Monday, December 28, 2009

christmas in france: the menu

We just got back from four days with the family over Christmas. The meal on Christmas day started at 1:30 pm with apéritifs and ended around 5:30 pm. I think that Jean-Marc's family traditionally has their Christmas dinner on Christmas eve, but this year was different due to one brother and his family spending the 24th with the in-laws. Here's what we had:

kir royale (crème de cassis and champagne)

fresh oysters with vinaigrette or lemon juice
foie gras with toasted bread
smoked salmon

main course
pommes dauphine (fried battered mashed potato balls)
turkey braised in sweet white wine with chestnuts and lardons

îles flottantes (egg white islands floating in crème anglaise)
chocolate cake
carrot cake

It wasn't quite the traditional dinner I have grown up with, but it was all very delicious. The braised turkey was really to die for. One hour before serving, Madeleine, my mother-in-law, put in some peeled cooked chestnuts and it was a wonderful addition. Aside from all the food we consumed, we also had a nice time together, playing games with the kids and going for walks in the countryside. A very nice Christmas, indeed!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

christmas in france

It's taken me a while to get into the Christmas spirit. I've been admittedly otherwise occupied trying to find work, but reality set in this week. Since my muffler fell off my car last week, I've been waiting for the mechanic to finish the repairs and have been stuck at home. This meant that Jean-Marc and I needed to get all our Christmas shopping done after his work hours. We did just that on Tuesday evening and then I set about baking for the family. I baked three kinds of cookies (almond pepper biscotti, sugar cookies and espresso shortbread) and found some round cardboard boxes to put them in. In addition to the cookies, I have been making cakes for Christmas. Since I couldn't make up my mind, and we were going to be there for a few days, I decided on a carrot cake with cream cheese icing and a chocolate cake with coffee icing. The chocolate cake is my go-to recipe for an amazingly decadent not-too-sweet dessert. I will post the recipe soon!

I'm not quite sure what to expect for Christmas, other than a lot of great food (Jean-Marc's mom is a wonderful cook). I know that oysters, foie gras, smoked salmon and champagne are all traditional, but it remains to be seen what will be on offer. More than anything, I'm looking forward to spending time together with my new family.

almond pepper biscotti

This recipe is from the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts, but I have altered it a bit because I didn't have the anise seeds that were originally called for. I have made this recipe a couple of times and this time I drizzled chocolate on the biscotti to make them fancier, but I think it was a mistake. These biscotti are tastier on their own; the chocolate is too much competition for the subtlety of the almond and the spice of the black pepper. You may feel differently! Here's my version.

2/3 cup whole almonds (toasted)
2 eggs
1 egg white
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/4 ground black pepper
1 cup sugar
2 cups white flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

If your almonds are not already toasted, put them on a cookie sheet in one layer and toast in the oven (325 F.) for 10-15 minutes, until they are fragrant. Set them aside to cool.

Beat the eggs and egg white in a large bowl. Stir in almond extract, pepper and sugar. Sift in the flour, baking powder and salt, and mix until well blended. Coarsely chop the almonds and stir them into the dough. Transfer the dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (or oiled) and form two logs that are about 3 inches in diameter. I find the dough to be really sticky and just do my best with my hands or a spatula. The logs will spread quite a bit, so make sure to leave enough room between them.

Bake at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C) for 35-40 minutes. Cool logs on a rack for about 10 minutes. Reduce the oven to 325 degrees F. With a sharp knife, slice the logs diagonally crosswise into 1/2" pieces. Place the biscotti cut side down on the baking sheet and bake again for 20-25 minutes, just until lightly browned. The biscotti will become firmer as they cool.

(To make the original recipe, add 1 Tbsp anise seeds along with the sugar etc.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

the weather

The last week has been full of extreme weather for this western region of France. It's been quite cold and there have been some snowstorms, but the snow didn't stick to the ground. This photo was taken from our living room window on Sunday when it was sunny and rainy at the same time.

favourite things: salted butter

You may think that I have a thing for salt (and you may be right!). This butter has actual chunks of sea salt in it, which doesn't make it that great to cook or bake with but does make a delicious option for buttering bread. Somehow the occasional bit of salt mixed in with honey or jam makes my morning tea and toast extra special. This is not the kind of salt that is iodized and hurts your tongue; it's a flavour enhancer that brings out the best in everything. Tasty!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

favourite things: fleur de sel

There is salt and then there is salt. One of my first discoveries with salt happened back in 2001 when Caitlin and I headed to our newly purchased farmhouse for the first summer. We bought some salt to put in a salt shaker and when we got it home, we realized that the grains were far too big to use in the shaker. We used this salt from its container and immediately realized how wonderful it made everything taste. It was Fleur de Sel de Guérande: an amazing tasting salt that makes anything you put it on sing with joy! Since that time, it has become a staple in my kitchen. I use fine sea salt in my cooking, but when it comes to putting salt on my food, I always reach for the fleur de sel. In the regions where this salt is produced (Guérande in the west and Camargue in the south) you can find stalls at the market that sell fleur de sel mixed with all sorts of herbs, spices and even flowers.


Last Monday I went to Paris for an interview. Of course, this being France, there was a strike on the suburban train line that I needed to use to get to my interview, so I ended up taking a few metros and a cab. On one metro trip, I noticed two people sitting across from me: directly across was a older man who was wearing a ball cap and two seats over was a young woman wearing jeans and some Bensimon shoes. I noticed the man because he seemed to be staring at me, but I later figured that he was just staring in my general direction, and I noticed the woman because the space between her nose and her upper lip was much larger than normal.

I continued on towards my interview, took a cab from La Défense and arrived with two minutes to spare. The interview itself wasn't too interesting; the office was in a hovel of a building and they were clearly looking for someone who had a good knowledge of the classical music touring network in France (which I don't!). They also were suggesting that they wouldn't have any time to train a new person and that there were many urgent things that needed doing. In short, I was not the girl for the job and that's ok.

I left the interview and figured out how to take the bus to La Défense. Once there, I hopped on the metro and a few stations later, I saw the young woman who I had seen earlier that day get on the metro. She got on my car through the door nearest me. I thought that was interesting. I then transferred to another metro and then a couple of stations later, the man with the ball cap got on my car through the door nearest me. It got me thinking about coincidences that seem too impossible. Of all the millions of people living in Paris who take the metro, I bumped into the same two people twice in the same day on two different trains. Both times they entered the car I was in through the door closest to me. What are the odds?

I had a few hours to kill before heading home, so I went to the Galéries Lafayette (a large department store) and saw their immense Christmas tree in the centre of the store.  Wow!
(photo from this website. )

Saturday, December 12, 2009

favourite things: antésite

I have decided to document all my favourite things in France and here is my first installment. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you antésite (on-tay-zeet).

This is for licorice lovers only! It's concentrated licorice that makes a refreshing drink when you add just a few drops to water. The resulting drink is almost like a Pastis, minus the alcohol, and it contains no sugar. Being a Dutch girl with deep licorice roots, I am a big fan of this invention! It gives tap water a little extra somethin' somethin'.

interview time

After being here for six weeks, I am finally heading into a couple of interviews. Getting an interview seems like a success in itself and I am encouraged by it, especially after receiving so many rejection letters. This is all part of the process and somehow I am managing to not get too emotionally attached to any one possibility. Perhaps this is because of the disappointments I had earlier this year, when I was offered jobs, got all excited, and then was let down when the work permit didn't come through. Allowing myself to get excited and to dream about the reality of the job made the disappointment that much greater. Keeping a calm head about the implications of each job is another thing; sometimes it takes constant reminding to not worry about the future and just concentrate on the present moment and the current task at hand.

Monday, December 7, 2009

the job search

Something I have been doing ever since I arrived here is looking for work. It's an interesting position to be in. It's as if the world has opened itself wide open to me and I get to choose which direction to follow, with very few constraints. Of course there is the reality of needing to work as soon as possible but there is also the question of finding work that is satisfying and conducive to a good quality of life. In my search I have been balancing the location of the job (do we really want to move there? can Jean-Marc find work there?) with the relevance of the work to my training and experience. At first I felt as if I had no attachment to one region and I was ready to go anywhere, but the longer I stay here, the more choosy I become about where I would accept work.

I have to remain open-minded about my options, so that means that I might be working as an interior designer, a library assistant, a production assistant for a musical group, a singer, an English teacher for adults, a music librarian for an opera company or a stage manager for an orchestra.  If I were to stick to just one thing, I would be seriously limiting my options and I think that I would be waiting a long time to get a job. My goal is to be working by February, if not sooner, and I hope to find something that is everything I'm looking for. Here is to hoping!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

christmas decorations

Today Jean-Marc and I headed out to the local forest to see what kind of greenery we could scavenge for decoration. We spotted some honeysuckle vines in the forest and Jean-Marc immediately saw the potential. We made two spheres, as well as a wreath, and when we got them home we put lights inside. One sphere is sitting on top of our armoire in the bedroom and the other is in the living room. I like the effect of the natural branches and the lights, and it's a nice alternative to a Christmas tree (which we didn't really have the room for).