California Caramels: Little Flower Candy Company

Last year I read about a pastry chef-turned-candymaker in Los Angeles. She was becoming known around those parts for her tender caramels, blended with wisps of sel de mer (sea salt.)

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Inspired by the amazing CBS, caramel-beurre-salé caramels produced by the master himself, Henri LeRoux, Christine Moore’s caramels are indeed the best I’ve had in the US.

A friend drove me out to the Silverlake region of Los Angeles. It’s a rather funky area, full of shoe shops, stores with second-hand clothing racks on sidewalks, just-opened bakeries, and a music studio that Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) opened for the young folks of the neighborhood.

And there’s the The Cheesestore of Silverlake, a small shop with wheels of cheese piled high on the counter, and a carefully chosen selection of ‘gourmet’ foods…although I hate to use that word, which seems so pretentious, and this shop is anything but. They’re incredibly friendly (and yes, I seem to be the only one who truly likes LA…) and we spoke a bit about what they carry, their cheese and wine selection – and, of course, the creamy, wonderful caramels.

Although a few might consider them a tad salty for their taste (I love them), The Little Candy Company caramels were cooked to just the right temperature…not too tough, not too sticky and meltingly-soft, cooked just enough to that chewy stage to give them some ‘bite’. As we ripped open the package, unwrapped a few tender morsels and popped them in our mouths, we did concede that it was impossible to reproduce the French caramels exactly. But boy, those caramels sure were good. No matter where they’re made.

-Sea Salt Caramels from The Little Flower Candy Company can be ordered via their website.

-Check out the recipe for Christine Moore’s Chocolate-Caramel Tartlets.

Winter Fruits

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Pears

Good pears are in danger of disappearing. The best-tasting varieties (Comice, Bartlett, and French Butter) become easily bruised as they ripen, so large stores are reluctant to carry them. So what can you do? Buy them when you see them. Don’t be afraid to purchase rock-hard pears of these varieties: unlike most other fruits, pears don’t ripen well on the tree and should be ripened at home for the most succulent, juicy flavor. I carefully cradle my pears when I carry them home, then let them rest on the countertop, standing upright on a kitchen towel, until slightly soft to the touch.

Bartlett pears are amazingly aromatic, and in Normandy, folks who distill Calvados add a few along with the apples (about 10%) to heighten the aroma. Pear eau-de-vie, or Pear William (sometimes recognized as the clear liquor with the whole pear in the bottle) is a distillation of Bartlett pears. It takes about 60 pounds of pears to make a small, precious bottle of Pear William. The steam of the cooking pears is captured and that little trickle of liquid is bottled as eau-de-vie.
So stop complaining about the price.

Most pears can also be checked for ripeness by sniffing the stem end. I bought some perfectly-ripe Comice pears last week that were as perfumed as the most divine roses (which are relatives of apples and pears.) Each time I passed them on my countertop, I couldn’t resist picking one up for a sniff.

For cooking and poaching, Bosc and Winter Nellis pears are the best choice as they hold their shape once cooked. These varieties have little fragrance. Although other cooks use them, I’ve never tasted an Anjou pear that was any good.

(And don’t curse those little plastic labels that are stuck on pears. Without those, many of the supermarkets wouldn’t sell the lesser-known varieties of pears, since it’s difficult for the cashiers to know which are which. )

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Dried Apricots

When I visit the United States, I always return loaded down with at least three or four pounds of California dried apricots (right). I’m not xenophobic, but the Turkish apricots (left) are tasteless, bland, and sugary-sweet. If you come visit me, that’s what I ask my friends to pack for me.

I grew up snacking on California dried apricots and I used to call them ‘dried monkey ears’. Their puckery tang makes them ideal when simmered in a light sugar syrup until soft (1 part sugar or honey to 4 parts water, perhaps with a stick of cinnamon or vanilla bean) and served alongside a savory meat or chicken stew. I love them in desserts and I’ll often make a simple (and healthy) soufflé of dried apricots plumped in white wine. Once cooked, I puree them, fold in some whipped egg whites and sugar, and minutes later I pull from the oven a tray of apricot soufflés.

Although the Turkish (and Chinese) varieties are less than half the price, they’re no bargain. If you substitute them in a recipe that calls for dried apricots, you’ll be sadly disappointed. The California growers are having a hard time competing, since so many people seem to shop solely on price, not quality.
So have one less Vente Mocchachino a year and splurge on good-tasting dried fruit. Please.

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Limes

The most widely available lime in the US is the Persian lime. Since it’s seedless, it’s the one most commercial growers cultivate. Often found solidly green and bullet-hard (they’re picked underripe and gassed to preserve their unripe green color), they yield little juice.

As with all citrus, select limes that feel heavy for their size. If you live in France, where they vendors don’t like it when you handle the produce, you risk getting scolded with, “Monseur! Ne touchez pas!” (and in the old days, they would add a petit slap if you were in striking distance). So to avoid the humiliation, I scout around ethnic markets and root around the citrus bins, elbowing aside the Arabic and Chinese women, touching every fruit, and tossing back those that don’t feel hefty and full of juice.

If you pick one up and it feels light, that’s an indication there’s little juice inside. Look for limes that are yellow-golden with a greenish hue. As mentioned, ethnic markets seem to offer golden limes that are valued for their taste, not their looks. And don’t be put of by appearances: older, punky-looking citrus often tastes best since it’s spent the maximum time ripening on the tree rather than sitting in cold storage.

To get the most juice from limes, make sure your limes are at room temperature. Roll them firmly on the countertop with your hand to rupture the juice sacs, then squeeze. While some cookbook authors advise popping them in the microwave for a few seconds, I’d feel funny about heating fresh limes. It jus doesn’t seem right.

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Pineapples

While everyone loves pineapple, no one seems to remember the last time they actually bought one. They seem to make an appearance only for special occasions. So next time you’re at the market, why not pick one up? Personally, it makes me feel better to have something around the house that’s a reminder of the tropics during the long, grey days of winter. (Especially if I pick up a bottle of dark rum at the same time!)

I buy pineapples often during the winter. I like to cut them up and keep pieces in the refrigerator for snacking or to add to a fruit salad with grapes and tangerines. And blended with some dark rum and lime juice, served in a nice glass with some chips and guacamole, I don’t know of a better way to beat the winter blahs. (Luckily, for some reason, they have the best tortilla chips in France. Avocados are plentiful as well.)

The most common varieties of pineapple are the Cayenne and Esmerelda, although you’ll rarely find pineapples listed by variety. Harold McGee suggests buying pineapples grown as close to the equator as possible, although I’ve had exceptional pineapples from Hawaii, the Ivory Coast of Africa, and Costa Rica.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing that plucking out the center leaf of a pineapple will tell you about ripeness. Pineapples don’t ripen after picking so buy one labeled Jet-Fresh, or with a ticket stating that it’s been picked ripe, if possible. Take a sniff: a good pineapple will reveal if it’s ripe by a tropical aroma at the stem end. Lots of yellow on the skin is another indication of ripeness. Avoid fruits with soft spots and mold.

My Le Creuset Casserole

i love my loewy casserole

There’s always much debate over when it’s okay to telephone someone at home. How late is too later? How early is okay to call? Are they friends, or family? When I moved to Paris, a friend told me, Never call anyone before noon on Sunday.” I made that mistake once, and that was all it took.

So I’m sound asleep at 8am this Saturday morning (after getting home from dinner last night at 2am), there I am tucked into my bed, so warm-and-cozy, nestled between my linen sheets and goose down duvet, by little head dreaming of….
….and…“…..brrring….brrring….brrringbrrring!….Bbrring!….

Grrrr. So since I was up, I decided to hit the Marché aux Puces, or flea market. By the time I finished my coffee and got there, I’m sure most of the good stuff was gone. But this week I managed to pick up something I’ve been admiring for a long time.

pot of chile beans chile bean pot

I’ve been eyeing this casserole whenever I’d come across one over the past few years. Designed in 1958 by Raymond Loewy for Le Creuset, I love its combination of modernity and French utilitarianism. Vintage examples in good condition are rarely found since most have been well-used by French cooks. And recently it’s been re-issued, although in newer colors, not like the classic orange that you see.

Raymond Loewy was born in Paris, but made his mark in corporate America. He became the most influential designer of our time and designed so many things that we just take for granted. But during his era, the Industrial Revolution, people were fascinated by all that was new and liked products and designs that suggested a better, more modern, future. What he designed suggested speed and forward-thinking, an emerging machine-age where everything was sleek and streamlined, and this casserole for Le Creuset is no exception.

(This piece of cookware is called La Coquelle and was reissued here in France in several colors, but they have since taken them out of production.)

In addition to this casserole, Loewy designed the Studebaker, as well as the Lucky Strike, Nabisco, Shell, and Exxon logos. One of my favorites, though, was for New Man, a French clothing company.

Not many people realize this, but if you turn it over, it reads the same thing, “New Man”.

Go ahead, flip over your computer and see. I’ll wait.

A Visit to Bernachon Chocolate

Jean-Charles Rochoux has perhaps the tiniest chocolate shop in Paris, located on an unassuming side street off the Rue de Rennes. It’s hard to see and easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. But what causes most passers-by to stop are the window displays, filled with intricately-sculpted statues and figures, crafted entirely of chocolate.

M. Rochoux spent many years in the workshop of Michel Chaudun, one of the best chocolatiers in Paris. And indeed, a look around this sleek boutique reveals much inspiration from M. Chaudin, including his version of Colomb, little disks of chocolate studded with cocoa nibs, and Les Pavés, tiny cubes of chocolate ganache that instantly dissolve in your mouth, the lingering pleasure lasting a few precious minutes. Then you decide it’s time for another. I always buy at least six at a time for that reason.

But stacked discretely in the corner are stacks of chocolate bars, and after we had a lengthy discussion on chocolate one day, M. Rochoux handed me a tablet labeled noisettes to take home as a gift. When I got home, I tore open the wrapper and took a bite.
I was completely surprised by what I found inside.

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Each individual roasted hazelnut was coated in crunchy, crackly caramel, then enrobed in the chocolate bar. The contrast of hyper-crisp hazelnuts and bittersweet chocolate makes this my new favorite chocolate bar in Paris.

Although I love finding something new, sometimes I have the opportunity to discover something nearly forgotten.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of touring the workshop and chocolate boutique of the world-famous Bernachon, in the city of Lyon.

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Bernachon’s Signature Cake: ‘Le President’

Not only does Bernachon make great chocolates, they actually make the chocolate itself. Let’s say you go to a shop to buy filled chocolates, or bars of chocolate. You’re buying chocolate that the chocolatier has bought (and perhaps mixed to his or her specifications). That’s the difference between a chocolatier and a chocolate-maker. There are very few chocolate-makers in the world, only 14 exist in the United States at present. Bernachon is a small shop, but it’s stunning what they’re able to produce.

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Piping ‘Couronne Noisette’: Hazelnut and Praline Paste Blended with Milk Chocolate

I love Bernachon chocolate, although it’s nearly impossible to find outside of their shop in Lyon. But what great chocolate it is and it’s certainly worth the 2-hour TGV ride from Paris.

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‘Les Roches’, Just-Dipped in Freshly-Made Dark Chocolate

Their most famous bonbons are the seriously-rich, ganache-filled palets d’Or flecked with bits of real gold. At the shop, they barely have time to keep them in the showcase, as customers come in, the saleswomen fill boxes directly from the decades-old wooden storage trays.

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A Super-Skilled Chocolatier at Bernachon Making Chocolate Ruffles

But when I visit, I stock up on their chocolate bars, which allow me to commune with the pure chocolate all by my lonesome. I like the Nuit et Jour, the Night and Day bar, where one side is bittersweet dark chocolate. Flip it over, the reverse is smooth milk chocolate. Moka is made by grinding roasted coffee beans along with cocoa beans for a double-buzz, and Extra Amer is a super-dark bar of chocolate with very little sugar. It’s bliss for some, and too intense for others.I fall into the first category. But my absolute favorite is Kalouga.

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Kalouga is a rather funny name for a chocolate bar. It’s the Basque word for ‘Caramel’ (any scholars of the Basque language out there?) But I found the Basque word for tasty, gustagarri, and that’s what this is. I first tasted one of these bars about 5 years ago, but was dismayed to find they stopped making it since. Too much of the luscious caramel would begin oozing out after the tablets were made and it was problematic to store them.

But I kept asking them to make them, and word got back to them that there was an American living in Paris who was insane for them. And lo and behold, they’re back in production! (Yes, that was the story I was told…whether or not I believe it is another story…)
Either way, you may thank me later…once you’ve tried one.

Once you bite inside, the gooey salted caramel immediately begins spilling out, and it’s hard not to eat the whole thing at once. If you’re the generous type, I recommend opening it when you have a bunch of friends over to share the bounty.

Otherwise, you can just eat the whole thing yourself.

Guess which I did?

Jean-Charles Rochoux
16, rue d’Assas (6th)
Paris
Tél: 01 42 84 29 45

Bernachon
42, cours Franklin-Roosevelt
Lyon
Tél: 04 78 52 67 77
Lyon

(Bernachon chocolate bars are available in Paris at A l’Etoile d’Or.)

A Paris Café, in Winter

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Cocoa Nib and Spiced Lamb Sausage Pizza Recipe

On a recent radio interview that I did, the producer wrote immediately afterward that they were inundated with requests for my recipe for Cocoa Nib Sausage, which I use to top my Chocolate Pizza Dough from The Great Book of Chocolate.

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I get a lot of quizzical looks from people when they hear the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘pizza’ in the same breath, but adding sugar to chocolate is a relatively new idea in the grand history of the bar. (Most of us remember how our grandmothers only kept unsweetened chocolate in the house.) And there’s many cultures that use chocolate in savory dishes whose origins go back hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years, including Mole. And here in France, it’s not uncommon for many cooks to sneak a bit of grated a chocolate into their Coq au Vin.

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Roasted Cocoa Beans Before They’re Broken Into Nibs


Many years ago, I became good friends with Joanne Weir, when we were young cooks starting out and before we knew any better. Now she’s famous with a television career and many terrific books to her name, and we try to see each other when we passes through each other’s town.

My favorite recollection of her is when she came to my house in San Francisco to make pizza. Mostly I remember that there were a lot of empty bottles of Barolo the next day, and a copy of this recipe on my counter that was splattered with garlic oil and a few flecks of parsley. (And my oven was a mess too.) So when I was looking for the perfect topping for my chocolate pizza dough, I adapted her sausage recipe, adding crunchy and unsweetened cocoa nibs which gave it a nice savory crunch, as well as a bit of chocolate flavor.

Cocoa Nib and Spiced Lamb Sausage Pizza

Enough for two 9-inch pizzas, or 1 rectangular baking sheet pizza (approximately 11″ by 17″)

You can use this sausage to top any recipe for your favorite pizza dough if you’d like.

1 recipe for Chocolate Pizza Dough, rolled out onto baking sheets

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • ½ pound ground lamb
  • ½ cup peeled, seeded, and chopped canned plum tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste or harissa
  • ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
  • large pinch (each) cinnamon, allspice and cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoons red pepper or chili flakes
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ cup roasted cocoa nibs
  • 4 ounces fontina cheese, grated
  • 2 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated

1. In a small bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons olive oil and the minced garlic. Set aside.

2. Heat remaining olive oil in a skillet and cook the onions until soft and translucent. Add the lamb, tomatoes, tomato paste (or harissa), parsley, pine nuts, spices, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook slowly for 10 minutes (uncovered).

3. Remove from heat and add a squeeze or two of fresh lemon juice and let cool to room temperature.

4. Once cooled, stir in the cocoa nibs.

To make the pizzas: Brush top of pizza dough with garlic-infused olive oil. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the dough then spread the sausage over the cheeses. Finally top with the remaining cheese and bake the pizza in a very hot oven until the cheese is bubbling and deep-golden brown.

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Sui Mai: Chinese dumpling recipe

Sometimes I find food shopping in Paris like trying to catch a feather: the harder and more urgent you reach for something, the harder it seems to grasp.

And with the recent tanker spill of 800,000 pounds of cocoa beans, it seems like chocolate’s going to be in short supply, so I’d better find another medium to work with. So how about pork?

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So off I went to Tang Freres in Paris and found everything I needed for the Chinese dumplings known as Sui Mai. I found just about everything…except for The Most Common of All Of All Asian Ingredients Known To Mankind: cilantro, or coriandre.

Not a bunch in the bin, and I (along with 15 or so Chinese dames) mulled around in a daze, unbelievable that the largest Asian market in one of the largest cities in the world could possibly be out of cilantro. *sigh*

Few people know this but I’m a pretty decent Chinese cook. I owe that to Bruce Cost, who’s the best and most gifted chef I’ve ever worked with. Dressed in khakis and a slightly-rumpled Oxford shirt, he’d hulk over the giant wok.

His hands would drop some raw vegetables and chiles into the wok. Then casually he’d add some shrimp or strips of beef. It would sizzle and he’d stir. He’d add a few more things; maybe some strange, unknown vegetables, some sauce, and perhaps some rock sugar or vinegar Then he’d crank the heat to ultra-high, the flames would blaze up around the wok, and in spite of the drama of the roaring fire and the wok, he would just stand there, calmly stirring.
Then he’d simply slide the food on a plate and we’d all be dazzled.

Making the authentic food from many cuisines isn’t all the difficult (unless you’re making Chinese food and can’t find cilantro…) It just requires you to have on hand a few essentials. Few cities I know of lack a Chinese grocer (and most do have huge bunches of cilantro), and in my experience, most well-stocked supermarkets have a decent selection of Asian products (unless you live in…oh, never mind…)

Some notes on a few Chinese ingredients:


  • Sesame Oil
    The best sesame oil is made only from roasted sesame seeds and nothing else. Check the ingredients, as some brands mix sesame oil with vegetable oil.

  • Fish Sauce
    It smells vile, but tastes remarkable when mixed as a sauce or seasoning. I use the Squid Brand fish sauce from Thailand. In spite of the menacing-looking cephalopoda on the label, fish sauce is made from salted and fermented anchovies.

  • Fresh Ginger
    Fresh ginger should always be rock-hard with no signs of mold or soft spots. You can peel ginger with a paring knife or vegetable peeler, but scraping it with a soup spoon works well to get around the nooks-and-crannies.

  • Water Chestnuts
    Fresh chestnuts are quite expensive in Paris, where they’re called chataigne d’eau. The only ones available were cryovac’d. When I got home, I tasted a few and they were so fermented that I had to toss them out. Luckily I bought some canned ones for insurance (proof that as you get older you get smarter), and used those. But the fresh are much better, and they’re easily available and inexpensive in Asian markets in the United States. If using canned water chestnuts, double the amount called for.

  • Shrimp
    Fresh shrimp is expensive and I’ve found that good-quality peeled raw shrimp is fine to use for dumplings.

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Sui Mai
About 60 Dumplings
Adapted from the repertoire of Bruce Cost

This is a lot of pork to chop.
Yes, it took me about an hour and it’s quite a good workout, but I didn’t feel the need to go to yoga today…although chopping all that meat may be
bad karma
, so perhaps I should go tomorrow for redemption. (Can you ‘bank’ karma?)

But the dumplings have a much better texture if you han-chop the pork and shrimp, although you could use a food processor, or buy pre-ground pork.

  • 2½ pounds (1 kilo) pork shoulder (palette de porc)
  • 1 pound (450 gr) shelled raw shrimp
  • 1 bunch scallions, well-chopped (use as much of the green part that's edible)
  • ½ bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoon salt
  • 2½ tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 large egg
  • 1½ tablespoons roasted sesame oil
  • 6 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons finely-minced fresh ginger (peel before chopping)
  • Round won ton wrappers (or square ones...if the largest Asian market in your city doesn't carry round ones)

1. Using a large kitchen cleaver, cut the pork into slices, then finely chop all the pork up. Put into a bowl.

2. Chop up the shrimp into small pieces and add to the bowl.

3. Use your hands to mix in the scallions, cilantro, fish sauce, salt, corn starch, egg, sesame oil, water chestnuts, and fresh ginger.

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Yummy looking? Well, not yet…

4. Form the meat mixture into balls about 1-inch (3 cm) and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

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Ok, much better…

5. Take a won ton wrapper and place a meatball in the center. Gather the edges up and press the wrapper against the meat making a little cylinder.

Repeat with remaining meatballs.

6. To steam the dumplings, line a bamboo steamer with banana leaves and oil them lightly. Turn on the heat, and once the steamer is hot, steam the dumplings until hot all the way through, which will take about 5 minutes. (You can also use a steamer basket lined with cheesecloth, or lightly oiled.)

Notes:
If you wish, the meatballs sans the won-ton wrappers can be gently dropped into simmering water and cooked for about 5 minutes, until cooked through, then served with the dipping sauce, or floating in soup.

Once steamed and cooled, the dumplings can be frozen in freezer-bags.

Dipping sauce

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger (peeled)
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons white Chinese vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon white pepper
3-4 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
1-2 teaspoons chili oil

Mix all the ingredients together. Serve with the hot, steamed dumplings.

The Soon-To-Be-Extinct Meme

Kevin at Seriously Good tagged me with this, The 2006 Food Challenge of This Year I Dare! You’re supposed to talk about things you’re going to do different in the kitchen this year.
Here’s a few…

Garbage Bags
I’m only going to buy premium, top-quality garbage bags this year. No more el-cheapo, whisper-thin bags that you could read Le Monde through.
I generate mounds of fruit peelings, coffee grounds, egg shells, and all sorts of other icky stuff that doesn’t exactly get any better if it sits around for a few days or so. The last thing I want on my trip to the garbage room in my building is another accident in the elevator. Trust me. Having your garbage spill in an enclosed space crammed full of your fancy Parisian neighbors, where your every single move is scrutized, really sucks.
Like cheap toilet paper, that’s not one of the places you want to skimp on quality.

Madeleines
I’m going to master le Madeleine. And I promise not to mention ‘Proust’ in the same paragraph as the word ‘madeleine’…ever.

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Yes, we all know he wrote extensively about eating one. But was he kind enough to include a recipe?
No.

What a jerk.

Vanilla Extract
I made the sorry error of buying cheap vanilla extract when I was in the US. Pure vanilla extract made from vanilla beans and alcohol is unavailable here. (Yes I do know, I’ve searched exhaustively. Please don’t leave comments that I don’t know where to look. The American-stores don’t count; I’m not paying those prices for tiny bottles of vanilla, the way I go through it. Read the ingredients. They all contain sugar, or no alcohol, and area labeled arôme, which ain’t pure extract.)

I was mesmorized by everything that’s available at Trader Joe’s on a recent visit to San Francisco.
People brag to me all the time, “I buy vanilla extract at Trader Joe’s! It’s so cheap! It’s only $4.99 per bottle! What a bargain!”, they go on and on and on and on…

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So I arrive back in Paris, twist off the top, and take a sniff. Phew!, this stuff smells like pure alcohol with maybe the idea of vanilla somewhere vaguely in the background.
Trader Joe’s has a lot of very good things, but their vanilla isn’t one of them. Nor is it a bargain. Cheap food that doesn’t taste good is no bargain.
And you may quote me on that. Or have it tatooed on your chest.
Or wherever you want.

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Then I checked at Vanilla.com and their Bourbon vanilla is the same price when you buy a quart. And believe me, it’s amazing. And a quart lasts me about a month. Especially when I’m making all these madeleines.

(Yes, there is shipping, but since if you live somewhere that you don’t get charged 10.21€ for calling customer service, you can afford to spring for it…)

Memes
I promised not to tag anyone for a meme anymore. It’s like getting a chain letter. You feel guilty for not answering it, and you feel like an idiot if you do. So I’m not going to tag anyone.

Ok…on second thought, I’m going to tag Michele and Cindy, just to be a brat.

Is that bad?