Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Home-made Yogurt

Had I known that making yogurt was so easy, I would have tried years ago. As I learned in Mireille Guiliano's best seller "French Women Don't Get Fat" (a fun summer read that reinstates many basics), a yogurt maker is totally optional. All that is required is uniform, constant warmth. An oven, turned off but with the light on, is enough. I followed her recipe:

- 1 liter 2% milk
- 1 or 2 tbsp yogurt as starter (preferably a good one with live cultures... I used Sonoma County's Saint-Benoît)

  1. Slowly bring the milk to a boil on medium-low heat. Turn off the heat as soon as the milk is steaming and small bubbles form on the edges of the pot.
  2. Transfer to another pot (or bowl) at room temperature and wait until a thermometer reads between 110F and 115F (about 45 degrees C).
  3. Mix the starter (yogurt) with a few ladles of warm milk. Then pour into the pot of milk and stir well.
  4. Fill jars and place in the oven (turned off). Cover jars with a clean cloth. Switch on the oven light. You can place a bowl of hot water in the oven if you fear the temperature won't be high enough. Wait 8 hours without opening the oven door.
  5. Cover the jars with plastic wrap and place in the fridge. Wait another 8 hours.
I obtained a very creamy and uniform yogurt. It wasn't quite as solid as the original Saint-Benoît from the store but it wasn't liquid or watery either. It was so soft and sweet that I didn't need to add anything to it. A pure marvel.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Dear readers,

Thank you so much for all your recent visits, comments, invitations to memes, etc... I am sorry I didn't take the time to respond. These past 10 months have been life changing and I am sure you will forgive me for being less and less present on the web once you know what was going on: I was cooking up my very best creation, a baby! Hanaé was born 1 month ago in California. She is, of course, the most beautiful and the sweetest baby girl on Earth. Her dad and I have never felt so happy!

Cooking and blogging have become a bit secondary, as you can imagine... However I will continue reading your many excellent culinary blogs, and I will try posting new recipes on this blog once in a while. I hope you'll keep checking My French Cuisine for updates and that you will make good use of the archives.

A bientôt !

Monday, April 23, 2007

Poires Belle-Hélène

"Beautiful Helen pears" were invented in Paris in the 19th century and were named after an opera by Offenbach. What a romantic introduction for this French dessert par excellence, a true classic, found in at least (this is a guess) half of the restaurants of the Hexagone. It only takes a few minutes (maybe seconds!) to assemble this dish if you use ready-made ingredients; it is actually not much longer to prepare half of them from scratch (the poached pears and the melted chocolate). You can even make ice cream and cookies from scratch for a deluxe version (but this probably won't taste like in restaurants, because I am pretty sure they go for the fast and easy way in most cases...).

You need:
- 1 whole pear per person, poached (or 2 canned half pears)
- 1 or 2 scoops vanilla bean ice cream
- chocolate melt
- a few almond cookies (thin and crisp, no matter what shape you choose)

The combination of temperatures (ice cream, warm chocolate), textures (soft pear, crispy cookie) and flavors (all of them!) is simply out of this world. There is even a little bonus: although this dessert looks very fancy, it is very easy to prepare.

I usually poach the pears in the morning to let them cool down and eat them the same evening. They should be at room temperature when you serve them (they won't taste as good if they just came out of the fridge). Either leave them out all day, in a closed dish, or allow them to warm up if you store them in the fridge. Bosc pears are my favorite, both for taste and "handling" (they hold well, even after being cooked).

All quantities below are for 6 pears.

To poach the pears:
Peel them, keeping them whole (leave the stem for decorative purposes). Place them upright in a deep pot. Sprinkle 1/4 cup (50 g or 4 tbsp) sugar and pour 1 cup (20 cl) water over the pears. Simmer/steam (lid on) for 20 minutes on medium heat. Drain the pears but keep the juice. Let both cool down.

Just before serving, prepare the chocolate melt as follows:
Bring the pear juice to a boil in a small pot and allow it to evaporate until only half of the volume is left. Place this small pot in a bigger one, half full of water ("Bain Marie") and place over medium heat (water should never boil).
Cut 4 1/2 oz (125 g) high quality* dark chocolate (for example Le Noir Gastronomique 61% cacao by Valrhona...) into small pieces. Melt chocolate in the warm pear syrup, stirring until smooth and shiny. Add 2 tbsp (30 g or 1/4 stick) butter and let it melt, stirring continuously.

To assemble:
Place one pear in each dish, upright. Add 1 or 2 scoops vanilla ice cream. Pour warm chocolate on the pear and ice cream. Stick 1 or 2 almond thins (or even more authentic: "tuiles aux amandes") in the ice cream. Serve immediately.

* good rule of thumb for quality chocolate: the list of ingredients should start with cocoa beans rather than sugar!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Springtime Lamb Stew

This recipe will be perfect for Easter.

Le navarin d'agneau (last word –lamb– is pronounced like the spanish "año") is a type of ragoût (pronounced "rah-goo"): a rich, thick stew in which the meat, poultry or fish is first fried (rissolé) then covered in flour (to thicken the sauce) before simmering (sometimes with vegetables) in a well seasoned liquid (wine, broth...). This should not be mistaken with the italian ragù, a meat sauce from the Bologna region. Navarin is a mutton or lamb ragoût cooked with young, springtime vegetables.*

The recipe is for 6 people. It takes about 1½ hours to 2 hours to prepare and cook. It is sufficient in itself as a main dish, but if you fear that your guests will need some carbs, you can boil a few small potatoes (peeled, boiled whole in salted water for about 15 minutes or until a knife goes through), served on the side, or added to the sauce at the last minute.
  • 3½ lbs boneless lamb shoulder roast (my Larousse calls for 800 g "épaule d'agneau désossée" –1¾ lbs boneless lamb shoulder, and 800 g "collié d'agneau désossé" –1¾ lbs boneless lamb collar). See the american and french lamb cut charts.
  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 cup (20 cL) white wine
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 bouquet garni (pronounced "boo-kay gahr-nee") –a few sprigs thyme, 1 bay leaf, a small bunch of flat leaf parsley, tied together with kitchen string
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 3/4 lbs (300 g) carrots (ideally the youngest, tenderest you can find –those sold with their leaves)
  • 1/2 lbs (200 g) turnips (ideally the smallest, youngest you can find –most likely sold with their leaves)
  • 1/4 lbs (100 g) onions (ideally small button onions)
  • 3/4 lbs (300 g) green beans (ideally the thinest french green beans you can find)
  • 3/4 lbs (300 g) shelled green peas, either fresh or frozen
  • salt, pepper, nutmeg
  1. Cut the roast into a dozen big chunks or slices. Heat up the oil in a big pot. Fry the meat a few minutes until it gets a nice golden color on all sides, without burning. Drain the meat and discard most of the fat. Place the meat back in the pot.
  2. Sprinkle the meat with sugar and toss. Sprinkle with flour and toss. Cook for 3 minutes, tossing continuously. Pour the wine and reduce the heat to medium. Season with salt, pepper and freshly grated nutmeg.
  3. While the meat starts simmering, dice the tomatoes. Peel the garlic cloves, cut them in half and remove their stems. Add these veggies to the pot along with the herbs. If necessary, add some water, just enough to fully sink the meat into liquid. Cover pot with a lid. Simmer for 45 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, peel the carrots, turnips and onions. If they are small you can keep them whole. Otherwise, slice them. Sauté in butter (in a dip pan) for about 10 to 15 minutes. Toss regularly.
  5. Steam or boil the green beans (about 6 minutes in a pressure cooker).
  6. Once the 45 minutes are passed, add the sautéed veggetables and the green peas to the stew and simmer for 20 more minutes.
  7. After this time, add the green beans and simmer 5 more minutes.
  8. Serve hot in the pot.
* info compiled from Le Larousse de la Cuisine and The Food Lover's Companion

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Quick pork roast and potatoes

There wasn't time (or enough light) for a picture yesterday night but the scene would have deserved one: beautiful pork roast fresh out of the oven, nice and crisp on the outside, soft and juicy at heart, surrounded by potatoes and shallots soon to melt in my mouth... I wish I could have recorded the smell too. It only took 5 minutes to prepare (including a trip to the backyard to get a bay leaf!) and 1 1/2 hours to cook (without doing anything). Totally worth the wait.
  • 1 boneless pork shoulder butt (ours was 2.3 lbs, a little over 1 kg)
  • 2 golden yolk potatoes (you can use more... I'd say at least one per person)
  • 4 shallots
  • 3 or 4 sprigs thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 cup dry white wine (Pino Griggio makes wonders)
  • a few tablespoons olive oil
  1. Place the pork roast in an oven-safe dish. Season with salt and pepper on all sides.
  2. Peel the shallots. Cut the larger ones into 2 or 4 pieces. Keep the smaller ones whole. Place all around the roast at the bottom of the dish.
  3. Peel and slice the potatoes (about 1/4" or 3/8" thick, less than 1 cm). Arrange them in the dish around the roast. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Place the thyme and bay leaf on the roast's sides. Pour 1/2 cup white wine all over the dish, especially on the potatoes (to soak them). Keep the other 1/2 cup wine for about 30 minutes before the end of cooking time (pour it on the potatoes to prevent them from drying up).
  5. Pour the olive oil on the roast (so that it gets a nice color) and on the potatoes (to make them tender and juicy).
  6. Bake at 425F (220C) for about 1 1/2 hours (count about 30 minutes per pound), or until a thermometer reads 160F (71C) in the center of the meat. Keep in the oven 5 more minutes (oven turned off) then slice the roast (1/2" to 2/3" thick, less than 2 cm). Serve with the potatoes and shallots. Don't forget to pour the dish's juices on the meat.
  7. Slice the leftover meat thiner and eat cold with Dijon mustard in sandwiches or with a crisp greens salad.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Bugnes - the recipe

As promised (but with a little delay... sorry about that), here is the recipe for bugnes, the Lyon region "mardi gras" beignets.

  • 250 g (14 fl. oz.) all purpose flour
  • 50 g (slightly less than 1/2 stick or 4 tbsp) unsalter butter
  • 50 g (2 fl. oz.) sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp orange blossom water (optional)
  • salt
  • about 1/2 liter (1/2 quart) sunflower oil to deep-fry the bugnes.
  • powdered sugar (a few tablespoons)
Prepare the dough at least 2 hours in advance:
  1. Sift the flour over a large bowl.
  2. Combine with the sugar, orange blossom water and a pinch of salt. Add the butter in very small parcels and mix a little.
  3. Dig a hole (in french we say "une fontaine" -a fountain) in the center of the flour mix. Beat the eggs and pour in the hole.
  4. With the hands, combine all the ingredients and knead for only a minute or two, until the dough gets homogenous. Make a ball out of it and let it rest for at least 2 hours at room temperature under a clean cotton cloth.
  1. Roll out the dough (on a flat, floured surface) as thinly as possible (about 2 mm) in a somewhat rectangular shape. This should be fairly easy as the dough should be elastic and moist.
  2. Cut out stripes about 1 1/2" to 2" wide. Divide the stripes into smaller rectangles, approximately 4" long. The bugnes on the pictures are small but feel free to make the stripes longer or wider if you prefer. Bugnes come in various sizes.
  3. Twist the rectangles as follows:
    • With a knife, make a 1 1/2" long slit in the center of each rectangle, lengthwise.
    • Take one of the rectangle's small sides through this hole and reshape, as shown on the pictures above.
    • If you go with longer stripes of dough, there might be enough length to make two knots.
  4. Heat the oil in a frying pan (oil should be about 1" or 1 1/2" deep) until boiling hot. Place a few knotted stripes of dough in it, making sure they don't touch eachother.
  5. Flip once, after only a few seconds, then wait a few seconds longer (this goes fast!).
  6. Take out as soon as the bugnes have a nice golden (but not too dark) color. Drain on paper towels placed in a plate.
  7. Once all the bugnes are cooked, sprinkle with powdered sugar (it's easier to sprinke evenly if you use a small strainer and shake it overn the bugnes).
You can start eating them as soon as they are ready. If there are any left, store them in a metal box (lined with paper towels). Eat them any time of the day as a snack, on their own.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I am sure if you don't speak French you must be puzzled by the title of this post.... How to pronounce "bugnes"? Let me try to explain. The last 4 letters "gnes" form only one sound, similar to the ñ in Spanish (like in "mañana"). B is the same b sound as in English (like in "book"). The u sound is unique to French, and impossible to explain... It's somewhere between an "ee" (like in "freeze") and a "oo" (like in "cook") but it's neither of those sounds. Close your lips as if you were going to say "oo" but take the sound to the front of your mouth by lifting your tong... I think this should work. Here (and here) are neat pages where you can hear each individual sound. In IPA "bugnes" would be spelled: [byɲ].

Bugnes are a specialty of Lyon, where I grew up. They are thin and crispy doughnuts (strips of dough, fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar) that are made for "mardi gras" ("fat Tuesday": today!). You can buy them at the "charcuterie" (deli meat shop), at the "boulangerie" (bakery) and people cook them at home too. My grand-mother did, every year. There are variants: some are crispy, others are a bit thicker and spongier. Some have an orange blossom flavor, others are plain. Some have a knot or two, others don't. Some are long and thin, others are much bigger and square. This gives plenty of good excuses to eat a whole bunch of them (science to the rescue: we need a good comparative study here). The only constant is that you can't eat them cleanly: you always end up with grease and sugar all over your fingers and lips.

If you read this blog regularly you must think that I am a very traditional person, only eating traditional French food, only when it is the tradition to eat it... To be honest I am puzzled by this tendency of mine to blindly obey these rules (bugnes for mardi gras, crêpes for chandeleur,etc...). This is so far from my usual aspirations (the constant pursuit of novelty). I guess this is old Pavlovian conditioning rooted in my childhood. Each traditional dish I eat brings back so many memories. Moving half way around the world hasn't helped forgetting them. To the contrary: it has made them more vivid and vital (a way of balancing all the new things I experience).

Anyway, this weekend I will tell you how you can make good bugnes, all year 'round!

Monday, February 12, 2007

A grain of salt

Boy! Does this blog look dusty, with old posts laying around and nothing new since last year...

Hope you all had a wonderful start of 2007. I've been very, very busy these past few months, to a point where I had to choose between cooking and blogging. The former was obviously more important, for survival reasons among others... And I guess the rush at work gave me a mild case of the writer's block... I seem to be on the way to recovery, though, as the hectic schedule is slowly coming to an end. Things should go back to a more human pace in the coming weeks.

Until then, let me introduce you to our new friend:

This adorable chick is an original creation of F. Personnaz, an artist living in Bessans (a remote little village at the end of Maurienne Valley in the French Alps). It is a wooden salt box that Pierre's parents gave us for Christmas. We keep coarse salt in it and use it by the handful in pasta water, soups and stews. I love how different the sculpture looks from the left and from the right.

Have you noticed how salt always seems to be kept in nicely decorated containers? I imagine, for the longest time salt was the main seasoning in France and all around Europe (along with garlic and aromatic herbs –which had to dry in the open air, and maybe a few spices –which were expensive and sparse, and kept in very small quantities). Salt had to be stored away from humidity, yet it had to be handy as it was used in most dishes. Hence the pretty box that could stay out of the cabinets at all times... Or so I see things. That would seem like a valid explanation, wouldn't it?

By the way here is a French food idiom: "mettre son grain de sel" (literally "to put one's gain of salt in"). This means to put one's 2 cents in, but in situations when it's not really appropriate or welcome to give one's opinion. Not what I did in the previous paragraph, I hope...