Thursday, November 17, 2011

France Part 1: Eating In

When I was 16, I spent three months on exchange in France. I didn't have a life changing food experience there, a la Julia Child. In the past 10 + years I have often said that I didn't have any amazing food. But like the simplest recipe, taken as a whole the food I had in France is more than the sum of it's parts. I have to work hard to remember any individual meals but lots of times a dish, promptly forgotten at the time, comes back to me at unexpectedly with a bite at a restaurant, a scene in a movie, a sentence in a book or magazine.

Today's post is about the home cooking I had in France. Part 2 will be about eating out, and we'll see what is left over in my memory bank for a part 3 perhaps.

I actually have two French families; the family I stayed with, and the family I was supposed to stay with. More on the latter in the next post. The family I stayed with, the Machpy's, were not foodies. I had, as we North Americans have of Europeans, the impression before going to France that even the most ordinary weekday meal is a gastronomic affair. Not so. Like us, weekday meals were not gourmet, they fed their three kids (four, with me)something quick, simple, nutrious. Sometimes it was something the kids liked- fries night comes to mind- and sometimes it wasn't, like spinach night.

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 Of all the home cooked meals I can remember, spinach night is the brightest in my mind. Dinner was always eaten at the big farmhouse table in the den/dining room, rather than in the kitchen where we ate breakfast and lunch. Put in front of us at that big, rustic table was a big, rustic plate of boiled spinach topped with a fried egg. I think I had only been there about a month, so I didn't want to be rude. I don't think I had ever eaten spinach before, let alone an entire meal of it. I took a bite and tried not to make a face. Then I proceeded to eat it all without chewing much, rationing the egg to ensure there was some in every bite, to take the edge off the greenness of it all. I was the first one finished. The kids still hadn't taken more than three bites, they were complaining about having to eat it. "Look, Amy finished all of hers. Now you eat yours too". I mouthed "sorry" to them, but of course they didn't understand.

There was always a baguette with dinner- this cliche actually turned out to be reality. After dinner was always yogurt and cheese. They would pull this plastic Tupperware bin of different cheeses wrapped in paper out of the fridge and that, with the yogurt and some more bread, was dessert. I have no idea what type of cheeses I was eating, but lots were stinky and all delicious. I blame that, the bread, and the delicious butter, on my 15 pound weight gain.

I had to go to high school in France. I think I was the only exchange student in the history of the school, and they didn't know what to do with me. I had school work from back home to do so that I didn't have to redo the whole semester I was away, so at first I worked on this during class since there was no requirement to get any marks at French school. The teachers didn't like this and there was a call to my French family and there after I had to pay attention and take notes like everyone else. High school there is more a lecture- more like what we do in university here. Although my notes were frequently non-sensical as I was trying to write down what the teacher was saying (the French classes we take all through school in Canada are almost useless when faced with a fast-talking lecturer on biology), I probably picked up a lot of language that way.

The teachers all must have thought I was really stupid, in particular the chemistry teacher. The material was advanced of what we were learning back home. I was pretty good at science normally, but the periodical table is different in French (I thought it was in Latin and therefore the same everywhere, but not so). To add to my embarrassment that I couldn't answer even one question on the exam although yes, Mr Teacher I do study chemistry back home, the teacher was smoking hot.

I don't know why I just gave you a big long story about school because all I have to say about the food is that you got a hot meal every day, and every day it was bad. Except, again, fries day. I think it was actually fish and chips, but the lunch lady would give you just the chips if you asked. It is also this day that I learned from my girlfriends that the French don't call them "French fries" because they were actually invented by the Belgians (les Belges). So they say. Wikipedia says so too.

Wednesdays school was only a half day, so we had lunch at home. This sounds too good to be true, right? Right you are. We also had to go to school on Saturday for a half day. Lunch at home was always, as far as I can remember, mystery meat in puff pastry and then pasta. I asked once what the meat was. I understood it as rabbit, so from then on it was another meal that I swallowed without chewing. The pasta they still managed to make very french. No tomato sauce here. I don't know if this is common or not, but they ate it (perhaps it was just the kids actually) with creme fraiche, Gruyere cheese, and ketchup. This is surprisingly delicious and I still eat pasta this way sometimes, substituting sour cream for creme fraiche. Come to think of it, creme fraiche should also have a place of honour on the list of Food That Made Me Fat in France.

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Breakfast. We're working backwards here, aren't we? Breakfast was always left over baguette with butter (and the dad and I put maple syrup on it too) dipped in a bowl- similar to above- of hot chocolate. The baguette from the night before was kept in a tall bread bin, so in the morning you'd reach in and find a hard end of bread, so the hot chocolate was actually a necessity rather than an indulgence. I suppose in other families the hot chocolate might be subbed for coffee, but my family didn't drink coffee that I recall. Or wine, except when company was over. Red wine every night and even the kids having a tumbler of watered down wine is one cliche that turned out not to be true, to my chagrin.

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 There are two exceptional things I ate in the home of the Machpy's that stand out in my mind. The first weekend I was there, we went on a picnic with another family. Lunch was thickly sliced ham and cold butter on a baguette (baguette jamon). There might have been a schmear of Dijon mustard, I can't be sure. This might have been the best sandwich I have ever eaten.

The other is a chocolate birthday cake. I think we had this twice while I was there. It is not the mile high, layered and frosting-ed North American birthday cake. French birthday cake is fudgy, fallen a little in the middle and crackly on top- like the top of a good brownie. There is no icing. The cake itself is bitter-sweet, like dark chocolate. Whereas I bake cakes and cookies and all manner of baked good for no reason at all, the Machpys only had this cake if it's someone's birthday. I wish I had Mrs. Machpy's recipe, but I have the third best thing (the second best thing being another French aquiantance's recipe)- I Googled "French Chocolate Cake". I ate a slice last night and this recipe is pretty close to what I remember. I also had some for breakfast today. And it's not even my birthday.

When beating egg whites the bowl and the tools you use for mixing must be totally clean and grease-free. Wipe down tools with a little vinegar, then rinse and dry to be sure everything is clean. Otherwise your egg whites won't whip. Cream of tartar helps to stabilize the egg whites, if you don't have any it can be omitted. A standard round cake pan can be used in place of a springform pan.

  • 1/2 cup sugar, divided
  • 10 oz dark chocolate
  • 3/4 cup salted butter, cubed
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 5 egg, seperated
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • dash cream of tartar (optional)
  • 1 tsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F with rack in middle of oven. Generously grease a 9 1/2-inch springform pan and dust with a little sugar, tapping out the excess.

Set aside 3 tbsp of sugar. Place the remaining sugar, chocolate, and butter in a micowave safe bowl. Microwave on medium heat 1 minute at a time until chocolate is almost melted. Stir to finish melting the chocolate. Stir in vanilla, set mixture aside to cool slightly.

Beat the egg whites in a very clean, grease free bowl until foamy. Add cream of tartar, if using, and whip until soft peaks form. Add reserved sugar, whip until stiff peaks form (see photo following recipe). Set aside.

Beat yolks into chocolate mixture one at a time. Stir in flour and lemon juice. Add 1/3 of egg whites to chocolate mixture, stir to combine. Add the remaining egg whites and fold until batter is a uniform colour. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 30-35 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool cake on a rack, removing the sides of the springform pan. Cool completely before removing the base. If using a standard cake pan, remove cake from pan only after cooled. 

Egg whites beaten to stiff peaks

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