Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Misérables, Champagne, and Sugar Cookies

I trekked up I-40 and then curvy highway 226 to visit the Spruce Pine clan.  We drove to visit my mom's sister and I insisted on stopping the car and getting out several times so that I could snap a few photos of the mountains covered in snow and frost.  My sister, who was driving, indulged me.  As you can see, most of the snow was at higher elevations.  Just a bit down below where we were.  But the cold wind reminded me why I left Boone after three winters there.  No grad school for me.  Teaching French to middle schoolers in Durham suited me just fine, merci.  And 33 years later, I am still here.  But the mountains are beautiful and I do miss the scenery.
Moving on...
The Ex-Ex indulged me and agreed to go see Les Misérables on opening day.  Yes, it was crowded.  Yes, we were early and got in line and got good seats.  Yes, it was well worth it.  Oui, oui, et oui.  I fell in love with Jean Valjean all over again.  Hugh Jackman portrays him magnificently, going from this in on of the first scenes

to this, as he transforms from prisoner 24601 to M. Le Maire.

Surely an Oscar will be in the works.
One of my pet peeves?  When the book/play/movie name is shortened to Les Mis.  In French, les misérables means the wretched ones.  How do you shorten that without forgetting what it means and how the citizens of France were living, if you can call it that.  The story is more than just a Broadway musical.  Enough said.  I am listening to the soundtrack (quite loudly) as I type.  I am alone except for the cats and they are somewhere asleep and don't seem to mind if I break out in song periodically or reach for my tissue when the tears start.
Moving on again...
Sadly, this morning I read that champagne sales are down 4.9% in France.  Comment?  Pardon?  The French, just like everyone else in the world, I suppose, are worried about their economy.  Their unemployment rate has been high for quite some time.  As of October 2012, it was 10.7%.  (It was 7.7% in the U.S. in November 2012.)  According to the article I read from wire reports, seven in ten French citizens are worried about their country's future, with nineteen months of rising unemployment and fears that the worst is yet to come.  I can understand that the large Champagne houses might be suffering... the best is not cheap, bon marché.  Mme M and I sipped our fair share in November 2008 when we visited Reims and the surrounding area.

Veuve Clicquot



The only way I know to help out all the way over here in North Carolina is to head to Wine Authorities this afternoon and buy a bottle of French bubbles.  I must do my part.  It won't be expensive and it may not come from Champagne so I won't be able to call it champagne (that's the rule in France-- unless it is made in that particular region of the country, it cannot be called champagne).  In Champagne, the grapes used are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.  The wines can be exclusively one grape or a combination of any of the three. Santa brought me dinner reservations tonight for two at Rue Cler so perhaps a little glass of bubbles will be in order before dinner...  And New Year's Eve is just around the corner.
Here's the rundown from the WA website (nothing in the shop is over $49.99, by the way, but you should never judge any wine by its price)--

(A Skitch map pointing out the regions for our bubbles)
  • Gruet Blanc de Noirs (means it is made from red grapes)  $10.99  but I had to toss this one out -- Gruet family originally from Champagne but now making their bubbles in New Mexico
  • Antech Blanquette de Limoux 2010 from Languedoc - southern region-  $14.99  I am already acquainted with this one-- très bon
  • Grognet 1999 from Champagne  $49.99  not in my budget this year
  • R. Dumont & Fils Champagne $29.99
  • R. Dumont & Fils Brut Rosé Champagne  $36.99   It must be Brut/Dry for me and you just can't go wrong with pink bubbles, mes amis
  • R. Dumont & Fils Demi-Sec Douce Cuvée Champagne  $44.99  too sweet for moi (and too expensive, trop cher)
  • Voirin Jumel Blanc de Blancs (made from white grapes) Grand Cru  Champagne  $49.99  (see above, not in my budget)
  • Crémant d'Alsace  Brut  $19.99   I know this lovely one well, too
  • Crémant de Bourgogne  Brut  $19.99  Miam miam, as the Frenchies say instead of yum yum 
  • Château de l'Aulée  Loire Valley Touraine Brut  $16.99  I haven't tried this one, but it sounds right up my alley 
There are others from Italy, Spain, and Austria.  I am sure all of those countries would appreciate your support, too!  California is represented at Wine Authorities as well.

My two favorite Christmas day recipes have nothing to do with the mountains or champagne.  I got up early to put on the coffee and begin my baking.  Both Sons were home, sound asleep.  The Ex-Ex was still in bed.  Santa had delivered gifts and the stockings were hanging.  When they were little, we made the rule that they could not get up before 6:00 am on Christmas morning and they had to come wake us up before going to see if Santa had been to our house.  Now the rule is that they can't get up before 10:00 am.  They made that one up themselves.  They chose great gifts for mom-- a 3.5 cup Kitchen Aid food chopper, a pink Eiffel tower, and Kevin Zraly's Complete Wine Course.  They know me well, n'est-ce pas?  But I must admit that I miss the days of footed pajamas, notes to Santa, and jumping on my bed to wake me up at the stroke of six...

Both recipes come from Cook's Illustrated, my one and only cooking magazine.  The recipes are thoroughly tested and I do not have to guess or worry if they will turn out the way they should.  I follow directions well.

Foolproof Chewy Sugar Cookies
makes 2 dozen

Note:  The final dough will be slightly softer than most cookie dough.  For best results, handle the dough as briefly and gently as possible when shaping the cookies.

2 1/4 cups (11 1/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 ounces) sugar, plus 1/3 cup for rolling
2 ounces cream cheese, cut into 8 pieces
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and still warm
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 tablespoon milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1.  Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350˚.  Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.  Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl.  Set aside.
2.  Place 1 1/2 cups of sugar and cream cheese in large bowl.  Place remaining 1/3 cup sugar in shallow baking dish or pie plate and set aside.  Pour warm butter over sugar and cream cheese and whisk to combine (some small lumps of cream cheese will remain but will smooth out later).  Whisk in oil until incorporated.  Add egg, milk, and vanilla; continue to whisk until smooth.  Add flour mixture and mix with rubber spatula until soft homogeneous dough forms.
3.  Divide dough into 24 equal pieces, about 2 tablespoons each (or use #40 portion scoop).  Using hands, roll dough into balls.  Working in batches, roll balls in reserved sugar to coat and evenly space on prepared baking sheet, 12 dough balls per sheet.  Using bottom of drinking glass, flatten dough balls until 2 inches in diameter.  Sprinkle tops evenly with 4 teaspoons of sugar remaining in shallow dish (2 teaspoons per tray), discarding any remaining sugar.
4  Bake, 1 tray at a time, until edges are set and just beginning to brown, 11 to 13 minutes, rotating tray after 7 minutes.  Cool cookies on baking sheets 5 minutes.  Using wide spatula, transfer cookies to wire rack and cool to room temperature.  (Or eat a warm one!!)

Garlic Mashed Potatoes
serves 8 to 10

Note:  Cutting the potatoes into 1/2-inch pieces ensures that maximum surface area is exposed to soak up garlicky flavor.

4 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, quartered, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces
12 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 cups half and half
1/2 cup water
Salt and pepper

1.  Place cut potatoes in colander and rinse under cold water until water runs clear.  Drain thoroughly.
2.  Melt 4 tablespoons butter in Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add garlic and sugar and cook, stirring often, until garlic is sticky and straw-colored, 3-4 minutes.  Add rinsed potatoes, 1 1/4 cups half and half, water, and 1 teaspoon salt to pot and stir to combine.  Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until potatoes are tender and most liquid is absorbed, 25-30 minutes.
3.  Off heat, add remaining 8 tablespoons butter to pot and mash with potato masher until smooth.  Using rubber spatula, fold in remaining 1/4 cup half and half until liquid is absorbed and potatoes are creamy.  Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Bon appétit to my mountains and Jean Valjean!

Monday, December 24, 2012

2012 In Statues

If you can see the inscription on the critter's tablet, it has the Alpha and Omega symbols, the beginning and the end.  I am not going all religious here, but it is almost the end of another year.  As I was looking through photos from the July BFF trip to France, I noticed that I had taken quite a few photos of statues and carvings.  Then, of course, I had to go back to the January and March trips to see if I'd done the same thing.  Oui, it seemed to be theme for me this year.  So, if you enjoy sculpture of various kinds, sit back and scroll through 2012 with me.  I won't provide much in the way of details, just a where, if I can remember!

The January trip with ACIS--
The Grand Palais

Near Le Bon Marché

Inside the Panthéon

A replica of Venus de Milo's foot in a café where I had lunch (and was treated to a limoncello by a charming older gentleman)

Louis XIII at the Place des Vosges

In Pujaut, the village where Mme P lives, in the south of France

In Villeneuve-lez-Avignon

In Washington, DC, during our annual 7th grade class trip-
Some of my favorite men memorialized there-

President Abraham Lincoln

General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's hands

and Fala, his dog

A man during the Depression at the FDR memorial

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the Vietnam Memorial

The March trip with my students--
In a passage way in Paris as we were walking around one night after dinner

At the basilica of Saint Denis

Saint Denis himself, at Notre Dame

Atop the Pont Alexandre III bridge

A WWI soldier inside the Arc de Triomphe

A foot inside the Arc from one of the original statues, I'm guessing, from the date

A bust of singer Dalida in Montmartre where she lived (can you guess what visitors rub for good luck?)

One of Degas' ballet dancers at the Musée d'Orsay

I am a Leo-- I love lions.

At the American Cemetery in Normandy

In Notre Dame

Atop the Opéra Garnier

Iconic Paris water fountain

In Avignon, outside the Palais des Papes

Inside the Palais-- a nice little final resting place, n'est-ce pas?

A WWI soldier, a Poilu (hairy one- because they didn't shave?), in Tavel

Water spout/gargoyle at the Palais des Papes

In Tavel, at the Vignerons de Tavel cave

Also in Tavel (I think...)

I "borrowed" a photo from Mme P taken during her trip to DC before coming to Durham for our exchange.

Degas' ballet dancer at the National Gallery of Art

Our visit to Duke University

I cannot remember where we took this one...

Gandhi, in Raleigh

Back to France in July with the BFFs

Sacré Coeur

Atop the July Column where the Bastille prison stood

At Dalida's grave in the Montmartre cemetery

Joan of Arc in Notre Dame

Winged Victory at the Louvre

Inside the Abbaye de Frigolet

In the village of Aubignas

Also in Aubignas, at the church cemetery

An oratoire in Villeneuve-lez-Avignon

Joan of Arc at Mont Saint Michel

At Mont Saint Michel

Saint Thérèse in Notre Dame (I couldn't leave her out!)

One of the bulls on parade around town in Durham (we are the Bull City)

Our family outing for putt-putt near Sunset Beach, NC  (the guys play, I watch, take photos, and referee, if necessary)

Farmers' Market art in Knoxville, TN

It's been a very full year of art and travel!  I am a lucky girl.

Bon appétit, 2012!