Thursday, September 21, 2006

The ‘Inner Baker’ Stirs from Slumber

There is something about the transition from summer to autumn that brings out my “inner baker”. The light begins to change, softening to something approaching “cozy” and the temperature begins to cool, breathing life back into my neglected oven. As I pass the bookshelf, I hear whispers: recipes for crisps and cobblers and cakes beg me to draw them from their cookbook homes or from the photo album (an attempt to organize a rather offbeat collection) stuffed with recipes. You can set your seasonal watch by my behavior...some internal clock that follows rituals that are decades old at this point. So predictable I can be.

As I review that stash of recipes – old favorites are tucked in alongside tantalizing “try me, try me” newbies that came to be “stuffed” because they looked good to me in some moment in time. These days my decision around what gets chosen is determined by what project is possible in my “little French kitchen”. That was not just a charming catch-phrase to entice readers to amble down beyond the title header…it is a reality!

As I prepared to make my move to France, I rented out the home I owned that had an eat-in kitchen large enough for a small couch, coffee table and another large and comfy chair where friends could sit down comfortably and share cocktails and appetizers while I finished the final stages to the meal for the night. I might have been cooking that meal on a full-sized range with an additional convection oven/microwave overhead with a full-sized refrigerator just within reach. From that kitchen, I moved into a very small cottage to “practice” living in a small space. My frequent travels to France at that point had given me ample opportunity to see what the standard French kitchen was like. I had to see if I could do it. The cottage kitchen had an old range – I’m quite certain it was older than me – and only two of the three burners worked. There was no room for a least, not if I wanted a small refrigerator (something one might see in a college dorm room). The “built in” (even smaller) refrigerator did not work so it became the “cave” for wine storage (and film!). I was motivated by a friend of mine in the Drôme region of France. She lives with her family in a centuries old French farmhouse, when I am in the kitchen with her, there is an instinctual rhythm and dance step one adopts to move about without collision and injury. But that does not impede her in the least from bringing out course after scrumptious course to feed her husband and 3 grown sons and whatever friends and neighbors might be in for lunch or evening meal. Genevieve became my inspriration! And so, having successfully met the challenge in the “cottage kitchen”, I packed up my pots and pans (No, really! They were the first things to be shipped in the relocation process!) and after a couple of furnished ‘nests’ as I found my place in this new life, I landed in the little French kitchen I had practiced for.

French apartments that are listed here as “unfurnished” are referred to in French as “vide”… literal translation: void...and that is pretty much the picture of the state of things: Totally void...which means, there are usually bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling…and that’s about it. Sinks, toilet...of course, but any and all appliances (and sometimes even cabinetry) are all up to the renter to “furnish”...and then drag around to the next place, I suppose. (Which might explain why people do not move around too much here!)

In the new digs, I’m down to two burners (which was almost a deal-breaker – but the lovely private courtyard for al fresco dining, almost as large as the entire apartment - balanced out the equation), an oven that sits on the counter (very large for American "toaster oven" standards but small for “range-type” fact, I took the smaller of my roasting pans to the store before making the purchase to make sure that it would fit..and it does...just), and a refrigerator that is much smaller than what one might be accustomed to in the US but pretty standard for France. I’ve learned to use the top of the oven as a plate and food warmer as it roasts dinner. I’ve also learned that if I have a pot simmering on one of the burners, something cookin' along in the oven, the light on to be able to see what I’m doing and then happen to turn on the electric tea kettle – or have a laundry going, because my washer is under a counter in the kitchen (!) (and I don’t know why I didn’t learn this lesson the first time because it has happened more than once) - that I will blow a fuse and all life stops until I go down to the cupboard in the building’s entrance to reset the fuses...but somehow – it all works!

As happy as I am to have a kitchen that is larger than many (if not most) kitchens that I’ve seen in centre ville, its petite design does influence what I choose to cook...or in this case, bake. In such a small space, though I’m known to pull a tart out of the oven on a regular basis, I’ve not yet rolled out my own pie dough nor have I figured out how to manage a big batch of cookies from the baking through to the cooling. But as the weather softens, I begin to crave the old standards: the rustic, full-mouthed, belly-warming foods that I imagine might be right at home on a farmhouse table. No fussy frostings and layered confections for this fourchette. No, I’m looking for recipes that will give me the opportunity to use fresh, seasonal ingredients in a process that will take up minimal real estate in this little French kitchen. This cake gets points on every level. A favorite of mine for some years now, not only does it fit in my kitchen plan, I appreciate it even more for how it reflects the changes going on right under my nose.

Surrounded by vineyards as we are here in the Cote de Provence, a sure sign that we are entering harvest season are grapes in the market. They begin to show up in small rustic woven baskets at the tables of the vendors and in no time flat, there are piles of them spilling over in colors from pistachio green to black-purple. And this is the time of year that I pull out my recipe for Grape Cake. In years past, I’ve taken my inspiration for this cake from Patricia Wells’ At Home in Provence. This year, I’ve broken with tradition. As I browsed through, yet again, my various stashes of collected recipes (I’ve been known for cookbooks being my bedtime reading), a new recipe came to my attention.

This one, artistically torn from the magazine, was found among those stuffed in my recipe binder waiting for me to get to "Organize Recipes" on my list of things to do. With a dense crumb more like a coffee-cake in style, it made a nice finish to an afternoon luncheon with friends in the ‘hood.

Although it calls for Beaumes-de-Venise, a sweet, fortified wine that is a specialty of the town it is named after in the Vaucluse, I happened to have been “gifted” with a bottle of a Muscat from Perpignan in the Languedoc-Rousillon region not too very far from here and it worked quite nicely. And though the recipe calls for seedless grapes, I seem to have gotten a bunch with a 50/50 mix. If you don’t mind a “grape nut” crunch, the seeds are no problem. And the added health benefit of the grape seeds in their raw form may just balance out the butter and sugar in this recipe. Well, maybe not...but for god’s sake, it’s cake! As Julia often said, “You don’t eat it every day now do you?” Enjoy! From Bon Appétit, May 1999, I offer a little taste of autumn in the form of…



Olive oil for greasing the pan

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup Beaumes-de-Venise or other Muscat wine
1 1/2 cups red seedless grapes (I used one cup and it was a satisfying amount.)

Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush 10-inch-diameter springform pan with olive oil. Line bottom of pan with parchment; brush parchment with olive oil.

Sift flour and next 3 ingredients into bowl. Whisk 3/4 cup sugar, 6 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons oil in large bowl until smooth. Whisk in eggs, both peels and vanilla. Add flour mixture alternately with wine in 3 additions each, whisking just until smooth after each addition. Transfer batter to prepared pan; smooth top. Sprinkle grapes over batter.

Bake cake until top is set, about 20 minutes. Dot top of cake with 2 tablespoons butter; sprinkle 2 tablespoons sugar over. Bake until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 20 minutes longer. Cool in pan on rack 20 minutes. Release pan sides. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. (A dusting of confectioner’s sugar gives it that 'fancy dress' feeling.)
Serves 10.

This would most likely be served with coffee or tea in the US as a dessert, but why not try this with something that would partner quite nicely with the sweet wine: another sweet wine! Jean-Marc Espinasse of French-Wine-A-Day (and an obvious fan of sweet wines!) has offered the following suggestions:

Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise

Muscat de Cap Corse



Sweet Vouvray


Vin de Paille


Jann said...

From reading your entire post, it appears you are adjusting well to the size of your kitchen............and your choice of a fall belly-warming food was excellent!

la fourchette said...

jann, yes, I would say the adjustment has been successful...hope you try (and like!) the cake...just as tasty made in a roomy kitchen.


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