Linzertorte is one of my favorite desserts, and when better to serve it than over the holidays? This classic cake, which takes its name from the Austrian town of Linz, is now enjoyed worldwide. The nutty shortbread-style pastry is filled with jam — typically black or red currant or plum — but in Alsace, where it is often served over the Christmas season, raspberry jam is preferred.

Linzertorte  / Linzertorte

I first began making linzertorte at the Café Dewitt in Ithaca, New York, where we turned out five fancy cakes a day along with soups, salads, sandwiches, quiches and a daily special such as boeuf bourguignon. The pastry is a sweet buttery dough to which ground nuts are added. Preparation is fun — you line a tart pan with part of the dough and use the rest to form ropes and create a lattice. The cake is often served with cream on the side.

There is plenty of lore about linzertorte, much of it dubious. If you search online, many recipes will tell you that this is the world’s oldest cake, with the first known recipe dating back to 1653. (Although the cake is said to hail from Linz, that early recipe was found in a document written in Verona, Italy). As it seemed unlikely that people began eating cake only four and a half centuries ago, I decided to look into the matter.

As it turns out, another of my favorite desserts, cheesecake, dates back to around 2000 BC, when it was enjoyed in ancient Greece, according to archeologists. Other forms of cake are still older. Pancakes have been dated to around 3300 BC, when Otzi the Iceman consumed them for what was to be his last meal. And corn-flour tamales filled with fruit are said to have been enjoyed by the ancient peoples of Central America as far back as 5000 BC.

So much for legend. What is certain is that linzertorte rose to fame from Linz, where one of the town’s museums has a permanent exhibit devoted to the cake. In an odd footnote to history, an operetta named ‘Linzer Torte’, by the German composer Ludwig Schmidseder, premiered in the town in May 1944, i.e. during the war. The town may have been chosen not just because of the cake but because Linz was Hitler’s childhood home…

Leaving history aside, linzertorte makes a wonderful addition to anyone’s culinary repertoire. It is fantastically delicious, and beautiful to behold. If you’re still thinking about your New Year’s Eve menu, it would make a very special dessert.

Add a couple of sparklers, et voilà. Happy cooking.

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Oie rôtie de Noël

Roast goose was a traditional Christmas dish in France for many years, probably for centuries, but it is rather rare on holiday tables these days, having ceded its place to turkey, capon or duck. Nonetheless, roast goose is delicious. This year I decided to roast a goose well before Christmas in order to post it here in time for you to think about it, and perhaps make it. But getting the goose proved harder than anticipated. In fact it was a bit of a feat.

Oie rôtie de Noël / Roast Christmas goose

It all began in early December when I invited a few friends over for dinner the following Saturday, promising them roast goose. I set out to the local farmer’s market on a Sunday morning, six days ahead of time, hoping if not to find a goose at least to order one. My favorite poultry merchant, Monsieur Breton, had no geese on display. When I asked if he could get me one when the market reconvened on Thursday, he gave me a Gallic shrug.

The problem was not just that geese are raised in France to be ready for the market only in the week ahead of Christmas. There was also the matter of the gilets jaunes, the protesters demanding a living wage who have blocked roads and, joined by hooligans on Saturdays, wreaked havoc in France for the last few weeks. Monsieur Breton said that even if he could find a goose that was ready for the market, he couldn’t be sure he could get it. For the protesters have not only blocked roads, they have blockaded fuel depots, and gasoline supplies are uncertain throughout the country. Trucks aren’t delivering the goods.

‘Call me Wednesday,’ said Monsieur Breton, handing me his card. On Wednesday I called. ‘Call me Thursday,’ he said. I tried, but he didn’t answer. By this time I had called off the dinner party. In any event, a couple of guests had begged off, saying they were afraid to cross Paris on a Saturday night, what with angry people setting cars on fire and smashing windows throughout the city, and the police riposting with tear gas. But I still wanted to make the recipe for the site. So I texted him on Friday morning. Again, no reply.

Early Friday evening, I was minding my own business at home when my phone signaled that I had received a text. It was Monsieur Breton. ‘You can count on a goose on Sunday morning,’ he wrote. Well! I quickly rescheduled the dinner for the following Tuesday. Four people could make it, and a fifth wasn’t sure.

On Sunday morning, I took my time about getting to the market. It was raining hard, but eventually off I went. Arriving at Monsieur Breton’s stand, I peered at the poultry display. There I saw … half a goose. As Monsieur Breton was nowhere to be seen, I hailed his wife. ‘Excuse me,’ said I in dismay, ‘but where is the other half?’ Again, the Gallic shrug. ‘We sold it,’ she said. ‘But I ordered a whole goose,’ I protested. ‘Would you possibly have another?’ She looked around for her husband. He might have one, she said.

As she picked her phone to call him, I noticed the price of the partial goose, written in blue grease pencil on the pink wax paper beneath it. 54 euros! ‘Hold on a second,’ I said. ‘Is this the price of half a goose?’ She gave me a cool nod. Mais oui, madame. I made a quick calculation. ‘Does that mean a whole goose costs more than a hundred euros?’ (108 euros = $122). Mais oui. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Half a goose will be fine.’

At that point, Monsieur Breton arrived on the scene. Along with the half a goose, he gave me half a liver, half a gizzard and half a neck. He also proposed half a heart, but I passed. The 9-pound bird would feed four or five, he said, and should roast for 2-1/4 hours.

I had my doubts about the cooking time, but had no doubt that I wanted my guests to have enough to eat. Not wishing to add another bird, I decided to make several side dishes — pear slices sautéed in butter, sautéed baby artichokes, stuffing and watercress salad  — with braised fennel soup to start, and cheese and clémentines to finish. One of the guests brought a poppyseed Christmas cake she’d acquired in Berlin. No one went hungry.

I roasted the goose on the Tuesday morning — I couldn’t wait until dinnertime because my recipe photos need natural light. Early preparation turned out to be a great idea. I was able to carve the goose at my leisure and reheat it just before serving. In the end, the roasting time was 1-1/2 hours, perhaps because it was only half a goose.

If you’ve never roasted a goose before, there are tips on the recipe page for ensuring that it stays tender and moist. In the next few days, I will update the Holiday Menus page with this recipe and others you may wish to consult for creating a festive occasion.

Happy cooking, and merry Christmas!

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Salade mâche-endives

This is a versatile salad featuring two types of greens that come into their own in late autumn and winter: mâche (aka lamb’s lettuce) and Belgian endive. Mustardy vinaigrette sauce and plenty of garlic turn the leaves into a zesty salad that may be served as is or enhanced with walnuts, Alpine cheese and/or country ham. This adaptability will allow you to enjoy it whatever your culinary proclivity — omnivore, vegetarian or vegan.

Salade mâche-endives / Salad of mâche and Belgian endive

I enjoy making this salad when the days grow cool and short. This is when mâche appears at farmers’ markets in Paris. In the old days, that was the only place to find it; now you can buy it in a bag, which simplifies matters. Mâche is grown in sandy soil, and washing it clean can be a bit of a chore. The difference between the fresh and packaged sort is not significant enough to matter except for purists.

Likewise, Belgian endive (aka chicory) is a winter vegetable, grown in two stages, the second of which takes place indoors in the dark. This ensures that its leaves stay white. These days you can find Belgian endive year round in France, but although not a purist I prefer it in the cool months, perhaps by association with past pleasures.

While either mâche and Belgian endive may be served on its own as salad, they pair nicely and can form the basis for a quickly prepared and tasty salad at lunchtime, with or without extra ingredients, or a salad course to precede or follow a main dish. The garlic adds zing, as does the homemade mustard vinaigrette, a French classic that also harks back to days of yore.

These days dressings made of balsamic vinegar and olive oil have perhaps surpassed mustard vinaigrette in popularity, and it is rare in Parisian cafés to find a salad bathed in a true vinaigrette rather than an ersatz version served out of a bottle. Making your own mustard vinaigrette is a minor culinary art form which, when mastered, takes about one minute. If you’ve never done it before, check out this video. The trick is to use more mustard than red wine vinegar.

Another trick: if serving the salad after a main course, you can get started ahead of time. Just sprinkle the leaves with a little bit of freshly squeezed lemon juice to ensure that the sliced Belgian endive stays white, and add the sauce only at the last minute.

Happy cooking.

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Penne au potiron et aux noix

This dish gives an interesting twist to pumpkin that may be of interest as the holidays approach. Yes, I’m thinking Thanksgiving. The combination of pasta and pumpkin is popular in both France and Italy, and the walnuts add depth. This version also has a touch of Meg thanks to the spicing — not nutmeg, as my childhood friends delighted in calling me, but cumin which, combined with a spritz of lemon juice, adds a welcome zest.

Penne au potiron et aux noix / Penne with pumpkin and walnuts

Other squashes, like butternut, may be substituted for the pumpkin. In fact, in Italy, the word for pumpkin — zucca — covers a wide range of squashes. So you never know exactly what you’re getting when you order gnocchi with zucca, ravioli filled with zucca, etc. I chose pumpkin over butternut because I find it easier to handle — removing the peel from a butternut squash can be a bit of a bore. But butternut is sweeter, so you may prefer it.

This recipe came my way via a favorite French cookbook, which I’ll refrain from naming here because when I first made it the results were disappointing. That’s when I decided to to add a personal touch. I find that cumin and lemon juice can enliven many recipes. You will find that combination on this site in recipes from zucchini soup to Moroccan carrot salad to parsnip purée. In the case of the pasta, it added a definite zing.

So will I be serving this dish on Thanksgiving? I felt like innovating this year, but was overruled. It seems that Americans in Paris prefer to hew to a more traditional line-up of roast turkey and sweet potatoes. One year I did manage to sneak in a French dish — a melt-in-your mouth pumpkin gratin created by the three-star chef Georges Blanc. As for dessert, a French apple tart can sit proudly beside pumpkin pie.

Getting back to the pasta with pumpkin and walnuts, it’s a vegetarian dish that can easily become vegan by substituting chopped fresh herbs for the parmesan. Served with a hearty red as a main course or a starter, it’s a fine dish for any occasion.

Happy cooking.

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Veau braisé aux épices

My friend Vera, a superlative cook, served this spicy slow-cooked veal dish on the occasion of her husband’s birthday last year. It was summer, and the birthday dinner was in the garden of their country house in Provence. There were many guests and many speeches, much wine and much merriment. Cheery lanterns hung from a mulberry tree over trestle tables festooned with patterned cloths. I loved it all, but what blew me away was the food.

Veau braisé aux épices / Slow-cooked veal with spices

Vera must have served ten dishes that evening, including another meat dish and many sides. It was a spectacular meal. I asked her for the veal recipe the next morning, but it took me all this time to get around to making it. It’s not exactly everyday cooking, as it takes … three days. And you need to have a crowd to consume it. But the effort is worth it.

How did she come up with this recipe? Vera is a multi-culti, multi-lingual person whose culinary knowledge spans the world. Born in Czechoslovakia, she came to France for university, and when the Russians invaded Prague in 1968 she decided to stay. That’s when she met her husband, a Canadian who became a TV correspondent for the CBC. His career took them to Beijing, Montreal, Jerusalem, Paris, Moscow (where we met), Berlin and London. From these cities, Vera traveled to other spots in the region, from the farflung outposts of China to Georgia, Uzbekistan and Iran. In each of these places, she picked up and elaborated on the local cuisine, adding her own personal touch.

She tends to favor rich, spicy dishes, and indeed uses many spices in this recipe: cumin, coriander, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, fennel seeds, curry powder and saffron. Instead of using store-bought ground spices, she smashes the whole spices with a hammer! She swears this produces better results than a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Besides, she says, ‘C’est plus jouissif’. Loose translation: ‘It’s more fun.’

Serving the veal is a pleasure, since everything is done in advance, including slicing, and it merely needs to be heated through before coming to the table. But what to serve alongside? I would recommend seasonal veggies and grains. As it’s autumn, I served the veal with a purée of pumpkin with parmesan, braised finocchio and spicy lentils with onions. The starter was a salad of tender leaves with red grape halves and walnuts, dressed with a mixture of olive oil, walnut oil, balsamic vinegar and garlic. For dessert we had ricotta with lavender and figs. My guests did not complain.

For my next post, I will return to a simpler style of cooking. But even everyday French chefs branch out from time to time. I hope you will try this recipe and enjoy it.

Happy cooking.

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Pommes au four

One of the delights of autumn is the baked apple — pomme au four in French. Served with cream or without, it’s a classic dessert that’s both healthy and easy to make. But is it so totally basic that it doesn’t belong on a French cooking blog? I thought it over, called a couple of friends and, with their hearty encouragement, decided to go for it. I’ve been wanting to add pommes au four to the desserts on this site for a very long time. Et voilà.

Pommes au four / Baked apples

The impulse behind this week’s recipe was a recent visit to my cottage in Burgundy, where apples are particularly abundant this year. They were falling off the trees, in many varieties. However, as the summer was very hot and very dry, they were smaller than usual. Although in the past I’ve tended to use large apples for this dessert, I decided to give it a try with the small ones, serving two or three per portion, as shown above and, with caramelized sauce but no cream, here.

There were a few big apples left on another tree, however, and I gave that a try also. The first one I baked exploded (i.e. its skin popped off) — see the recipe page for a photo. When I tried again, I took care to score the apple skin before baking, and it turned out perfectly, shown here with a dollop of crème fraîche.

The key to success with this recipe is of course the apples, which should be firm and slightly tart. Choose an heirloom variety if at all possible. As for the other ingredients, you’ll get best results if you use raw cane sugar (demerara or cassonnade), unsalted butter and the finest crème fraîche you can find. If crème fraîche is not available where you live, choose a high-quality heavy cream. And…

Happy cooking.

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Lentilles épicées aux oignons

The humble lentil comes into its own in this simple, earthy dish flavored with gently sautéd onions, ground spices and fresh herbs. Lentils prepared in this way can be served as a flavor-packed side dish with meat, poultry or fish, or as part of a vegetarian meal. I served the dish recently with grilled guinea hen with walnut sauce, with a spinach salad alongside, and my guests were very happy. The full meal, with recipes, is described below.

Lentilles épicées aux oignons / Spicy lentils with onions

Lentils have been part of the Mediterranean diet since prehistoric times, when farming was first getting started. That dates back about 12,000 years… The variety used most often in French cuisine is the small green lentil, raised on the volcanic soil of the Auvergne region. Blonde lentils, used in today’s recipe, fell out of favor in France for a time but are now being grown again and are making their way onto the menus of celebrated chefs.

I discovered this dish via a Paris friend who enjoys Mediterranean/Middle Eastern flavors and often serves it alongside rich stews. Spicy lentils go equally well with roasted or grilled meat or poultry, and with fish prepared in any style. And this nutrient-packed dish is perfect for vegetarians and vegans. It could be served in this season, for example, with rosemary potatoes, sweet potato purée, wild rice and a beet and walnut salad.

If you’d like to replicate the meal I served my guests, we started with smoked salmon and a mushroom salad with cream and herbs. A version of the main course described above, using chicken instead of guinea fowl, can be found here. The salad combined baby spinach leaves with a balsamic vinaigrette and a finely-chopped clove of garlic. The lentils completed the plate. We followed up with an assortment of cheeses and some fresh figs.

Happy cooking.

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Tartare de thon sur riz noir

Fusion is hot in Paris at the moment, with Asian, African and Latin American-inspired dishes popping up on menus created by French chefs at trendy bistros. And among the popular dishes, raw fish — served as tataki, ceviche or simply tartare — might well top the list. In this version, raw tuna is marinated in a mixture of Asian flavors and set atop a bed of black rice, another new-ish addition to the Parisian culinary repertoire.

Tartare de thon sur riz noir / Tuna tartare on black rice

I was inspired to make this after dining at Le Desnoyez, a moderately priced bistro in the increasingly hip Belleville neighborhood. The chef, formerly a lawyer, creates a new menu every night. Everything is beautifully presented and, in my view, fabulously delicious. The tartare he made on the night I was there featured black rice topped by mulet noir, a variety of mullet that can be served raw. I was blown away not just by the fish but by the black rice, which I had never encountered before. Its nutty flavor married sublimely with the tartare. I phoned up to ask for the recipe, but the chef wasn’t there. So I decided to wing it.

But before I got around to attempting to replicate that dish, I was treated to dinner at another, pricier restaurant, Le Comptoir du Relais, where a ceviche of mulet noir was the first course of a five-course, fixed menu (no choice). The fish, mixed with tiny bits of Granny Smith apples, avocado, celery and cucumber juice (!), was served in a shallow bowl with a smear of tapenade alongside, as shown in the photo snapped by my friends.

As creativity seems to be the name of the game here, I decided to go with a black rice version but to top it with tuna instead of mullet, mainly for reasons of availability. Black rice is produced across Asia and in Italy, and I was lucky enough to find some at a gourmet store across the street. An online search showed that it can also easily be ordered via the web. I picked up the tuna at an outdoor market and made the dish the same day.

So what about preparation? The marinade combines sesame oil, soy sauce, onion, ginger and lime zest and can be made in less than five minutes. The tuna simply needs to be cubed. While the fish is marinating, you cook the rice, and when it’s done you add a little sauce to it, too. Assembly involves piling the fish on the rice and topping it all with fresh cilantro. As this dish was an experiment, I cannot tell you how pleased I was when my dinner guest went into ecstasy as she tried it. I hope you will enjoy it too. And…

Happy cooking.

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Poires au parmesan en salade

Fruit became a major issue this summer down in Burgundy, where a great year for fruit of all kinds — cherries, plums, apples and pears — turned my garden into a paradise for fruit-loving wildlife of the alarming variety (more on that later). Now that I’m back in Paris, where I can safely gather fruit from the market, I decide to try my hand at a salad featuring pears topped with parmesan and roasted to mouth-watering succulence.

Poires au parmesan en salade / Salad of pears roasted with parmesan

Preparation is very simple. You quarter the pears and (ahem) pare them, place them in a baking dish, top with grated parmesan and bake for about half an hour. When they’re golden brown and still warm, you place them on a bed of greens dressed with garlic-infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Simple, but…

In the country it was impossible to gather the hundreds of pears falling off the tree in the back yard due to the profusion of hornets and wasps buzzing around them. Now before you start thinking I’m some kind of sissy, allow me to describe a French hornet. It is very different from the frightening elongated variety we sometimes saw during my childhood back in Wisconsin — in that it’s even more terrifying. Picture a buzzing yellow-and-black striped poisonous flying object about the size of a woman’s baby finger, or even thicker.

When I first bought my cottage in Burgundy, I was told by the neighbors that one sting of a hornet was enough to kill a horse. In previous years, you’d see one every now and again, but they didn’t come close to the house. This year, they were everywhere, particularly under the pear tree and feasting on the many apples that fell to the ground early due to the summer heat wave here, right in front of our front door. And, yes, they came into the house — until I got the bright idea of keeping all the doors and windows closed, never mind that it was a beautiful sunny day. (Also unlike my childhood, France does not believe in screens over windows.) Wasps were also out in force, and in fact they still are — even in Paris, where they’ve made outdoor café lunching into a dangerous sport.

What Paris doesn’t have is the small creature called the lérot, a cousin of the dormouse that thrives on fruit. I discovered the lérot my first year down in Burgundy. Incredibly cute, with a black mask over its eyes and a long, tufted tail, it would run along the branches of the plums trees out in back, happily eating its fill. I happily watched. I was less happy when I discovered that the lérot likes to come indoors at night. Not just one — the whole family. I could hear them partying in the attic. Was I imagining things? To prove I wasn’t dreaming, they left a trail of droppings behind them.

This year a veritable army of lérots invaded the garden, chirping to each other from the fruit trees. I won’t mention what they did inside the house. And it wasn’t just my place. The whole area is infested, as a friendly chap at the garden store informed me when I asked what could be done about it. Nothing much, apparently.

A country friend blamed the population explosion of rodents and stinging insects on the weather — a very cold winter, a very wet spring and a heat wave that started in May. Whether or not this is true, I was very happy to leave the wildlife behind this week and come back to Paris, where my kitchen is critter free. As we head into autumn, I’m looking forward to creating many new dishes to share with you over the months ahead.

Happy cooking.

Posted in 3. Salads | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Assiette de fromages

Cheese stands as a course of its own in France — and why not, in a country with more than 400 varieties to choose from? It is usually presented between the main course and fruit or dessert, with the number of cheeses ranging from one to many depending on the occasion and the number of people at the table. But which cheeses to choose and how to present them? A reader wrote in to ask this question. The subject is vast. Here goes.

Assiette de fromages / Assorted cheeses

The first point is that, in a proper French meal, cheese is a must. You can’t skip it, as French friends tartly remarked one year at an American Thanksgiving dinner in Paris where the co-hostess and I had presumed that no one would have room for cheese, given the bounteous nature of the meal. We were taken to task and have not repeated the mistake. Is this to say that I serve cheese at every meal? Absolutely not! But when guests are present — and unless it is a meal where cheese would be inappropriate, like Vietnamese food — I prefer to err on the side of caution and bring out the cheese.

When I first came to France in 1969, I spent several weeks as a lodger with a family in Avignon while on a summer study program. This was my introduction to French cheese. It was served twice a day, at lunch and dinner, almost always accompanied by fresh fruit. Sometimes a single cheese was brought out, and sometimes an assortment, served on a simple plate, a board or a platter. The variety was astounding.

With so many cheeses to choose from, where to begin? Cheeses are seasonal, varying according to the time of year when the milk is at its best and the amount of time needed for the cheese to mature. Cheeses at their best in spring include all types of chèvre (goat cheese, seen at right) and soft cheeses like Camembert, Brie and Epoisses. Cheeses that take a bit longer to mature, like Reblochon or Saint-Nectaire, come into their prime in summer. Autumn is the time to choose cheeses that have acquired character through longer maturation, like Roquefort, Ossau-Iraty (a hard Basque cheese made from ewe’s milk), Maroilles or Livarot. Winter is when cheeses needing the longest maturation come into their own: Comté and Beaufort, Cantal and Laguiole, and the unmatchable Mont d’Or, a meltingly delicious cheese eaten out of its round wooden box with a spoon.

Now the next question: How to compose your assortment? If you’ll be serving a considerable number of cheeses, as shown in the platter above, it’s best to present a wide variety — guests can each taste a couple of their favorites. The platter shows, going around the rim from top right, Chaource, Pont l’Evêque, Roquefort and Comté, and in the center Pouligny-Saint-Pierre. This assortment has three cheeses made of cow’s milk. The Roquefort is made of ewe’s milk and the Pouligny-Saint-Pierre is a chèvre.

Harmony becomes more important when assembling a cheese plate for fewer people. As I’m partial to goat cheese, sometimes I’ll compose a plate with two or more types of chèvre, as seen at left. The plate includes Pouligny-Saint-Pierre (from south of the Loire) and two Rocamadours (from the Périgord). Sometimes I’ll go regional, selecting cheeses from, say, the rugged Auvergne region of south central France. The board at right includes Laguiole and Fourme d’Ambert, both made from cow’s milk. By the way, since blue cheeses, including Roquefort, are not to everyone’s taste, I usually include at least one non-blue cheese in the assortment. (An excellent site for taking a look at French cheeses is Chez Loulou.)

The cheese should be served at room temperature, which means taking it out of the fridge about an hour before you plan to bring it to the table. Much more could be said on the subject, such as how to cut the cheese (a conundrum even for the French), whether to bring it to the table still bearing its label (don’t), and what kind of cheese to choose if you’re not in France. I have touched on this here, and await any further questions.

Now then — getting back to France’s many types of cheese. The number has risen since President Charles de Gaulle famously said, ‘How can you hope to govern a country that has 258 varieties of cheese?’ According to the French dairy producers’ site, France today counts at least 1,200 varieties of cheese, of which 46 bear the label Appellation d’Origine Protégée, which attests that they come from a specific region and are made according to traditional methods. But they go on to say that the number could range up to 1,800. Which means that you could try one a day for nearly five years without repeating yourself…

Happy eating!

The Everyday French Chef will be on vacation for the next few weeks. Here’s wishing you all a very pleasant summer.

Posted in Desserts | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment