Monday, August 31, 2009

Eating more like a Dane

A potpourri of food we've consumed in the last week.

Yes, I know I wrote about this magical fruit just last week but we simply cannot keep our hands off the nearby berry patches. Yesterday Alan and I (Anatole "helped") picked close to 5 pounds and plan to make more jam. I thought I would share one of my most favorite ways of enjoying it, which is sort of Danish-American. The rugbrød is Danish all the way, the peanut butter, while technically produced in Denmark, is really an American specialty, and the jam is unequivocally Danish (but only because it's made from Danish blackberries!).

New Baking Pan
For my birthday Alan presented me with two new baking pans. He knows me well. One of them, made in Germany, is the largest bread loaf known to man. It's over 13" long and 6" deep (compared to the standard 9" x 5"). What's great about it is that you can simply double any bread recipe and end up with twice as much bread which lasts twice as long (I'm thinking of grain breads and other heartier loafs that keep longer than regular white bread).

Every week in our CSA box from Aarstiderne we receive a delightful little pamphlet that includes recipe ideas for the contents of that week's box. Last week a recipe for Blomkålsgratin (Cauliflower Gratin) caught my eye and I scanned the ingredients and steps to see how much of it I could understand. The ingredients were basic and the instructions seemed relatively simple so I used Google to translate it in detail and decided to go for it. Turns out, this is a tasty way to use up a head of cauliflower. The only inconvenient part is beating the egg whites and folding them into the mix but then again it is supposed to be souffle-like so this step is key. The cooked texture is a bit strange if you're not used to souffles and gratins of this type but, for something different, I suggest you give it a try. I served it alongside fried potatoes and a simple salad of shredded carrots for an all out vegetarian meal.

Blomkålsgratin (Cauliflower Souffle)

1 head cauliflower
4T butter
5T flour
2c milk
salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste
5 eggs

2-3 quart baking dish

Bring 4c water to boil. Wash and cut cauliflower into small pieces; place in boiling water and cook 1-2 minutes to blanche. Remove, run under cold water and drain/dry. Melt butter in a saucepan. Sprinkle in flour and whisk to form a paste. Cook on low and slowly incorporate milk. Stir continuously to get a smooth, even and thick sauce (will thicken upon boiling). Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg and remove from heat.

Separate the yolks from the egg whites. Add yolks to the sauce one at a time and mix well after each addition. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold gently into the sauce.

Butter your baking dish and sprinkle in a handful or so of breadcrumbs on the bottom. Pour in about a quarter of the sauce and alternately add cauliflower and sauce ending with sauce.

Place your baking dish in a shallow dish of water and bake at 350F for 35 minutes until light golden brown.

Serves 4.

My notes: I translated the ingredients and instructions from Danish to English and replaced metric measurements with U.S. Also, I baked mine in an 8" springform pan and placed it inside a large tart pan filled with about a half cup of water.

Our first Danish fair
Over the weekend we paid a visit to Ambufest, the annual local fair. Anatole loved the kiddie rides and got to fish for plastic ducks and win a prize. Alan and I navigated a foreign language fair and managed to figure out the ride ticket system, where to find shelter during intermittent thunderstorms, and why you can't leave a Danish fair without æbleskiver. The word æbleskiver translates to apple slices which is funny because there's no apples in the recipe and the shape of the treat is round, not sliced. They're akin to elephant ears in the sense that it's fried dough, and oh my heavens are they fantastic. Dipped in powered sugar and eaten hot it is one of the finest junk foods imaginable.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge: August 2009

Right before I left for vacation I joined the Daring Bakers, part of the Daring Kitchen, where each month a challenge is issued to members to either cook and/or bake something extraordinary. For example last month's Daring Kitchen challenge was Rice with Mushrooms, Cuttlefish and Artichokes. A person can join one or both kitchens, but I can't imagine having time to do both. This was my first month, and I was among thousands who ventured to create the Dobos Torta, a rich Hungarian layer cake. (Click on the Daring Kitchen link above to see prettier versions!)

I'll say right up front that for someone who loves to bake, I had a heck of a time with this recipe. As I shared with my fellow Daring Bakers on the forum, I had a pained expression on my face during virtually every step of the process. That's because my cake layers stuck to the parchment and tore in pieces when I removed them, and the caramel was a pain in the neck to work with. The chocolate buttercream was my one success although I found it cloyingly sweet.

All in all, I found this cake good but not especially worth the time and effort involved. It wasn't necessarily difficult to make but there were plenty of frustrations, like when the caramel stuck not just to the cake layers but also to everything in my kitchen (maybe that says something about me) and was a mess to clean.

The August 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Angela of A Spoonful of Sugar and Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella. They chose the spectacular Dobos Torte based on a recipe from Rick Rodgers' cookbook Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caffés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague.


  • 2 baking sheets
  • 9” (23cm) springform tin and 8” cake tin, for templates
  • mixing bowls (1 medium, 1 large)
  • a sieve
  • a double boiler (a large saucepan plus a large heat-proof mixing bowl which fits snugly over the top of the pan)
  • a small saucepan
  • a whisk (you could use a balloon whisk for the entire cake, but an electric hand whisk or stand mixer will make life much easier)
  • metal offset spatula
  • sharp knife
  • a 7 1/2” cardboard cake round, or just build cake on the base of a sprinfrom tin.
  • piping bag and tip, optional

Prep times

  • Sponge layers 20 mins prep, 40 mins cooking total if baking each layer individually.
  • Buttercream: 20 mins cooking. Cooling time for buttercream: about 1 hour plus 10 minutes after this to beat and divide.
  • Caramel layer: 10-15 minutes.
  • Assembly of whole cake: 20 minutes

Sponge cake layers

  • 6 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
  • 1 1/3 cups (162g) confectioner's (icing) sugar, divided
  • 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (112g) sifted cake flour (SUBSTITUTE 95g plain flour + 17g cornflour (cornstarch) sifted together)
  • pinch of salt

Chocolate Buttercream

  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (200g) caster (ultrafine or superfine white) sugar
  • 4oz (110g) bakers chocolate or your favourite dark chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons (250g) unsalted butter, at room temperature.

Caramel topping

  • 1 cup (200g) caster (superfine or ultrafine white) sugar
  • 12 tablespoons (180 ml) water
  • 8 teaspoons (40 ml) lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon neutral oil (e.g. grapeseed, rice bran, sunflower)

Finishing touches

  • a 7” cardboard round
  • 12 whole hazelnuts, peeled and toasted
  • ½ cup (50g) peeled and finely chopped hazelnuts

Directions for the sponge layers:

NB. The sponge layers can be prepared in advance and stored interleaved with parchment and well-wrapped in the fridge overnight.

1.Position the racks in the top and centre thirds of the oven and heat to 400F (200C).
2.Cut six pieces of parchment paper to fit the baking sheets. Using the bottom of a 9" (23cm) springform tin as a template and a dark pencil or a pen, trace a circle on each of the papers, and turn them over (the circle should be visible from the other side, so that the graphite or ink doesn't touch the cake batter.)
3.Beat the egg yolks, 2/3 cup (81g) of the confectioner's (icing) sugar, and the vanilla in a medium bowl with a mixer on high speed until the mixture is thick, pale yellow and forms a thick ribbon when the beaters are lifted a few inches above the batter, about 3 minutes. (You can do this step with a balloon whisk if you don't have a mixer.)

4.In another bowl, using clean beaters, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining 2/3 cup (81g) of confectioner's (icing)sugar until the whites form stiff, shiny peaks. Using a large rubber spatula, stir about 1/4 of the beaten whites into the egg yolk mixture, then fold in the remainder, leaving a few wisps of white visible. Combine the flour and salt. Sift half the flour over the eggs, and fold in; repeat with the remaining flour.

5.Line one of the baking sheets with a circle-marked paper. Using a small offset spatula, spread about 3/4cup of the batter in an even layer, filling in the traced circle on one baking sheet. Bake on the top rack for 5 minutes, until the cake springs back when pressed gently in the centre and the edges are lightly browned. While this cake bakes, repeat the process on the other baking sheet, placing it on the centre rack. When the first cake is done, move the second cake to the top rack. Invert the first cake onto a flat surface and carefully peel off the paper. Slide the cake layer back onto the paper and let stand until cool. Rinse the baking sheet under cold running water to cool, and dry it before lining with another parchment. Continue with the remaining papers and batter to make a total of six layers. Completely cool the layers. Using an 8" springform pan bottom or plate as a template, trim each cake layer into a neat round. (A small serrated knife is best for this task.)
Directions for the chocolate buttercream:

NB. This can be prepared in advance and kept chilled until required.

1.Prepare a double-boiler: quarter-fill a large saucepan with water and bring it to a boil.
2.Meanwhile, whisk the eggs with the sugar until pale and thickened, about five minutes. You can use a balloon whisk or electric hand mixer for this.
3.Fit bowl over the boiling water in the saucepan (water should not touch bowl) and lower the heat to a brisk simmer. Cook the egg mixture, whisking constantly, for 2-3 minutes until you see it starting to thicken a bit. Whisk in the finely chopped chocolate and cook, stirring, for a further 2-3 minutes.
4.Scrape the chocolate mixture into a medium bowl and leave to cool to room temperature. It should be quite thick and sticky in consistency.
5.When cool, beat in the soft butter, a small piece (about 2 tablespoons/30g) at a time. An electric hand mixer is great here, but it is possible to beat the butter in with a spatula if it is soft enough. You should end up with a thick, velvety chocolate buttercream. Chill while you make the caramel topping.

Lorraine's note: If you're in Winter just now your butter might not soften enough at room temperature, which leads to lumps forming in the buttercream. Male sure the butter is of a very soft texture I.e. running a knife through it will provide little resistance, before you try to beat it into the chocolate mixture. Also, if you beat the butter in while the chocolate mixture is hot you'll end up with more of a ganache than a buttercream!

Directions for the caramel topping:

1.Choose the best-looking cake layer for the caramel top. To make the caramel topping: Line a jellyroll pan with parchment paper and butter the paper. Place the reserved cake layer on the paper. Score the cake into 12 equal wedges. Lightly oil a thin, sharp knife and an offset metal spatula.
2.Stir the sugar, water and lemon juice in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over a medium heat, stirring often to dissolve the sugar. Once dissolved into a smooth syrup, turn the heat up to high and boil without stirring, swirling the pan by the handle occasionally and washing down any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan with a wet brush until the syrup has turned into an amber-coloured caramel.
3.The top layer is perhaps the hardest part of the whole cake so make sure you have a oiled, hot offset spatula ready. I also find it helps if the cake layer hasn't just been taken out of the refrigerator. I made mine ahead of time and the cake layer was cold and the toffee set very, very quickly—too quickly for me to spread it. Immediately pour all of the hot caramel over the cake layer. You will have some leftover most probably but more is better than less and you can always make nice toffee pattern using the extra to decorate. Using the offset spatula, quickly spread the caramel evenly to the edge of the cake layer. Let cool until beginning to set, about 30 seconds. Using the tip of the hot oiled knife (keep re-oiling this with a pastry brush between cutting), cut through the scored marks to divide the caramel layer into 12 equal wedges. Cool another minute or so, then use the edge of the knife to completely cut and separate the wedges using one firm slice movement (rather than rocking back and forth which may produce toffee strands). Cool completely.

Angela's note: I recommend cutting, rather than scoring, the cake layer into wedges before covering in caramel (reform them into a round). If you have an 8” silicon round form, then I highly recommend placing the wedges in that for easy removal later and it also ensures that the caramel stays on the cake layer. Once set, use a very sharp knife to separate the wedges.

Assembling the Dobos

1.Divide the buttercream into six equal parts.
2.Place a dab of chocolate buttercream on the middle of a 7 1/2” cardboard round and top with one cake layer. Spread the layer with one part of the chocolate icing. Repeat with 4 more cake layers. Spread the remaining icing on the sides of the cake.
3.Optional: press the finely chopped hazelnuts onto the sides of the cake.
4.Propping a hazelnut under each wedge so that it sits at an angle, arrange the wedges on top of the cake in a spoke pattern. If you have any leftover buttercream, you can pipe rosettes under each hazelnut or a large rosette in the centre of the cake. Refrigerate the cake under a cake dome until the icing is set, about 2 hours. Let slices come to room temperature for the best possible flavour.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Blackberry Jam and Pie

I've decided I'd rather not worry about making sure I have all my posts caught up about my summer vacation in France. It's too daunting and it's making me not post. It's easier to write about what I'm doing now and then intersperse my posts with French food highlights. Also, as an aside, last week was my first full week of Danish classes (three days) and volunteering at a kindergarten (two days). It wiped me out to say the least - my brain was throbbing from all the linguistic stimulation! It also made sitting at the computer that much harder. But what am I complaining about? I'm just happy to have something to do that gets me out of the house and interacting with real, live people!

Here's really what I'd like to share: there are masses of blackberry bushes all over where we live. In addition to a big bush off our back deck there are bushes to be found on the walking path one house over from ours as well as all along the road next to the fjord (a 5 minute walk from our house).

First I made jam. For me it was a challenge because although I've enjoyed many a jar of homemade jam from family and friends over the years, I'd never tried making my own. I was really sweating the vertiable "setting point" but got lucky and ended up with the perfect consistency. It's makes an excellent pbj and is fantastic on top of Greek yogurt.

And then this weekend I made a blackberry-apple pie. Yesterday afternoon when Anatole and I came in from playing outside I noticed the empty pie plate sitting next to Alan. He finished half a pie in one sitting and had a very guilty look on his face. So much for pie for Anatole and me.

Having juicy, sweet and FREE blackberries is probably one of the greatest treats ever. I never buy blackberries in the supermarket because typically they taste like crap and are prohibitively expensive. So having "my own" blackberries is sublime. Now...what to make next.

On another note, I joined the Daring Bakers group where once a month I, along with thousands of other Daring Bakers, will complete a baking challenge. This month it's an Hungarian Dobos Torte -- a multi-layered affair with lots of chocolate buttercream and caramel. The instructions are long and involved, but I'm excited to try it. I have four days left to complete the challenge and submit my photos and notes. Wish me luck.

Blackberry and Apple Pie
from How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

4T cold unsalted butter, diced
4T vegetable shortening, teaspooned out
1 1/3c self-rising cake flour
scant 1/4c fine cornmeal
2-4T salted ice water or enough to bind
squeeze of lemon juice as needed
8" shallow pie plate

1 1/2lbs Golden Delicious or other cooking apples (2 medium)
1/4c unsalted butter
7T sugar
1T rosewater
1/2t ground cinnamon
3 scant T cornstarch
12oz. blackberries

for the glaze/topping:
1-2T milk
1-2T sugar

Make the pastry according to the usual method then form into two discs, one slightly smaller than the other. Cover with plastic wrap and rest the pastry in the refrigerator.

Preheat oven to 375F. Peel, core, and slice the apples. In a saucepan, melt the butter and add the sugar, rosewater, and cinnamon, then cook the apples in the pan for about 3 minutes; remove them to a dish with a spatula. Pour the caramelly juices into a measuring cup and whisk in the cornstarch to form a paste.

Line the bottom and sides of the pie dish with the bigger disc of pastry, and put the apples and blackberries into the pie. Pour over the cornstarch-butter mixture, stirring gingerly to cover all of the fruit without tearing the pastry. Roll out the smaller disc of pastry, dampen the edges of the pie with water, and put the pie lid on top. Crimp the edges, either by hand or using a fork, to seal. Decorate the top with any pastry scraps, made artistically into leaves, or stamped out into miniature apple shapes with cutters, or whatever takes your fancy.

Glaze with milk and cook for 30 minutes, by which time the still slightly knobbly top should be golden. Sprinkle with sugar when it comes out of the oven, and leave for about 15 minutes before cutting into it.

Serves 6.

My notes: I used salted butter and substituted canola oil for the vegetable shortening, which I haven't yet found in Danish supermarkets). I also substituted about a teaspoon of white vinegar for the lemon juice because I was out of lemons and my grandmother swore by adding a little vinegar to her pie crust recipe. I only had one large apple--not even sure it was a cooking apple--and compensated by adding a bit more blackberries. I omitted the rosewater because I don't have it, used brown sugar for the sugar because I wanted that caramelly effect, and, for no particular reason, skipped the sugar sprinkles on the fresh baked pie. In terms of sweetness, I might add a bit more sugar next time to round out the sourness of the berries. It was sweet enough but any less so and it wouldn't have been all that tasty. It's probably wonderful with a scoop of vanilla ice cream but not having a freezer limits us a little now doesn't it. While it's not even in the same ball park in terms of sweetness, the Greek yogurt I used on top was satisfying enough.

Blackberry Jam
From How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

4c blackberries
3 1/3c sugar
juice of 1 lemon
4 8-oz jars

Place your testing saucer in the freezer.

Put the fruit, sugar, and lemon juice into a preserving pan, or other large, wide pan, and let the sugar dissolve over a low heat. Turn the heat up and bring the jam to the boil. Keep the jam at a roiling boil until setting point is reached.

Makes 1 quart.

My notes: I eyeballed my bowl of berries. There could have been slightly more or less than four cups. I also used 3 cups of sugar because I never really understand why I need that extra 1/3c (or 1/4c, etc.) and using a little less sugar never hurt anybody. This was my first jam making experience and boy did I have a hard time with the setting point. I looked at all kinds of info online and finally decided that I would use the saucer test. I put a dab of hot jam on a cold saucer (because I don't have a freezer I used one cold from the fridge) let it cool a bit and looked to see if it wrinkled when I pressed it with my finger. I couldn't quite get it to wrinkle but after close to 30 minutes of cooking I guessed right that the jam was ready to go into the jars. All I did was run my jars through the dishwasher and remove them while still hot. My batch yielded 1 large jar and two smaller ones.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Poitiers, France

When we were living in Bend, OR, and I was more than half way through my pregnancy Alan came home from work one evening and told me about a French guy he met in line at Subway. What a coincidence, Alan shared, that this other French guy was also married to an American woman who was also pregnant. I knew I had to meet them. A few weeks later we had Sylvain and Jessica to a dinner party at our house and became fast friends.

The crazy thing is that they ended moving to Europe two months after we did. They hadn't really planned it that way, but they're doing great in Poitiers, which is three hours southwest of Paris. On our way east to the Alps, we stopped to see Sylvain, Jessica, and Isabelle and were treated to the most fantastic evening. Isabelle will be two the beggining of September and is just a month younger than Anatole. Even though they didn't interact all that much, we enjoyed watching them together, particulary since we remembered our get togethers when they were tiny, immobible babies. How times change.

Our evening began with an apperitif that included snacks such as chips, nuts, and cheese bites as well as a bottle of bubbly. After we put the kids to bed, we sat outside and enjoyed a wonderful dinner of grilled salmon and mixed, grilled veggies. Then there was the cheese course. The cheese! The only reason I don't have a photo of it is because my camera was upstairs at the time and I didn't feel like leaving the table to shlep it down. What a pity. It was a beautfiul and delicious display of four different cheeses.

For dessert we feasted upon the most delightful cake. My photo is terrible and doesn't do it the least bit of justice. If I saw a similar looking cake in the U.S. I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole. That's because cakes like this in the U.S. typically look really pretty but taste really bad. However, this was both lovely and scrumptious. The cake texture was soft, light, and creamy and the crust was sort of a crispy but moist puff pastry. It's difficult to describe because I don't have the slightest clue how it was made, but it was the best dessert I've had in a long time.

Friday, August 14, 2009

West Coast Conclusion

In an attempt to not only share the culinary aspects of my summer vacation but also get caught up so I can talk about what's happening in the here and now, I will try to be brief about the rest of my holidays. But I don't want to short change my four weeks of eating in France. No way no how. It was just too good.

So we continue on the west coast where I prepared savory breakfast crepes, enjoyed a splendid lunch at Restaurant Le Belem, had my first taste of Gateau Nantais, a delightful little cake that packs a powerful punch, ate more cantaloupe, scarfed down a bunch of sauteed haricots verts, drank half a bottle of Clarette de Die, and ate delicious, organic saucisson intermittently with tart and crunchy cornichons--all over the course of several days, I'll have you know.

It is practically sacrilege for a French person to buy store bought crepes. In fact, Alan had no idea you could even find prepared, store-bought crepes until he saw them in the supermarket and asked me if I thought we should try them as dessert (with melted chocolate inside) for the meal we were preparing for his family in our rented camper (the mini mobile home pictured above). You have no idea how long it took him to make the decision to buy the darn things. He kept saying, "Should we?" and then "But no, crepes are so easy to make - we should make our own," and then again "But we are sort of camping so it would be okay." It went on like this for at least five minutes until I grabbed the package and threw it in the cart. Store bought it is! They turned out quite good crisped up in a pan, spread with squares of dark chocolate, folded, and served with vanilla ice cream.

The next day Alan left early to visit Papi Emile, his maternal grandfather, which left Anatole and me alone for breakfast. I put a crepe in a pan, cracked an egg on top, and left it on the heat until the egg was cooked. Then I folded it and spread it with butter. I made one for Anatole and one for me. I served mine with tomatoes and his with Apericube cheese. If you haven't had it, Apericube might just be the most fun way to eat cheese. It's another Laughing Cow product (referred to in my last post) and while it's a simple, processed cheese, it tastes good and everyone--young and old--likes removing the foil wrapper from the cube (and seeing if they can keep the cube perfectly in tact). In theory my idea was a good one, but what I didn't realize is that the crepes are slightly sweet (naturally I didn't notice when eating the dessert crepe) and not a wonderful match for the saltiness of the egg and butter. And that's from someone who adores salty and sweet combos. Nevertheless I enjoyed it because after all we were in France and why not have a fried egg crepe for breakfast?

Papi Emile treated the three of us along with Alan's father and cousins Florian and Aurelie to a delightful lunch at Le Belem. Other than Anatole--who didn't need to order because he had enough nibbling off everyone else's plates--we each ordered a four course meal. I started with an artistic rendition of crab and avocado; for the main course I chose fish stuffed with shrimp and served with veggies; the cheese course was a small plate of mixed greens topped with breaded and browned Camembert. And as if I hadn't gorged myself enough, I tore into a chocolate box that was filled with the most delicious creamy mousse (you'll have to excuse the terrible photo). For a family that almost never eats out in Denmark, this was a special treat indeed.

The day after we arrived, Alan's Aunt Michele presented us with a pretty box to take back to our camper. She said it contained a cake called Gateau Nantais that, in old times, the wives of fisherman would make for their husbands who were out at sea for long stretches of time. A key ingredient is rum and in addition to the sweet rum and almond flavors the cake keeps well. Thus, it's the perfect cake for seamen. We enjoyed it for breakfast along with strong black tea.

One evening Alan came home from the supermarket with fresh haricots verts (green beans), which I planned to steam until he said he wanted to prepare them in the traditional way. He poured olive oil in a pan, added the trimmed beans, sprinkled with salt and pepper and sauteed until the beans were dark and almost crunchy. I've always liked fresh green beans, but these were different and incredibly good. At every meal Alan and I said to each other how good the food tasted. The flavors really came alive, and we noticed this most of all with fruit and vegetables.

Finally, let me tell you about one of the finest alcoholic beverages I've ever put to my lips: Clarette de Die. A natural sparkling wine (akin to Champagne), it's characterized by its peach and apricot flavors and rose and honeysuckle aromas, according to Wikipedia. We served it at our summer wedding three years ago. We also returned to Denmark with two cases.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Eating on the West Coast of France

On our first night in Pornic my father-in-law presented us with dinner: homemade quiche, salad from his garden, cheese, bread, and the most amazing strawberries known to man. This is not the last time you will hear me rave about French fruit. It's simply the best. Aside from the lack of wine, this was the quintessential simple summer meal that the French do so well. And I can't think of a better welcome.

Cheese. The short of it is that you can find the most spectacular cheeses in France. After months of very limited and mostly industrial cheese options in Denmark, Alan and I ate as though we were two starving mice. The cheese we buy in Denmark consists of cheddar from Ireland, Parmesan, a hard cheese from Spain, feta, and kid -friendly cheeses from Laughing Cow, namely Baby Bel and Vache Qui Rit spreadable cheese. Denmark has its own cheese that we haven't exactly developed a taste for, but perhaps we need to give it another chance. I repeat, the cheese in France is unimaginably good. Especially when local and accompanied by a tasty glass of wine. Even in our U.S. town of Bend, Oregon, we can find exquisite local artisanal goat cheese. Get with it, Denmark!
We were treated to lunch at Alan's grandmother's apartment in Saint Brevain, a nearby coastal town. It was a simple meal of fish, fresh green beans, and roasted potatoes. But it began with wedges of the sweetest, brightest orange cantaloupe--a favorite summer starter for the French--was followed by cheese and ended with dessert. Oh, and at separate times during the meal we sipped Champagne and drank white wine. This is not breaking news, but the French know how to eat. The fish was freshly caught, cooked with a delicate hand, and deboned with perfect precision. The desserts were typically French, and I had half of a raspberry tart with groseille berries on top and half of a peach tart. Thankfully this was just the beginning of my vacation with patisserie. At the end of the four weeks though, I said "We have to stop meeting like this." Ergo the surplus of soup and salad this week.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Home Sweet Home

So much to say, but there's still unpacking left to do. Moreover, it's Anatole's second birthday today so I have a cake to make! In list form, here is a summary of our vacation (photos to come):

1. A wonderful week on the west coast of France with Papi Jean Pierre, Mamie Helene, Tante Michele, Papi Emile, Florian, and Aurelie

2. A visit to Poitiers to see our good friends Sylvain, Jessica, and Isabelle who we met when we all lived in Bend. We had a blast and were so happy to see them. They spoiled us big time.

3. Driving east through lots of tiny villages to get to Les Gandy, Alan's family's weekend house in the Chartreuse Mountains, where we spent the majority of our remaining three weeks. Stopped in Chi Che to pick up loaves of Alan's favorite Brioche.

4. Alan and I saw our first movie in a theater since Anatole was born: Looking for Eric from Ken Loach.

5. Enjoyed lots of delightful French meals outside under the trees (photos coming soon).

6. A fantastic time at the Goran Bregovic concert in St. Pierre de Chartreuse. Unforgettable.

7. A visit to the marche in Chambery with my mother-in-law and brother-in-law. Even though it was a cloudy drizzly day, hordes of people turned out to shop at the hundreds of produce, fish, meat, cheese, and bread stalls. Simply amazing.

8. On several different occasions we shared lunch and fun times with various groups of French friends and family as well as many children.

9. Meeting and spending a week with our oh-so-cute nephew, 5-month old Emeric. Alan and I loved holding and cuddling him but his older cousin Anatole wasn't very happy about it.

10. A fun visit with Alan's best friend Harri who hails from Finland and flew to France to see us and do some crazy boy stuff with Alan: a hard-ass hike, riding a gondola up a mountain and then biking down (over and over again), and tree climbing and then careening from tree to tree across wires (clearly I have no clue what the technical name is for this "sport").

11. Seeing the villagers in Les Gandy bake bread in the centuries-old village oven. They were having their summer fete and baking bread and potatoes to go with roasted chicken.

12. Spending a week in Les Gandy with Papi Emile and cousin Florian who, after presenting Anatole with a bright red toy fire truck, was from that point on called "cadeau" by Anatole. Cadeau is French for gift.

13. Speaking English with my mother-in-law and Florian. We had many laughs over things like "my gosh," words that start with H...since French speakers don't pronounce the H in their words, things like Heart or Hair come out like Art and Air. For example, in my last job I worked for an organization called Heart Institute of the Cascades; for months Alan's colleagues thought I worked for an Art Institute. Florian's rendition of his English texts totally cracked me up: "Where is Brian? Brian is in the kitchen." Okay, you had to be there, but just imagine it spoken with a really thick French accent and after a couple glasses of wine. This fall Florian will travel to San Francisco where he will spend six months continuing his studies in computer science and seeing if he can find Brian.

14. Cooking with my mother-in-law and learning some new tips and ideas. She showed me how to make semoule with milk, which is sort of like a lighter version of rice pudding, as well as a simple cucumber salad dressed with a mix of light cream and lemon juice. Wonderful. Merci, Martine.

15. Preparing my own creations for my French family: a lemon loaf cake, mushroom, celery, and Parmesan salad, cucumber mint soup served cold, flourless chocolate brownies, and zucchini bread. I'll have you know that the recipes for the lemon cake and salad came from one of my mother-in-law's French cookbooks. I even used an old scale to measure the ingredients (no measuring cups in the house and anyway they go by metric not U.S. measurements), a scale that my mother-in-law informed me was used to weigh Alan and his older brother Erwan when they were babies. So it's at least 35 years old - and it's the kind where you have to slide the little thingy over to get the weight you want. Unlike today's scales you don't just plop your flour or sugar down and it tells you how much is there. You actually have to make some effort and do some thinking. It was fun.

16. A two-day child-free trip to Italy where we visited the gorgeous city of Aosta, ate pizza, drank red wine, inhaled gelato, visited art galleries, and soaked in the glory of Italian life. We spent the night at a little hotel in the Italian Alps and the next morning hiked 4000 feet to the mountain refuge Nacamuli close to the Swiss border (at approx. 11,000 feet). In fact after we made it to the refuge, we left our stuff and continued hiking to a spot that essentially was the Italian-Swiss Alps border, so we walked into Switzerland to say we were there. The glaciers, wild flowers, falls, streams, and mountain peaks were breathtaking. And the hike totally kicked my butt! Spending the night at a refuge was a first for me and I'll talk about the meals another time. Very different.

17. Visit to the centuries-old Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse where 27 practicing monks reside. Amazing! A stop at the Cirque de Saint Meme, a stunning national park in the Chartreuse Mountains not far from Les Gandy.

18. A two-hour solo shopping trip at Carrefour where I spent a bloody fortune on things we can't get in Denmark (various baking items, ethnic foods, cookies, and different hot and cold cereals). I had such a blast. I also picked up some fun baking tins, cookbooks, and kitchen utensils.

19. This next to the last item while certainly not a highlight is still part of the experience: our car decided to give out the day we were heading back to Denmark. Luckily we were only an hour into the trip and were able to get help from Alan's family - not to mention being able to navigate dealings with the towing company, insurance company, mechanic, and rental car company in Alan's native language. We thanked our lucky stars that we didn't break down in Switzerland or Germany where communication (about car repairs) would have been difficult. We ended up staying an extra five days. It happened on a Saturday and French mechanics don't work on the weekend, plus it's the summer holidays so everything was moving extra slow. By the time we learned the outrageous cost of the repairs as well as the three week time line to fix it, we opted to leave it there and get home via rental car. That was crazy, too, because we had so much crap that we couldn't fit it all in one of the tiny European rental cars, so we had to rent a van! And then, because we couldn't return the van in Denmark, Alan's Dad took a train from Nantes on the west coast to Hannover, Germany, where we picked him up and took him home with us. The pity was that the van had to be returned rapidly so Alan's Dad turned right around the next morning and hit the road back to France. Merci, Jean Pierre.

20. Last but not least, I am proud to say that I survived nearly five weeks of virtually 24 hour-7 time with my husband and child.