“White witches should be very skilled at baking,” Pascale said as she showed her how to prepare the gâteau breton, but however hard she tried, Marianne’s cakes never tasted as luscious and as enticing as Pascale’s.” -The Little French Bistro, Nina George, 2017.
With a title like “The Little French Bistro,” you know food is going to play an important role in the novel. Armchair traveler foodies will delight in the descriptions of classic Breton cuisine. In fact, the ability to cook is critical to the protagonist. It helps her find employment and a place in her new community.
If you are looking for something sweet to enjoy while reading the book try Gâteau Breton, also known as kouign-amann, Brittany’s shortbread. Perhaps you will even discover a bit of magic in your first slice.
“Some said that it took a sprinkling of magic to make a kouign so good that it would enchant a person’s heart forever, so they would never forget where they had eaten their first slice. -The Little French Bistro, Nina George, 2017.
350g plain flour
350g salted butter
6 egg yolks (+ 1 extra for brushing over)
A splash of rum (optional)
Mix together the flour and sugar then gradually mix in the butter.
Add the egg yolks as you knead the dough – normally by hand – and the rum if you wish. Don’t knead the dough for too long, only long enough to incorporate all the ingredients.
Spread out the dough in a deep, round ovenproof dish or springform mould.
Using a fork, etch diagonal stripes onto the surface, then coat with a yolk egg-wash for a golden finish.
Bake for around 45 minutes at 180°C, leave it to cool then take it out of the dish or mould.
This cake keeps for a long time and some believe it tastes even better after a few days. It is usually served in slices with a cup of good coffee. It can also be served with a little jam or prune conserve – but whichever way it’s served, it’s delicious.
Lee Smith has written an evocative novel, which fully immersed me in the sights and sounds of protagonist Evalina Toussaint’s life. Smith describes 1937 New Orleans, with its vivid neon lights, sultry ambiance, and fabulous architecture. Sumptuous descriptions of regional dishes tempt the reader to reach outside their comfort zone and try meals filled with spice and zest.
Back in my corporate days, I often traveled to New Orleans, or Nola. In an effort to imagine the 1936 cityscape, I looked for period photographs featuring Nola’s distinct neighborhoods. The rue Dauphine, where Evalina lived with her performer/courtesan mother, Louise Toussaint, is in the heart of the French Quarter and familiar to many travelers.
The notorious Gardette-LePrete Mansion, rumored to be the home of a Sultan and the site of macabre murders, showcases the wrought iron work found on many of the buildings located in the French Quarter. It is easy to imagine the young Evalina Toussaint peering out through a grill to the nightlife below.
Given Smith’s description of the neon lights and music, it is possible, Evaline’s home looked like this.
With her mother entertaining in the nightclub located on the street level.
If it did, then Evalina’s shock would have been all the greater when she traveled to the Garden District home of Arthur Graves. When I visited the area, I rode the St. Charles Streetcar out, and walked back enjoying the marvelous collection of antebellum mansions and fragrant gardens.
Like Evalina, I also enjoyed views of the famous St. Louis Cathedral , one of New Orleans’ most notable landmarks, overlooking Jackson Square. The venerable building, with its triple steeples towering above its historic neighbors, the Cabildo and the Presbytere, looks down benignly on the green of the Square and General Andrew Jackson on his bronze horse and on the block-long Pontalba Buildings with their lacy ironwork galleries.
The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States.
When I lived in the south, Nola was also known for its bread pudding, and I had a beau that favored the dessert. Since I was a novice cook, I was delighted when our local newspaper printed the recipe from the famous Commander’s Palace. Unfortunately, I was such a newbie that the quantity of ingredients involved didn’t alarm me until I was well into the pudding preparation.
The instructions were for a restaurant number of servings, and as I kept adding more and more ingredients, my mountain of pudding grew and grew. I ended up with a vat of pudding; it was enough to serve my entire neighborhood at a backyard barbeque. It turned out well though, and up until now I have always pretended that I meant to make that much.
This newer version of the Commander’s Palace Bread Pudding is widely shared, and makes a more manageable number of servings.
3/4 cup(s) sugar
1 teaspoon(s) ground cinnamon
1 pinch(s) nutmeg
3 medium eggs
1 cup(s) heavy cream
1 teaspoon(s) vanilla extract
5 cup(s) 1-inch cubed New Orleans French bread (see Tip)
1/3 cup(s) raisins
1 cup(s) heavy cream
1/2 tablespoon(s) cornstarch
1 tablespoon(s) water
3 tablespoon(s) sugar
1/4 cup(s) bourbon
9 medium egg whites
1/4 teaspoon(s) cream of tartar
3/4 cup(s) sugar
1. For the bread pudding: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan.
2. Combine sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Beat in the eggs until smooth, then work in the heavy cream. Add the vanilla, then the bread cubes. Allow bread to soak up custard.
3. Place the raisins in the greased pan. Top with the bread-custard mixture, which prevents the raisins from burning. Bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes, or until the pudding has a golden brown color and is firm to the touch. If a toothpick inserted in the pudding comes out clean, it is done. The mixture of pudding should be nice and moist, not runny or dry. Cool to room temperature.
4. For the whiskey sauce: Place the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Whisk cornstarch and water together, and add to cream while whisking. Bring to a boil. Whisk and let simmer for a few seconds, taking care not to burn the mixture on the bottom. Remove from heat.
5. Stir in the sugar and bourbon. Taste to make sure the sauce has a thick consistency, a sufficiently sweet taste, and a good bourbon flavor. Cool to room temperature.
6. For the meringue: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter six 6-ounce ramekins.
7. First, be certain that the bowl and whisk are clean. The egg whites should be completely free of yolk, and they will whip better if the chill is off them. This dish needs a good, stiff meringue. In a large bowl or mixer, whip egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Add the sugar gradually, and continue whipping until shiny and thick. Test with a clean spoon: If the whites stand up stiff, like shaving cream, when you pull out the spoon, the meringue is ready. Do not over-whip or the whites will break down and the soufflé will not work.
8. In a large bowl, break half the bread pudding into pieces using your hands or a spoon. Gently fold in one-quarter of the meringue, being careful not to lose the air in the whites. Add a portion of this base to each of the ramekins.
9. Place the remaining bread pudding in the bowl, break into pieces, and carefully fold in the rest of the meringue. Top off the soufflés with this lighter mixture, to about 1 1/2 inches. Smooth and shape tops with spoon into a dome over the ramekin rim.
10. Bake immediately for approximately 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately. Using a spoon, poke a hole in the top of each soufflé at the table and pour the room-temperature whiskey sauce inside the soufflé.
Tips & Techniques
New Orleans French bread is very light and tender. If a substitute bread is used that is too dense, it will soak up all the custard and the recipe won’t work.
Since today is Bastille Day, I decided to review a novel set in Paris, the glorious city of lights. The YA award winning novel, Belle Époque by Elizabeth Ross, features strong female characters and deals with strikingly relevant contemporary issues such as friendship, body image, social class and self-worth. Though the setting, brash and “beautiful era” Paris is historical, the themes are timeless and infinitely relatable.
The protagonist Maude Pichon runs away from home and ends up in a Paris far crueler than the one she imagined. Faded postcards and half-forgotten tales told by her dead mother lead Maude to believe city life would be brighter and more romantic the drudge-filled existence she endured in Brittany. Employment proves hard to find and Maude ends up working as a repoussoir.
In art, a repoussoir is a foreground object that draws the viewer’s eye into the main composition. In Belle Époque Paris, a repoussoir, or plain girl, is hired out to wealthy patrons in order to allow their daughters to shine during their debuts. Seemingly cruel, the practice allowed poor girls to earn a living, and vicariously enjoy the delights offered by Parisian society.
Maude spends many afternoons site-seeing, and viewing places depicted in her mother’s postcards. As a good Catholic woman, Maude’s mother naturally included an image of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris . The cathedral is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and among the largest church buildings in the world.
While Madame Pichon may have admired the spiritual, she must also have enjoyed the secular since she had images of the former Tuileries Palace and the Palais Garnier in her collection.
Indeed, Maude visited a destination undreamed of by her mother, the Eiffel Tower . Named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower in 1889, the iron structure is one of the most recognized and copied monuments in the world. That was not the case when Eiffel proposed the project. Controversy and criticism dogged Eiffel. Many did not believe the tower could be built; others thought it lacked artistic merit. This controversy, juxtaposed with the steady rise of the tower, serves as a metaphor for societal change during the Belle Époque.
Site-seeing is all well and good, but a novel about Paris set in any era would be remiss of it did not include luscious descriptions of food. Accounts of grand feasts and fantastic dinners spill from the pages of Ross’ novel. Delicious meals feature bounties of foie gras, smoked trout, roast goose, lobster a la Russe and rack of lamb. While these staggering displays of gastronomic excess form a backdrop for social galas, it is the intimate breakfasts shared between Maude’s agency friends which provide delight, particularly their favorite pâtisserie, Pain au Chocolat.
My husband and I toured the Châteaux of the Loire years ago. At the time, he was training for a marathon and would often disappear for long early-morning runs. I used the time to take sunrise photographs and explore on my own. I became used to lining up with local housewives to await the opening of village bakeries, where I would buy bread for the day. Yummy baguettes, eggy brioche and of course pain au chocolat. Starting the day with warm melted chocolate wrapped in flaky pastry is my idea of perfection.
Cooking the Book
If you’d like to try making your own Pain au Chocolat, here are two recipes. The first is an easy adaptation, which uses puff pastry instead of hand made. Purists may not like it, since it is not as buttery or flakey as the real thing. The second is a Jane Barton step-by-step tutorial from her Simply So Good blog. The ingredients are simple, but the labor must be spread out over several days.
I think I will stick to buying them. Does anyone have a favorite French bakery in the U.S.?
•2 sheets frozen puff pastry (one 17.3-ounce package), thawed, each sheet cut into 12 squares
•1 large egg beaten to blend with 1 tablespoon water (for glaze)
•4 3.5-ounce bars imported bittersweet or milk chocolate, each cut into six 2×3/4-inch pieces
Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Brush top of each puff pastry square with egg glaze. Place 1 chocolate piece on edge of 1 pastry square. Roll up dough tightly, enclosing chocolate. Repeat with remaining pastry and chocolate. Place pastry rolls on baking sheet, seam side down. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover pastries with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Cover and refrigerate remaining egg glaze.
Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush tops of pastry rolls with remaining egg glaze. Sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake until pastries are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (Not instant or rapid rise)
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup cold milk
1 1/2 cups cold unsalted butter
2 tablespoons milk
12-oz semi-sweet chocolate chip
To make the dough, place the water in a small bowl, sprinkle with yeast. Dissolve and let rest undisturbed for about 10 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pinch off small pieces of the 1/4 cup of butter, sprinkle them over the dry ingredients. Rub in to the flour by hand until they are almost fully dissolved. Stir in the yeast mixture and add it to the flour mixture. Add the cold milk.
With a wooden spoon, mix the wet and dry ingredients just until evenly combined and all dry spots have disappeared. The dough will be of medium stiffness, like a moist bread dough. The dough may also be mixed in an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook; just be careful not to over mix it or it will become too elastic to roll out.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead for about 1 minutes. Place the dough on a floured baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough overnight.
To roll in the butter, remove the butter from the refrigerator. Leaving the butter in its wrappers, with a wooden rolling pin pound each stick lightly but firmly on all four sides until softened.
Unwrap the sticks and join them together. On a lightly floured surface, using the rolling pin, mold the butter into a flat block measuring 5 x 5 -3/4-inch. Work quickly, making sure the butter is soft, but still cold. If it gets warm, return it to the refrigerator for several minutes.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator, place it on a lightly floured table, and roll it into a 12 x 6-inch rectangle.
Place the cold butter on the right half of the dough, then fold the other half of the dough over the butter. Pinch the edges to seal.
With the folded edge on your left, roll the dough out lengthwise so that it measures 22 x 10-inches. Next, fold the bottom third up and the top third down. This is the beurrage.
Cover the dough, place it on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 45 minutes.
For the turns, remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on a lightly floured surface.
Position the dough so that the folded edge running the length of the dough is on the left. Make sure the edges are still sealed. Roll the dough out length wise so it measures approximately 22 x 10-inches. Fold the dough in thirds, beginning with the lower third, as before (you have completed one turn.)
Place the dough on the baking sheet. With your finger make one small indentation on an edge of the dough to indicate one turn has been made. Cover and refrigerate for 45 minutes. Repeat this process 2 more times. Doing three turns. Return the dough to the baking sheet and refrigerate overnight.
To make Pain au Chocolate:
Whisk together the egg and milk. Line a baking with parchment paper.
Roll the croissant dough out to a 28 x 12-inch rectangle.
Cut the dough into three 4-inch strips.
Cut each strip into 7-inch long pieces.
Brush each piece with egg wash.
Sprinkle with 2-3 tablespoon of chocolate chips onto the middle third of each piece of dough.
Fold the lower third over the chips and the upper third over that. Gently press or seal with your fingers.
Repeat this process with the rest of the dough.
Place seam side down on a baking sheet.
Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and divide the pastries between them, leaving approximately 2inches between each one to allow space for rising. Brush them with the left over egg glaze and let rise until they are puffy and feel like marshmallows.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place the baking sheets on the center 4rack in the oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until golden brown.