February 20, 2007
Shrove Tuesday: Two Rich and Creamy Crêpes

crepes07.jpgTradition has it that Shrove Tuesday is a time for eating crêpes because it allows good Christians to use up their store of rich eggs, milk, sugar and flour before fasting during Lent. I've always had a bit of a problem about this: surely one would be more likely to live it up with good red meat before the start of the Lenten season? Of course lobster, oysters and other seafood that we now think of decadent holiday food would be allowed anyway. But I can't see a stout medieval knight opting for eggs over beef before starting his fast.

Well, we live in the modern world and this lapsed Catholic doesn't really observe Lent, except to occasionally prefer fish to meat on a Friday, if she thinks of it and it isn't too inconvenient. So really, not much at all. But I do like the excuse to exercise my wits in coming up with a new crêpe recipe - or two. I don't know why it always seems so difficult to find a good recipe. You'd think that the thin savoury pancake would be the perfect vehicle for so many sauces. I'm sure that more than once in the last year a tasty but not very pretty sauce has been mentally set aside with the reflection "but it would be good in a crêpe..." On the day, I can never remember any of these ideas and spend fruitless time searching the web for something original.

This year, for once, I DID remember one of those sauces: a grated artichoke sauce that looked supremely unappetising on a grilled chicken breast. And since the Critic doesn't like artichokes (everyone has some small default of character) I also made a less original filling of leeks, mushrooms and bacon. (He thinks he doesn't like leeks or mushrooms either, but what the eye doesn't see the tongue often doesn't object to...) They certainly fit the bill for extravagance and richness, as I used nearly a full pot of crème fraîche and a fair amount of butter. Two crêpes each were more than enough to make us resigned to trying out the dessert crêpes on another night. In six weeks time, if we want to be good Christians...

Below are the recipes for the two crêpe fillings I made this evening. For the crêpes themselves, see last year's Pancake Tuesday post.

Artichoke and bacon crêpes (filling for two large crêpes)

I bought some frozen artichoke hearts recently as I wanted to experiment with artichokes. Since I cannot bear the idea of throwing away the leaves of an artichoke any more than I can envisage saving the heart for another recipe once I eat my way through the leaves, I never have managed to do anything fancy with them. I steam them, dip the leaves in lemon butter and devour the heart: end of story. Frozen artichoke hearts solve this little dilemma and incidentally save me a lot of work. They are delightful in a sauce: meaty and nutty and surprisingly rich. They are perfectly complimented by salty bacon and Parmesan and made silky by the crème fraîche.

5 artichoke hearts, just barely cooked
2 Tbs butter
2 slices crispy bacon (I used English style bacon, but pancetta or even ham would work)
3 Tbs Parmesan cheese
2 Tbs crème fraîche

Melt the butter in a small pan. Grate the artichoke hearts and add to the butter. Crumble the bacon into the pan. Stir in the crème fraîche and bring to a bubble. Cook for a few moments until the flavours have mingled and the sauce is piping hot. Stir in the Parmesan and divide between two hot crêpes.

Leek, Mushroom and Bacon Filling (makes enough for three large crêpes)

1 large leek, green end and root trimmed, washed and sliced in thin rounds
4-5 medium mushrooms
200 grams lardons or other bacon-like substance
2 slices of crisply fried bacon, crumbled
3 heaping Tbs crème fraîche, divided
3 Tbs sherry
1 Tbs fresh (or frozen) chopped chives
Freshly ground pepper
3 Tbs butter

Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the leek rings. Cook over a low heat; while the leeks start to soften, wash and slice the mushrooms and then add them to the pan. Once the mushrooms and leeks are soft and silky (you may need to add a smidgeon more butter), scrape them out of the pan into a bowl. Add the lardons to the pan, turn up the heat and fry until crispy. If they release a lot of grease, you may want to drain this off. Add the sherry without turning down the flame, and use a spoon to deglaze the pan, scraping up browned bits of lardons from the bottom of the pan. Once the liquid has reduced by about half and the bottom of the pan is clean, turn down the heat and add the leeks and mushrooms back to the pan. Add two of the three tablespoons of crème fraîche and stir. Taste for pepper. Divide the filling between three crêpes and place them in a warm oven. Add the remaining crème fraîche to the pan used for the sauce and stir in the chives. Once this sauce is warm, pour it over the crêpes and top them with the crispy crumbled bacon. Serve immediately.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 1:36 PM | Comments (6)
February 6, 2007
Eat Your Heart Out Mrs. Fields: Cherry & Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

oatmealcookies.jpgWhen people ask me what pregnancy cravings I have, I'm always a bit perplexed. In the early days of being pregnant, when morning sickness is at its worst, there are certainly a few foods that I tend to eat regularly. But it's not so much that I crave these few foods as I am unable to face eating other foods. When I asked the Critic to bring Vlassic pickles back from the US during my last pregnancy, he interpreted it as a Craving (and not so much a request as a Royal Command). But even at the time, I would have only classified it as your usual from time to time feeling of "gosh I have a taste for X". When you live in a foreign country, you get used to these occasional urges because you don't have easy access to all the comfort foods of home. You don't have to be pregnant.

One change I have noticed in my diet, though I hesitate again to call it a craving, is an advanced case of the Sweet Tooth. I think this is for two main reasons: 1) I feel like I deserve a treat for all the wine I'm not consuming and 2) I don't have to worry much about putting on weight because of the sudden lack of alcohol calories. So I eat a fair amount of chocolate and have a pain aux raisins on my way to work in the morning and I am happy. Yesterday, though, I had something of a real craving. I suddenly realised I'm tired of chocolates after dinner. I wanted something more substantial and chewy. I wanted home-made cookies.

When I first started playing around in the kitchen, cookies were naturally one of the first areas I explored. I was only eight or so, after all. Also, my sister had made clear to me that licking the bowl after making the cookies was strictly the cook's perogative. Talk about incentive. I mostly stuck to a few tried and true recipes though: chocolate chip (of course) and the family favorites, chocolate oatmeal cookies. It's only now some thirty years later that I've started to play with my own cookie ideas.

And this one is a winner. Tart dried cherries, not-too-sweet chocolate chips and excruciatingly sweet dough combined in a chewy mouthful. When I offered the tin to the Critic last night, he fully intended to politely eat one cookie and give his opinion. (He still drinks wine and worries - unnecessarily - about his weight.) He had two before I could ask what he thought and I'm pretty sure at least one or two more over the course of the evening. That said, the Critics were not unanimous: the Boy is suspicious still of chocolate chips and spat out the one bite that had sour cherry in it. He'll learn; he has time to develop his palate and in the meantime I don't mind if there is more left over to feed my one genuine craving.

Cherry and Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies (makes around 32 cookies)

Note: one of the things that annoyed me when I followed the Fannie Farmer recipes for cookies is that I rarely ended up with more than 60% of the number of cookies the book claimed I would have. I remember being teased by my family about dipping into the raw dough, but even when I religiously abstained from a single spoonful and made carefully small cookies I never got more than 75% of the supposed output. Me, you can trust. I made normal sized cookies (about 2 1/2 inches or 6 cm across) and had about 36 at the end. I've rounded down in case you want to taste the dough. (Though the fear of being jumped on by lawyers or other vigilantes does force me to point out that in the interest of safety you should never eat raw cookie dough. Yeah, right.)

1/2 cup (115 g) butter
1 cup (220 g) sugar
1 large egg
2 Tbs water
1 cup (140 g) flour
1 cup oatmeal
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup chocolate chips (semi-sweet chocolate or dark chocolate)
1/2 cup almond slivers

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, water and vanilla. Beat in the flour, oatmeal, baking powder and salt. Carefully (by hand or by slowing down your mixer) mix in the remaining ingredients. Drop rounded teaspoons of dough on a piece of baking parchment on a cookie sheet, about 2 inches/5 cm apart. Bake them for 12-15 minutes, or until just barely browned on the top. Allow them to set for a moment on the cookie sheet and then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling. Store in an air-tight container. Consume with abandon.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 12:45 PM | Comments (14)
February 2, 2007
Apple Quince Tart: quick and easy

applequincetart.jpg

About a hundred years ago*, last Saturday, I had a phone call from a new neighbor. We work in the same organisation and she had been in touch to ask about our neighborhood when they were thinking of moving. We've been talking about meeting up since September but still hadn't managed it. (The organisation where we both work has about 2000 employees spread out over a half dozen locations, so we had never actually met in person.) She's now a neighbor, not a potential neighbor, and so I invited her to come around in the afternoon for a cup of tea.

Good bakeries are so plentiful in Paris that hardly any Parisians bake their own sweets. I planned on picking up a nice tart (the seaons of the galette des rois was not quite finished) while at the market on Saturday morning. But what with one thing and another - my mother was with me and we were pressed for time - I completely forgot to pick one up. When I got back home, I considered my options: a mediocre bakery around the corner, a long trek to a good bakery, or make my own. I decided to take the easy option and make my own. Luckily, I had the materials to make an easy tart in my kitchen: a pre-rolled pâte feuilleté and a half dozen very ripe apples.

In addition, I had an idea. Some time ago, I saw a tart on a cooking show. I don't remember the chef or the show (Ready Steady Cook? James Martin?) but I remembered the essential idea: take some quince jelly and spread it over a base of pâte feuilleté and cover with thinly sliced apples. Finally, an idea what to do with that quince jelly a friend gave me nearly a year ago. I've had it with manchego cheese as she suggested (and it was delicious) but it was a large tub.

The result was delightful. One of the problems I have had with trying to reproduce the thin French style of apple tart is that it seems to come out very dry. This time I used the quince jelly to remedy that and the result was soft textured on top but still light and flaky on the bottom. And the "recipe" was so easy that I'm almost embarrassed to call it one....

Apple Quince Tart

1 pâte feuilleté
4-5 very ripe baking apples (I used Golden Delicious)
around 100 grams quince jelly
a little water

Preheat the oven to 220 c (425 f). Bring the pâte feuilleté to room temperature if it is store-bought (which if you are living in France I highly recommend). Spread quince jelly over the pastry to about 2 cm (just under an inch) from the edge, reserving a heaping tablespoon:

quincepastetart.jpg

Peel, core and slice the apples thinly and arrange them neatly over the quince jam, all the way to the edge of the pastry:

applequinceprebake.jpg

Melt the remaining quince jelly in a small bowl in the microwave with a glug of water - about two tablespoons. Using a pastry brush, spread the resulting glaze over the apples. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the apples are tender and the pastry flaky and cooked through. Serve slightly warm, with a bit of crème fraîche if you think of it. I didn't but it was still delightful - sweet and fruity and just crispy enough to make it interesting.

And our new neighbor is lovely and we had a good long chat about our respective buildings and the neighborhood and other interesting matters. As it turns out we are both Chicago girls, so we have that in common too!

*It has been a long week here in Paris, involving house calls by doctors on two separate occasions(thank heavens for SOS medecins), a trip to the Hopital Europeen Georges Pompidou, antibiotics for my mother and my son and a nasty cold for myself. Thus the lack of interesting cooking and lack of posts this week. Hopefully we'll be back to normal next week...

Posted by Meg in Sussex at 4:10 AM | Comments (12)
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