Real, live French women on why French women don’t get fat.
(via The Food Section)
Dinner in Paris generally starts at 8 pm, especially in restaurants. And most places don’t even open to take reservations until 7 o’clock. I once was talking to a visitor who was really upset as he recounted arriving 15 minutes early at a place that he had reservations for dinner. The staff was sitting down having dinner (how civilized!) and asked him to come back at 8, when the restaurant opened and the time of his reservation. He told me he threw a fit, not believing that they wouldn’t seat him, and stormed off. (I think I will try that next time I arrive at the airport early and throw a fit when they refuse to take off until the scheduled departure time.)
Anyone who’s worked in a restaurant knows how precious those few minutes of sitting down and eating are. Those moments of peace-and-quiet with your co-workers are the last chance to get off your aching feet for a spell and have a bite to eat. Especially since the next chance to sit down or eat something is likely to be well past midnight.
Parisians do dine rather late, and sometimes it can be a painfully long stretch between lunch and dinner. So French people often visit their local pâtisserie for an afternoon snack, known as le goûter, although nowadays Parisians often call it ‘le snack’.
Le snack is often nothing more than a buttery financier or a tender Madeleine. At home, French children at home are often given a split piece of baguette with a bâton of chocolate tucked inside to keep them happy until dinner.
But my snack of choice is invariably les chouquettes: Cream puffs covered with crunchy nuggets of sugar, then baked until golden-brown. The eggy, pillowy puffs are piled uneventfully behind the counter and sold in crisp little paper sacks, each one holding about 100 grams, or about 10. I found that engaging the counter person in a few words of niceties will often mean that before the ends of the bag are twisted shut, a few more will be tossed in as a petit cadeau for l’americain.
Nothing is easier to make than chouquettes and you can bake them tonight with ingredients you likely already have on hand. Unfortunately I don’t know where in your country you can buy the very coarse, crackly sugar that they use in France. But you can substitute any large-grained sugar that you have. And since I like to add chocolate to whatever I can, whenever I can, I press some chocolate chips into a few of the puffs before baking.
The ones with chocolate chips, needless to say, are always the first consumed once the puffs are cool enough to handle.
About 25 Puffs
From The Sweet Life in Paris (Broadway Books)
Shaping the mounds of dough is easiest to do with a pastry bag, although you can use two spoons or a spring-loaded ice cream scoop.
- 1 cup (250ml) water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 6 tablespoons (90g) unsalted butter, cut into small chunks
- 1 cup (135g) flour
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
Glaze: 1 egg yolk, mixed with 1 teaspoon milk
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees (220 C.) Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
2. Heat the water, salt, sugar, and butter in a small saucepan, stirring, until the butter is melted. Remove from heat and dump all the flour in at once. Stir rapidly until the mixture is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the pan.
3. Allow dough to cool for two minutes, then briskly beat in the eggs, one at a time, until smooth and shiny.
4. Using two spoons, scoop up a mound of dough with one spoon roughly the size of an unshelled walnut, and scrape it off with the other spoon onto the baking sheet.
5. Place the mounds evenly-spaced apart on the baking sheet. Brush the top of each mound with some of the egg glaze then press coarse sugar crystals over the top and sides of each mound. Use a lot. Once the puffs expand rise, you’ll appreciate the extra effort (and sugar.)
6. Bake the cream puffs for 35 minutes, or until puffed and well-browned.
(If you want to make them crispier, you can poke a hole in the side with a knife after you take them out of the oven to let the steam escape.)
The cream puffs are best eaten the same day they’re made. Once cooled, they can be frozen in a zip-top freezer bag for up to one month. Defrost at room temperature, then warm briefly on a baking sheet in a moderate oven, until crisp.
Is there anything more fabulous than something created through the wonder and miracle of caramelization?
Is there no means and ends that one won’t go to to experience that sigh with relief when one triumphantly pulls this perfectly-caramelized melange of butter, sugar, and salt out of their oven? I think not.
Those butter-loving Bretons invented this unique gâteau for delivering the maximum dose of caramel: an all-encompassing dessert, which does double-duty at tea time. And I’ve been obsessed with figuring out how to make a perfect Kouign Amann, one of my favorite caramelized things in the world. And here are my results.
I searched long-and-wide for Kouign Amann recipes, which are rare…either they’re really sketchy, assuming that no one will actually dare to make it, or they didn’t work at all and I was left with a wet, buttery mess.
This week, I pulled disk-after-caramelized-disk out of my oven in a obsessive attempt to master this dessert that I love so much. This was also much to the delight of friends and neighbors, who never thought they could get enough Kouign Amann. After all my tinkering, by now they have.
I also learned why it was so hard to find a good Kouign Amann, it’s a bit of a challenge. So if you’d like to make a Kouign Amann, here’s a few tips I learned that will help you out before you get going…
(There is actually only one stick of butter in the recipe, 1 tablespoon per serving, so the resulting cake seems more buttery than it actually is.)
About 8 to 10 servings
- 1 tablespoon (12 g) active dry yeast, not instant
- ¾ cup (175 ml) tepid water
- 2 cups (260 g) all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 cup (200 g) sugar (which will be divided later)
- (Plus additional sugar for rolling out the pastry)
- 1 stick salted butter (110 g), cut into ½-inch (2 cm) pieces and chilled
- 2-3 tablespoons additional salted butter, melted
1. In a medium bowl, dissolve the yeast in the water with a pinch of sugar. Stir briefly, then let stand for 10 minutes until foamy.
2. Gradually stir the flour and salt. The dough should be soft, but not too sticky. Lightly dust your countertop with flour and transfer the dough onto it.
Knead the dough with your hands until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 3 minutes. If the dough is very sticky, knead in just enough flour, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough doesn’t stick to your hands.
3. Brush a medium bowl with melted butter, put the dough ball into the bowl. Cover, and let rest in a warm place for 1 hour.
4. Meanwhile, line a dinner plate with plastic wrap and set aside.
5.On a lightly floured countertop, roll the dough into a rectangle about 12″ x 18″ with the shorter sides to your left and right.
The dough may be sticky and difficult to handle. Use a metal pastry scraper to coax the dough into shape, and a minimal sprinkling of flour, as necessary.
(It will all be beautiful later, trust me.)
Distribute the butter in the center of the dough and sprinkle with ¼ cup (50 gr) of sugar. Grab the left side of the dough, lift and fold it over the center, than do the same with the right side (like a letter). You should have what resembles a 3-level pastry.
6. Sprinkle the entire length of the dough with ¼ cup (50 gr) of sugar and (without rolling) fold again into thirds, as before.
Place on the plastic wrap-covered dinner plate and chill for 1 hour.
(At this point, wipe excess flour from the countertop and dust the countertop with a rather liberal handful of sugar for rolling out the pastry again.)
7. Once chilled, remove dough from refrigerator.
Ease it away from the plastic onto the sugar-covered countertop.
(Use more sugar than shown. I was busy doing double-duty as the photographer and baker.)
Top the dough with ¼ cup (50 gr) of sugar, press it in a bit with your hands, and roll into a rectangle for the last time.
Now wasn’t it easier this time?
Again, fold into thirds and let rest in the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes.
8. Preheat oven to 425° F (220° C) and brush a 9-inch (23cm) pie plate, preferably non-stick, with melted butter.
9. Remove dough from refrigerator. Roll dough into a circle about the size of the baking pan. It will be sticky; dusting the top with a sprinkle of sugar will help.
Once rolled, lift the dough and coax it into the pan. (It will want to break. If so, fold it in half and quickly slide something flat under it, like the metal bench scrape AND a metal spatula and quickly slip it into the pan. If it does break, just piece it back together in the pan.)
10. Sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup (50 gr) of sugar and drizzle with 1 tablespoon melted butter.
Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the top is deeply caramelized. Let stand a few minutes, then run a spatula around the edges to release the Kouign Amann and slide the cake from the pan onto a cooling rack.
Kouign Amann Links
Since this is an unusual recipe, readers may appreciate a few links and photos from people who’ve made it successfully:
A reader in France shows off her Kouign Amman results. (She used a false-bottom pan, which leaked a bit.)
Kouign Amann (Flickr stream)
Another Kouign Amann, made using American ingredients.
Served with Love makes this Kouign Amann.
French Letters shows-off a buttery example as well.
When you think of ‘take-out’, France perhaps isn’t the first culture that comes to mind.
The concept to me seems so American; pick up the phone or walk to the corner, grab something to eat, bring it home and eat it in front of the television.
Nice and quick…and no dishes!
In spite of what you might think, France has plenty of take-out food shops, called traiteurs. These specialty shops are loaded with tempting things to eat: roasted and smoked meats, a few carefully-selected cheeses, vegetable salads, poached and cured fish, and of course, terrines and pâtes.
Although I don’t usually visit the traiteur, since I like to cook for myself and friends, i was in serious pursuit of Kig ha Farz, a Breton curiosity that’s made by making a gargantuan ‘dumpling’ of buckwheat flour, eggs, butter, and milk or cream, stirring them together and simmering the whole thing in a special linen sack (and yes, I bought one in Brittany to make this in the future.)
After the giant dumpling is cooked, the bag is rolled and rolled until the dumpling’s been broken up into tiny, couscous-like pieces. It’s heaped onto a plate and served with smoked bacon or lard, as they call it in France. Although I’ve seen recipes that call for vegetables served alongside, no one seemed to be requesting any…and there didn’t seem to be any on offer.
After hearing about Kig ha Farz for years, I was very curious and eager to try it. Acting on a tip from a friend’s Breton mother, I found one of the few remaining places in the world that still makes Kig ha Farz…and they make it only on Wednesdays.
Sure enough, when I arrived, there was a huge mob barely forming a line…and the frantic, but cheerful saleswomen were spooning Kig ha Farz into take-out barquettes as fast as they could (and most couldn’t resist picking and eating little morsels as they scooped. I can’t say I blame them…I’d do the same, if no one was watching. Take that to those of you who think I’m too uptight about food sanitation!)
Sporting a seriously-treacherous butcher’s knife, only then would the crowd part just long enough for them to hack off a slab of smoked bacon, wrap it in butcher-paper, and send you on your way. Once I was lucky to escape (alive), I went back to the house and wolfed down a plate of Kig ha Farz…then immediately had seconds, giving little to the thought that in just a few hours I’d have to don a swimsuit to return to the beach.
And the little French swimsuits leave no room for imagination, or expansion, caused by too much Kig ha Farz and lard.
Surely the most well-known take-away treats in Brittany are crêpes, which are impossible to avoid no matter where you go. I woke extra-early one morning to scour a local Vide-Grenier (similar to a flea market, but more like a large, free-form garage sale.) There I scored a stack sumptuous, unused vintage French linen sheets (for about the price of one French linen pillowcase in the US) from a rather nasty woman…an encounter which would make a visit to the oral surgeon seem pleasurable.
Thankfully there were dilligent crêpemakers there, swirling the eggy batter over the hot griddle, dotting them with salty butter and a dusting of crunchy sugar, passing off the warm, folded crêpes to hungry and beat-upon shoppers….aka: moi!.
Later in the day, it was back to the traiteur and to make a picnic for the beach.
It was a perfectly clear day, blue sky, delicious food and red wine…gentle waves lapping as I fell asleep in the warm sand…where I dreamed of many future nights, dozing away in my cozy bed between luxurious, hard-won linen sheets…with a big, round tummy…full of Kig ha Farz!
Just an hour or so from Paris is the medieval market at Le Neubourg where each wednesday locals crowd the market, choosing their fresh fruits and vegetable, regional raw-milk cheeses and just-churned golden-yellow crocks of butter, along with meats and hand-stuffed sausages from the jovial local bouchers, doling out crispy morsels of sautéed charcuterie.
It’s the kind of market where if you ask the poultry person for a quail, they’ll stick their hands in a box, there’ll be a flurry of activity within, the unsettling sound of ruffling feathers and squalking…then calm. A few seconds later, your dinner will emerge. The medival market at Le Neubourg is the real thing and has existed for hundreds of years and some of the wares are not for the squeemish.
Nowadays you’ll find vendors selling crisp frites sprinkled liberally with crystals of sel de Guérande, cheery Arabic vendors hawking frangant olive oil soaps, and rubber-booted fishermen presiding over piles of glistening mussels from nearby Brittany.
Being a baker, I think (and hope), has good karma. No animals have been harmed in the making of any of my desserts.
So aside from the live birds and furry bunnies for sale, what wowed me of course was the abundance of berries on display. Juding from the sweet perfume of the raspberries and the plumpness of the currants (as well as the stained fingers of the farmers) they’d obviously just been picked.
Just in case anyone thinks that learning French is difficult, my French workbook offers this simple explanation of how to easily construct a phrase.