It has been ages since I made a Princess Torte, actually many moons ago for a friend’s little princess 8th birthday. Although not difficult, it is a mini production of its own, the sort of cake that I could see the Daring Bakers attempt one month.
My life in Birmingham is nothing but a series of first. Fall. Winter. Friday nights. Weekends. Dinner with friends. Neighborhood. All a first. Living a long distance relationship with my husband. Definitely a first. Having one puppy at home as my companion. How we have come to rely on each other, the old pup and me. Another first. Which is quite nice knowing that at 16 years-old, he is giving me some precious last moments together.
Everything about settling here as been new and wonderful. I am exploring a lot on my own every chance I get. I have also started a little fun side notebook in which I jot down the places I want to discover as a first with Bill and not just on my own. They can be restaurants, parks, places…I just know him, and I know us, and I know how much more fun and meaningful it would be to do those as a couple.
Spring would definitely be one of the seasons I would want us to experience together here. But, we all know one cannot stop Mother Nature. It will be Summer before he moves here for good. I just have to find the right words, the most descriptive ones to tell him how gorgeous Birmingham is in the Spring. And it is. I know one can say "but it’s the South! You know the South!" Yes. But it is a completely different South. One with seasons, tornadoes instead of hurricanes. One with a different past. One with a different food culture.
A series of first everywhere and all the time…
The first time I turn my favorite sponge cake recipe into Lemon Cakelets With Vanilla Bean Cream. The first time I add deep rich and robust olive oil (from the family batch) to Bittersweet Chocolate Pots de Creme.
And guess what…there will definitely be seconds…
I don’t think I could have enjoyed making these Apple Cinnamon And Walnut Cakes more than this weekend. Rainy and grey weather, still getting over a bad cold and terrible news about someone I loved just made me head out to the kitchen and cook, bake, stir and chop. I also went for a long run and ran until my lungs were about to explode. I needed to feel life in me. A tangible happenstance of something as fundamental as taking a breath in and letting a breath out. I had to get into the kitchen, open a cookbook and start a methodological way of going about my day.
Gather ingredients. Follow directions. Measure and stir. Step one would sway me one way. Step two another. I did not want to think. I did not want to guess. I just wanted comfort. Comfort in making a cake similar to the one my grandmother would make when I was little. Comfort in bringing extra cakes to the neighbors on Sunday morning.
Life has funny ways indeed. And for a few hours, I surrendered. I was too tired from thinking, speculating, wondering, being sad, being mad and feeling like a piece of my life of the past thirteen years had been wrongfully taken from me. When someone screams, I get quiet. When someone gets mad, I smirk. When someone decides to check out, deliberately, I check in. I know no other way to deal with loss and grief. And I bake. Or cook.
If you read food blogs, such as this one, I am pretty much reassured that you do the same thing when blue. So I am hoping that you understand when my dealing with uncomfortable moments, makes me reach for the comfort of a soft cake, filled with aromas of apples and cinnamon, the tender crunch of walnuts and crumbs sticking to your fingers. Comforting scents and textures. Like a warm blanket on a cold and rainy day. These cakes will cure many a broken heart, will stop many a falling tear and will become the kindest balm for your soul.
Take my word for it. You can find comfort in taking familiar recipes, childhood recipes, family-hand-me-down recipes and make them yours. I just feel better for reconnecting to the only normalcy I know. Being in the kitchen and making food for the people I love. In memory or not.
This post was written with one single person in mind. Here is to you Tim… With all my love and thirteen years of an honest and seamless friendship between a man and a woman who were just trying to make sense of this life we are in. And for the many cakes I made you sample while I was pastry chef-ing at Mistral’s back in the days… Miss you Mischief. Your Misconduct.
I hope that everyone had a great holiday break and celebrated the New Year as they wished. Quietly or with lots of fireworks and revelers. I don’t know about you but even if I don’t make resolutions I truly enjoy this feeling of starting clean that comes with January. Twelve new months, yours for the taking. Yours to create, get inspired, start, accomplish…There is something exhilarating about the new year.
Personally, it gives me an even greater wish to leap, with all my fears at times, or without any at others. It also fills me with the desire to reset the clocks, just like we do with a new calendar. Internal clocks, personal clocks, work clocks. Setting priorities and goals. Making inspiration and mood boards.
It’s been good to dive back into creating recipes, writing the stories around them and thinking about their photographs. There are lots of fun blog projects in the planning. In the middle if all these "happy new year moments", my family suffered another great loss yesterday. Once again, without my family being close enough to hug and comfort, I turned to the only things I knew to do at the time. Clearing my head, getting inspired and cooking.
Anchoring feeling of loss to the present, to tangible things I could do and explain, I took my camera and headed to the beach. I observed quietly. My fingers got numb gripping my camera straps so hard. But the colors, the quiet empty beach before me…blues, grays, reds… They put my mind at ease. The waves crashing at my feet truly reminded me that life is "it". It’s full if we make it so. It’s not perfect because we make it so. There is life inspired in everything.
On my way home, I stopped at the fish stands at the end of island and got a bag of fresh mussels. My comfort food. It was close to lunch time. Convenient to start cooking. Like most of us, beside being a necessary act of survival, food is also part of our story. My food stories involve every member of my family. They include many friends. They are full of laughters, jokes, pranks, animated discussion, etc… They are full of life.
Deeply aware that every part of me was now bursting with energy and inspiration, I cooked and photographed. I found my rhythm in the things I knew to be my constant. After a much needed break over the holidays it felt good to be back in it. Normalcy coming back little by little.
Steamed mussels are pretty much my go-to super fast dinner or lunch. They really take very little time and are super flavorful when cooked with some white wine, garlic and parsley and finished off with a spritz of lime juice for example. Ok, they are a bit messy but that little imperfection is part of their charm. Just like the beaten up Key limes I got at the store (in the reject box where overdue fruits are sold for pennies to the pound). I am founding imperfection really soothing lately.
The cake was an experiment that did not turn out the way I hoped for but which did not take away any of the wonderful taste or aroma. I had made a small galette des Rois over the weekend and had a half quantity of frangipane left. I layered it with the cake batter and swirled it, hoping it would create a nice design when cut through. I apparently did not swirl hard enough. Imperfect result. Perfect taste. Paired with a cold glass of milk and I suddenly felt my entire body relax.
As cliche as it may sound, food truly has magical powers. Well…cake does…!
I truly wish you the happiest of New Years. Live fully. Play hard. Leap and take chances. Tiny or big. Do what makes you truly happy.
1 pound fresh mussels
1 cup of white wine
1/3 cup seafood stock (or water)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
lime or lemon juice (I used a Key lime)
Clean the mussels by scrubbing them under cold water and remove the little fuzzy "beard" that hangs on some of them.
Place a large skillet over medium heat and add the white wine, stock and garlic. Bring to a strong simmer, add the mussels all at once. Cover the pan with a lid (or if you are like me, lid-less, another skillet of the same dimension). Let the mussels cook 6 to 8 minutes. Thrown in the parsley, toss with the mussels. Discard any that did not open and serve immediately with some of the an juices and a spritz of lime or lemon.
Buttermilk & Frangipane Cake:
Makes two 8-inch loaves
1/2 cup (125ml) buttermilk
1/2 cup (125ml) sour cream
1/2 cup (100gr) sugar
1/2 cup (125ml) olive oil
zest and juice of one lemon
2 cups (280gr) Jeanne’s gluten free all purpose flour mix (or 2 cups regular flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 portion frangipane filling (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 350F. Position a tray in the middle. Grease two loaf pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Place the pans on a baking sheet. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sour cream, sugar and eggs until pale (takes about 2 minutes). Add the oil and lemon juice and zest and mix until well blended. Add the flour mix and baking powder and whisk about 50 strokes until the batter is smooth. Divide half the batter in between the two pans. Top each pan with the frangipane filling over that first layer. Divide the remainder of the cake batter in between the two pans to cover the frangipane.
Bake for about 40-45 minutes (on convection) to a hour (regular) until a knife inserted in the middle comes free of raw batter.
1/2 stick (55 gr) butter, softened
1/4 cup (25gr) sugar
1/2 cup (50 gr) ground almonds (blanched, slivered, whole, your call)
2 tablespoons (30gr) heavy cream
Place the butter, sugar, ground almonds, and the eggs in a large bowl and whisk until smooth (can also be done in a food processor). Add the cream but stir in it instead of whisking not to emulsify it or it will rise while baking.
Every where I look right now, it seems that everyone is hands and elbows deep in Christmas baking, truffle rolling and cookie decorating. I wish I could say the same for our household. Every year, I bake, cook and mix Christmas gifts for friends and family. A dozen boxes packed with homemade goodies to eat (cookies, chocolate, cakes) and to drink (extracts, infused liqueurs, etc…). This year, well…I am feeling already behind.
By this time in December, I usually have lists of who is getting what, which cookies need to be made and refrigerated, which ingredients need to be marinated and so on. This year? I have zip. So far… No wait! We did put our Christmas tree up yesterday and decorated the house a little. I love how a few twinkling lights and ornaments can instantly brighten one’s day.
On the baking front, however…Not even a couple of cookie doughs parked in the freezer. No egg whites aging for macarons. Only the infused booze is getting better as days go by since I have nothing to do it…I have motivation. I am just oscillating between being overwhelmed with choices and underwhelmed by my decisions. ugh…
Work has kept me deliciously busy and I am not complaining. I have had the opportunity in the last few weeks and days to shoot for some pretty darn motivated and inspired people. The workshop this past weekend was such a great way to round up all the workshops held so far this year. I was thrilled it was in my town, in a space I really want to support the best I can and with some pretty awesome attendees. You can read more about it on Lauren’s blog, Still + Life.
I guess it doesn’t help that my lack of baking is greatly due to the fact that I’m booked on shoots way passed Christmas. I also know that it might me because my mind has been preoccupied with family issues back home. My parents had to cancel their trip to Charleston for the holidays. They need to be home right now and they need every bit of moral support.
We call and email everyday and are forced to revisit memories and stories. It’s bittersweet but it’s also very heart warming on the eve of a lot of celebrating and gathering. It’s our way of keeping together across the miles. Of course, the conversations turn to food at some point or another. We go down memory lane with holiday meals and treats we shared throughout the years. Came one or fifty, there was always good food going around the table.
One scent that brings me home everytime, even so far away, is the spice mix used in the traditional "pain d’epices". A blend of cinnamon, cardamom, clove, star anise, black pepper, orange and lemon peel. You can find the mix already blended and ground in most good epiceries but it’s not that complicated to make yourself. There are as many ways to blend it as there are regions of France.
While the components are the same, the proportions may vary. What I love about this spice blend is that is lends itself to so many preparations, well beyond Christmas. A little dash in rice pudding. A sprinkle over fish and roasted vegetables. A little bit in a potato gratin…I could go on and on about the versatility of using these spices from sweet to savory.
This week it was waking up to the promise of a little pain d’epices for breakfast was the best therapy. The scent of childhood and story telling time spent listening to my grandfather’s stories for hours. The texture of velvety Christmas morning spent playing quietly in our room with the presents Santa had brought that night. All wrapped up within the smooth spiced sugar coating the pain d’epices.
Every morning it connected me to my loved ones a little. That scent evokes my family, the time spent together baking and getting goodie packages together. It reminded me that beyond what I was feeling or how busy I’d be until Christmas day, that there were good reasons to push through and get my baking lists pinned down and to get to it. One specifically: making people happy.
What are your favorite treats to give throughout the holiday season? Please, share a recipe if you have one!
Pain D’Epices:adapted from Saveurs France, December 2011.
Makes 12 mini cakes
For the spice mix:
equal parts in ounces or grams (I usually go by 30 grams of each & refrigerate)
dried lemon peel
dried orange peel
Place the cinnamon, cardamom seeds and the rest of the ingredients in a coffee grinder and process until finely ground.
For the cakes:
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup milk
1 cup Jeanne’s gluten free all purpose flour mix or regular flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon spice mix for Pain d’epices
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, kept cold
1 large egg
equal parts sugar and equals spice mix stirred together well.
Preheat the oven to 350F and position a rack in the middle. Butter 12 mini bundt cake pans or other of your choice.
In a small saucepan set over medium heat, stir together the honey, dark brown sugar and milk until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat and reserve.
In a food processor or with a pastry blender, combine the flour, baking powder, spice mix, and unsalted butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
Whisk the egg into the cooled milk mixture and add it to the flour mix. Pulse a couple of times until the mixture is smooth. Divide the batter evenly among the prepared molds and coo 20 to 25 minutes or until a knife inserted in the middle comes out free of crumbs. Let the cakes cool completely before rolling them in the sugar coating.
Let me start this post by giving you some heads up, sort of housekeeping news if you will. The workshop that Clare and I are holding in May 2012 is indeed sold out. There is a waitlist so feel free to send us an email to get on it if you wish. You never know…We are also planning more workshops like this in the future so stay tuned!
The good news is that if you live in Charleston and surrounding areas, I will be holding a One Day Food Photography Workshop at Heirloom Book Company downtown on December 10th from 10am til 5pm. Click here for all the details and to register. Photography, food, styling, book, fun space, and great natural light!
One of the things I love about Charleston and the area where we live, is waking up to a thick layer of fog over the ocean. It gives me the impression that Winter is settling in. I know better. It means today will actually be warmer than the last. That’s ok. I’m not paying attention to those little details anymore. There is Fall and Winter happening in my kitchen, regardless of my shorts and flip flop attire.
Every morning that I take the pups out in the backyard, I bring a little basket and gather the pecans that keep falling during the night. We fought the squirrels long and hard this year but it looks like we won the battle. Well, we did not lose it too bad, I should say. They left us plenty for a few pecan pies, some pecan sandies and the Pecan Brown Butter Cakes pictured here.
Fresh from the oven. Toasted the next day. A dab of Nutella. A smidge of lemon curd. With a cup of tea or coffee. We surely did not get enough… That would be partly because of a little incident involving a phone call, a step outside the studio, a puppy and a tray of cakes left at snout level. I can’t blame Bailey for not resisting. I almost inhaled three of them as they were cooling down.
If it is any testament to how good they are, I made two more batches in the last couple of days. And placed them far away from any possible puppy incident. On the same vibe the roasted vegetable I made for lunch the other day almost ended up consumed by my better half alone…
This salad is a riff on the salad that Clare a made many times when I was there last month for work. It is so easy, wonderfully seasonal and super comforting. Yes, comfort. In a salad. With lots of fresh ingredients. That’s my idea of comfort right now. Sometimes it’s a cup of rich chocolate mousse, a serving of spaghetti carbonara, a bowl of cheese rich onion soup. It depends on what is truly affecting me at the time.
I have loved these months traveling and staying with friends and bloggers rather than hotels. It gave me the chance to see them in their environment and learn from them. I was never as happy as when they wanted to share their cooking with me and let me in their world, their family traditions, their everyday. I’d rather chill at home with someone sharing their cooking and their story than go out to eat (unless the restaurant does feel like home).
I admit that I get the most satisfaction out of roasting vegetables for soups, salads or simply turning them into easy-do easy-come side dishes. Nothing could be easier than this salad. Roasted golden beets and fennel, a sprinkle of blue cheese, pumpkin seeds and some edamame on top of a bed of greens and Savoy lettuce. I ended up doing a shallot vinaigrette similar to the one Clare made when I was visiting. I sat down and felt a huge sentiment of peace and gratitude.
Cooking with friends. Even if only in spirits. And to paraphrase someone we know… "it’s a good thing"….
Pecan Brown Butter Cakes:
1 cup shelled pecans
4 oz butter (1 stick)
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sugar
zest one lemon
2 cups Jeanne’s gluten free all purpose flour mix (or regular flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
Preheat the oven to 350F. Position a tray in the middle. Grease bottom of 12 muffin tins and line with wrappers. Set aside.
Place the pecans on a single baking sheet and toast for about 15 minutes. Let cool. Grind finely in a food processor. Reserve.
In a medium saucepan set over medium high heat, melt and cook the butter until it turns golden brown and has a nutty scent. Takes about 8-10 minutes. Set aside to cool. (I usually don’t strain mine since we like the little dark particles that form when it browns but feel free to do so)
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sugar and eggs until pale (takes about 2 minutes). Add the cooled brown butter and lemon zest and mix until well blended. Add the ground pecans, then the flour mix and baking powder and whisk about 50 strokes until the batter is smooth.
Pour it into the prepared tins and bake for about 20 to 30 minutes until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Roasted Vegetable Salad:
Serves 2 as main dish
2 medium golden beets, washed, peeled and quartered
1 small fennel bulb, washed and quartered
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
2 oz blue cheese
handful of pumpkin seeds
handful of edamame
Shallot vinaigrette (see here for recipe)
Preheat the oven to 375F. Position a rack in the middle.
In a medium bowl, toss together the beets and fennel bulb quarters, add the olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Place in a 9×13-inch baking dish and roast for about 20-30 minutes or until tender and a little charred/caramelized.
Place a handful of salad greens at the bottom of two plates or bowl, top with the roasted vegetables, add about 1 oz of blue cheese to each plate and top with some pumpkin seeds and edamame. Drizzle with the shallot vinaigrette and serve
I have a tendency to always be cold. At least chilly. I like sweaters. I like scarves. Gloves. Hats. I like cold weather. I live in South Carolina where cold weather is…well…not that cold. It comes and goes. Three days of cold, two days of warm. Christmas in shorts. Valentine’s Day by the fireplace. I think I’ve finally gotten used to it. Almost…
We were pretty happy when the temperatures dropped a few degrees this past week. Even without the magnificent Fall colors of up North, there is a certain anticipation of a seasonal change around here. The dogs were waiting for that delicious moment when they’d be able to just lie on the back deck and enjoy a little reprieve. That wonderful crispy Fall weather. No humidity. No mosquitoes.
As soon as Fall rolls around, my mind turns to comfort foods. Well, foods that are comforting to me. We all have distinct food associations, flavors, scents that resonate "comfort". Mine are without a doubt apple cake, apricot and frangipane anything, soups of many kinds, roasted vegetables, winter gourds. Right now, I can’t stop baking with Lady apples (so tiny!) and squash of all kinds.
Soups and cakes are a staple at our house. All year long. Undeniably influenced by seasonal produce but staples nonetheless. A local tomato soup in the summer is replaced by roasted squash one in the Fall. Winter welcomes piping hot bowls of French onion soup.
Along with cakes, Bill has a love affair with coconut soup. I must admit, I do too. After many Thai inspired versions that we have done over the years, I wanted to change it up a bit this time. Red kuri squash and local shrimp cooked until fork tender in a lemongrass, ginger and lime coconut base. We went back for seconds. We wished we had enough for thirds. Incredibly satisfying.
Cakes are quiet and discreet in our kitchen in the Spring and Summer. The above 100F temperatures are not conducive to a lot of baking but as soon as I can turn the oven on without feeling we’re operating a furnace, I turn to one of our family favorite, apple cake. It’s nothing fancy. It’s actually pretty darn rustic if you ask me. One of the may reasons I love it. It also reminds me of my grandmother. A woman I miss everyday.
She wasn’t always easy. Often stubborn. But when she loved, she loved 100%. She loved being surrounded with friends and family. My Sunday Supper tradition is a direct extension of her. Tea time was 4 o’clock around a plate of cookies and a slice of cake. Came one. Came six. It did not matter. The door was always open. Sunday lunches with a full table after church often lingered into impromptu dinners around an omelette, a bowl of soup and a piece of cake.
Grandma, Mamie Paulette even smelled of apples. And vanilla.
Everytime I make her apple compote with a touch of sugar, lemon and vanilla bean, I can feel her around me. I wish we had had a few more years together so she could have come here and see us. Happy. That’s all she wanted. To have everyone happy. Making an apple cake puts me at peace. It’s comforting to have that little bit of her whenever I want. I am grateful she was not shy of passing her recipe on to me so I can pass it on to you.
On this note, I might be scarce this coming week, both in emails and to answer comments as I am heading for L.A on Wednesday. I will be there to teach an awesome 3-day workshop. I am so excited! There are still a couple of spots available! So if you ever hesitated to learn from a photographer, food stylist, digital tech, art buyer, etc… we are all here to answer your question and work hands on to help.
Details? Here we go! The amount of info we’ll pass on is pretty huge! We’ll be at Light Space Studio for 2 days and at Hollywood Sierra Kitchen another day. Yes…you can pick an choose the kitchen you want to shoot in!
I can’t wait to meet the people I will have the chance to guide and help for three full days and I am also giddy to meet up with friends I rarely see because of geography and life in general. I’ll try to post snapshots…
One thing for sure… I am definitely packing a couple of slices of apple cake in my carry-on! Have a great week everyone!
Coconut Soup With Red Kuri Squash and Shrimp:
Makes enough for 4
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 small onion, diced
2 stalks of lemongrass
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups red kuri squash, peeled and diced (seeds removed)
4 cups seafood stock (or veggie or water)
1 can coconut milk (14 oz)
juice and zest of one lime
2 sprigs of thyme
1 pound medium shrimp (peeled and deveined)
cilantro to serve
In a large stock pot, heat the sesame oil over medium heat, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally until translucent, about 2-3 minutes. In the meantime, cut the stalks of lemongrass in half and pound them with the back of your knife a couple of times. The goal is to release the lemongrass essence to flavor the broth. Add those to the onion, along with the ginger and garlic and cook another 2 minutes or so. Add the Kuri squash and cook another 2 minutes. Add the stock, coconut milk, lime juice and zest, and the thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer and cook covered for about 15 minutes. When the squash is fork tender but not mushy, turn the heat back up to medium high. Add the shrimp and cook until they are just cooked through (5 to 8 minutes depending on size) (over and they will feel like rubber). Remove from the heat, remove the thyme and lemongrass stalks and let cool about 5 minutes before plating. Serve with cilantro if desired.
Apple Cardamom Cake:
Makes one 9-inch cake
10 Lady apples (or 2 to 3 regular sized apples)
1 cup yogurt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup olive oil
zest and juice of one lemon
2 cups Jeanne’s gluten free all purpose flour mix (or regular flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350F. Position a tray in the middle. Grease one 9-inch baking pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Place the pan on a baking sheet. Set aside.
Peel, core and slice the apples very thin (a mandoline works great) and place them in a large bowl filled with water and lemon juice to prevent oxidation.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the yogurt, sugar and eggs until pale (takes about 2 minutes). Add the oil and lemon juice and mix until well blended. Add the flour mix, baking powder, cardamom and cinnamon and whisk about 50 strokes until the batter is smooth.
Pour it into the prepared baking pan and position the apple slices (drained slightly) on top.
Bake for about 30-40 minutes until a knife inserted in the middle comes free of raw batter.
I love this time of year for so many reasons. They hit me with a bit of nostalgia in the afternoon but they all revolve around the same flavors and scents. I found myself humming our favorite Christmas story. He caught me starring at the skyline while my mom was describing the snow back home. He noticed I let the cardamom pods linger on the countertop a little while. That’s the holidays too. So I close my eyes and just imagine.
Chocolate. Thick as ganache and strong as coffee hot chocolate. Cardamom. My mom’s Swedish cardamom rolls, Roasted chestnuts. Piping hot snack we would get on the streets of Paris while visiting my grandparents. Oolong tea. The perfect cup to warm you up in the afternoon. Clementines and kumquats. One of my favorite Winter dessert.
A yogurt and a clementine or a handful of kumquats was by far the most common dessert at our house during Winter. My mom has this gigantic wooden fruit bowl for everyday dinners that I love. Not because of what it is but because of what it promises. Comes Winter and it is a cornucopia of lychees, citrus, pears, nuts and dates. Snapping the citrus skin to smell their natural oils to feel instantly energized was however my favorite part.
With all the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it only took a glance over the kumquats at the store to instantly feel the promises of clean, fresh and vibrant desserts. It brought about the biggest skip in my step and the urge to come home and start baking. I know, I know…it’s all about the chocolate this time of year but I got to tell you, after rolling 3 pounds of truffles, I needed a break.
I started slicing and seeding a couple of pints of kumquats and was almost instantly transported back to my parents' home. I had no idea what I was going to make for sure. I only had the beginning of a plan you see. My mind had stopped at poached kumquats. Once I had done those, I started popping them in my mouth like they were candies and figured I’d better come with a plan fast or there would not be many left to share with B.
Fate would have it that I had decided to explore some of my favorite dessert book again and had bookmarked pretty much the entire citrus section in Hidemi Sugino’s The Dessert Book. I can easily bookmark all the recipes in the book actually. There are handful of pastry chefs I would follow blindly in the kitchen. Sugino is definitely one of them. His desserts are clean and yet complex, refined and yet simple. His recipe bring out the inquisitive quality of each of us and makes you wan to imagine dishes like he did.
My mind quickly settled on a promising recipe for little tea cakes chock full of kumquat compote, poached kumquats and almonds. The compote is made by poaching sliced kumquats until tender and pureeing the whole thing, rind and pulp, together which adds the perfect hint of bitterness to cut down the sweetness of the cakes. Every bite makes made us slow down, close our eyes and just sigh.
Because we wholeheartedly approve. Hope you do to!
Kumquats and Almond Tea Cakes, adapted from Hidemi Sugino:
For the cakes:
1/2 cup (70gr) millet flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch of salt
1 stick (113gr) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/4 cup (150gr) powdered sugar, unsifted
4 medium eggs
1 cup (100gr) ground almonds
1/2 cup reserved kumquat compote (recipe follows)
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Reserve.
Butter the insides of cake tins (your preference) and place on a baking sheet. Reserve.
Heat the oven to 350F.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and powdered sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture and ground almonds and mix another 30 seconds. Fold in the kumquat compote with a spatula. Divide the batter in between your prepared tins, top with either fresh or poached kumquat slices and bake for 10-15 minutes until golden brown(the larger the tins the more baking time will be needed)
For the kumquat compote:
1 cup kumquats, halved and seeded
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup water
Place the kumquats, sugar and water in medium saucepan over medium high heat and slowly bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Turn the heat down and simmer for about 10 minutes, covered, until the kumquats are translucent. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
Once cooled, drain the kumquats from the syrup, reserve a few slices and puree in a food processor adding 2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup of the reserved syrup as you go along. (it should look and feel like thick marmelade). Reserve.
All weekend long I kept hearing about the snow falling down, heavy and thick in some places, watery and clumpy in some others. Friends here were making hot cocoa and shoveling driveways. My parents back home in France were describing the park in our village as wearing a light dusting of snowflakes. Here, we started to wonder if we would spend Christmas day in shorts like we did last year. Probably not but neither Bill nor I have put on coats yet this year. Indeed, we finally had signs of Fall. In December.
I have long understood that the South beats to a different rythm. It’s in the air. Literally. It suits my personality just fine. Winter breeze at 5am and reddish-brown leaves still falling, blanketing the yard by 5pm. Winter citrus sharing shelf space with Fall pears and apples at the market. I just felt compelled to fill my basket with the juiciest mini d’Anjour pears I could find, go home and make these gluten free Poached Pear and Almond Fallen Souffle Cakes.
One thing I have inherited from my mother and grandmother (beside the all-in-or-nothing temperament) is their love for poaching fruits in the colder month and using them in all sorts of desserts. I don’t really care what the thermometer reads outside lately. I am a bit homesick. It’s the holidays. I’m poaching. As I told Bill "French Christmas carols and lots of poached fruits – deal with it!". His eyes lit up and he replied "let me pull out some pillows and we can cozy up and you can tell me all about all the Christmases of your childhood." Love that man.
Fo us, one of the many joys of being in a relationship is to share just about everything. Even a bad cold. I don’t mind having a cold. I do mind when it hovers between cold and flu with fever, aches and chills but without knocking you down completely. This thing we have been sharing back and forth has been lowering all our levels by 40%-50% or so. It angers the bejesus out of me. Especially a few days before Christmas when there is still a ton to get done and lots of friends to see. But as we sat down with a cup of ginger tea and a warm pear and almond cake, we felt instantaneously better, warmer and happier.
I did convert the recipe to be gluten free to work with my diagnosis (yes, I know, research is still out on that one but I see the rewards of going gluten free and almost sodium free and that’s good enough for me) and I snuck in a whole poached pear instead of a half like my grandmother used to do. However, I know it wasn’t the reason why they rose as high and fell as quick as souffles.
We then changed their names too. The original was more of a scribble on a piece of paper from Mamie reading "Gateaux Amandes et Poires Pochees. Faites attention, ils degringolent" which could be translated as "Almond and Poached Pear Cakes. Watch out, they tumble down". And she was absolutely right. Hence B. felt compelled to rename them – he’s a stickler that way, ahah!
Whichever name you choose, all I know is that they are the perfect cross between a souffle, a cake and a custard. That for a brief moment they stopped my coughing and sneezing and that "Douce Nuit Sainte Nuit" never sounded more beautiful.
Poached Pear And Almond Fallen Souffle Cakes:
Note: you can core the pears from the bottom to about 1 inch from the top with an apple corer but these are so tiny that I just removed the stem button at the bottom. Everything else in the core baked to very soft texture and the seeds were easy to remove while eating (kind of like tails on baked shrimp).
For the poached pears:
6 mini d’Anjou pears, peeled (or other small pears like Forelles or Seckel)
1/2 cup (100gr) sugar
2-3 cardamom pods
1 stick cinnamon
5-6 allspice berries
1-2 star anise
4 cups (1 liter) water
For the cakes:
3 tablespoons (40gr) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (100gr) sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup (190ml) heavy cream
1 cup ground almonds (blanched or skin on – your preference)
1/4 cup (40gr) sorghum flour (or use 1/4 cup all purpose flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder
Prepare the pears:
Place the pears, spices, lemon and water in tall saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Lower the heat and let them simmerfor 15-20 minutes or until the pears are just soft (poke with a toothpick to check).
Remove from the water using a slotted spoon and allow to cool on paper towel or baking rack.
Prepare the cakes:
Preheat the oven to 350F and position a rack in the middle.
Slightly butter or spray 6 ramekins and place them on a baking sheet. Set aside.
In the bowl if an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffly (about 3 minutes). Add the eggs, one a time and beat well in between each addition. Reduce the speed to low and add the vanilla, heavy cream, almonds, flour and baking powder and beat until incorporated. Fill each ramekins about 1/3 full with the batter and place a poached pear in the center.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.
When I look out the window, it is hard to imagine that Fall officially starts tomorrow. We have two seasons here more or less, Warm and Hot. Christmas celebrated in a summer dress, well, "it ain’t fittin'. It jes' ain’t fittin'" But there are signs that cannot be mistaken. Night falls earlier, the wind has finally picked up, the pecans are weighing the tree branches down. The light is now giving cold blue undertones, I put the diffuser back up in the studio, my shooting schedule has changed. Most importantly, the oven is buzzing with tarts, custards and cakes like these Double Chocolate And Pear Cakes, a gluten free adaptation of my mother’s recipe.
I like spontaneity as much as I like certain family rituals. One that my folks have back home is to get together for tea time everyday around four or five o’clock. Even now that my grandmother is gone, my mother makes the same one yard walk to my grandfather’s and continues the tradition. One of my fondest memories is always this moment shared around their dining room table right when it is getting darker outside and we cozy up around a slice of cake and a hot cup of tea and chat.
As a kid, I’d sit quietly and listen to a mix of conversations ranging from politics and literature to the more basic questions of what to cook for the next family get together. As a teenager I started taking part by bringing treats of my own like madeleines and langues de chats. As an adult, every time I go home, I just sit quietly and listen, literally captivated by every word they say, every event or family member they talk about. I try to encapsulate those precious moments for the long strips of time I spent away from them.
Comes Fall when my "cozying-it-up" starts to kick in, I make this cake every weekend so that we can have tea and cake like they do back home. I have no idea where my mom got the original recipe, I just found several copies of it in different recipe tins around the house. I love it for the simple reason that you can make it your own with the flavor that you like. October might be cardamom and pistachios, November might give way to almond and vanilla while December might see some colorful candied fruits. Right now it’s pears and chocolate.
After successfully adapting a chocolate tart recipe earlier this month to a gluten version, I thought my favorite cake would be next to become gluten free. The cake was not difficult to adapt using different flours and eggs and butter are there to help ingredients bind and raise properly. I mean, it’s hard to mess things up when there are eggs and butter. I added cocoa powder and melted dark chocolate to the batter and topped each cake with slices of ripe pears. I knew the flours could lend a different, sandy texture to the finished cakes so I slightly underbaked them so they’d remain moist for a couple of days.
I purposely left out any kind of spice this time but I am thinking cardamom for the next cup of tea. I also want to try adapting this gorgeous Olive Oil Cake by Connie and these cute Nutella pound cakes by Dana. I can tell Fall is here…
Double Chocolate And Pear Cakes:
Makes five 3-inch cakes (I used these liners) or one loaf cake.
1 stick (113gr)unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup (100gr) sugar
2 oz (60gr) semisweet chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
1/4 cup (60ml) buttermilk
1/3 cup (60gr) sweet rice flour
1/3 cup (60gr) sorghum flour (you could use amaranth or quinoa)
OR 1 cup (125gr) all purpose flour instead, if not going gluten free
3 tablespoons (15gr) cocoa powder
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 pear, ripe, peeled, pitted and thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 350F and position a rack in the center. Grease cupcake liners or a loaf pan and place them on a baking sheet. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and creamy, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time, scarping the sides of the bowl in between each addition. Add the melted chocolate and beat until smooth. Add the buttermilk and beat, still on low, until incorporated. Add the flours, cocoa and baking powders and beat for 30 seconds. Increase the speed to medium and beat for a minute. Pour the mixture into your prepared pan(s) and place the slices of pears on top. Bake for 30-40 minutes for a loaf, 20-25 minutes for individual cakes. Check at the earliest baking time indicated as each oven runs differently and you want to keep the cake(s) moist inside.