francophile-ing away the memories: paris

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We rolled through Paris at the start of last August. Throughout our bike trip, our most consistent navigational struggles (and wasted hours) involved finding our way into city centers from the countryside. There was either not enough signage – common – or too much signage – also common. So when it came to Paris, I wasn’t willing to waste half a day  getting frustrated trying to find our way into town. We took a train from the Champagne-Ardenne city of Reims, a very nice place with loads of delicious affordable champagne that is unusually hard to pronounce if you are a confused American (think Rance… or Reams if you’re British and don’t give a shit about how other cultures pronounce things).

Before Paris, we had finished up a quick jaunt that found us biking from Germany -> Luxembourg -> Belgium -> France in the space of a day or so, much of which was in the pouring rain. We had camped overnight in a weird wet forest in Belgium, after eating dinner in an overly-priced overly-fancy Chinese restaurant in Luxembourg, and failing to find a dry place to spend the night. While in the weird wet forest, our nightly tent entertainment of a Game of Thrones episode was interrupted by some dude walking by on the main road, intermittently yelling loudly. At us? We’ll never know. But it creeped me out.

Once in Paris, our prime objective was to dry out all our wet nasty gear. Luckily our cute little Airbnb, which faced the Église Saint-Sulpice in the 6th Arrondissement, had a washing machine and four functional windows that let us air out our clothes, our tent, our stinky shoes, our sleeping bags, and whatever else I’ve since forgotten about.
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I love Paris. I love the energy, and the Frenchiness, and all the delicious everything, the artwork, the general faded coloring of the buildings, the hordes of tourists who make it impossible to do anything if you show up somewhere after 9am. To be fair, we were there in August, busy tourist time. We had chosen to to arrive in France when we did to avoid potential Tour de France traffic, which can be crippling if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. But August is the month of vacations for everyone. While tourists flood into Paris, many Parisians make gallant escapes out of the city for much of the month. This means that of the beaucoup chocolate shops and renowned pâtisseries that I hoped to visit, most of the smaller ones were sadly closed.

François Pralus was wide open, so we visited and left with a Chuao chocolate bar and one of their famous pralulines – a buttery brioche studded with rose sugar-coated almond and hazelnut pralines. I was over the moon.



We visited the Catacombs of Paris, which I had tried to visit in a past life before iPhones and constant internet, and had shown up on the wrong day when they were closed. After waiting in a miserable line at the Eiffel Tower for 90 minutes without any sign of anyone being admitted (due I think to a suspicious package terror incident the day before), we abandoned ship and made our way to Catacombs, where a 2+ hour admittance line greeted us. I didn’t really mind the wait, I knew it would be worthwhile. Eli grabbed us some sandwiches from a Paul bakery across the street, and we chatted a bit with some friendly British women on holiday from London for the weekend who were next to us in the line.

And sure enough, the Catacombs were spectacular. If endless piles of artfully-placed human remains are your thing, plan a visit of your own. The climate in the tunnels makes for a nice change from a sunny August day, another perk.


Whether eating in or dining out, we ate so very well while in Paris. I couldn’t get enough of the charcuterie and soft cheeses, paired with fresh tomato and cucumber, olives, and quality french butter, and topped off with several bottles of bubbly that we had purchased in Reims, as well as the dregs of a bottle of peach liqueur from the Mosel River area in Germany.

We had our share of mini French coffees, giant salads, more baguettes, and more soft cheeses.

There was a Pierre Hermé shop mere blocks from our Airbnb, and I waited in a lengthy line there before interacting with a charismatic yet condescending employee who was frustrated that I needed two minutes to decide on the eight flavors of overpriced macarons that I wanted to try. Of the Fall-Winter 2016 collection, standouts included the Jasmine Flower & Jasmine Tea, Fresh Mint & Red Berries, Lemon & Flaky Hazelnut Praline, as well as their signature Salted-Butter Caramel. And yes, I kept the flavor card that they gave me with my purchase, so that I could accurately reference these tiny confections over half a year later.





Of all the fine dining, the highlight for me was dinner at Huguette, Bistro de la mer, a seafood restaurant in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, again just blocks from our Airbnb. We split a bottle of crisp white wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which apparently is now known as Occitanie (since the end of September 2016). We feasted on two varieties of oysters, as well as cockles, clams, and shrimp. It was an incredible, truly memorable meal.

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We did the art thing a bit too. We visited the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie, primarily for the Impressionist paintings. It’s insane how cell phones have transformed art galleries. Everywhere we went, people were taking endless photos like the apocalypse was about to arrive, crowding each other and shoving their phones as far forward as they could to capture every masterpiece. I took a few pictures, mostly of the few I unexpectedly loved and the uglier paintings that made me laugh (see top painting, above).

When it was time to depart Paris, we rented a minivan, shoved our bikes and gear into the back, and ventured south towards the mountains, with the first stop being a stroll around the grounds of Fontainebleau. This last picture makes me smile, as I was so slim and fit, and I could still wear those pants, my favorite pair of Silver corduroys that have since bit the dust. We took one final wonderful memory away from Paris, which set the tone for the rest of our trip and largely explains why I fell off the radar and have failed to blog again until now. We conceived a child, a child which has since spent the better part of 2,000 miles riding along with me on a bicycle, has been sick with me on a dozen-plus ferry rides, has made a transatlantic flight back home, and is now seven weeks or so away from sprouting into a unique little lass of her own.

Paris je t’aime.

upside-down apple and prune plum spice cake + salted caramel sauce

It all started with a desire for salted caramel sauce, after going many months without it. To be truthful, though, I knew what I was going to make as soon as I saw these seasonal prune plums at my grocer. I harbor a desire to turn everything into an upside-down cake, with the apple spice cakes typical of autumn no exception.

Ordinarily these spice cakes are filled with apple chunks or applesauce, and are tasty, but are also mildly boring and relatively thoughtless to make.

This upside-down version of a spice cake (or a spice cake tatin, if you will) provides some extra built-in flavor, through the glorious layer of caramelized apples and prune plums. It packs a well-spiced punch as well, thanks to additions of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, cardamom, and Grand Marnier in the batter.

Bonus: it’s pretty to look at. Bonus 2: The spiced salted caramel sauce is a good substitute in life for anything edible. So delicious!

As I leisurely put together this caramel sauce and cake, I reflected on the last time I had tried my hand at an apple spice cake. I was living in France at the time. Memories sifted through my mind hazily.

I thought back to the glares I received from stylish French people when they saw me pairing Chacos with a bright yellow-green rain jacket. I remembered the time the yard of my apartment was torn apart by my landlady’s construction men in her effort to create a mini-empire of apartments. And then the subsequent time when two weeks of rain flooded the yard, and my roommate and I had to repeatedly make our way through a foot of water to get to our home.

I thought of the familiar sights I saw everyday during my bus commute. Of the smells of freshly-baked almond pastries. Of those teeny tiny cups of coffee. Of the funny short man I saw playing a saxophone that one time. Of all the neat things in my landlady’s backyard, and how her side of the house was very beautiful, while ours was frightening and falling to pieces. Of how I washed all my clothes by hand, because I was too shy to walk down the street to the laundromat. And of the scary mannequin that leered at me in Aigues-Mortes.

It was my time in France, back in 2007, that got me started taking pictures of my baking successes. Due to the sketchy gas oven in my apartment, and my lack of interest in food styling and proper lighting, everything that I documented then looked pretty much the same. But from the granola cake, to the kiwi cake, to this apple spice cake’s predecessor, I was hooked.

I do hope you’ll try this recipe out. It has enough deliciousness to equate to at least a few months of fond memories from time spent abroad – mannequin excluded.

Upside-Down Apple and Prune Plum Spice Cake {original recipe}

Serve with Spiced Salted Caramel Sauce (recipe follows)

I’ve mentioned before that I make my tartes tatins (and upside-down cakes) using a 10-inch cast iron skillet. It is an ideal pan for this cake, as there is no need to flip or disturb the apple plum layer until the cake has finished cooking. If you don’t have this size cast iron pan, you can heat the butter, sugar, apples and plums in a skillet, before transferring to a buttered and floured parchment-lined cake pan.

++Ingredients++

For the caramelized layer:

3 apples (I used McIntosh, they bake well), cored and sliced
5-10 prune plums, pitted and quartered
6 tbsp butter
2/3 c. brown sugar

For the cake batter:

1 c. rye flour
1/2 c. all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
6 tbsp butter, room temperature
1 c. brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp + 2 tsp Grand Marnier
2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp cardamom
3/4 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 c. milk
1/4 c. heavy cream

++Directions++

In a 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, combine butter and brown sugar. Melt and mix. Arrange apple and plum slices as desired, and allow mixture to cook for two to three minutes, until caramel apple aromas waft up at you. Remove from heat and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a medium bowl, combine flours, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer (or a large bowl equipped with a mixing implement and a strong arm), cream butter and brown sugar for two minutes.  Add eggs, beating well after each addition. Mix in vanilla, Grand Marnier, and all spices. Add flour mixture in two parts, alternating with the milk and heavy cream, beating at low speed.

Pour batter into cast iron skillet over apples and plums. Butter will rise up around the edges of the pan – don’t worry. Bake cake on center oven rack for 40-45 minutes until an inserted cake tester shows it has cooked through. Allow to cool in the pan for ten minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the skillet to free any adhering cake. Place a large plate on top of the skillet, upside down, and in one smooth motion, flip to turn out the cake onto the plate (you will likely need oven mitts as the cast iron will still be hot). If any fruit bits have stuck behind in the pan, return them to their rightful place on the cake

Cool cake until warm or to room temperature. Served with Spiced Salted Caramel Sauce.Store cake in fridge, well-wrapped, for up to three days.

Spiced Salted Caramel Sauce {original recipe}

Makes ~2 c.

++Ingredients++

1 c. sugar
6 tbsp butter
3/4 c. heavy cream
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp brown sugar
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cardamon

++Directions++

Pour sugar into a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Let sit until sugar melts, and begins turning a light amber color. Stir if necessary to break up any large chunks, but otherwise let it be. When the caramel has turned a medium amber (the darkness is up to you – you want to let it caramelize sufficiently without burning. Remember that it will continue to cook for a few seconds after it has been removed from the heat), add butter and stir until mixed. Add cream, salt, brown sugar, cinnamon, and cardamon, and stir. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Pour into a glass jar and cool completely. Cap and store in fridge or freezer.

the stunning red omelette in carcassonne, france

There is no question that I enjoy surrounding myself with treasures and spoils of the sights I have seen, and the places I have conquered.

Be it warm mukluks from northern Minnesota, coral from the shores of O’ahu, a placemat displaying the mountains of the Berner Oberland, or a ticket for a train ride in Sardinia, memories of my travels clutter up both my life and mind.

 

Despite my apparent plethora of material goods – and I think many people would agree with me here – it is my memories of food that resonate most strongly with the places I have visited.

Cheese studded with fruit and nuts from the Coop in Kandersteg, Switzerland. A cream puff larger than my face just outside of Berlin. Piles of small fried shrimp near Padre Island in Texas. Spam in Hawaii. Spam in Minnesota. Dim sum in San Francisco, Victoria B.C., and St. Paul. Excellent pot pie in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Warm Raclette enjoyed after a day spent falling down a mountain in the French Alps, the waiters begging my two table mates and I to somehow – miraculously – eat the whole wheel of cheese.

I could go on for a very long time with this list, and if you have travel memories, I bet you could too. After all, you are what you eat, right?

There is one food memory missing from the list that merits greater discussion, and by greater discussion, I mean five years of pondering exactly what it was that I ate before attempting to recreate it here. A stunning, fully red omelette that I enjoyed in Carcassonne, a beautiful town steeped in history in le Midi of France.

But first, Montpellier.

  

I studied abroad in the youthful university town of Montpellier as a sophomore in college. The months that I spent in France arguably shaped my life view and mindset more than anything else I’ve accomplished or set out to achieve.

More than the degrees I’ve received, or the half marathons I’ve run, or the elaborate nine-layer cakes I’ve created. All three of these things are, at least to some degree, simply akin to suffering.

The slow-paced nature of existence in le Midi was the perfect setting for self-realization, and provided stellar degustation conditions as well.

I was fortunate enough to play the “I’m abroad and young, I must spend see as much as possible and take mini-trips every weekend” card a great deal during my time there, and thus visited many incredible places. One such place, Carcassonne, was one of the first in a long line of weekends spent oohing and aahing over some architectural feature or another.

Carcassonne was founded by the Visigoths in the 5th century, although its fortified Cité dates back even further to Roman occupation. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France.

After leaving behind the fortified Cité and its gargoyles and ramparts, I found myself in Le Bistrot d’Augustin, a tourist trap of a restaurant near the Carcassonne train station. Being that the other obvious option, McDo, was a glorified McDonald’s with an accent, I was satisfied with my choice (but saved room for a McFlurry for dessert).

Within the walls of this seemingly mediocre restaurant, I experienced one of my greatest food-place memories. I was served an omelette…. that was red. Qu’est-ce que c’est que ça? Je ne sais pas du tout!

Ever since that fateful omelette day, I have always wondered exactly what it was that I was served. Why didn’t I remember? Why didn’t I ask? Write it down? Send smoke signals? I mean, it was a near-brilliant rose red. Seems a rare find, in retrospect.

Finally, five years later, I have attempted to recreate this fantastic red omelette. Not knowing anything of its composition, its origin, or its interior or exterior ingredients (…eggs?), I devised an appropriate replica.

Sure, it’s a bit more orange than red, not very brilliant in hue, and probably nothing like the one I ate in Carcassonne. But on a positive note, it’s delicious. Perfect for breakfast – or for lunch, as I enjoyed it, paired with some julienned sweet potato strips (fried in bacon, of course).

 

Tomato Omelette with Crab Meat and Mushrooms

Makes one single-serving omelette

++Ingredients:++

3 eggs
1 tbsp milk
3 large mushrooms
2 tbsp tomato paste
1/2 tin crab meat (3 oz / 85 g)
Swiss cheese, grated
Butter
Salt
Paprika

++Directions:++

Sauté finely sliced mushrooms in a small amount of butter with salt and paprika to taste. Add 1 tbsp tomato paste and crab meat, and mix well, allowing it to cook until hot. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, thoroughly beat two of the eggs until frothy. Beat in milk and tomato paste. Add several shakes of paprika. Mix in third egg by hand.

Add small amount of butter to frying pan. Pour egg mixture into pan, and allow to set for a minute before adding the mushroom/crab filling on one side of the pan. Top with cheese. Cover pan with a lid and cook several minutes. When top looks nearly cooked, flip un-filled side of egg onto filled side. Let cook one minute more.

Eat, and dream of returning to the lazy hazy crazy days of life in Le Midi.