Thoughts From Richmond Airport, USA

-Does anyone really watch all the reruns of “Saved By The Bell” that run all morning on television?

-Why is the air-conditioning turned on full-blast, everywhere…in December?

-Why can’t they open a Rite Aid in Paris? I love a drugstore that sells yogurt, socks, and clocks with singing Bass.

-What insane person first decided to manufacture yogurt with gelatin in it?

-I am certain that Tyra Banks is a Vulcan.

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-I am certain that Larry King will one day peel off his head and reveal himself to be an alien intent on sucking the content from American minds.

-Does anyone actually finish one of those jumbo caramel-flavored coffees with a pile of whipped cream from Starbucks?

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My daily espresso, from Starbucks

-Does anyone actually buy a copy of USA Today or do the same copies float from person to person at airports?

-Why does Oprah appearing as a guest of David Letterman make national news headlines?

-It’s so easy to forget how vibrant and beautiful the colors of the changing leaves are when you drive around the east coast of America.

-Next year for Thanksgiving, I will give thanks there’s no French equivalent of Nancy Grace.

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-Thank goodness for Starbucks.
Say what you want, but before they came along, it was impossible to get a decent cup of coffee almost anywhere in America when on the road.

-Three arguments why Americans should be constitutionally prohibited from making “croissants”

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The Mexican Virginian

One of the greatest things about America is the cultural mix. Which often means that you can get great food in the unlikeliest of places. Like very good Mexican food in, um, Virginia!

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A previously satisfied customer?

Arlington, Virginia, is best known for the cemetary and a large, five-sided building called the Pentagon. (There’s lots of military people lurking in the Metro and on the streets, which feels somewhat disconcerting.)
It’s an unlikely place for good Mexican food, but I found it at Oyamel.

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It wouldn’t be Mexican without chips ‘n salsa verde
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Tacos stuffed with Carnitas ‘Cristina la Guera: Braised baby pig with tomatilla salsa, cilantro, and crispy-fried pork skin
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Corn puffs seasoned with chopped avocado leaves stuffed with…
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…guacamole!

Oyamel
2250-B Crystal Drive
Arlington, VA
Tel: 703-413-2288

Au Revoir Paris

Upon arrival at Paris’ Roissy airport, I notice that lots of people seem to be smiling and no one is trying to cut in front of me in line and many of the people are toting self-help bestsellers with semi-bald men grinning on the glossy front jackets.
Yes, I’m on my way back to the United States of America.

I got upgraded, which is like winning the lottery. I don’t know if those people at the airline check-in know how just tapping one extra key during their flurry of keystrokes can make my entire journey so much more pleasant, but there’s nothing better than sitting up in the front in the plane (instead of walking by, ruefully, on my slouch to economy). I’m able to stretch my long legs and have the possibility of a few treasured moments of real sleep (sans Ambien) before I arrive.

So here I sit, in United’s Red Carpet Club and I’m looking at a copy of USA Today. The headline reads, “Holiday sale dip, then they dazzle”. The International Herald Tribune, the paper of Europe, has the headline, “EU Warns Members of CIA Terror Camps”.
Inside USA Today, they’ve requested readers write about what they’re thankful for, and a woman writes, “….while I deeply resent the unchecked and increasing numbers of illegal immigrants streaming across our porous borders, I am thankful to live in a land of opportunity so sought after by those who don’t live in such a country.”

Note to Doris: Perhaps you might give thanks that you don’t live in a country where you live in fear for your life on a daily basis, where there’s plenty of food to go around, and you have a roof over your head, rather than using it as an opportunity to complain about immigration (something I’m sure her grandparents, like most of ours, benefited from.)

Since I wasn’t sure of my euphoria-inducing upgraded status, I packed a nifty lunch of two hard-boiled eggs from my local fromagerie, French yogurt (which I’ll dearly miss), salade de carrotte rapée (grated carrots with lemon juice, which is the national salad of France), and a split baguette smeared with butter and slices of silky jambon de Bayonne. I’m also fortified with a small packet of chocolate-covered coffee beans from Slitti, one of my favorite chocolate shops in Italy, which do double-duty for chocolate or coffee related urgencies.

On the plane, I flip through the airline magazine, which highlights some of Todays Hottest Young Chefs! Several of them have devised ways of using chemicals and stabilizers to create a celebrated new genre of cuisine.
Huh? Didn’t most of us spend the last few years trying to get people to stop adding chemicals and stabilizers to food?

So last week I had a final Paris food blow-out when my pal DL 2 came from Switzerland. We took the opportunity to visit one of my favorite traditional restaurants in Paris: A la Biche Au Bois. I’ve been eating there for years and it’s a favorite, with a well priced menu for only 23 euros and lively dining room that offers a wonderful tour de force of rustic French cooking.

I began with the salade Perigordine; a memorable slab of foie gras with a big pile of haricots vertes (freshly cooked and still a bit crispy, trés americaine). I almost couldn’t make it through the whole slice. As you can see, it’s was e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s….

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I figured since was restaurant titled after la biche herself (deer), I should sample the namesake; tonight she’s offered in a casserole as a long-simmered stew with a dark, rich sauce. Alongside comes a smooth and excellent purée of celery root. My meal was excellent and hearty and I make a mental note to eat here more often.

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Distractingly, our waiter kept passing the table with platters heaped with homemade, and remarkable-looking, crispy French fries. They were deep-golden brown, with wisps of steam rising, served on metal platters. So naturally I wanted to get a plate, but in Paris when you become a waiter, they implant special lenses in your eyes that allow you to only look forward and block out customers who might make special requests…so we didn’t get any.

No matter.
The service was cheerful and accommodating and we drank a nice bottle of Burgundian Pinot Noir. I finished my meal with one of my favorite desserts: a towering mound of snow-white Ile Flottante, baked and caramelized meringue floating in icy cold creme Anglaise and a drizzle of dark caramel.
A complimentary glass of warming Armagnac was offered to fend off the frozen evening chill outside, and we made our way home.

The next day, we made a pilgrimage to Pierre Hermé, this time his large boutique on the rue de Vaugirard, which is less-hectic than the location on rue Bonaparte and has a tad more breathing room.

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Pierre Hermé’s newest ‘collection’ was on full display and we first chose a few macarons Plénitude, a mélange of chocolate ganache and caramel with fleur de sel fused together with disks of almondy meringue cookies.

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I’ve been looking for the opportunity to try Emotion Mahogany, but was scared of carrying the fragile little glass across Paris via the Metro (as regular readers to my blog know, I’ve had too many unfortunate experiences trying to navigate Paris, and Parisians in a hurry, while carrying a cake.)

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As you can see, I need not have worried. I guess the folks at Pierre Hermé are used to customers having to deal with Parisians walking right into them carrying a fragile cake or dessert.

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At the bottom of the glass were of coarsely chopped litchees. On top of that was a smooth layer of mango compote, then a bit of caramel mousse and topped with tender, tiny coconut marshmallows.

You’re meant to dig your spoon deep down into the glass and get a layer of each flavor in every mouthful, which is impossible without all the marshmallows tumbling off. (So don’t try to eat this on a park bench. The marshmallows are the best part!)
It was tasty, but I would have liked something a bit tangy to brighten the flavors. Perhaps a layer of dark rum or very dark caramel or citrusy lime mousse.

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The other dessert we tried was a masterpiece of engineering. Le Instant, a bittersweet chocolate shell enrobing chocolate mousse and a nugget of Earl Grey tea gelés buried within. While tasty, it was awfully sweet and after so much eating (we’d had fabulously filling savory and sweet crepes for lunch and dessert at my favorite creperie in Paris, near the Gare Montparnasse) neither one of us showed much interest in it Pierre Hermé doesn’t like very bitter chocolate desserts…but I do. So we the rest was, unfortunately, left.

It was hard to eat without making a mess.

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Sigh.
My last memories of Paris…

P√Ętisserie Arnaud Larher

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The worst thing about the pâtisserie of Arnaud Larher is that it’s too dang far away from where I live. Located on the northern fringes of Montmarte, it takes me 3 different métros to get there, and even then, it’s a hike from the métro station (which is buried very, very deep underground, since that quartier of Paris is mostly soft limestone, aka plaster of Paris, and building the métro stations at Montmarte required extremely deep digging into the earth to reach solid ground.)

The best thing, though, is once I arrive, I forget the arduous journey when I see all the terrific cakes and candies and treats waiting for me…

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I made my first trip ‘up the mountain’ a few years back to check out his Croq-Télé, round buttery cookies with roasted hazelnuts and a nice amount of salt, meant to be consumed while watching television. His macarons are a tad dense for my taste, but the chocolate-covered guimauve, or French marshmallows, are yummy.

And although they’re hard to spot tucked in between the riot of chocolates and bonbons tied in neat little bags on the shelves, the Pavés de Montmartre, golden squares of almond cake wrapped in a sheath of almond paste then briefly cooked, augmenting the almondy richness, are one of the most singularly (and simply) stunning cakes in Paris. No small feat, in a city with no lack of stunning desserts.

Arnaud Larher
53, rue Caulaincourt
Paris
Mètro: Lamark Caulaincourt

Pistachios, Citron…and Chocolate

Recently I’ve been thinking a bit about pistachios for a couple of reasons.
Pistachios are wonderful and tasty nuts that not so long ago were considered unusual and exotic. Now they’ve become rather common and are easily available. When I was a little boy, my Syrian grandfather used to always have on hand big 5-poundsacks of pistachio nuts, sometimes vividly-colored red (am I the only one who remembers those?) They were the best and I ate so many I’m surprised that my fingers aren’t permanently stained.

Then during the 1980′s, products from Iran were banned from being exported into the US for political reasons and my beloved pistachios disappeared. Eventually some crafty Californians came along (like the ones who decided that kiwis were going to be the Next Big Thing and planted rows and rows of them) and American-grown pistachios are the result; now pistachios are relatively cheap and plentiful. But here in Paris, I prowl the Arabic markets in neighborhoods off-the-beaten-path, and often come across Iranian pistachios which are delicious; the split shells easily snap off, and I pop the plump, lightly-salted nut kernels into my mouth. Before I know it, I’ve consumed a good half a kilo and want more.

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I was lucky to get a wonderful gift from my friend Anne of some chocolate treats from a recent trip to Caffé dell’ Arte in Sicily. If you didn’t know it, Sicily is famous, mostly amongst pastry chefs who seek these pistachios which are brilliant green and sans the grey, papery and unattractive husk that covers the nut. Sicilian pistachios are wonderful for decorating since the color is indeed magnificent. (In spite of what recipes tell you, I don’t advise toasting normal pistachio nuts since they tend to lose any of their green hue, and they’ve likely been roasted before packaging.)

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Anne advised that the aroma of pistachios was the first thing she noticed when she opened her bar, and sure enough, when I slipped mine out of the wrapper, the delicious nutty scent of fresh nuts filled the air, along with the aroma of deep, dark chocolate.
And the taste…Wow!

This was one of the best bars of chocolate I’ve ever had.
The chocolate was smooth and dark, rich and roasted like a sweet Italian espresso, with a lingering bitterness tempered with a perfectly balanced amount of sugar. Just enough to take the edge off, but not enough to be sweet: truly a fine balance of flavors. And the crispy, Sicilian pistachio nuts were whole, brilliant-green, and full of the flavor, reminiscent of a sunny and earthy Mediterranean climate.

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Another treat were these thick slices of candied citron dipped in pure dark chocolate. Hardly anyone knows what citrons are anymore and they’re rarely found (the ones below that I saw in Italy at a villa and the owners insisted that they were “strange lemons, but with no pulp!”…)

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Unusually-Shaped Buddha’s-Hand Citrons in Tuscany

Unless you’re lucky enough to know someone with a tree, citrons are a rarity in produce markets. They’re notable for their musky, aromatic smell and barely any pulp. But the beauty of a citron is in the noble, aromatic peel and rind, which is candied in halves or big slices, then chopped into Italian fruitcakes like pan forte or pan pepato, its spicier cousin. Of course, many American use them when baking their holiday fruitcakes as well, commonly referred to as “those icky green things”, an unfortunate designation, since as you can see, they’re lovely and delicious, especially coated with Sicilian chocolate!

The Worst Cheese in the World

Perhaps it’s wrong to blame the cheese.
But cheese doesn’t have any feelings, it’s just exists for our pleasure.
So for once I don’t have to worry about offending anyone on my blog. Now that’s a relief.

A friend of mine came for dinner the other night who’s on le regime, a diet. While shopping at the supermarket I spotted this reduced-fat cheese, checked out the short list of ingredients on the reverse (which listed no icky ingredients), so I tossed it in my handbasket and headed to the checkout.

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I got home, unwrapped it and immediately my apartment smelled rather, um, funky.
And not like that good-funky that a fabulously-ripe camembert or brie smells like, but a vaguely familiar funky, with a smell that I couldn’t put my finger on it. When my friend arrived a bit later (who’s quite refined and sophisticated, and lives in the swank place des Vosges), she removed her Hermès jacket and scarf, took a whiff then looked at the sorry specimen, screwed up her face, and said, “Ugh. That smells like a fart.”

If you happen to be eating cheese while reading this, sorry about the analogy.

And before you pooh-pooh low-fat, there’s a long list of low- or non-fat items that rock our world: pink marshmallow Peeps, dried sour cherries, gumdrops, Berthillon’s bitter chocolate sorbet, prunes, candy corn, rice, meringue, pasta, cranberry sauce, matzoh, Cracker Jack’s, dark brown sugar, Jewish rye bread, dried-out leftover turkey breast meat, sushi, and orange-flavored Chuckles.)

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But this cheese was indeed the worst cheese I’ve ever come across.
It had absolutely no flavor. But still, I kept it on my kitchen counter for a few days pondering another use for it. Perhaps macaroni and cheese? Melting it for a sandwich?
I hate throwing anything away, especially food…after all, I am my mother’s son.

That was my first and last experience with fromage allegé. Finally after a few aromatic days I suffered in my apartment, I tossed it. I’m sticking with the real thing. If you’re going to live in France, why bother with anything else?

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French Fast Food

One of my favorite lunch treats is from Au Levain du Marais, their warm Anchovy Tart with soft-baked tomatoes and oil-cured olives, all baked in a buttery puff-pastry crust.

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I try to stop in at least once a week for a quick bite, and if I’m lucky, I get to the bakery just when they’re fresh from the oven.
A perfect lunch!

Au Levain du Marais
28, Boulevard Beaumarchais
Tel: 01 48 05 17 14

other locations:

32, rue de Turenne

152, avenue Parmentier

48, rue Caulaincourt

Kugelhof Recipe

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One thing that does seem to cross international lines successfully is baking.
I never visit a country without sampling their baking. I visit bakeries and want to try everything, from Mexico’s delicious tortillas served warm with butter, to Indian naan breads just from a tandoori oven.

Here in France during the winter, the windows of pastry shops are lined with all sizes of Galettes de Rois, disks of caramelized puff pastry filled with almond paste. Alsation bakers offer sweet, doughyGugelhofs with plumped raisins and toasted almonds with freshly-grated citrus peel. And even though the world is mired in cultural misunderstandings, wars, and hostility, perhaps the United Nations might consider sending an International Baking Brigade around the world to promote cross-cultural baking traditions.

So while that ain’t likely to happen in my lifetime, I was thrilled to receive a new book from Nick Malgieri of baking recipes from around the world. I was fortunate to meet Nick years ago when I was starting my career writing cookbooks and he was overtly generous giving me advice about writing and publishing. Fortunately for bakers everywhere, Nick shares his vast knowledge of baking in his many well-written books. He perhaps knows more about baking than anyone I’ve ever met and is one of my heroes.

His latest cookbook, A Baker’s Tour, is a terrific and comprehensive overview of the world’s most delicious baked goods.

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So when last week I trekked out to Vandermeersch for their amazing Kugelhof, I was distressed to learn they’re only available on weekends. (Of course, being in France, if I had gone out, say…Thursday, I would have discovered, “Desolé Monsieur, We make kugelhofs every day…except Thursday.”)

I was delighted to find a recipe in Nick’s book and decided to bake a yeasty Kugelhof myself. It also gave me also the opportunity to use the beautiful ceramic Alsatian Kugelhof mold that I found while pickling through some neglected boxes at a vide grenier, a neighborhood flea market, a few weeks ago in Paris.

Nick calls this a Gugelhof, which is the Austrian name for this cake. He advises to measure flour by spooning it into a graduated measuring cup, then leveling it off. I made an orange flower water syrup to soak the cake, an inspiration from Vandermeersch bakery, as suggested in Dorie Greenspan’s book, Paris Sweets.

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Kugelhof

Adapted from A Baker’s Tour by Nick Malgieri and Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan.

Sponge

½ cup milk
2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast (not instant)
2/3 cup all-purpose flour

Dough

  • ½ cup raisins
  • 1 tablespoon dark rum
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup whole blanched almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped (see note below)
  • ½ cup sliced almonds, for lining the cake pan

One 6- to 8-cup kugelhof pan (or you can use a bundt pan)

1. Maker the sponge by warming the milk over low heat in a small saucepan until it’s tepid. Pour into a bowl, and mix in the yeast then the flour. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until bubbly, about 20 minutes.

2. In a small bowl, stir together the raisins and the rum, then set aside.

3. In a standing electric mixer, beat the butter with the sugar and salt with the paddle attachment until soft and light, about 3 minutes. Beat in the lemon zest and vanilla.

4. Beat in the egg yolks until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl, add the sponge, then beat another minute.

5. Drain the raisins then beat the rum into the dough, then beat in the flour. Beat on low speed for 2 minutes and let rest for 10 minutes.

6. Beat on medium speed until smooth and elastic, about 2 minutes.

7. Slowly beat in the raisins and chopped almonds.

8. Scrape the dough into a butter bowl and turn it so the top is buttered. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise until the dough just begins to puff, about 20 minutes.

9. Butter the kugelhof mold well the scatter the sliced almonds over the inside of the mold, turning to coat it evenly.

10. Scrape the dough into the kugelhof mold and cover with a towel or buttered plastic wrap.

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Let rise until doubled.

11. About 15 minutes before the dough is fully risen, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the kugelhof until it’s well-risen, and deep golden, about 40-45 minutes.

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Cool the kugelhof for 10 minutes, then unmold.

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To make a nice, moist syrupy glaze; bring 1/3 cup of water and 1/3 cup of sugar to a boil. Remove from heat once the sugar is dissolved and add 1 ½ teaspoons orange flower water and 2 tablespoons finely ground almonds (optional, but good).
Liberally brush the syrup all over, on top of, and around the cake.

Cool completely before slicing and serving.

Note: To peel your own almonds, bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add the untoasted almonds and let cook for about 30 seconds. Remove from heat and drain. Once the almonds are cool enough to handle, the skins will slip right off.

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Toast the almonds until golden brown for best flavor before using. I snap one in half to make sure they’re crispy all the way through.

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Most nuts benefit from being toasted in a 350° oven for 10 to 12 minutes.

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