Monday, October 29, 2007

Pumpkin Propositions

Perhaps it is the pumpkin colored roses that came in from the marché yesterday...

...or the pile of golden leaves gathering at the base of the trees at Parc de la Torse...

...or the walk through the countryside with Bodhi and a friend yesterday after the Mistral had blown through, clearing everything out and leaving behind the blue skies for which Provence is so well-known.

(By the way, hunting season has begun...fortunately they are looking for sangliers, or wild boar, not little white, fluffy puppies!)

(Note to self: Come back here with a pique-nique that includes a thermos full of hot soup!)

Or perhaps it is simply that the market is filled with so many different varieties of squash at this time of year that seduce me with their depth of color and promise of rich and hearty taste – soul soothing as well as providing of a good dose of anti-oxidants!

Whatever it was, there I stood waiting my turn for a big hunk o' punkin' while the vendor waited on another woman from my neighborhood selecting a handful of shallots. As my neighbor waited for change, she quickly rattled off her recipe for soup de potiron (or pumpkin soup): shallots, cooked in butter and olive oil until translucent, a press of garlic, the pumpkin hunk, having been baked ‘til soft, just a bit of water, bring to a boil, blend ‘til smooth and add a grind of nutmeg. At the last minute add a couple of soup spoons of crème fraiche and voila! La Soupe de Potiron! ("If it gets too thin, throw in a few potatoes," she added with a lovely smile.)

I find that the French are very generous with their suggestions. In this case, as in countless other cases in which I very much appreciate the suggestion being offered, it was a great tip on just the recipe that I was preparing to post for Monday. But I must admit that sometimes there are suggestions that are rather puzzling and take me quite by surprise. For example, on one of our extremely hot days of summer, I was out with Bodhi on a Saturday morning. The only way to get from chez moi to his sister’s house for a playdate was through the grand marché which is pretty packed on a beautiful Saturday morning in the summer. We started out on foot together but it was soon quite clear that he was way to low to the ground to be down there all my himself, invisible to the crowds. Just as I was bending down to scoop him up, a woman passing by very firmly told me that I must carry him through the market, he is too small to be walking on his own in such a crowd. I thanked her and quickly reassured her that I was just intending to do exactly that. She nodded, seeming content that she had been heard, and continued along her way (hopefully being as watchful of all the other dogs who were trying to navigate the market with their owners on foot!)

As I reached the other end of the marché and took a couple of steps beyond the edge of the undulating crowd to put Bodhi down, another woman took it upon herself to instruct me not to be carrying my dog in such heat! “He is too hot! Put him down! You must let him walk freely in this heat!” She sniffed and turned on her heel to continue along her way (hopefully nodding in approval at all of those owners who were putting their dogs’ lives at risk by making them walk through the market as she found her way to the other end!) This just scratches the surface of unsolicited suggestions I’ve received.

While I try to maintain a consistent sensitivity to cultural differences and not simply view or measure the world through my foreign sensibilities, I find some of these experiences really baffling. For instance, it would seem that my suggestions may not be so welcomed: while buying a gift for a baby of a friend in the US, the fellow who owns the little boutique with cool baby stuff in my ‘hood was wrapping up the little something I had purchased. He does a beautiful job, complete with a creative box, fancy cellophane and a little wooden charm hot-glued to the beribboned final result. In this case, I made the fatal mistake of asking if he had taken the price tag off. Fortunately he had finished the wrapping job but made it clear that he was offended by my even asking such a thing. ( was a silly question reflecting my own occasional absent-mindedness, I'll grant you...but even so...)

"Where are you from?", he queried.

"California," I replied tentatively, having seen the error of my ways.

“And do they leave the prices on in California?!” he asked in faux amazement.

Confirming my error in judgement, we completed the rest of the transaction in awkward silence. I would prove to be too naïve to know better than to ever go into his establishment again.

The next baby came along and I went in to get another gift. I was my friendly self willing to “kiss and make up” but he appeared to be rather cool toward me...okay, make that downright teeth-chatteringly chilly! In my attempt to overlook the dynamic, I made my selection and told him, just like before, that it was a gift.

I have no idea how he managed to pull this next trick off because the only thing I noticed that was different from last time was that there was a bit less care taken with that cellophane wrapping and he put a piece of scotch-tape to affix the wooden charm to the finished package. Beyond his truly icy treatment and the scotch tape job, I really didn’t give it another thought.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived in the US and delivered that baby gift to the new mother, who opened it immediately, excited to be receiving something kind of cool from France. The opened box revealed that the little stuffed toy had had the ribbon around its neck untied and left rumpled and it had been placed completely askew in the box, looking as though it had been jammed into a box in which it had never belonged in the first place. That same fellow now turns his back on me as I pass his shop in the street. This is a complete mystery to me as I find it difficult to believe it’s all about my helpful would seem that helpful suggestions happen all the time in these parts!

Mysteries of comportment (that still call for some deep breathing on my part) aside, I have to say that these scratchy experiences are far out-numbered by those like the recipe shared freely in a brief shared moment by my gentle neighbor. I took her suggestions to heart and blended her version with a favorite pumpkin soup recipe that I’ve pulled out every fall when prompted by such things as leaves changing color and crisp walks in the countryside. I like to think of it as an expample of what is possible when we remain open to another culture and yet still find a way to honor our own. Try hers...or the California Girl's southwestern version...or give your own blend a whirl.

Bon Appétit!

Pumpkin Soup with Lime-Ginger Cream
Adapted from Southwest the Beautiful Cookbook by Barbara Pool Fenzl

1/4 cup (2 oz./60g) unsalted butter
2 cups (10 oz./315g) finely chopped onions
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/3 cups (11 oz./330ml) milk
3 cups (24 fl.oz/750ml) pumpkin purée
6 cups (48 oz./1.5 l) chicken stock(preferably homemade)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup (2 fl. oz./60 ml) fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup (4 oz./125 g) crème fraiche (or sour cream)
2 tablespoons grated lime zest, from non-treated limes

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat; add the onions and slowly sauté until translucent. Stir in the cayenne and transfer the mixture to a food processor or blender. Add the milk and pumpkin and process until smooth. Pour the mixture into a saucepan and whisk in the chicken stock. Over medium-high heat, bring the soup to a simmer. Add salt and pepper.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook the lime juice and grated ginger together for 2 minutes. Strain into a medium bowl, discard the ginger and whisk the remaining liquid with the sour cream.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Drizzle a spoonful of the lime-sour cream mixture to decorate the bowls before serving. Sprinkle with lime zest.

Serves 10-12

Friday, October 26, 2007

La Tarte Tropézienne

Sometimes you lend someone a helping hand...

...and the problem gets resolved...

...and you end up with an entire Tarte Tropézienne delivered to your door!

The recipe you ask? I cannot recall the specific amounts but it seems to go something like this:

Basic kindness seems to be the main ingredient
Listening carefully doesn’t hurt the mix
Hold the bigger picture clearly in focus so others can share the view
Respect yourself and others
A pinch of reassurance...but just a pinch
Add freely a sense of humor...
...with an equal amount of compassion
Speak from your heart
Trust that the end result will be for the good of all...

...and voilà! Well, at least in this case, you end up with La Tarte Tropézienne!

Oh! That recipe! Nope, that's a secret. Created in 1955 in the place for which it is named by the artisan boulanger, Monsieur Alexandre Micka, the "real" recipe is kept secret. As if its association with Brigitte Bardot isn't alluring enough!

I suspect that the parties involved had no idea how much I love these delicious specialties of the south of France! (And perhaps they had no idea how touched I was by such a thoughtful gesture.)

Constructed with a giant flat brioche and filled with a lovely custard-y crème filling, there is enough here to be mildly indulgent and still share with friends! Yippppeeee!

Bon Appétit!

p.s. It’s been hard to watch the news coverage of my old neighborhoods being licked by hot flames and obscured by thick smoke and feel so helpless. For those of you in San Diego, there is a help list if you are looking for help or looking to help.

A list of therapists offering free support services to be a part of the healing process is being compiled here.

And from France, there are many international souls sending prayers on what is hopefully a cooler wind to a place some have never visited but have certainly heard about...a place of special beauty and friendly people who know how to work together to rebuild from such challenges...I’ve seen it before. It's a place I'm proud to be from.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Mushroom Memoirs

As the night gives itself a long stretch into morning around here, leaves fall and colors turn from green to gold and rust, I’m reminded of an October evening many years ago when I found myself in Provence for the first time. Over the course of the first few days, temperatures dropped and we began to see more and more signs of autumn as we wandered from one village to another. The obvious show of colors was one thing, but we began to pay attention to the more subtle signs that are part of the rituals of the season.

We passed a hunter returning with a catch of birds and his dog and we watched as he made his way back to his village house...

...and we were about to learn about mushrooms (or champignons as they are known in these parts) at the next village.

A haze had come in with the cold and mixed itself with the smoke of leaf-burning fires from the hillsides surrounding the village. The oak woods between our cottage and the main building of this little inn we had found (way off the beaten tourist track) looked haunted. Wisps of gray mist were winding seductively between the tree trunks. The sunset wrapped the soft dream-like image in rapidly changing hues of golden orange until all was swallowed by the dusk. A good evening for sitting by a fire with a glass of port and a good book.

As darkness fell, we wandered down the path through those oak woods to the restaurant. In the long dining room we were seated at a small table draped in white on the wall-side of the room, across from the high French windows that must let in floods of sunshine in the mornings. Somewhere nearby, a fire crackled in a large fireplace throwing warmth and shadows into the room. Owned and run by a very feisty woman "of a certain age", we imagined she was probably doing the cooking in the back as well!

We were drooling over the menu of rustic fare when she brought our apéritifs to the table. Over one arm was a basket...also of a "certain age". Drinks were set down, and she brought the basket to eye level to give us a closer look at its contents as she explained that she had been to the market that morning and these were as fine as any mushrooms she had seen. With a rather unexpected enthusiasm, she was recommending that we make this a part of our choice for the evening. Peeking into the irregularly shaped basket (which probably had a few choice stories of its own of decades past) we saw a collection of mushrooms, all shapes and sizes in an array of colors releasing an earthy perfume of the forest floor from which they had been plucked. Done deal! Those intriguing knobs and ruffles in that old basket would definitely be included in this evening’s meal!

He chose a steak with a side of braised mushrooms in a red wine reduction. Me, I had roasted chicken with the mushrooms in a light cream sauce. The entire experience was one of many magical memories that would remain with me for years and ultimately bring me back to this place I now call home.

These days, as the colors begin to change, as the cold begins to descend and the champignons come into the marché, I enjoy a bit of reflection on memories of that first autumn trip to these parts and that lovely no-nonsense woman with her market basket full of fresh champignons.

I fill my own market basket now with a stash of the autumnal harvest and, like the innkeeper, I would enthusiastically recommend them as the choice of the evening.

Stepping outside of a cream sauce for these little jewels or the risotto, in which I love to give them starring roles, (both delicious ways to make the most of the season of mushrooms), I was looking for something a bit different. Happily, I landed on a way to combine my mushroom cravings and my love of tarts in one fell swoop! With a simple green salad and a glass of wine, you’ve got a fabulous brunch for friends on an autumn afternoon...or a dinner for a crackling fire...

Bon Appétit!

Wild Mushroom and Walnut Tarte Tatin (Adapted from Patricia Wells)

3 pieces of thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces.

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

3/4 lb. chanterelles, girolles, cremini or standard cultivated mushrooms (or an assortment of varieties) cleaned, trimmed and cut into thick slices.

Fine sea salt to taste

1 t. fresh or dried thyme leaves

3 plum garlic cloves, green germs removed, minced

3 T. minced fresh parsley

1/2 cup freshly cracked walnut pieces

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pâte feuiteillée (check your refrigerator case for a quick and easy alternative to preparing your own)

for the Walnut Oil Vinaigrette:
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice
fine sea salt to taste
1/4 cup best-quality walnut oil

1. Preheat oven to 425°. Place rack in center of the oven
2. Brown bacon, drain on paper towel and set aside.
3. Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick frying pan over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt, and sauté just until the mushrooms begin to give up their juices, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat and add the thyme, garlic, half the parsley, half the walnuts and the bacon. Mix together and, while stirring regularly, let it cook for another minute. Season generously with salt and pepper.
4. Place the pâte feuiteillée on top of the mixture, gently pushing the edges of the pastry down around the edge of the pan. Place the pan in the oven and bake until the pastry is golden, 20 to 25 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, in a small jar, combine the lemon juice and salt. Cover and shake to dissolve the salt. Add the walnut oil, cover and shake again. Taste for seasoning.
6. Remove the pan from the oven. Run a knife around the edge of the pastry to release it from the sides of the pan. Immediately invert a serving platter with a lip over the pan. Quickly but carefully turn the pan directly over and the tart will drop onto the serving platter. Remove any mushrooms sticking to the bottom of the pan, and place them back onto the tart. Sprinkle the mushrooms with the remaining parsley and walnuts. Season with freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and serve warm, cut into wedges.

Serves 8

Monday, October 15, 2007

Fabulous Fennel

Love the stuff! There will be a fish soup with fennel coming down the pipe a little later in “soup season” but for now, just a shout out to a staple here in my little French life.

I eat a lot of fennel and in a whispered admission of such to a friend of mine, I jokingly wondered out loud, “Is it possible to eat too much fennel?!” (I told you, I eat a lot of it!) This friend, always a veritable wellspring of information on well to little known pieces of information, she turned up with a little book that would not only quell any concerns for eating too much fennel, but also fill me in on the benefits.

According to Jean Palaiseul’s Grandmother’s Secrets, Her Green Guide to Health from Plants, fennel is a native of these parts and grows wild in fairly difficult conditions (rocky banks and rubble mounds and given that, it might have even done well in my old decomposed granite garden at the edge of the Pacific.). It is cultivated just about everywhere, although I must admit, they grow it a bit larger around these parts than what I used to get in So Cal!

For an additional 3 units this week at La Fourchette U. in The Health Benefits of Fennel, read on:

“There are records of the use of fennel in cooking dating back to ancient times: the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans incorporated it in their dishes; Hippocrates and Dioscorides recommended it to wet-nurses to activate the secretion of milk, as well as to persons threatened by blindness; the Chinese and Hindus used it to neutralize snakebite and scorpion stings; lastly magicians and sorcerers regarded it as a beneficent herb and believed that sprigs of fennel, hung from the rafters, would drive the evil spirits out of a house, whilst the seeds, inserted in the keyholes, would bar the way to ghosts.

“Outside the kitchen – where you can use the leaves (either fresh and finely chopped like chervil, or dried and powdered) or the seeds (dried and ground like pepper) for sprinkling on stews, fish and farinaceous vegetables which are thus rendered more digestible – fennel has many other uses.

“The dried seeds are prescribed for stomach pains, aerophagia, digestive difficulties, sluggishness, lack of appetite, inflammation of the internal mucosa (bronchitis, gastritis, enteritis, cystitis, etc.), as an infusion (25 to 40 grams to a litre of water; leave to infuse for ten to fifteen minutes; one cupful to be taken after the two main meals of the day).

“ ‘Fennel seeds’, writes the Abbé Kneipp, ‘should be in every family medicine chest, for they are a remedy for conditions that occur very frequently; I am speaking of griping pains and flatulence…A spoonful of fennel should be cooked in a cupful of milk for five to ten minutes and given immediately to the afflicted member of the family, to be drunk as hot as possible…It generally brings about a rapid improvement, the warmth spreads through the body, easing griping pains and expelling flatulence. According to Oertel-Bauer this same treatment is also a sure and certain remedy for influenza.

‘Used externally, the decoction of seeds (30 to 50 grams to a litre of water; boil for about 5 minutes) is used in the steam-treatment (the head held over the steaming decoction, with a towel over the head forming a kind of tent) of conditions of the eyelids and the eyes; it is also used, lukewarm or cold, for bathing the forehead and the temples, three times a day, to ‘strengthen the nerves” and combat chronic headaches and migraines.

‘Again with the seeds you can prepare an excellent appetite stimulant and tonic recommended for anaemia and general debility: 60 to 80 grams of seeds macerated for eight to ten days in a litre of good wine (red or white); strain; one wine-glassful after meals, midday and evening.

‘A decoction of fennel root (20 to 30 grams to a litre of water; boil for five minutes; leave to infuse for a further five minutes) equally stimulates the appetite (one wineglassful before each meal); it is also an excellent diuretic, prescribed by Dioscorides for “those who can only urinate drop by drop”, and recommended by numerous specialists for disorders of the gall-bladder (calculus and biliary insuffiency) and kidney and bladder conditions(one wineglassful after each meal).’ ”

Who knew?!? Not bad, eh?

If you’ve only tried it raw in its salad role, give roasting a try.

Me, I prefer it sliced, tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper, herbs de provence and roasted in a 375º oven for 20 to 30 minutes (turning once) until it is soft and caramelized. Serve it with this salmon...or with roasted salmon with a pesto drizzled over it along with roasted haricots verts...or in a party of other roasted vegetables tossed with pasta (toss in a bit of sautéed sausage, fresh tomato sauce or a couple of spoonfuls of pesto for a bit of variation on a theme)...

...or all by itself with a bit of shaved parmesan over the top once it’s on the plate.

Roasting brings out the sweetness and gives my feathery-fronded friend fennel a depth and richness, taming the strong licorice flavor that comes singing through when served raw.

What are you waiting for?! Shake a leg! We’re heading into flu season...get some fennel into that belly!

Bon Appétit!

p.s. Last week I offered a link to a previous post with a more "precise" recipe for fresh tomato sauce...ooops!

Here it is:

From Patricia Wells At Home in Provence:

Tomato Sauce

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
Sea salt to taste
One 28-ounce can peeled Italian plum tomatoes in juice, or one 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes in purée
Bouquet garni: several sprigs of fresh parsley, bay leaves and celery leaves, tied in a bundle with household twine.

In a large unheated saucepan, combine the oil, onion, garlic, and salt, and stir to coat with oil. Cook over moderate heat just until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. If using whole canned tomatoes, place a food mill over the skillet and purée the tomatoes directly into it. (Note from LF: Or crush them in your hands over the skillet like I do!) Crushed tomatoes can be added directly from the can. Add the bouquet garni, stir to blend, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. For a thicker sauce, for pizzas and toppings, cook for 5 minutes more. Taste for seasoning. Remove and discard bouquet garni. The sauce may be used immediately, stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 2 months. If small quantities of sauce will be needed for pizzas or other toppings, freeze in ice cube trays.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Comfort Food

Signs of autumn are all over the place.

I love the change of light...

...and the first leaves drifting to a soft landing to join others in piles around trees in town and in the parks. I love the milder temperatures.

So I was baffled the other day when I overheard (in French – yay me!) two women commiserating about autumn not being a good season. It’s always been one of my favorite seasons but I’m beginning to understand the less than affectionate welcome it receives here.

I’ve been down for the count with a little bug, or “vee-rrroose” as the doctor charmingly called it, due to the change of seasons and the fact that this little bug is making the grand rounds in Aix right now. He prescribed patience. Well, that and a scarf around my neck during these transitional days to protect my throat - a very French notion and I must say, style aside, I think it makes a difference. (And if I thought for one petite moment that the good doctor's counsel was covered by my international health insurance, I'd be dragging my little virus along as I made a beeline to the Hermes shop around the corner!) I did add to that prescription a little something in the realm of essential oils from my trusty “pharmacien” to clear my aching sinuses. Put it all together and I am into my third day of feeling better...and actually looking a bit more French with that scarf wrapped around my neck before there is a need for a coat to go over it!

Needless to say, I’ve really been into easy do-it-in-my-sleep kind of stuff: Linguine with cream, tomatoes and smoked salmon (my favorite dish at the Fish Market in Del Mar, California and inspired by a dinner shared chez N & W several nights ago), a slice of 6 cereal bread slathered with pesto and topped with smoked salmon then drizzled with lemon juice and a bit of lemon zest with a spinach salad on the side or roasted chicken with leftover refried black beans and a Napa cabbage slaw, or a bit of roasted fennel with shaved parmesan...stuff like that. Things I could drag myself up from the couch and put together without a lot of fuss. (Clearly I've taken the route of feeding a virus and starving something else...something I rarely come down with because I can't remember the last time I starved anything!)

In keeping with only cooking the easy stuff, there was a great price per kilo the other day on the end of the season’s roma tomatoes at one of my favorite veggie vendors at the market. The woman standing next to me sorting through the crates of tomatoes assured me that these were very good even if they were not very pretty. So instead of being comforted with apples à la Ruth Reichl, I decided to be comforted with fresh tomato sauce.

I mentioned a few posts ago that I was making batches of the stuff to freeze with the last of the tomatoes from summer but faced with the critical mass of these tomatoes in the market and the desire for comfort food, I thought the result might be worth sharing.

A bouquet of basil, the head from a twisted rope of garlic and a snowy topping of aged parmesan cheese and it gave that old “vee-rrroose” a run for its money.


...became this...

...and this...

...became this...

...'nuff said!

With an appreciative curtsey to Faye Food, as she inspires me to be a bit more adventurous as I play with my food (one of these days I am certain I will make it to one of her cooking classes in Italy!), this recipe is more of a description of process so I encourage you to use your instincts! If you’d like to see something a bit more precise, I have used this recipe for years to make my fresh tomato sauce – with very consistent results.

Bon Appétit!

(There is actually another savory madeleine that I want to try that would go well with this dish…but it was not in the category of fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of thing so it will have to wait for another worthy partner.)

Fresh Tomato Sauce with Roasted Garlic and Basil

(As long as you’ve got garlic going into the oven, put in an additional head or two. It makes a great appetizer – a soft, sweet clove squeezed onto a piece of bread...mmmm! Or toss a roasted clove into a bit of mustard and mash with some added good vinegar...whisk with your best olive oil and voilà: roasted garlic vinaigrette.)

Cut a head of garlic in half and place it cut side up in a small baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and place in a 375º oven to roast for 45 minutes. When it is done, set it aside to cool.

Bring a pot of water to a boil and gently drop 12 to 15 roma tomatoes into the pot to blanch for 2 minutes. Remove from the pot with a slotted spoon onto a tray lined with a paper towel and allow to cool a bit. While the tomatoes are cooling, heat a drizzle of olive oil in a pan and add one small onion and a clove or two of garlic (chopped) and cook until softened and translucent over a gentle heat.

While the onion and garlic are cooking, peel, seed and chop the now cooled tomatoes. Add them, along with the juice (I collect the peel and seed mixture in a bowl and then toss it all in a sieve over the pan after I’ve added the tomatoes to the pan to strain out any extra juice) and mix to blend with the onion and garlic. Allow to simmer over a low heat to blend flavors and reduce the juice a bit.

Put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. While you wait for the water to come to a boil, squeeze the roasted garlic cloves you’ve set aside to cool into the sauce and gently fold in to mix. (I like to keep them in large chunks to really get a melt-in-your-mouth exclamation point every now and again in the sauce.)

When the pasta is ready, drain and plate it and top it with the sauce. Garnish with a few leaves of basil (either torn or in a chiffonade) and give it a flurry of freshly grated parmesan.

Stick your own fourchette in it’ll know what to do next. Trust your instincts on this one!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Madeleine’s Walk on the Savory Side

As cliché as it may seem, the Madeline books, by Ludwig Bemelmens, were my favorite books starting in kindergarten. Enchanted at an early age with the "old house in Paris all covered in vines" and the "twelve little girls in two straight lines", I loved the shadowy walks along the Seine with Miss Clavel. The adventures were all beside the point. Those little girls and their life in Paris were creating pictures in my head. (Watch out, I’m here to tell you: those pictures can be powerful!)

Many years past kindergarten, I was introduced to a new version (and spelling of madeleine) by a passage in Proust’s Remembrance of Times Past and his famous musings on a memory of the madeleines of his childhood through the stimulation of an olfactory anchor. How can anyone read that passage and not come away with at least a slight curiosity about what all the fuss is about?

Fast-forward to the stale looking pre-packaged madeleines (or so they are called) for sale in the greasy cellophane packages at the counter of Starbucks. They just never appealed to me. It was not until I moved here that I tasted my first madeleine.

One of my favorite vendors at the marché, Christophe, is a veritable wizard with madeleines! (Okay...perhaps I overstate his abilities a bit...perhaps he is simply at the level of Artist!) The first of these little cakes I tasted was well-stuffed with little chunks of chocolate.

Then there was a little lemon-thyme number that couldn’t be more perfect with an afternoon cup of tea.

And then he recently handed me a taste (as he often does while I wait my turn in line...or when I'm speeding through the market - and on those days it's a good thing because if I'm running, that is breakfast!) filled with a small bonbon of nutella. See what I mean?!? Artist, I tell you!

His madeleines make great little gifts and are always appreciated by the recipient. Buttery sacks have gone to my old car rental agency people, the administrative assistants and librarians at the IEFEE, guests coming into town to stay at the flat around the corner owned by friends in London, even my apartment rental agency has been on the list of recipients for these lovely little taste treats. In fact, a bag of these little gems went back with me to Minnesota, winning him two new fans across the Atlantic!

Christophe's madeleines quite certainly sell themselves but his humor and friendly nature add to the mix. (I really felt like a "regular" the day he enthusiastically brought his wife over to meet me as I shopped for vegetables one morning!)

When he’s not emptying his baskets of the day’s stash of madeleines to happy customers, he can often be found at the keys of the piano taking over from the gentleman who shows up each Saturday morning to entertain café patrons and market shoppers alike.

Or he could just as likely be found roaming around the market visiting his other vendor friends and teasing and joking with shoppers who did not get to the market early enough to score a madeleine - or six!

I’ve been as enchanted by these madeleines as I was by the first Madeline. And so some time ago, I told Christophe that I was going to write a piece about his little creations and discreetly asked if he would share the recipe with my readers. Leaving barely time for a breath, a firm “No!” made it clear that La Fourchette was not going to get the scoop on the world’s best madeleine recipe. He deserves to be so protective of his secret. The daily lines and empty baskets long before the market ends say it all.

Not really feeling the need to try my hand at the sweet version with Christophe showing up in my ‘hood several days a week, (and for my French readers, his lovely wife is now selling these madeleines at the Puyricard marché on Fridays!) I did find the idea of the savory type to be quite intriguing. Something really not French – a tweak that might be made by someone from...say...California!

Not quite corn-bread not quite cake...not quite biscuit, not quite muffin, this savory madeleine will be the first of many. With a delicate crumb, the sweetness of the cornmeal marries beautifully with the shallots. This time paired with a black bean soup, it was a lovely alternative to corn bread or tortillas. A good way to dress up a simple soup for company and give your meal a French twist.

(Of course, this would be the day to discover how “off” my oven is! Getting the temp up and steady was a real challenge for this project. As a result, I imagine that the next batch will be a bit toastier around the edges...but the taste and texture: still fabulous!)

Bon Appétit!

Savory Cornmeal, Shallot and Créme Fraiche Madeleines

1/3 cup minced shallot
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1 large egg, beaten lightly
1/4 cup crème fraîche or sour cream
3 tablespoons water

In a skillet cook the shallot in 1 tablespoon of the butter over moderately low heat, stirring, until it is softened and let the mixture cool completely. In a bowl stir together the cornmeal, the flour, the baking powder, and the cooled shallot mixture, add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, cut into bits, and blend the mixture until it resembles fine meal. Stir in the egg, 1/4 cup of the crème fraîche, the water, and salt and pepper to taste and stir the batter until it is combined well.

Heat a madeleine pan (with 10-12 madeleines at about 2 tablespoons capacity each) in the middle of a preheated 400°F. oven for 2 minutes, remove the pan from the oven, and into each Madeleine “cup”, spoon a heaping 1 1/2 teaspoons of the batter.

Bake in the middle of the 400°F. oven for 6 to 8 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the centers comes out clean, turn them out onto racks, and let them cool completely. The madeleines may be made 3 days in advance and kept chilled in an airtight container.

Makes 16

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