It has been a good week. We've had dinner and drinks with friends around town several times. And no matter where, no matter when, the conversation invariably turns to food. While having drinks with Wally, an Arles native who is a French teacher in Portugal (she was written up on page 2 of the newspaper La Provence this week because of her longstanding friendship with Christian Lacroix and her great knowledge of the town and the photos on exhibit), she told us all about what is and is not eaten in Portugal. Over drinks with Didier, Monique and a few others, everyone went around the table talking about what their best dishes are. It seems that Monique has about four, her spaghetti bolognaise being her best, according to her husband. Didier, whose mom is Italian, claims to make pretty good sauce but not as good as Monique. They've been together 31 years and I am beginning to understand why! Dorette, through me, her faithful translator, talked about her cooking school and novel. Everyone knows about Chef Érick's stages de cuisine and Monique asked him when he is going to publish his cookbook. He has researched and collected over 1,000 Provençal recipes. When it came to me, I just admitted to being his assistant. That seemed to satisfy everyone. I dodged a bullet there. If pressed, I would have to say my macaroni and cheese. My boys love it. It was my grandmother's recipe.
While having a drink at Marie Christine's café after spending an hour or so at the Saturday market, Dorette and I had to show her what was in all of our bags. We tried to explain that there is no market that comes close to comparing to Arles in our part of the world. I think there is a great deal of sympathy for us. The French are grateful to the New World, though, for tomatoes, which originated in North America.
This week, I feel as if all I have thought about is my next meal. When we are eating lunch, we are already discussing the options for dinner! Saturday is the traditional day to have seafood for lunch since the fishing boats arrive in on Friday night with their catch. Yesterday's lunch was large mussels, with small bits of tomato and green pepper in the shells. We added lemon juice and a drop of vinegar and swallowed them down. Then we had grilled shrimp. We have a small cast iron stove top grill here and we use it to dry grill vegetables and meat. Today for lunch, we had grilled turkey kebabs from the local Arab butcher shop. Every cut of meat we get from there is delicious. Their sausages or saucisses are so delicious. Érick also made a very simple salad of chopped tomatoes, round zucchini and green peppers with lemon juice and olive oil. There is never a drop of the juice left from that because it gets soaked up with the bread leftover from breakfast. I do honestly believe that simplicity and fresh ingredients are the keys to good food. Have you ever had fresh tomatoes with olive oil, sea salt and fresh basil? If not, buy the freshest tomatoes you can find and some basil and give it a try.
I am happy to report that I have now made four attempts at brioche, the last three using a warm milk and honey bread recipe from Dorette. I have modified the recipe a bit, adding more milk, honey and eggs than the recipe calls for. I may be about ready to publish it. One more experiment tomorrow.
Tonight we have a cooking lesson with an English couple staying with us for a week. The menu will include les moules marinières, fish wrapped in fig leaves, green beans in parsley and chocolate hazelnut tarts. It's been a while since we've had a lesson and I really look forward to it. It is very rewarding to watch people create dishes that they never thought possible, using fresh ingredients and simple techniques. Then, while we eat, we hear their stories. How many children they have, what they do in "real life," why they have come to Arles and Provence, etc.
Dorette's chocolate cake was a big hit at Gilles' house earlier in the week. I will leave you with the recipe now so that I can get back to the kitchen to prepare for the lesson! There are times when you might look at something sweet and wonder if it is worth the calories. Trust me, this is so worth every single bite.
Dorette's Espresso Flourless Cake
each cake serves 12
For the cake:
10 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
3/4 c. (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup chocolate, hazelnut or coffee liqueur
1 c. sugar
For the ganache that may be added after the cake is baked- either on top of the cake or on the side:
1/4 c. heavy cream
8 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
6 Tbsp excellent cognac
Warm the cream, melt the chocolate into it and add the cognac.
For the crème anglaise that you may use as a garnish (Dorette simply whipped up some heavy cream with a bit of vanilla sugar added):
2 c. half and half
1 vanilla bean
1/2 c. sugar, caramelized
1/4 c. granulated sugar
4 egg yolks
Make crème anglaise:
1. Place the half and half and the vanilla bean together in a medium heavy saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
2. Separate the egg yolks, placing in a separate bowl with the 1/4 c. sugar. Make sure the bowl is large enough to accommmodate all of the half and half. Whisk very well, until blended.
3. Little by little, using a ladle, whisk in the hot half and half, whisking constantly.
4. Pour the egg yolk mixture back into the pan ans immer again over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Do not bring to a boil or the crème will curdle. Once it has thickened, turn off the heat, but leave the crème in the pan.
1/2 c. sugar caramelized
5. Place the 1/2 c. sugar to be caramelized in a medium sized heavy skillet. First and most important is that hot sugar burns as badly as hot oil and since it is so sticky, it continues to burn while it is stuck on you-- so be careful. Use gloves or mitts to handle the pan. Do not even think about tasting the hot sugar with a finger! Turn up the heat to medium high and prepare to watch the sugar until it's finished. This will take approximately 5 minutes. The first signs of the sugar caramelizing will be the edges of the sugar melting into a light brown liquid. Do not stir the sugar at this point. Just wait. In another minute or so you will notice the middle of the sugar is beginning to melt as well. I use the general rule that when half the sugar in the pan is melted, then it is okay to stir. You can use a wooden spoon or one of the new fancy heat-proof rubber scrapers. Stir gently until all the sugar is melted and you can now pour it slowly into the still warm crème anglaise. If making ahead of time, transfer to a covered container and refrigerate until ready to serve dessert.
Make the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F and butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with a cut circle of parchment paper. Put aside.
2. Melt chocolate and butter in a microwavable bowl for 1 minute 20 seconds. Remove from microwave and whisk until butter and chocolate are incorporated well.
3. Whisk in the cocoa and liquor.
4. Beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer, until the mixture has tripled in volume. Fold in the chocolate mixture.
5. Pour and scrape batter into pan, spreading out to the edges.
6. Bake for 40 minutes in the oven until the top forms a crust and the interior tests, for the most part, clean with a few moist crumbs.
7. Cool cake on a wire rack for about 5 minutes. Then, if necessary, scrunch the crust down to form an even layer, release the cake from the springform pan and invert on the rack. Peel off the parchment paper. Let cool completely.
Add the crème, ganache and strawberries or raspberries, if you wish. But this cake is good by itself or with the whipped cream!