In a saucepan, heat 5 cl water/2 cups to a boil, add the cubed eggplant, simmer then reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, cover and cook for 20 minutes until cubes become transparent.  Blend in the pan with a wand mixer, or transfer to a blender after adding the yogurt and almond cream to blend the smooth mixture.  If it is too thick, stir in more yogurt. Season to taste with sea salt & freshly ground white pepper.  Pour into cups or glasses and chill for at least 2 hours.  Serve sprinkled with paprika & almonds & fleur de sel to bring out nuances of flavor.  Any leftover soup – even just a half cup – serves as a base for a tasty dip:   stir in yogurt or crème fraïche, perfect for dipping cucumbers or sesame grissini….with a glass of full-bodied white Saumur wine from the Loire valley.

The plum season opens….

August 7th, 2010

Tart plums, like oversize pop-it pearls unstrung

Tangy-tart, small green plums appeared in local markets this week, the first of this large and versatile family to hit the crates.  And I mean local plums.  As stone fruit goes, the French southwest is a wonderland.  Apricots have already come in from hillsides of the Tarn.  A pallet of firm nectarines sighted last week set the vagabond to thinking about fruity upside-down cakes.  And peaches, well….temptation get thee behind me, but I’ve even dreamed about stirring up white peach Bellinis for friends this weekend. But plums come first, I was reminded when the vendor beamed at me and said…”these are our first plums this season, picked from my trees last night”!

Our terroir is as much about fruit trees as grape vines, the sloping lands ripple with fruit orchards south of Bergerac.  Approaching Agen, long known as as the “Prune capital of Europe”, the region’s intensive fruit production becomes evident and prune warehouses, even prune museums are scattered across the hilly area. The prune variety (just to confuse things, plum is prune in French), prune d’Ente will be harvested later this month, dried and sold in markets and packed to send around the world. This morning I am more interested in plums for a tart, today.

Fresh green plums turn golden when baked

Plum Frangipane Tarte - with a soupçon of whiskey

Make the crust first:   1/2 cup + 2 T. butter (140 g)

1/4 cup sugar (50 g) + 1/4 tsp. cardamom

1 farm-fresh egg (about 60g.)

1  2/3 cups plain flour (200 g.)

Cream the butter & sugar, blend in the egg, then stir in the flour gradually to blend it all well. Form into a ball, wrap in cling film or foil & chill for 30 min. Heat the oven to  400°f/200°c. and place baking rack in middle of the oven, with a cookie sheet to heat – while cutting plums and mixing filling:

3 cups green plums, halved, pitted

2 medium eggs

1/3 cup + 1 Tablespoon sugar (85 g)

1/2 cup + 1 Tablespoon ground almonds (50 g)

2/3 cup (scant) thick cream ( 142 ml)

2 Tablespoons melted butter

1/3 cup flaked almonds + 1/4 tsp. ginger

The plums may begin to color when exposed to air, so sprinkle with juice of 1/2 lemon. Whisk the eggs, sugar, almonds and blend in the cream, stirring well.  Roll out the pastry (use a pastry cloth or flour the work surface) and folding it over the rolling pin, transfer to a 10″ pie tin or baking dish, prick the pastry with a fork.  Put the plums onto the pastry base, pour the almond-cream mixture over all, and sprinkle with flaked almonds. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, testing with a stainless knife blade at 25 minutes; the cookie sheet under the tarte should conduct heat to avoid a gummy bottom crust.  If the crust edges brown too fast, place a ring of aluminum foil over all to avoid a scorched crust.  Remove the tarte to a rack to cool & sprinkle with:  2 Tablespoons whiskey or Eau de vie de prune/plum brandy.

The finishing soupçon

Serve cool or chilled – with a sip or two of plum brandy.  This serves 8. Whatever remains is so good with coffee on Sunday morning. Later in the season, soften and stone 200 grams of prunes in place of the fresh plums to make a lovely autumn tarte.

Easter Monday’s Cake

April 5th, 2010

After the spring feast, after preparations for feeding a crowd, what is left…les restes…become the vagabond’s favorite meals.  The duckling bones make a marvelously rich soup, the Crumble aux légumes is even tastier at room temperature, and the Gâteau aux amandes seems to improve every day.  As European habits go, having a second jour de  fête at Easter and Pentecost is a delightful bonus.  Stores and banks are closed, so all can relax.  For many, Easter Monday is a time to see friends after Sunday’s traditional family gathering – and if the weather cooperates, take a long walk together into the hills and along river trails.  A day off to celebrate spring is a respite in a hectic season.  And when we return, the leftovers make quick work of pulling a meal together.  A platter of cold duck, ham or lamb garnished with sun-dried tomatoes in caper oil is on the table in minutes.  If the first green “points” of asperagus are on hand, oop-la: into a hot skillet with sizzling (clarified) butter to sear for a few minutes before a squeeze of  lemon juice – to serve adorned with a simple sprinkling of sea salt.  Sunday’s steamed cauliflower, chilled and tossed with MC’s mustard vinaigrette, a tumbler full of bread sticks, then sliced almond cake served with a dollop of crème fraîche or ice cream and figs or pears in spiced syrup replenish the hikers.  I bake the cake on Saturday, so even the cook can relax outdoors.  This recipe makes a large bundt cake – or two smaller loaf cakes (one for my kind petite voisine/neighbor) – and is open to variations with spices.  My choice is freshly grated nutmeg, but try ground cardamom or golden Spanish saffron.

Delicate almond cake - adorn it with fruit or nibble with morning coffee

Finnish Almond Cake

A time-honored recipe adapted from my “Finnish cooking bible”, The Finnish Cookbook by Beatrice Ojakangas, published by Crown in 1964. The texture resembles a pound cake, but without heaps of butter. Set oven at moderate, 350°f/180° c and put rack in middle setting.

4 eggs, at room temperature

2 cups sugar

6 Tablespoons sweet butter, melted

6 Tablespoons full cream

3/4 cup ground almonds

2 cups white flour, sifted with 1  1/2 tsp baking powder + pinch salt

1 tsp pure almond extract (1 tsp. nutmeg or cardamom)

toasted shaved/sliced almonds  for garnish

Whisk the eggs ’til light & frothy, add the sugar gradually, beating until thick. In a small bowl mix together the cream, almonds and butter, blend with the eggs & sugar, then carefully fold in the dry ingredients to blend all.  At this point add almond extract and any spices.  Preheat the oven to 350°f/180°c, grease a bundt or tube cake pan (or *) and dust with flour – tapping out any excess flour. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, set in the middle of the oven and bake until golden – about 1 hour; sides will begin to pull away from the pan, test it. Let the cake rest on a rack for 10 minutes before turning out onto a serving plate.  * If baking this in 2 pans (such as 8″/20 cm. cake pans), only bake it 35 minutes & test it.  When cool, spread the bottom layer with jam or preserves (quince? apricot?) and set second layer on top.  Frost with a light icing or dust with powdered/icing sugar.  This cake takes on a chocolate icing, or mocha glaze easily….let your imagination take it from there. Top with freshly toasted shaved almonds.  Make it a day ahead – so you can enjoy the season, whether on foot or perched on a bench in the garden.

Pheasant's Eye narcissus, worth waiting for after most daffs are gone

For the apple of my eye…

February 13th, 2010

Apples, always there....for something special

What’s best with Valentine’s Day ever-seductive chocolate dessert? This time, the vagabond stirs up a creamy semifreddo of spiced apples with densely chocolate brownies.  Not a brownie fan?  If you prefer… a chocolate clafoutis, or cocoa-chocolate chip cookies…

Devilish Almond Brownies, a one-pan prep couldn’t be easier:

90 g./3 oz. bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped up

75 g./6 T. sweet butter, chopped up

185 g./3/4 cup sugar

2 large fresh eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract + twist of black pepper

30 g./1 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped up

50 g./ 1/2 cup flour + 1/2 tsp. salt

1/3 c. chopped candied ginger + 3 T. chopped almonds (plus some for top)

Butter an 8 inch baking pan, flour the bottom. Set oven at 177°F/350°f. and put rack in middle of the oven.

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter + chopped dark chocolate, stirring ’til smooth – watch that  it doesn’t scorch.  Take the pan off the heat, let cool and whisk in sugar, vanilla, and eggs one by one, whisking as it turns glossy and smooth, then add the 1 oz. of chopped chocolate.

Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir in the flour, candied ginger and chopped almonds (reserve 1 T. for topping). Pour into the prepared pan and spread evenly, then sprinkle chopped almonds on top. Bake for about 30 + minutes – until the top has puffed slightly and cracked; test with a BBQ skewer, no crumbs should be sticking to it. Let cool completely. Cut and serve with the creamy apples…

A dessert for Valentines, anniversary, or...?

The semifreddo begins a day in advance, making applesauce  in a heavy saucepan:

1 cup of water + 2/3 cup sugar to dissolve + 1/2 vanilla bean, split

4 – 5 apples, peeled & cored, sliced. Include some quince, if possible.

1/2 cup thick crème fraîche, a twist of nutmeg, 1 tsp. ginger

1/3 cup heavy cream, whipped to double volume

1 T. lemon juice

When the apples have cooked in the sugar-syrup until they are translucent, let cool and blend with a wand-blender, add the lemon juice and measure this to 2 cups applesauce. (It can be somewhat chunky if you like the texture). Fold in the crème fraîche and whipped cream, pour into a sorbet pan and freeze for 4 hours – then stir it up with a fork to break ice crystals. Freeze overnight. To serve, slice or scoop out onto plates with  squares or triangles of almond brownies.   The Brownies are adapted from a recipe in Gourmet, 1996. Having double-tested this, the vagabond’s village had an electricity cut just after the brownies were baked -  lucky timing.  But more important, even with only candle light, fragrant blossoms in the air…..

Jasmine in bloom - the ultimate mood enhancer...

A handful of almonds & a chocolate square

November 30th, 2009
A daily energy dose

A daily energy dose

The pace picks up when Thanksgiving’s menus are (recent!) history, errand lists grow longer as daylight hours shorten and what-to-give-whom questions swirl in my head.  Needed:  a good dose of energy. Answer: a daily almond + chocolate pause. After lunch, about 2:30 every day I sit for a minute to collect my ideas for what’s on the afternoon list. Besides being relaxing, I remind myself that calcium-packed almonds and chocolate’s magnesium zap are so good for the nerves.  Almonds for protein and immune-system boosting zinc, chocolate for added energy in the afternoon – just when it might flag.  What are your favorite energy boosters?

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:

Foraging for fragile figs

September 7th, 2009


With Labor Day comes a “back to school” mood, and with that mood memories of many years spent preparing the art room for a new round of  classes.  Days short on time meant bag lunches of fruit, a sandwich and…Fig Newtons.  Is it any wonder that an association still remains?  This month, daily walks to a splendid white fig tree – the Adriatic variety, if my sources are correct – bring back a few hazy memories of figgy brown-bag treats.  The green, sheeny globes of figs are bulging now, inviting me to gather a few every evening as they slowly ripen.  Since the large tree grows next to a railroad overpass, we have access only to the tree tops.  I use an umbrella handle to loop over branches, pulling them closer to twist off a few ripe fruit. Figs don’t ripen after being picked, and can only be kept for a day or two in a cool pantry. So, with twenty-four perfect figs on hand, it’s time to preserve them for winter feasts.

Select firm, ripe fruit with no marks or splits, rinse gently and let them dry. Prepare a simple medium syrup in one soup pot, dissolving 3 cups of sugar in 6 cups of water and letting it simmer while preparing the 24 figs. If you like, add a stick of cinnamon or a few star anise to the syrup. Wash a lemon and cut into thin slices, to be added to each jar. In another pot half filled with boiling water, blanch the figs for 2 minutes. Scoop them out with a skimmer and immerse in the hot syrup, bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 5 to 8 minutes.  Sterilize 3 (or 4*) pint jars & lids in a boiling water bath. With tongs, remove the jars; carefully ladle figs into each jar, slip in a lemon slice and top up with the hot syrup, leaving 1/4 ” air space.  Wipe rims clean and place lids on, twist to seal. Place in a boiling water bath (use the one in which jars were sterilized), cover and process for 45 minutes. Depending on the size of the fruit, you may need another* jar. Any remaining syrup is ready for poaching pears or nectarines.  Let the jars cool away from drafts, let rest for a day, then label and store in a cool, dark place for a month. Then they’ll be ready to serve with a cheese platter, as a sweet garnish for duckling or pork – or as a gift for a fig-loving friend.


Scents-wise: Gathering the fruit or stirring up a jam, the fig’s sensual aromas are so intense – “this should be bottled”, I mused.  A California couple has done just that, with Mediterranean Fig scents and soaps in the Pacifica line.  Visit and don’t miss the Mediterranean Fig body butter with almond oil!

Baby almonds, a fleeting treat

May 8th, 2009


Green and fuzzy, the early stages of an almond’s life hold little in common with the adult nuts that we roll into Christmas kringle or Noël gâteaux.  In fact, what can you do with the sour little brats – within a few days, baby almonds go from a viscous gel to a tangy white lozenge that melts on your tongue.  Fragile, edgy, prone to changing character within hours, the green almond is not a volume item in shops.  A small basket of the pale green nuts – if you are lucky to spot one  in the produce cooler – might be found from April to June in Whole Foods Markets, or in the open markets of Provence. In San Francisco last spring about this time, I spotted a basketful in a Ferry Plaza restaurant – but backed up when someone pointed to the “No Photos” sign.  Since the vagabond is not close to green almond venues, and since the four (at last count) almonds clinging to the top of my almond tree are inaccessible, I was most grateful when friends returned from Perpignan with a branch in tow.  Not a laurel branch, but this was a stem loaded with downy-soft green almonds from the windy Roussillon, one of the best French almond regions.


“What will you DO with them?” my friends asked.  I slit one to extract a rather soft ivory almond, popped it in my mouth and puckered up. Maybe ‘tangy’ is too gentle a word for this stage.  This is the almond for tapas tables – I can imagine bowls of them on bars in Barcelona:  shell it, dip into sea salt, then do that again, with a sherry apéro.  So, the green almond lends itself to salty, appetizing tidbits…and to topping seafood tossed with pasta. With a few more almond branches, I would give the mortar and pestle some pesto action, to blend the green almonds with fresh herbs such as tarragon and chives and a few capers stirred with oil and minced aillet garlic. Chefs team green almonds with everything from squid to chilled soups.  Why not try that…a cauliflower soup accented with delicate green almonds?


This recipe, concocted as a foil for the strange little almonds, is a simple vegetable soup:  wash 2 leek whites (about 400 grams) thoroughly, chop, then sauté in a soup pot with 2 tablespoons duck fat or vegetable oil.  When the leeks have cooked about 10 minutes, add 1 cup chopped celery branch with leaves, cook another 5 minutes and add a medium head of cauliflower, (just under 500 grams) trimmed of leaves, and chopped (include the core/stem chopped).  Pour 5 cups of water into the pot, add a bay leaf and 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves (add fresh tarragon, too – if you have it) and bring to a simmer. Cook the soup for 30 to 40 minutes until all is soft, add salt, (remove bay leaf) blend to a coarse purée with a blending wand. Taste for seasoning: a chicken bouillon cube and pinch of salt may be added to your taste; if it is too thick add a little white wine or water and cook 10 minutes longer. Let the soup cool, then refrigerate overnight.  Prepare the almond garnish, slitting each almond open, slicing lengthwise (depending on the stage – the gel-center stage is best chopped crosswise).  In a shallow bowl, mix seasalt (such as fleur de sel), ground white pepper and a pinch of Hungarian paprika – toss the shelled almonds in this before serving (not too long in advance or the almonds will ‘weep’).  Serve the soup in small bowls – or in chilled lowball glasses -  topped with the seasoned green almonds.  Or… if it is a cold, rainy spring evening, reheat the soup and serve hot, topped with the baby almonds, and a pair of sesame grissini at each place.  Pour a chilled Montravel white wine, to toast Spring in all its phases.

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