Friday, July 14, 2006

French toast

Today is Bastille Day, or simply "14 juillet" in France, the way Independance Day is just "4th of July" in the U.S.

On the American holiday people seem to like to fire up the grill but in France, I can't recall any particular food associated with this day. Maybe it's not surprising since it marks an event in 1789 when most French were starving from famine.

Marie Antoinette's advice to the people was to "eat brioche." By all accounts it's doubtful she actually uttered these words but even so, it sounds like a good idea.

Here is what I would propose for a Bastille Day brunch -- "French toast" with tricolor topping of strawberries, blueberries and vanilla icecream. The best recipe for pain perdu I've come across is Alain Ducasse's version where slices of brioche loaf are crisply caramelized on the exterior, its sweetness offset by a mixture of seasonal fruit.

(Adapted from Alain Ducasse's Flavors of France)

2 large eggs
1/2 cup of sugar
1cup of milk
4 slices of brioche loaf
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1/2 cup powdered sugar

1. Beat together eggs with sugar and stir in the milk.
2. Soak the brioche slices in the mixture for a couple of minutes then remove with a spatula and place on a platter.
3. Sprinkle over half of the powdered sugar.
4. Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat.
5. Add the brioche slices, sugared side down and cook until golden.
6. Sprinkle over the rest of the powdered sugar, turn and cook the other side.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

two summer pies

When we first moved to Pasadena around this time last year, we were blown away by the intensity of the dry heat. During the first few weeks of getting climatized we mostly stayed indoors, out of the scorching sun. I did a lot of reading then and that's when I first discovered the writings of MFK Fischer.

One lovely essay titled "A Thing Shared" recounted a drive from the hills back to LA with her father and sister, and stopping on the way for a picnic meal that terminates with a peach pie. Description of the pie -- still warm from the oven and the ride over the desert, bursting with ripe peaches picked on the ranch that noon, served with thick cream in a bluish Mexican jug that had lain in a cold stream all morning -- gripped me with force and I could not rest until I tasted also the succulent peach with fresh cream in flaky crust.

This year I tried my hand at summer pie using dark red American cherries:

To prepare the dough:

2 cups flour
2 sticks of unsalted butter*
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of sugar
1/3 cups of chilled water

1. Freeze the butter and cut into little cubes.
2. Sift the flour with sugar and salt and add the butter.
3. Pinch until the dough is crumbly. Add the water and mix using a fork, just until the dough comes together into a ball.
4. Divide into two, flatten into disks and chill for one hour.
*You can substitute one stick of butter for 1/2 cup of shortening. This might be difficult to find outside of the US but it makes for a flakier crust.

To make cherry pie:

1. Prepare about 5 cups of stemmed and pitted cherries.
2. Add 3 tablespoons of quick tapicoca, 1/2 cup of sugar (or less, depending on the sweetness of cherries) and let stand for 30 minutes to release the juices.
3. Pour the fruit into a pie dish lined with half the dough. With the other half make a lattice covering, to let the fruit syrup thicken while baking.
4. Bake at 400 degrees F for 45 minutes.
5. Delicious when hot served with cold vanilla icecream.

For peach pie:

1. Peel and cut white peaches, about 6 cups.
2. Add 3 tablespoons of quick tapioca, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 1/3 cup of sugar and let stand for 30 minutes.
3. Pour the mixture into a pie dish lined with half the dough. With the other half cover the fruit and cut a sporal pattern in the middle, to let the steam out.
4. Bake at 400 degrees F for one hour.
5. Serve with cream. This pie is best when chilled.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Toraya, old and new

One of the most fascinating aspects of wagashi, or traditional Japanese confectionary, is their potential to appeal to all five senses, of sight, smell, touch, taste and, perhaps surprisingly, sound.

On a recent visit to Toraya's tearoom in Kyoto, I came across the lyrically named Sawabe no Hotaru, shown above, seasonal to the summer months. Sawabe, meaning clumps of grass growing by a river, is the tangle of pale green chestnut cream, and the glow of hotaru fireflies, are expressed by the tiny cubes of jelly shimmering on top. Cutting through the delicate mound (the interior reveals white and red azuki bean paste) you can almost hear the rustle of cool river breeze passing through the leaves.

Similarly, Toraya's grand classic is a yokan (crushed azuki set in kanten seaweed gelatin) poetically titled Yoru no Ume, meaning "Night Plum." In addition to the visual reference (the sliced yokan surface evokes pale plum blossoms rising up against the dark sky) the name suggets the barely perceptible sound of petals falling to the ground in the dead of the night. Needless to say, to hear wagashi they must be eaten in silence.

Back in Tokyo, I visited Toraya Cafe, the wagashi-maker's forray into fusional "up-dated" confectionary. On the menu: a tasting plate of three different types of paste -- soybean/pistachio, red bean and white sesame -- to be spread on wafers made from azuki hull, a sesame meringue and kinako (toasted soybean powder) biscuit, accompanied by a glass of soymilk kanten jelly topped with azuki sauce. I strained my ears (difficult with the ambiance music) -- the sweets remained quite mute.

Toraya Cafe at Omotesando Hills (Tokyo) tel. 03-5785-0533
Toraya Tea Salon in Ichijo (Kyoto) tel. 075-441-3113