Saturday, September 27, 2014

Coconut Cream Dreams: Part Un

Have you ever tasted something so utterly delicious that you wonder why on earth you haven't eaten more of it during the course of your life?  Or, another thought that just occurred to me, maybe, just maybe, your tastebuds have been in training for that particular dish or meal.  Would it be as good if you had access to it anytime anywhere?  I dare say it would not. Would this special treat become a lovely gustatory memory if you could have it any time your little heart desired?  Would the second time be as unforgettable as the first?  All good questions and worth pondering, n'est-ce pas?

This summer, I took a trip out to the mid-west with the World's Best In-Laws.  Sister-in-Law and Parents-in-Law and I flew from RDU to Minneapolis (I had no idea an airport could be so spread out) then on to Rapid City, South Dakota.  We rented a car and then drove south to Crawford, Nebraska. The Ex-Ex and his family are from Nebraska.  Cattle ranchers.  They moved to North Carolina when the Ex-Ex was going into 7th grade.  I was the trip's chauffeur.  The In-Laws hadn't been back to Nebraska in a few years.  It was Father-in-Law's 60th high school reunion and Sioux County fair weekend.  I am always up for an adventure and I hadn't been back in over 10 years.

For lunch one day, Aunt Linda wanted to go out and about and she suggested lunch at the High Plains Homestead's Drifter Cookshack.  It is out in the middle of nowhere but a lovely nowhere.  I am a mountain girl but the prairies out in the northwest corner of Nebraska are breathtakingly beautiful to me.

Could this have to do with all the westerns I watched as a little girl with Daddy Tommy?  John Wayne?  Clint Eastwood?  Well, maybe.  It is unchanged country where ranchers still try to make a decent living under the hot summer sun and snow covered winters, completely at the mercy of the whims of the weather.  Father-in-Law was so happy to see bales and bales and bales of hay and fields of clover.  He spotted them from the air as we were getting ready to land in Rapid City.  He sat up front with me in the rented Jeep and I was so glad to be with him.

Back to lunch.  There weren't many choices on the menu.  Not that there needed to be.  The Cookshack is small, decorated with lots of cool stuff, and was slowly starting to fill up with hungry eaters when we arrived. Aunt Linda is a pie lover and asked about the day's selection.

She was told that there were only a couple of pieces left so we all agreed that they should be brought to our table immediately.   I ordered an Indian Fry Bread Taco Salad.  Freshly made fry bread.  It was very good.

I polished it off.  I could have ordered the infamous Coffee Burger and shared it with the entire table, but good sense prevailed and I decided against it.

(Unfortunately I think it is really hard to read.  Sorry.)  Suffice it to say that it is a legend out around Harrison and Crawford, Nebraska, having been the speciality of Sioux Sundries, now closed, for years.

Even though the pie was sitting in front of me, just waiting for my fork to cut into it, I resisted until I finished my salad.  And here is the pie that dreams are made of...

I enjoyed it while Mr. Buffalo watched from on high.  I ate my fair share of buffalo while out there but not that day.  He seemed okay with me eating salad.

I shared the pie with whomever wanted a bite.  I really did.  There was also a slice of strawberry cheesecake-like pie, but it just didn't hold a candle to the coconut cream.

This was the best meal of the trip and watching the In-Laws share a meal with family they rarely get to see did my heart so much good.  I just wish that the Ex-Ex, Son 1 and Son 2, Brothers-in-Law and Nephew could have been there, too.  Like in the old days during our family vacations out there.
Here's the lunch gang--

After lunch, I wandered around to take photos.

Oui, wild sunflowers were in bloom everywhere.

The Pie Lady is also an artist.  I met her and bought some of her notecards.

This photo I took just for you, Uncle Rod.

The infamous jackalope.  You sure had fun in 1984 with the Appalachian Mountain girl who married into the family and made her first trip west of east Tennessee to visit.  We missed you at lunch!

It was so much fun to spend time with Aunt Barbara and Uncle Dick and the first, second, and third (does that even exist?) cousins from North Dakota.  Sabrina and her babies.  Granddad Alan.

Brother-in-Law and Nephew did come join us for part of the stay.  It was fun joining in on their photographic adventures.

Brother-in-Law is working on a photo montage of me...  I look rather very scary. He is calling it Where's The Pie Smile.

Last, but certainly not least, since the whole clan wouldn't exist without them, I dedicate this blog post to Grandma and Granddad.  We miss you.  And I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Stay tuned for a recipe and Part Deux of Coconut Cream Dreams.

Bon appétit, Nebraska and all the In-Laws!  Thanks for a wonderful trip.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why we cook

Today, I was reminded of a YouTube video I recently saw.  Two young men from Raleigh, NC accepted Chris Rosati's BIGG challenge and prepared dinner for some very deserving local women. Chris has ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.  He graduated from Durham Academy and has made it his quest to spread kindness and happiness.  He is guy behind the Great Krispy Kreme Heist. You  may have seen him on CBS.
The video is so touching.  It is why we cook.  To bring pleasure to others.  But these young men took it to a whole different level.  It is inspiring beyond words.  Have your tissues ready.

Bon appétit!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gourmands/Gourmets in training

Je vous présente ma classe 8B.  Here are the little darlings in my 8B class this year.  They are taking French 2.  I taught them last year in French 7 and some of them were in my 6th grade class for students new to our school.  They have to put up with me, a morning person, either first or second period every day (we have a crazy rotating schedule).  But they handle it well, for the most part, and don't growl at me very often.
This is a crew of cookers and eaters.  We have already tried macarons, those wonderful little almond flour French sensations, four times and school has been is session for only one month.
First, we sampled Parisian Macarons made by ER, using a Martha Stewart recipe-

Beautiful and tasty.

Next up, lovely little pink macarons made by MH, using a recipe from I Love Macarons by Hisako Ogita.  MH said she visited Sur La Table and bought a macaron-making kit.  I have a silicon baking mat I purchased at Galeries Lafayette in Rouen a couple of years ago, but I honestly prefer parchment paper.  Maybe I just need more practice with it, though.  The little circles are drawn on it so it is easier to make them the same size.  (How about someone come up with parchment paper with the circles drawn on it??  Maybe I will email the company about that...)

And last, but by no means least, chocolate macarons from LK and AC.  On the same day, no less.

AC's have a chocolate ganache filling (you can never go wrong with that).  LK prepared hers with the help of a pastry chef employed by her parents.  In Durham, her parents are well-known to us eaters.  They own Watts Grocery, Sage and Swift and Hummingbird Bakery.  Chefs par excellence.  I asked LK if her mom's pastry chef would give me a lesson and I am now signed up to take a macaron-making class in October.  Arles Lucy has signed up, too.

Notice how they all managed to get "feet" on their cookies.  Not necessarily an easy task, mes amis.  I have failed at it more than once.

Another day, KC brought in little chocolate cakes for us to sample.  (One of my new 6th graders brought in truffles the same day, so they were photographed together.  I will save the truffle recipe for another day!). 

If you need "real food" to serve before the dessert course, we have also sampled cassoulet, a wonderful dish that I ate in Carcassonne while on sabbatical in 2008.  LJ treated us to that.  

The little darlings reminded me that I can cook for them anytime I wish, too.  Maybe I will soon to repay them for their generosity!

Parisian Macarons

1 1/4 c. powdered sugar + 1 tsp
1 c. finely ground and blanched almonds
6 Tbsp. egg whites (~3 eggs)
1/4 c. granulated sugar
Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350F.
Whisk together confectioners' sugar and ground almonds.
In a mixer, whip egg whites with salt on medium speed until foamy.
Increase speed to high and gradually add granulated sugar.
Continue to whip until stiff, glossy peaks form.
Fold in confectioners' sugar until completely incorporated.
Line baking sheets with parchment paper.  Set aside.
Fit a pastry bad with a 3/8-inch #4 round tip and fill with batter.
Pipe i-inch discs onto prepared baking sheets, leaving 2 inches between cookies.
Let batter spread out and dry at room temperature.  (Drop the baking sheets on the counter a few times to get the air out of the cookies.)
A soft skin will form on the tops of the macarons after about 15 minutes.
Bake, with oven door slightly open, until the macaron surface is dry ~15 minutes.
Remove baking sheet to wire rack, let macarons cool, then peel off parchment.
Use immediately or store in an airtight container.
Turn macarons so their flat bottoms face up.
Pipe ~ 1 tsp. filling on half of the cookies and then make sandwiches.
Refrigerate for 1 hour.

3 large egg whites
1 c. granulated sugar
1 c. (two sticks)  unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into pieces

Whisk egg whites and sugar in electric mixer until stiff and shiny (3-5 minutes).
Add butter, 1 piece at a time and continue mixing until butter is incorporated.
Cover and refrigerate.  Bring to room temperature before stirring/spreading.

I Love Macarons

2/3 cup almond meal or ground almonds
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
3 large egg whites, room temperature and preferably aged up to 3 days
5 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 280ºF, and position 2 racks in the lower section of the oven. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. If you have time, draw 1-inch circles on the back of each sheet, spacing the circles at least 1/2-inch apart.
  2. If your almond meal is very coarse, grind it with the powdered sugar in a food processor until fine. Sift the almond meal-powdered sugar mixture twice through a mesh sieve.
  3. Place egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer (or use a hand mixer), and begin to beat on medium-high. When the eggs are frothy, gradually add granulated sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until fully incorporated. Continue to beat the egg white mixture until glossy and stiff peaks form when you lift the beaters. Gently stir in the vanilla extract. Be careful to not overbeat the meringue (e.g., the meringue takes on a clumpy texture).
  4. Add half of the sifted almond mixture, and gently fold it into the meringue using a flexible silicone spatula. Lift from the bottom, up around the sides, and toward the middle, being careful to not overagitate the meringue and lose too much air. Once the almond mixture is predominantly incorporated, add the second half and repeat the folding motion.
  5. When the almond mixture is just incorporated, you will need to transform the batter into the appropriate texture. Using the flat of the spatula, "punch" down into the center of the batter, then scrape more batter from the sides to the center, and punch again. You will need to repeat this 10-15 times (or more, depending on your arm strength and the beginning texture of your batter) until the batter slowly and continuously drips back into the bowl when you scoop it up with the spatula. Think of the consistency of molten lava. For the best results, punch the batter a few times, check the consistency, then punch a few more times, etc. Do not make the batter too runny or the macarons won't rise as they should, and you could end up with oil stains on the surface.
  6. Pour batter into a pastry bag fitted with a 0.4-inch tip. In a pinch, you can also use a gallon-size Ziploc bag: just snip a teeny bit from one of the bottom corners. Twist and clip the top of the bag to avoid overflow. On your prepared baking sheets, pipe out 1-inch rounds in the circles you drew (remember to draw the circles on the back side of your parchment to avoid ink or pencil stains on your macarons!).
  7. Holding the baking sheet in both hands, rap each baking sheet firmly on the counter two or three times. This smooths out the tops and helps form the "pied" or frilly foot on the bottoms of the macarons. Allow the piped macarons to dry, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes. The macarons should form a very thin, smooth crust where, if you tap it lightly with your finger, the batter will not stick to your finger. If after 15 minutes, the batter is still sticky, let it dry longer. This may take up to an hour on humid days.
  8. Place both baking sheets in the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes. After the first 2 minutes, open the oven to allow any excess humidity to escape. Halfway through, swap oven racks and rotate the sheets for even baking. The macarons are done when they are baked all the way through and the shells are just hard. Take care to not underbake (insides will still be mushy) or overbake (tops will begin to brown). Remove them from the oven, and cool on baking sheet placed on a wire rack.
  9. When fully cooled, assemble the macarons with your choice of filling. The assembled macarons can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.
Basic Buttercream Filling

7 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Just like the basic macaron recipe, the basic buttercream filling recipe can be customized with endless flavors and colors. But don't stop at buttercream! Try jams and preserves (or even Nutella!) straight out of the jar, or whip up a quick chocolate ganache for a decadent spin on the macaron.
1.     Cut butter into pieces, and mash with a spatula until the consistency resembles mayonnaise.
2.     In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolks, then add the granulated sugar, and whisk until the mixture lightens to an off-white and you can no longer see the granules of sugar. Add the milk, and whisk to combine.
3.     Pour the egg mixture into a small saucepan, and heat over low heat, whisking frequently to ensure that the mixture does not curdle or scorch. Cook until the mixture becomes thick and custardy, like pudding.
4.     Pour the egg mixture back into its bowl, and whisk constantly until it returns to room temperature. Whisk in the butter in three batches, add the vanilla, and stir until smooth and all ingredients are fully combined. Pipe or spread onto one macaron half and sandwich between the other.

Natalie's Melting Chocolate Cakes
makes 12

200 g (7oz/ scant 3/4 c.) butter, cubed
200 g (7 oz/ 1 1/3 c. dark (bittersweet) chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids), broken into pieces
200 g (7 oz/scant 3/4 c) castor sugar (superfine sugar)
4 eggs
1 tsp plain all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 180˚C (350 F˚/gas mark 4).
Place the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir until the chocolate has melted.  Transfer to a large mixing bowl with the sugar, stir with a wooden spoon and leave to cool a little while.
Add the eggs to the chocolate mixture, one at a time, stirring well after each addition.  Finally, stir in the flour and mix well.
Pour the cake batter into 12 mini-loaf pans (or prepared muffin tins) and bake for 12-15 minutes until the centres are set but still a little wobbly.  Turn the oven off but leave the cakes inside for another 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
You can store these covered, in the fridge, for up to 2-3 days.  Take out 30 minutes before serving.

Easy Crockpot Cassoulet
serves 6

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 boneless skinless chicken thighs, coarsely chopped
1/4 lb. cooked smoked sausage, such as kielbasa or spicier andouille, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. black pepper
4 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 Tbsp. water
3 cans (15 oz each) great northern beans, rinsed and drained
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium heat.  Add onion to hot oil and cook, stirring, until onion is tender, about 4 minutes.  Stir in chicken, sausage, garlic, thyme and pepper.  Cook 5-8 minutes, or until chicken and sausage are browned.  Stir in tomato paste and water.  Transfer to slow cooker.  Stir beans into the chicken mixture.  Cover and cook on LOW heat for 4-6 hours.  Before serving, sprinkle the chopped parsley over cassoulet.  (You could put it under the broiler for a few minutes before serving- without the parsley- to get a crust on the top- the way it was served in Carcassonne.)

When I am Chez Fanny, she serves me cassoulet.  And, of course, in France you can find seriously good duck cassoulet in a can from Castelnaudary, a lovely spot in Languedoc known as the world capital for this specialty.  

Bon appétit to all cookers and eaters, young and old alike!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Classroom skits à la française

La Brune and her Chinese take-out from China Palace, April 2014

l to r:  the Ex-Ex, Moonpie, La Brune, Mlle de Tavel, Arles Lucy, and IronWoman

For the past four years, I've had an exchange program with La Brune, pictured above.  Sadly, it isn't going to happen this school year.  I am pretty sure that I am in mourning.  School is back in session for me, it starts this week for La Brune, and I am signing students up for the spring trip to France. I've been looking through photos from last spring's exchange and came upon some forgotten video footage that I filmed with my iPad.  My 7th graders end the year with a unit about food, bien sûr, and La Brune, Mlle de Tavel and Moonpie put on a skit for them.  I am not sure that the kiddies understood as much of the French as I would have liked, but it is clear that they understood enough to giggle.  You can hear me giggle as La Brune discusses catching frogs in the pond and how she prepares them.  Most foreign language teachers are pretty good actors-- we have to be.  I just spent more than a few minutes extracting the video from my iPad, uploading it to YouTube and trying to remember how to embed video on the blog.  (I hope that some of you out there have missed new posts.  I took the summer off to hang out with family in various places, read, see movies, cook-- my usual ways to goof off, rest and relax.  I'm back, though, with photos and stories to tell.  And recipes to share, of course!  Keep coming back, please, s'il vous plaît!)

Au Resto 

Bon appétit, mes amies françaises!  Merci et à bientôt, j'espère!