Friday, September 30, 2011

Paris Foodie Top Four

Sacre ceour

My friend Kate frequently makes everyone around a dinner table recount their "top four" - this means your list of your Top Four of absolutely everything in the world. Friends' top fours shift over the years, but Kate seems to have an endless memory for every permutation over time and can recount various "top fours" and place them in a time line. For instance, she recalls with glee the day that "comfortable silences" replaced "great sex" on my Top Four. I still maintain this was not a deliberate exchange!

More recently my Top Four has included 1) fresh sheets, 2) reading a can't-put-it-down novel under my doona on a cold day, and - as a result of this week in Paris - two new additions: 3)French champagne aperitifs and 4) nutmeg (especially in a chilled leek soup on a hot night). Of course, all Top Four entries are subject to change without notice.

Kitsch cordials for sale!

So, what exactly have we been up to in Paris, you might ask? Well, in the spirit of Kate, I give you my Paris Foodie Top Four (so far...again, subject to change without notice). These are not in any order!

1) Unexpectedly good treats in the most unexpected of places... For example, a fresh baked brioche on the way to buy a GPS for our road trip to Gascony. It was still warm and studded with melted chocolate chips, wrapped in a twist of paper and devoured while walking the streets. I even licked my fingers. Also, a spur-of-the-moment canele (an incredibly moist cake dipped in some sort of clear, vanilla bean laden glaze) bought on the Ile Saint-Louis as I wandered past a tiny little bakery. I am not sure what is in it, but if you ever see one, buy it. Or the bijoux street market we came across today in Place de Madeleine, complete with haughty fish monger and the most beautiful roses. All unexpected treats when they are least anticipated. Maybe that's what makes them so good.

Food markets outside Madeliene Church

Figs at the market

I love French roses!

2) White truffles. We spent our lunch break in the Maison de la Truffe, the House of Truffles, eating delicious pasta with white truffle - we were told it's currently in season - shaved over the top. Divine! More subtle that black truffle, with all the earthy flavor I love. Mum ordered the truffle ice cream, and I have to say my taste of it was pretty fabulous. The Maison de la Truffe is still a family owned business, serving up truffles since 1932, and well worth the visit.

Mason de Truffe


White truffle tagliatelle

3) Pine nut flavored ice-cream from Berthillon, a Parisian institution, on the Ile Saint-Louis. The salted caramel ice-cream came a close second.




4) Dinner at Gaspard de la Nuit, a family-owned old style bistro near the Marais (6 Rue Des Tournelles) where the tradition of unpretentious French cuisine is alive and well - along with a trolley laden with just as venerable armagnac. The hostess was welcoming and the food delicious. My attempt to replicate the chilled leek soup with a hint of nutmeg will be hitting Four Figs in due course.



A close fifth has to be dinner tonight at which I sampled roast grouse stuffed with fois grois for the first time - grouse should be more common on Australian tables!

Tomorrow we are off to Gascony, so I of course reserve the right to amend my French Top Four accordingly...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bon Voyage!

So we have arrived in Paris and even in 24 hours we've already packed more foodie moments into our day (and two nights) than I usually cram into weeks in Canberra. My feet are also aching from all the walking, but I am pretty sure - given the good food and wine we've been consuming - that all this exercise is probably for the best!

Here are some of the highlights so far - I cannot believe we have a whole week in Paris to enjoy!

Hotel du Louvre

You see some weird and wonderful things on the streets of Paris. Our jet lag took us walking on the streets in the dark of early morning, watching the delivery vans unloading produce and the street cleaners going about their business. In small cafes staff were setting up their tables and joggers sweating their way along the cobbled back streets.

A morning cafe au lait

There's something beautiful in the quiet, hushed dark of the earlier morning. But finally, the sun was up. We consumed a morning cafe au lait and were on our way, walking through the Tuileries and down the Seine on our way to find Julia and Paul Childs' Parisian apartment on the Left Bank.

Julia Child's apartment

Several photo ops and rest breaks (thank god for the cafes on every corner) we found it! Photos were taken, a small dog walking past was petted and our only regret for the morning's excursion was that we had neglected to buy a pat of butter to leave as an offering on Julia's old doorstep. I can't imagine what the dog's well-heeled owner would have thought of that little eccentricity.

A bridge over the Seine

Next on the Julia Child Tour of Paris was a walk back across the Seine and through the financial district (La Bourse) to Dehellerin, an kitchen ware store reminiscent of old hardware stores and one of Julia's favorite spots. We indulged in a pair of sturdy chicken scissors (the kind you use to chop whole chickens onto pieces) and a good sharp knife for the journey to Gascony later this week. The fact that everything in the store needed a good dust and the store room with the copper pots is a bit of a fire death trap just served to make the place that much more magical. Strange how the French manage that!


Then onto the Marais for a spot of lunch. Our feet aching, we decided on a cafe famous for its Breton buckwheat crepes and apple cider. Sadly for us, on arrival following a long, sweaty walk past the Pompidou Centre we found the place closed for renovations and our hopes of a nice chair and hot cider dashed. It was really for the best, as it turned out, because it meant we wandered a bit further and found the marvelous Le Loir Dans La Theiere (The Doormouse in the Teapot) on Rue Des Rosiers. And what a find it was!

The Doormouse in the Teapot

The Doormouse in the Teapot

One perfectly cooked steak with caramelized red onion, one deliciously light linguine with rocket and lemon zest, and two glasses of vin blanc later and we were refreshed and relaxed enough for me to turn my attention to the desserts. Incredible! The tarte aux nectarines was a wonderful combination of crisp pastry, sweet nectarine and smooth custard, but they also had a lemon meringue pie that looked as if a mountain of fluffy meringue cloud had touched lightly on top of it, a fig tart that was a close second for my nectarine choice, and an millefille of vanilla cream and crisp, dark puff pastry that looked delicious. Even the service was fabulous - friendly, fast and very understanding of our incredibly poor French language skills...some would say non-existent. And it was a revelation to me that nectarines and rosemary work so well together!

The dessert display

More desserts!

Tarte aux nectarines

Restored, refreshed and slightly more relaxed from the wine, we wandered down Rue Des Rosiers to admire the Jewish bakeries lining the street. Filled with a sweet melange of Middle Eastern, Eastern European and French-with-a-twist baked goods, these are a must see - just make sure you go before you eat your two course lunch, and not after like we did!

Finkelstein's bakery

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sugar 'N Spice Loaf Cake (...with a Sidetrip to France)

To those of you who have spent any time with me in the last month, you would be aware that I am heading off for a wonderful holiday in France with the Cooking Fairy Godmother (aka my mum).  We're going on the mother of all girly holidays and, given our foodie tendencies, it will be no surprise to any of you that the second part of the trip will be spent at Kate Hill's lovely cooking school in Gascony.    The first week will be spent in Paris following in the footsteps of Julia Child, finding the perfect macaron and taking as many opportunities to sample champagne as possible!

I will be checking in as often as possible with photos and updates on our foodie adventures.  In the meantime, I leave you with a delicious loaf cake with spicy flavours from one of my retro-favourite cookbooks, The Southern Living Cookbook.

The cinnamon and nutmeg (it originally called for ground cloves, but this appears to be the one spice I don't have in my pantry) undertones in the cake are all you need to make this loaf cake a little bit special - no frosting required.  Although, I'm sure a little light glaze would not have hurt at all.

I was making this to package up for my Grandma to have in the afternoon with a cup of coffee while Mum and I are away.  It's a quick and basic recipe that's perfect if you're looking for something to take along to the office morning tea.  I also think this would go nicely with a cup of mulled wine by the fire, but maybe that's just me!


Sugar 'N Spice Loaf Cake


-  3/4 cup butter (softened)
-  1 cup white sugar
-  3/4 cup dark brown sugar
-  3 eggs
-  2 1/4 cup plain flour
-  1 teaspoon baking powder
-  3/4 teaspoon baking soda
-  1/2 teaspoon salt
-  3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
-  1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
-  1 cup buttermilk
-  1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celcius and butter/line a loaf tin.

Cream the butter and add the two sugars until fluffy and a lovely caramel colour.  Add the eggs, one at a time, while the beater is on a medium speed.  Make sure it's combined well and scrape the sides down.




In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, rising agents, salt and spices together - this sure beats the hell out of sifting it!   Now add the flour, one third at a time, alternating with the buttermilk.  Add the vanilla extract.  Don't over beat it, just use the mixer on a medium speed and stop as soon as it's combined and smooth.  If you mix it too much, it will toughen up the result.



Dollop into the prepared cake tin and pop in the oven for approximately 40 minutes, or until the cake tester comes out clean.  Allow to cool in its tin before removing or it will split!


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pumpkin and Sweetcorn Soup


If you're looking for a fragrant spin on a classic dish with a tight budget, then you're looking for this recipe.  The soup has a smooth and creamy texture - with no cream required - and freezes beautifully for lunches throughout the week.

The small can of light coconut cream I have used can be omitted if you want to keep it simple, but do try it the first time as even a small amount of coconut cream gives the soup a spicy fragrance that elevates this recipe well beyond the standard pumpkin soup.  If you want to enhance the Thai flavours further, add a tablespoon of red curry paste when you soften the onions at the beginning of the recipe.


The sweetcorn was a moment of genius - I added it because corn was ridiculously cheap at the market on the weekend, and I couldn't resist a great deal.  The corn really enhances the butternut pumpkin's sweetness while adding a thicker texture to the soup that makes it very filling.  I used the technique (adding the denuded corn cobs to the stock) from a sweetcorn shot soup recipe that is a standard for me when corn is in season.  I promise to share the recipe for that one with you soon.

The quantity produced will give four adults a very hearty serving (team with crusty bread for a wholesome Sunday night meal) or, in the case of a singleton such as myself, one hearty dinner and about five smaller lunch portions.  Just what a gal saving for a holiday needs in her repertoire!


Pumpkin and Sweeetcorn Soup

- 2 small or 1 large red onion, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, diced
- 1 kilogram butternut pumpkin, diced
- 1 cup milk
- 270 ml (small) can light coconut cream (optional)
- 2 corn cobs, kernels removed while raw and cobs reserved for the stock
- 3 cups vegetable stock
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste

Remove the kernels from the corn cobs by holding the cob vertical on a chopping board and using a knife to slice downwards.  Keep the denuded cobs for the stock.  Now dice your pumpkin into inch thick pieces.




Heat the olive oil in the bottom of a stockpot on a medium-high heat.  Soften the onion and garlic in the oil for around 10 minutes.  Add the pumpkin and corn kernels, and stir over a medium-high heat for around 4 minutes.



Sprinkle a tablespoon of water over the pumpkins, add pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of pepper, then put the lid on the stockpot and leave for ten minutes to sweat.  Check it every so often to ensure it hasn't gone dry, but other than that don't fuss.  This will smell amazing every time you take the lid off.

Pour the stock, milk and coconut cream over the top of the pumpkin and corn.  Submerge the cobs in the liquid.  Stir to mix then bring to the simmer.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover for 30 minutes.

After allowing the soup to cool a little, use a stick blender to make the pumpkin soup silky smooth.  Add salt and pepper to taste, blending as you go to make sure the seasoning is evenly distributed.  Serve in large bowls with chopped coriander sprinkled on top or a dollop of sour cream.

If you want to increase the Thai flavours, you should add 1 tablespoon of yellow curry paste to the onions when you soften them with the garlic at the very start of the recipe.


Friday, September 9, 2011

In Season at the Canberra Region Farmers' Market

My (very early) morning foray to the Canberra Region Farmers' Market confirmed two things: 1) it's still very cold and spring has definitely not yet arrived, despite it being early September, and 2) there's a lot of fabulous produce starting to arrive as vegetable patches and market gardens around the region begin to get back to work!

Here's what's fresh and in season at this weekend's Farmers' Market.

Grab yourself some broccoli (and also cauliflower) - it's cheap, it's delicious, it's everywhere you look, piled up in pyramids of green florets. I bought a 1 kilo bag of broccoli for $3.


Rhubarb is also stacked high on tables throughout the markets. Don't eat the leaves, but cook up the stems with plenty of sugar, orange juice and water for a delicious stewed fruit mix to drizzle over yoghurt, muesli or ice-cream. Or dredge slices with sugar and cover with a flour-and-butter crumble for the perfect baked dessert.


Also available (and a personal favourite) is fresh young garlic. It's sold with the stems attached - I've chopped mine off for easy storage in the fridge. It's still very soft and you can't really divide it into cloves, so just dice it like an onion or a shallot all the way up the stem to the point where the leaves grow, then fry and use as you would normal garlic for an amazing flavour hit. It's sweeter than normal garlic and goes particularly well in mashed potatoes... which is what this lot is going into. The best price I saw for a bunch of this was $2.50... beware the stalls that want to charge you $4 plus.

Fresh garlic

Now is the time to get to the markets - the variety and number of stalls is picking up and the crowds have not yet arrived!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes

I hope you all enjoyed the guest blog by Ryan - his Auntie Vi's custard cake is a winner... and he might also have won serious brownie points (ahem, bad pun alert) by giving me a bag of fine, single-origin Lindt dark cooking chocolate.  As a result, I bring you a double hit of Four Figs this week!



When given a kilo of Lindt chocolate it's actually surprisingly difficult to narrow down the recipe options.  Over coming weeks I am definitely going to give David Lebovitz's chocolate bread a try and I think a chocolate shortcrust is also on the list.  But for now, I decided to adapt Martha Stewart's Lavender-Iced Brownie Cupcakes just in time for a picnic under the blossom trees down by the lake.   The benefit of having the brownies encased in cupcake papers, rather than baked in a pan and sliced, is their portability for things like picnics.  Just remember to pick up the wrappers and drop them off in a bin afterwards.


I left out the lavender icing from Martha's recipe as I was under some time constraints and didn't want to wait for the brownies to cool enough to spoon icing over the top.  To be honest, I think icing on top of the gooey sweetness of the brownies may be just be a little too much sugar.  I can see how, for presentation, the icing helps cover the collapsed domes of the brownie bases when they come out of the oven but, personally, I love the cracked tops.  A little imperfection every now and again doesn't hurt, especially when the results taste this good.

I also added chopped roasted hazelnuts to add crunch and interest - you could also add chocolate chunks, pecans or walnuts to the mix instead (or in addition to).  I think this is important to add a little something extra if you are keeping the cupcakes plain and un-iced, which I recommend you do.  The pinch of salt adds an amazing element to this that you wouldn't want overwhelmed by too much sweet icing.


Chocolate Brownie Cupcakes

-  3/4 cup plain flour
-  1/2 teaspoon baking powder
-  1/2 teaspoon salt (I love Maldon sea salt)
-  3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate (I used Lindt 70% dark Ecuador cooking chocolate), chopped
-  1 cup diced unsalted butter
-  1 1/3 cup white sugar
-  1 teaspoon vanilla extract
-  3/4 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts (you can use pecans, walnuts or chocolate chunks)

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celcius and line your cupcake tins - this made 15 cupcakes filled 2/3rds with batter.  You could probably make more if you put less in each cupcake liner and then topped it up with icing as the original recipe called for.   For me, the more batter in each liner, the larger and gooey-er the cupcake at the end.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.  This will get the ingredients distributed through more evenly and still add air to the flour, like sifting does.




Next, melt the butter and chocolate in a heat-proof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.

In a mixer (or using a hand-held beater) on medium speed, beat together the melted chocolate and butter with the white sugar.  When combined, beat in the eggs then the vanilla extract.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary.



Add the flour mixture, mixing just until combined.  Fold through the chopped hazelnuts, or other chocolate chunks or nuts.  Spoon the mix into the paper wrappers - each should be about two-thirds full.


Bake in the oven until skewers inserted into the cakes come out clean.  This took around 20 minutes in my oven, but keep an eye on them.  Don't overcook though - they need to be just a little gooey when they have cooled.  Allow to cool on a wire rack.  They will crack and collapse as they cool, but don't worry!  They'll still taste amazing and I think their disreputable appearance is part of their charm.

Chocolate brownie cupcakes