Friday, February 1, 2013

A Bad Cook, a Good Friend, and a Smiley Cake

My friend Sheila came over last night.  We try to get together once a week when she's not travelling for her job with Doctors without borders.  She's decided to quit her day job and become a pastry chef (empty threats), so she's starting a Saturday internship at a local cake shop.  Since my kitchen is well equipped and since I like cooking too, we sometimes bake together, just after I teach us a yoga class (or not).  Balance.  Other times we try out new Parisian restaurants.  She has an uncanny ability of finding the good ones.  
We are polar opposites in the kitchen.  She measures and weighs and follows all the mixing and adding instructions, and I almost always fudge something.  A little less sugar, that looks like a tsp of vanilla or baking powder, the butter doesn't really have to be at room temperature and completely incorporated... I'm not sure if it's because I'm a terrible cook or a good one.  Sometimes, it's simply because I don't have the proper ingredients on hand, or they just can't be found here.  I once used a mix of raw brown sugar and honey as a sub for the wet brown sugar found in the US.  Buttermilk, I almost always make myself with milk and vinegar or a lemon, and we don't have sour cream.  You can look up 'equivalent' ingredients for most things, but in my book, sour cream = greek yogurt = thick creme fraiche = full fat fromage blanc.  Whatever's in the fridge.  I recently made a birthday cake from scratch using an ancient Betty Crocker cookbook recipe.  It was as dense as a brick and almost as dry.... I need to throw out that cookbook.  (Poor Franck)  I'm still in search of the perfect recipe to replace my beloved Duncan Hines butter recipe golden cake mix.  It was one of the only 'processed' things I had in my kitchen in SF.  And I think I may try to use the base of this coffee cake, without the cinnamon streusel part. 
Some recipes, though, I never fudge, like bread recipes.  Even when I follow the recipe perfectly, I always panic that it's too wet, or not wet enough, or it didn't rise well, or it rose too much.  That reminds me.  I only have a few days to make a king cake!  
Anyway, Sheila brought over a recipe from America's Test Kitchen, aka Cooks Illustrated, for coffee cake.  I had actually made one a few weeks back that turned out well enough.  I didn't follow the instructions exactly as written and it rose a little lopsided, but you can't really go wrong with butter, flour sugar and cinnamon (or maybe you can if you count Franck's cake).  We must make a good team, because this cake turned out very very nicely! Or perhaps, as she informed me last night, it's because America's Test Kitchen tests all their recipes until they find the perfect one.  How did I never know about them?  

Here's my fudged (adapted) recipe.  I always use less sugar, more butter, and less equipment when possible.  

Cinnamon Streusel Coffee Cake
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2.5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 cup pecans, chopped (I usually break my pecans by hand)
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sour cream (we used frommage blanc)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened but still cool, cut into 1-inch cubes

To make the streusel topping, combine flour, sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar and cinnamon in a medium bowl.  Mix well.  To make the streusel for the interior of the cake, remove 1 1/4 cup of the mix to a new bowl and add the remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar.  Mix well.  With the remaining ~1/2 cup streusel topping, add the pecans and butter.  Hand mix until crumbly (then lick buttery sugary fingers, followed by a thorough washing).  Set Aside.

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and set to 350F (175C).  Grease a bundt pan.  Beat to combine: eggs, 1 cup sour cream, and vanilla in a medium bowl, set aside.  In a separate mixer bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder, soda, and salt.  Mix on low speed to combine for 30 seconds.  To mixer, add butter, remaining 1/2 cup sour cream and mix on low speed until moist.  Add egg mixture in 3 additions beating 20 seconds between additions (denise's translation -- slowly add egg mixture).  Increase speed to medium high and beat 1 minute.

Assemble by adding 1/3 of mixture (~ 2 cups) to greased pan and smooth with a spatula.  Sprinkle with 1/2 of the interior streusel (no nuts).  Add another ~2 cups mixture, smooth and top with remaining interior streusel.  As evenly as possible, add the remaining mixture and top with pecan crumble.  Bake 50-60 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean and cake bounces back a bit.  (streusel will make toothpick dirty even if the cake is done, so try to poke a streusel free area.  Remove from pan, and cool as long as you can stand it before eating! 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Well howdy there.  I haven't blogged in (too) many months.  So sorry to all my avid fans, I don't ever make New Years resolutions, so it's not one of mine to blog more often.

What has been going on?  Well, I saw the sun for more than 10 minutes yesterday (in Paris) for the first time in a (few) month(s).  (<those are so that Vince can't tell me I'm wrong>).  I should keep a sun journal.  It was really lovely to see the sun.  It happened to come out when I was at my first protest, or I guess it should be called a rally.  150,000 to 400,000 people (cops # to organizers #) went out on a day that was supposed to be rainy and cold to rally for equal rights for all.  "What?" You say, "In this day and age, there are not equal rights in France?"  Nope.  Gay people don't have the right to adopt (not even the children of their partners) or the right to medically assisted procreation, or the right to work if their partner is a citizen and they aren't, or the right to pay taxes together.  I honestly don't care what you call it, in any language, but I believe strongly that all people should have equal rights.  If a couple happens to be of the same sex, they should have all the same rights as opposite sex and biracial and multinational couples.  Love is love and family is family.  End of discussion.

What else has been happening?  Oh so much since I've last posted, I've been to the market 10 times, the podiatrist twice, the dermatologist once...  I won't catch you up in one post.  I promise not to bore you that much.

My mom came to visit.  It was a great visit.  She came a few weeks after my surgery.  Just in case I needed my mommie.  Fortunately I didn't need her too much and I was able to show her around.  She was however an enormous help, she cleaned a few times, helped me change my bandage, cooked a bunch, bought me flowers, and prepared and decorated for dinners and our Halloween Party.  It was the largest showing yet at one of our parties.  Almost everyone we knew in Paris was there (and still our place wasn't full).  I credit the timing of the party and the cook, a Wednesday night before a vacation day on Thursday, and my mom.  She made the most scrumptious gumbo.  Holy goodness!

We also saw rainbows at the Louvre, chandeliers at Notre Dame, views at Montmarte, and while walking through the Jardin de Tuleries, happened upon some city workers uprooting beautiful peonies in preparation for the winter plantings.  They were so nice, they listened to my broken french and graciously cut me a bouquet to take home.

Mom under the Pyramid at the Louvre

Notre Dame Chandeliers

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rome, the Last Surgery, and Soup Season

I've been absent.  Bad me.  I know.  I guess that means we've been busy.  September was Vince's birthday and our anniversary and he took me on a lovely weekend trip to Rome.  I think it might take the prize of most beautiful city I've seen.  And I'm just getting started in Europe.  What other treasures there must be to see!  Around every corner in Rome, there is another beautiful plaza, or fountain, or building, or any combination of those.  Truly a recommended destination.
Vatican Museum Ceiling by Raphael

Even if you're not Catholic, don't skip the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel is but a speck of the grandeur... we didn't even photograph it.  The popes have been collecting artwork and having famous people (Raphael and Michelangelo) paint their ceilings since Catholicism began.  The buildings themselves are works of art and are filled with millions of artifacts: from the most well preserved Egyptian mummies I've ever seen to Salvador Dali and Paul Klee paintings.  Plus, St. Peters Basilica is one of the most impressive, awe inspiring, and peaceful  places I've been to.  With it's towering domes, beautifully carved gilded ceilings, giant statues, and intimate temples in every nook and cranny, I felt the same peace there as when I was in a Jain temple in India with some lovely praying ladies.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dry July... and August -- A cruel cruel summer in Paris.

There's this bizarre thing that French people do every year in July and August.  It's called vacation.  For a MONTH.  The minimum vacation allowance here is 5 weeks.  If you're salaried, since the work week is 35 hours, you get an extra 2 or so weeks.  For those of you who are bad with numbers, that makes 7 weeks of vacation per year... and now you know why were're here.  Many companies close for the entire month of August, so like it or not, you're taking vacation. Which can suck if you'd like to go to any vacation-y type place.  You end up in a crowded, traffic jammed, hot 'paradise' full of Parisians.  We've heard stories about Corsica, one of the beautiful islands we visited back in June.  Didn't seem like something I wanted to do.  Plus, here I was thinking Paris would be so much better without all the Parisians.  Which is partly true.  The only problem is that all our friends who live here are on vacation, and the people who run the bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, bars and your favorite local store are all out of town.  It's such a phenomenon that there are blog posts about it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ewww Beets! Easy Peasy Salad.

Remember when your mom opened a can of beets, or a bag of frozen brussel sprouts, heated it up, and put that shit on your plate.  You were like "ewwww.  I'm not eating that.  Gross".  I do.  More often than not though, we had fresh vegetables from the garden, and I thank my lucky stars for that, because now I love vegetables.  Especially beets and brussel sprouts. If they're fresh, and well prepared, they are one of my favorite things.
I also have a strange obsession with beet greens.  I know... but they're so good and tender and flavorful, and they don't leave that film on your teeth like spinach does.  Plus, they have preeetttyy red stems.  Sadly fresh beets are difficult to find here in Paris.  For some bizarre reason, they're sold cooked, even at the farmers markets, and they look like blobs of black red gunk. So when I see them fresh with greens on, I buy in bulk.  That leaves me with lots of actual beets, so I make this lovely roasted beet salad with orange and shallot dressing.  It's heavenly, and healthy.
I also have a special way of cooking my beets.  I don't remember where I got the recipe, but it's no fail, awesomeness.  Many of the recipes I've read call for cooking them, then removing the skin.  I've heard horror stories about this.  Kitchen towels stained forever, hands burned, the skin never actually coming off, of the beets at least...  I think I even tried it once a long time ago and had all those problems.  Here's the fail-safe way.  

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why Paris is great, and other such problems

The Pantheon

Seriously, have you seen a more beautiful city?  I haven't, and I've traveled the world.  Ok, you're right, I've seen almost none of Europe.  But still.

Notre Dame
Notre Dame

Monday, July 9, 2012

Black Monday/Blue Monday

Église de la Sainte-Trinité

We're tightening belts around here, so I haven't been buying the usual heirloom summer tomatoes at the the Saturday organic market, nor being inspired by the other beautiful food there.  I didn't even make it to the market this weekend.  We did a treasure hunt on Saturday, organized by the Paris city hall.  Good times, for me at least.  I understood about a third of the puns, and followed Vince and his friend around Paris admiring all the beautiful buildings (mostly in the rain), while they tried to figure out where the next turn was.  So much fun.  But that means the fridge is empty of its usual abundance of fresh veggies, so here I am on Monday, in search of inspiration. 

Mondays in Paris are always the hardest day for me... the poor privileged housewife.  Any medium to small business that is open at least one day on the weekend is closed on Monday.  That includes the local street of awesomeness, Rue de Poteau, with it's cheese shops, charcuterie, and outdoor veggie stalls.  All shuttered.  I thought, perhaps it would be a good day to explore a farmers market in another neighborhood, so I checked for farmers markets on Monday and there are exactly 2, both at least a 40 minute metro ride across town.  Not happening today.  I'll have to come up with something else.