October 17, 2018

Dear friends,
Tony went native in France. He embraced the culture as if he were coming home, even buying a straw fedora like the men wore in the rural chunk of France we visited. The hat is stowed for the winter now, and my husband seems a lost soul as he wanders supermarkets in search of decent cheese, a dry rose, a passable loaf of bread.

Mon Dieu.

My burden is a carb hangover. I couldn’t resist the baguettes and macarons, and now I’m paying for it. I crave bread. I crave sugar. I crave those addictive little custard tarts I bought at an outdoor market at Place Monge in Paris. They were so good I hid them from Tony and ate both of them myself. Don’t judge me until you taste one.

The mini tarts are sold at cheese stores and patisseries all over Paris. They have a puff pastry crust, although it’s not allowed to puff, and a very dense, sweet vanilla custard filling that is blistered in patches on the top. The tarts are actually Portuguese, I learned, although the French have enthusiastically adopted them.

Last weekend, in a final sugar splurge, I made a dozen of the tarts to both enjoy and to atone for swiping Tony’s share in France. I used an internet recipe from the French Cooking Academy, converting the grams and liters to ounces and cups. The tarts were as good as I remembered.

The tarts are tiny — they’re made in cupcake tins — and easy to assemble if you use frozen puff pastry. But because the ingredients are few, quality is important. Use a real vanilla bean to flavor the custard, and don’t downgrade the cream to half and half or whole milk.

The recipe makes enough custard — actually, creme patisserie — to fill about 24 tart shells. I thought that was an unconscionable number of tarts for two people, so I made just 12 tarts and spooned the remaining filing into two custard cups to eat as very rich pudding.

Tony loved the tarts so much I had to fight for my share. I’m glad I didn’t tell him about the leftover custard.

FRENCH CUSTARD TARTS

1 box (2 sheets, 17.3 oz.) frozen puff pastry
6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup superfine sugar (see note)
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 vanilla bean
Butter to grease pan

Remove pastry from box and thaw at room temperature for 45 minutes while you make the filling.

In the bowl of a mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar until they turn a very pale yellow. By hand, gently stir in the cornstarch.

Heat milk and cream on medium-high heat in a medium-sized saucepan. As they heat, split the vanilla bean with a sharp knife and scrape the seeds into the milk mixture. Add the vanilla pod and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat.

Remove the vanilla pods and slowly whisk into the yolk mixture in a thin stream, beating rapidly to prevent the egg yolks from cooking. Return to saucepan. Whisk and cook until the custard comes to a boil. Continue to whisk and cook for 1 minute, until custard is thick but still pours in thick ribbons.

Remove from heat and place plastic wrap directly on custard. Cool to room temperature while fashioning tart shells.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. On a lightly floured board or counter, unfold one sheet of puff pastry. With a floured rolling pin, roll to about one-eighth-inch thickness. With a 4 1/2- or 5-inch circular biscuit cutter or glass, cut 4 circles. Ease them into a buttered 12-hole cupcake tin. Re-roll half of the scraps. Cut one more round and fit it into another cupcake hole. Set aside remaining scraps.

Repeat with remaining sheet of puff pastry. You should have two empty cupcake holes. Re-roll remaining pastry scraps from both sheets of pastry. Cut two more rounds and fit them into the remaining cupcake holes.

Spoon custard into the tart shells to fill no more than half way. Refrigerate the remaining custard to eat later. Bake tarts at 375 degrees for about 45 to 50 minutes, or until filling puffs, then subsides, and turns dark in spots. Cool. Serve tarts at room temperature or chilled. Makes 12 tarts.

TIDBITS
Ruth Reichl book signing:
The former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet magazine food editor will give a free lecture at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Canton Palace Theater. Afterward she will sign copies of her 2014 novel, “Delicious.” Reservations are required from http://www.starklibrary.org.

Musings on food and life:
Lists of the best food memoirs of all time are a thing now. I’ve seen lists on Amazon, Pinterest and Food52. A Canadian friend, former Toronto Star food editor Marion Kane, has an interesting list. Check it out here: https://www.marionkane.com/recipe-2/im-eating-delicious-food-memoirs/.

I segued from reading mostly fiction to mostly memoirs and biographies a decade ago. My latest reads include “Mastering the Art of French Eating” by Ann Mah, “Medium Raw” by Anthony Bourdain and “Hunger: A Memoir of My Body” by Roxane Gay.

Because everyone is doing it, I might as well, too. Here’s my list for the best food memoirs I’ve read, in no particular order:

“The Art of Eating” by M.F.K. Fisher; “Born Round” by Frank Bruni; “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain; The Tummy Trilogy (three books) by Calvin Trillin; “Garlic and Sapphires” by Ruth Reichl; “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron, and “Blood, Bones and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton.

Are there any I missed?

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Pumpkin pie; honey-mustard pork chops, stir-fried bell peppers and olives with Szechuan chili oil; cornbread, venison-lentil chili; soft-scrambled eggs with truffle salt, buttered toast; French custard tarts; baked leeks, carrots and chicken tenders with a mayonnaise-mustard crumb topping.

What I ate in/from restaurants last week:
Pork chow mein with crispy noodles from Chin’s Place in Akron; pad Thai at the stir-fry bar at Giant Eagle in Cuyahoga Falls.

THE MAILBAG
From Sue B.:
On a chilly fall Sunday morning I made your Carrot-Leek with Thyme Soup. Although my carrots were not freshly dug from the ground, the soup is/was just delicious! I will definitely grow carrots next year in the garden. Sharing today with friends as we gather around my new Amish table… so lovely!. I especially enjoyed your writings while in France. Lucky you!

Dear Sue:
Thank you for the feedback on the recipe. That’s nice to hear. I’m also glad you enjoy hearing about my trip to France, because I’m still dishing about it. The trip was my first to France in almost 20 years. The last time I went (with my mother), the Eiffel Tower was not surrounded by wire fences patrolled by gun-toting police, the black swans were still in the ponds at its feet, and the lines to enter the museums and Notre Dame were not a couple of blocks long. But the food is still good and the city is still impossibly romantic.

Before I remarried, I had planned to spend three months in Italy when I retired. Two weeks in France with Tony seems like a fair trade-off.

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October 10, 2018

Dear friends,
Despite ambitious plans, I ended up cooking just one or two things during a recent vacation in France. My favorite was a first-course soup made with fat, sweet carrots and leeks we bought at the weekly market in nearby Olonzac.

The soup I tossed together started with a handful of lardons (batons of pork belly, essentially) my friend had in the fridge. I sautéed the chopped leeks and a clove of garlic in the renderings, then reduced some wine to add another layer of flavor. Then in went the carrots, fresh herbs Linda grows in her elevated courtyard, and some of her homemade chicken broth. When I asked for cream to finish the soup after pureeing, Linda hauled out a pot of creme fraiche. A couple of dollops is all it took.

With such exceptional ingredients, the soup was bound to be good. And it was — creamy, complex and a touch sweet from the carrots, with notes of herbs. We served it at room temperature in stemmed martini glasses. Ooh la la.

When I returned home I made the soup again to measure the ingredients and construct a recipe. Even without lardons, French carrots, homemade stock and creme fraiche, the soup is pretty good. Actually, more than pretty good.

Make this with the new crop of freshly dug carrots, and serve it warm on a crisp fall day.

CARROT-LEEK SOUP WITH THYME

2 slices bacon, chopped
2 leeks, white part only
1 fat clove garlic, chopped
Sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 medium carrots, cleaned and sliced
1 quart chicken broth
1/2 cup cream

Render bacon in a 4-quart saucepan. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain. Slice white part of leeks in half lengthwise and clean well under running cold water. Drain. Roughly chop. Sauté in bacon fat with garlic over medium-high heat until leeks are wilted, adding olive oil if needed.

Stir in thyme, bay leaf and salt. Add white wine and boil until reduced by half. Stir in carrots. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered for 35 to 40 minutes or until vegetables are very soft.

Remove thyme stem and bay leaf from soup. Puree until smooth with a stick blender or in batches in a food processor, returning to pan. Stir in cream and heat through. Ladle into cups or bowls. Makes 6 cups soup. Soup may be served hot, cold or at room temperature.

TIDBIT
If you have room on your shelf for more cookbooks and you live in or near Akron, you won’t want to miss the Akron Summit County Public LIbrary’s Big Book Sale this coming Friday, Oct. 12.

James Switzer of Friends of the Main Library reports that although the thousands of used books for sale range broadly in subject matter, “…there will be at least a couple hundred cookbooks, some classic, some specialized (nationality or regional, courses like soups or desserts, techniques like bread machines, Crock Pots or pressure cookers, health books on diets and heart-healthy).”

The books will go for $1 for most hardbacks, 50 cents for paperbacks and 25 cents for series romances. The sale will spill over into the lobby from the gift shop, and will be held during regular library hours. Switzer notes that parking is free on Saturday in the deck adjoining the library on High Street.

GUT CHECK
What I cooked last week:
Sautéed chicken tenders with herbs de Provence over mesclun salad with toasted walnuts and dried cranberries; carrot and leek soup, pan-grilled strip steak, green salad with cucumbers.

What I ate out last week:
Lentil salad, mustard chicken, mashed potatoes, wedge of Camembert, pineapple cake on Air France; Szechuan wontons in chile oil and a platter of hot and spicy Hunan blue crabs in a sticky sauce at Cheng Du Spicy Food in Flushing, N.Y.; pepperoni pizza from Rizzi’s in Copley; superfoods salad and spicy beef kefta roll at Aladdin’s in Montrose; Macedonian bean soup and half an egg salad sandwich at Village Gardens in Cuyahoga Falls; ham salad on whole wheat at Honey Baked Ham in Montrose.

THE MAILBAG
From Janet C.:
Regarding the items you saw in French supermarkets: When I was with my niece in France last year to visit her daughter, an exchange student, we were fed mightily at each of her host’s homes. One of the families served a meal made of different kinds of crepes. The lady was able to purchase the crepes at the store, with a sheet of paper like between deli meats between each one.

The main course was huge crepes cooked in a skillet in butter, topped with ham and cheese, and while the cheese melted, a fried egg with a runny yolk was done in a separate skillet and placed in the center, then folded like a packet for each person.

The dessert crepes were smaller and cooked again in lots of butter with either just sugar, hazelnut spread or jam in them. The meal was accompanied by an oil and vinegar-dressed salad and copious amounts of wine. I do not know of anywhere you can simply pick up fresh crepes.

Dear Janet:
Great idea for easy entertaining as long as you don’t have to make the crepes, right? I remember years ago Frieda’s Finest marketed crepes that were sold in the produce sections of some stores. I haven’t seen them lately.

From James S.:
I never tasted West Point’s double (triple) ginger cookies, but Trader Joe’s has triple ginger snaps. Not to die for, but the best I ever ate.

Dear James:
I think it’s a about time we got a Trader Joe’s in Akron.

October 5, 2018

Dear friends,
By the time we hit Paris, well into the second week of our trip to France, Tony was starting to figure things out.

“This country is all about food and wine,” he said. “All they do is eat and drink.”

True, we hadn’t spent an afternoon in an art museum or playing pentanque yet, but Tony’s assessment seemed right to me. The French are obsessed with their next meal. How else would you explain the 3-pound cans of foie gras we saw in grocery stores?

Tony, a very light drinker who limits himself to the occasional Budweiser Light or a splash of aged Scotch or Bourbon, became an oenophile specializing in complex, dry roses. He drank with gusto and bought bottles in grocery stores for our dear friend and host, Linda, who I blame for this new crush. When we got to Paris, he ordered glasses and pichets of Cotes de Provence with dinner.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) we couldn’t bring back a case or two because of security restrictions. We were limited to dry foods, so I carted home risotto with sliced truffles, two jars of truffle salt, a jar of piment d’espelette from Linda (it’s ground hot red pepper), licorice-flavored Ricola cough drops, chocolate for my sister and two bags of stubby French air-dried sausages for our beloved mutt, Oscar.

The best meal we had was the welcome dinner cooked by Linda at her utterly charming 14th- (15th? 16th?) century home in Homps: pastry-wrapped Camembert with salad, winey lamb shanks, and an heroic platter of cheeses. She cooked like crazy the whole time we were there and also was responsible for our most fortuitous discoveries, chief among them a sweet cream butter studded with large grains of sea salt. Wowee. If I let myself, I could eat a half-pound on a baguette for lunch, no problem.

At home I’ve already attempted to duplicate the product by partially softening 8 ounces of the best butter I could find while jet-lagged (Kerry Gold) and sprinkling it with 1 1/2 teaspoons of large-chunk (gros) sea salt while smearing the butter on a cold marble surface. Then I scraped the butter back into a block and chilled. Yum. If you try this (and you should), the salt chunks should be distinct and noticeable but not overwhelming. The butter should taste sweet, not salty, each grain a surprise. One or two grains of salt per teaspoon of butter is about right.

BAGUETTE WITH SALTED SWEET BUTTER

Other discoveries ranged from the prunes d’Agen (extra-plump and fruity local prunes) I mentioned last week to a delicious rolled turkey thigh roast, which Linda’s butcher makes and Linda seasons and grill-roasts until the skin is crisp and the interior juicy. I am sourcing skin-on boneless turkey thighs as we speak.

In Paris I suspended my no-sugar rule and had a slice of tarte Normande from Boulangerie Teillet near my hotel on Rue Monge in the 5th arrondissement, voted the best tarte tatin in Paris and featured recently in the New York Times. Eh. Maybe a slice from a whole tart, warmed, would have tasted better than the flat slice I had that looked and tasted like an apple tart with a teaspoon of custard, not an upside-down, caramelized tarte tatin. (Don’t write; I know tarte Normande is slightly different). Sugar-wise, I also couldn’t resist a 4-inch strawberry macaron, a small but mighty Portuguese custard tart and, on my last day, a croissant au chocolat.

GIANT STRAWBERRY MACARON

Perhaps the best meal we had in Paris was at Dans Les Landes, a Patricia Wells recommendation that features the foods of Southwest France where we recently had stayed. In Paris, Southwest food means lots of duck — magret breasts pan-fried, duck confit and duck foie gras. I had an interesting appetizer of polenta with duck confit, which was served in a cone as thick batons of cheesy polenta flecked with confit, breaded and deep-fried until crisp. Tony, yearning for Asian food, had seared raw tuna topped with a wispy salad dressed with a French version of Thai seasonings — complex and delicious rather than simple, clean and delicious. We shared a cheese course of paper-thin slices of Gouda embedded with truffles, strewn the length of a narrow wooden paddle.

Here’s what else I ate in restaurants last week:
A cold shellfish platter of mussels, whelks, shrimp and raw oysters arranged in a giant shell, with mignonette sauce at Bistro des Copains in Port Leucate on the Mediterranean (Tony had bouillabaisse); ham and Camembert on baguette at Boulangerie Maison Gregoire in Paris; entrecote of beef with green peppercorn sauce and nubbins of fried potatoes drenched in garlic butter, with a green salad, at Bistro du Marche in Paris; Croque monsieur, frozen fries and a green salad at Cafe Opera; miso ramen noodles at Sapporo Restaurant Japonais (I couldn’t fight it); smoked salmon and avocado on a baguette from an unknown boulangerie; miso soup and a California salmon roll from the Sushi Shop (for a picnic by the Seine).

TIDBIT
Back home, I see that the pumpkin spice craze has not peaked and is in fact reaching crazy new heights this fall. Pumpkin spice potato chips?!

I’ll gladly suffer the foolish products, though, if it means inspired items such as Simply Nature Seed You Later Pumpkin bread. This awesome loaf is a chewy yeast bread that, when toasted, tastes like pumpkin pie. Get it at Aldi before autumn gives way to the mad peppermint and ginger season.

BATTER UP
Speaking of pumpkin bread, this is also the season of batter breads. They are those sweet “breads” leavened with baking powder instead of yeast. I don’t make them because they’re so easy they feel like cheating. Anyway, I don’t see the point.
They are no more “breads” than muffins are health food. In fact, batter breads are basically muffins in loaf form. Just ice it and call it a cake, for heaven’s sake.

I think I get worked up about batter breads because because giant, un-frosted cupcakes make no sense to me. Or maybe I’m just jealous of people who can treat their friends and family without turning it into an all-day project. Probably the latter.

Bake on.

THE MAILBAG
From Laura R.:
I’m an Akron native now living in Florida. I visit Akron several times a year. One of my favorite things to do is visit West Point Market. I always purchase the Killer Brownies and thumbprint cookies to take back to Florida. I was very disappointed in their recent closing. I am looking for a recipe for their thumbprint cookies. I’ve checked the West Point Market Cookbook with no luck. Do you happen to have a copy of the cookie recipe you could share, or a copycat recipe? Any help would be appreciated.

Dear Laura:
We are ALL disappointed that West Point is no more. The seriousness of this has just started to hit me. Where will I go for cultured butter, caster sugar, block foie gras, a wall of Champagne and advice from a butcher, all under one roof?

I have a few West Point recipes and more than a few cloned recipes, but not the one for thumbprint cookies. I never tasted West Point’s version, so I can’t clone it, either. Can anyone else help?

P.S.: If anyone has the recipe for West Point’s double (triple?) ginger cookies, I’d kill for it.