Monday, December 29, 2008

Happy 2009

Thought I might share some New Year's Eve cheer a few days early....I think this picture epitomizes the grandiose feeling that each New Year's Eve brings, or at least, evokes: elegance, hope, celebration of what has been and what will be, good company and good cheer. No matter what the state of the economy today, I'm holding on to this ideal....

Blinis with smoked salmon, crème fraîche & caviar

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy, (and let's hope prosperous) 2009!
Happy New Year to you!

I'll be back in touch after we return from our "desert adventure". :)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in Paris, 2008 - Part 3

Here's what I saw last night on my walk home to our apartment: the blue Christmas tree in front of Notre Dame de Paris. And I almost had la place (the plaza) to myself. Hardly anyone was there. I love moments like that.

Then I passed by our little boulangerie-patisserie. I'm so glad to have this shop right around the corner...and in fact, it's a respected name here in Paris: Gosselin. Nice decorations outside; even nicer decorations inside!! It's hard not to stop and look in the window. The buche de noël are especially tempting...but I said to myself that I wanted to make one at home again this year. We'll see if there is enough time, or not, but it's always nice to have a back-up plan, isn't it?

Finally, on a more personal home - here's our little Christmas tree (and us). The tree is cute, isn't it? Same size as last year...I'm starting to like the scaled down Christmas. By the time I finished decorating it, I was just getting tired of doing the job...which made it perfect timing. Any longer & I would've needed a break....any shorter & I would've felt like I wanted to do more.

Last year it was Eric who surprised me with a tree, all decorated. Mom and I were making the buche de noël in the kitchen without a clue that anything was happening out in the living room. What a surprise we had when, into the room we went, there we found a cute little tree, all lit up and decorated! This year, it was my turn. While Eric was off playing (I mean working) in the French Alps for the weekend, I decided to surprise him. He liked it. And what really makes our little tree complete are those little packages under the tree....sent all the way from Appleton, Wisconsin with hugs & kisses from mom & dad (hidden behind us).

Bonnes fêtes de fin d'anée - Happy Holidays to everyone.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas in Paris, 2008 - Part 2

I think the Champs Elysée is always stylish when dressed in its holiday lights. This year, I think for the first time ever, there is a big Christmas market starting at Place Concorde and going along the Champs Elysée. In Chicago, a similar idea (but on a much smaller scale) is called the "Christkindlmarket". In Strasburg or in Alsace, the real Christmas markets can be found. Oops, that's a faux pas if ever there was one....I guess we need to actually go to Germany to see the real "real markets". (Right, Ulla?!)

Seeing as we have a thing for these markets, we decided to check out what the Champs Elysee has to offer. We heard that each country of the EU would be represented and would be offering specialty Christmas items from its region. Great idea we thought. We started our excursion at Place du Concorde & walked toward the Arche de Triomphe. The beautiful lights sprawling the Champs Elysée charmed us. I especially liked the spheres of lights sitting in a shallow pool of water, showing a spectacularly nice reflection. At Rue Montaigne, we were drawn in by the beautiful red lights lining the street. All of this was great. I do love lights. Here are some pictures - doesn't it look nice?

And it is a very nice idea, but unfortunately, I think the market itself somehow lacked a spirit. The spirit of what we thought it was going to be. Maybe the taxi driver got the story wrong about it having regional products from the EU countries. Maybe the time of day had something to do with our disappointment. First, avoid going on a late Sunday afternoon, like we did. It was absolutely packed with people, which obviously took the fun away from browsing each booth. Second, avoid (if possible), going there after it rains because the dirt path that boarders the relatively narrow paved sidewalk turns into a puddle of mud. This is especially a problem if you happen to accidently step in a big puddle (like someone I know!) trying to get a look at the rather maigre (thin) Santa Claus....! I wish we had seen a lot of really cool hand crafted items, but we only saw a few. And imagine our surprise when we saw a booth hosted by GDFSuez....not selling a tangible thing (or was it energy they were trying to sell? kidding)...well, it was hard to find the symbolism of Christmas anyway. We ended up seeing a somewhat limited view of the market given the dynamics at play that day, and when we got to the metro Franklin Roosevelt, we called it quits. Too many people; not enough energy to fight the crowd, and really only a limited interest in what merchandise we could see, unfortunately. Oh, well, it was worth checking out anyway. For the lights alone.

p.s. I heard that the ferris wheel at Place Concorde is really great -- each cabin is enclosed in glass and they're heated....doesn't that sound like fun?!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas in Paris, 2008 - Part 1

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas....everywhere I go....

Christmas in Paris is very nice. Definitely quiet, but nice nonetheless - most Parisians leave the city to spend time with their families en province (anything outside of Paris). So, that leaves lots of tranquility for those of us staying behind....definitely a good thing if you're looking for a stress-free holiday, and who isn't?

Over the past three years, I've seen more & more lights and decorations hit the streets. However, if you ask me, it's still not over-the-top, even if hints of commercialism seem to be creeping in. I started to see decorations before Thanksgiving, which gave me a chuckle since without the Thanksgiving holiday to officially happen first, it's kind of OK to see it start before the last Thursday of November, if you know what I mean!

Here are a few photos from yesterday - to share some holiday spirit from Paris.

This is the big Christmas tree inside the Galeries Lafayette department store: still beautiful as ever. I never seem to grow tired of looking at all of its regal splendor.

Below are some pictures of the decorated windows at Galeries Lafayette. Very adorable, in a festive sort of way. But, you won't find traditional holiday fare here - not one bit. No reindeer. No Santa. No snow or snowman. No green; no red. No North wrapped gifts under a tree....well, you get the picture (abundantly). But, hey, we are in Paris after all, so who says it has to have the symbolism that I'm accustomed to back in the states??!!

Back to fantasy land Paris's nice. I'm not sure I understand what some of the window stories are saying as far a Christmas goes...I mean, there are teddy bears dressed in surgical gowns flying through the air...and, pink flamingos standing on their heads on a patch of strawberries...(see below)?

It's all pure fantasy, simply put, and if there's a story interwoven between each window...well, I admit it went over my head. That's no matter - these elaborate productions are to be appreciated for what they are - full of motion, magic, and sweet dreams. They made me smile, even if I felt the colors were gearing me up for Valentine's day instead of Christmas. But I digress....

I'm glad I saw the charming windows at Galeries Lafayette this year...because Christmas without seeing their fantasy land is just not complete! (This must come from the many years of seeing the Marshall Field's State Street windows in called Macy's...but I'll always remember it as Marshall Field's). If you go to Galeries Lafayette or Printemps, however, be warned that the crowds can be large...

I hadn't expected to write this entire post on Galeries more later on other photos of Christmas in Paris, 2008. A bienôt! (See you soon!)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Pumpkin Pie De-Briefing

At Ecole Ferrandi, we had debriefings after absolutely everything we here's my de-briefing for pumpkin pie (that sounds better than post-mortem, doesn't it?). Or, we could consider it as pre-planning for Thanksgiving 2009, depending on how you want to look at it!

Can you believe that I had never made a pumpkin pie before in my life? Never! Am I American or not?!! Kidding. It's just that Mom was the one who always baked the best pumpkin & pecan pies ever. I always simply enjoyed them, along with the rest of my family. But this year I was on the line for making three of them. And 2 pecan pies (I never made those before, either.)

In order to make a pumpkin pie, you obviously need the key ingredient: pumpkin. Everyone always uses the canned stuff....Libby's 100% pure, right? Right. Normally.

But what do you do when you need to make 3 pumpkin pies, and have only enough cans of Libby to make 1? And you live in Paris, which means you can't just jump in your car & run over to the nearest Jewel food store to buy the other two cans. Your choices here are: (1) take a metro (subway) to The Thanksgiving Store in the Marais district (I kid you not, this is the real name of the store), and pay a fortune for the stuff, or (2) go to the outdoor market just steps from your apt & buy a fresh pumpkin & make it yourself.

I guess by the way I worded those two options, and the photos, it's pretty obvious which path I took (#2). Plus, if I can avoid the perpetually jam-packed metro line #1, I will. In a heart beat. And, wouldn't it be interesting to see what would happen to go grass roots on making a pumpkin pie? Here it is.

Make Pumpkin Purée as a replacement for Libby's - As easy as 1-2-3
1. Scrape seeds & strings from pumpkin & bake uncovered at 180°C until done, ~ 1 hour- 1.5 hours. Add a little water to bottom of pan, if you like, to prevent burning.

2. Scrape off the cooked pumpkin pulp from the rind & put pulp into food processor. Pulse until fine.

3. Drain overnight in refrigerator. I used a fine meshed chinois (strainer). If your strainer is not fine mesh, then I'd line it with a cheese cloth before adding the pumpkin. It is not necessary to actually pass the pulp through the strainer (passer au chinois in french) if the pumpkin texture is nice & smooth. I didn't do it, I'm glad to say!

Comparison: fresh pumpkin purée vs canned Libbys

Taste: the canned tasted like tin....there was no pumpkin taste. The fresh tasted like, well, pumpkin!

Texture: both were smooth; free of "strings"; no difference.

Color: the canned one was dull brown-ish; the fresh one was vibrant orange.

Substitution: a 1:1 (by weight) works well.

Mom's Pumpkin Pie Recipe - with fresh pumpkin

Pie dough for 1 pie
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp mace (optional)
15 oz. pumpkin purée
12 oz evaporated milk or ~8 oz crème épaisse (thick cream, as a substitute for 12 oz evaporated milk, another ingredient not readily available here).

1) Wisk eggs. Blanchir les oeufs ==> add sugar & wisk till it lightens in color slightly. Add all spices. Add pumpkin & mix. Add half the cream & continue adding more until it's a good consistency & not too heavy on the cream. Add more spices at the end if you need it. I found that I needed to add more because the taste of pumpkin was too prominant; I kept adding a 1/4 tsp here & 1/4 tsp there until it tasted good to me. In the end, I practically doubled the amount of spice.

2) Bake at 425°F (220°C) for 10 minutes & then reduce temperature to 350°F (175°C) & continue baking 40-50 minutes or until "clean knife test" says it's done. Be careful to watch your crust to assure it doesn't get too dark. If it does, cover with tin foil & it should be fine.

My Conclusions:
  • There is no comparison between fresh pumpkin purée and canned 100% pure pumpkin. The fresh pumpkin just naturally tastes better.
  • However, when it's baked in the pie, the difference between fresh pumpkin & canned pumpkin becomes less obvious, because of the spices, eggs, & cream.
  • Therefore, I would use canned pumpkin if it were conveniently and cheaply available. Since that's not the case in Paris, I will use fresh pumpkin without hesitation & without fear that it'll turn out a strange pumpkin pie (these were my worries, oddly enough!!).
  • When using fresh pumpkin, I'll always drain it overnight to remove the excess water because otherwise, it might affect the texture of the pie. AND, I'll add more spices (up to two times the quantity) to get the right balance between pumpkin & pumpkin pie spice.
  • Substituting crème épaisse (ie, a thick cream, almost like a sour cream in consistency) for evaporated milk works perfectly fine but it's not a 1:1 substitution. My cream was extremely fresh and thick, so I stopped adding cream at about 1 cup (225g), or before it started to become too creamy-tasting.
  • Making pumpkin pies in France does not have to be intimidating, even if it's for 25 people where the (self-imposed) stakes are high to make a perfect American pie! This recipe, with the substitutions, can be trusted and therefore, next worries! You can even make the batter days in advance & then pour it into the prepared pie dough & bake it off the day before - this will make the holiday planning just a little easier, I think.
  • American style pumpkin pie (meaning nice & thick) is still one of my favorites....and having a left-over piece of pie the next morning for breakfast with a nice cappuccino is very....yummmm!