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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Local French dairy products

     One of the major challenges to French cooking I have found here in America is the fact that dairy products that are unpasteurized are not allowed.  I grew up on unpasteurized milk, cream and all sorts of “not allowed by the FDA” products, like so many other millions of people around the world and have never had a problem.  Raw dairy builds the immune system up like crazy, making for strong bones and a general healthy outlook.

     So here are the best dairy products I could come up with so far, if you want to cook like a true French person (as much as we can on this side of the world):



          From left to right:
  • “Natural by Nature” pasteurized heavy cream.  Unlike most cream, this one IS NOT ultra-pasteurized, which means it is boiled only once, and not at very high temperature, which makes for a much more stable and thicker product.
  • True whole milk en bouteille de verre, also by “Natural by Nature”, which is sold at Whole Foods Market.  It is so thick that you can collect up to 2 tablespoons of cream at the top of the bottle when you open it.
  • An excellent option for butters are the French ones from Poitou, a region suited to the rearing of goats.  All the dairy from this part of France is extra rich and creamy.  This “Sèvre Belle” is slightly salted.  Ideal for the baguette and petit noir of the morning.
  • Whenever I can, I buy a 1-pound roll of salted and unsalted butter at my local Farmers Market.  The one underneath the French butter comes from an Amish farm in Wisconsin from grass-fed cows.  You can actually taste the difference. 
  • For a bit more flavor, especially for ice-cream or a creamy dessert, nothing beats goat’s milk (see the cream leftover inside the bottle).  Also available at Whole Foods.
  • The Vermont Creamery makes an excellent crème fraîche, one of the staples of French cooking.  Their cheeses are also quite imaginative and creamy.

     A very good recipe to use two of the products above is a panna-cotta.  I suggest using the goat’s milk for the vanilla portion and the whole cow’s milk for the chocolate one.  It can be done with one or both flavours, and although it may seem lengthy to prepare, the majority of time required is for refrigeration.  The dessert can be made up to two days ahead and will keep for another two in the fridge.  It is an ideal end for a rather light dinner, of fish for example, as it tends to be filling.  The measurements are good for 4 servings.

 

La panna-cotta au chocolat, vainille e crème de violette:

 

Ingredients for the vainille et crème de violette panna-cotta:

  • 3 Tbsp. cold water
  • 2 ¼ tsp. unflavoured gelatin
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 cup half and half (combine half cup of cream and half of milk from “Natural by Nature” brand)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3 Tbsp. crème de violette liqueur
  • ¼  Tahitian vanilla bean, scraped
  • Pinch of salt
Ingredients for the chocolate panna-cotta:

  • 1 ¾ cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1 ¼ tsp. unflavoured gelatin
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 ounces finely chopped quality dark chocolate, 70% cacao
For the whipped cream topping:

  • ¾ heavy whipping cream
  • 2 Tbsp crème de violette liqueur
  • A drop or two of violet food colouring
  • Small pieces of chocolate for decorating

Preparation for the vainille et crème de violette panna-cotta:

     Pour the cold water into a small bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin.

 

     In a medium saucepan, heat the cream, half and half, sugar, lavender and salt over medium heat until the sugar has completely dissolved and the mixture comes to a boil, about 5 minutes.

 

     Remove the saucepan from the heat and pour the mixture through a fine strainer and into a measuring cup with a spout.  Stir in the crème de violette and the vanilla seeds, followed by the gelatin mixture, stirring until the gelatin has completely dissolved.

 

     Divide among 4 individual serving glasses and bring to room temperature, then place on a flat surface in the fridge and refrigerate overnight.

Preparation for the chocolate panna-cotta:



     Once the vanilla layer has been set, it’s time to make the chocolate one. 

 

     Pour ¼ cup of the whipping cream into a small heatproof bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it.  Let sit for 10 minutes.  Place the bowl into a larger one with hot water and stir mixture until the gelatin has completely dissolved.

 

     In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the remaining cream, sugar and salt just to a boil and remove promptly from the heat.  Whisk the chocolate until completely incorporated and smooth.

 

     Add the gelatin mixture until well combined, pour it through a fine strainer and into a measuring cup with a spout.  Let sit until it reaches room temperature, stirring occasionally.

 

     Divide among the chilled vanilla-crème de violette panna-cotta layered glasses, cover with plastic wrap and let chill in the refrigerator overnight.

To prepare the whipped cream topping:



     Make this 2 hours before serving.  Add the crème de violette liqueur to the cream, stir and let sit in the refrigerator, covered, for at least 1 hour – the longer it sits, the better the flavor. 

 

     Chill a mixing bowl and the metal whisk/s to be used to beat the cream for 15 minutes prior to mixing.  Add the cream with a drop or two of colouring and beat until it forms a soft peak. 

 

     Top each dessert with a dollop of cream and a piece or two of dark chocolate.




Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Our" French Café

     I have bought pastries at My French Café ever since my good friend David Moore recommended it on his group Wine Lovers & Adventurers.  They are, without doubt, one of the best options for French patisseries in Central Florida.  Owners Avy and Morgane Bendavid open their venture last fall, but they never imagined the success they’re enjoying. 

     This past weekend I decided to eat in and tried their “Little France” crêpe – typical ham, cheese and béchamel.  It was tasty and very filling; however, I was disappointed.  It was an American crêpe, not a French one, made too thick and served with a salad.  In France, the batter would have been cooked into an extra thin crêpe, and the filling would have been enough but not overpowering like this one was.



    The macaroons however, are spectacular.  Two round, fluffy meringue sides, about 2” in diameter.  There is a pistachio-blackcurrant version with raspberries, crème chantilly and a solid chocolate ganache center.  All the macaroons come with a vial of sauce – in this case blackcurrant – to be dispensed over the top or even inside of the macaroon, to counter-balance the sweetness.  If there ever was a perfect balance of flavours, this macaroon exemplifies it beautifully.



     My French Café is the only place in Orlando so far where I could find the classic French Opera cake.  Rich and with the typical accented taste of coffee, it pairs wonderfully with a strong espresso or a glass of brandy.



     The Mille-feuille is a cake best eaten just an hour or two after it is made.  My French Café can make it by special order in big size to impress your guests after an elegant dinner.



     There is also the Paris Brest, a dessert created in honor of the cycle race that it is named after.  It consists of a wheel-shaped pate choux pastry filled with almond cream and topped with slivered almonds.  Especially fulfilling at tea time.


     
     They also do catering and can make your favorite cake in larger sizes.  Just imagine the ohs and ahs from your friends when it’s time for dessert!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Eating with Ann Mah

     As a parody to Julia Child’s scholarly written work Mastering the art of French cooking, Ann Mah has written her own story of life in France, one of an American diplomat’s wife that makes me dream of what could have been for me, had my parents not died when they did and I’d achieved that dream of becoming a diplomat myself.  The dream of living in Paris, or even in France for that matter, is an elusive one for most of us, yet when one really wants it, anything that can get you closer to it is worth holding on to.


     Ann Mah’s story is that element (read her blog here).  Set in Paris, with some travels within France – the Auvergne, Burgundy, Provence, Alsace - that she mainly took to overcome a year of solitude when her husband was posted to Iraq during his then current assignment in Paris.  They had another 2 years after that in the City of Light, which they used productively to buy their own pièd-a-terre, while indulging in French food and culture.

     This is a very lovely memoir with a recipe typical of the region written about at the end of each chapter.  To me, the best one is that of aligot, which sadly I cannot make at home as the main ingredient, a cheese curd by the name of tome fraîche, is not found in the US; but one to go on my bucket list of things to try when visiting France.  The story of her visit to Aveyron is also the crown jewel of the book, providing a cozy, comforting end to a year of stories as an ex-pat foodie in France.

     Being an inveterate Francophile myself, and currently trending the way Parisians cook and live, I found her recipe for bavette aux échalotes a nice take on my entrecôte Vilette (see my recipe here).  The main difference is the cut of meat used.  Whereas for entrecôte one would use ribsteak, for the bavette one uses skirt; which is a thin, rather fibrous cut.  It makes for an incredibly tasty piece of meat.  You may accompany it with the ubiquitous frites (recipe also here), a fresh salad or even some warm legumes.  Of course when in France, serve it with aligot.  This recipe serves 2.

Bavette aux échalotes:

Ingredients:
  • 1 skirt or hanger steak, about 12 oz. trimmed of fat and patted dry
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. sunflower oil
Sauce:

  • 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
  • 4 large minced shallots
  • 1 ½ Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • Sprig of fresh thyme
  • ½ cup beef stock
Preparation:

     Trim the steak of any excess fat and season it with salt and pepper.  Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  It must be sizzling hot.  Place the steak in the pan and cook for 2 minutes, until the underside is seared and browned.  Turn the steak over and cook the other side for about 50 seconds.  Bavette is thin cut, so it cooks quite fast.  The best way to eat this dish is medium-rare, so do not overcook!  Transfer the beef to a warm plate and cover loosely with foil in order to keep it warm.

     To make the sauce, heat 1 Tbsp. of the butter in the same skillet used for the steak.  Add the shallots and sauté over medium heat for 7 minutes.  Add the red wine vinegar, thyme and beef stock; bring to a boil.  Cover and cook until the shallots have softened and the liquid has almost disappeared.  Swirl in the remaining Tbsp. of butter and add any juices released from the meat.  Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, adding a few drops of vinegar if needed.

     Slice the steak against the grain into thin strips.  Serve with the shallots spooned on top.


Friday, September 6, 2013

Gourmand preferences of two French ladies that exude style


     The French are the epitome of chic.  In fact, one could argue that they are the ones that are solely responsible for the creation of all things pleasurable in life.  You don’t think so?  Let’s run by some of them: gourmet cuisine, world’s most distinguished fashion houses, beauté (which ranges from perfume to cosmetics), philosophy, bistros and sidewalk cafés, and general joie de vivre.

     French women in particular have always interested me.  Far and wide, they are the only ones that seem to have it all under control – beauty, fitness, looking gorgeous, eating like queens yet staying slim, managing children, an active sex life, a career, housekeeping… the list goes on.  Throughout my life, I have always wanted to emulate that feeling of total control I see in French women.  The main reason is because I find that being in control of everything I do in my life gives me peace of mind.  I have found, satisfying our own and our loved ones’ needs is what life is really all about.

     While not affirming that French women are always in full control of their particular situations (no one can do that, not even the French), they personify the one culture that most closely comes to this ideal.  

     Short of moving to France - at least for now - a very interesting incursion was to Anne Baronne’s book “Chic & Slim Toujours” (http://www.amazon.com/Chic-Slim-Toujours-Beautifully-French/dp/1937066096/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341885449&sr=8-1&keywords=chic+and+slim+toujours).  


Ready for work in a simple
suit and statement jewelry
Turquoise is a colour not usually
 worn by Christine Lagarde, yet
with proper foulard, she looks
magnificient

     Apparently, Ms. Baronne used to be fat and frumpy in her 20’s, but then she discovered la vie en rose de les Français and set out to a discipline of general life improvement.  This particular book is written for women in their 60’s and older; and although I am in my early 40’s, I can only hope that if I am lucky enough to reach that age, I do so in my fittest possible way, looking and feeling great, and embracing life with gusto.

     There are two French women mentioned in this book that have caught my attention:  IMF Director and ex-Minister of Finance Christine Lagarde, and France ex-Minister of Justice, Muslim Rachida Dati.  These are both beautiful, stylish, powerful women who do not compromise and yet are able to leave their own mark of distinction in their path.  I have watched Christine Lagarde on television a few times, but the one that most strikes my memory was during an interview with Fareed Zakaria on his program GPS for CNN, when she was still France’s Finance Minister.  She does not colour her hair, yet her gray locks are always perfectly coiffed in a short bobby fringe.  She has a minimalist style, which I find I am favouring as well as I age, always dressed in high quality smart suits in neutral colours.  She wears her wrinkles with ease and pride, and looks great and fit.

     A closer look at her personal life, I found she is a consummate swimmer, rarely drinks wine nowadays (although she's no teetotaler by any means), and favours vegetarian cuisine.

Leather trousers and stilettos
for France's chic Justice Minister


© 2010 The Guardian
The chicest woman in France

Regal look for a soireé
     Rachida Dati has a more shaken story.  The daughter of impoverish Algerian immigrants, she has had some slips (especially of the tongue, confusing fellatio with inflation on national television, oops!), but as a woman of style I find really no other like her within the public personalities of France in these day and age, not even Carla Bruni (with whom she is said to have had a few high-strung encounters).  Ms. Dati looks the classic French modern woman.  Her strong personality comes through even in photographs.  She is not only beautiful but looks sexy, and in her mid-forties is my favourite French chic lady to emulate.  She runs 1 1/2 hours several times a week to keep fit and enjoys champagne, caviar and jellewery.  Certainly a girl's best friends.  

     I can imagine her on Sundays, for instance, relaxing at home with several French newspapers, breakfasting on a Bellini, some exotic fruits, a croissant and a strong cup of coffee.  But Rachida Dati is a hard-working, modern French woman, and during the week, even at intervals, nothing would preclude her from indulging in a nice kir while hard at work.



     For your own version of a kir, just pour 3/4 glass of white burgundy wine and add 1 1/2 Tbsp. of crème de cassis liqueur.  Mix and garnish with a lemon twist.  Voilá a typical French cocktail for any time "just because", and even if, like me, you are hard at work.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Classics for the Parisian lunch

     Everyday lunch for a Parisian is, again, a practical affair.  Just like I remember from “the Paris of South America” (i.e. Buenos Aires), most of the shops and offices allow for a 2-hour lunch break during which to recharge and have a simple but proper meal.  We should adopt this in North America too.  I think it will provide for less aggressive teenagers and stronger families.

     But going back to the theme in question, a very common lunch is that of entrecôte and pommes frites.  In Argentina we add a salad of lettuce and tomato to this, and a good glass of red wine.  I make mine whenever I feel the need for a nice juicy steak, and I cook it in-between saignant and à point.  This of course, is pure preference, but as I immerse myself in the ways of proper eating, I find there is something to be said about meat eaten almost raw, and that is, that carnivores appreciate (or at least should appreciate) the value of raw meat.  A kind of going back to the source, in a way.

     So when I’m ready for my “raw” fix, I buy the best entrecôte I can find and pair it with a cool glass of Beaujolais “Fleurie” (good to break all that cholesterol!).  I follow the recipe from “Culinaria – France”.

Entrecôte Villette:

Ingredients for 1 serving:

  • 1 entrecôte (ribsteak), weighing about 10 to 12oz. and no more than ¾” thick
  • 5 shallots
  • 6 ½ Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tsp. finely chopped flat leaf parsley
  • Lemon juice
  • Fleur de sel
Preparation:

     Pepper the meat, cover and allow it to rest for 2 hours.

     Peel and finely chop the shallots, then heat a third of the butter and brown the lightly salted entrecôte on each side for a short time.  Remove from the pan and keep warm.  Melt the remaining butter, add the shallots and brown for 2 minutes.

     Serve the meat on a warm plate, pour on the shallots and butter, sprinkle with parsley and add a few drops of lemon juice.  Then add the fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper to taste.  Serve with French fries.

For the “pommes frites”:

     This method will yield you crisp, golden fries with a soft center.  You will need 1 medium mealy potato, cut into ¼” strips.  Once cut, submerge in water for about 15’.  In the meantime, heat either sunflower or grapeseed oil up to 300F (use a thermometer). 

     Get the potato slices out of the water and dry with a tea-towel.  Once the oil is hot, dip them for 4 minutes.  Take them out and place on a paper towel.

     Bring the temperature of the oil down to 130F and dip the fries again for another 4 minutes.  Take them out and place on a paper towel again to get rid of the extra oil.  Sprinkle with fleur de sel and serve immediately.


    When I am at the office, I often bring a Croque Monsieur for lunch.  In Argentina we know this as “sandwich mixto”, and it is served at all hours in any confitería.  Here’s the simple way to make it:

Croque Monsieur:

Ingredients:

  • 2 slices of pain de mie, without the crusts
  • 1 tsp. unsalted butter
  • ½ slice of cooked ham
  • 2 Tbsp. finely grated Comté cheese
Preparation:

     Thinly spread the butter onto both sides of the bread.  Lay the ham on one slice and sprinkle on the finely grated cheese.  Cover with the second slice of buttered bread.  Preheat the broiler.  First broil on one side, then the other.

A quick bite at my desk.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Le petit déjeneur parisienne

     So how do Parisians start their day?

     Simply and efficiently. Just a café au lait, or a straight espresso for some, taken at the counter of their favorite spot on their way to work, along with a croissant or a slice of baguette with creamy butter (made with true unpasteurized cream yes!) and very good preserves. In this succinct version of a breakfast, we have 3 elements worth contemplating. For starters, the coffee.

     Most of the coffee drank in France is from the very strong, robusta variety, which hails from Ethiopia. This is a truly strong roast. If you live outside of Paris (or even outside of France as is my case), you may experience this very effective pick me up with Lavazza’s Crema e Gusto espresso roast, which is made of a blend of 70% robusta beans.


   
     It is the ideal blend to be brewed in the typical French press cafetière.
The Bodum Chambord French press brews
2 to 3 cups of coffee.


    This particular way of starting the day reminds me very much of the confiterías in Buenos Aires – which for a very good reason is called “the Paris of South America” – serving “le petit noir” (as it is known in Paris) or a “café con leche”, along with a “medialuna” (our croissant), a great antidote against the cold mornings of the porteños.

This more relaxed version of the Paris breakfast, along with
a glass of grapefruit juice, is more of the weekends

    Croissants and baguettes in Paris are one of the quintessential trademarks of the city.  Paris has this culture du pain, and hundreds of different ones are made in its local boulangeries.  I have found some very good croissants in Orlando at a place called Croissant Gourmet, in Winter Park.  Their croissants are double the size of the ones from Paris or Buenos Aires, and the best ones are the almond croissants.  Truly scrumptious and fulfilling, they leave one with no need for sustenance until dinner.  For plain, scrumptiously fluffy croissants, Rosa at the Windermere Farmers Market has the best ones I’ve managed to find so far.  You can get her croissants, excellent sourdough boules, baguettes with kalamata olives et al, every Friday from 9:00 to 14:00 hrs.

Rosa’s baguette with kalamata olives is the perfect 
complement to home-marinated chèvre.

Best almond croissants in Orlando

     My other local good place for French patisseries and breads is My French Café, where plain croissants are a bit more normal in size, yet are crispy golden brown on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  I love these with some salted butter and very good preserves, either from Bonne Mamman, Hédiard or some extra special Confiture à la Ancienne.  I managed to find one online cooked in cauldron from The Frenchy Bee


     The baguette is the Parisian bread par excellence, and people generally buy 1 every day, sometimes queuing in front of their favorite boulangerie for the prized loaf.  A very good baguette should be crispy and golden on the outside, with an interior that is cream in colour and soft.  French bread tastes good because it is fresh, made every day, and contains no preservatives.  I am always appalled by how long a loaf of bread lasts here in the USA, making for less than tolerable flavor and a true abortion of the good principles of bread-making.  In France, it is illegal to use preservatives in the bread or dairy (or anything for that matter); hence products last less, but had incredible flavor and natural properties.

     One the best boulangeries in Paris are those of Jean-Luc Poujauran (which now caters exclusively to high end restaurants), and that of the Poilâne family.  The latter now ships breads directly to the United States.  If one is willing to pay, Poilâne will send some very expensive, although very fresh bread right to your door by next day air.

     After a fulfilling, yet not so heavy, breakfast, Parisians grab their écharpes, fasten their trench coats, and head on to work.  No snacking till lunch time.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Bonjour Paris gastronome

     The gastronomy of France has always delighted and intrigued me at the same time.  For a country that is as vast as it is interesting in this way, I thought about embarking on a deep study of each of its regions, as the only possible way to get immersed in the spirit of the true French cuisine, wine industry and hospitality in general. (It’s a hard job, but somebody’s gotta do it!).

     The French are a passionate people.  They feel strongly about almost everything, from politics to fashion, and food is no exception.  One can be invited to dinner at someone’s house and the topic of conversation, during the whole soireé, would be the food eaten that evening.  Is the wine appropriate for the cheeses served?  What about the bread and how it paired with the entreé?  Should the dessert have been lighter or heavier?  These are all questions that the true gourmets – and gourmands too, why not? – ask themselves all the time, and to which they all enjoy providing different, and more refined answers every time they’re pondered.

     The best place to start a tour of gastronomic France seems to me none other than its capital itself and the region immediately surrounding it.  Paris, the City of Light, of lovers, passions, luxury, splendid architecture, the city I aspire to move to one day, is the first focal point for my gourmet adventure.

     Paris is an ancient city.  In it one can find the marks of all the different times the city has lived through, ever since it was first conquered by the Romans in 52 BC.  When the Parisii (the first inhabitants of Paris) lived in it the city was called Lutetia

     The Parisii were Gallic people who lived in the area known today as the Ile de la Cité.  They were hunters and used the Seine river for trade and exchange.  After the Roman Empire conquered the land, Lutetia’s outlook was forged as a true Roman city with public baths and a forum.  Christianity took over the land when king Clovis, the first of the Merovingian kings, converted to the religion.  Thus the pagan ways of the Parisii were eliminated.  I first came accross Lutetia’s name in a fragance immortalized by parfumier Houbigant that came out in the 80’s - Lutèce.  Its advert at the time read “the perfume for days of gold and sapphire nights”.  I find there is no better way to exemplify the essence of Paris.




The paradox of Paris:

     For all that it is consumed in it and all that the city turns out gastronomically speaking, Paris produces nothing (Restaurants of Paris, Knopf guides, 1994, 52).  The city however, receives produce and ingredients from all over the world, which are then sold in hundreds of markets throughout.  Rungis, the biggest market in the world and precursor to the old Les Halles, is the major wholesale supplier for Paris’ many restaurants and individual sellers.  One can only buy at Rungis with a special business license, but anyone can go and watch.  Later one can stop at one of its many excellent restaurants for a truly gourmet repàs.

Take your pick of premium cuts of meat at Rungis.
Photo © David Leibovitz

Abundance of produce at Rungis Market

  Just like Rachel Khoo says in the introduction to her series “The Little Paris Kitchen”, the world generally finds French cuisine as difficult and fussy to prepare, something to be considered only for special occasions.  Yet Parisians eat very simple, uncomplicated food day in and day out.  Long are the days of the 20 course meals in places like Le Procope or L’Tour d’Argent of yesteryear.


     As I immerse myself in the local discovery of the gastronomic Parisian culture, I intend to live like a Parisian where I currently reside in Orlando.  If nothing else, just to use it as a preparation for my first visit to Paris in the near future.  Join me in my next post to see how a Parisian would start her day.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cooking with chocolate... and Lady Arianna

     Chocolate is my perdition.  If I could eat some every day, I would.  Sadly, I have come to realize that after turning 40, it adds to my waistline tremendously if I have it for a few days in a row.  However, I do try and have some every week.  These days there are tons of mysteries – my other favourite genre after food writing – that are set in the gastronomic field and include recipes.  My latest discovery are the Regency mysteries starring Lady Arianna Hadley and Lord Alessandro Saybrook, penned by Andrea Penrose (which I briefly mentioned here)

     I came upon these series browsing at my local Barnes & Noble, and after reading the blurb of the books, I instantly came to like them.  The first installment, entitled Sweet Revenge, introduces the reader to both characters as the golden couple of future adventures to come.  Arianna, disguised as a Chef inside the kitchen of a prominent society lady, is seeking revenge from the injustices done to her father, the late Lord Hadley, who was forced into exile after a dubious gambling scheme in England.  Her plans appear thwarted, to say the least, when the Prince Regent of England succumbs during dinner after tasting one of Arianna’s chocolate creations.


     It is here when war hero Lord Alessandro De Quincy, the Earl of Saybrook is called to investigate under a special service to the Crown.  The pair run into quite a scheme, similar to what is known as the South Sea Bubble, which was, quite literally, the first big financial meltdown of the world.

     There are several books and online resources about the South Sea Bubble so I will not go into detail here.  A website I found quite informative is http://www.thebubblebubble.com/south-sea-bubble by economic analyst Jesse Colombo.  Suffice it to say that the scheme came into being after the war of Spanish Succession, where Britain was granted exclusive trading rights with the Spanish colonies in America and the West Indies.  The South Sea Company was created to assume Britain’s war debt, and almost everybody in the country bought stock into it, on the premise of outstanding returns based on the (expected?) existence of innumerable amounts of gold and silver in the colonies.

A stock certificate from the South Sea Company
     Of course, such existences were grossly overrepresented, and when the British government just could not hold their finances together any longer, the bubble popped and stock prices plummeted out of control.  The South Sea Bubble holds great historical significance as a case study into the movement of the financial markets and the principle of greed.  Andrea Penrose’s novel, although a cozy mystery, is also a scientific book with thorough research of the subject.

     The other part of the book that is of much interest to me is the chocolate trivia and recipes that precede each chapter.  You see, Alessandro De Quincy had a Spanish grandmother, not only that, but one who loved chocolate so much she kept a diary about it, full of recipes and history.  Since the Prince Regent appeared to have been poisoned by chocolate, Lord Saybrook is the only one that has true knowledge of the new product, hence to making him the ideal candidate to investigate the crime.

     Of the 25 recipes offered, so far I have selected 2 which have left me very fauvorably  impressed.  The first one is a cake, very rich, and goes fantastic with a strong demi-tasse accompanied by a liqueur.  It uses spelt flour, a grain from antiquity.  It is this ingredient that gives it a unique rusticity.

Chocolate Espresso Spelt Cake

Ingredients:

  • ¾ cup unsalted butter, European style, softened, plus additional for the pan
  • ¾ cup unsweetened Dutch processed cocoa powder, plus additional for dusting pan and cake
  • 1 cup boiling hot water
  • 1 ½ Tbsp. instant espresso powder
  • 1 ½ tsp. Mexican vanilla
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 14 Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • 2 cups spelt flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • 1 cup packed Moscovado sugar
  • 2 large eggs
Preparation:

     Stir together boiling hot water, espresso powder, vanilla and baking soda in a bowl, then add dates, mashing lightly with a fork.  Soak until liquid cools to room temperature – about 10 minutes.

     Put oven rack in the middle position and preheat oven to 350F.  Butter a 9” springform pan, then lightly dust with cocoa powder, knocking out the excess.

The batter before going into the oven
     Whisk together spelt flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt in another bowl.  Beat together butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy.  Add eggs 1 at a time, beating until just combined.  Beat in the date mixture (batter will look curdled), then reduce speed to low and add flour mixture, a bit at a time, mixing until just combined.

     Spoon batter into the springform pan, smoothing top, and bake until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes.  Cool cake in pan on a rack 5 minutes, then remove side of pan and cool it on rack.  When almost cool, sprinkle with cocoa powder.  Serve warm or at room temperature with a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream.



     The second recipe is for a delicious mousse with an Asian twist.  It is as simple as it is dense.

Mocha Mousse with Sichuan Peppercorns

Ingredients for 4 servings:

  • ¼ tsp Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 ½ tsp ground coffee beans
  • 4 oz 70% cacao bittersweet chocolate, chopped
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • Whipped cream for garnish
Preparation:

     Grind the peppercorns with mortar and pestle.  Bring cream, coffee and pepper to a simmer in a small saucepan.  Remove from heat and let steep, covered, for 30 minutes.  Strain liquid through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids.

     Melt the chocolate in a large bowl.  Stir in the cream.  Let cool slightly.

     Beat the egg whites with the sugar using an electric mixer until they just hold off stiff peaks.  Fold into the chocolate mixture gently but thoroughly.  Spoon the mousse into pots or glasses and chill at least 3 hours.  Serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Pigging out in Winter Park

     Who can resist a restaurant by the name of The Ravenous Pig? First of all, anything pig perks up my attention. Maybe it is the fact that when I converted to Islam I was told pig was a big no-no. I tried to not have it and succeeded for about 18 months, and then… plunged into it like a savage.

     I learnt about this restaurant while volunteering at a local greenhouse that supplies their organically grown produce. Chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis are firm believers in the green movement that Central Florida is experiencing and want nothing but the best for their restaurant. This translates into greens that can be eaten right off the root, since they are grown on irrigated towers that avoid the plants from actually being in contact with the earth. Literally, they grow on air.


     This restaurant is in the heart of Winter Park, the chicest district in Orlando, Florida.  One can almost drive by it without noticing it – and that would be a pity.  It has a few tables outside but I recommend inside sitting.  The ambience is very lively, modern where it has to be, but also sleek and sophisticated.  There is a bar area and 3 small dining rooms.  I sat in the middle section when I went, and was immediately and was always waited on with timely and undivided attention.  The servers will always ask about drinks you may want to start your meal with (as they are very keen on cocktails in this restaurant).  I ordered The Ravenous Pig Old-Fashioned, a classic old-fashioned but infused with bacon.  It had the crunchiest, perfectly shaped bacon slice on top, which gave the drink just the right amount of flavour.  It was excellent.



     For those days when we just want to get drunk and hug our blues, I recommend the Ginger in the Rye, a smoky, highly complex cocktail that will carry you over anything.  It is made with Rittenhouse Rye whiskey, Cynar aperitif, ginger liqueur and Dolin French vermouth.  The ingredients are poured over a block of ice the lasts forever, so it will not taste watered down, not even as you finish it.  The mint garnish provides a note of freshness.  Drinking this cocktail is like smoking a robust Cuban cigar.



     As my starter I tried the House-made Charcuterie and Artisan Cheese platter.  It seemed to me the best way to honour the nature of the place, as well as its intent of focusing on gastro-pub cuisine.  What exactly is gastro-pub cuisine?  Basically, the concept entails bringing pub fare into a more sophisticated experience.  No other course could be as representative of the concept as this one.  It came beautifully presented on a walnut chopboard, and it included a jar of pickled vegetables, a chicken foie gras topped with chocolate bits, two of the thinnest sliced salumis – sopressata and tartufo, a truffled terrine, rustic toasted bread, a slice of sheep’s cheese from Wisconsin and Dijon mustard.  Each bite was a delicacy to be savoured, and the perfect food to linger on with a group of friends on an informal outing.



     Another one of their traits was the Umami “Bloody Mary” Oyster Trio, composed of three New England oysters in a sort of di-structured Bloody Mary – one with vodka and celery, the other with a hint of spicy tomato and the last one with Worcestershire sauce (this last one my favorite).  We chose champagne as the drink, and a basket of deliciously warm and very cheesy Gruyère biscuits with smoked sea salt butter to accompany it.



     A fulfilling, yet light lunch potage, the Tomato Soup is much more than the concept we might be accustomed to for this dish.  Made with seasonal, organic heirloom tomatoes, it is both warm and cool, as the dish in itself is served warm, and is topped with a cool basil crème fraîche.  Whole cherry tomatoes of all colours and green tomato crostini provide the incipient mixture of flavours from the garden.  I could have this every day.



    Last but not least, dessert came in the form of a what I would call a hint of a custard; a Zellwood sweet corn panna cotta, elderflower strawberries and Earl Grey twille.  It was as light as a plume, making for the end of a pub experience that carried none of the heaviness usually associated with it.



     If one is not as light as one would hope after the main course (a probable feeling), one can always order The Sweets Board, an assortment of home-made salted caramels, raspberry marshmallows and chocolate chip cookies made with beurre noisette.  Two of each, they are perfect to round up the meal with a nice espresso.




    The one concept that pervades at The Ravenous Pig is that nothing is left to chance.  Even in the bathrooms, the cozy decorations are detailed and unique.  Where else could one find a copper water can in the shape of a pig?




     Apart from the food, this was hands down my favorite feature, because it shows the dedication and passion put into this place. 

     If planning on going, be aware that the menu changes with the seasons, and new experiences keep coming up all the time.  Also, if going on a Friday or Saturday, reservations are de rigueur at least 3 weeks in advance. 

     You can get some of the recipes and an explanation of the concept of the restaurant in their book, which includes excellent photos and be purchased directly from their website at http://www.theravenouspig.com/shop/shop-the-ravenous-pig-seasons-of-florida