Archive for September 2013

Heading For Home

September 27, 2013

DSC_7610-001Sometimes it’s impossible to see where you’re going, even though everyone around you is in the clear. Sometimes it seems like you’re living in a perpetual fog, unable to find your way. Sometimes you’re just dépaysé, disoriented, far from home. And that’s how French Letters has felt lo these 20 months, far from France, out of its element.

But now, actually tomorrow, French Letters will be repatriated, however briefly. We’re heading back to France for six weeks, to our same town, same house, same friends, same life, our vie française. Of course, you can never really go back. One couple of friends has gotten a divorce. A beloved teacher has retired. We’re no longer on speaking terms with a neighbor. Shel will play in a band with different members. And those are just the changes we know about. There are bound to be many others, given the passage of time.

We’re leaving our island with heavy hearts, because our beloved Beppo has never come home, and we now believe, as much as we can’t bear to admit it, that he’ll never come home again. But like that ferry in the fog, we can’t see everything that’s out there, we just don’t know all that’s going on around us, even on such a minute scale. Sadness envelops us like a cold mist, but joy might be just around the corner.

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And if it’s going to be anywhere, it’ll be lying in wait for us here, in what was for so long our heart’s own home. The wisteria won’t be in bloom, that we know. More wineglasses will have been broken by summer guests, that we know for sure too. Shel will go next door to the bakery every morning, sure as sunrise. And for the rest, well, we’ll just wait and see. Come along with us for our fifth return home.

Tarte Bourdaloue Aux Poires

September 15, 2013

DSC_7605There’s a famous French tart called Tarte Bourdaloue aux Poires, created by a renowned patissier, Paul Coquelin, around the turn of the last century. It’s a luscious concoction of almond pastry cream and poached pears, and a perfect autumn baking project, if you have 2 1/2 hours to spend in the kitchen.

One of the first comments I got last night, when I served this to a congenial group of neighbors, was “how long did this take you to make?” And indeed, this tart is fussy, although not finicky, lengthy in its preparation, and makes a lot of dirty dishes. You’ll never get away with saying “oh, it’s just a little thing I tossed together,” because it’s obviously a labor of love. But if people you love deserve the best of peardom, by all means allez-y, get some pears and get going. Don’t plan to be able to do anything else during the time you’re making this, although you will have half an hour to attack the heap of dishes while the tart’s baking.

DSC_7566-001Down the road from us is the most beautiful pear tree I’ve ever seen, its rosy, golden pendants just inviting theft. Ergo the sign, which we obeyed, after just admiring the fruit of someone else’s labors. Instead we had to content ourselves with some nice organic store-bought pears. I used Bartlett pears, although I think Bosc are more traditional. I also added a star of anise and a stick of cinnamon, also non-traditional, but which I think lend a subtle, haunting flavor to pears. And by the way, if you find the name too much of a tongue-twister, you can just call it French Pear Tart.

Tarte Bourdaloue au Poires*

For the pastry:

1 2/3 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
10 T chilled butter, cut in pieces
1 egg yolk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3 T ice water

For the pears:

4 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 stick of cinnamon
1 star anise
4 ripe but firm pears

For the almond cream:

2 1/3 cups whole milk
1 vanilla bean
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup blanched, slivered almonds
1/3 cup powdered sugar
2 T butter
1/2 cup crushed amaretti (optional)

Begin with the crust. In a food processor, combine the flour and salt and add the cut up butter. Whiz until the butter is well integrated, as you would for a pie crust. Add the egg yolk and vanilla and whiz to combine. Add the ice water and whiz just until the dough begins to come together. Dump out the dough, press it into a flattened oval, and put in the fridge to chill a bit.

While the dough is chilling, poach the pears. Peel them, cut them in half, leaving the stem and core intact to help keep the pears’ shape. Place them in a large pan with the water, sugar, cinnamon stick, and star anise, bring to a near-boil, then simmer them for about 15 minutes, turning them over once, until the fruit is just tender. Don’t over cook them here or you’ll have trouble with them later. When the pears are tender remove the pan from the heat and allow the fruit to cool in the syrup.

While the pears are poaching, preheat the oven to 400°. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a lightly floured board to fit into an 11 or 12″ tart pan. Prick the dough all over with a fork, then gently fit a sheet of foil into the pan and fill it with beans or rice, or pie weights if you have them. Bake the dough for 20 minutes, then remove it from the oven, carefully remove the weighted foil, and allow the tart shell to cool. You can leave the oven on here, or heat it up again a little later.

While the tart shell is baking, begin making the almond cream. Place the milk in a large measuring cup, scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the milk, and toss in the rest of the vanilla bean. Zap the milk in the microwave until it is near boiling, about 3-4 minutes.

While the milk is heating, whisk the eggs and sugar together in a sauce pan, then whisk in the flour. Slowly whisk in the hot milk (after removing the split vanilla beans), being careful to whisk out any lumps. Cook this mixture over medium heat until very thick, whisking constantly, about 8-10 minutes. Pour this custard into a mixing bowl and whisk in the butter until it melts. Grind the slivered almonds in the food processor with the powdered sugar until you have a very fine powder. Whisk this almond powder into the custard and set it aside to cool. Whisking it frequently will help it cool faster.


While the custard is cooling, remove the pears from the syrup and place them on a cutting board. With a small, sharp knife, delicately remove the stems and cores, doing your best to keep the pear intact. Turn the pear halves over and slice them thinly, but leave the pointed end intact, only slice them up to about 1/4 inch from the top. This is easier to do than to describe, just take your time here, because the beauty of the tart depends on this step.


Once the custard has cooled to room temperature place it gently in the tart shell and smooth the surface. Using a small offset spatula, carefully scoop up the pear halves and nestle them into the custard. Bake the tart at 400° for 30 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven, and if you’re using the amaretti (which give a nice little crunch and additional hit of almond flavor), tun the oven to broil. Decoratively scatter the cookie crumbs over the custard (I chose not to sprinkle them on the fruit itself, because I wanted to show it off), dust the pears lightly with powdered sugar, and place the tart under the broiler for a minute or two while the crumbs brown.


Arguably I let my crumbs brown a little too much, as it happened really fast, but I have to say that no one complained, and I think that the tart would be lovely sans crumbs too. Now sit back and wait for the applause. I guarantee that you won’t have to wait long.

* adapted from this version of the recipe.

When Love Strays

September 11, 2013

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It’s 3:00 in the morning, and there’s something I haven’t told you. Beppo, our best beloved kitty, disappeared a week ago. After dinner he went out, and he never came back. This, a cat who never missed a meal. This, a cat who slept between our two pillows many nights. This, a cat who captured our heart to the extent that we brought him to France with us, and back again. This, a cat whom we loved to distraction. This, a cat who never came home.

Zazou is frantic, in her own way. She’s never known a life without Beppo, since we adopted her in France and brought her home to be Beppo’s friend.


I’m frantic, in my way. Beppo has always slept with me, comforted me, been the hit of every party I’ve given, followed me everywhere, loved me unconditionally, seen me through it all.

Sitting outside, drinking Spanish brandy, on a night still warm and filled with stars, Beppo is not in my lap. Beppo was almost never not in my lap.


The channel marker blinks on and off, on and off, saying here I am, here I am. Beppo does not tell us where he is, why he can’t come home.


Danger is everywhere in  our world, but for seven years Beppo faced it all with a beautiful calm.


Eagles, racoons, coyotes, cars, even cougar prints in the sand, according to a neighbor. He could be shut in somewhere. He could have been catnapped by someone who admired his sleek silkiness and affection for everyone he met. The world seems to have swallowed him up, leaving us no clues.

Shel and I try not to cry, too much. Every time we walk through the gate, Beppo is not waiting for us, gracing the garden with his stripes and spots. When we eat, Beppo is not sitting in a chair next to us, not under the napkin on my lap. Worst of all, when I can’t sleep, like tonight, he’s not there, making sure I’m alright.

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