Ever Since Proust famously experienced an epiphany of memory over a crumbly madeleine cake, it has been more than a cliché to muse on the power of food memories. We all have countless triggers: the delicate powdery cookies my Austrian grandmother made at Christmas, Great-Aunt Marcie's soft caramels, my mother's gravy. However, it is only once you become an expatriate that the full force of the issue really hits you. I have lived in nearly 18 years in three different countries now and I have to say that in my experience - personal and observed - food is the single biggest trigger for homesickness and the one issue that unites everyone, gourmet cook and food slob alike. In fact, to be honest, it's usually the non cooks who suffer the most, as they are the ones who rely on packaged goods that are not available in their new country. An American in Paris may not be able to find Philadelphia brand cream cheese or soft brown sugar, but he or she can find something close enough to substitute for a delicious cheesecake or chocolate chip cookies. (Kiri cheese and sucre roux, for those who are interested.) However, the poor sod whose Thanksgiving depends on Stouffer's Stove Top Stuffing, will find himself trekking halfway across town to one of the American specialty shops and nearly fainting at the thought of forking over 7 euros for what is essentially a box of flavored bread crumbs. But trek across town he will, because it's Just Not The Same with an unfamiliar stuffing.
When I first arrived in Europe, I was determined to immerse myself in the local culture and turned my back on American food. In Bavarian beer gardens, I ate steckerlfisch and and consumed vast quantities of Edelstof and schnapps. In Paris, I happily explored the 365 cheeses and ate, well, everything in sight: snails, frog legs, steack-frites, moules-frites, crêpes and pastries. I turned into the ultimate Francophile snob, informing visitors how superior a croque-monsieur was to an American grilled cheese sandwich, how they would never find a baguette in American to compare with a Parisian one. (Though I did loftily admit that a friend of mine had told me of a bakery in the Seattle Pike Place market which had bread that was was made by a Frenchman, in a French stove, with French flour - which was "not bad".) But over time, I found more and more food items sneaking into my suitcase when I returned from visits to the US. Smoked oysters and Triscuits. Concentrated cranberry juice. Baking powder and yeast. Reese's peanut butter cups. And I came to realize that although French food might be vastly superior to American food in general (and I do say might: the Critic would disagree completely) in your heart of hearts, nothing can replace the food you grew up with.
Now that I am the mother of two boys with American and British passports, another truth has become apparent. Not only do we crave the food of our childhood, but we yearn to pass it along to our children. While I am delighted that my boys will have happy memories of Cadbury's chocolate and the fish and chips van that comes to the village every Tuesday, I also want them to remember fresh picked Illinois sweet corn and trick or treating on a cold October evening. In short, like every parent, I want it all for my kids. And while I can't change the fact that "pudding" will forever mean "dessert" in their little half-British minds, I can at least ensure they know and appreciate what an American means by "chocolate pudding" . Chocolate pudding may not come in a little cardboard box here (one of my earliest cooking triumphs was making Jello brand chocolate pudding) but it's almost as easy to make with ingredients in your cupboard. Well, in my cupboard anyway.
Chocolate Pudding for the Homesick American (or any child)
Although I generally try to remember to weigh my dry ingredients in metric measures for European readers, on this occasion I completely forgot. However, the proportions are not set in stone and the amount of sugar will depend on your tastes and your chocolate.
1/2 cup sugar
3 Tbs cornflour (Maizena in France)
dash of salt
1/3 cup cocoa powder
3 oz. / 85 g of baker's chocolate (I used Williams and Sonoma fondue chocolate buttons that someone gave me for a Christmas some time ago)
2 cups semi-skimmed milk
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp almond extract (optional - I just love the flavor of vanilla and almond combined with chocolate)
Thoroughly mix the dry ingredients in the bottom of a saucepan until no crumbs or clumps remain. Drizzle a tiny amount of milk and stir into a paste. Keep gradually adding the milk, being careful not to allow clumps of dry paste to form. Once all the milk is incorporated, add the vanilla and the almond extract. Place over a medium heat and bring gently to a boil, stirring consistently. Do not turn your back on it for two minutes to look after a needy two year old as it will undoubtedly start to boil the second you do. Once the mixture is boiling, turn the heat down and continue to cook for another minute; the pudding should already be thickening nicely. Beware of the splatters of hot pudding which can erupt from the boiling mass as they will be very hot. (Big Brother, who was helping me, was banished from the stove at this point, much to his irritation. "I t'an't SEE!" he complained.) Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate. Continue stirring until it is completely melted and incorporated in the pudding. Pour into six parfait glasses and either serve warm or put in the refrigerator for at least half an hour to finish setting. Consume with great relish.
Weight Watchers note: this recipes makes six servings of four points each, not bad for a very chocolate-y delicious dessert!
Yesterday, I received an email with the photo on the left from one of my oldest friends in Paris, Sam. Sam has met David Lebovitz a couple of times at our place in Paris over the years and thought I'd be interested in seeing what he's up to these days. Luckily for me (and I do mean that wholeheartedly) I was already au courant, having received my advance copy of The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - And Perplexing - City from David's publishers a little over a week ago. David had offered me a copy several months ago in return for a small courtesy and to be honest I'd nearly forgotten about it when the book arrived. David had been a little cagey on the subject of the book except to say vaguely that it would be about his experiences in Paris and would include a few recipes.
Like about a million other enthusiastic cooks and Paris fans out there, I read David's blog avidly. I have followed his adventures with the French, commiserated knowledgeably with his trials confronting French bureaucracy, bookmarked his recipes and enjoyed keeping up with a friend who is witty, warm and observant. So I knew his book would be good. What I didn't expect (and forgive me, David) was that it would be great. There are books that I read, enjoy, and pass on to others to enjoy. And then there are books that I read, enjoy, and put on my bookshelf so that I can read them again later. David's book falls in this category. If any of my friends or family receive a copy of The Sweet Life in Paris, it will be because I have ordered them their own, new, copy.
So how is this book different from the blog? Well, it has some of the same stories, it's true. But the virtue of a blog is its immediacy and rough edges. I enjoy reading blogs - no one more - but I don't expect them to have such good writing that I'd like to curl up in front of a fire and consume them slowly. I expect them to have a good story, possibly a good recipe, a lot of fun. Blogs, for me, are like newspapers - to be consumed with relish and then you move on. A book should be enjoyed in comfort, away from the lure of emails and news stories. And although the book follows many of the same themes and stories as his blog, David's book is a coherent whole, standing on its own.
The Sweet Life is divided into thematic chapters, recounting David's move to Paris and his first steps growing to love and adopt his new city. Without being coy or cutesy (David is never cloying) he manages to convey a deep love and appreciation of its quirks and beauties, while keeping a firm lock on the absurdities of your average Parisian. I have read many, many books about Paris over the years. (For some reason, living in a place like Paris makes people think you need to know more about it and they send you books and articles galore. Especially if they are my mother.) The best of them had me nodding my head sagely a few times in agreement. Many made me think "this writer has no clue what makes a Parisian tick!" And many of them were simply badly written stories by people who (understandably) love the maddening city of Paris. What makes David's stories different from all of these is that he has a way of delving into the "why" of the behavior he observes. Instead of just collecting a group of humorous stories about living in Paris, he has tried to understand his subjects. When he first arrived in Paris, like every other visiting American he was appalled with how "rude" shopkeepers could be. But unlike most of them, he took the time to observe and figure out that there is a different set of rules: in Paris, the cheese monger or store clerk you meet has a sense of métier, or profession, and considers it a gross insult if you don't greet him politely ("Bonjour Monsieur, Bonjour Madame") on entering the shop. Rudeness, begets rudeness, and the American client gets pointedly ignored when asking for help. And then, in addition to the funny and insightful stories, there are the recipes. If you own any of his cookbooks you know that the man knows how to construct a foolproof recipe. However, like his blog, the book does not confine itself to sweet recipes but also shows his flair for fascinating savory dishes. The only problem for me is deciding whether to put his book on my cookbook shelf or with the rest of my books. It's a dilemma.
Only once before have I bought a book that so closely resembled the blog of the author. Sadly, in that case I was left feeling like the book simply existed so that those who were new to the blog wouldn't have the bother of paging through her archives. The stories seemed to have been lifted straight from the web, with editing and little or no expansion. It was a nice book and I'll pass it along to a friend one of these days. And I'll keep reading her blog, because I do think she's a wise and witty woman.
But David - needs to write another book so that I can buy it and put it on the shelf next to this one. If you love David, buy it. If you love Paris, buy it. If you are unsure, check it out from the library: you'll undoubtedly end up buying it afterwards.
Living the Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City
David will be signing copies of the books at W.H. Smith's on Tuesday, the 19th of May 2009 at 19:30. For more details on other signins, check the Schedule section of David's blog.
Fish is my new best friend. Versatile, tasty, quick to prepare and (of course) low in calories: it's the perfect starting point at dinner time for a busy dieting mother. And for me - coming from the plains of the Midwest, where the nearest ocean is hundreds of miles away - fish has always been something of a luxury. (Growing up in the 1970s, the ultimate birthday dinner for me involved a trip to Red Lobster.) So when you are on a diet and depriving yourself of all those lovely cheeses and chocolates and butter-drenched potatoes, a little luxurious fish flesh goes a long way. Especially if you can find a way to combine creaminess without calories.
Plaice seems to be a fairly uncommon fish in North America, judging by the number of people who thought I'd made a typo when I mentioned it in my Facebook status line. Here in the UK, it's very popular - both in the ubiquitous fish and chip shops and also in restaurants, where it's often cooked similarly to sole. It's a very versatile fish in that way. And its tender flesh and subtle flavor shine when paired with sweet orange juice and creamy (low-fat) yogurt. A touch of tarragon brings the elements together and you end up with one delicious diet dish.
Fillet of Plaice with Creamy Orange Tarragon Sauce
(Serves 2; Weight Watchers points: 3)
I served the fish with a small helping of mixed wild and long grain rice (110 g for two) which brought the total Weight Watchers points up to 5.5.
2 place fillets of about 175 g each
1/2 a large orange plus 2-3 Tbs orange juice (I reserved the heel of the orange when slicing it for the fish and squeezed that for the juice)
1 tsp sunflower oil
1/2 a small pot of low fat yogurt (I made mine in my new yogurt maker with semi-skimmed milk; use 0% fat yogurt if you want to keep the points this low)
1/2 tsp tarragon (to taste really, but I find that a little tarragon goes a long way)
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f. Spread the oil in the bottom of a baking pan large enough to hold both the fillets and lay them in it. Sprinkle the tarragon over the fish and lay the orange slices over the fillets. Bake for about 15 minutes or until the flesh is opaque and flaky. In the meantime, combine the orange juice and yogurt in a small pan and warm through. Add a dash of salt and pepper and reserve it. When the fish is done, serve over a small helping of mixed rice (5 points total for 110 g). Add a tablespoon or two of the fish juices from the baking pan to the orange yogurt sauce and taste for seasoning: it may need a bit of tarragon or a little more pepper to bring out the flavors. Drizzle over the fish and rice and consume immediately - fish cools quickly!