Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Best Bread Pudding I Ever Ate

The night my husband asked to marry me, I wore a bright yellow dress with cream lace trim. It was a warm August night, heavy with anticipation on my part, hopeful that this would be "the night," that just maybe, Benji had a diamond ring tucked away in his coat pocket.
It was no surprise to me when we pulled up in front of Chez Lulu, my most treasured place to eat in Birmingham. Under the restaurant's crimson and gold awning hangs strings of charming multicolored lights, its interior is scattered with mismatched throw pillows, crowded round tables, and eclectic artwork in gold rococo frames. My first time here I couldn't help but smile at cheerful decor, the smell of fresh bread and warms soups, the clinking of wine glasses, the chatter of friends and loved ones. I quickly knew I would become a frequent visitor of this place.

To be honest, I can't remember what Benji and I talked about that night. I was absorbed in the atmosphere, saturated in the moment. There are a few things I do remember: holding Benji's hand. Him slipping my inexpensive, costume jewelry ring off my left ring finger (not too subtle of a hint, but really cute.) And, dessert. My usual- chocolate croissant bread pudding with creme anglaise. Even though I take time to flip through the desserts on every visit, I always come back to this old favorite- made from butter croissants from next door's bakery, dark chocolate, and cream, it is, simply put, heavenly.

Today I have two pretty rings on my left ring finger, and a loving husband- a husband that is well aware of his wife's devotion to all things chocolate. And Chez Lulu's bread pudding- let's just say it's quite high on my list of favorite desserts. This recipe is my attempt to recreate the warm scrumptiousness of my beloved little restaurant. Mismatched pillows not included. :)

Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding

1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon good vanilla extract
5 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
10 small croissants
2/3 cup bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor, combine butter and sugar and pulse until well blended. Add cinnamon and vanilla; pulse to combine.
Add the eggs to the mixture a little at a time, until well blended. Scrape down the sides, add the heavy cream and milk, and pulse to combine.
Tear the croissants into one inch pieces and layer into a buttered 9 by 13 inch baking dish, then scatter the chocolate pieces over the top. Pour the egg mixture into the pan and let soak about 10 minutes, pushing down croissant pieces to ensure even coverage.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake 30-35 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 10 minutes to brown the top. Cool before serving with creme anglaise.

Creme Anglaise:

1 cup cream
1 3-inch piece vanilla bean pod (or 1 tsp vanilla extract)
1/3 cup sugar
5 large egg yolks

Mix egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until well blended; set aside. Heat cream and vanilla bean pod in a saucepan over medium heat about 5-6 minutes, until edges start to bubble. Slowly pour hot cream over egg mixture, mixing to incorporate. (Do not combine all at once or you will cook your eggs.) Once combined, pour mixture back into saucepan and cook another 5-6 minutes, until it coats the back of the spoon. Cover and refrigerate (mixture will thicken as it cools.)

To serve, scoop bread pudding into small dessert bowls and spoon creme anglaise over the top. I enjoy mine with fruit and a coffee.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Fast and French (I mean, er, Italian)

Mondays for me are always a challenge, in every sense of the word. It's the only day out of the week that I travel to my second job- teaching three dance classes, back to back. As much as I enjoy passing the "dance torch" to a younger generation, I never realized how exhausting the job would be until I began this past August. I should warn anyone that is pondering a profession in dance instruction that you will also become a disciplinarian, mediator, seamstress, event planner, and occasionally a therapist.
Once I toss my dance bag and notebooks into the car, I'm usually starving, and the last thing I want to do when I get home is stand over the hot stove for an hour (or two.)  Despite how much I love to cook; all I'm thinking about is a shower, some fuzzy socks, and curling up with my husband on the sofa. This is also why Monday nights quickly became "Chick-fil-a night" as the dance classes crept into September.
This year, I vow to triumph over fast food- there are so many meals out there that are quick, easy, and much healthier than the greasy paper bag.
After hours of dancing I desperately crave carbs, which is why I pulled out my shrimp scampi recipe- one of my favorite recipes to make when you're in a hurry. No, it's not French- scampi comes from the name of an Italian shrimp, and after WWII became known as the pasta dish, when Italian food went "mainstream" in the US. Scampi is very quick to make (if you only have 15-20 minutes, you can make this!) The recipe below contains very little fat, and yet is extremely satisfying. Bon appetit, or, I should say buon appetito! ;)

Shrimp Scampi
Serves 2

2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot or 1/2 large onion (whatever you have on hand), finely chopped
1 lemon
1/3 pound cooked baby/salad shrimp
1/4 cup white wine
1/2 cup grape tomatoes
1/3 pound angel hair pasta, cooked al dente
Salt and pepper
Fresh chives

Start heating up your pasta water. Begin the scampi sauce after you drop the pasta into the water to cook. For the scampi sauce: heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the extra-virgin olive oil. After oil is hot, add the shallots or onion and cook about 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the shrimp and heat them through, about another 2-3 minutes. Add white wine and tomatoes, and toss another minute. Add the cooked pasta to the pan and toss to coat evenly with the sauce. Season with salt and pepper, and garnish with fresh chives. Serve with a lemon wedge.

Recipe adapted from Rachael Ray

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Profiteroles, Je Vous Aime

 Amelie Poulain and her menu board.

 When I think of profiteroles, I think of of the mirrored glass in French cafes and brasseries on which the menu du jour is scribbled with a white marker. The dessert is quite consistently, in my experience, "les profiteroles" or another type of pastry. Pastry fanatics can generally order a plateful for dessert from a variety of French establishments- they are sometimes brought out as a snack while you mull over dessert options! Nevertheless, profiteroles are far from "common." Made from a pastry dough called "pate a choux," they are piped out onto parchment paper in small peaks or doled out with 2 teaspoons. Profiteroles are quintessentially French, and, like so many other French pastries, are made from very simple, good quality ingredients, such as butter, flour, eggs, and vanilla.

     In the States, profiteroles have evolved into what  we call "cream puffs," and are typically filled with vanilla pudding or whipped cream. Take the time to try these profiteroles with the classic French filling- creme patissiere (pastry cream), and top them with this thick and delicious chocolate sauce. Pick up a couple vanilla bean pods in the spice aisle instead of using vanilla extract- trust me, you will taste the difference, and your friends and family will unashamedly lick their plates clean! If you are short on time, these may also be filled with good-quality vanilla ice cream.

Note: The recipe below is for creme Anglaise (a vanilla bean sauce) which is much thinner than the typical filling for profiteroles, creme patissiere (pastry cream). I suggest serving these in bowls if you make with the creme Anglaise- it's very delicious, but not traditionally served this way. Thank you for this correction, Helene. :)

Serves 6

1 cup milk
1 stick unsalted butter
pinch of Kosher salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups cream, divided
1 (3-inch) piece vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/3 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1 espresso shot, or 3-4 tbsp coffee

For the pastry:
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Heat the milk, butter, and salt over medium heat until scalded. Add the flour all at once and beat it with a wooden spoon until it forms a dough. Cook, stirring constantly, over low heat for 2 minutes. Dump the hot mixture into the bowl of a food processor, add eggs, and pulse until the eggs are incorporated and the mixture is thick. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip, and pipe out mounds 1 1/2 inches wide and 1 inch high onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. (You can also use two spoons to scoop out the mixture.) Bake for 20 minutes, until lightly browned, then turn off the oven and allow them to sit for another 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

For the creme Anglaise:
Pour 1 cup of cream into a medium saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean, and add the seeds and pod to the cream. Cook over medium heat for 5-6 minutes. Combine sugar and yolks in a large bowl, stirring with a whisk until blended. Gradually add cream mixture to bowl, stirring constantly with a whisk. Return mixture to saucepan, and cook over medium heat about 6 minutes, until the mixture thinly coats the back of a spoon. (Don't overcook, or mixture will curdle!) Pour mixture back into bowl, cover, and refrigerate. The mixture will thicken as it cools.

For the chocolate sauce:
Heat remaining 1/2 cup of cream on the stove top or microwave until boiling. Place chocolate chips in a bowl, then pour the hot cream over the top and stir until the chocolate melts. Add the espresso or coffee and stir until smooth.

To serve, cut each profiterole in half crosswise, fill with a couple spoonfuls of creme Anglaise, and replace the top. Generously drizzle with the warm chocolate sauce.

Recipe adapted from Ina Garten's "Barefoot in Paris"

Monday, January 14, 2013

Soup Days

Most Southerners that I know are not great fans of cold weather. Even when the thermometers flirt with the freezing point, people tend to rush home in their oversized coats and pile blankets on the bed as if they have just landed in the Arctic.
I must admit, I am not much different from this common scenario. While I love the chilly air in early autumn, freezing days in January like today do not feel quite as welcoming. The leaves have all dropped off the ancient trees, their colors that at one time had created a vibrant tapestry of orange and persimmon, have now become a matted rug of brown, soaked with cold, drizzling rain.
Instead of rushing home from my daily errands and changing into a thick sweater, I started to hunger for warm soup; specifically, French onion soup. I made a detour to V Richards downtown- a great little market with fresh and local produce, cheeses, a bakery, and an impressive wine selection. Best of all, they bake some of the most authentic French baguettes I have tasted outside of France, and set them upright in old wooden wine crates for their customers to oodle over. I almost felt as if I was back in Grenoble, picking out some fresh Gruyere from behind the glass case, casually carrying the baguette under my arm as I swung the door open to leave. Sigh. Back out into the dreary, leaf-carpeted parking lot. My daydream of France had escaped me momentarily, but soon came rushing back in as my kitchen filled with the scent of the homemade soup simmering on the stove.

Baguettes at V Richards.

I truly believe this soup tastes best on soggy cold days like today. The herbs and red wine in the soup make the entire kitchen smell amazing, and the sliced baguette with bubbling Gruyere add a completely new level of warmth. This recipe makes a large pot-full, and the soup tastes even better the next day (if you can make it last that long!)

Classic French Onion Soup

2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
2 red onions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic
1 stick unsalted butter
4 heaping tbsp flour
6 cups good beef stock
1/2 bottle Bordeaux
2 bay leaves
A few sprigs of thyme
1 baguette
Gruyere cheese, grated

Over medium-low heat, cook the onions and garlic in butter until they are soft and start to caramelize, about 30 minutes. Stir in the flour and simmer for another 5 minutes, until the mixture thickens.
Add the stock, wine, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring the soup to a boil and then cover and simmer for at least 1 hour.
A few minutes before serving, turn your broiler on low. Arrange baguette slices on a baking sheet, and grate Gruyere cheese over the tops. Broil until cheese is bubbling, 5-10 minutes.
Ladle big spoonfuls of soup into shallow bowls. Place a slice of baguette on top with a small sprig of thyme. Enjoy with a glass of Bordeaux and snuggle up.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"america is my country and Paris is my hometown."

As far as I know, I have not one drop of French blood in my veins.
My ancestry is that typical of many Southerners: a mash-up of Irish, English, and Native American descent. While I am proud of my heritage and the line of ancestors that worked hard to carry me to where I am today, I identify with the French more than any other nationality that runs within me. My heart has been overcome with a passion for the French culture, language, people, and as far as this blog is considered, its food.
Raised as a military brat and having lived abroad, the Midwest, and finally returning to southern roots, I have always known from a young age that “home” is what you make of it, and perhaps having a place to “settle” is not nearly as important as exploring the people and culture around you. I have never been much of a homebody, and probably never will be. My home is my husband, my beloved cat Gary, and one day, children of our own. My heart's home has been in France since I was 15 years old.
My Francophone heart was born out of a summer trip to France with my high school French teacher and a handful of other students. We explored the gloriousness of Paris, marveled at Roman ruins in Nice and Cannes, sunbathed on the beaches of Arles and Monaco. It was all quite touristy, now that I look back on it a decade later, but a passion was birthed within me, some unquenchable thirst for this fascinating and awe-inspiring country. I vowed I would return to this divine land in the near future, not knowing it would take me eight years to get back.
In 2010, I found myself on a plane with my friend and fellow French major at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Bonnie, on our way to an intensive language course in Grenoble. During those years, my desire for all things French had only grown as I eagerly soaked up every morsel of knowledge from my professors. But being here once again, in the place I felt the most at home- such a contrast of sweetness and intensity, both satisfying me and starving me at the same time. I was home.
That summer, I breathed in as much of the French way of life as I could. Bonnie and I would cook gratin dauphinois and chevre quiches in our little apartment kitchen, and invite fellow students to gather around our small table with a glass of rose and a crusty slice of baguette. On our break in Paris, I would roam the streets of Le Marais in search of the little patisseries and viennoiseries, where my ridiculous obsession with pastries would have me snack on a suisse longue or brioche.
I remember sitting at the train station at 5am the morning I flew back to Alabama. Holding my little paper espresso cup in my hand, I looked out the windows of the station to the breathtaking Grenoble mountains, still capped with snow in early August. Although feeling a bit relenting, I felt such a reassurance that I would carry this magnificent place in my mind wherever I traveled. This would still be home, even after my feet were back on American soil.
I'm very thankful for my husband, Benji, and his understanding of this longing within me. He knows full well that we will one day find ourselves back in France, but for now, I have grown an even deeper appreciation for the traditions and customs of the South. They have made me who I am today. There is no comparison to walking into your great grandmother's house and smelling chicken and dumplings cooking on the stove, hot biscuits in the oven, and all the while she and a bustling group of women work to shell pecans in their well-worn aprons at the kitchen table. My future may be in France, but my childhood lies deep in the South.
And so it is to you, dear reader, that I wish to share these two worlds with you, their customs and cuisine in all of their glory. They are, in many ways, quite similar, both mixing fresh, local ingredients with a little grease and hospitality. It is my desire for you that you would savor these recipes and ramblings as much as I have enjoyed the memories behind their creation. Enjoy.