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Strawberry fields forever – Perfect party cake à la vanille et aux fraises

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This is all quite a surprise to me. I originally thought I would have to skip this month’s daring bakers challenge – again – because of my so-not-working internet connection. But what first appeared to be a never-ending story did find an end yesterday, as a France Telecom monsieur dropped by without warning and fixed my ligne télephonique.
I did certainly gave him one of the little perfect party cakes I had made earlier that day; how handy it is to be a daring baker.

The experiment:
The perfect party cake is made of:
– a vanilla cake
– filled with home-made strawberry confiture
– and frosted with a rich meringue buttercream (or more accurately, a meringue cream cheese frosting, as you’ll see below)

I started with the cake, which recipe is a keeper. The baking powder and salt are thoroughly combined with the flour. The butter and sugar are creamed together, then the eggs* are beaten in, one at a time. As usual, all the ingredients have to be at room temperature. You don’t want your cold egg to make your creamed butter mixture curdle, do you?
Then, I alternatively folded in the flour and the milk, aiming for a smooth batter.
I then baked at moderate temperature – 170°C – in 8cm cercles à pâtisserie for 25-30 minutes. The cakes had raised yet the top were slightly flat, which is perfect when making layer cakes.
Since I’m a vanilla kind of girl, I skipped on the lemon zest and threw a dash of my favourite natural vanilla extract into the batter. The finished cake was just perfect: the crimb was delicate yet tight, and had that wonderful aroma of freshly cut-open vanilla bean.

*I just noticed that the recipe called for egg whites, not whole eggs! That’s probably why my cake crumb turned out to have a golden hue.

As the cakes were into the oven, I decided to make my own confiture [jam]. I had some beautiful strawberries sitting on my counter and since one kg is too much for one girl, I thought it would be a great way to use them. Oh I know what you’re thinking: strawberries? In March? Well, they looked so temtping at the farmers’ market on Saturday morning, that I had to have them. Plus they’re grown in France and actually have flavour, which is pretty special for March strawberries.
In a small pan, I combined 200g of diced strawberries, 140g of caster sugar and the juice from half a lemon. Over medium heat, I brought the mixture to the boil and left it simmer for 20 minutes. When it had cooled down, I blitzed it in the food processor, then pour it into a small container and chilled overnight.
This was so good I had some – spread onto a thick slice of crusty levain baguette – for breakfast. Imagine ruby-red sleek jam, speckled with small seeds.

The next day, I made the frosting. Not the meringue buttercream, as the recipe called for, but a delicious – totally finger-licking – meringue cream cheese frosting. This, which probably is 2008 best food discovery, found its origin in my strong hate for anything buttercreamy.
But as a daring baker, I stuck as close as possible to the recipe, only substituting the butter by the same quantity of cream cheese.
Basically, I made a meringue italienne by wisking some boiling syrup – 112°C – into the whipped egg whites, and then mixed in the smooth cream cheese.
This frosting, white and creamy, was smooth and had that lovely cream cheese flavour, which – in my humble opinion – nicely complements the subtle sharpness of the strawberries.

Soooo…
This layer cake was a real winner. The combination of a fragrant vanilla cake, tangy yet sweet strawberry jam and creamy slightly salty frosting, actually made for a perfect party cake.

Je n’ai jamais mangé de pyjama aussi doux que le tien – Cheesecake très vanille

[I never ate sweeter pyjamas than yours – Very vanilla cheesecake]

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Saturday. 8am.

The soft noise of the raindrops hitting the window gently wakes me up, making me more and more aware of the pressure of the thick duvet cover (love*love that word so much; reminds me of someone special who taught it to me) against my skin. Probably one of my favourite feelings in the world.

Encore un jour pluvieux, I say quietly.

In a smooth movement, I stretch and realise how cold it is outside. Outside my nest. My cocoon. My bed.

Merde, j’ai encore oublié d’allumer le chauffage.
As it happens from time to time, I have forgotten to put the heater on and the living room, which also happens to be my bedroom, is probably as cold as it is outdoors.
After that hesitant attempt, I can’t really convince myself to get up, and spot that beautiful branche morte I found yesterday.

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Not without effort, I reach it and tentatively grab it, first with a couple of fingers then holding it firmly in my hand.
I roll onto the other side of the bed. Closer to the heater. And working slowly with the branch, I manage to turn the heater on. Nine. The warmer, the better.
While I patiently wait for the room to warm up, I take the time to examine les lovely petites choses that surround me. The beautifully old parquet. The latest fabric hot-air balloon I sewn, which seems to be floating in the air.

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As minutes pass by, my thoughts get sidetracked and my mind is now overrun by old-fashioned English puddings. I clearly picture Ms Beeton-like brightly-coloured wobbly jellies, cloud-white blanc mangers and other marvellously inspiring puddings.

I need to make a cheesecake.

A rich and thick yet feathery one. Fragrant with vanilla. Lots of vanilla seeds. And a milk chocolate crust; officially, to complement the subtleness of the vanilla, unofficially, just because I love milk chocolate.

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Cheesecake très vanille

I have a devouring passion for cheesecakes. Although, cheesecakes as you know them – i.e. not French tarte au fromage blanc or tourteau au fromage – are not part of my food culture, I can say that many years of my life have been devoted to the hunt of the perfect cheesecake.

I came pretty close when I made Nigella’s London cheesecake. It’s all a cheesecake is supposed to be. However, on that Saturday morning, after having turn my heater on using a branch, I felt a little adventurous, and made a cheesecake au pif. Luckily for me, it worked; and the result is more than satisfactory. This cheesecake has a deep and comforting vanilla flavour: a good opportunity to use my favourite Madagascar vanilla beans here. The crust is sweet and crumbly but a pleasing buttery aftertaste.

I didn’t bake mine in a water-bath as none of my large pots fit in the tiny cube I call an oven. The texture isn’t affected by this, but your cheesecake will definitely be golden-brown instead of the pure white you would have gotten using a water-bath. This is not a problem though, as I spread a thin layer of tempered chocolate onto the cooked and cooled cheesecake, which provides a nice texture and makes it look pretty.

This is absolutely lovely as it is, but I must say I can’t wait for the first raspberries either to serve them alongside or even better, to fold them into the cheesecake batter.

Cheesecake très vanille

serves 10

225g sablés au beurre [butter cookies], finely crushed
100g milk chocolate, melted

600g cream cheese
seeds from one vanilla bean
1tsp natural vanilla extract
150g sugar
4 eggs

50g milk chocolate, tempered or melted

Preheat the oven to 180°C.
In a bowl, combine the crushed cookies with the melted chocolate and mix well until all the crumbs are evenly covered with chocolate. Using your hands, line the bottom and side of a 20cm spring-form tin with the mixture. Chill while you get on with the filling.
Using a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (alternatively a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese for 5 minutes, until smooth. Add the vanilla seeds and extract and mix for a further minute. Sprinkle the sugar then mix in the egg, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Pour this over the prepared base and bake for 60 minutes or until firm to the touch. The top will be golden brown, but that’s ok.
Open the oven door and allow the cheesecake to cool into the oven for another hour. Remove to a wire-rack and leave until it reaches room temperature. Then chill for at least 4 hours or preferably, overnight. The next day, thinly spread the tempered chocolate over the unmoulded cheesecake using a spatula. Allow to set in the fridge and serve.

Hoping for happy accidents – Le clafoutis de ma grand-mère

[Hoping for happy accidents – My grand-mother’s clafoutis]

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It all happens on purpose. A few months ago, I came across a couple of old notebooks. Notebooks I once valued as precious. Notebooks I wouldn’t go anywhere without. Notebooks I recorded my food-related ideas into. Notebooks that I thought would turn into a book.

Then, I suddenly realised how unrealistic all this was. By then, I was only nineteen and seriously believed I could publish my very own cookbook in a matter of seconds and if not seconds, minutes. So I eventually forgot about those notebooks, assuming the recipes I had created were meaningless.

And now, almost exactly four years later, as I opened the notebooks and decoded the writing, I couldn’t help but have this weird feeling that those words weren’t mine. They were better than mine.
Apparently, what I considered pointless a couple of years ago didn’t seem that bad. Although my way of cooking and more importantly, my penchant for la pâtisserie, have changed dramatically, this episode had a huge impact on my cookbook craving.

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And then, I found that great self-publishing website, which sounded nice. So there I am, busiest than ever, wanting to write a cookbook for the people I love.

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Oh I certainly know I’m supposedly opening an Etsy shop and adjusting the biscuit recipes of the company I’m an intern at and actively trying to be a daring baker and struggling to post regularly on foodbeam.

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Does it seem reasonable then?

It definitely does not, but well, although I wish I actually had the time to do all those things, I’m just too excited about them not to try my best at making them come real.

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While I always happen not to have as much time as necessary, I’m lucky enough to be able to take a breather now and then. This past week end at my grand-parents’ house just was the bol d’air I needed.

Some utterly vital hours spent indulging myself with all things beautiful, hoping for happy accidents and, as you may have guessed, baking. Just so I can feel reposed and inspired again.

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Le clafoutis de ma grand-mère

I can’t talk about this without an unsubtle hint of delight in my voice. This, people, is one of my favourite recipes ever. The kind of recipes I wrote down on a post-it back when I could barely write my name right and have since kept in a secret notebook.

This recipe, as you must have guessed from its name, comes from my grand-mother – who happens to be one of the people I love the most – and is flawless. An incredibly smooth batter enfolds pieces of soft and sweet cherries. Here I made it using cherries my grand-mother canned back in 2004, hence their dark colour. But you can obviously, and I highly recommend so, use fresh cherries, which you pit. Or not: there is a great debate in France whether the cherries used in a clafoutis should be pitted or not, I go for the easy way, and pit them.
You could also use other fruits according to the season. And if you want to know one of my best kept secrets: finely sliced apples work like a charm in autumn

I like to eat clafoutis at any time of the day, even fridge-cold for breakfast. But it does actually make a nice dinner dessert when served with some sharp yoghurt ice-cream, or failing that, a dollop of sour cream.

Le clafoutis de ma grand-mère

serves 10

200g flour
120g sugar
a pinch of salt
3 eggs
80g butter, melted
250ml full fat milk (semi skimmed is okay though)
500g cherries, pitted

Preheat the oven to 200°C and generously butter a 30cm tart dish.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Incorporate the eggs, one at the time, beating well after each addition. When the batter is smooth, mix in the melted butter. Then, working slowly, gradually add the milk, mixing well, so no lumps form. If you’re not fully confident, you can strain the batter through a sieve to ensure maximum smoothness.

Using your hands, scatter the pitted cherries into the prepared tin and gently pour the batter over. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden and quite firm (it can be slightly wobbly in the centre; a skewer inserted in the middle of the clafoutis should come out clean though).

Une jonchée en trois bouchées

[A jonchée in three bites]

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I had planned to write about Easter. How happy it makes me; and I swear it’s not just the chocolate profusion. In my family, Easter revolves around love and quite evidently, around food. I realise I might sound like a broken record – and I’m pretty sure I actually do – but there isn’t a thing I like more than having the chance to spend time with the people I care the most about and a delicious finger-licking meal. This past week-end was just like that. And it was fantastic. My grand parents rock, so does what they cook.

See, this is what I had planned to talk about. But right now, I need to share what I refer to as the most bestest thing ever. Yeah, the thing I could almost give my whole family for. Harsh, isn’t it? Well, you might now hate me. And that’s fine: more jonchée for me.

jonchée

The jonchée is something I’ve already – somewhat briefly – talked about before. It’s a sort of fresh cow-milk cheese, which shape is due to the jonce [reed grass] mat they’re encased in. Although its manufacturing process relies on ferments and rennet, it hardly resembles cheese.
The texture is unique: the soft and melt-in-your mouth inners are enclosed in a firm shell. And the taste. No words for it. The whey the jonchées bathe in is flavoured with natural almond extract.

I usually start by sprinkling some unrefined cane sugar onto the drained jonchées. Then spoon some whey over.

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And eat.

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La science des rêves – Petits gâteaux comme des nuages à la farine semi-complète et à la banane

[The science of sleep – Cloud-like banana whole-wheat cakes]

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Michel and his terrific movies. Bruno and his delicious goat cheese. Gaspard and his pretty face. Pierre and his outstanding pâtisseries. These are some of the not so many things that make me realise I’m not that damned to be French.

Le Neuf definitely isn’t one of them. For you who are lucky enough not to know what Le Neuf is, well let me explain. Le Neuf describes itself as one of the best internet access providers, which certainly does sound appealing.
I seem to have forgotten something crucial here though. I just moved flats, and ended in the smallest town ever with only two television channels, no internet but a cheeringly well-equipped kitchen and a sewing machine. Okay, so now you know the basic facts, let’s go back to Le Neuf.
At first, me and Le Neuf got on very well. Free phone calls, high speed internet connection and more than that, I didn’t have to make a call – you know those awfully expensive zero-huit-cent-something numbers, which charge you around three Kitchen Aid stand-mixers per minute, including the minutes you spend waiting and trying to ignore the terrible music. They said they would call me.

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If you’re anything like me, I guess we should stop blathering for a sec and grasp the genuine meaning of my last sentence. They said they would call me. I mean: whoa. Quite evidently, I filled in the form that asked for my name and telephone number. And waited. That long Saturday afternoon I spent waiting somewhat reminded me of that other afternoon, back in the 90s. But that’s another story. Anyway, as you might have guessed, Le Neuf never called. Or at least not until today, just to tell me I wouldn’t receive the preciously waited for Neufbox until two of three weeks.

handmade fabric telephone

Yeah that’s right, two or three. Not the same in my book, but well, Le Neuf doesn’t seem to be as organised as I am, and while I’ll not so patiently wait for the package to arrive, you can be sure my flat will continue to get filled with beautiful fabric telephones and just-like-in-your-dreams cakes.

banana cake

Petits gâteaux comme des nuages à la farine semi-complète et à la banane

I love those little cakes. Their fragrant perfume and wholesome roughness. They make you fully realise what an oven is made for.
And their even better the next day: just wrap them in cling film as soon as they’re at room temperature and they’ll make your breakfast a feast.
Trust me; I’m thankful to have written the quantities down, as I usually don’t do when making cake for no special occasion. Those definitely are great. The crumb is quite dense, just like you would expect from a banana cake, yet in a subtle way.
Plus, they’re good for you: lots of fibre and good sugars.

Petits gâteaux comme des nuages à la farine semi-complète et à la banane

makes 8 small cakes or one loaf

100g butter
180g T80 flour (or a mix of plain and whole-wheat flours)
2 tsp of baking powder
1/2 tsp of baking soda
a pinch of salt
140g unrefined cane sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
a dash of vanilla extract
3 bananas (approximately 300g skinned or 450g when weighed with the skin on), mashed

Preheat the oven to 170°C.
Melt the butter in a medium pan over moderate heat.
While the butter is melting, measure the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt into a large bowl and mix until combined.
As soon as the butter is melted, take the pan of the heat and allow to cool down for a few minutes until you can touch the bottom of the pan without burning your fingers.
When the butter is warm (but not hot), beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add the sugar and a good dash of vanilla extract.
Fold the wet just ingredients into the flour mix until smooth, and mix in the mashed bananas. Divide the batter between six moulds (100g in each mould should do) and bake for 25 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.