Gâteau noix-amandes-orange

Here’s a cake that’s both Moorish and ‘more-ish’. Moorish because its ground walnuts and almonds, orange zest, cinnamon and rose water are evocative of North African cuisine. More-ish because, as I discovered when I served it this week, one serving was not enough for the guests around my table. This cake is also unusual because it contains no flour. That makes it both gluten-free and ideal for serving during the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Gâteau noix-amandes-orange / Walnut-almond-orange cake

Passover and Easter are both coming up soon (April 5 and April 8). I’ve posted various Easter recipes on this site, and this year I decided to post one for Passover (aka Pesach), the holiday commemorating the exodus of the Jews from ancient Egypt. It is a time when Jews are meant to consume no flour except in matzo — unleavened bread. In the Ashkenazi world, cakes served during the eight days of Passover are typically made with matzo meal and can be, well, a bit stodgy. But when I moved to Paris, where many Jews with North African roots have settled, the world of Sephardic cooking opened up to me.

Sephardic Passover cakes generally use ground almonds or walnuts instead of matzo meal, and are leavened with beaten egg whites. They are often flavored with orange or lemon, redolent of Spain, while rose water evokes the cuisine of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. I’d made such cakes before, but couldn’t remember the recipe. Looking for inspiration, I turned to Claudia Roden’s wonderful Book of Jewish Food, which features many Passover cakes. I combined three of her recipes to create today’s offering.

At a Seder, the traditional meal on the first (and sometimes also the second) of the eight nights of Passover, the dessert is highly anticipated after several hours of reading, eating and drinking as it signals the approaching end of the festivities, which generally conclude with song.  The meal begins with the reading of the Haggadah, which tells the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt via the Red Sea after God appears to him in a burning bush. Once he gets the message, the story goes, Moses tells everyone they have to leave at once. The women object that their bread hasn’t had time to rise. But they must go quickly, so they bring the unleavened bread along for the journey — hence matzo.

The Seder is hardly a solemn affair. Each participant will drink four glasses of wine during the reading of the Haggadah. Before the Seder begins, the door of the home is opened and an extra glass of wine is set on the table in hopes that the prophet Elijah will appear. Although no one ever sees Elijah, that glass of wine is always empty by the time the Seder concludes. Perhaps (she said knowingly) it is surreptitiously consumed while the children are searching for the Hafikomen, another high point of the evening.

And what is the Hafikomen? A Seder table is always set with various items that symbolize the ordeal of the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt. In the center of the table are three matzos, generally covered by a napkin. Toward the start of the meal, the middle matzo is broken in two, and one of the halves is hidden. As the children sit through the reading of the Haggadah, they never lose sight of the fact that by the end of the evening they will hunt for the Hafikomen, and the one who finds it will get a present.

Also on the table are parsley or celery, symbolizing the arrival of spring, to be dipped in salt water, representing the tears of the enslaved Jews. Bitter herbs, generally horseradish, also represent the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. The bitter herbs are eaten between two small pieces of matzo with haroset, a mixture of fruit and nuts representing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the pyramids. In the Ashkenazi tradition, haroset is often made of apples, walnuts, cinnamon and a splash of red wine, and is quite delicious. (I considered putting that recipe on the site today, but instead opted for the cake.) Claudia Roden gives five Sephardic recipes for haroset — from Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Italy and the Piedmont region of northern Italy. They use dates or raisins or chestnuts rather than apples, but the concept is the same. The final two symbolic items on the table are a boiled egg that has been roasted and a roasted lamb bone. These are merely observed, not eaten.

All this is just a prelude to the festive Seder dinner, which can vary widely. In the Ashkenazi tradition, the meal may begin with matzo ball soup — chicken broth with fluffy dumplings made of matzo meal. My grandmother, not necessarily the world’s greatest cook, was a real pro at matzo ball soup, so the first time I made it I thought it would be easy. As I proudly brought the steaming bowls of soup to the table, a guest dipped in her spoon, tried a dumpling and exclaimed, ‘These aren’t matzo balls — these are cannonballs!’ Oops. The next year I tried again, using Claudia Roden’s recipe. Success.

Another first course that is often served in Ashkenazi families is gefilte fish, known in French as carpe farci (stuffed carp). When I was a child, gefilte fish came in the form of small, largely tasteless lumps from a jar. Well, they don’t serve gefilte fish out of a jar in France. To make it, I was told, and this was back in the ’70s, one needed to go to the fish monger and buy a live carp that was to be brought home and kept alive in the bathtub until one was ready to cook it, at which time one first had to kill it. I decided to pass on that. Instead, my boyfriend’s mother — who had been born in Poland, fled to Paris in the ’30s and survived the Nazi occupation of France — gave me her recipe. She mixed fillets of cod, or any white fish, with eggs, matzo meal, onion, carrots, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar, and formed little oval loaves that she simmered in fish stock. Truly delicious.

The main dish at a Seder is frequently chicken or lamb, dishes that are also often served on Easter. The two holidays are linked, of course, because, according to the Gospel, when Jesus gathered with his apostles for what became known as The Last Supper, the meal was a Seder. The dates of both holidays are determined by the lunar calendar, although they rarely coincide, because Easter is always celebrated on a Sunday while Passover moves around. Did the concept of the Easter egg evolve from the Passover egg? Perhaps…

In any event, given all the wine that is consumed before and during the Passover meal, not to mention the arguing over the fine points of the text and the telling of funny stories, the conversation tends to be lively by the time dessert appears. If you happen to be celebrating Passover and decide to make the walnut-almond-orange cake, I have no doubt it will be appreciated. Inevitably, shortly after it’s served, the participants will break into song.

But this cake can be served any time of the year, at lunchtime, teatime or dinnertime. If you’d like to go with a Mediterranean theme, you could start with Moroccan carrot salad and eggplant caviar, serve a chicken tagine as the main course with couscous and a salad, and conclude with the cake. Your guests just might start to sing…

Happy cooking.

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Poisson à la bordelaise

This fish dish with a crusty topping is extremely popular in France and a breeze to make. The topping ‘à la bordelaise‘ — literally Bordeaux style — combines breadcrumbs, shallots, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon and a splash of white wine. Cod or hake are often used, but in fact any white-fleshed fish is fine. The upshot is a sophisticated French take on breaded fish. But does this family friendly dish actually hail from Bordeaux?

Poisson à la bordelaise / Crusted fish ‘bordelaise’

The amusing answer, mes amis, is not at all. According to Papilles & Pupilles, a well-regarded French cooking site, the dish was the invention of an employee working in the kitchens of the Findus frozen food company at Boulogne-sur-Mer, which lies on the northern coast of France just south of Calais, about 500 miles from Bordeaux. This was back in 1966. The company was seeking to expand its line of fish dishes and named it ‘à la bordelaise‘ for marketing purposes, to make it sound like authentic country cooking.

So France first discovered poisson à la bordelaise in the frozen food aisles of its supermarkets. Soon children across the country were being served poisson à la bordelaise in their school cafeterias. This history was provided to Papilles & Pupilles by a reader named Renaud who said that the dish evoked such strong culinary memories for him that it was almost like Proust’s madeleine. It wasn’t long before home cooks started making the dish, with results distinctly superior to the premade frozen variety.

The name is not too much of a stretch since ‘bordelaise‘ is applied to a wide range of dishes that have in common the use of shallots and wine. One such is entrecôte bordelaise, or pan-seared steak with shallots. The most classic fish dish prepared à la bordelaise is — wait for it — lamprey, in which the once popular eel-like fish is cooked in red wine and its own blood. You will not be finding that recipe on this site…

Meantime here in Paris I’ve been dealing with more cauchemars en cuisine (nightmares in the kitchen). First my stove imploded just before nightfall while I was busy preparing dinner for six. What turned out to be a fault in the wiring shorted out the electricity in half of the house, including the kitchen. It’s a gas stove — only the spark that lights the burners was electric — so I got out the matches and finished cooking the dinner. By candlelight…

As the stove was kaput I had to buy a new one — and discovered to my dismay that no stoves with gas burners and a gas oven were available in Paris due to supply chain issues linked to the war in Ukraine. The new stove (gas burners, electric oven) is less than ideal. Among other issues the grates over the burners have spaces so wide that my little Italian coffee pot falls through the gap. Cauchemar!

Then I discovered thanks to ‘pingbacks’ that my site was being pirated. It wasn’t the first time this has happened, but after I posted my last recipe, for basil hummus, there were two such pingbacks, one of which led to a site that had translated my post into German (see screenshot at right).

The second one led to a site in English, road2france.com, which had published a version that must have been translated into some other language and then back into English because it cited ‘The On a Regular Basis French Chef’ (!), changed ‘the first time’ to ‘the primary time’, et cetera. (Unfortunately I neglected to take a screenshot, and they have now taken down the post.) In each case I wrote to the site to complain. I got a reply only from road2france, which said that all the news on their site was ‘automatically uploaded from Google’. I wrote back to ask what that meant, but they didn’t reply.

This is the kind of thing that can drive a blogger crazy. I enjoy writing this blog, but many hours of work go into each post — choosing a recipe, shopping for the ingredients, cooking the dish (sometimes more than once), taking the photo, researching the history of the dish, writing up the recipe and writing the post that goes with it.

Meantime the people who pirate my site are publishing ads, which I decided from the outset not to do in order to keep the site reader friendly — although I am solicited several times each week by people wanting to advertise or publish sponsored content on my site. Thus the pirates are not just committing theft of intellectual property but also making money from my work, and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it. If anyone has a recipe for putting an end to this situation, please let me know. Nonetheless…

Happy cooking.

Posted in 5. Fish and Shellfish | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Hoummous au basilic

Basil hummus? Why not? I discovered this recipe thanks to my friend Yana, a Ukrainian artist who’s lived in Paris for the last 30 years. What she makes is idiosyncratic, often with an artist’s touch. Her anchovy dip is fantastic, but when I discovered that it involved nothing but anchovies and pure butter, I gasped at how much I’d consumed. The basil hummus is lighter. She served it on a summer’s evening, with basil plucked from her garden.

Hoummous au basilic / Basil hummus

The addition of puréed basil leaves is the only thing that differentiates this hummus from standard hummus, but that difference adds depth of flavor and zest. The other ingredients are chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, garlic, cumin, salt and pepper, and if you’d like extra bite, a crushed cayenne pepper. Sounds easy, right? Well, yes and no.

The first time I made basil hummus I followed Yana’s instructions to the letter. This led to a cauchemar en cuisine — or ‘Nightmare in the Kitchen’, the name of a popular series over here in which a well-known chef, Philippe Etchebest, comes to the rescue of struggling restaurants. In their kitchens, if it can go wrong, it will. So what did I do wrong?

The first thing was to start with dry chickpeas, which need to be soaked overnight before being boiled for a couple of hours until totally tender. I set the chickpeas to boil and then forgot about them, having neglected to set a timer. I remembered when the smell of burning invaded my apartment. The chickpeas were wrecked. I had to chuck them.

So I started again, this time with canned chickpeas. Yana had assured me that the result would be much the same. However, she said, it was advisable to slip the skins off the chickpeas before puréeing them. This would make for a smoother and more digestible dip. Well, dear readers, I did it, but will never do it again. It took about half an hour to remove the skins from 301 chickpeas — I counted them. Boring…

In any event, once your chickpeas are ready, it’s a simple matter to puréé them with the rest of the ingredients. The basil is puréed separately with a little olive oil, much as you’d do when making pesto. This works better than trying to purée the basil leaves directly into the chickpea mixture — I tried that first, with less success.

I have now simplified the recipe to make it both easy and quick. And the result was satisfactory, judging from the reaction of my guest, who lapped it all up. You can serve basil hummus during cocktail hour with veggie sticks or pita triangles, or as a starter as part of a mezze spread. Yana says it is also delicious over grilled vegetables.

Meantime I have updated The Everyday French Chef’s menus for winter — a good thing, as we’re heading towards spring at last — and have also refreshed two winter favorites that needed new photos, sauté de veau and Normandy apple tart.

Happy cooking.

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Chaudrée de palourdes

I tried this clam chowder at the Hog Island Oyster Co. in Napa, California, and when I finished it I knew I needed the recipe. What I didn’t know is that chowder, an American dish, has French roots — or that the word ‘chowder’ derives from the French chaudrée, meaning cauldron. This I discovered upon my return to Paris. I quickly went out and bought the ingredients — clams, potatoes, leek, celery, carrot, bacon and heavy cream.

Chaudrée de palourdes / Clam chowder

The recipe is easy and takes about half an hour to prepare. The key to success is to use the small, sweet clams known as palourdes in French, Manila clams or steamers in English, and vongole in Italian. The clams should be as fresh as possible — at Hog Island Oyster Co., where I lunched with my cousin Paul on a cold, wet January afternoon, we were told that the clams had been fished out of a nearby bay that very morning.

That was one reason our lunch was so memorable. The other was the oysters we had as a starter. As reluctant as I may be to say so, those oysters were better than any I’ve had in France — or anywhere else for that matter. They were small but deep, succulent and nutty. A crisp Chardonnay grown on the surrounding vines in Napa completed the picture.

I spent three weeks in California over the new year, mainly in the Bay Area, and from a foodie point of view the trip held other surprises. The most startling thing was the prices. On the night I arrived, I went out with a friend to a laid-back joint in Oakland where two bacon cheeseburgers, two glasses of red and a glass of sparkling water cost … $80. About double what it would cost in Paris. Likewise, at a bakery in San Diego, three cups of soup, a turkey sandwich and a plate of potato chips set my cousin Janice back $80. But that was nothing compared to my bill of $150 for lunch for two at a Greek place in San Francisco.

Or the eye-popping $700 bill for dinner for four at a high-end Chinese, where the creative five-course fixed-price menu ($90 per person not counting drinks, dessert, tax or tip) included a starter of ‘Winter Perigord Truffle Puff’, ‘Chilled Fresh Lily Bulb’ and ‘Scallop and Caviar Roll’ (at left). Okay, the view was fantastic and the ambiance refined, and the cost wasn’t an issue for me as I was generously treated by my brother and sister-in-law. But it made me realize that, although Paris is reputedly one of the world’s most expensive cities, one can dine out, well, for far less.

Getting back to chowder, it is said to have originated on the Atlantic coast of France, where la chaudrée is a soup of fish and shellfish cooked with veggies, bacon, white wine and cream. According to lore, French immigrants enjoyed what was to become known as chowder while sailing to the United States and Canada in the 17th century. It put down roots first as New England clam chowder, similar to today’s recipe, and later as Manhattan clam chowder, made with a tomato broth and no cream.

Despite its French roots, clam chowder is not served in restaurants in Paris — at least, in my nearly 50 years here, I’ve never encountered it. Which means that in order to enjoy this warming, ultraflavorful soup, you need to go hunting for clams. This I did at my local farmers market, where various types of clams — including two sorts of palourdes, small and large — were on sale on a recent Sunday. If fresh clams aren’t available where you live, you can buy them online in the States or in the UK.

Happy cooking.

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Risotto aux épinards

I discovered spinach risotto many years ago at a dinner party in Venice. Our host, a genial fellow named Giorgio, was chatting me up, so I followed him into the kitchen and watched as he chopped and sautéd and ladled and stirred. Distracted by his charm, I didn’t know what he was making until he brought the dish to the table. ‘Risotto agli spinaci’, he announced with a flourish. One earthy, creamy, tangy mouthful and I was in heaven. Pure bliss.

Risotto aux épinards / Spinach risotto

Was it the ambience that made that evening so special? This was back in 1981 during the Carnevale, a magical time what with mist rising off the canals and masked Venetians saluting each other in the town’s bars and squares. When the faces weren’t masked, they looked straight out of the 16th century portraits in the Accademia. You could turn a corner and hear someone singing an aria through an open window. Nureyev was performing at La Fenice, and with luck you could run into him at a corner cafe. All senses were heightened. So tasting Giorgio’s spectacular risotto only added to my mood of intoxication.

The next morning I phoned him up to ask for the recipe. What was the secret? The ingredients were simple — onion, spinach, rice, wine, broth, butter and parmesan — and yet they combined to produce a sublimely subtle dish. Giorgio said he’d get back to me, but it took him a couple of months to oblige. By that time I was back in Paris and had almost forgotten about risotto. Then a letter arrived in the post.

The letter was divided into sections. Between Part I (‘Political’) and Part IV (‘Personal’) came Part III (‘Recipe for the risotto’). It called for well-cleaned spinach, rice (‘two handfuls per person’) and noted that the risotto must be thick — ‘it’s not a soup, one must be able to eat it with a fork’. I bought the ingredients, came home and made it. Success.

Shortly after receiving Giorgio’s letter, I learned that I have family roots in 16th century Venice, which could help explain why I took such a liking to risotto. It is a signature dish of Venice and comes in many other varieties, one of the best of which is made with the ink of a squid. On this site you can find recipes for risotto with radicchio, asparagus and peas, saffron, morel mushrooms, pumpkin and thyme, lobster and wild mushrooms.

I owe this all to Giorgio. I never saw him again, yet I’ve saved his letter all these years. His closing words were very touching. ‘Needless to say, I’d like to see you,’ he wrote, ‘and wish it could be soon. Who knows? Take care of yourself. Be kissed. Giorgio.’

Happy cooking.

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Choux farcis

The French love stuffed cabbage in winter. They serve it two ways — with meatballs rolled up in individual cabbage leaves and, impressively, as a reconstituted whole cabbage with the stuffing inserted between the leaves. This recipe, which uses the far easier first method, puts a French twist on a dish my grandmother used to serve, with flavors redolent of her Jewish Ukrainian roots.

Choux farcis / Stuffed cabbage rolls

Prepartion takes time, but it’s worth the effort. The first step is blanching the outer leaves of a large head of cabbage. In Eastern Europe, white cabbage is generally used, but the French prefer dark green Savoy cabbage, which has the advantage of being easier to handle. The next step is making meatballs and rolling them up in the blanched leaves. A sauce is then made of the shredded inner leaves of the cabbage, onion, garlic, tomatoes and broth. Red wine vinegar and sugar are added to produce a sweet-and-sour taste. The rolls are cooked in the sauce in two stages, first on the stovetop and then in the oven.

One thing that differentiates this version from more typical French recipes is the use of ground beef on its own rather than a mixture of beef, pork and/or veal. Another is the absence of bacon, which is often used in France to bard individual stuffed cabbage leaves that are then tied up with string. And then there’s the sauce, which in France rarely includes tomato and is never sweet and sour (at least I’ve never encountered it that way).

What makes this recipe more French than my grandmother’s version is the use of herbes de Provence, France’s go-to mixture of dried rosemary, thyme, savory and oregano. Preparation of the sauce is also different, as the veggies are sautéd in olive oil before the cabbage rolls are added. Grandma Anne simply boiled everything all together.

If you’d like to experiement with the whole cabbage version, typical of the rugged Auvergne region of central France, there are two ways to go about it. In the first, large blanched cabbage leaves are used to line a pot. The meat stuffing and more cabbage leaves are then layered in, with the large leaves folded over the top to form a globe. In a more elaborate version, a whole cabbage is boiled and, when cool, the center leaves are removed, the outer leaves are pried apart, the stuffing is inserted and the cabbage is formed back into a globe and tied up with string or crépine, a lacy pork membrane.

Now for a little history. In Ukraine, stuffed cabbage rolls are known as holubtsi, or little doves, because they are thought to resemble birds in a nest. In Yiddish, they are known as holishkes. I never heard this name in my family because my grandparents only spoke Yiddish in front of the kinder when they didn’t want us to understand. But my grandma — who was born in the States in the 1890s but conceived in Ukraine, then part of the Russian empire, before her family departed — would have known them this way.

According to Wikipedia, stuffed cabbage rolls have been part of Jewish cuisine for 2,000 years. Preparation varied according to region. Syrian Jews added cinnamon, while Persian Jews added dill and mint. The dish was often served on Simchat Torah, an early autumn holiday marking the end of the yearlong reading of the Torah scrolls and the start of a new cycle (rolls perhaps because the year was rolling around again?).

But Jewish versions are just one incarnation of a dish that has been served for centuries across much of Europe as well as the Near East and North Africa. Cabbage rolls may be stuffed with rice or another grain, mushrooms, potato, crushed walnuts or eggs, with or without meat. They may be served with sour cream on top, alongside or in the sauce (but not in Jewish families). In the Nordic countries, they are served with lingonberry jam on the side. There are apparently even Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese versions.

In France wine is often included in the sauce for stuffed cabbage rolls, but I prefer my grandmother’s recipe without it. Yet nothing says the dish cannot be accompanied by wine — in fact, in this country, that would be a travesty. I’d recommend a smooth red, for example a Bordeaux such as a Médoc or a Côtes du Rhone. For starters, you could serve beet salad with walnuts, winter salad with walnuts and pears or, if you’re feeling ambitious, homemade gravalax (which needs to be prepared one day in advance). For dessert, I’d suggest pears in red wine and cassis or sliced oranges with star anise.

Happy cooking.

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Crème de la crème, Part II

Winter’s here, bring on the comfort food! This is the second chapter of ‘Crème de la crème’, a seasonal feature marking the tenth anniversary of The Everyday French Chef. On the menu are my favorite winter recipes (not including holiday recipes — if you’re still thinking about what to serve on Christmas or New Year’s, click here). First up, a soup that a Frenchman recently told me was an American invention. Nothing could be more wrong.

Soupe à l’oignon gratinée / French onion soup

French onion soup is known over here as une gratinée — because the soup is topped with a bubbly golden crust (gratin) of toast and melted cheese. It’s been around for several hundred years. According to one legend, it was popularized after being served to Stanislas Leszczynski, a former king of Poland and duke of Lorraine, who also happened to be the father-in-law of King Louix XV of France. He liked it so much that he learned the recipe and cooked it himself for the royal couple at Versailles. This was back in the 1700s.

According to the Grand Larousse gastronomique, my go-to book on French culinary history, onion soup served without the cheese hails from Lyon, while the cheesy version is Parisian. It was traditionally served in the wee hours at the huge market at Les Halles and at bistros in Montmartre. Among its other qualities (it’s healthy, inexpensive and easy to make), it was reputed to be the soup favored by drinkers, as the perfume of the onions was strong enough to disguise alcohol breath. This soup crossed the ocean only in the 1960s, when French cuisine became popular in the States. So, no, an American invention it is not.

I love serving French onion soup in winter because it’s one of those dishes that warms the vittles, as we said over there. While it may be served as a first course, it is hearty enough to be a meal on its own, accompanied by a green salad and a bottle of sturdy red. I make it once or twice a year — not because it’s difficult but because there are so many other wonderful cold-weather dishes to choose from.

So now for my list of favorite winter recipes. As fresh fruits and veggies are less plentiful than at other times of the year, these dishes feature root vegetables, shellfish, legumes and other ingredients that come into season in winter. As in my first Crème de la crème post this past autumn, I’ve chosen three dishes from each of the site’s categories — mix and match as you like. You will find some menu suggestions below.

Assiette d’huîtres / Oyster plate
Blini / Blini with smoked salmon or red caviar
Harengs pommes à l’huile / Herring with potatoes and beets

Crème de lentilles / Creamy lentil soup
Potée auvergnate / Hearty winter soup from Auvergne
Velouté de brocolis / Broccoli soup


Salade de haricots rouges aux noix / Red bean salad with walnuts
Salade mâche-betterave / Salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets
Salade pommes de terre anchois / Potato-anchovy salad

Oeufs au caviar rouge / Eggs topped with red caviar
Omelette bonne femme / Omelet with bacon, potatoes and arugula
Soufflé au roquefort / Roquefort soufflé


Savory tarts and sandwiches
Croque-monsieur rustique / Open-faced croque-monsieur
Flamiche / Leek tart from northern France
Tarte à l’oignon rouge / Red onion tart

Fish and shellfish
Coques au satay / Cockles in satay sauce
Brandade de morue / Puréed salt cod and potatoes
Sole meunière / Sole meunière


Cordon bleu / Chicken cordon bleu
Parmentier de canard / Duck parmentier
Poulet rôti épicé / Roast chicken with spices

Meat dishes
Escalopes de veau à la crème / Veal scallops with cream and mushrooms
Haricot de mouton / French lamb and beans
Steak au poivre / Steak au poivre


Gratin de chou-fleur / Cauliflower gratin
Julienne de champignons / Mushrooms julienne
Légumes d’hiver rôtis / Roasted winter vegetables

Pasta and grains
Boulgour aux oignons rouges / Bulghur with red onion and mint
Pâtes aux moules et pecorino / Pasta with mussels and pecorino
Penne au safran, roquette et noix / Penne with saffron, arugula and walnuts

Crème caramel / Crème caramel
Salade d’oranges à la badiane / Sliced oranges with star anise
Tiramisu / Tiramisu

As an everyday French chef, how would I combine these dishes? Here are some examples:

For an everyday lunch, an open-faced croque-monsieur (ham and melted cheese sandwich) with a green salad. For a vegetarian version, French onion soup and flamiche (leek tart). For vegans, broccoli soup and red bean salad with walnuts. If you’re feeling ambitious, you could finish any of these selections with sliced oranges with star anise.

For an everyday dinner, herring with potatoes and beets followed by steak au poivre (steak with crushed black pepper in a cream sauce) or lamb and bean stew. For a vegetarian version, creamy lentil soup followed by cauliflower gratin. For vegans, a salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets followed by roasted winter vegetables.

For a weekend dinner, an oyster plate followed by roast chicken and roasted winter veggies, then a green salad, finishing up with tiramisu. For a vegetarian version, a roquefort soufflé followed by mushrooms julienne and a salad of lamb’s lettuce and beets, and concluding with crème caramel. You could add a cheese plate to either of these menus before dessert. For vegans, bulghur with red onion and mint, roasted winter veggies, a green salad and, for dessert, sliced oranges with star anise.

This may be the darkest time of the year, but we’ve passed the solstice, the days are already growing longer and as we cast our eyes toward spring I hope that these suggestions will inspire you to spend some happy moments in the kitchen. Wishing you all a joyous holiday season and a sparkling start to 2023. And…

Happy cooking!

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Bûche de Noël chocolat-noisette

It’s no secret that a highlight of French Christmas is the bûche de Noël that crowns a festive meal. What is less well known is that the traditional Yule log cake is rarely — but I mean, really rarely — made at home in France. This is because prettily decorated bûches in all sizes are on offer at every pastry shop in the country during the season. And yet, as I discovered in my kitchen, it’s both possible and amusing to make one yourself.

Bûche de Noël chocolat-noisette / Chocolate-hazelnut Yule log

Not that I’m saying it was easy. It required both patience and a bit of dexterity. But it all paid off when my carefully chosen panel of tasters (my daughter and a few friends) tried the log shown in the photo. The most common comment? ‘More, please!’ Second most common comment? ‘What’s in it?’ (Short answer: It’s a thin hazelnut cake with a tiramisu-style mocha cream filling decorated with dark chocolate icing and hazelnuts.)

Now, before I go on, you should know that bûches de Noël come in an amazing profusion of flavors. Chocolate, coffee and vanilla are common but so, these days, are raspberry, passion fruit, pistachio, mango, chestnut and the list goes one. Pastry shops sell family-sized logs as well as bûchettes (just big enough for one person) and many sizes in between. Frozen bûches are also popular — made of ice cream or sherbet, sometimes with cake involved and sometimes not. Liberties have been taken with the shape. Sometimes the ‘logs’ are actually rectangular. And the decorations vary wildly. Here are some examples from Picard, France’s excellent frozen food chain.

When I set out to make a bûche, my first port of call was a cookbook I’ve had for decades called Faites votre patisserie comme Lenôtre — ‘Make your pastry like Lenôtre’ (Gaston Lenôtre was a famous French pastry chef). Sure enough, M. Lenôtre delivered the goods, proposing a variety of bûches decorated with delicate snowmen and mushrooms made of meringue and leaves made of green almond paste. Very traditional, yet a bit over the top for an everyday French chef. So I turned elsewhere for inspiration.

To tell you the truth, I spent hours searching for a recipe that looked both delicious and easy enough to make in a couple of hours. One that caught my eye was a recipe for a chocolate-hazelnut log by Cyril Lignac, a well-known contemporary chef. But then I read the fine print. His very handsome log was filled with pâte à tartiner, aka Nutella, a sweet chocolate-hazelnut spread loved by schoolchildren and avoided by everyone else. And it was iced with melted milk chocolate mixed with (I’m not kidding) a full cup of sunflower oil! At that point I decided to innovate — and that’s when the fun began.

I made my log on a chilly November morning, not knowing how long it would take. I was prepared to spend the day at it, but in fact the entire process took only two hours. You start by making the filling — a blend of mascarpone, egg yolks, sugar, cocoa, coffee and beaten egg whites. Then you make a thin sheet of hazelnut genoise (I used my oven tray for this). When the cake is done, you cut away the sides to form a clean rectangle, then coat it with the mascarpone filling and roll it up. Next you make the icing — dark chocolate melted with a little butter and cream (no sunflower oil!). The last step is decoration.

I’m posting this recipe well before Christmas to give you time to think it over and gather the ingredients. The good news is that this Yule log can be made in stages over a couple of days, and may be refrigerated for a couple more days before serving, or frozen if you want to get it ready ahead of time. It’s a bit more challenging than most of the recipes on this site. But if you’d like to produce an unforgettable Christmas dessert this year, go for it. And add a couple of sparklers when you bring it to the table. It will knock their socks off.

Happy cooking!

P.S. Planning ahead for Hanukah, Christmas or the New Year? Plenty of suggestions for festive meals with a French touch can be found on the Holiday Menus page.

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Burgers de canard

Duck has always been a big deal in France, culinarily speaking, and what with the popularity of a certain American import it was inevitable that the French would put their own twist on it and create the duck burger. Some recipes use confit de canard, or preserved duck, but most use the magret, or breast. In this one, a magret is chopped by hand, pan-fried or barbecued and topped with caramelized onions in a honey-mustard-thyme sauce.

Burgers de canard / Duck burgers

Hamburgers barely existed in France until 1972, when McDonald’s opened a branch outside Paris. Before then, Wimpy had a few outlets in Paris. I had the dubious pleasure of lunching at one back in 1969. Their hamburger was a barely edible thin leathery patty. But going there was still a kick because with your burger you could enjoy a glass of rosé, something unheard of at hamburger chains in the States. It wasn’t until the arrival of McDonald’s that the French took to burgers, and now they’re everywhere.

You can find the classic American (thick and juicy) beef burger in most Paris bistros these days. A popular French version tops the classic with foie gras. The gourmet chef Yannick Alléno, who boasts three Michelin stars, opened a burger joint with his son that features a veal burger with tarragon butter, parmesan, caramelized onions and basil. We have vegan burgers, bao burgers, Waygu beef burgers, crunchy salmon burgers, etc., generally served with French fries but sweet potato fries are on the rise. For my money, the best burgers in town can still be found at Joe Allen, where I’ve been enjoying them for nearly 50 years.

But getting back to the making of duck burgers, the trick is to include some of the fat from the magret — otherwise, your burger will be dry. (Not to worry, because most of the fat melts away during cooking.) The duck burgers may be pan-fried or (better) grilled over charcoal, if you’re lucky enough to have access to a barbecue. I serve the burgers on toasted buns with the caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, sliced red onion and my own spicy burger sauce. You can do the same, or be as inventive as you like.

Happy cooking.

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Chou en purée

Many years ago, when making boeuf bourguinon for a party, I discovered a sophisticated side dish with laughably humble origins — cabbage purée. How I discovered it is a mystery. I thought it might have been via Patricia Wells, but when I looked through her cookbooks it wasn’t there. Perhaps it was Julia Child? Negative. Well, whatever. I’ve been making it for years, and am always delighted when my guests can’t figure out what it is.

Chou en purée / Cabbage purée

Yes, that’s the second mystery. On the plate, people mistake if for mashed potatoes. But when they taste it — ooh là là. Not the same. As we are moving towards Thanksgiving and then Christmas, I wanted to share this recipe with you in time for you to think about perhaps innovating this year with a dish that is both simple to make and lovely to behold.

Meantime regular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy not just cooking but also word play. So while we’re on the subject of chou (cabbage), it’s one of those words in French that has evolved over the centuries to embrace many meanings. The most obvious, from a culinary perspective, is ‘cream puff’ (also chou), presumably because these puffy pastries could, if you used your imagination, look like mini heads of cabbage.

Linguistically that’s just the beginning. Say you’re a journalist. You’d like to cast aspersions on your rival’s newspaper? Quelle feuille de chou! Literally: ‘What a cabbage leaf!!’ Figuratively: ‘What a rag!’ Or if your rival writer can’t cut the mustard? Il est dans les choux. ‘He’s in the cabbage patch.’ (‘He’s floundering.’) You really want to insult him? Il est bête comme un chou. ‘He’s as stupid as a cabbage.’ (‘Quel dumb cluck.’)

But there’s sweeter side as well. Your tiny tot is amazing? Je t’aime, mon petit chou. Literally: ‘I love you, my little cabbage.’ Figuratively: ‘My little cupcake.’ Your boyfriend gives you a present? Trop chou! (‘Too cute!’) That guy’s amazing and you’re telling your friend about him? Il est chou. (‘He’s adorable.’) You’re telling him he’s amazing? T’es mon chouchou. ‘You’re my sweetiepie.’  (But be careful — chouchou is also French for scrunchy, as in the ponytail holders favored by Carrie Bradshaw in ‘Sex in the City’.)

And then there’s the childhood ditty ‘Savez-vous planter les choux?‘ As the song goes, ‘Do you know how to plant cabbages, they way we do it here?’ Well, by the time the song is finished you know that the French plant cabbages with their foot, with their knee, with their nose and with their elbow… But that’s enough silliness for today.

Chou en purée can be made either with standard white cabbage, which produces the mashed potato effect, or with curly Savoy cabbage, which produces a pale green purée with darker green flecks. It’s both quick to prepare and ultra inexpensive, and will marry happily with roast turkey, beef or chicken, with other veggies (such as roasted winter vegetables or sweet potato purée) or, well, with boeuf bourguignon.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 8. Vegetables | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments