Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pastry Interlude

Here are some photos of some of the many pastries we've eaten, or just gazed upon in lucious window displays, that I'm not necessarily able to describe or that don't specifically fit into a particular cuisine or specialty, but that I still want to share.

Peach tart.
Canele. These were all over Paris, and I always wanted to try them but didn't. They come in a large size, and then this 3-bite size. I thought it was going to be a glazed pound cake. It's not - it's very soft and eggy inside, almost like a custard. I usually like custard, but I didn't care for this. The glaze did not have a flavor of it's own, and in fact wasn't even particularly sweet. But it is interesting, and worth trying since they seem to be so ubiquitous in French bakeries.

This was my favorite of all the pastries we had. It was an amazing shortbread crust, filled with a
thick rich dark chocolate ganache, topped with a light milk chocolate mousse, and garnished with
fresh juicy raspberries and a raspberry glaze. See detail below.

Detail of chocolate raspberry tart from above.

Window display at the same patisserie where we got the chocolate raspberry tart.

Other half of the same window display as above.

I'm not sure what all was inside this, but those are meringues layered vertically around the perimeter,
with chocolate cookie disks fanned out around hte top and filled with fresh pears. It has to be delicious.
I don't know quite how they made these, and quite how they would taste, but it looks like it's pastry
stuffed with bread. Seems like a good idea? I love the technique and how it looks.

This is actaully an ice cream centerpiece. It was in a freezer case at the patisserie and I thought it was so incredibly creative albeit rather impractical. You wouldn't get to enjoy it very for very long as a decoration unless your dining room table has a glass freezer case on top. But what a fun way to make an ice cream and fruit dish.

Okay, so not technically pastry, this gelato still qualifies as part of the over-the-top delicious desserts
we engaged in. This was one of our favorite combinations - chestnut and chocolate. This was also one of
the larger scoops we were ever served (though the scoops got larger and the prices got lower the further
we went into Italy.... this chesnut was obviously still in France.

Apple tart with almond topping.

Sicilian cannoli from the Farmer's Market, the guy who made it stuffed the shells in front of us.

Sicilian pannetone. 

Tart with a custard filling and pears and peaches, topped with almonds.
Walnut and caramel tart.
Will chose this while I watched the luggage, so I didn't even see what it was called. We
thought it was going to have a custard filling, but it was actually cream and it was incredible.
It was like a genoise cake stuffed with rum cream, and the top layer was light and a bit
crunchy and then the center was cool and sweet.
An assortment of cookies from an Veronese bakery. I wanted to just get three, but they sell by weight
and she kept telling me, "just choose one more" and then put it on the scale and said "just two more!" Okay.
The striped one on the left was a puff pastry with an apricot jam. The donut shaped one was just puff pastry
(but nothing is ever wrong with that!) as was the one on the far left with sprinkles, but it was frosted with a set
meringue. At the top left is a pine nut cookie which I after the exterior crunch and nuttiness, was a rich
butter cookie inside. The powdered sugar one on the left is amaretto - but it wasn't a crunchy amaretti,
it was a rich, chewy marzipan with amaretto. The two filled ones at the top right were my favorite, and they
weren't ones I would have picked on my own, they were the two the bakery lady recommended as her
favorites. The chocolate one is - chocolate! - and the white heart shaped one was almond. The cookies look
like they would be crispy meringues but they were much better in my opinion, a bit crispy and a
bit chewy. Finally, the little filled one was chocolate-hazelnut.
This was a specialty from Trieste, where the pretzel shape is seen all over in many types of foods. This was a flakey pastry stuffed with a fruitcake filling of candied fruit like orange peel, rum, pine nuts, hazelnuts, etc. It was all the flavors the people who don't like fruitcake don't like, and it was actually even a bit strong for me - someone who does like fruitcake. I wasn't crazy about it, which was too bad, because it was very expensive.
Triesten fruitcake cross-section.

Cute cupcakes from Firenze... I wasn't sure if they would be more cookie or more cake, but they were like cupcakes coated in yummy granular sugar and filled with frosting: one was lemon, and the other was raspberry and chocolate.
Apple Chocolate-Chip sweet bread from our last morning in Rome.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Basque Country

Basque Country is a region spanning the France/Spain border that has a culture, language, and food tradition all its own. It is considered by many to be the “culinary capital” of Spain, and we were told along the way that tapas originated in San Sebastian, a city we visited and ate in, and that the tapas there are unlike any you will find elsewhere in Spain. Much of the wealth of this area was due to the maritime prowess of its people, so the cuisine is heavily oriented toward seafood. But they are also known for some specific pastry – gateaux basques – as well as chocolates. We had some of all, naturally!

The upside of tapas – called pintxos (prounounced peen-choss) – besides how delicious they are!! – is that you can try so many different types without getting too stuffed. The downside for a blog is that there is so much to describe! So, I will use the caption of each photo for extra detail. 

Chorizo sausage, tortilla (potato omlette), marinated artichoke heart with olives,
puff pastry with crab topping, crostini with blue cheese and walnuts

Crostini with onion jam and a round of grilled soft cheese.

Besides seafood, the cuisine uses a lot of peppers – both red and green – but we didn’t have anything that we considered spicy, and the food is not known to be spicy, as well-seasoned as it is. Onions, garlic, and tomatoes also figure heavily into the dishes, along with all types of seafood: mussels, white fishes of all types including a lot of cod (bacalao, sometimes salt cod), mussels, shrimp, clams, octopus, squid, crab, and on and on to things I can’t even hope to identify. 

Live, squiggly snails in a mesh sack at the market.

It's hard to tell from this photo how absoltuely enormous the bell peppers
were -many were well over 10" long.

The chocolates – filled, and truffles, were all very good. The pastries were of a more dense texture, sort of a cross between a pate brisee and a cookie. The Gateau Basque is the consistence of a cookie, but more the texture of a shortbread pie crust. Sometimes it has a soft “cream” filling, otherwise it is filled with cherry jam. We preferred the jam versions because the “cream” filling while softer than the baked exterior, is still mostly the same taste and texture both inside and outside. This was the same for the house specialty “Pastel Vasco” we tried from a local bakery… it was shaped like a tart, but had a soft pie-crust texture with a dense, buttery filling. All of the ones we tried were very good, but they aren’t what I will go back for. They are sweetened, but aren’t too sweet, yet otherwise don’t have much flavor profile. I think the finesse is in the texture, which is too soft to be a cookie, but too firm and crispy to be cake. It’s difficult to describe, so if you have a chance to try one, I highly recommend you do!

This was a pastry kind of like a palmier - a crunchy croissant, not too sweet,
but completely covered in chocolate.

Detail of pastry above.

Chocolate mousse cake.
Basque cream-filled tart... the center is pretty much the same flavor as the exteriorb
but a slightly softer texture.I wasn't crazy about it, but it was interesting to try.

This was literally a chocolate truffel on a cookie. What a fantastic idea!!

This was an amazingly delicious "fruit cake" - this is what all fruit cake should be like...
the cake was moist and sweet, the fruit was carmelized and probably soaked in
some kind of liqueur, and the top was decorated wtih slices of actual apples.

Not sure that these jellies are a particular Basque specialty, but they were incredibly delicious -
with actual fruit flavor and so very cute.

Pintxos are the way to go in Spainish Basque, but in France, the specialty is Ttoro – a seafood stew. It has some similarities with bouillibase, but a richer, stewier broth. The one we had was loaded with shrimp, prawns, white fish, and mussels, along with red peppers and tomatoes.

This seafood stew with shrimp, prawns, and crawfish-like guys, along with lots of white fish
filet, mussels, potatoes, and red peppers is a specialty in Saint Jean-de-Luz.

Grilled sardines with salade. If you approach cafefully, the bones pull out pretty easily in
one complete skeleton, and these little guys are really tasty, especially with all the herbs.

Had to include this shot of the "leftovers" from our Basque seafood stew...
These French macarons weren't nearly as pretty as the ones you'll find all over Paris, and they
weren't filled with a soft center, but they had the most delectable nutty flavor, and crisp exterior
with chewy middles. They are supposedly baked according to the same recipe used to make
them for Louis XIV when he was here for his wedding to Marie Therese in 1660.

There were some other local specialties that we did not get to try, such as piperade (peppers, tomatoes, garlic, ham, and eggs), axoa (veal or lamb stew on mashed potatoes), the herbal liquor izarra, and txakoli sparkling wine. We did have some local white wine, cidre, and sangria though to wash down all the other treats. We didn’t so much as run out of time, but run out of stretch in our pants!

Go to Basque Country – either the French side or the Spanish side, but better yet, BOTH – and go hungry, then try as many different items as you can. Things that you don’t think look good or that you don’t think you like will taste amazingly delicious because they are so fresh, and so unique, and prepared following generations of tradition.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Loire Valley: Chinon – our favorite meal

We only spent one day in the Loire Valley, in the town of Chinon on the Rive Verielle, but this is where we had our favorite meal so far. Chinon is a small town, and we arrived at 8:45; our hotelier told us that we would have to hurry out if we wanted dinner, because places will be closing or already closed. The place she sent us to because she thought they would still be open was closed, so we continued to wander down the alleys of the Vieux Cite and came across Le Gandoyau. Their chalk-written menu outside their courtyard had items listed with “Terroir” next them, which I took to mean local specialties, so we went in. The waiter was very welcoming, (though we noticed a less-than-pleased glance between the waiter and the chef when the kitchen saw us being led to our table at 9:05 p.m.)

We ordered the two main courses that specified “terroir” along with a bottle of Chinon A.O.C. wine. One was described as “filet mignon” of Pork, and came with “noisettes” of mixed vegetables, prunes, and a delicate amount of rich, fruity sauce. The noisettes were a texture somewhat like mashed potatoes, and somewhat like polenta. I don’t really know if they contained cornmeal – French don’t typically use corn in people food as it is considered animal feed, so it could have been all potato, or a mix of other things I didn’t know. They also had shredded carrots and petit peas and were absolutely delicious. The prunes were stewed in the glaze that accompanied the pork, and were soft and sweet and tangy. It was an amazing combination, and a completely artful presentation.

Pork medallians with prunes in sauce, and "noisettes" of mixed vegetables.

The other dish was a “Tarte Sandra” which was copious amounts of the most incredible, light, crispy, buttery puff pastry imaginable, wrapped in a ginourmous pouf around a delectable, thick white fish that was smothered in fresh herbs (primarily dill) and a light and smooth cream sauce with carrots and peas. It sounds like it would be ridiculously rich, but somehow the textures were so melt-in the-mouth delicious that it didn’t taste over-the-top at all. It was absolutely delightful. In spite of the very high quality of ingredients and preparation, what really made this meal so outstanding was to have a meal prepared in precisely the region where they originated, being the freshest and most authentic of local foods.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Normandy and Brittany: Butter, Apples, and Crepes

Onward in our travels from Paris to the Breton coast (Brittany) we tried some more local specialty pastries: Far Breton is a custard cake with prunes, Kouign Amann is a fresh butter pastry, as well as a butter cookie. There are all kinds of butter biscuit around Breton and they come in all shapes and sizes. The Far Breton was probably the most unique in that the custard is firm enough to be sliced into wedges, and the figs were soaked in brandy and gave the whole the thing a deep flavor that was really unusual. The chewy figs against the creamy but firm custard was also a unique texture combination. The Kouign Amann was very similar to a croissant in layers of soft pastry dough with a crispy exterior, but it was also lightly glazed with a carmelized sugar to give it just a bit extra sweetness.

Far Breton: custard cake with Prunes

Breton butter cookie

Kouign Amann, croissant-like butter pastry was carmelized sugar glaze.

Cross-section detail of the Kouign Amann and butter cookie.

We tried a lot of crepes (pronounced creh-puh, as opposed to “crapes”). In Breton, they are basically a daily part of the diet, and are typical on-the-go street food… a emporter. Galettes refer to buckwheat crepes which are filled with savory fillings. One was filled just with cheese, and grated into the hot crepe crisped around the edges like a parmesan cracker, but was soft and melted in the middle. Another was stuffed with carmelized onions, jambon - rough cut pork pieces, emmenthal cheese, and topped with a soft-cooked fried egg – very classic. Our favorite was a fantastic combination of comte cheese inside the crepe with a topping of hard-cider-marinated chicken pieces and mixed greens and tomatoes. (Sadly, we were so hungry when we got that one, we forgot to get a photo before it was consumed. We also didn't realize how delicious it was going to be that it required recording for the blog!)

Crepe with miel et noix honey and walnuts (background) and buckwheat crepe with cheese (foreground).

Crepes are white flour and generally have sweet fillings, though they can be savory as well. We had one which was simply apricot jam, and another topped with honey and toasted walnuts. My favorite is white sugar and fresh lemon juice – much better than it sounds like such simple ingredients could be. In Normandy, there are also galichots which I believe are still a buckwheat batter, but cooked more like a pancake – thicker and not stuffed or folded, just served with the toppings. One was almost like a pizza, spread with a tomato-based sauce and topped with melted cheese and served with salad, another spread with a carmelized onion jam and topped with goose pate.

Galichot - Norman buckwheat pancake with toppings of pickels and goose rillettes.

Galichot with tomato sauce, comte cheese and anchovies.

Hard apple and pear cider cidre is the beverage of choice all around Normandy and Breton. They are stronger than most beer, but still pretty light and refreshing, with just a bit of sparkle. They come in both dry sec and sweet doux versions. We tried both from the local on-tap versions, and didn’t notice huge differences, although there were some. There are also bottled cidre, but we tried to stick with what was on tap. They had a more fermented flavor that what we’ve experienced in bottled ciders at home, but we found them thirst-quenching and the appropriate beverage to go with our other snacks de terroir – of the region. In this area, all the cider we saw was served in a wide-brimmed mug, which we also saw for sale in many of the gift shops. Some mugs had tea-cup style handles, but others, like in my picture, hand no handle.

Hard apple cider in une bolee - the traditional mug for cidre.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Treats in Paris

I know Paris is full of fantastic restaurants. It is also full of a lot of not-so-good restaurants; while Brasseries and cafes line sidewalks with tempting bistro tables for people-watching, most of these tables are filled with people drinking and smoking. Very few people are eating. Our experience at some of these places when we were tired and just needed a rest stop is that the food is “fine” but never “good” and definitely never “interesting.” And since we choose not to use our travel budget at high-end restaurants, our favorite way to truly experience fabulous French food is by stopping for treats at specialty stores like the boulangerie (bread bakery), patisserie (pastries), charcuterie (meats), fromagerie (cheeses), and confisseur/chocolatier (candies and chocolates), and the street markets for fresh produce. There is truly nothing like a fresh baguette. Unlike much of what we find in the states, with a dry crust and airy crumb, my favorite baguettes in France have a crisp crust but are so tender that even the butt ends can be simply bit into as you walk out of the store. I like the “traditionelle” which is not “French bread” (the light, white bread) but a denser, richer bread made with part whole wheat. Baguettes are also the perfect low-budget standby. While we can easily spend $20 just trying tastes of two cheeses, a baguette big enough to share with leftovers is only about $1.50.

We have tried 3 cheese so far, and sadly, I don’t know the names of any of them, but I don’t think we could get them in the States anyway. Walking into a fromagerie you will find shelves and shelves of cheese, but not a refrigerator in sight. The large blocks and wheels are simply wrapped in plastic wrap. The shops we went into offered cheeses from all over France, Holland, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy. First we tried two which I know were both from France and both cow’s milk, but I don’t know specifically what region. When we were in the Loire Valley, we tried a local cheese; apparently the only cheese they make there are chevre (a soft, spreadable cheese made from goat’s milk.) The one we tried, on the recommendation of the clerk as her favorite, had an ashy-grey exterior but otherwise a fresh grassy taste with just a hint of earthiness from the mold.

Cow's milk cheeses.

Goat's milk cheese from Loire.
The pastries are an endless source of indecision for me and Will. I try to not have more than the equivalent of one whole pastry a day, and they can be expensive (both economically and calorically!!). Will always wants the fruit based options, where I would prefer chocolate. In fact, we have yet to try and chocolate pastries this trip, mostly because they seem they would travel even less well and be even messier than the fruit ones, and we are usually getting it to go so we can enjoy it in a park somewhere. (There is never anywhere to sit in the bakeries.) On our first day, he had his sights set on a strawberry tart. It was the most impractical choice, but he was delighted by it. It was a work of art, for sure. (As is the way it is wrapped for travel – it is packaged into a seemingly delicate little tent, which actually has quite a bit of structure based on how the paper is folded and tucked around it, and adds the extra delightful element of feeling like you are opening a present when you go to unwrap and eat it!)

Tented, gift-wrapped strawberry tart, during the anticipation of unwrapping.

Unveiled strawberry tart from one of our favorite Parisian bakeriesm, Gosslein.

Each component was completely delicious: a buttery cookie crust, which magically refused to get soggy by the creamy, silky smooth custard filling, and all topped with perfectly ripened fresh strawberries in just the right amount of jelly glaze to make them sparkle like jewels. It is a picture of elegance and sophistication. But go to bite this thing and the elegance is all over. There is no way to eat this and look sophisticated. And actually, I do have to offer a slight bit of criticism, because while each of these parts on their own would make for a delicious dessert: cookies, custard, fresh ripe fruit, in this case they didn’t add a lot to the other components. The textures that made them so good on their own caused them to not really mesh with the others – the custard sort of slips across your tongue off the cookie, and the berries do the same. It is also difficult to cut or bite a mouthful that has a good ratio of each of the ingredients to the others. So, make of that what you will. And enjoy the lovely photo of the pre-consumed version.

This apricot tart was another of Will’s choices… nothing about it makes me want to rush to eat it. True, my photo is not the most flattering, but really it didn’t look much different in real life. However, tasting it is a completely different affair… tart and juicy fruit balanced with sweetened jelly filling and a pastry crust that is delicate without flaking all apart into a mess made for a much more easily consumed treat. These components – because they held together better and were in better proportion to each other – made for a much better pastry in my opinion.

Apicot tart.

Macarons (pronounced mah-ca-rohn with even emphasis on each syllable and distinct and separate from macaroons, the shredded coconut cookies many Americans think of) are a typically French pastry and found in bright and pastel colors in fancy structural displays all around Paris. Each color corresponds to a flavor, but basic varieties are vanilla, chocolate, coffee, pistachio, raspberry. They are basically two meringues baked into precise domed rounds and sandwiched around a thin layer of similarly flavored filling – usually just enough to bind the two cookies together and provide an extra intensity of the flavor without a huge texture difference (to give a cake-related analogy, it’s like glazing a cake to give it extra flavor and moistness, instead of frosting it to give it a completely separate texture and form.) We didn’t actually try any macarons this trip, because we tested many different ones when we were in Paris last year, and there’s so many new things to try.
Macarons in multiple flavors;

For a day when we had a couple of other activities already planned in the Marais, I checked out the New York Times recommendations for that neighborhood. They sent us to a falafel stand, Mi-Va-Mi, and neighboring Jewish bakery, Florence Finkelstein, from the most outrageously delicious sandwich we could have imagined. These fluffy, fresh, warm, and giant pitas were smeared with hummus then positively stuffed with ping-pong ball sized deep fried falafels bright green with fresh cilantro, packed with shredded white and red cabbage, slivered cucumbers, chopped tomatoes, and then topped with the creamiest marinated eggplant, a mild but flavorful roasted red pepper relish, and a house-seasoned tahini dressing. Oh MY! All that for only 5Euros (~$7.50) is surely the best deal in Paris. Will tried the sharwarma which is basically the same sandwich components but with grilled rotisserie meats instead of falafel.

Falafel sandwich, with falafel and eggplant on the left, and lots of roasted red-pepper sauce.
Shawarma sandwich.

We actually made two bakery stops, one at the recommended for apple streudel. To me, this was the most boring square blob of fruit pastry I could imagine. But as I’ve often found with the best desserts (including many of the ones I made myself!) the plainest looking can be saving all their charm for the tastebuds. The struedel had two fairly thin and soft but buttery top and bottom crusts sandwiching a delectably sweet and lightly cinnamon apply filling. The apples were shredded, sliced, and diced to gie it a really dense texture, and I think they were probably stewed before being packed into the pastry and baked. At the other more Arabic bakery, we got a crescent-shaped butter cookie coated in powdered sugar, and a semolina flour pastry stuffed with a date. It was in a honey glaze that brought out the sweetness of the date and added a delectable moistness to the rough texture of semolina dough.
Apple streudel from Florence Finkelstein's in the Marias.
Semolina cake stuffed with a date, and glazed with honey.

At the farmer’s market, we picked up some cherries and some radishes which we saw in markets ALL over France, but which I had never seen at home; they have a highly decorative red and white two-toned coloration with an oblong shape. I also snagged myself a ridged tomato that I ate at our picnic out of my hand like an apple, with just a little salt. We didn’t actually buy any white asparagus from the market, but we ate it in Amsterdam and Brussels, and saw it in markets there too, so I wanted to include a photo. They are huge around, and a bit stubbier than most green asparagus sold.

Radishes, with some cherries.
Tomato with vertical ridges.

White asparagus in farmers market, with green asparagus visible behind as comparison.

All of the restaurants we’ve been in in Europe ask if you want coffee after your dessert. I’m not sure why they are not served together, except as a way to prolong a meal experience and promote extra inter-personal interaction. So it seems that coffee is quite a part of the culture. Nevertheless, it was not always great coffee, and some of the cappuccinos Will ordered came out of a one-button push machine instead of an actual espresso maker. However, this was one of the better cups of coffee he had, and makes it onto the blog for its decidedly artful presentation.

Cappucino from a creperie near our flat in the 5eme.

Like I said earlier, while some of the top restaurants in the world can be found in Paris, that is not true for travellers in our budget. So rather than seek out mediocre examples of fine French food every night, we also enjoy taking advantage of the fact that Paris is a bustling international metropolis, with people – and therefore foods – from all over the world. Just blocks from our flat were choices of Indian, Indonesian, and Tibetan restaurants. We selected a tiny Tibetan restaurant and after I’d selected the noodle dish that I wanted (stir-fried with vegetables), we asked the server for her recommendation. She promptly directed us to the “marmite” which I have no idea to what that word refers, but there were vegetable, chicken, and pork varieties, which include sauce and vegetables served sizzling and bubbling in an individual crock. It can be accompanied by rice, but the server suggested instead that we have their house-made bread, which I think was made from rice flour and twisted into a cinnamon bun shape. It was soft and spongy and may have been steamed for part of its cooking, but it was not like a dumpling… it was definitely baked in an oven and more breadlike. It had a magical quality of being able to sop up all the brothy sauce from the marmite without becoming soggy.
Tibetan chicken "marmite" stew.

Homemade rice flour bread to accompany the marmite;
my photo doesn't make it look very good, but it was
interesting, delicious, unique, and the
perfect accompaniment.

We also had some good French restaurant experiences as well, particularly at a restaurant on the border between the 3eme and 4eme Arrondissments, called Page 35. It has a nice decorated interior with about 8 tables, but we sat at one of the tiny, awkward, metal bistro tables on the sidewalk where we could enjoy the lovely early summer evening situated directly across a mostly quiet street from a park. We only ordered plats (main dishes – in French, entrĂ©e refers to the appetizer course) because this happened to be the same day as we’d earlier consumed the ginormous falafels and shawarmas. Will ordered duck confit which came with a fresh salade verte and roasted potatoes with a hearty garnish of roasted garlic. I had the special of the day, a cod filet served on a sparkling bed of fresh greens lightly dressed in olive oil and balsamic, with gorgeous tomatoes and a basil gazpacho. The gazpacho was served in a shot glass to be poured over the whole plate before eating. It was such an artful arrangement, clever presentation, and really delightful set of bright fresh flavors, and I was thoroughly impressed.
Cod with green salad, blanched tomatoes,
and basil gazpacho (to pour over all.)