June 2010

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cupcake Camp Paris to save the day!!!

We Americans know that, as a child, mother would always make batches of cupcakes for our birthday parties at school, and never muffins.  Muffins connoted a sort of breakfast-y healthy item that usually had dried fruit or nuts in them.  And honestly what 10 year old would choose that over a tiny cake with Betty Crocker icing?

But to a French person, a cupcake is just a muffin with frosting.  It’s cakey, it’s in the same shape, so that must be the same thing.  This is a cultural difference that needs some time be settled or agreed upon.

Sitting down with a good friend who, though born in the US, is fully French, I struggled to explain to her the differences.

“Cupcakes are…sweeter, and usually less dense than muffins…” I said.

“But you can have a blueberry muffin and a blueberry cupcake?  What’s the difference?” she retorted.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Marcie's favorite thing to eat...

Peppermint Patties, or their little brother Junior Mints -- the candy of dreams.  In France we have “After Eights” like in the US, but the chocolate peppermint candies are things of legend as far as I am concerned.  Same idea, different sizes.

My sister, in all of her innocence, used to call Junior Mints something relatively ridiculous like “Union Mints,” or at least that was my brother’s way of teasing her.  I can’t remember.  She had a speech impediment.  We all did.  I couldn’t pronounce “sh” or “ch” sounds until after third grade.  Maybe even fourth.  It was bad.  For me, I could say “York Peppermint Patty” without a problem and it became one of my candies of choice.  Cool, refreshing, chocolately – in a word, perfect.  Our preferences didn’t divide us, my sister and me.

Hence the inspiration for this weekend’s cake.  A double layer chocolate cake (classique) with a mint butter cream and chocolate mint ganache.  Talk about heaven.  It was decadent and indulgent, but not totally sinful.

I found really great mint syrup at Daniel Rose’s shop (http://springparis.blogspot.com/)  by the location of his new restaurant, Spring, in the 1st.  After a wine tasting there one day with my friend Cyndi, I decided that I needed to buy something and the bottle of peppermint syrup caught my attention.  The store clerk said it’d be great with various alcohols, but my mind when right to cake.  I should have saved him a slice.  He could have made me a cocktail.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"If the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don't eat the tourists..."

So today, the doors were fully, completely open at the new coffee shop américain where I am cooking and serving some really amazing coffee in Paris.  Several weeks ago I was in Copenhagen to learn about the coffee we purchased.  For the past few days we have been trying out some recipes and testing the kitchen.  My boss (the namesake for the boutique) feels ready to open for everyone and to start spreading the word.  It is going wonderfully!

Still, in typical French manner, Peter Mayle-style, the same hiccups present in daily French life were felt during the first few days of opening.  The vegetable delivery man couldn’t find the address.  He used the billing address instead of the deliver address.  Apparently the delivery man for the packaging for take away food did the same thing.  Both were hours and days late, respectively.  No surprises.

I had to go to Monoprix for a few extra items on the second morning.  Of course, this same day Monoprix (think supermarket meets Target) was closed exceptionally for inventory.  I waited outside at 10:30 AM when it was due to open only to find that, once inside, all of the cheese had been turned around, effectively hiding all of their identities.  If you’ve ever visited a cheese isle in France, you know that there are many, and finding the gruyere in an ocean of backward facing labels is no easy task.  It was like playing a game of memory, turning over cheeses to see which each one was. 

As if that weren’t enough, I had to struggle through Place de la République to get to our bread bakery because there was an enormous demonstration going on that day.  It was something about the age of retirement.  I just started working a new job – the last thing I want to think about is retirement, so get out of my way please, I thought to myself as I elbowed senior citizens to the side.

There is a scene in Jurassic Park, a favorite film of mine, where the park owner tells Jeff Goldblum’s character, “Well when they opened Disneyland in 1956 nothing worked.”  To which Goldblum responded, “But John, if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”  I told my boss this to reassure her that no one would die if the cheesecake wasn’t ready.  “You’ve seen that movie quite a few times, eh?” she said.

Yes.  Yes, I have.

While there were no kick ass dinosaurs in our kitchen or velociraptors in our fridge, I don’t think we were anywhere near disaster status.  By all means, but for a new business, things are going quite swimmingly.  The coffee is good, the food is fresh, the ambiance is fun.  Three goals accomplished in three days.  But can we keep it up?  Stop by and find out…(address pending boss’s announcement of opening! But the answer is “duh obviously”)

Photos Courtesy of Bryan Pirolli and/or his camera.  Photo above, cakes available at new boutique, photo below, button on sidewalk in front of boutique

Monday, June 14, 2010

Laziness at lunch...

Now that I no longer eat lunch in an office environment, I find myself with a lot more time on my hands to cook, experiment, or just altogether ignore lunch.  I get lazy.  It’s easier to eat a bar of chocolate or go get a falafel than to be bothered to cook on a sunny Monday afternoon in Paris with no work constraints.

Well the joke is on me.  Today it was rainy.

So I did what any self-respecting American would do at lunch time.  I made a sandwich.  I learned, like most primates, through mimicry.  My father would habitually provide his offspring with sandwiches for their school day, all the way through their high school years.  Before bed, he’d stand at the pumpkin-orange kitchen counter assembling bread, cheese, turkey, mayo (later honey mustard, to be healthier) into near little sandwiches ready for transport and consumption at the local Catholic institution of education.  We were all picky in our own ways.  Sister didn’t like anything with too much flavor.  I was wary of meats that weren’t white.  Brother tried cheeses that were not slices of square American.  

Then as I grew a bit older, say around 12 or 13, I started to test out my own sandwich skills.  On days off from school, dad was off the hook.  It was time to fend for yourself.  So around 11:30 my brother and I (and sister once she learned some coordination) would turn on the Price is Right, watch a few games, and then make a sandwich during the commercial break.  This allowed us just enough time to finish up our sandwiches and potato chips before the depressing midday news came on and I would opt to play with my LEGOs or ride my bike.

At 24, the scenario is slightly different, and LEGOs are scarcer than ever, but the idea is the same.  Make a sandwich, enjoy, and move on.  No difficult clean up.  No huge commitment.  Just bread and yummies.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

And behind door number 1....

French refrigerators are generally dorm-sized, the kind my father and I picked out at Sears before I moved to college.  Space is a luxury and stocking up on breakfast sausage and large gallons of cold milk just isn’t an issue in Paris.  My mother would vomit.  She has three refrigerators.  The main one is in the kitchen that stores food that they eat and food that is frozen that she and my father will probably eat.  Found here are perishables that are still within reasonable eating dates. 

In the garage are two other refrigerators.  Closest to the kitchen in terms of distance is the original second fridge.  A back up, if you will.  It houses leftovers and frozen mozzarella sticks.  Also found here is expired mustard (still useable), extra ricotta cheese, and at any given moment a tray of eggs that no one really knows about.  They must be cracked to discern edibility.  It is also the traditional storing place for any left over Easter or Halloween candy.  While often aged, the food inside can be eaten with proper care.  Especially the candy, which has to last until the next big holiday.  Stretching Cadbury eggs through the summer isn’t an easy feat.

Then there is the third refrigerator, the family’s original one, farthest away from the others, that houses beer, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and whatever pot roast leftovers that couldn’t fit in the second one.  Like an old trusty friend, we keep it around, having moved it to the garage when the kitchen was fitted with a more modern model.  We still stick some age-old magnets to it and occasionally check inside, fully aware that most things inside are not edible.  We try not to mention that for fear of insulting the fridge or my mother who couldn’t imagine living without it.  Some people have garbage disposals.  We have a third fridge.

Each time I go home I marvel at the three of them, opening each door with a sense of awe and amazement.  Inside the principal refrigerator I find the food my mother bought for me to eat during my time there: delicious supermarket sushi, chocolate peanut butter ice cream, and a token fruit or vegetable because I always complain about the lack of fresh food.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Black and white, nice and right...

The reality of the 24 hour deli is now lost on me in a country where late night markets close around 11 or 12.  I embrace it.  It’s fine.  I buy things before 10 PM…it’s not that bad.

But gone are the days of New York City delis, pre-prepared foods, assortments of candies and nuts, and endlessly varied pints of Ben and Jerry’s that you could eat in Washington Square Park next to a homeless man as rats scurried beneath your feet.  Those were the days.  In Paris, I have never seen anyone buy a pint of Ben and Jerry’s let alone eat one.

The deli right in the heart of NYU’s campus, on University Place right next to Weinstein residence hall, was a favorite memory.  I don’t know that I ever really saw it closed.  And among its most prized good was one that I indulged in often.  Maybe it’s my sweet tooth, maybe it’s my attention to low prices, but the black and white cookie, individually wrapped and sitting among an ocean of cookies and cakes, was always my favorite.

A New York institution, I soon learned, the black and white cookie predominates delis and supermarkets in a city where so many things come from elsewhere.  From the Financial District to the Upper West Side, these little gems are everywhere.  So I thought I’d see what the French think of them.

Today, a rainy day, became a baking day.  Homemade black and white cookies are on the menu.  Their destination?  The University of Paris.  I have a test tomorrow morning to test my French skills (Je parlez vous francais, come on!) for admittance into the school.  I will meet up with my friend and former colleague who works in the office of international students and exchanges at the University.  She’s French.  She already loves my cupcakes, so I’m going to throw a few black and whites into the tin to see what she thinks of them, paired with a chocolate cupcake of course.  Sugar high?  Nah…

Cakes have been a godsent as I far as my French administrative life has been concerned.  Fascinated already by my youth and American-ness (Mais t’es tout jeune!) I decided to help butter up, literally, my connections in the French world.  She liked the green tea cakes.  She liked the banana Nutella cake.  She liked the violet cake.  She should love the cookies.   Maybe it has become an unfair expectation on her part that I will bring her cake anytime I see her, but it is always an unfair expectation on my part hat she will help me with whatever I need. 

I am OK with keeping up my end of the bargain if she is.

So the black and white cookie, while not the prettiest, is quite tasty.  I swear, that French butter again, it changes everything.  So tomorrow after my test, will it be a healthy dose of New York cuisine or a sugar overload for my dear French friend at the fac (university)?  I have to go buy more powdered sugar because three cups isn’t enough.  Does that bode well?  I guess we’ll see! 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Supermarket sass...

She was sweating as much as the container of sour cream that was on the conveyor belt in the May heat.  It was the big showdown.  Me.  The French girl.  The supermarket.  Check out time.

What used to be a moment of stress and angst and uncertainty has become a newfound game.  Learning to screw with the locals, to me, is a surefire sign of cultural integration. 

Normally at the supermarket, at least in America, the check out line is a moment to indulge in a Kit Kat or browse the TV Guide.  In Paris, it’s a rare moment of misplaced rush that usually ends in huffs and puffs and somebody nudging their shopping basket brusquely into your backside. 

So I was in line.  I had a basket full of groceries.  I had pre-weighed my vegetables, as they do in France.  I had my milk right off the shelf, not refrigerated.  I had my eggs, again room temperature.  I was feeling good.  Then I began to load my items onto the conveyor belt, as most would, behind the group of goods of the girl in front of me.  I placed my cold items together, as mother always taught me to do.  This was going really well.  No surprises.  No unknowns.  I was a pro.

And then I caught the eye of the French girl in front of me.  She was anxious.  Visibly so.  I couldn’t tell if she just had to pee or if she was in a hurry because her husband was waiting for dinner.  I dared not ask.  Working public toilets are scarce in Paris so I could have understood the former.  But then I saw her eyeing our respective products, lined up with a healthy amount of space between the two.  Was she judging me?  OK, so I know I buy a lot of store brand goods, but I am on a budget.  I don’t need her giving me the stink eye because I have Leader Price rice (think America’s Choice). 

Then as if she could take it no more, she reached, with cheetah-like speed, for small dingy piece of wood that was alongside the belt.  It was about a foot long, an inch or so thick in either direction, reminiscent of a disciplinarian tool found in a Catholic school teacher’s desk.  She reached for it and plopped it down between our groups of groceries as if she were so disgusted by my products that she would be able to taste their sordidness on her own food.

The relaxation in her shoulders, the tension in the air, and the relief on her face would have made an onlooker think that we needed a cleanup at the register.  But no, she didn’t urinate.  She was just doing what any good French grocery shopper does.  She was separating our respective purchases. 

This was not the first time, nor will it be the last that such stress surrounds the wait for grocery separation.  Who holds the responsibility?  Who will put it down?  How will the clerk ever know where my goods end and hers start?  Subsequent visits to the grocery store alert to this responsibility have proved that people really do get upset about this.  Old ladies, old men, young mothers, even some teenagers will all huff and purse their lips out at you in that oh-so-French style if you don’t take the initiative to divide the goods.

Hey, no criticism on my part.  I don’t want your diapers anymore than you want my 2 kilos of butter (fool?) but let’s take it easy.  There’s no reason to get antsy over a little piece of wood (or plastic, in the nicer stores).  What’s the rush when you’re going to sit there counting out your 5 centime coins before even considering bagging your purchases.  If you’re going to stress and rush and hurry things up, let’s have a little follow through to the end, Paris.  Thanks.

Until that happens, I like to see how long I can go without dividing to see who will crack and who will let it go.  So far, they have all cracked.  It’s not so much a game as much as payback for all of the times I have been miserable in the grocery store, waiting for someone to go back into the store to get a bottle of milk, watching Gertrude McFrenchie argue about the twenty cent difference in price on a roll of paper towels, or having to go weigh my vegetables and get a sticker with the price because that can’t be done at the cash register.

Suddenly the grocery store isn’t such a daunting place anymore.  It only took two years…

PS Apparently this is an issue in other cultures, but for different reasons!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sweet and spicy

Chocolate on the mind?  It was a cupcake day after some inspirational chatting with Alicia from Sweet Pea Bakery in Paris and I was in a chocolately mood.  So I whipped up a batch of chocolate cupcakes but game them a slight twist.  Using the cherries I had stashed away in the fridge, I sweetened them up a bit and made chocolate cherry cupcakes.  A first.  Not a last.

I still think they look ridiculous.  Cherries are HUGE.

Then with some of the others, before baking, I mixed in a healthy mix of cayenne pepper and piment doux, a sort of milder spice in France that I love (more for the color than the taste).  These spicy concoctions were particularly tasty with the buttercream on top.

Talk about heat...I almost needed a glass of water afterwards but I stood strong.

Too bad the sun came out mid-baking.  It would have been the perfect rainy day activity.  Guess it's time to make up for it now!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Macaron meets cupcake...

After someone tweeted about cupcakes at La Duree, Paris's iconic macaron bakery, I was curious.  Could the cupcake, the "new macaron" of Paris really have infiltrated a bakery like La Duree?  I was skeptical, so I headed down to check it out at their Saint Germain location.  Sure enough, there they were.  "Cup Cakes."  Orange chocolate.  Rose raspberry.  Lemon meringue.  Violet.  Pistachio cassis (if I remember correctly).  OK flavor combos, I suppose.  But at 5.50 euros each, were they worth it?

I tried one with my co-taster, and we dropped the enormous (like, seven bucks!) sum on an orange chocolate cake for research purposes.  While the chocolate cake was moist and rich, the orange marmalade, deliciously bitter, fell right out of the bottom of the cake.  And the icing, well, don't get me started.  How hard is it to make a good butter cream?

The overall experience was enticing.  Taking the box out of the bag, then the cupcake out of the box, then the wrapper off the cup, then trying to take the cup off the cake -- it was an exercise.  But to have the entire cake fall apart after the first bite, well, it was a bit depressing.  Was the effort worth it?  It wasn't horrible, but let's just say that La Duree should stick to macarons...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Copenhagen confectioneries...

Pastries in Denmark were delicious.  The danish were sweet and flaky, like a croissant with jam but even flakier.  Many pastries are laden with cinnamon, essentially variations on the cinnamon roll, but better.  Bakeries were chock full with Danish delights intersperses with croissants and pains au chocolat.  

Even more surprising was the coffee.  After nearly two years in Paris with tiny black "espressos", I was delighted to discover that the Scandinavians love their lattes and cappuccinos.  I had a few, happily, and realized that coffee can be alarmingly good and doesn't always need two or three packets of sugar to make it drinkable.  After a barista training at the Coffee Collective, a free trade company that roasts potentially some of the best coffee in the world, I was hooked.  A latte never tasted so good -- even without sugar!