vendredi 28 novembre 2008

Cheating Noodle Soup

I know I make a lot of soup, but it's winter, so cut me some slack. I make this soup whenever I eat too much afternoon tea. This is often. Sometimes I go to Sadaharu Aoki for a lemon tart and then they're offering free tastings of chocolate coated macaroons, so I taste the three flavours, and then I get curious about the other flavours, and they're so reasonably priced, and then suddenly dinner seems pretty much unjustafiable.

And yet there is no protein in those macarons, and vitamins are thin on the ground. So a delicious, light, extremely healthy dinner is sometimes the only course of action.

This soup is so damn easy I hesitate to call it a recipe. I am of the Bittman school of soup recipes, which believes that soup is basically water and vegetables. All you do is boil up some vegetable stock with a few dashes of soy sauce, then throw in chopped carrots. After a few minutes add some buckwheat soba noodles and any other medium-cooking-time vegetable (this time I added the second-to-last serving I am likely to get out of my beloved butternut). When the noodles are almost done, throw in a big helping of broccoli florets. When they're cooked, the soup is ready. The carrots and broccoli are a must because they turn the boring stock base into a really rich broth, and this is a great way to eat these vegetables without chucking the water down the sink (and with it all the vitamins and half the flavour).

I like to top it with a boiled egg just so that it looks like some kind of effort went into preparing the soup. I'm not sure why I continue with this obvious charade, since I am the only witness to my culinary cheating, but frankly it makes me feel better about the whole thing.

mardi 25 novembre 2008

The Fabled Ispahan

So I finally got around to trying the fabled ispahan - the combination of rose, lychee and raspberries that made Pierre Herme a demi-god. Credit where it's due, of course, and this little individual treat is beautiful and delicious.

I think it's definitely a much more refined dessert than I usually go for. (My personal preference is to faceplant in a bowl of melted chocolate wherever possible.) But the combination is light and sweet and pretty complex, so if you like food for thought, go for it.

samedi 22 novembre 2008

Rollet Pradier in Paris, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Snooty Servers

Rollet Pradier sure think a lot of themselves. I don't think I've ever been so snootily served, but it was a very inoffensive snootiness. They weren't rude or mean. I just got the strong impression that all of the people working there truly believe their pastry shop is the highest achievement of western civilisation.

And you know, it's not too far off. First though, I have to say, don't bother with the bread. It's nothing special. But the macarons are fabulous. SO fabulous. I mean these are the third-best macarons in all of paris (Pierre Herme and Gregory Renard come in 1 and 2). I asked the snooty server what she recommended and ended up with a pistachio and poppy macaron. The pistachio was great, but the poppy macaron is completely divine. I would like them to make me a poppy macaron drip and hook me up to it when I get stressed.

I also tried their delicious croquant royale, which is a chocolate and caramel mousse thingy. This was actually the perfect density, not too agressive but not too frothy. It was amazing. Although, as you can see, it didn't look so pretty after I carried it across Paris back to my apartment. (On foot of course - the more I walk, the more poppy macarons I can stuff into my mouth.)

vendredi 21 novembre 2008

Eat your goddamn vegetables (in a pie)

Vegetables. Damn, I love them. I feel so smug when I read nutritionists advising people to eat more vegetables. It wouldn't be physically possible for me to eat more vegetables. I'm like some kind of voluntary foie gras duck when it comes to vegetables. I apologise for that cruel and unusual visual.

This bake is a good way to eat lots of different vegetables. And it's healthy because though it has mozarella in it, it also has five different types of vegetables plus kidney beans. And that's pretty much it, so I guess it's also extremely easy. This is my recipe (it evolved from an ancient recipe for a brown lentil and cauliflower bake) which I always do slightly differently every time I make it, so don't bother following it too closely. You could use almost any vegetables - sweet potato, parsnip, carrots and swedes are some I've used successfully in the past. I almost always use broccoli though because it is so delicious with mozarella.

Ingredients (amounts as given make 3 medium servings)

1 medium tin of red kidney beans or equivalent dried
1.5 cups chopped cauliflower
1.5 cups chopped broccoli
1/2 a cup potato cut into cubes
1/2 a cup of butternut cut into cubes
About 3/4 cup of buffallo mozarella
3-4 tablespoons of plain or greek yoghurt
dried coriander to taste
dried cumin to taste
chopped fresh parsley to taste (at least half a cup, come on, it's so delicious)
salt, pepper to taste

1. Put the beans in a saucepan with coriander, cumin, salt and pepper. Let simmer gently while you do the rest of the recipe. If you used dried and soaked beans you need to do this for at least an hour, as I am sure you know.
2. In a large pot of water, add the potato, then the butternut. When they're about half done, add the cauliflower and broccoli. Let cook until they're soft but not falling apart.
3. Drain the vegetables and then partially mash them roughly with a fork, adding the yoghurt and half or 2/3 of the mozarella (cubed or torn as you like). Season with salt and pepper to taste, then add the parsley. I added at least a cup because I love parsley.
4. In a pie dish or what have you, put down about an inch thick layer of the thick vegetable mash. Then drain the beans of excess water and put down a layer of beans. Then top with the rest of the vegetable mash.
5. Take the rest of the mozarella, torn up into little bits, and sprinkle it evenly over the top of the vegetables.
6. Bake in the oven or in your sad student-flat microwave with the grill on until the top gets brown. I dont have an oven, so I can't give you an actual temperature. I use aforementioned sad microwave and I use the highest setting on the feeble imitation of a grill element. It doesn't really matter since everything is cooked already, you're just getting all the flavours to mix into each other and making the cheesy top all golden and delicious.

mercredi 19 novembre 2008

My friends the red aduki beans

Red beans, or Aduki beans, are unusually high in protein and low in fat even as beans go. They're also very high in calories, but nobody cares, because they are delicious. My experience of these beans is mostly in the form of sweet red bean paste, which I have eaten in buns, in motchi balls, and on matcha ice cream. They are also used in savoury dishes, but I'm not really interested in that because they're so outstandingly delicious in a sweet paste that I can't move on from it.

I made a sweet chunky red bean paste as my first foray into cooking these myself, and it was very easy. You just soak the beans overnight, then boil them until they're very soft, and then mash them up, and then add sugar to taste. I used brown sugar even though I am sure most recipes call for white.

I was going to make red bean crepes, but the morning was too crushed for time. I decided to have oatmeal instead, and so I discovered that stirring in two or three spoonfulls of the red bean paste to oats porridge just before it is finished cooking is amazingly delicious. It also sweetens the porridge so you don't need to put extra sugar or honey on it, so you can convince yourself that you're being somewhat healthy. Maybe.

mardi 18 novembre 2008

LeNotre in Paris

LeNotre is really my kind of place. Their dedication to chocolate is complete and unswerving. When I trotted up there last week (carrying the butternut of previous note on my back) they had so many different chocolate desserts that I tuned out about halfway through having them explained to me. I was in a sort of pre-emptive chocolate trance. If you've never had that experience I urge you to hang around in more chocolate shops.

This time I went with the nougatine, a chocolate tart that has a really extreme attitude problem. Eating this tart is a serious matter that should not be undertaken by the faint of heart. If you have ever had the thought "Wow, that was too much chocolate," then this is not for you. The tart doesnt have a crust - it only looks like it does. What that actually is is a hard caramel shell with a matte dark chocolate coating. The nougatine sheet is supported by a chocolate truffle, and the actual chocolate tart filling is so dark and intense that it must have been at least 70% cacao.

They also make the best pistachio macaron I have found yet in this city. God bless them for having a store so close to where I live.

dimanche 16 novembre 2008

Does someone want to explain this one to me?

If you don't read french, you might not appreciate what's going on in this picture. I bought this bottle of sage (sauge) at the Franprix. When I got home I noticed that the only listed ingredient is rosemary (romarin).

But it is sage. So someone at the label printing department of LACO is possibly in a lot of trouble.

samedi 15 novembre 2008

Butternut soup with toasted pumpkin seeds and sage butter

I bought a butternut at Tang Freres this week. Never having dealt with an entire butternut before - I used to have my dad do this kind of scary stuff - I was a little nervous. But I dispatched it pretty well after a few minutes of hacking and cursing. So now I had all the butternut I could want, and the next step was obvious: soup.

I decided to work off Pim's recipe for Potimarron soup with sage butter but as I don't have an oven, and as I hate washing up, I decided to see if I could do it in one pot. This is roughly how it happened and it served one (me).

Sautee about half a very little yellow onion until it has caramelized, then put it on a plate and set it aside. Then in the same saucepan, boil about a cup and a half of chopped butternut in just enough water to cover it. A little while later throw in about 3/4 of a cup of white beans (if you use canned you can just throw them in here, if you used dried you need to precook them like I do. Use dried! They're infinitely better.) Leave that to boil for about ten minutes, then mash it up and let it stand.

While it is standing, turn your attention to the sage butter. I didn't have sage leaves, so I just melted some butter with some dried sage in it in a little saucepan (thus ending the one-pot dream). This was delicious in the soup in the end, although I can't say whether it measures up to proper sage butter because I have never had it. I left the sage butter to the side and went back to the soup.

Add some milk until it is the thickness you want, then added the onion back in. Puree the whole thing with an immersion blender (or in a traditional blender if you swing that way). When it goes back on the heat, add a tablespoon of greek yoghurt or creme fraiche. Now it needs to be stirred constantly otherwise the bottom will burn. When it comes back to the boil, it's done. You can put on as much sage butter as you like, I used about a teaspoon for my single serving, as well as some toasted pumpkin seeds.

Toasted pumpkin seeds are very easy to do in a skillet or pan, since they announce when they are done by popping and cracking and generally being a nuisance. Then it's just a matter of throwing some fleur de sel or kosher salt on them and drizzling them with olive oil.

I think the caramelised onion goes so well with the butternut, and the sage butter is so much nicer than just adding sage right to the soup. This is really outstandingly delicious, and I had it with Poujauran's delicious sourdough bread.

mercredi 12 novembre 2008

Nachtmarkt in Vienna

The Nachtmarkt never seems to close down. I went there on my first morning in Vienna for breakfast – an excellent nectarine and a cold but delicious apfelstrudel. When I walked back to my hostel that night it was still going. The next day the lunch place I was looking for turned out not to exist and a woman in a nearby café directed me back to the Nachtmarkt for lunch.

There are numerous restaurants in the Nachtmarkt, with falafel stands, asian noodle bars and doner kebabs crammed right in next to the expensive wine shops, smelly cheese displays and fresh vegetables. I eventually decided on a restaurant called Indian Pavilion, because most of the other places violated one of my sacred rules : never eat anywhere with photographs of food on the menu displayed outside. I don’t do this because I’m a snob but because it’s generally a good indicator of poor quality. (L’As du felafel in Paris is the exception.) I had a vegetable masala with rice and cucumber raita – nothing transportative, but very good.

There are loads of little bakeries in the Nachtmarkt and after lunch I wandered through and picked up a spelt wheat ball – I’m not sure what was holding it together but it had a texture like marzipan and seemed like the healthy, cinnamony cousin of the chocolate rum ball. It was outstanding.

mardi 11 novembre 2008

Passion Chocolat in Prague

Passion Chocolat is hidden away south of the National Museum in Prague. It’s a bit of a hike and I resented that I had to walk past several tacky sex shops on my way to lunch. But chocolate is a great motivator and I made it there in time to order the outstandingly reasonable soup + quiche + dessert menu for about 8 euros (195 Kroner).

The soup was wonderful; I’ve never enjoyed onions and shallots as much as I did in this light tomato broth. The soup was pulpy and almost sweet. (You can see my travel diary in the picture there. I made it myself but I didn’t meet any other Hitchhikers fans so most people I met just thought I had some kind of anxiety disorder.)

The zucchini and mint quiche was a really impressive combination. It rescued quiche from its usual trap, namely, that it is quiche. Quiche is horrible when it’s soggy, which is sad because it always is soggy unless you eat it as soon as it comes out of a blast furnace. But this was a great quiche (though it still would have benefitted from two minutes in a blast furnace).

I was really there for the dessert, and I chose the bille (it should be clear by now that the owners of this restaurant are French, not Czech). It had a dark chocolate icing on top of a chocolate ganache block, then a layer of small crisp rice balls, then a very thin layer of wafer and finally a layer of chocolate on the bottom. And if you can read that description without putting Prague on your list of places to go, then God help you.

dimanche 9 novembre 2008

Fassbender & Rausch in Berlin

Fassbender & Rausch are one of the oldest, and currently the largest, chocolatiers in the world. Their store in Berlin is massive - and as I discovered only too late, they have a chocolate restaurant above it too. The first thing that impresses you is the variety of different hand-crafted chocolates. There should be more 50 metre long glass cabinets full of chocolates in this world. But at least now I have seen one.

It's also surprisingly well priced, especially compared to the chocolatiers in Paris. This made me worry that they couldn't measure up to the quality I was used to from Rochoux and La Maison du Chocolat. And in fact the first chocolate I tried, a saffron truffle, was quite overpowering and left my tongue numb (though I am told this is a reaction to saffron some people naturally have).

But they made up for it in the caramel department. I love caramels and I bought six different types, and each one presented a different texture and flavour. Some were very dark and sticky, some were very salty, others more toffee-like with a buttery taste, but every one of them was fantastic. They also do a great pistachio ganache and a lot of different pralines. And the servers were friendly, which isn't always a guarantee in the Parisien shops. As they were bagging up my chocolates and my completely self-indulgent tin of hot chocolate, they tossed in a couple of little wrapped squares of chocolate, "for tasting".

Unfortunately they wouldn't let me take home their chocolate frog.

samedi 8 novembre 2008

W der Imbiss in Berlin

Imbiss means fast food, and Berlin is really big on fast food. You can probably eat very cheaply in Berlin if you like sausages and white bread. But I don't, so when I was in Berline I went to W der Imbiss to get my fast food, and dang it was excellent. This was my favourite place in Berlin. They do great fusion food, lots of indian and asian inspired food and heavy on the spices. They're famed for their naan pizza, but I went for the daal with garlic naan and a small side-salad.

Okay, I thought it was going to be a small side salad, but it wasn't small. This delicious and nutritionally outstanding meal came to about 6 euros and was one of the best I had travelling around Europe. (This is actually the first time I've seen alfalfa sprouts since I got here.) The salad had a creamy, tahini-based dressing and the naan was outstanding, better than I have had at most indian restaurants.

Come to think of it the daal was also better than I have had at most indian restaurants. I don't know how the tall, skinny german guy in the kitchen managed it. Maybe he's a wizard.

vendredi 7 novembre 2008

Sadaharu Aoki in Paris

There are a lot of folks who say Pierre Herme is the greatest patisser in Paris, and there’s no denying the man is some kind of magical wizard. He certainly makes the best macarons. But my personal pastry chef allegiance is to Sadaharu Aoki, the Japanese-born Parisian creator of the greatest caramel tart known to man. The tart is amazing, a thin layer of butter salted caramel under a thin swirl of chocolate mousse - it is deceptively tiny and difficult to finish. He is also a wizard with matcha, which is probably what puts him at number one for me. His matcha millefeuille and matcha macaron hold special places in my heart.

I decided to branch out from matcha a while ago, and tried this hazelnut praline and chocolate pastry (though as you can see I had to have the matcha macaron too). It was light and crunchy, and the chocolate layer was perfectly dense - exactly what you'd expect from a master. I have never carried anything even slightly disappointing home in a Sadaharu Aoki box.
The man is a genius.

mardi 4 novembre 2008

The Sacher Hotel in Vienna

My friend Liz counseled me on where to go in Vienna, and the Sacher Hotel was the recommendation that stuck with me. Probably because, as she explained, they invented the Sacher torte and they're still serving it today.

I had never had Sacher torte before I went to Vienna, and generally I like my cakes more aggresively dense and moist and overpowering. But I really enjoyed it. This is a really refined take on chocolate cake, without being stuffy or fussy. It's a very soft cake, moderately dense and moist, with apricot jam and a thin layer of chocolate icing. Because it is not overly moist it is perfect with a dollop of whipped cream. It really is a very pleasing experience.

Even though the place is crowded and there is a line to get in, they don't rush you here. I sat at the bar next to the other people travelling alone, and met a lady from Tennessee who was in Vienna for only a few hours on her way out to a seminary in the mountains of Austria. She chose to spend some of her precious time in the Sacher Hotel. And it makes sense. The cake was just that good.

dimanche 2 novembre 2008

Potato, Zucchini and Basil Frittata

I have never made a frittata before because most recipes call for them to be finished under a broiler. I don’t have an oven, ergo I don’t have a broiler. However, I was very glad to learn that the traditional way to make a frittata – and its Spanish older brother the tortilla – does not involve a broiler. Broilers are for sissy wimps. Real women use plates to flip the tortilla and cook it using only a frying pan. And I have a frying pan, so I went to it.

This is my recipe; again it’s based on many I have seen around. Most add cheese, some even add flour and baking soda, which I am sure is another way to sissify the tortilla. I’m afraid mine isn’t truly Spanish. But it does taste great.

4 small fingerling potatoes, cooked
1 small zucchini
3 eggs
¼ cup of milk
fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste
olive oil

1. Slice the fingerling potatoes into rounds. Slice the zucchini into rounds, salt and let stand for 30 minutes (either in a colander or on a plate – if you choose a plate then you may need to blot the zucchini to get the water to really come out).
2. Heat up some olive oil in a pan. While it’s heating, separate the eggs and whisk the whites until they fluff up (but you don’t want it stiff, just fluffy). Mix the milk with the yolks. Continuing to whisk the whites, pour the yolk mix into them in a steady stream.
3. Sautee the zucchini. Add the potatoes, seasoning as you go. When the mixture is nearly done, add the basil and stir it in. Arrange the vegetables so they are roughly in layers then pour the egg mixture over and turn the heat down to medium.
4. Let cook for a while, until it is fairly solid and when you lift up the side with a spatula you can see it is golden brown on the bottom.
5. Slide the tortilla out onto a plate, then put the pan on top and invert in one confident swoop (I think the confidence is the key – the frittata will know if you are a sissy or not and will respond accordingly).
6. Depending on how crispy you want it you can let it cook for another 3-8 minutes. This is a small tortilla and serves 2-3.

As you can see I used a really deep pan so I couldn’t get the damn thing to slide out without compromising the structural integrity of my lunch. I had to do a double inversion – flipped it once onto a plate to get it out of the pan, but then it was the wrong side up, so I inverted it again between two plates, and then finally back into the pan. It worked fine – it didn’t drip or slide around at all. Clearly, I am no sissy.

samedi 1 novembre 2008

Coconut Ginger Sweet Potato Soup

Once again, this is a recipe which is my riff on several that I saw around the internet. The internet seems to think this is a "Thai" sweet potato soup. I'm not so confident. The extent of its Thai-ness is probably just that it uses thai red curry paste, ginger and coconut milk, all of which are abundant in Thailand.

This recipe is so easy it borders on the biblical sin of sloth. All you need is sweet potato, coconut milk, thai red curry paste, vegetable stock, chopped ginger and toasted sesame seeds. How much you use of each of these ingredients is up to you. In general half a large sweet potato serves one person. I like about a 1 cm cube of ginger and 2 teaspoons of red curry for each half sweet potato, but I like it hot, if I can say so without inducing snickering.

Chop the sweet potato up into very small cubes - the smaller the better, since they cook faster and are easier to blend later. Put them in a pot and just cover them with stock, then add the curry paste and chopped ginger and boil it until it's very tender. You should be able to squash the peices into a pulp with a wooden spoon on the side of the pot.

Take it off the heat and let it cool. Mash it up as much as you can before you blend it, so you can see if you should drain off or add some stock now. This step is doubly important if you use a hand-held blender like I do, because they get tired and grumpy after about a minute of use. I tend to add more stock as I blend since I invariably get my amounts wrong in stage one.

Once it's smooth, put it back on the heat and add coconut milk to taste. If I feel greedy I add 1/4 cup to my single serving, though, sometimes just a splash is enough. It's the interaction between the coconut and the heat of the ginger and chilli in the paste that makes this great. Bring it to the boil again and then serve it hot with toasted sesame seeds on top.

I always add bean sprouts and some cubes of firm tofu, which makes this soup a meal. I generally pan fry the tofu beforehand in some sesame oil to give it a little more personality. This time I also added puff tofu and udon noodles, which need to cook in the soup for a little while, so add them when you add the coconut milk. Fresh coriander also works wonders in there.

vendredi 31 octobre 2008

Gregory Renard in Paris

I know it must seem like I do nothing but try out different pastry shops every day. But that's not true at all. I do many things every day, mostly toiling in the library over my stupid presentation about shiite factions in the arab world, or the construction of the European Union during the Mitterrand-Kohl years, or preparing for my economics test on the Heckscher-Ohlin Model of international trade. It's just that my university happens to be near a lot of pastry shops. And so does my apartment. And my bus route between the two is similarly well-placed. So I manage to find the time to try out a lot of fabulous places.

These macarons are from Gregory Renard, near the Eiffel Tower on Rue St Dominique. And they are fabulous. I especially recommend the nougat macaron and the chocolat sel macaron. The shop is something in itself - a tiny, cramped, Willy Wonka's factory with chocolates and macarons and sweets spilling out everywhere. These macarons are much smaller than the usual minis, which means you can try out more flavours. And they're very well priced - cheaper than competitors like Lauduree and Gerard Mulot, and infinitely better.

In fact, I feel like I need to admit now that I was very disappointed with Lauduree. I have no desire to go back and experience the tacky decor to the dry, crumbly macarons again. But I can't wait to go back to Gregory Renard.

mercredi 29 octobre 2008

La Pompadour in Paris

Sometimes the best desserts don't come from the pastry magicians lauded all over france (though I love them dearly). Sometimes all you want is a buttery-crisp apple tarte fine wrapped in butchers paper from your local bakery.

Mine is La Pompadour, on Rue de la Pompe in the 16th. They don't have a grand history or fancy appointments, they sell salads in ugly plastic containers, and they have a Haribo sweets pick and mix in the corner (I've never seen anyone use it.) But they do make all their own breads, pastries and tarts from scratch, allowing them to sport the label "Artisan Boulanger".

And they are responsible for this fantastic apple tart. I am responsible for the bite mark. (See, I contributed in a constructive way to the photograph).

mardi 28 octobre 2008

Jeff de Bruges in Paris

Yesterday I decided to try out Jeff de Bruges, a chocolatier with branches all around Paris. I had never heard him mentioned by Clotilde or David so I was wary, despite many online forum members rejoicing in him. In the end, the results were mixed. It started off so well though! My first taste was their fabulous apricot ganache - it ranks up there with the lemon ganache at Patrick Roger. It's really apricotty and smooth.

But then I tried their new tarte tatin apple flavour, and it was blatantly made with a synthetic apple flavouring! So was the pear truffle. They both reminded me of the time back in the day when our IB chemistry class made esthers. They were beyond disappointing. They verged on being outright bad.

Slightly better, but also very uni-dimensional, was the orange chocolate truffle. I tried the "euro" caramel which was a little too sweet for me. I suspect that Jeff de Bruges takes more than the occasional shortcut with their flavours.

Their gianduja was very good, although gianduja is pretty hard to screw up. I also had a dark chocolate caramel that was very woody and dense, and very interesting - I've never had such a dark flavour in a caramel. I finished up with the caramel truffle and the truffle nature, and both were very good, though not as good as La Maison du Chocolat's truffles.

The only real standout was the apricot though. I'd like to go back to get it again, since this shop is much cheaper than the higher tier chocolatiers. But, as usual, nine times out of ten you get what you pay for. The apricot ganache is that lucky one time exception. But definitely give all his other fruit-based flavours a miss.

lundi 27 octobre 2008

Pea, Mint and White Bean Soup

I love pea and mint soup, and white beans add not only protein but also a subtle, brothy flavour, so I thought combining them might work well. This is my recipe, which I formulated after reading about twelve different recipes for pea and mint soup until I had the general idea, and then forging ahead on my own.

2-3 cups of cooked white beans
3 cups frozen peas
Vegetable stock as needed
Chopped mint to taste - at least half a cup
1/2 a cup of greek yoghurt

1. The white beans need to be boiled until tender. In the pot and water in which you cooked the white beans, add the frozen peas and enough stock to cover. It's important to conserve the white bean water because it has a lovely subtle flavour. Add a little mint now just to get it going. Bring to the boil and simmer until the peas are tender but not mushy.

2. Remove from heat and let cool for a while, so that you don't overheat your blender when you blend it. Puree with a hand blender until smooth, adding more stock if you want it to be thinner. Obviously this will work in a traditional blender too.

3. Return the soup to the stove, and add the yoghurt, salt and pepper and mint to taste. In my opinion this much soup needs at least half a cup of chopped mint. I probably put in more like a cup. Similarly the seasoning here is extremely important. Peas are a vegetable that make their objections known if you underseason them, and they will make these objections known on your palate. If you taste the soup and it tastes anything short of incredible, add more salt and pepper.

4. Now that the soup tastes incredible, bring it back to a simmer, and then serve it hot in winter or cold in summer.

I don't think this kind of soup should be eaten with bread, because it clouds what should otherwise be a really clean flavour. But that's just me, I'm sure the rest of you aren't so bizaare in your soup beliefs.

(This recipe is my entry for this month's Legume Love Affair. Check out the details here, at this month's host blog When My Soup Came Alive.)

dimanche 26 octobre 2008

Cafe Louvre in Prague

I went to Café Louvre because I read on some dodgy online travel forum that it does the best hot chocolate in Prague.

Never let it be said that dodgy online travel forums are a waste of internets. This hot chocolate was fantastic – very thick and dark, but with a consistent and creamy texture, as opposed to a puddingy texture. It also doesn’t have a skin, which is what really sends it to the top of the list (er, the hot chocolate list. That I made. I should probably get out more.)

I ordered the Czech breakfast without the ham: orange juice, bread rolls, cheese platter, soft boiled egg, and apple cake. The Czechs clearly know how to do breakfast. This is what I would have for breakfast every day if I didn’t have to go to university and other stupid time-wasters like that. The edam cheese in particular was amazing, it was thinly sliced and had an almost smoky flavour. The apple cake had a poppy seed swirl in it, and it wasn’t too sweet – more like a thick, soft apple bread.

Apparently Einstein and Kafka came to the Café Louvre repeatedly. If that’s the case then I don’t understand why Kafka was so miserable all the time. Maybe he didn’t try the hot chocolate

samedi 25 octobre 2008

Making Dulce De Leche

Generally I like things I can taste as I'm going, I like being fast and loose with ingredients and I don't like to measure them. So Dulce de Leche is really pretty far outside my usual repertoire. But I love it, and since I needed to come up with a gluten free dessert for lunch with some friends, I decided now was the time to make it.

Most recipes online ask you to boil a can of condensed milk. However, I only have a microwave oven, and since I also have the will to live, that option was not open to me. I had a look around online and ended up getting a general feel for what was supposed to be going on. Here's how I did mine. This makes a very small batch, since I didnt want to have too much left over from dessert.

Pour 1 litre of full cream milk, 250 g of brown sugar and 1 teaspoon of salt into a large, deep pot.

Stir constantly on a medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Continuing to stir, turn the heat up to high and let the mixture boil so that it froths up. Then turn the heat down to a medium low. Most recipes say the mixture shoud be barely simmering, but I got very paranoid and turned it down a little too low - the mixture was only occasionally bubbling. That's why this batch took about 4 hours to reduce down to a consistency I liked. Apparently you can leave the mix alone, but I got up every 30 minutes or so to gently whisk it just to prevent a skin from forming (do you see what I mean about paranoid?)

About 3 hours in, the taste was similar to condensed milk, which worried me - the dulce de leche I remembered is in the same family of flavours as condensed milk, but it certainly isn't the same flavour. It seemed to have the same aftertaste too, and I hate bad aftertastes. But if you keep reducing it it will eventually lose this taste. You can add a pinch more salt if you're worried (I did and I liked it).

When the batch is the consistency you want - and remember it firms up quite a lot more when you cool it down - whisk it to make sure it is smooth and then pour it into containers to cool. When I took it off the heat the consisency was such that it would drip off a spoon slowly. After 5 hours of refrigeration, when I dug a spoon into the jar the shape of the dig stayed clean in the caramel.

I whisked a little cinnamon into half the batch and found that it worked very well with it. This is really easy to make - I think the most difficult part is not eating it all as soon as it's finished. I know I kept "checking the consistency" with a spoon throughout the day, and then - surprise! - I had a spoon with dulce de leche on it I just couldn't waste! At lunchtime we had it with vanilla ice cream and sauteed pears and it was great.

vendredi 24 octobre 2008

The best ice cream in Paris

I kept hearing that Berthillon was the best ice cream in Paris, so early on in my stay some friends and I decided to check it out. It certainly shouldn't be missed! In particular the Grand Marnier flavour, the chocolate and the pear were amazing. But the best ice cream in Paris? No, my friends. There is better.

There is a tiny shop about one eighth the size of Berthillon tucked away at 192 Rue de Grenelle. There is nowhere to sit - the store is essentially just a big ice cream counter and a big freezer full of cartons on the side. The whole thing has a very homey, casual feeling about it. Yes, this is the place I am telling you beats out the extravagant, luxurious, elegent Berthillon. This is Martine Lambert.

Martine Lambert makes the most amazing ice cream I have ever tasted. Her pistachio is the best pistachio I've ever had - the nuttiest, creamiet, most intense flavour you could imagine. It beats out the pisachio at Berthillon, Grom, Pozzetto, Amorino (all in Paris), Giolitti Gelato, Gelateria Del Teatro, Gelateria di San Crispino (Rome) and Vestri (Florence). My favourite pisatchio used to be Grom and Vestri's, but Martine Lambert is easily the champion.

Likewise, her caramel ice cream is the best caramel I've ever had - it tastes like putting an actual caramel in your mouth, but icey and creamy. The dark chocolate is apparently a sorbet, and it's really not very sweet, but the caramel is so sweet that these two flavours were made for each other.

Now, other places still have Martine beat on certain other flavours (the gianduja at Pozzetto, for example, is the reigning hazelnut-related champion for me, and Grom's chocolate would probably pip Martine's simply because it's a tad milkier). But Martine definitely whips Berthillon, elegence of the table settings be damned.

It's going into winter, so I'm getting to the point where I just look stupid walking the streets of Paris with an ice cream cone. But for Martine Lambert's icecream, I will do it gladly.

jeudi 23 octobre 2008

I love Eric Kayser

Everyone loves Eric Kayser and I am happy to count myself among his many fans. His traditions are excellent; just the right balance of chewy, soft mie and crispy (but not too crispy!) crust. I think the seed bread is also good but it's the baguette I keep going back for.

Kayser also makes some fabulous tarts and pastries. His mini-financiers are legendary! But last time I trotted down to his bakery in the 16th I discovered an underappreciated Kayser speciality - his chocolate hazelnut tart.

This tart is incredible. The density is perfect - really, absolutely perfect, which makes a nice change from the more airy, moussy densities favoured by some of the patisseries here. I like serious tarts that pose me a personal challenge when I take them out of the box. This one was a very enjoyable challenge, with a hazelnut praline base and a dark chocolate layer on the top. It was fabulous - and compared to what you'd pay for this kind of thing at other Parisien pastry shops, Kayser is really cheap.

Do you think it would be inappropriate to leave Kayser a love note on his website? I think it might be crossing some kind of baker-consumer relationship line. I better stick to my side of the counter. It's a good side to be on.

mardi 21 octobre 2008

Dinner tonight: Pim from ChezPim's greek eggplant tomato sauce

I have been wanting to make Pim's greek eggplant sauce for a while, but slender eggplants are a bit hard to come by in Paris supermarkets. So today when I saw the Franprix was carrying graffiti eggplants, which are in between the long thin asian ones and the big round western ones, I decided the time had come. It was also a happy coincidence that The Spice Cafe's monthly challenge involved making sauces with other bloggers' recipes. You can check out the details at Tangerine's Kitchen, the host blog, here.

The sauce turned out really amazing even though I made some major adjustments.

The first is that I added white beans to the sauce, because I have a little hang up about getting a good protein load (call it vegetarian paranoia). White beans are great with thyme and tomato so I figured it would work here - I added about three or four cups of cooked white beans, half kept whole and half pureed. The puree is a nice way to thicken the sauce quickly. I added the beans before I returned the eggplant rounds to the pan, to allow the beans to absorb more of the tomato flavour. I also used dried thyme instead of fresh thyme, which was a matter of necessity, and I'd love to try it with fresh thyme one day.

I think the trickiest part of the sauce is getting the eggplants right - I didn't use as much oil as Pim suggested because I forgot to check I had enough before I started, and wouldn't you know it, I'm actually running low on olive oil. So the eggplant tended to stick a bit (to be fair, Pim warns you about this.) But overall the recipe was pretty easy for me to execute even with my mind on my university assignment due the next day, and it tastes fantastic! The eggplant is really shown off in this dish - I don't think I've ever enjoyed the flavour of eggplant more, or appreciated how tender and almost sweet the flesh can be. I had this sauce on penne with some greek feta crumbled over the top.

Best Croissant Ever (Pierre Herme in Paris)

Pierre Herme makes the best croissants on the face of the earth.

On Sunday morning I went to the boutique at 185 Rue Vaugirard to get some breakfast. Pierre Herme is one of the masters of innovative pastries and interesting flavour combinations. I don't think I'm in the "Pierre is the best pastry chef ever" camp yet, but I definitely give him the best croissant title. It was large, the pastry was perfectly buttery and flakey on the outside and moist on the inside. And since I had made the trip there I couldn't just leave with a croissant, right? Right. Unthinkable.The cannele, which is a sort of dense vanilla and rum cake with a thick, chewy outside, was also outstanding.

I had his caramel tarte for afternoon tea, since I couldn't resist picking it up while I was there. It was excellent, and it introduced me to the idea of a frothy caramel mousse, which took me a bite or two to get my head around. I suffered admirably through this trying experience.

I have to say though out of the three the croissant was the most surprisingly impressive. I still haven't tried the ispahan, the combination of rose, lychee and raspberry which made Pierre Herme so famous. I guess I have to go back next Sunday. Tough life.

lundi 20 octobre 2008

Sweet potato pikelets with spiced sauteed pears

My mother has been making sweet potato pikelets since I was a kid. Dusted with brown sugar and cinnamon, they're one of my favourite desserts or breakfasts. Sweet potato works so well with the cinnamon and the molassesy, dark sweetness of brown sugar. Although you couldn't really call them healthy with the amount of sugar I put on them, they do better than most desserts, and they far outstrip the humble plain pancake or pikelet in terms of taste anyway. I haven't seen my mom in eight months, and a week or so ago I decided I really needed these pikelets, so I skyped her ASAP for her recipe.

It's actually very easy - the recipe is loose and I made some modifications based on what I had on hand. The way I did it, a one-person serving is just 1 cup of mashed sweet potato, an egg, 2-3 tablespoons of flour, a pinch of baking powder and a pinch of salt. (If you wanted to serve these as a dessert to people with a serious sweet tooth you could add some brown sugar to the batter too.) I combine the egg with the sweet potato before adding the dry ingredients, then heat up a pan and make the pikelets. I like them done on a really hot pan so you get brown bits on the outside but the inside is still moist and dense. Dust them liberally with cinnamon and brown sugar - it is forbidden to eat theses any other way.

I had these with sauteed spiced pears on top. Sauteeing pears couldn't be easier, you just melt a little butter in a saucepan, add some brown sugar and stir until it's melted too, then throw in your peeled and sliced pears. I added the spices about midway through the sauteeing because I was using Babette's Seven Secrets mix of cardamom, coriander, anise, vanilla, szechuan pepper, tumeric and pepper and I didn't want it to burn. I'm pretty sure cinnamon would be fabulous too. Ideally the pear should be hard, which makes sauteed pears a good way to perk up fruit in winter (or when Franprix only has hard, lumpy pears, which is often). The pear I used was a little too close to ripe, but it held up well under sauteeing, and it was totally delicious anyway.

dimanche 19 octobre 2008

Babette's in Vienna

If you have been to Vienna and you didn’t go to Babette’s, it might be an idea to clear a space on your desk now. You’ll need somewhere to bang your own head when you finish reading this.

Two women run this cookbook shop, epicerie and restaurant and I don’t know which one is Babette. Maybe there is no Babette. All I know is that a girl who looked about 21 cooked me the most amazing meal in the open kitchen in the middle of the shop. The menu changes every day and has about six choices, and on the day I was there I chose spinach and ricotta poached gnocci with bleu d’auvergne, rocket, and stewed pear in seven spices. The gnocci wasn’t really gnocci – it was the only way the girl could think to explain it to me – it was a light, jiggly, eggy little dumpling shaped like a quenelle. All that for about 12 euros. I don’t think I’ve ever been more overjoyed to pay 12 euros for a meal in my life.

The spiced pears were so good that I ended up buying a tin of the spices she used, the Seven Secrets Mix. It turned out to be cardamom, coriander, anise, vanilla, szechuan pepper, tumeric and pepper. Since I got back to Paris I have already used it in chocolate fudge and sauteed pear and it worked really well - my next project is to add it to apple crumble.

In conclusion, Babette's should be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

vendredi 17 octobre 2008

Antico Forno, and more importantly Brutti Ma Buoni, in Rome

I stumbled across Antico Forno, a small bakery near the Trevi fountain, completely by accident. On my way back from a phenomenal meal at l'Orso 80 (the New York Times steered me right on that one), I got distracted by the cookie displays and went inside. Having already consumed large amounts of gelati, I really wasn't planning on having dessert, but these cookies looked likely to haunt me forever if I didn't try at least one.

I approached the counter and asked "Parla inglese?", my most well-used italian phrase, and got the answer every lazy english-speaking tourist dreads: a very solemn shake of the head. Not to worry, I had also learned the phrase "I want..." for just this occasion.

"Verreo... una brutti ma buoni..." I started awkwardly. I was clearly already mangling the italian language, and then I realised I didn't know the italian word for "and". I sort of coughed, to indicate my sentence wasn't over, and then pointed to a green cookie studded with pistachios. I ate them in the street on my way back to the Trevi fountain. The pistachio cookie was good, but the brutti ma buoni was better. Although I have to admit at that point in my stay in Rome I was firmly in love with brutti ma buoni, a chewy, almondy, coconutty little knob of a thing. It also gets points for how appropriate its name is. It really is ugly, but boy is it good.

mardi 14 octobre 2008

Poilane in Paris

It took me a while to get around to trying Poilane's bread, but last week I discovered that they have a bakery pretty close to my apartment, so I didn't have an excuse not to go anymore. I'm such a sucker for the baguette de tradition francaise, and I live close enough to one of Kayser's bakeries to have small incentive to change my habits. But as soon as I walked in the door at Poilane I knew I'd be back.

For one thing, they had a basket of free cookies at the cash register. Free cookies are like magic hugs from the world (or, from bakers, really). These were crispy little golden discs called punitions. A punition is what shortbread comes out of the oven wishing it were. They are incredible.

But the bread is the main event, obviously - you only come to Poilane to get a big hunk of dense brown sourdough. That's probably a good thing since that's pretty much all they're selling (besides more of the cookies). They won't slice a quarter of a loaf, but it's not hard to slice once you get home, and it's cheap - 2.50 euros for about 500 grams, which lasted me five days.

I think it's at its best just with butter, although I did make some fabulous hummus and sauteed zucchini tartines with it last weekend. Damn this bread is so good.

lundi 13 octobre 2008

Vestri in Florence

Don’t go to Florence on a Monday. All the museums and galleries are closed, and the real tragedy is that Vivoli is closed. Vivoli was recommended to me by loads of stupid guidebooks and a close family friend. It’s supposed to be the greatest thing mankind can do with a cone. But like everything else in Florence, it’s closed on a Monday.

I was wandering the streets looking for an alternative source of gelati when I stumbled across Vestri. Vestri looked good – for one, it didn’t have its gelatis on display. The counter displays a dozen silver lids and the gelati stays hidden, just like at San Crispino in Rome and Grom in Paris. Those silver canisters are a very, very good sign in a gelataria.

I had the “giant” cup of chilli chocolate, chocolate, pistachio and straciatella. The pistachio was outstanding – it’s a mottled brown colour but don’t be fooled, it’s the best pistachio I’ve ever had (equal with Grom). Their chilli chocolate was the best I’ve ever had equal with none: the chocolate wasn't very dark, which worked surprisingly well. The girls next to me who could evidently read the Italian reviews stuck to the windows were discussing how Vestri is famous for the chilli chocolate.

They also make their own chocolates and assorted goodies in the back, but once you’ve had a “giant” cup of gelati, you’re pretty much out for the count.

dimanche 12 octobre 2008

Die, Suzie Homemaker

I know this chocolate fudge looks pretty Suzie Homemaker. My photography skills aren't helping either. And the basic recipe really is easy - it's condensed milk and melted dark chocolate combined in about a one to one ratio (measured in grams). First you melt the chocolate, either in the microwave, requiring obsessive checking and stirring, or on the stovetop in a bain marie, requiring obsessive set up and stirring. Then you add the condensed milk, combine pretty quickly as it starts to seize up fast, and pour it into a wide flat container so it can set in the fridge for 2 hours.

But this fudge can be amazing if you know how to work it. And though the fudge is going to reflect the quality of the chocolate you use, if you can only afford to use Nestle, you can still make yourself (and others) excited by this fudge. I know because I survive in France on a food budget calculated in Australian dollars. Ouch.

All you need is cinnamon and fresh ginger. You'll have to add the cinnamon to taste, but the ginger should generally be chopped up pretty fine as it is going to create a bit of moisture in the fudge even once it is set, and you don't want it to be too sticky. If you hate ginger, even the cinnamon on its own will taste great.

My favourite spice combination (so far) in fudge is actually Babette's Seven Secrets and cinnamon. I can't urge you to try this enough. That way if anyone ever asks you whether you think a mixture of cinnamon, pepper, vanilla, cardamom, coriander, anise, tumeric and szechuan pepper goes well with chocolate, you can tell them that it does. It really does. I like it both dusted on the outside - the spices have a yellowy tinge that looks great - or mixed in with the fudge itself.

I was concerned about how the spices would work with the chocolate, but it elevated the fudge beyond my expectations.

dimanche 5 octobre 2008

Monsieur Vuong’s in Berlin

If you are in Berlin and, like me, are stupid enough to visit the Holocaust Memorial at the end of a long day, then you know that dinner doesn’t seem quite as important as it did before you took that hour long audio tour. You also might need a hug. I travel without someone to hug, so I went to Monsieur Vuong’s.

M Vuong’s is a trendy restaurant in an arty neighbourhood, but the food took me right back to Hanoi. The wine glass is the only pretentious thing about the banana and coconut milk smoothie. And the funky architectural bowl is the only pretentious thing about the tofu, vegetable and noodle soup. The broth is a very pale yellow, but the ginger and lemongrass is intense. It’s the sort of clean, warm flavour that makes you want to inhale your bowl full of vegetables. I think I accidentally ate an entire slice of raw ginger without realising it but I didn’t even care.

There’s something embarrassingly curative about the funky atmosphere and food here. Hey, if Andrew on Top Chef can have a culinary boner, can’t I have a culinary hug? I think I'm allowed.

Demel’s in Vienna

Demel’s is an institution, sure, but damn those window displays are ugly. Who honestly wants to see papier mache mermaid breasts? I really, really don’t. I rushed inside to get a better look at their cake counter (and take a blurry photo).

Demel’s has a weird system that I only learned about from the older American guys behind me in the line for a table upstairs. At the cake cabinet you point to what you want and a woman writes it on a little ticket, which you then present to the server once you’re seated and have ordered a drink. I chose Anatorte because it looked the most likely to give me a heart attack, and I’m all about the heart attacks (I was on holiday, which was my excuse).

Anatorte is a dense chocolate cake with layers of chocolate and liquer crème, with a thick gianduja outer layer – I decided it can’t be called icing because it’s solid. At Demel’s the gianduja is thick and the cake has elaborate designs on top, which translates to more gianduja, and that was my primary concern.

I ordered a hot chocolate, and together this made for the closest I have been to actual chocolate overload in a long time. It was great. Because Demel’s was so busy I ended up sharing a table with the two American gentlemen (this often happens when you travel as a single and want to eat in fancy, popular places). Not only were they very interesting people who agreed that Vienna is a place where you feel instantly at home and comfortable, but they ended up paying for my Anatorte. I tried to refuse, but John waved me off with a friendly “I have a son in college, someone will treat him someday.”

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that, but I was at that point in the chocolate consumption cycle where the world is a warm and happy place, so I agreed with him immediately. Then I drowned face-down in what remained of the spectacular hot chocolate.

Fruit probably wasn't the best choice for a first post, but it's too late now.

It's already freezing in Paris, but let's stay positive: the pears and nectarines are on special. And they are fabulous.

Pears annoy me because they look so ugly and hard sitting out in front of the shop. But you know that if you buy that stupid green lump it’s going to be a blushing yellow pear of ultimate perfection in two days. The fruiterer says this type of pear is called Le William, and that it’s eaten yellow and firm.

You can’t get this kind of produce in the supermarkets in Paris; you have to either go to markets, to Chinatown (where the fruit is always incredible) or to little fruit shops. I can only hike down to Chinatown once a week so I tend to go with the expensive little fruit shops. Really good fruit hits the pocketbook hard, especially since I live in the 16th – and I’m used to the much lower prices in Melbourne.

Even after months here, I still cover my eyes and let out a sad whining noise whenever I get close to the berry displays. I’m not paying 5 euros for a small handful of blueberries. But damn it, I’m tempted.