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Given a chance to live a life other than my own, I would choose to live Laura Calder’s, the quirky yet charming host of Food Network Canada’s French Food at Home. Despite its ups and downs, I don’t often wish my life to be any different from what it is. What would be the point? I’m also one of the least jealous people around, but can I just tell you that this woman’s CV sends me into paroxysms of envy?

Although she is currently a popular television personality and a cookbook author, Laura Calder began her career trajectory in journalism and public relations, after studying linguistics as an undergraduate and acquiring a Master’s degree at the London School of  Economics. Laura soon realized that this path was not for her and enrolled in a program at a well-respected culinary school in Vancouver. Her diploma led to work in the Napa Valley and subsequently France, where she worked for British cookery writer Anne Willan at her school in Burgundy.

Laura ended up staying in France for the better part of a decade, which is where she wrote her first cookbook and contributed to a variety of magazines such as Gourmet, Vogue Entertaining and Travel, and Gastronomica. Finally, she returned to Canada and began shooting for the Food Network.

What I find so fascinating about Laura Calder, and so many other well-known chefs and food writers, is that she achieved a high level of education and career success before considering a life in food. Ina Garten also has a Master’s degree and used to work on energy policy for the White House. Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten was once a lawyer. Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic for the New York Times and editor of Gourmet magazine, has an M.A. in Art History. When you have an all-consuming passion for food, it calls out to you. Food comes first. You cook it, eat it, read about it, talk about it, and spend all your money on it. It’s one of those passions that can’t be ignored. You may start off wanting to be an economist, a teacher, to work in banking, but sooner or later … food is going to get you.

So here I sit at forty, on the verge of my third career change, a career that has nothing to do with food, a part of me regretting that I hadn’t taken a different path. In the meantime, I have been writing about food: blogging, pitching magazines with a modicum of success–success I hope to build upon. I don’t know where it will lead, but hopefully somewhere. It’s always been my firm belief that when you work hard at something and have a passion for it, you can’t possibly fail. You just can’t give up too soon.

Laura Calder’s Coq au Riesling


Ingredients:

6 chicken legs, split at the joint

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil

4 shallots, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

2 tablespoons Cognac

1 cup Riesling

1/2 cup stock

1 tablespoon butter, more if needed

1/2 pound mushrooms, quartered

1/2 cup creme fraiche or sour cream

chopped parsley or tarragon, for garnish

Directions:

1) Season the chicken legs with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil and butter in a saute pan and brown the chicken on all sides, working in batches. Remove it to a plate and add the shallots and garlic to the pan. Cook for one minute.

2) Pour the Cognac in the pan to deglaze. Put the chicken back into the pan. Pour the wine and the stock over the chicken. Cover and cook until the chicken is tender–about twenty minutes-turning once.

3) In the meantime, melt a bit of butter in a frying pan and cook the mushrooms until golden. When the chicken is cooked remove it to a platter and keep warm. Boil the cooking liquid down to sauce consistency. Stir in the cream and mushrooms. Correct the seasonings. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Scatter with parsley and serve.

When it comes to baking my philosophy (for now) is the easier the better. What could be easier than a plate of palmiers, the butterfly shaped French cookies sometimes also known as “elephant ears” or “palm leaves”?  Now, I’m not talking about standing in the kitchen all afternoon buttering and folding laminate pastry dough–I’m not brave enough for that yet. I’m talking about puff pastry bought at the market, sprinkled with sugar and popped into the oven for minutes. The result is a light, buttery cookie with a caramel crunch that is hard to resist. And sure to impress.

Granted, I make sure I get the best puff pastry money can buy, usually the all-butter puff pastry at my local Gourmet Warehouse. This recipe is for a classic palmier–puff pastry layered with sugar–but palmiers can also be made savory, using pesto, thin layers of ham and mustard, or other condiments.

It’s best to allow the pastry to defrost overnight in the refrigerator so the dough is very pliable but still cold when you pop the cookies in the oven. In fact, you should put the dough in the fridge for about fifteen minutes or so after you have sprinkled it with sugar; the combination of the chilled dough and the heat of your oven is what makes the puff pastry rise.

To make palmiers, you will need a sheet of puff pastry and a half cup of sugar. Sprinkle your work surface with a generous dusting of sugar. This will prevent the dough from sticking and will press the sugar into the dough when you roll it out.

With a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a rectangle. Because you will be rolling up the dough, make sure your rectangle is symmetrical; you can use a pastry scraper or another sharp edge to keep the edges even. Sprinkle the dough with the sugar, pressing it gently into the dough. Gently lift the bottom half of the rectangle to the center so that it halfway up the middle. Press down. Fold the other side down to meet the other half and press that down as well. Now fold the two sides together.

Cover the roll with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for fifteen minutes. Cut the roll into 1/2-inch slices. Brush each piece with a pastry brush dipped in water and then press into some sugar. You can put an extra tablespoon or two on your work surface. Place palmiers cut side up on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Be sure to leave a lot of space between each palmier.

Bake the cookies at 400F for about 7-10 minutes, then turn with a spatula and cook for another 7-10 minutes, or until golden. This will give each side that crispy, caramel crunch.

Serve with coffee or alongside a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

Although crêpes are often thought of as the province of the French, similar pancakes abound in countries as diverse as Greece and Iceland.  Crêpes were a staple in my household when I was growing up. We knew them as palancinka, the paper think pancake ubiquitous in the countries formerly belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire. We would have them as a simple dessert on weekends, smothering them with jam or preserves, cinnamon, or cottage cheese and sugar.

Crêpes were the first thing I ever successfully made in the kitchen without a recipe. I would mix together an egg with some milk, throw in some flour and a pinch of salt and voila! the perfect little pancakes. I had no idea how I did it, but they were always delicious. I’d whip up stacks of them for my friends, who would look at me as if I were Julia Child incarnate.

Then somehow I stopped.

Years went by without my making a single crêpe. I cannot now fathom the reason. Perhaps I was busy with school and work and trying to create a life for myself. My twenties are a crêpeless blur.

Then one night, facing an empty fridge and an intense craving for something doughy and sweet, I decided to revisit my old friend.

The results were disastrous. The crêpes were rubbery. They stuck to the pan and tasted plain awful. What had I done wrong? Had I not once been the crêpe master?

I turned to the only person whom I knew could help me out of this mess.

Julia Child.

One of her books, aptly named Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, contained a simple, master recipe that you can use for both sweet and savory crêpes. Although some recipes for sweet crêpes call for sugar, I find that this makes them stick to the pan.

Be sure to allow the batter to refrigerate for at least half an hour, to allow the flour particles to absorb the liquid, which will give you a tender crêpe. Instant-blending or all-purpose flour may be used, although the former will need less time in the fridge. You may have to experiment with the temperature of your range to get the heat right; the crepes must cook through to a golden color without burning,

If you are not using them right away, cool the crêpes thoroughly, stack and refrigerate for two days, or freeze them for several weeks.

This recipe makes about twenty 5-inch crepes or ten 8-inch crepes.

Julia Child’s Master Crêpe Recipe

Ingredients:

1 cup flour

2/3 cup cold milk

2/3 cup cold water

3 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for brushing on pan

Directions:

1) Mix all ingredients until smooth in a blender or with a whisk. Refrigerate.

2) Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Brush with melted butter.

3) Pour in 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter into the center of the pan and then tilt the pan in all directions to cover the bottom evenly. Cook about 1 minute, or until browned on the bottom. Turn and cook briefly on the other side.

4) Cool on a rack or plate as you finish making the rest. Serve as desired.



Baked snails–escargots, as the French call them–is not a dish that many children outside of France recall from their childhood. For my brother and I, escargots conjure up memories of elegant dining rooms with heavy silverware and courteous waiters. Although they were hard-working, middle-class immigrants, my parents liked the good life. They traveled, made their own wine, ate in fine restaurants–and saw no reason to exclude their children from any of that. For this I am forever grateful. Their attitude has had a large part in shaping who I am in a positive way.

As a kid, I always had very firm ideas about what I liked to eat; although I was not as adventurous as my younger brother, I was always willing to try new things. I vividly remember tasting my first escargot, slightly squeamish at first, but ultimately reveling in the strange and unfamiliar texture and the intense flavor of the hot butter and crushed garlic. I would eat the sole of a shoe if it were browned in butter.

Still, I always had trouble connecting escargots to the snails that crawled along the underbrush of lettuce in our garden, much in the way many people fail to connect the perfectly packaged meat in the supermarket to animals in slaughterhouses. Some people can do this really well and become vegetarians. Others, like myself, remain unrepentant carnivores.

Then my mother told me how she had made escargots for our family while she was in Serbia. I was dumbfounded . “But where did you get the snails?” I asked her. I couldn’t imagine you could find cans of snails in Serbian supermarkets. Back then it was difficult to even find feta cheese.

My mother laughed. “Well, the garden, of course.”

“Good thing you didn’t poison anyone,” I said, feeling sick to my stomach. But at least now I got it.

Making snails edible is a lot of work. You have to purge them of toxins, clean them, simmer them, and extract the snails from their shells before you can eat them. No wonder most people buy them already prepared–and still in those attractive shells. For less than a couple of dollars, though, you can buy canned escargots the world over. Rinse them and they’re ready to sauté with parsley and garlic butter. When I confess that I sometimes make escargots for lunch, people look at my as though I’m a lunatic. Or at least extremely self-indulgent. I won’t argue with the latter. But making escargots doesn’t have to take any longer than putting together a sandwich, and eating them can be a lot more exciting.

This recipe is from The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan, my favorite French cookbooks of late. Anne has a whole chapter on snails and frog legs in this beautiful book, and even a write-up on how to catch and prepare your own snails for hard-core escargot enthusiasts.

Bon appetit!

Escargots à la Bourguignonne


Serves 6

Ingredients

one 14-ounce/390-g can large or medium snails

1 shallot

2 or more garlic cloves, to taste

1 cup/250-g  butter, softened

3 tablespoons/45-ml cognac

salt and pepper

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Directions

1) Preheat oven to 425F/220C. Drain and thoroughly rinse the snails. To make the compound butter, combine the shallot and garlic in a food processor or chopper and pulse to chop coarsely. Add the butter and pulse until blended.

2) Work in the cognac, salt, pepper, and then the parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If more garlic is desired, mince it first so it mixes into the compound butter evenly.

3) Add a small dollop of butter to each section of escargots baking dishes. Set the snails over the butter and finish with more butter. Bake until very hot and bubbly, about 5-10  minutes. * The broiler may be turned on for the last few minutes for extra browning.

4) Serve immediately alongside slices of fresh or lightly toasted French baguette.

*Be sure not to overcook or they will become very tough.

I never thought I’d ever say this, but just between you and me, I’m all fooded out.  It’s not just the indulgences of Christmas, but of my birthday, friends’ birthdays, my grandmother’s birthday. It seems like half the people I know were born around Christmas, and the last couple of weeks have been a non-stop party in my mouth. It’s been a good time–a fabulous time. But really. Sometimes too much is too much.

And it’s not over yet. With New Year’s around the corner, a break from the kitchen is still a way off. I know what some of you are thinking. What!? A break from the kitchen! You don’t need a break from the kitchen. Ever. You adore cooking and do it every chance you get. You cannot survive without creating something ravishing in the kitchen on a daily basis. Sorry to say, but I am not of your ilk.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cooking–except when I don’t. I’m not sure why this is. Sometimes I think it’s my terminal aloneness that is to blame. It gets too easy to eat Cheerios for dinner when no one is waiting for you at home (remember Jerry Seinfeld’s cereal boxes?). Sometimes a part of me agrees with my friend G., who once proclaimed, “Cooking for yourself is lame.”

The great thing about food blogging, though, is that every meal is a photo op, an idea for a post. Although only a small fraction of what I cook and eat makes it into this space, I’ve learned to be creative when putting together quick meals and in this puff pastry has been my greatest ally.

I haven’t worked my way up to making puff pastry myself yet, but I often have a roll of the store-bought stuff in the freezer. It’s perfect for whipping up little appetizers or free-form tarts like this one. The leeks, fresh cheese, and dash of herbs give it a touch of elegance. Serve it at a party and your guests will never believe how easy it is to make. I often eat this tart with a salad for a weekend lunch, but it could be cut into bite-sized squares for your next soiree.

Happy New Year!

Quick Leek & Fresh Cheese Tarts

Ingredients:

Makes 4 tarts

2 sheets puff pastry

1 egg

3 large leeks, sliced, white parts only

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons water

herbs de Provence

salt & pepper to taste

1/2 package Boursin cheese *

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 400F.  Cook leeks in butter and water, covered, until the leeks are soft and have abosrbed the liquid, about 20 minutes.

2) Roll out puff pastry. Cut each piece in half. Make borders for the tarts by cutting thin slices of the pastry from the sides of the squares and placing them on top. Brush with egg.

3) Spread pastry squares with leeks. Crumble cheese over top. Sprinkle with herbs and a bit of salt and pepper if necessary.

4) Bake until pastry is golden brown on the edges and cheese is melted, about 20-25 minutes.

* Boursin is a fresh herb cheese with a soft and crumbly texture that is available at most grocery stores and cheese shops. It may be substituted with goat cheese; a herbed cheese tastes best with this tart.

gratinee

Whether baked or fried, roasted, or boiled, I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like. On its own, it is a humble thing, a lowly tuberous crop that can be had for mere pennies; one that has, at times, provided sustenance to the poorest of nations. But with some oil and heat, a sprinkling of salt, a healthy dollop of butter or sour cream, the potato is transformed into something ethereal. In my opinion, the supreme leader of this magical potato kingdom is the scalloped potato–officially know as the Gratin Dauphinois.

I will tell you what I love about the French. Only they have a word for the golden, crispy bits of food that get stuck around the edges of a baking dish. This word, gratin, comes from the verb gratter, which means “to scrape”. Gratinée is from the transitive verb form of the word for “crust”. It is a culinary technique in which ingredients are topped with breadcrumbs, butter, or grated cheese, then baked or broiled until a golden crust develops. As you can imagine from the name of my blog, I am a fiend for gratins.

Virtually anything edible can be made into a gratin, but potato gratinée is most common, particularly the Gratin Dauphinois. This dish is a specialty of the Dauphiné region of France. It involves layering thinly sliced potatoes with cream and sometimes egg in a buttered dish rubbed with garlic. A Gratin Savoyard, on the other hand, found in a neighboring region, is made without milk but beef broth.

A good Gratin Dauphinois should be crispy on the top and bottom and have a rich, cheesy taste, even without any cheese added. If you look closely at your gratin upon taking it out of the oven, you will notice the cream has turned into a curdled, cheese-like substance. You should not be alarmed when this happens. In fact, this is a most desirable trait in a gratin. As the potatoes absorb water from the liquid, you get a concentration of fat and protein, just as you would with fresh cheese curds.

I have made a great deal of gratins in my lifetime, following many different recipes many times over, and I can tell you that they never turn out the same. The thickness of the potato slices, the way they are layered, the depth and width of the dish you use and where you place it in the oven all influence your end result. Even the thickness of your cream can be of great influence. Starchy potatoes are a must.

There are countless recipes for Gratin Dauphinois, some of which ask you to boil the potatoes before baking them. I am not sure this method creates a superior gratin, so why bother? This recipe is from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It is fast and easy and produces the kind of gratin that will have you picking those crispy, delectable bits off the baking dish.

Julia Child’s Gratin Dauphinois

Serves 6

gratin

Ingredients:

2 pounds starchy potatoes

1/2 clove unpeeled garlic

4 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 cup (4 ounces) grated Swiss cheese

1 cup boiling milk or cream

Method:

1) Preheat oven to 425F. Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8 inch thick. Place in cold water. Drain when ready to use.

2) Rub the baking dish with cut garlic. Smear the dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.

3) Drain the potatoes and dry them in a towel. Spread half of them in the bottom of the dish. Divide over them half the salt, pepper, cheese, and butter.

4) Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer and season. Spread on the rest of the cheese and divide the butter over it. Pour on the boiling milk.

5) Set the baking dish in upper third of preheated oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender, the milk is absorbed, and the top is a golden brown.


clafoutis

I find the more I cook and immerse myself in the world of food via various magazines and food blogs, the more I come to understand that there is so much I don’t know. This year I set out to become a food and travel writer and have achieved some success, but I realize that there is so much I’m going to have to learn about food if I want to have a career in this field. Since I think all of life is a learning curve, I don’t mind admitting my foibles in this regard. I have never eaten an artichoke and have no idea how to cook one. I love food but am a picky eater; although there are few foods that I dislike intensely, there are many that I don’t love and I feel life is too short to spend eating them. I would love to review restaurants, but I don’t think I could be objective enough to comment on organ meats or other such fare that is standard at some of these fine establishments that I read about yet have not gone to. Sadly, I will never be a restaurant critic for the New York Times, donning disguises and dining at Lutece.

Another curiosity: my favorite food is French, but until my trip to France last year, I had scarcely eaten it. My idea of French food was limited to quiche, onion soup, and potato gratin. Rather ironic considering I now regularly write about French restaurants in my hometown for some well-known online publications. Until I bought my copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I didn’t even know what clafouti was. I looked it up online, hoping to find a picture of this dessert which wasn’t a cake or a pancake, or a custard, but a combination of all three.

In fact, the first time I made a clafouti I expected a very cake-like texture and thought I had not baked it long enough. I made a mistake by not cooking some of batter before topping it with cherries and another layer of batter. I thought this was why the texture was so custard-like. I had no idea that it was supposed to be that way. Now that I’ve been set straight, I love to whip up a clafouti when I want something easy–something with fruit. I like to have it for breakfast on a weekend morning, instead of pancakes, sprinkled with icing sugar.

In MtAoFC, Julia has a master recipe for Cherry Clafouti, and then a list of variations. I chose to make the Clafouti aux Pruneaux because it’s the perfect time of year for plums. In this variation, she asks you to drop them in boiling water and peel them. I found the prospect of this too tedious, so I simply cut the plums in half (I used small ones) and sprinkled them with sugar. Otherwise I followed the master recipe, which I include here with my one little tweak. Instead of plums, you can also use sliced apple or pear instead of plums. Clafouti can be a perfect summer or winter dessert, depending on the fruit you use. Now that is what I call versatile.

Julia Child’s Plum Clafouti

Serves 6 to 8 people

plumclaf

Ingredients:

1 pound firm, ripe plums

1 1/4 cup milk

1/3 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup flour

1/3 extra cup sugar

icing sugar for dusting

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 350F. Cut plums in half and sprinkle with some sugar. Set aside.

2)Place all of the ingredients except the last 1/3 cup sugar in a blender in the order they are listed. Cover and blend at top speed for 1 minute.

3) Pour a 1/4-inch layer of the batter in a buttered fireproof baking dish or pyrex pie plate about 1 1/2 inches deep. Place in the oven for about 5 minutes–until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish.

4) Spread the plums over the batter with the skins facing up.  Sprinkle with the extra 1/3 cup sugar. Pour on the rest of the batter.

5) Bake in the middle position of the oven for about an hour, until the clafouti has puffed and browned and a toothpick or knife plunged into its center comes out clean. Sprinkle the clafouti with icing sugar before serving.

If you would like to follow Julia’s recipe exactly as printed, drop the plums in boiling water for exactly ten seconds. Peel them before slicing. Soak in 1/4 cup of orange liqueur, kirsch or cognac and let stand for one hour. Substitute this liquid for part of the milk called for in the recipe and omit the last 1/3 cup sugar called for in the recipe. The apple and pear variations call for the same method; use 1 1/4 pounds of apples or 3 cups of pears, peeled, cored, and sliced.

Today is an important day of sorts. A day that I–as well as thousands of foodies and food bloggers–have been awaiting anxiously for weeks now; the release of Julie & Julia featuring Meryl Streep as Julia Child.

JuliaAndJulia

It also marks the last day in a series of recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking that I have been attempting over the course of the last little while. Until Hélène from La Cuisine d’Hélène suggested a MtAoFC challenge a couple of weeks ago, my copy of Julia Child’s magnum opus sat largely unused on my bookshelf. But later is always better than never, and I’m so glad that I got the nudge to cook from this classic cookbook. I’ve always been the type of person who uses cookbooks as a starting point. I rarely cook a recipe all the way through as printed. With Mastering, however, I decided that it would only be fair to Julia and the challenge to cook the dishes exactly as described.

I’m so glad I did. Everything I’ve made has come out much better than expected. I have started out with the simpler dishes but liked them so much that I’ve made some of them twice. Although this is my last MtAoFC challenge, it’s surely not the last time I’m going to cook from Julia Child’s wonderful book.

Soupe à L’oignon Gratinée – French Onion Soup

The key to French Onion soup is the slow cooking of the onions in butter and oil, followed by a long, slow simmering in stock. This helps them to develop the rich flavor this soup is known for.

6-8 servings

Ingredients:

5 cups thinly sliced yellow onions

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon oil

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons flour

2 quarts beef stock, boiling

1/2 cup dry white wine

salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons cognac

4-6 rounds of hard-toasted French bread

1-2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese

fronion

Directions:

1) Cook the onions slowly in the butter and oil in a covered saucepan for 15 minutes. Uncover, raise heat to medium and stir in the salt and sugar. The sugar will help the onions to brown. Cook for 30-40 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions have turned a deep golden brown.

2) Sprinkle in the flour and stir over heat for 3 minutes. Off heat, blend in the stock. Add the wine and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for another 30-40 minutes or more, skimming if needed. Correct seasonings.

3) Just before serving, stir in the cognac. Place rounds of bread in soup bowls or a tureen and pour soup on top. Sprinkle with grated cheese and brown under a hot broiler until golden and bubbly. Serve immediately.

Quiche Lorraine – Cream & Bacon Quiche

quichelor

4-6 servings

Ingredients:

3-4 ounces lean bacon

8-inch partially cooked pastry shell

3 eggs

1 1/2 – 2 cups cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

pinch of pepper

pinch of nutmeg

1-2 tablespoons butter cut into pea-sized dots

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 375F. Brown  bacon in a skillet. Drain on paper towels and press pieces into bottom of pastry shell.

2) Beat the eggs, cream, and seasonings in a mixing bowl until blended. Check seasonings. Pour into pastry shell and distribute butter pieces on top.

3) Set in upper third of preheated oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the quiche has puffed and browned. Slide quiche on a hot platter and serve.

For more Mastering the Art of French Cooking recipes, take a look at La Fuji Mama, La Cuisine d’Hélène, or Whisk.

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QUOTE

"Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet." -Julia Child

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