Archive for December 2008

Lucky Thirteen (Desserts, That Is)

December 31, 2008


Doesn’t this flower arrangement look good enough to eat?  Actually, you could.  When I told our florist that I was having a Treize Desserts party and wanted edible decor, he really threw himself into it, hence the oranges, dried fruits, angel cookies, and chocolate bonbons amidst the greenery.  But in the end we were all too sugared-out to touch it with anything but a lingering glance.

Because we’re near Provence, but not actually in it, les treize desserts are a vague rumor here, something people have heard of, but haven’t eaten.  At least that’s the way it was with our guests, who were French, English, Dutch, and American.  When I made little signs explaining each element of the thirteen desserts that are part of each Provencal Christmas I was sure that someone else would be leading the pre-sugar-coma discussion abut the meaning of it all.  Mais non!    But we’re all experts now, if by expert I mean that we’ve all eaten some of each of the thirteen, as one must, and then a little or a lot extra for good measure.


Certain of the thirteen desserts are formulaic, others more flexible, depending on your region.  Since we’re in the region “not really in Provence”  I took a couple of liberties with the composition of the table, but not too many.  Let’s start with the pompe à l’huile, which in this case is not an oil pump, as you might suspect, but a sweet olive oil bread.  I made a giant version, fragrant with orange flower water and a long glug of buttery olive oil, according to this recipe.  Mine was trying to look like a leaf, but lost its direction in the oven and ended up looking more like a mutant hand, in a good sort of way.  And since you’re not allowed to cut it but must tear off a serving by hand, that was sort of appropriate.


Les Mendiants, or the beggars, are another immutable element, representing in all their brownness the habits of various orders of monks, for this feast has religious significance and  traditionally occurs on Christmas Eve.  Fresh fruits are always part of the desserts too, and here we have lychees and physalis, chosen more for their small and beasutiful nature than for authenticity.  A bowl of apples would have been more usual, but hey, I knew my guests weren’t going to eat apples with all the other treats on the table, so I went easy on the fruit.


Another essential element is the light and dark nougat, representing good and evil.  It’s hard to say whether the chestnut honey-flavored light nougat, or the lavender honey dark nougat is more delicious, proving that good does not necessarily win over evil.


Clementines, or mandarines, are also traditional, and on them one may make a wish, as one of our guests told us.  Considering the number of these guys that I eat every day, my wishing well should be running over by now.


Prunes and dates stuffed with colored almond paste are also traditional.  In this case, the guy who sold me the thumb-sized Medjool dates told me that it would really be a shame to stuff such beautiful fruit and that I should leave them in all their natural glory, so I contented myself with stuffing the pruneaux d’Agen.


It’s also usual to include cédrat confit, or candied citron.  And then, because we were just in Aix en Provence  where calissons are always a part of the treize desserts table, we had those too.  Actually, that’s just an excuse, since I have a mad passion for the little lozenge-shaped delicacies and eat them at any opportunity.  So there we have the thirteen, since each of the Mendiant elements counts as one.  But I added to that, just because I could,


and because walnuts are another traditional element, a seductive caramelized walnut tart, which is the tarte from Masseube, for those of you who are devotées of The Cooking Of Southwest France,


and this red praline tarte, for those of you who are devotées of food that comes in primary colors.  Actually, this tart was the sleeper hit of the party, being not only the reddest thing you can imagine, but utterly delicious as well.  And to make it even better, the process of making it is very entertaining. 

First, you go to Lyon and buy a bag of pralines roses, a round, incredibly hard red candy ball with an almond in the center.  As far as I know, you can’t eat the pralines unless you have a live-in dentist, but someone goes to a lot of trouble to carefully enrobe those almonds in bright red armor.  You take them home, put them in a ziplock bag, take them out on the concrete, and bash them to smithereens with a rolling pin.  Unless you have a hammer, which I didn’t.  Then, just follow this recipe, easy as pie and twice as yummy.  I made it just for the color, and the fact that  it’s traditionally Lyonnais, and we spend a lot of time in Lyon.  I never expected it to be good, and I was really astounded by the results.


So there you have it, our amateur rendition of an ancient tradition.  And now, it’s the last day of the year.  I’m off to the last market of 2008, and then I’ll be in the kitchen, making a civet de sanglier, a boar stew enriched with red wine and chocolate, to bring to our New Year’s Eve celebration dinner.  Remember, if there’s anything you wanted to do in 2008, now’s your chance.  Enjoy your last crack at the year that brought us so much change, and see you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the year to come!


La Fête de Kwanzaa

December 27, 2008


You don’t have to be African-American, or français d’origine africaine, or even African, to appreciate Kwanzaa.  It stands for everything good, and deserves to be adopted by all of us.  In case you’ve been wondering what it’s all about, here’s a great explanation of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, written by Dr. Maulana Karenga and posted on the official Kwanzaa website.

“Umoja (Unity) calls on us to practice a principled togetherness in
our relationships, rooted in mutual respect, justice and shared good in the world.”

“Kujichagulia (Self Determination) teaches us to define ourselves by the good we do and the way we assert ourselves in the world in the life enhancing, world preserving and upward ways of our ancestors.”


“Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) reminds us that we must together build the good world we want and deserve to live in and leave as a legacy worthy of our history and consciously concerned with our future and that of the world.”


“Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) urges us to share the work and wealth of the world in just and equitable ways and seek the good life of dignity, decency and prosperity for everyone.”


“Nia (Purpose) calls on us to pursue the collective vocation of bringing,
increasing and sustaining good in the world in emulation and evocation of our traditional greatness.”


“Kuumba (Creativity) requires that we constantly strive to make and leave our community and world more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”


“And Imani (Faith) teaches us to believe in the good, hope for the best and work and struggle relentlessly to make both a reality.”

To help you get in the Kwanzaa spirit, here’s my recipe for a Kwanzaa stew.  I can’t claim that it’s authentic, except in the sense that it uses ingredients common to many African cuisines, and it tastes just right at this time of year, especially when shared with people who are working to make the world a better place.

Abra’s Kwanzaa Stew

2 cups chicken broth
1 cup chopped kale
2 cups diced tomatoes
1 cup cooked chick peas
1 medium sweet potato, baked and cut into chunks
1 T peanut butter
1 T ketjap manis, or a mix of soy sauce and molasses
1 tsp pimenton, or a very good paprika
2-3 dashes piri-piri sauce, or other very hot sauce
1/4 tsp toasted sesame oil
salt and pepper to taste

Place the broth and the chopped kale in a pot, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes until kale is tender.   Add the tomatoes and chick peas and simmer for a few more minutes.   Add peanut butter, ketjap manis, pimenton, and piri-piri and stir until smooth.  Stir in sweet potato and simmer until it partially dissolves into the stew, leaving a few chunks for texture.  Serve with flat bread, rice, or polenta.

Peace In Our Time

December 25, 2008


The days are short, the dark nights long
But peace is bright and clear as song
The path is rough, the road is hard
Peace means more than a holiday card

Noël, Noël, Noël
Sing Peace and Noël!

Peace is just a short word, easy to say
But it’s so hard to find when you don’t know the way
I don’t want presents, or even heaps of snow
Peace is more important than any gift I know

Noël, Noël, Noël
Sing Peace and Noël!

I want peace for you and peace for me
Peace is for everyone, I hope you agree
For we were born, our mothers gave us birth
So we can bring peace to every child on Earth

Noël, Noël, Noël
Sing Peace and Noël!

– Abra Bennett, 2006, a song written for a children’s choir to sing

Christmas Baking, Bah Humbug

December 23, 2008


Sometimes I want to go home just so I can bake again.  For holidays past I used to bake things like this, or this


or this


or even this.


Kitschy and adorable holiday baking.  But the sad fact is that when you live next door to a bakery, and within easy walking distance of 14 other bakeries, it’s hard to justify baking at home.  Oh, I still do, a little.  I send Shel next door to ask for 10 grams of fresh yeast, or I make something that I can’t easily find already baked.  But I seldom get my hands into dough, and it’s not often that the whole house smells of cinnamon.

For in truth, during this holiday season, what I’ve baked has looked more like this:


and I only did that to clean out the fruit bowl of things that needed using up.

But you know what?  It turned out to make an inspired purée.  So if you happen to have a couple of quince, a couple of potatoes, and a few sweet potatoes just taking up space on your counter, where you might otherwise be rolling and cutting out Christmas cookies, toss them all onto a baking sheet and bake them until the sticky juices run from the quince and sweet potatoes.  When they’re cooled, peel everything and toss it all together in the food processor, then whiz it until it’s smooth.  I added a good pinch of salt, and a quarter cup of maple syrup, because I finally found some and the flavor is so nostalgically wonderful, and that was a good choice too.  The result was savory enough to eat as a side vegetable, and sweet enough for a light dessert or a breakfast treat.

It’s very good, but it’s not a cure for nostalgia.  Everybody wants to go home for Christmas, and I’m no exception, even though there are snow and ice and power outages at home, whereas here it’s warm enough that I had a mosquito try to suck the root vegetable purée right out of me today, and we’ll have to hurry home with the mini bûche de Noël we’ll get from the bakery so the buttercream doesn’t melt.

I’ll be cooking, some kind of tournedos with foie gras for Christmas Day when it’ll be  just the two of us, and for the day after, when we have guests, a capon stuffed with foie gras and cèpes, a rabbit and hare terrine, regular French holiday stuff like that.  Nothing so exotic as a decorated star cookie shall cross my kitchen counter, not a crumb of gingerbread man will linger on my lips.  If there are candy canes in France I’ve never seen one.

So if you’ve ever longed to be here instead of there, wished you were living my life instead of yours, remember what you have.  You have home, with all its familiar holiday confusion, you have cranky family members for whom you can never find the right gift, you have Santas whose lap you can sit on if you dare, you have cookies you have to bake and a menu you’re not allowed to change because otherwise “it just wouldn’t be Christmas.”  Or Chanukah.  Or Kwaanza.  You have home.

I miss all that.  And right now I’d trade you 100 grams of foie gras, going for 98 Euros a kilo at my local butcher shop, for just one candy cane.  Not that I have anything against foie gras, but candy canes?  Now you’re talking Christmas.

Drink To The Darkest Day

December 21, 2008


This is possibly my favorite day of the year, the darkest day.  The shortest day, the longest night, and after this, we’re on the road to spring.  Although we won’t notice it for weeks, the days will now be getting inexorably longer, the mornings of getting up in the dark, putting on my warmest clothes, and turning on the heat even before feeding the cats and making coffee, will be coming to an end.

But before that, there will be holidays, and fires, candles, presents, and….. egg nog.  While there’s nothing to prevent us from drinking egg nog in the heat of summer, when in fact it might be refreshing, it’s inextricably tied with bright holiday ribbons to this short span of the year.  And so I say let there be egg nog in your life, and if I do say so myself, let it be this particular egg nog.

And now for the obligatory health warning: because this uses raw eggs, use the best and freshest eggs possible.   Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to include the note I made to myself the last time I made this recipe, which reads, in the unexpurgated version: “Drink in moderation.  This is so delicious that you’re flat on your butt before you know it.” 

Abra’s Dangerously Delicious Egg Nog

1 dozen eggs, separated
1 quart heavy cream
1 quart whole milk, or less to taste
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup rum
3/4 cup brandy
lots of fresh nutmeg

In a very large bowl, blend together the egg yolks, half of the milk, sugar, rum, brandy, and nutmeg and let rest in the fridge for 2-3 hours.  Beat the egg whites to soft peaks and fold into the yolk mixture.  Beat the cream to soft peaks and fold in.  Add some or all of the remaining milk, to adjust the egg nog to the consistency you prefer.  Serve with a grating of nutmeg on each glass.  If you serve this on Christmas Eve be sure to make plenty, as the leftovers go perfectly with Christmas morning festivities.

Why We Love Lyon

December 19, 2008


It’s got two rivers, the Rhône, and the Saône.  How do they love each other?  Take a close look at this sculpture.


They’ve got a special brilliant red praline that they melt on pastry, that makes it look like Christmas every day.  I’ve brought some home, and will be doing my own impossibly vivid Christmas baking with it.


It’s a whirligig slice of life.  We go up there, we come back down.  In between, almost anything can happen.  And it usually does.


It’s also a city that takes itself seriously, and we take it seriously too, because serious things always happen to us there.


Even the chocolates are very, very serious.  We eat one piece per day and count our blessings.


When you find yourself in need of comfort, and chocolate, and the comforts of chocolate, Lyon knows what to do about it.


When you find yourself in need of a walk in the wintry air, beautiful old doors are everywhere you look.  Today a beautiful door opened, just for us, just in time for the holidays.

Remember when I told you about Sylvie?  Well, Shel’s been seeing her ever since.  Don’t ask me to explain.  Don’t ask Shel to explain.  Probably, don’t even ask Sylvie to explain, because it’s impossible.  But for a couple of months now she’s been doing whatever it is she does, and now, three scans in a row, the tumor in Shel’s throat has gotten smaller.  Each time.  Smaller and smaller. 

Enough smaller that today in Lyon the surgeon told us that he can remove it, and Shel won’t lose his voice.


It’s Christmas and chocolate, all rolled into one.  And then some.

Christmas For Sale Or Rent

December 16, 2008


Somewhere in France there’s an authentic Christmas market, but it’s not in Aix en Provence.  Believe me when I tell you that this was one of the least tacky things at that particular market; the others would really hurt your eyes, and you don’t deserve that.


The real Christmas markets are in the north, in Alsace.   That’s why at this market, which isn’t in Alsace at all but in Lyon, they are serving an Alsatian-style warm wine.  I’m not saying that the south doesn’t have authentic Christmas traditions of its own, but the Christmas market just doesn’t seem to be one of them.

Last year I showed you a French Christmas Market in Uzès, and we’ll be visiting that again this weekend.  It’s only for one day, so I imagine it will be small and quaint.  I actually hope so.  I also showed you Christmas in Barcelona, which we won’t be visiting this year.  Instead we’ll be spending the holiday at home, and I’d been hoping to stock up on some typically French Christmas presents and decorations at the markets in Aix and Lyon.  Mais non, pas du tout!


In Lyon there was food from faraway lands, with a heavy emphasis on maple syrup,


and bison, which I never thought I’d see in France.


There were bells from Tibet,


Russian nesting dolls,


and Christmas headgear from, I think, China.


There were also stuffed baked potatoes, which if not exactly a traditional Christmas food in any country I know about, did at least have a French spirit, being stuffed with things like reblochon, camembert and ratatouille.


The market in Aix consisted of a long row of little chalets on the Cours Mirabeau, most surrounded by so many people that you couldn’t get near them if you wanted to, which I didn’t.  This one wasn’t too bad, but since they’re the same stars you might have gotten at Cost Plus, there wasn’t much incentive to approach.


The least crowded place on the Cours Mirabeau was right here, where this couple was singing and playing Christmas songs in Provençale.  It might have been the fact that they were often a bit off key that kept the droves away, but I more think it was the total lack of glitz; it was authentic, there was no bling-bling in sight, and it’s a good thing they weren’t passing the hat as it would have come back woefully empty.


In the evening rain, from a distance, after a glass of vin chaud, if you let your eyes go out of focus, it all had a certain charm.  Although maybe it was all about the vin chaud, which might be the secret to softening the tackiest of edges.

If you have a few edges that need softening, my recipe is here.  I haven’t made any yet this year, but tonight might be the night.

Kiss The Cook

December 14, 2008


Yesterday we went to Tahiti.  Le Petit Tahiti, that is, in Aix en Provence, and that was the best thing that we did all day.  To lunch at Le Petit Tahiti during the holiday season is to plunge into a warm and fragrant sea, untouched by the tawdry carnival atmosphere raging outside its small front door.  It’s a sweet blast from a forgotten Pacific past, a time when life was simpler and women sang as they cleared tables.


The food is very good, bright and homey.  But it’s the kisses that count.  At the end of the lunch service the sole and lovely front-of-the-house person announced “The cook’s coming out, so if you didn’t like the food, now’s your chance to complain.  But she’s my sister, so be nice.”  The sister-cook emerged and walked from table to table, giving two kisses to each and every customer. 

When it was my turn I asked whether even étrangers got kisses.  It’s a word that means both strangers and foreigners, a strong word.  As she kissed me she spoke into my ear “Once you’re here, you’re not a stranger any more.”  Now that’s the kind of place I like to have lunch.

Out on the street, in the maelstrom of holiday shoppers, it was another story.  A story I’m not ready to tell.  This was our first visit to Aix, and I need to let it mull, like a warm wine, before I know how to tell you about what we saw.  So let’s just stick to food for now, ok?

We had a dinner reservation at Pasta Cosy.  I know what you’re thinking, but that’s its name, and people love it, especially young and beautiful people.  If we’d been smarter we would have realized that we couldn’t do justice to a full dinner after our Tahitian idyll, but sometimes we’re not as smart as we look.


The welcome is as warm as anything you’d ever imagine.  The food is innovative and delicious.  My little pockets of cheese and pear  in a puddle of cream were worthy of an entire paragraph, except that Shel’s cannelloni of figatelli and olives utterly stole the show.  I quizzed the owners relentlessly about the recipe, but I’m sure I won’t be able to duplicate it.  It’s worth a trip to Aix just to try to decipher that dish.

The sad thing was that we just weren’t hungry enough.  We couldn’t manage dessert, even though they are famous for their chocolate nems.  We couldn’t manage coffee, or even the mint digestif our server brought us, worried that somehow we weren’t enjoying our meal enough.  The owners were extra solicitous too: I’d asked for more sauce for my pasta, they’d remade the dish entirely.  We didn’t have dessert, they insisted that we come back soon.  We needed a walk, even a walk in the steadily falling rain, and if the restaurant hadn’t been packed I felt that they would have walked with us, making sure we found our way back to the hotel, maybe even giving us a kiss goodnight. 

So if you ever feel like you need love with your meal, here are two sure bets.  And if you feel moved to kiss the cook, these are two places where the cook is very likely to kiss you right back.

Bright Winter Stars Are Shining

December 12, 2008


One of the very best things about winter in the south of France is the fact that clémentines de Corse are everywhere.  They’re gorgeous, sweet, juicy, seedless, and appear in a fresh nest of leaves so you know they were just picked.  They’re so cool they have their own website, right here

They’re Algerian by ancestry, Corsican by birth, and I can’t resist them, so  the fruit bowl is always overflowing with their brilliant bounty.  Although it’s normally just a peel-and-play operation around here, recently I came across a recipe for using them in a cake.  I’m probably the umpteenth person (or as you say in French more elegantly, la énième personne) in the blogosphere to tout Nigella Lawson’s Clementine Cake but the cake deserves the attention.  At least, I’m sure that my version is fabulous, and I’ll bet her original is too.


This is a really moist, delectable, gluten-free cake that’s as good for breakfast as it is for dessert.  I used ground hazelnuts instead of Nigella’s ground almonds and I loved it like that, so if you can get ground hazelnuts, so much the better.  If not, ground almonds should be delicious too.  And because I have a lot of vanilla beans floating around the kitchen, having bought them super-cheap for the benefit of orphanages in Madagascar, I tossed the seeds of one in to the batter.

Use the most delicious clementines you can find, since they’re the key to the success of the recipe.

Hazelnut Clementine Cake

13 oz/375 gms clementines, preferably organic
6 eggs
8 oz/225 gms sugar
9 oz/250 gms finely ground hazelnuts
1 heaping tsp. baking powder
1 vanilla bean
hazelnut oil or butter for the pan

Put the whole clementines in a pan of cold water, bring to a boil and cook for 2 hours, replenishing the water as necessary.   Yep, two hours.  Drain them and when they’re cool, if your fruit isn’t seedless, cut them in half and remove any seeds.   Puree clementines, peel and all,  to a very fine and fluffy paste in the food processor. 

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190ºC.  Brush a 9″ cake pan with hazelnut oil or butter and add a round of parchment paper if you’re not using a nonstick pan.
Beat the eggs well with a whisk.  Whisk in the sugar, hazelnut flour and baking powder. Mix well and add the pureed fruit.  Split the vanilla bean in two and scrape the seeds into batter.

Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for about an hour, until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove from the oven and leave to cool, on a rack, still in the pan.  Remove from pan when cool.

This cake tastes great right away, better the day after baking, and even better than that on the third day.  If you’re the disciplined sort, wrap it well in foil and let it rest for a couple of days before you serve it.  It’s utterly delicious as is, but a little glaze doesn’t hurt it either.

And I know I promised to tell you about the Lyon Christmas market, but since tomorrow we’re off to Aix en Provence to visit their marche de Noël, we’ll have a marché-palooza when I get home.  In the meantime, do yourself a favor and bake that cake.

Let There Be Light

December 10, 2008


This weekend we accidentally fell into the light when medical appointments required us us to be in Lyon during the annual Fête des Lumières, a time when the city is flooded with light art, and the literally millions of visitors who come, all in search of enlightenment.


Lyon is always a beautiful city, but all aglow it’s truly marvelous.  We began the afternoon at the marché de Noël, the Christmas market, about which more anon.  In keeping with the theme of the festival there were  lights for sale, lights that made me long for a dark home to call my own and a corner in need of brightening.


The festival is Lyon’s signature event, and everyone participates, with votive candles lining balconies and windowsills and people walking everywhere, drinking the hot spiced wine of winter called simply vin chaud. Even our hotel got into the spirit, setting out votives along the sidewalk and lighting  these ethereal trees to greet us at the door.


Walking a couple of kilometers down the Rhône from the hotel to the center of town, we passed this ghostly installation, people made of light perched in trees and wading at the edge of the river.


All along the walkway were moving light paintings with accompanying music,


and the bridges were ablaze.


Pretty much any available surface that could be light-decorated was at its best and brightest.


In the Place des Terreaux the City Hall became the canvas for an incredible laser sound and light show that took it from the baroque


through the gladiatorial


to the psychedelic, in a display of technical virtuosity that left the crowd oohing, aahing, and wowing.


We finally toddled off to bed when our feet gave out and our nosetips paled, despite the best efforts of the hundreds of street vendors of vin chaud,  while hardier Lyonnais swung up into the chilly sky for what was probably the best view in the house.

I’m not sure that we reached true enlightenment, but we were certainly well-lit, and those light people shone in my dreams all night long.