Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Part II: Pumpkin Apple Bread

As we talked about a few days ago, my household and I are currently working our way through two large crates of apples. And as I've mentioned on the blog before, I like squash. A lot. So sometime last week, as I was plotting my next strategic attack against the glut of apples, I decided to employ a natural fall companion to the round red fruits: my old buddy, the squash. I had some potiron left over from the squash pasta I had made, so I cut it into a few pieces and threw it into a steamer basket set over some hot water. Ten minutes later, it was soft and scoopable, and peeled away from its thick green skin without putting up a fight. I mashed it up in a bowl until it was smooth, and, together with some flour, baking powder, sugar, oil, eggs, and of course those apples, made this:

It's a pumpkin apple bread, and if you take the 20 minutes needed to produce it (10, if you use canned pumpkin), it just might become your new favorite breakfast. Although this looks like a cake, it's really not that sweet; however, it is supremely moist thanks to all the apple bits nestled within, the perfect bed for some cool, tangy plain yogurt, sprinkled with brown sugar, which is how I took to eating this during the two mornings it was around for. In the mood for something a little sweeter, a little richer? Then stay tuned: I've got a recipe for a classic apple coffee cake coming up in Part III.

Pumpkin Apple Bread
Makes 1 loaf
Adapted from Libby's Pumpkin


1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 c. dark brown sugar
1 1/2 c. puréed pumpkin, or use canned pumpkin
2 eggs
1/2 c. vegetable oil
2 large apples, cut into medium-sized chunks


1. Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a medium-sized glass baking dish, or use a round bundt pan.
2. If using fresh pumpkin, take a small portion and cut it into large chunks, removing any seeds. Place in a steamer basket and steam, covered, until very tender, about 10 minutes. Remove. Peel skin away and discard; mash pumpkin in a bowl until smooth.
3. Combine flour, cinnamon, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.
4. Whisk together the sugar, pumpkin purée, eggs, and vegetable oil. Add wet ingredients to dry and stir until just combined. Add apple chunks and stir to incorporate. Pour into prepared baking dish and shake the dish to distribute the batter evenly.
5. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool on a rack before slicing.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A bushel of apples

A day or two before I arrived at my new home in Toulouse, my roommates purchased a huge supply of potatoes (white- and red-skinned), onions, shallots, and two kinds of apples. Apparently there had been a vendor going door-to-door through the neighborhood, selling bulk produce at low prices. I didn't know this type of thing still happened, but I think it's great. Needless to say, we've been eating our fair share of the haul, and we've still barely made a dent in it:

I, personally, have been focusing my culinary attentions on the apples, because they're a ready-made excuse to bake. As I've discussed many times on the blog, I really prefer to cooking to baking, but that said, there's definitely something soothing about the latter. Since I'm in a new place and don't really have a set schedule yet, baking is both a) something to do with an otherwise free afternoon and b) a centering exercise in the face of so much change. I'm also loving baking for a 4-person household, because it means that my creations actually get eaten in a timely fashion. At home, when I lived with just one other roommate, most of my desserts inevitably ended up in the freezer after a few days.

So far I've made three apple desserts and I'm still going strong. So get ready, folks, for a 3-part series on Apple Desserts. I figure I should start out by talking about the most quintessentially French pastry I've made: tarte Tatin. I think tarte Tatin is well-known in the U.S., but I'd wager that American cooks hesitate to make it, and I believe I know why: it's the caramel. Yes, tarte Tatin involves making a caramel, but it's not the fussy sugar-and-water kind that's unpredictable, prone to scorching and sticking to your favorite pot; rather, it's a butter-and-sugar mixture that doesn't burn but turns a rich, dark amber color and fills your entire kitchen with an unbelievably enticing aroma.

There are two ways to make this simple dessert. The traditional, and easier, way to make it is a one-pot affair: you cook the sliced apples together with the caramel in an ovenproof skillet; when the caramel gets dark and the apples slightly soft, you cover the whole thing with a layer of pastry and pop it in the oven. That's it! Unfortunately for me, there wasn't an ovenproof skillet to be found in my new abode (a kitchen without a slick, seasoned cast iron skillet is something of an abomination in my opinion, but I digress). Fortunately, though, the backup method of making tarte Tatin is also a piece of cake (so to speak), and you also get more control over the color (and therefore the flavor) of the caramel you'll make. All you do is cook the butter and sugar together in a saucepan, stirring frequently, until it reaches the shade you desire. I let my caramel get pretty dark, because I like the bitter notes that come out in a dark caramel; they help offset its sugary sweetness. Once that happens, you pour the caramel out into the dish you'll bake the tart in:

Then, while the caramel is still soft, arrange the cut apples over it, fitting them in tightly. You can quarter the apples, but I like to leave them in halves, because I think the result is prettier. I put the round sides down, so that they'll be face up when the tart gets inverted after baking:

At this point you'll want to pop the dish into the oven and bake it until the apples soften. They won't cook that much longer once the pastry lid goes on, so make sure they're about 75% cooked. Then place the round of pastry on top (if you didn't trim it beforehand, like me, you can just fold the excess back):

Then the tart goes back in the oven, and bakes until the pastry is nice and brown:

At this point the tart will have to cool in the pan for 10 to 30 minutes, so that the caramel sets somewhat. Otherwise, it would all just run out all over the plate you'll turn invert it onto. It won't be easy to wait, but it will be worth it in the end, when you present your friends with this thing of beauty:

The classic French way of serving this dessert is with a dollop of créme fraiche, and it's easy to understand why: the sour tang of the cream cuts through the sweetness of the apples, and it's also cool against the warmth of the just-out-of-the-oven tart. If for some reason you can't find créme fraiche, you can fold some whipped cream into some sour cream. Et voilà! An easy, delicious and oh-so-French dessert:

Apple Tarte Tatin
Adapted from
Serves 8


1 package (usually 17 1/4 oz.) frozen puff pastry, preferably all-butter, thawed
1/4 c. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. sugar
6 or 7 firm, tart apples, such as Granny Smith, peeled and halved or quartered, and cored

Preparation (skillet method):

1. Preheat the oven to 400°.
2. Roll out puff pastry and trim to size of the skillet you'll be using. Prick pastry all over with a fork. Set aside, preferably in the fridge or freezer to keep cold.
3. Spread butter over the bottom of a 10" or 12" seasoned cast iron skillet, then sprinkle sugar all over the butter. Add the apples, fitting them into the pan tightly, round sides facing down. Cook mixture, undisturbed, over medium-high heat for about 20 minutes, until juices are a dark golden color.
4. Place the skillet in the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until apples are about 75% cooked. Remove skillet from oven and lay the pastry round over the apples. Place skillet back in the oven and bake for about 20 more minutes, until pastry is browned. Remove tart from the oven and allow to cool for 10 to 30 minutes.
5. Invert pastry onto a serving plate. Apples should come free easily; if any of them stick, just put unstick them and fit them onto the tart. Cut into 8 wedges and serve with créme fraiche (or alternatively, some sour cream lightened with whipped cream).

Preparation (alternative method): If you don't have an oven-safe skillet, you can make the dessert like this.

1. Preheat the oven to 400°.
2. Roll out puff pastry and trim to size of the baking dish you'll be using. Prick pastry all over with a fork. Set aside, preferably in the fridge or freezer to keep cold.
3. In a medium suacepan, cook the butter and sugar together over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until caramel reaches a dark golden color, about 10 to 12 minutes. Pour caramel into a 10" or 12" round baking dish.
4. While caramel is still warm, arrange the apples over it, fitting them into the dish tightly, round sides facing down. Place the dish in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes, or until apples are about 75% cooked.
5. Remove dish from oven and lay pastry round over the top. Place tart back in the oven and bake until pastry is browned, about 20 more minutes. Remove tart from the oven and allow to cool for 10 to 30 minutes.
6. Invert pastry onto a serving plate. Apples should come free easily; if any of them stick, just unstick them and fit them onto the tart. Cut into 8 wedges and serve with créme fraiche (or alternatively, some sour cream lightened with whipped cream).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lovely lovely lard

One of the best products available in French supermarkets is lardons, or small strips of salt- (not smoke-) cured bacon. Delicious little morsels of porky goodness, here in France they come pre-cut and portioned into small plastic packs that cost less than 2 euros.

Lardons are kind of a go-to ingredient that are perfect for those times when you might feel a lack of culinary inspiration. I can't think of many dishes that aren't improved with the addition of a bit of pork fat, especially when you're making a flavor base of things like sautéed onions and garlic. When you add the little bits to a hot pan, their soft salty fat melts away into the other ingredients, and the pink savory meat crisps up, adding a nice textural contrast to whatever you're making.

The French use lardons in a huge variety of dishes, the most well-known of which is probably coq au vin, the classic stewed chicken with mushrooms, or perhaps boeuf bourgignon, another wintry dish of beef braised in red wine. Among the more casual and less labor-intensive uses for lardons, quiche Lorraine definitely stands out. I've already seen my roommates and their friends make this dish twice, and I've only been here for about two weeks. Quiche Lorraine is incredibly easy to prepare and calls for only a few ingredients besides the lardons: sliced leeks or onions; créme fraiche; eggs; Gruyere cheese; and a pastry crust, either homemade or (most often) store-bought. I think of quiche Lorraine as the French answer to, say, a big pot of pasta and a salad, or something along those lines, which is usually what we Americans throw together when we want to have a big group of people over for dinner without thinking too much about (or spending too much money on) what we want to make.

Although it might seem as though this post is heading in the logical direction of sharing a recipe for quiche Lorraine, that is not, in fact, what I am about to do (I'll definitely devote a post to the subject later on, seeing as how the quiche and I basically share the same name). Instead, I'm going to tell you about a "recipe" I invented on the fly yesterday, when I was hankerin' for some déjeuner. When I got up to the kitchen, my roommate Ben had already made a big pot of pasta; I also noticed a potiron that had been cut into and was begging to be used up. When I opened the fridge and saw the packet of lardons, I thought of the pairing of salty pork and sweet squash and started salivating. I quickly peeled and sliced up a small portion of squash and set it over some hot water to steam while I sautéed the lardons with some chopped leeks and garlic:

When the squash was just tender, I drained it, stirred it into the leek mixture along with some water, olive oil and salt, and admired the pretty fall colors that resulted:

Finally, I stirred in the cooked al dente pasta, heated it through, and piled it all into a bowl. A little grated cheese and I had a sweet, salty, porky, nutty autumn lunch. All hail the power of pork!

Pasta with Squash, Leeks and Lardons
Serves 4


1 lb. dried pasta such as penne, ziti or rotini
1 small or 1/2 medium sweet winter squash, such as butternut, acorn or kabocha, peeled, de-seeded, and sliced thinly
1 leek, white part only, sliced thinly and rinsed of any dirt or grit
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 c. or about 4 oz. lardons, or use pancetta or bacon sliced into small strips
Olive oil
Grated Parmesan cheese


1. Set a large pot of water to boil.
2. Place the squash in a steamer basket over a small amount of water and steam until tender, about 6 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, heat 3 tbsp. olive oil in a wide, heavy saucepan. Sauté the leek, garlic and lardons until the pork has rendered most of its fat and the leeks turn tender, about 5 minutes.
4. Salt the pasta water and boil pasta until al dente, about 10 - 12 minutes. Reserve a small amount of pasta water and then drain.
5. Drain the squash and add it to the saucepan, stirring well. Incorporate a little pasta water and season to taste with salt and pepper.
6. Add the drained pasta to the saucepan and stir. If pasta is too dry, add some more pasta water and/or olive oil. Divide among 4 bowls, topping each with grated Parmesan.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

France: a little history

That is, about my personal experience in France, and what brings me here this time around--not French history! (References to Marie Antoinette and a familiarity with Monet's water lilies only get one so far...)

I'm here in Toulouse this year doing something called TAPIF, or the Teaching Assistant Program in France. It's a program run by the French government that, every year, hires thousands of Americans (and some Brits) to come over and help French children in the public school system all over the country to practice English language skills. I'll be working in 3 écoles primaires, or lower schools, alongside the teachers in those classrooms. I won't really be responsible for things like homework, discipline, or curriculum; what I'm there to do is speak English, over and over again, so the kids get used to how it sounds coming from the mouth of a native speaker. I'm also expected to come up with fun, interactive learning exercises that will help cement the student's developing understanding of my langue maternelle.

The first time I visited France was during my freshman year of college. By wintertime, I had already withdrawn from the tiny liberal arts school in Minnesota that I had elected to attend, and was back in New York, taking classes at the New School, working a lot of catering hours, and generally wondering what else to do with myself. When spring rolled around and I still didn't have an answer to that question, I looked at the (relatively) fat stacks of money that I had earned catering, and thought: why not Paris? I'd never been there, but (despite my earlier joke about my lack of Franco knowledge) I had been reading and learning about it for years, mainly in the context of the treasure trove of artistic and cultural capital centered there. I also knew that my old babysitter Virginie lived there; when she graciously offered me the use of her tiny apartment for the 10 days of my stay, my decision was made.

Of course I loved Paris--who doesn't?--and I knew that I'd want to someday return to France and explore more of it. The opportunity didn't really roll around, however, until last fall, when I decided to take a 2-month break from the city life, and uproot myself to Europe, namely to Spain and France, to work on farms through the organization WWOOF. WWOOF, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, facilitates connections between farms all over the world who need a helping hand, and people who want to learn about agriculture. When you're interested in going to a particular country, you join its online network for a small fee; once inscribed, you can browse short descriptions of farms looking for aid. In exchange for your work, which is usually fairly basic and takes up about 4 or 5 hours of your day, you get three meals and a place to sleep. Although you don't make any money, you also don't spend any, so it's a great way to travel, and much more enriching than the usual touristic routes.

Now that you're armed with this background information, I can (finally) come to the main subject of this post: a woman named Emilie Missant, whose farm I worked on for one month last fall. Emilie and her husband live in a tiny village in the southeast of France called Lasalle. They run a small working farm and take their produce (bell peppers, eggplant, chilies, salad greens, the best tomatoes and sweetest strawberries I have ever tasted, bar none) to the tiny market in the town square three times a week. While Philippe handles most of the farm work, along with the WWOOFers, Emilie's in charge of the kitchen side of things, turning out jar after jar of pickles, relishes, and confitures (jams) that also get sold at the market. Emilie is an amazing cook, and what I loved most about her style was that it was so simple. She made things like soup, salad dressing, and bread almost every day; the recipes were rote to her and involved little effort, but they were immensely satisfying.

The single food item that I remember most from the farm in Lasalle was the potimarron, a sweet hard winter squash that's closely related to the kabocha. Like all of the produce that Emilie and Philippe grew, their potimarrons were incredibly flavorful and needed next to no adornment. Emilie would incorporate them into a lot of her cooking; I always commented on how sweet and delicious the squash was, and when I would ask Emilie what else was in the recipe, the answer was inevitably something like, "Oh, just a little garlic and oil," or "just some onions." Almost no spices, apart from salt and pepper; and yet the squash was positively bursting with flavor (I don't know about you, but I don't usually make an association between "squash" and "bursting with flavor").

My favorite potimarron dish of Emilie's was a simple puréed soup that the French would call a velouté, which refers to its creamy texture. It has exactly four ingredients: butter; garlic; onions; and squash. And it's delicious. As I've been harping on about on the blog, there's a vast world of flavors out there that we Americans often miss out on, simply because of the manner in which we raise our food (in factories, as opposed to on traditional farms). Fruits and vegetables that are cared for lovingly, and grown without the use of chemicals or hormones, instead of being treated like manufactured goods, have much more taste and, I suspect, more nutrition.

I've made this soup many times in the year since I learned the recipe, and I tweak it a little bit on each occasion. If I can't find kabocha, I use a different type of hard winter squash; I also vary the herbs and seasonings. Although Emilie's soup didn't really need any flavorings besides salt, since her garlic, onions, and squash were so good, I find that when I make this in America I need a little kick from cumin, paprika, or other warm spices. I made some last week here in France, with squash from the local market, which was very flavorful, but didn't quite live up to the memories of Emilie's soup. I guess I'll just have to go back to the farm for that!

Emilie's Velouté aux Potimarrons
Makes 10 - 12 servings


1 medium kabocha squash, or other hard winter squash like butternut or Hokkaido, peeled, de-seeded, and cut into large chunks
1 large or 2 medium onions, white or yellow, peeled and diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tbsp. butter
Optional: spices, such as ground cumin, dried thyme, sweet paprika


1. In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic along with a pinch of salt, and sweat (don't brown) for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
2. If using spices, add them to the onions and briefly sauté them. Add the cubed squash and stir to combine.
3. Add enough water to the pot to just cover the squash. It should be about 6 cups.
4. Bring soup to a boil then drop the heat to a simmer. Cover partially and cook until squash is tender, about 20 minutes.
5. Allow soup to cool briefly and then purée until smooth using a blender or an immersion blender. If soup appears too thin, try not to add all the cooking liquid. If it appears too thick, add some extra water. Check soup for seasoning and serve hot, preferably with a little dollop of créme fraiche.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Over the sea and far away

Well, hello there! It's been so long, I hardly recognize you! You look great!

So, it's been a while since I've written on this blog. It's not something I'm happy about, but I'm here today to make amends. And by "here," I mean Toulouse, France. That's right, folks: this Brooklyn girl has up and moved to Europe. I'll be spending 8 months in La France, teaching English to little kiddies in the public school system, hopefully having a few adventures, and surely eating very well. And I pledge to document that. I don't really know what made me lose interest in my blog all those many months ago, but I do know that once I made the decision to come to France, I was sure that my time abroad would provide me with some much-needed inspiration. Having decided that I would once again become a loyal blogger after my big move, it was hard to motivate myself to blog at all before I got here. But I'm here now, and blog I will!

I don't know if my cooking will be much different here in Toulouse, but I'm hoping that what I'll make will indeed reflect my new locale. And even if it doesn't, I intend to talk a little bit about what I notice about the food here, and how it differs from what we cook and eat in the United States.

There's one big thing to mention and although I'm sure it's no little known fact, I'll go on and tell you anyway. The food here is fresher and tastier than a lot of what's available back home. In general, French people (and possibly the greater European population) care a great deal about where their food comes from, and what it tastes like. As a result, the factory farms that produce the great, great majority of the meat and produce for sale in the U.S. haven't really caught on here. There's still a great tradition of market (not supermarket) shopping: fresh food, made here in France, that's sold by vendors in the street once or twice a week in smaller villages, and every day (in different locations) in larger cities like Toulouse. I don't know if it's a law or not, but at these markets, each and every item for sale lists its country (and often its region) of origin, and you'll quickly notice that with few exceptions, that country of origin is France. In the United States, the provenance of our food is hidden from us: when you go into a supermarket and buy, say, some apples, a bit of cheese, some crackers, it's likely that your haul has been flown in from 2 continents, maybe more. If you've eaten local food, you know that it tastes better. And so the food tastes better here.

I'll probably devote at least one post to street markets at a later date, but for right now I'll go down another path and talk about two very important food items here in France: bread and cheese. Again, not news: who doesn't think of bread and cheese (and wine) when they think of France? But the quality and accessibility of these two foods is truly remarkable. First of all, there are bakeries, or boulangeries, everywhere. Just all over the darn place. In my small residential neighborhood just outside the city center, there are 4 excellent boulangeries all within walking distance of my house. Each produces seven, eight, possibly more varieties of very good bread (plus five or six kinds of pastries), all baked fresh every single morning. A simple baguette, another cliché French image, is astoundingly good and astoundingly cheap, usually costing around 85 euro cents, or about a buck. (And baguettes really are all over the place. Walking in the street, you can't go long without seeing someone passing by with one or two long loaves tucked under their arm.) Another thing? The boulangeries are open 7 days a week. That's a big deal in a country where almost everything shuts down on Sundays, and people just hang out around the house, or around the café, drinking coffee and chatting. It shows you where French priorities are, though: they simply can't go 24 hours without their daily bread.

The perfect match for a nice baguette is, of course, some well-made cheese. Again, there's no shortage of that here: France produces over 400 varieties of cheese, and each year the French people lament the loss of various kinds of traditional cheeses as they fall out of production or popularity. That's a subject, too, for another post; but suffice it to say that to my American eyes, there's still a lot of excellent cheese to be had here. Many of the most well-loved French cheeses, such as the iconic Camembert, can't even be tasted in their true form in the U.S., because they're traditionally made with raw milk. Because the U.S.D.A. has ruled raw-milk cheeses as being possibly more dangerous to consume than those made with pasteurized milk, America simply isn't allowed to import them. Raw milk, though, can develop many more nuances of flavor than pasteurized milk; the heat used to kill bacteria also kills taste. So there's a much fuller spectrum of goût, or flavor, to be experienced here than you could ever have access to in the United States. Another thing worth mentioning? High-quality, interesting-tasting cheese isn't expensive. I've been trying all sorts of cheeses nearly every day since I've gotten here, and they've rarely cost me more than 3 or 4 euro for a nice-sized hunk.

Et voilà! Those are my opening words on the rich subject of French food. Stay tuned, 'cause there's more to come! Next up? A recipe for silky squash soup that was passed on to me personally via a hardworking French farmer named Emilie. A bientôt!